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Kentucky Distillery Owner Charged In National College Recruiting Scandal

Wikimedia Commons | Laura Parks

On Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts released a list of 50 individuals charged in a nationwide college admissions cheating and recruitment scheme —  and one of them has a tie to Kentucky’s bourbon industry.

According to a massive federal indictment, those listed include parents, sports coaches and college preparatory program executives who all were involved in some form of college bribery — ranging from bribing entrance exam officials to facilitate cheating on standardized tests to paying varsity coaches or administrators to designate certain applicants as recruited athletes (regardless of athletic ability).

Many of the individuals listed then used “the façade of a charitable organization to conceal the nature and source of the bribe payments.”

Marci Palatella — the founder and owner ofPreservation Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, — is listed in the indictment. She is charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

Palatella lives in Northern California, but bought the property for Preservation Distillery in 2015. The distillery itself was opened to the public in 2018.

According to a 2018 article in the Lane Report, Palatella’s distillery became the 38th member of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. At the time, the location was eligible to join the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.

Per the indictment, Palatella “took part in both the college entrance exam cheating scheme and the athletic recruitment scheme, including by conspiring to bribe [the University of Southern California’s senior associate athletic director] Donna Heinel to designate her son as a football recruit in order to facilitate his admission to USC.”

Palatella paid a confidential witness (identified as CW-1) and Heinel approximately $500,000 to secure her son’s admission to USC. Heinel is the only school administrator indicted in the nationwide probe.

According to the court document:

“On or about July 27, 2017… PALATELLA e-mailed CW-1 a photo of her son in his football uniform and asked, ‘Will this work?’ CW-1 forwarded the photo to [ex-assistant soccer coach Laura]Janke, together with PALATELLA’s son’s grades and test scores, which included the fraudulently obtained SAT score. Janke created a football profile for PALATELLA’s son that falsely described him, among other things, as an active player on his high school football team as a member of the ‘defensive line’ and a ‘long snapper’ and as a member of several local and statewide championship teams between 2015 and 2017.”

You can read the full court documents regarding the Palatella case below:

Palatella Complaint by on Scribd

According to the documents, Palatella “told CW-1 that she and her spouse ‘laugh every day’ about how grateful they were for CW-1’s services, telling him, ‘We’re like, it was worth every cent.’”

Calls to Preservation Distillery on Tuesday were not answered.

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter. Her main interests include art, food and drink, and urban preservation. Among other publications, her work has been featured in print or on the web at The Atlantic, National Geographic, Slate, Salon, The Guardian, Hyperallergic, Louisville Magazine and Eater.
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