Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are being charged in a large-scale college entrance exam cheating scam.
BOSTON – Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and nine college coaches are among the 50 people charged Tuesday in what federal officials say is the nation’s largest-ever college admissions bribery case prosecuted by the Justice Department.
The Justice Department charged 33 affluent parents, including CEOs and television stars, with taking part in an elaborate conspiracy that involved cheating on the SAT and ACT and parents paying coaches “enormous sums” to accept students who fabricated their athletic credentials at elite universities and colleges.
Huffman, best known for her role on TV’s “Desperate Housewives,” is accused of paying $15,000 to a made-up charitable organization that then facilitated cheating for her daughter on the SATs. Huffman also discussed the scheme in a recorded phone call with a cooperating witness, according to the indictment.
Actress Loughlin, who starred in the 1990s sitcom “Full House,” is also facing the same felony charges — conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Prosecutors say Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, another defendant, paid bribes of $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as crew team recruits at the University of Southern California even though neither participated in the sport.
As part of the sweeping nationwide conspiracy, coaches agreed to pretend that students applying to their school were highly recruited athletes when they didn’t even compete in that particular sport, prosecutors said.
More individuals, including additional parents, could be later charged amid the sweeping, still-ongoing multi-state investigation, which took on the code name “Operation Varsity Blues” by law enforcement when it was launched 10 months ago.
The schools, including Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Southern California, UCLA, the University of Texas and Wake Forest University, are not targets of the investigation, prosecutors said. And no students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the teenagers were not aware of the fraud.
Others charged included three people who organized the scams, two ACT and SAT exam administrators, one exam proctor, and one college administrator. Among the parents charged were Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Connecticut, a co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York; Jane Buckingham, CEO of a boutique marketing company in Los Angeles; Gregory Abbott of New York, founder and chairman of a packaging company; and Manuel Henriquez, CEO of a finance company based in Palo Alto, California.
“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” said Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, which is leading the prosecution. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy, and I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
Wake Forest University says it has suspended its head volleyball coach Bill Ferguson amid the investigation. Ferguson has been placed on administrative leave after being accused of accepting $100,000 to recruit a student who had been on the North Carolina school wait list.
“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.
At the center of the case, according to federal prosecutors, was an admissions consultant named William Rick Singer, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy charges of racketeering, money laundering, defrauding the United States and obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors say Singer, Newport Beach, California, operated a sham college counseling group called “The Key,” which he used to accept more than $25 million in payments masked as “charitable contributions” from parents from 2011 through Feb. 2019. He’s accused of keeping some of the money for himself and funneling millions to coaches and others to guarantee admission to top schools.
Parents paid Singer between $100,000 and $6.5 million to carry out the athletics admissions scheme, according to prosecutors, with most paying between $250,000 and $400,000 per student.
Singer worked with parents to create athletic profiles that faked credentials of club teams and would sometimes involve staged photographs or doctored stock photos from the internet.
In addition, prosecutors say some parents paid Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 to either take the ACT for their child or correct their children’s answers after the test to achieve a higher score. He did this by paying Mark Riddell of Florida, another defendant in the case, who bribed two exam administrators, also defendants.
“We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletics credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials,” Lelling said.
Prosecutors brought the charges in federal court because Singer is accused of using the mail and overnight carriers to send bribes and doctored test forms, and of using his tax-exempt charity to facilitate bribes. The other defendants are charged with conspiracy in those crimes. Each of the colleges that are involved receives more than $10,000 in federal grant funds.
Elizabeth Much, a representative for Loughlin, said she had no information on the case when first contacted by USA TODAY. The news organization has reached out to a rep for Huffman for comment.
Among the college coaches charged is former women’s soccer coach at Yale, Rudy Meredith, who resigned as coach in November after 24 years in that position. He’s accused of taking $1.2 million after he admitted a recruit who had never played soccer.
In addition to Singer, John Vandemoer, the head sailing coach at Stanford, is set to also plead guilty Tuesday to a conspiracy to committee racketeering.
Prosecutors in Massachusetts took the lead because of the case’s Boston connections. Phone calls and meetings took place in the city, two of the defendants live there and fake test scores were submitted to Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern University.
Joe Bonavolonta, FBI special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston field office, said 300 special agents from the FBI and IRS set out Tuesday to arrest 46 individuals involved in the scheme. He said 38 were taken into custody, seven were working toward a surrender, and one is being actively pursued.
“We believe all of them – parents, coaches and facilitators – lied, cheated and covered up their crimes at the expense of hard-working students,” he said.
He said the FBI’s investigation began last May, when FBI investigators found evidence of a “large-scale elaborate fraud” while working an unrelated undercover case.
Bonavolonta called the charges leveled Tuesday evidence of a “rigged system” that is robbing students across the country at a fair shot to get into some of the nation’s most elite schools.
“We believe everyone charged here today had a role in fostering a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for students trying to get into these schools the right way,” he said.
He said the actions of the parents were “without a doubt insidious, selfish and shameful,” adding that: “Today’s arrests should be a warning to others: You can’t pay to play, you can’t lie and cheat to get ahead, because you will get caught.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
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