Feds bust wife of former Vandergrift High, NFL player in college admissions scandal
The wife of a Vandergrift native and football star who played for Pitt and the San Francisco 49ers is among 50 people charged in the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted in U.S. history.
Marci Palatella, 63, of Hillsborough, Calif., faces mail fraud charges in federal court for her alleged involvement in scams for her son’s acceptance to the University of Southern California. Palatella is the CEO of a liquor distribution company in Burlingame, Calif.
Palatella paid about $575,000 to a nonprofit that allegedly assisted in her son’s SAT test and created a fraudulent athletic profile of him, according to the affidavit. She allegedly conspired to bribe USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel, who since has been fired, to designate her son as a football recruit for admission to USC.
She is the second wife of Lou Palatella, 85, a Vandergrift native and a former guard and linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers.
Lou Palatella is not named in the suit, nor is his current wife’s son.
But their fate with college athletics couldn’t be more different.
Dad’s career was real
The son of a steelworker at the Vandergrift U.S. Steel plant, Palatella grew up in a tight-knit community and powered his way through football starting at Vandergrift High School.
“He is a really good guy and a heck of a football player,” said Frank “Beans” Moliterno, 88, of Vandergrift.
Palatella was one of the top linemen to come out of Vandergrift, graduating in 1951. He played at the University of Pittsburgh from 1951 to 1954, according to Pitt records.
Then in 1955 he was drafted into the National Football League by the 49ers in the 12th round. He played guard and linebacker through 1958. Palatella was traded to Green Bay where he turned down playing for Vince Lombardi.
After football, Palatella made a name for himself in the liquor distribution industry, going on to own a tequila company. His second wife, Marci, also had an extensive background in the liquor business. The couple crecently opened a craft bourbon and whiskey distillery in Kentucky.
Palatella was known to visit the Vandergrift area regularly over the years when his brother, Patsy Palatella, a lifelong borough resident, was still alive.
“When he came in, he was casual with everyone,” said Moliterno. “He never acted like a big shot.”
Attempts to reach Lou or Marci Palatella for this story were unsuccessful.
The feds’ accusations
The college entrance scandal started for Marci Palatella in 2016, according to the affidavit. She made arrangements with William “Rick” Singer, the mastermind of the college admissions scandal who set up a charity, Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), to mask bribes and payoffs.
Singer is accused of funneling money from wealthy parents through his foundation, then using it to bribe coaches and others to get their children into elite universities.
Singer allegedly set up an appointment with a psychologist to examine Marci Palatella’s son for medical documentation to qualify him for extended time on his college entrance exam.
Her son, who is unnamed in the document, was granted extended time on the SAT, and arrangements were made for someone to fly in to proctor the exam.
Marci Palatella’s son scored 1410 out of 1600 on the SAT, according to the affidavit.
After the test, Palatella allegedly asked Singer how to position her son for college applications. According to the affidavit, Singer asked: “Are you willing to make a contribution of several hundred thousand as a donation to get him in as a participant in someone’s program.”
Palatella allegedly replied “money, for the right environment, Yes. But he can never know.”
Singer allegedly provided Marci Palatella with a price list of what was described as “the number it would take to get admitted even with the fudging of the scores.”
For USC, Singer advised Palatella that there was a 75 percent chance of getting her son accepted with a “large, but not significant” donation.
The athletic route was brought up. Palatella said her son might not be a realistic football recruit, noting he had taken off a year and that he might not be big enough to play major college football.
Uniform doesn’t make the player
Singer allegedly told her that her son needed to get into college through football. Palatella emailed a photo of her son in a football uniform and Singer forwarded the photo to an assistant USC coach, his grades, test scores and the SAT score.
A football profile was created describing Palatella’s son as, among other things, an active player on his high school football team, playing on the defensive line and a long snapper, and an instrumental player on special teams.
Federal authorities allege that USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel e-mailed Singer a conditional acceptance letter for Palatella’s son.
And Marci Palatella allegedly mailed Heinel a $100,000 check payable to the USC Women’s Athletic Board with the note, “Our son … is beyond thrilled at the prospect of attending USC as a freshman this fall.”
Six days after USC mailed Palatella’s son his formal acceptance letter early last year, Singer allegedly instructed a Key Worldwide Foundation employee to send Palatella an invoice for $400,000 and she wired the money to KWF in early April 2018.
Federal authorities say Palatella took a tax write-off on the money she paid to Singer’s organization.
In January, Palatella allegedly called Singer to tell him about a neighbor who told her son about her efforts to pay to secure his admission to USC.
Palatella allegedly told Singer that she and her spouse “laugh every day” about how grateful they were for Singer’s services, telling him, “We’re like, it was worth every cent,” according to the affidavit.
Palatella made an initial court appearance Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and was released on a $1 million unsecured bond, meaning she didn’t have to post any money.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .