‘These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege…’
(Hannah Fry and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times) In allegations sending shock waves through academia, federal prosecutors on Tuesday accused top CEOs, two Hollywood actresses and a legendary fashion designer of taking part in an audacious scheme to get their children into elite universities through fraud, bribes and lies.
The scheme, which began in 2011, centered around the owner of a for-profit Newport Beach, Calif., college admissions company that wealthy parents paid to help their children cheat on college entrance exams and falsify athletic records of students to enable them to secure admission to elite schools, including UCLA, Stanford, Yale, Georgetown and the University of Southern California, according to court records.
Among those implicated in the scheme are “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman and “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin.
Huffman’s downfall is likely to elicit little sympathy from pro-life conservatives, as she has been an outspoken pro-abortion advocate who supports removing accountability in birth control as well as in college admissions.
The Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner, whose husband is actor William H. Macy, was taken into custody around 6 a.m. local time after FBI agents knocked on the door of her Los Angeles home and informed her of the charges. She was handcuffed and taken to federal jail in downtown Los Angeles.
Loughlin has not been arrested, but she’s being sought by authorities, according to FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller. Law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times she is flying to L.A. to surrender.
Both are being charged conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services fraud.
In total, fifty people across academia and college sports, as well as a cadre of super wealthy parents, have been charged in what prosecutors say is the largest ever college admissions scam to ever be prosecuted. Some parents participated in one aspect of the scheme, while others paid for both, as part of a scam that stole slots from hardworking students with legitimate grades, authorities said.
William Rick Singer, who owns the admissions company Edge College & Career Network, was charged with money laundering, obstruction of justice, racketeering and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Singer, who cooperated with authorities in the investigation, pleaded guilty to the charges in Boston Tuesday, according to court records.
Some parents participated in one aspect of the scheme, while others paid for both, authorities said.
“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said. He said they “knowingly conspired … to help their children cheat or buy their children admission to elite schools through fraud.”
Prosecutors allege that Singer instructed parents to donate funds to a fake charity he had established as part of the scheme. Most of the parents paid at least $200,000, but some spent up to $6.5 million to guarantee their children admission to top universities, authorities said. The parents were then able to deduct the donation off their income taxes, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
The scheme itself was fairly simple, according to prosecutors: Singer instructed parents to seek extended time for their children on ACT and SAT exams. In at least one instance, a student purported to have a learning disability to obtain medical documentation required by the College Board and ACT Inc. to grant additional time on the tests, according to court documents.
Once the students were given additional time, which generally allowed them to take the test over two days instead of one and in an individual setting, the clients were instructed to change the location of the exam to either a public high school in Houston or a private college preparatory school in West Hollywood that he controlled, according to the documents.
Prosecutors allege funds from the parents were used to bribe exam administrators to facilitate cheating on the tests, in some cases by posing as the actual students, and in others by providing students with answers during the exams or by correcting their answers after they had completed the tests.
Prosecutors allege the parents’ money was also used in some cases to bribe university athletic coaches and administrators to designate applicants as athletic recruits regardless of their athletic abilities and, in some cases, even though they didn’t play the sport. In some instances, Singer helped parents use photo-editing software to place images of their children onto the bodies of athletes to provide to coaches to further the scheme, prosecutors said.
Some of the children had knowledge of the scheme, while others were kept completely in the dark and believed they had earned admission on their own merits, prosecutors said.
According to court records, Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, the famous creator of clothing brand Mossimo, “agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team” even though they did not participate in crew.
Huffman is accused of disguising a $15,000 charitable payment in the bribery scheme, according to court records. Prosecutors allege Huffman met with a confidential witness who explained that he could control an SAT testing center and could arrange for someone to proctor her daughter’s test and correct it. Huffman’s daughter allegedly took the test in December 2017 and received a score of 1420. That was a 400-point improvement from her first test. In October 2018, Huffman was recorded by the FBI discussing participating in the same scheme for her younger daughter; however, she did not ultimately pursue it.
Federal law enforcement began the investigation, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, into the scheme in May 2018, based on a tip from a confidential source who was being interviewed as part of a separate investigation, said FBI Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta.
“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,” Bonavolonta said.
“Their actions were without a doubt insidious, selfish and shameful. And the real victims in the case are the hardworking students who did everything they could to set themselves up for success in the college admissions process, but ended up being shut out because far less qualified students and their families simply bought their way in.”
(Los Angeles Times staff writer J. Brady McCollough contributed to this report.)
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