Hot Pockets heiress Michelle Janavs to spend 5 months in prison for trying to buy daughters into elite colleges

2020-02-25 18:16:41

BOSTON — Michelle Janavs, whose family made its fortune creating the microwave snack Hot Pockets, was sentenced Tuesday to five months in prison for agreeing to pay bribes totaling $300,000 to get her two daughters into prestigious universities.

Janavs, of Newport Coast, California, admitted to paying $100,000 to have someone cheat on the daughters’ ACT exams and agreeing to pay $200,000 to have the older daughter falsely tagged as a beach volleyball recruit to get her admitted into the University of Southern California. 

As he handed down the latest sentence in the nation’s college admissions scandal, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton had harsh words for Janavs, asking her if she realized the “disingenuous” sound of her claim that she cheated for the love of her children. 

“It is certainly true that the vast majority of parents truly love their children and want their children to get into their college of choice,” he said. “But other parents don’t try to brazenly get their children into a side-door by bribing college officials. They love their children as much as you do.”

Michelle Janavs stands with attorney Thomas Bienert outside federal court, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Boston, after she was sentenced to five months in prison for trying to cheat and bribe her daughters' way into college as part of a nationwide college cheating scam.
Michelle Janavs stands with attorney Thomas Bienert outside federal court, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Boston, after she was sentenced to five months in prison for trying to cheat and bribe her daughters’ way into college as part of a nationwide college cheating scam.

Gorton told Janavs that her conduct was “just as onerous” as bribing a public official and that she needed prison to deter anyone else who “has the gall to use their resources” as she did.

He also ordered she serve two years of supervised release, 200 hours of community service and pay a $250,000 fine.

Janavs is the 15th parent to be sentenced in the sprawling admissions scam led by mastermind Rick Singer, a college consultant to whom wealthy parents paid enormous sums to fraudulently get their children admitted into elite universities. Only one has avoided prison. Janavs asked to serve her time in Texas.

More: Third parent in 24 hours caves in college admissions scandal, agrees to plead guilty

Janavs apologized to the judge, her friends and family for her “inexplicable behavior,” and directed remarks to parents of students applying to college.

“I’m so very sorry I tried to make an unfair advantage for my children,” Janavs said. “There are truly no words to express the heartache and shame by my actions. I have been shaken to the core.”

After the sentencing, one of her attorneys, John Littrell, issued a statement to reporters outside the courthouse with Janavs standing behind her. A man walking by shouted “Hot Pockets!” 

Litrell said she understands “the harm that her choices caused” and the “impact that those choices had on students who tried to apply fairly to get into college.”

“But this crime does not define who she is. Michelle is going to be defined by what she’s done the rest of her life,” Littrell said, declining to take questions.

Janavs is an heiress of her family’s food manufacturing company Chef America, which makes the microwave snack Hot Pockets and other frozen foods. She worked as an executive at the company for a time.

After initially maintaining innocence, Janavas reversed course and pleaded guilty in October to fraud and money laundering conspiracy charges rather than face an additional charge of bribery.

Prosecutors recommended Janavs spend 21 months in prison, arguing she participated in Singer’s scheme on three separate occasions, among the most of the parents charges in the “Varsity Blues” scandal, over a short 18-month period. She also participated in both the test-cheating and admissions schemes, they stressed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristen Kearney told the judge Janavs showed a “flagrant disrespect for breaking the law and an attitude that she’s untouchable.” She said Janavas also sought to use her role on her daughters’ high school’s board of trustees to conceal the test-cheating.

 “She believes that she and her children deserved an edge and no one should stop her. There was no confusion in the defendant’s mind that she was cheating the system,” Kearney said, pointing to one recorded phone call with Singer where Janavas told him, “Whatever. I don’t care.”

Janavs’ defense team argued she should be spared prison. Attorney William Weinreb told the judge Janavs is “terribly ashamed” and takes full responsibility of her conduct but noted she paid significantly less than several parents and took part in the scheme for just 18 months. In contrast, one engaged with Singer for a decade.

“Michelle is far less culpable than these and many other defendants, even by the government’s own metrics,” Weinreb said. “Neither of Michelle’s children actually attended any college as a result of Michelle’s conduct.” 

Thomas Bienert, another of Janavas’ defense attorney, spoke to her character, philanthropic work and volunteerism, particularly with Second Harvest food bank.

He said Janavs was not born into wealth, but rather helped grow her immigrant father’s business into a successful company. He provided dozens of letters and other exhibits defending her character and said she’s suffered already publicly in the media. Her daughters were banned from their high school upon her arrest last March, he said. 

“I’m hard-pressed to think of a better human on the planet. Plain and simple,” Bienert said.

More: Tearful former University of Texas tennis coach gets 6 months in prison for role in college admissions scam

In 2017, Janavs paid $50,000 to Singer’s sham nonprofit, The Key Worldwide Foundation, to have Mark Riddell, a private school counselor from Florida, correct her older daughter’s ACT exam answers. Prosecutors said she paid another $50,000 in 2019 to do the same for her young daughter. Riddell pleaded guilty to charges and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Prosecutors said Janavas in October 2018 agreed to pay Singer $200,000 to USC Women’s Athletics – an account designated for former USC athletics official Donna Heniel – in exchange for her daughter being accepted as a fake volleyball recruit. They said she paid an initial $50,000 but was arrested before she could pay the remaining $150,000. Heinel pleaded not guilty to racketeering and other federal charges.

More: College admissions scandal tracker: Who’s pleaded guilty, who’s gone to prison — and who’s still fighting

Thirty-one out of 53 defendants charged in the college admissions scandal have pleaded guilty since the scandal broke nearly one year ago. Two college coaches, along with the 15 parents, have received sentences for their crimes. The longest prison, which went to former Pimco CEO Douglas Hodge, was nine months. 

A separate group of 15 parents, including actress Lori Loughlin, are fighting charges and could face trial as soon as October.

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hot Pockets heiress Michelle Janavs to serve 5 months in ‘Varsity Blues’ college admissions scandal

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