Father Whose Convictions in Varsity Blues Scandal Were Overturned Sues Netflix Over Documentary

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Mar. 22 2024, Published 4:50 a.m. ET

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Actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were among those who served time in prison and paid fines for their convictions in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, in which more than 50 people were prosecuted, but one father who was ultimately exonerated is suing Netflix after appearing in its documentary about the conspiracy.

Former Staples executive John Wilson and his son, Johnny Wilson, are suing Netflix for defamation over the streamer’s portrayal of their family in the documentary “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admission Scandal."

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In 2021, John Wilson was initially convicted on charges related to the scandal, along with dozens of others who were convicted on charges of conspiracy, bribery and fraud for cheating to get their children into prestigious universities. But after a hearing at the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the original decision was overturned and all of Wilson’s core convictions related to the Varsity Blues scandal were overturned.

Wilson was accused of paying $220,000 to have his son Johnny designated as a water polo recruit at the University of Southern California, and of spending $1 million to buy his daughters’ admissions into Harvard and Stanford. Attorneys for Wilson said their client believed he was making legitimate donations to the universities in question, asserting that he did not participate in any conspiracies. The lawyers also contended that unlike the children of other parents convicted in the Varsity Blues scandal, Johnny Wilson was in fact an accomplished athlete. All our donations went to IRS certified charities and colleges, not to individuals and we got receipts for our donations from USC and others. To this day, USC has kept our donations.

According to the Wilsons' lawsuit, Netflix and the producers of the 2021 documentary consciously defamed the Wilsons by presenting a deceitful version of their story.

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"Netflix willingly chose to group my highly qualified children and me into a scandal involving celebrities who, unlike me, pled guilty and acknowledged their roles in shameful actions like photoshopping images of fake athletes, cheating on tests and making bribe payments to coaches," Wilson said in a recent statement. "In the interest of justice and accountability, Netflix must pay for the deliberate and devastating harm that they've done to my family."

According to the lawsuit, filed on March 4, Netflix interspersed John Wilson’s words with reenactments of unethical behavior committed by other parents who were convicted. In the documentary, Wilson's name and voice are depicted over a scene showing other defendants Photoshopping water polo photos of their children. This editing, which the lawsuit says is deceitful, was done 26 times in the first 24 minutes of the film.

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Wilson and his attorneys say in the lawsuit that they cautioned Netflix against including him in the documentary, sending the streamer a written warning before the film was released. The Massachusetts resident alleges that Netflix and the documentary's producers deliberately ignored the evidence presented in the warning, including the claim that Wilson’s son ended up being one of the fastest players on the USC water polo team. The lawsuit also claims Wilson's quotes were edited in a deceptive manner.

Among the parents implicated in the Varsity Blues scandal were "Full House'' actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Gianulli. The couple was convicted in part for having their daughter, Olivia Jade, pose for a photo on a rowing machine. The photo was included in the YouTuber’s USC application to imply she was a competitive high school rower. In addition to the sports fraud, Loughlin and Gianulli were convicted of paying bribes to secure Olivia Jade’s acceptance to USC. Each parent was sentenced to prison, fined, and ordered to complete community service.

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Wilson's attorneys organized a focus group to measure the impact of Netflix’s documentary on viewers’ perceptions of him. Because of Netflix's editing, lawyers say, a majority of participants believed the Wilsons cheated on the ACT, that Johnny was a fake athlete with fake photos, and that Wilson bribed USC coaches and administrators.

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified monetary damages. The Wilsons are also calling for Netflix to withdraw false statements made about them in the documentary, and to publicly apologize.

"While justice has largely been restored in the court of law, exoneration is still needed in the court of public opinion, particularly as the Netflix film continues to falsely smear my family and shamefully misleads viewers to discredit the hard-earned accomplishments and talents of my innocent children," Wilson said. "We have suffered tremendous harm as Netflix chose sensationalism over accuracy, a deliberate choice which destroyed our reputations and grossly violated the ethics of documentary filmmaking as well as basic decency."

TMX contributed to this story.


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