Dozens of the rich and famous—including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin—have been charged in a massive college admissions scandal in which parents paid millions in bribes to help their kids snag a spot at some of the nation’s top universities, officials said.
The mothers and fathers worked with a middleman to get their children phony athletic credentials or higher test scores, prosecutors said. In some cases, they even photoshopped their kid’s face onto a stock photo of an athlete and submitted it with the college application as evidence of athletic prowess.
The schemes involved many of the nation’s top universities—including Yale University, Stanford University, UCLA, the University of San Diego, and the University of Texas—although there’s no evidence that the schools were aware of the bribes.
Many of the students also didn’t know that their admission had been contingent on bribes. None of the children were charged.
“The parents charged today, despite already being able to give their children every legitimate advantage on the college admissions game, instead chose to corrupt and illegally manipulate the system for their benefit,“ Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said at a press conference with the FBI Tuesday to announce “Operation Varsity Blues.”
“We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter, we are talking about deception and fraud.”
A 204-page criminal complaint filed Tuesday outlines how an employee of a nonprofit called The Key flipped and helped the feds bring fraud charges against 32 moms and dads, including big names in the business world—the chair of a top law firm, a Napa Valley winemaker, a jeweler, a casino kingpin, a fashion designer, a real-estate developer, a distillery owner, a TV broadcaster, and a bunch of private investors. The parents have been charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
Huffman was arrested without incident on Tuesday and later released on a $250,000 bond, Reuters reports. Loughlin’s husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, was also reportedly released on Tuesday on a $1 million bond. There’s an arrest warrant out for Loughlin, who is reportedly on a flight to LA. The three have yet to enter their respective pleas.
Parents allegedly paid William Singer of The Key, who is now charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice, up to $6 million to bribe coaches and university officials to falsely designate students as athletic recruits—regardless of their abilities—to grease the admissions process between 2011 and 2018.
In some cases, the complaint noted, the students didn’t even play the sports for which they were “recruited.” Singer, who pleaded guilty on Tuesday, described the scheme to parents as a “side door” that many wealthy families used to win their kids admission.
In one instance, former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudolph Meredith allegedly accepted a $400,000 bribe to falsely recruit a student, despite the fact that he knew the student did not play competitive soccer. In total, officials said, the student’s parents paid $1.2 million in bribes.
The feds said some of the bribes went to coaches who vouched for the bogus recruits, including four from USC: senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel, ex-women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin, ex-assistant soccer coach Laura Janke, and water polo coach Jovan Vavic. UCLA’s men’s soccer coach, Jorge Salcedo, former Wake Forest University volleyball coach William Ferguson, and ex-Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernt were also charged.
Another scheme involved standardized testing fraud. According to the complaint, Singer would tell his clients to seek extended time for their children on the SAT or ACT, which sometimes required families to fake a learning disability so they could get the medical documentation required by testing companies. He allegedly told one parent to have his daughter “be stupid” when she was being evaluated for extra time.
Singer also allegedly told families to invent a family event—such as a wedding—to have their child’s testing center moved to one of the two facilities he “controlled”: a public school in Houston, and a private college preparatory school in West Hollywood, California. At those centers, he told clients, the administrators were willing to accept bribes.
Sometimes, families pushed the boundaries even further. When the son of Jane Buckingham, the CEO of a boutique marketing firm in Los Angeles, couldn’t make it to Houston because he had tonsilitis, Singer arranged for someone to take the test for him—and for the boy to take an at-home test so he wouldn’t get suspicious.
The cheating at those centers worked in one of three ways, the complaint said. A third party would take the test in the student’s name; administrators would provide answers to the students during the test; or administrators would correct a student’s answers once the tests had been submitted. Clients paid $15,000 to $75,000, often disguised as donations to the charity. One student, who actually scored in the mid-600s on an SAT subject test, got her score bumped up to a perfect 800 when it was corrected.
In Huffman’s case, Singer met with the Desperate Housewives actress and her husband, who is Oscar-winning actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home before their older daughter took a Dec. 2017 SAT exam.
“[He] advised Huffman and her spouse that he ‘controlled’ a testing center, and could arrange for a third party to purport to proctor their daughter’s SAT and secretly correct her answers afterwards,” the complaint said. The couple allegedly agreed, and Singer and Huffman exchanged emails about how she could obtain extra time for the test.
“Hurray! She got it,” Huffman said in an email after her daughter was approved for double the time. When the school counselor informed Huffman that meant her daughter would have to take the test at the school and not at Singer’s designated center, she fired off another email: “Ruh Ro!”
The proctor, who was flown in from Tampa, told investigators every time he worked for Singer he either changed answers or gave the student help during the test. Huffman’s daughter scored a 1420 on the SAT, 400 points over her PSAT a year earlier, according to court papers.
The couple talked about having their younger daughter participate in the same scheme but ultimately decided against it.
Loughlin, best known for her role on Full House and Giannulli allegedly agreed to pay $500,000 in bribes to have their daughters labeled as recruits for the University of Southern California crew team, even though they did not compete in the sport.
Heinel, of the USC athletic department, allegedly went along with the ruse. In one call, Singer told Giannulli that he was being audited but assured him, “I’m not gonna say anything about your payments going to Donna Heinel at USC to get the girls into USC, through crew.”
The couple’s attorney declined to comment.
“Make no mistake: This is not a case where parents were acting in the best interests of their children. This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense to cheat the system so they could set their children up for success with the best education money could buy—literally,” said Joe Bonavolonta, FBI Special Agent in Charge in Boston.