Napa Valley vintner Agustin Huneeus asks judge handling college admissions scandal for 2 months in jail

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Napa Valley vintner Agustin Francisco Huneeus has asked a federal judge in Boston for a two-month prison term, much more lenient than the 15 months prosecutors recommended the judge give him when he appears in court Friday to receive punishment for his role in the college admissions bribery scandal.

Huneeus made the request for leniency in court papers filed last week, writing to U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani that he wants “to pay my dues and feel clean again” and that he knows “this experience will define the rest of my life and it’s up to me whether it will define me in a good or bad way.”

Huneeus, a 53-year-old San Francisco resident, pleaded guilty in May to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for his participation in a nationwide scheme in which wealthy parents — including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — paid bribes to get their children admitted to elite colleges.

Judge Talwani will decide the sentence Huneeus deserves for his crime in a case that has triggered strong reactions from many people nationwide. The scandal spotlights the intersection of wealth and celebrity with the stiff competition among high school students to gain admission at top U.S. colleges. Prosecutors noted in a court filing last month the case has been a “kind of Rorschach test for middle class angst about college admissions.”

Last month, Talwani sentenced Huffman to 14  days in jail. Like Huneeus, Huffman was one of  11 individuals who already have pleaded guilty rather than go to trial and are included in this latest round of sentencings. But Huffman was on the low end of the sentencing recommendations from federal prosecutors, while Huneeus and one other co-defendant are on the high end. About 50 people overall were charged.

Prosecutors alleged Huneeus worked with a key figure in the scheme, in which the wine executive agreed to pay $50,000 to a corrupt test proctor to allow his daughter to cheat on her SAT exam. He also agreed to pay $250,000 to help her gain admission at the University of Southern California as a water polo recruit on scholarship, even though she wasn’t qualified to play at the collegiate level. His daughter, a former student at Marin Academy, received conditional acceptance from USC on Nov. 7, 2018, but never was admitted to the university. He actually paid $100,000 before the admissions scheme unraveled.

Prosecutors contended that Huneeus’ actions went beyond the others in the bribery scheme, especially because he was involved in the SAT exam cheating, as well as the admissions bribery over a full two-year period.

“Huneeus was not deterred by the criminality of his conduct or the fear that his crime would be discovered. He embraced the fraud, wanted to expand it, and even proposed involving two of his daughters in it. The term of imprisonment recommended by the government is the only appropriate sentence in such circumstances,” prosecutors wrote in court papers recommending to the judge the 15-month prison sentence for the vintner.

After his arrest in March, Huneeus stepped down as owner and operator of Napa-based Huneeus Vintners, which owns the Quintessa brand, and Flowers Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg. He relinquished control to his 86-year-old father, Agustin C. Huneeus, who had retired from the wine empire that he created as a Chilean immigrant who previously had operated global wine brands. In July, Nick Withers, a veteran of Constellation Brands Inc., was hired as president of Huneeus Vintners. The younger Huneeus gave up control of the family business because his arrest placed the company’s license to produce and sell wine in jeopardy. He’s been free on $1 million bail since the arrest.

In the court filing Friday that included Huneeus’ personal letter, his lawyers included 39 additional letters to the judge written by family, friends and business associates vouching for his character. The attorneys wrote that Huneeus is a family man who raised four daughters with his wife, Maca, and he is taking responsibility for his actions that are “wholly out of step with the person he has been and continues to be.”

In his letter, Huneeus wrote, “During the past months I have daydreamed about giving up and moving to a different place so I don’t have to confront the shame I feel when I run into someone I know here. But for the sake of my daughters and my wonderful and supporting wife I know I have to come back from this.”

In her letter to the judge, Maca Huneeus urged Talwani to “make this case constructive and just not about bringing a man lower when he’s already been brought down to his lowest.”

Her husband’s lawyers noted in court papers the personal loss he already has suffered by giving up the wine empire started by his parents in 1990. Regarded as a good wine salesman, Huneeus had finally begun to step out of their shadow and grow the family business — the latest example being the summer opening of the new tasting room at Flowers winery on Westside Road in Healdsburg to showcase the premium pinot noir brand.

“This is an enormous personal loss, of course not only of livelihood, but also of the involvement in the only industry he has really ever known,” his lawyers wrote.

The attorneys acknowledged there “may be opportunities” for Huneeus to reapply for a winery license in the future, but the earliest time frame would be five years.

Meanwhile, prosecutors alleged Huneeus repeatedly lied to Marin Academy’s school counselors regarding when his daughter could take the SAT, so he could make sure she took the exam in Los Angeles at a testing site controlled by the mastermind of the admissions scheme, William “Rick” Singer.

After he wasn’t satisfied with his daughter’s score on the SAT, Huneeus discussed with Singer whether it was possible to cheat on the SAT and the ACT test, a separate college exam, prosecutors alleged.

Huneeus was determined for his daughter to get accepted to USC with a water polo scholarship even though he conceded in a phone call with Singer that she “was not worthy to be on that team,” prosecutors alleged.

As the scheme developed, Huneeus dragged his daughter into it, instructing her to maintain a “keep-your-trap-shut mentality,” about the matter during an Oct. 8, 2018, meeting with Singer, according to prospectors.

Although Huneeus has pleaded guilty to a crime connected to the college admissions scandal, colleagues and friends in the wine industry touted his positive virtues in their letters to the judge.

Mark Couchman, president of Silverado Investment Management in Napa, noted Huneeus’ efforts as the 2016 chairman of Napa Valley Wine Auction to raise money for local charities, as well as being “a family man in the truest sense.”

Richard Sands, executive vice chairman of Constellation Brands, wrote that he has known Huneeus for 20 years after his company bought Agustin C. Huneeus’ winery, Franciscan Vineyards, and kept the younger Huneeus on board to lead the fine wine brands. Sands wrote that Huneeus had “the highest level of caring” for those who worked under him, especially vineyard workers he provided English and computer classes to advance in their careers.

His wife of 25 years, Maca, wrote her own poignant letter to the judge, extolling the “love and devotion” Huneeus has for his four daughters and that “his time with the girls is truly sacred.” She wrote her family is still recovering from the FBI raid at their home March 12, when armed agents ordered them out of their beds and placed Huneeus in handcuffs in front of his daughters.

The couple’s eldest daughter will graduate from college next May. The daughter who was pulled into the admissions scheme by her father “has had a very tough year,” though she retook the SAT in May 2018 and enrolled in an unidentified college two months ago, according to his wife’s letter.

Their third Huneeus daughter attends Marin Academy as a junior “despite the hostility she faces from faculty and students,” her mother wrote to the judge. Their youngest child, a sixth grader, does “not really know what exactly is going on but does realize life is very different now,” according to her mother’s letter.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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