First Busey board member among those charged in college-admissions bribery scheme

First Busey board member among those charged in college-admissions bribery scheme

LAS VEGAS — A member of First Busey Corp.'s board of directors allegedly used her family's charity to bribe the tennis coach at Georgetown University to help her daughter get admitted there in 2013.

Elisabeth Kimmel was one of 50 people charged by federal prosecutors Tuesday in the alleged conspiracy, in which wealthy businesspeople and celebrities are accused of donating to a phony foundation, which passed the money on to coaches at top universities around the country.

"Busey is aware of the allegations and is reviewing the information available at this time," spokeswoman Abby Hendren said in a statement.

Kimmel joined First Busey's board in May 2018 and is the second-largest shareholder on the board, with 2.6 percent of the company's outstanding shares, according to a filing last year with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Kimmel allegedly signed checks from the Meyer Charitable Foundation, which she is an officer for, to the Key Worldwide Foundation in 2013 totaling $275,000. Prosecutors allege that the Georgetown University tennis coach was paid $244,000 in the scheme.

Kimmel allegedly tried the same thing in 2018 to help get her son into the University of Southern California as a track recruit specializing in pole vaulting.

"The high school attended by Kimmel's son has no record that he ever participated in pole vaulting or track and field," according to the criminal complaint filed Tuesday.

The Meyer Charitable Foundation made a $50,000 payment to USC's Women's Athletics Board in 2017, and a $200,000 payment to the Key Worldwide Foundation in 2018, with a check signed by Kimmel, according to prosecutors.

Kimmel, who lives in both Las Vegas and a suburb of San Diego, according to the complaint, serves on First Busey's board with her father, August "Chris" Meyer Jr. In a 2014 tax filing, he was listed as an officer in the Meyer Charitable Foundation, which listed an address in Champaign.

The Meyer family ran Midwest Television, which owned WCIA-TV until 1999, and last year completed the $325 million sale of its San Diego TV and radio stations.

In Kimmel's daughter's case, the application to Georgetown allegedly indicated she was a ranked tennis player in high school.

"In fact, the United States Tennis Association, which operates the Southern California Junior Tennis program, has no record of Kimmel's daughter's participation in that program," the complaint says.

The Georgetown admissions department conducted an initial review of the application "at the request of Mr. Gordie Ernst, Tennis Coach," according to an admissions letter to Kimmel's daughter. "I am pleased to report that the Committee has rated your admission as 'likely.'"

Ernst was indicted Tuesday and resigned last year.

While at Georgetown, Kimmel's daughter "was not a member of the tennis team," says the complaint, which never alleges that Kimmel's daughter was aware of the alleged scheme.

The payments from the Meyer Charitable Foundation were allegedly made between April and July 2013, and show up on the nonprofit's publicly available tax documents as charitable donations.

In fiscal year 2013, the Meyer Charitable Foundation made $967,650 in contributions to a number of charities, including a $100,000 donation to the Key Worldwide Foundation, the third largest contribution that year.

In fiscal 2014, the foundation made $1.074 million in contributions, including $175,000 to KWF, the second largest contribution that year.

In her son's case, an assistant coach with USC's women's soccer team "prepared an athletic profile falsely describing Kimmel's son as an elite high school pole vaulter," according to the criminal complaint.

USC associate athletic director Donna Heinel allegedly presented Kimmel's son to the USC subcommittee for athletic admissions, and he was conditionally accepted in 2017, according to the complaint.

Heinel was indicted Tuesday and fired later in the day by USC, and the school noted that it has "not been accused of any wrongdoing" but is "conducting an internal investigation."

Kimmel's son was asked to register with the NCAA, according to the complaint.

Kimmel asked a KWF employee if she could submit a transcript to the NCAA by herself, as she allegedly said in an email that she was "concerned that asking [her son's] counselor to submit his transcript to NCAA will raise questions, particularly since [his counselor] knows him well and is familiar with all of his activities/extra-curriculars."

After he started, Kimmel's son was asked by his adviser about being a track athlete, which Kimmel allegedly expressed concern about in a wiretapped call to KWF owner William Rick Singer.

Singer eventually became a cooperating witness and pleaded guilty Tuesday.

In a recorded call in October with Kimmel, he allegedly said: "I'm not going to tell the IRS that — I'm not going to say anything about the payments — the first group of payments for [your daughter] going to Gordie Ernst at Georgetown, nor am I going to say anything about the — $200,000 — well, $250,000 total going for [your son] to Donna Heinel at USC."

"What I'm going to tell the IRS is that your donations were made to my foundation to fund underserved kids," Singer allegedly told Kimmel, according to a transcript of the call in the complaint. "So I just wanted to make sure that we were on the same page."

To which Kimmel allegedly replied: "As far as I know, I don't know what you've done with the money I gave your foundation. I mean, I — you never really told me."

Singer later told Kimmel that some families were getting questions about their children not showing up for practice — which, according to the complaint, concerned Kimmel, because her son was unaware of the alleged scheme.

"OK. All right. Then I won't say anything to [my son], 'cause he's ... still in the dark," she allegedly said in January.

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