Napa Valley vintner Agustin Huneeus admits guilt in college admissions bribery scandal
While uncertainty looms over his wine empire, Napa Valley vintner Agustin F. Huneeus admitted guilt Tuesday in a Boston courtroom for his role in the college admissions bribery scandal.
Huneeus, a 53-year-old San Francisco resident, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors recommended a 15-month prison sentence and a $95,000 fine for the owner of Huneeus Vintners, which has wine labels such as Quintessa and Faust and operates Flowers Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg.
Prosecutors alleged Huneeus conspired to pay $300,000 to the mastermind of the admissions scheme, Rick Singer, and other defendants to help his daughter cheat on the SAT college entrance exam. Also, he admitted to bribing officials at the University of Southern California for her admission as a water polo recruit on scholarship. He is among 14 parents who have agreed to plead guilty in the scandal, including actress Felicity Huffman.
U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani in Boston will sentence Huneeus on Oct. 4.
In a statement released after he pleaded guilty, Huneeus expressed remorse for his actions to help his daughter, a student at Marin Academy, get into USC. At his behest, Singer drafted a fake water polo profile for her that included a photo of a Ukiah High School water polo athlete purporting to be the daughter of Huneeus.
His daughter received conditional acceptance from USC on Nov. 7, 2018, according to court documents. In the aftermath of the widespread admissions scandal, USC officials said in a statement that all student applicants connected to the scheme would be denied admission and they would review current students on a case-by-case basis.
“While I wish I could go back and make different and better choices, of course I cannot. What I can do now is to say: I am sorry and I apologize. Beyond my circle of family, friends, and colleagues, I also apologize to students who work hard to get into college on their own merit, as well as to their families,” Huneeus said in his statement.
His guilty plea is a striking fall from grace for Huneeus, a father of four who took over the family wine company from his father, Agustin C. Huneeus. His father came from his native Chile in the 1970s to work in the U.S. wine industry and eventually built his own business. Regarded as a good salesman, the younger Huneeus made a big mark in the industry when the family company bought The Prisoner wine label from Dave Phinney in 2010. Six years later, Huneeus sold that brand to Constellation Brands Inc. for $285 million.
In March, his 85-year-old father came out of retirement and took over the chief executive position of the family’s wine enterprise, after his son relinquished the top job while facing criminal charges. A company spokesman Tuesday declined to comment on how Huneeus’ guilty plea will affect the continuing operation of the family’s wine operation.
His control over the wine company could be in jeopardy because state and federal regulators take into account criminal convictions for people who own and operate licensed wineries.
According to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Agustin F. Huneeus is listed as the family company’s stockholder, while Agustin C. Huneeus and Alejandro Huneeus, another family member who serves as corporate counsel, are its officers. The state license for the family’s wine business has been active since 2017 with no change.
The state alcohol beverage agency in the past has revoked licenses for those who have been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, including cases such as receiving stolen property and defrauding a 99-year-old woman. Moral turpitude is a legal concept referring to action or behavior that gravely violates accepted standards of the community.
John Carr, an agency spokesman, said the agency would first review the federal court case against Huneeus to see if it warrants a separate state investigation regarding possible moral turpitude.
State agencies typically look at “crimes that involve dishonesty” when considering a revocation of an alcohol license, said Daniel Croxall, an assistant professor at the University of Pacific McGeorge School of Law.
“They want people to be honest with them,” Croxall said of state regulators.
Prior to his indictment, former company employees said Huneeus had been eagerly anticipating the June opening of a new Flowers winery tasting room on Westside Road in Healdsburg at the old VML Winery space.
Flowers, which was founded in 1994 by Joan and Walt Flowers and known for its premium pinot noir, is considered the crown jewel of the Huneeus wine portfolio.
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.