Internal spreadsheets and emails between top administrators at the University of Southern California suggest a “university-wide program” linking big donations and promises of future gifts with decisions on who gets a seat, according to defense attorneys for a father indicted in the U.S. college-admissions scandal.

Miami developer Robert Zangrillo’s lawyers are gathering evidence that will “undermine the mythology that a donation to a USC athletic department somehow is proof of any element of a federal crime,” they claimed in a court filing Tuesday that includes a spreadsheet charting donations, connections and SAT scores, among other factors.

It’s no secret that colleges give special attention to star high school athletes and the children of alumni and major donors. But after federal prosecutors in March announced criminal charges against nearly three dozen parents in the biggest university-admissions scam they have ever pursued, several defendants have said they will argue their donations were par for the course and far from bribes.

They include the TV sitcom star Lori Loughlin and her husband, the designer Mossimo Giannulli, as well as Douglas Hodge, the former CEO of investment management giant Pimco.

Zangrillo’s lawyers are seeking additional USC records from 2015 to 2019 showing the number of applicants categorized as “special interest” and the donations their families made within a year after they were admitted. USC is fighting the effort, calling it a “fishing expedition.” It didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the latest filing.

Lawyers for Zangrillo, who is accused of paying a total of $250,000 for a surrogate to take an online college course for his daughter and then to get her admitted as a rowing recruit at USC, say they will show that donations and powerful connections beat out merit in USC’s admissions process.

“The fact that the $50,000 check from Mr. Zangrillo appears to have been provided as part of a regular university-wide practice of accepting donations from families of prospective students and conferring a corresponding benefit upon those students in the admission process supports an argument that the payment was merely a donation, not an illicit bribe,” the defense told the court.

Zangrillo’s daughter was ultimately admitted through a “VIP list” and not as an athletic recruit.

Zangrillo’s filing includes emails between Dean of Admission Timothy Brunold and Director of Admission Kirk Brennan in which they appear to joke about poor grammar used by a student the university was reconsidering for admission in 2018.

“Clear(ly) a well-qualified lad,” Brunold says, according to one of the exhibits in the filing.

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