Fifty people, including Full House actress Lori Loughlin and actress Felicity Huffman, are facing federal fraud charges after an FBI investigation into an elaborate scheme to get their children into elite universities.
The Department of Justice, which announced the charges Tuesday, says Loughlin, Huffman, and dozens of others allegedly paid millions of dollars in bribes to get their children admitted to Yale, Stanford, and other schools.
The plot allegedly involved cheating on standardized testing exams like the ACT and having the children of wealthy parents falsely designated as athletes — even paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to make coaches claim the children were being recruited to play sports for their schools.
FBI special agent Joseph R. Bonavolonta, who spoke during a Tuesday morning press conference in Boston, called the scheme “a sham that strikes at the core of the college admissions process.”
Even under normal circumstances, the admissions process at elite schools is riddled with special favors, like lower academic standards for athletes and special treatment for the relatives of wealthy donors. But naming a building can cost millions. Instead, these parents allegedly paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to portray their children as successful athletes, so that they’d have a better chance of getting into college with a so-so academic record.
Here’s how the scheme worked
According to indictments unsealed in federal court in Boston on Tuesday, William “Rick” Singer, a Southern California business executive, ran a for-profit college counseling business called Edge College & Career Network and a charity called the Key Worldwide Foundation.
Singer allegedly used both businesses to help wealthy parents get their children into colleges and universities across the country — by any means necessary.
First, the Department of Justice alleges that in return for payments from parents ranging from $10,000 to $75,000 per test, Singer paid other people — including a man named Mark Riddell, who was also indicted — to either take standardized tests required for college admissions at many schools for their children or correct their answers after the fact.
He also, according to the DOJ, used those payments to bribe teachers and ACT and SAT test administrators so they would overlook the cheating, often sending those payments via the Key Worldwide Foundation.
When a parent asked whether bribing test administrators worked, Singer laughed and replied, “every time,” adding the kids “just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.”
The second part of the scheme is where things get even more interesting. According to the charging documents, wealthy parents collectively paid Singer more than $25 million to get their children into top universities by bribing college coaches and administrators into designating their children as recruited athletes — when they very much were not.
In general, athletes tend to be held to lower academic standards in college admissions, whether those admissions are taking place at an Ivy League school or an SEC football powerhouse. Saahil Desai explained the practice in the Atlantic in 2018:
All applicants to Harvard are ranked on a scale of one to six based on their academic qualifications, and athletes who scored a four were accepted at a rate of about 70 percent. Yet the admit rate for nonathletes with the same score was 0.076 percent—nearly 1,000 times lower. Similarly, 83 percent of athletes with a top academic score got an acceptance letter, compared with 16 percent of nonathletes. Legacy admissions policies get a lot of flak for privileging white applicants, but athletes have a much bigger effect on admissions, and make up a much bigger percentage of the class. And it’s not just Harvard—in 2002, James Schulman and former Princeton University President William Bowen looked at 30 selective colleges and found that athletes were given a 48 percent boost in admissions, compared with 25 percent for legacies and 18 percent for racial minorities.
Authorities say Singer’s plan was to use that fact to get the children of wealthy parents into top schools (while making himself very wealthy). Here’s how:
According to the Department of Justice, a parent who wanted to get his child into the University of Texas paid $455,194 (in the form of stock) to Singer’s foundation. Through a middleman named Martin Fox, who knew both Singer and Texas tennis coach Michael Center, Singer bribed the coach to designate that child as a student-athlete and a recruit of the University of Texas tennis team.
The student got in, and then quit the team. According to the complaint (which you can read below and at this link), Center received at least $90,000 for “recruiting” the student:
Center even expressed some interest in doing the same thing with another “recruit,” according to a recorded phone call between himself and Singer. (CW-1 in the document below is Singer.) “If you could do something like that, that would be fabulous,” Singer said.
And Center wasn’t alone.
According to the Department of Justice, former Yale University women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith accepted $400,000 from Singer to designate a student as a soccer recruit to help them get into the university. Meredith resigned from Yale in November after 24 years as head coach, saying then that he wanted to “explore new opportunities.”
In exchange for payments totaling $1.2 million, the DOJ says, Singer even created a fake recruiting profile for the student that described the student as co-captain of a prominent Southern California club soccer team — which they were not. (Laura Janke was an assistant women’s soccer coach at USC until 2014; Ali Khosroshahin was head coach until 2013.)
Per the charging documents, Singer paid dozens of coaches and administrators, including coaches at Georgetown University (roughly $2.7 million) and Wake Forest University ($100,000). At the University of Southern California, he allegedly went so far as to bribe an administrator at the university to accept dozens of students as “recruits” for different sports, despite the fact that some of those students did not even play the sports for which they were being recruited. (Several of these schemes involved creating fake photographs of students playing the sport they were supposed to be being recruited for.)
These parents went through all the effort to turn their son into a fake pole vaulter at USC… but neglected to tell him. From today’s Federal indictment: pic.twitter.com/FcZxmKGRLF
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) March 12, 2019
In one 2016 case — the one involving actress Lori Loughlin — Singer allegedly worked with Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, to bribe USC officials to get their daughter, Olivia, into USC by claiming that she was a crew coxswain, including using a photograph of their daughter posing on an ergometer, an indoor rowing machine.
The couple ultimately paid Singer $500,000, and paid USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel $50,000, according to the authorities. (Heinel was also indicted on Tuesday.) In an email from Giannulli and Loughlin to Singer, Giannulli wrote, “I wanted to thank you again for your great work with [our older daughter], she is very excited and both Lori and I are very appreciative of your efforts and end result!”
They would use the same process for Loughlin’s youngest daughter in 2017, with Singer having an employee fill out her college applications, and Singer and Heinel working together to shift suspicion away from any wrongdoing when a guidance counselor at Loughlin’s daughter’s school started asking questions about why a non-rower was being recruited to USC as a rower.
In a YouTube video from 2018, Olivia, who goes by Olivia Jade on YouTube, said of her future at USC, “I do want the experience of like game days, partying … I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.” Her burgeoning crew career was not mentioned.
This was simply about wealthy parents getting their kids into good schools through bribery
As is described in the indictments and materials provided by the federal government, Singer made clear to his clients why they needed to pay him, and university officials, so much money: because their kids could not get into the university of their choice without better test scores, the appearance of being top athletes, or both.
But instead of doing what millions of other students and families without vast financial resources do — work hard for a scholarship or live with going to another university — their answer, the DOJ says, was to commit fraud. The charges in the case include mail fraud and “honest services” fraud (basically, wire fraud), centering on Singer’s use of a “charity” as a means of moving money to bribe university officials, administrators, and others in order to get students into schools under false pretenses.
Take the case of Gamal Abdelaziz, a casino executive and Las Vegas resident. In 2017, Singer told him that his daughter would likely not be admitted to USC based on her academics and activities alone — but if she were a recruited athlete, her chances would be far better.
So by creating a fake athletic profile for Abdelaziz’s daughter (and by bribing Donna Heinel with roughly $20,000 per month), Singer was able to get Abdelaziz’s daughter admitted to USC as a basketball player, without the student ever having to play basketball. Heinel even encouraged Singer to use a similar fake athletic profile for other potential students.
You can read the full indictment here:
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