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On March 12, 2019, U.S. federal prosecutors in the District of Massachusetts unsealed indictments and complaints against 50 people as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged schemes to use bribery and fraud to secure admission to at least eight universities. Those indicted include prominent businesspeople, coaches, and actors. The case is the largest of its kind by the Justice Department. The prosecutors allege that the parents of college applicants paid more than $25 million in bribes to college officials between 2011 and 2018. The FBI investigation was nicknamed Operation Varsity Blues in a nod to the 1999 film of the same name.
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|Organized by||William Rick Singer|
|Suspect(s)||50 people indicted|
On March 12, 2019, U.S. federal prosecutors in the District of Massachusetts unsealed indictments and complaints against 50 people as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged schemes to use bribery and fraud to secure admission to at least eight universities. Those indicted include prominent businesspeople, coaches, and actors. The case is the largest of its kind by the Justice Department.
The prosecutors allege that the parents of college applicants paid more than $25 million in bribes to college officials between 2011 and 2018. The FBI investigation was nicknamed Operation Varsity Blues in a nod to the 1999 film of the same name.
The leader of the scheme, William Rick Singer, pleaded guilty and helped the FBI gather incriminating evidence against co-conspirators.
The FBI alleged that beginning in 2011, parents of certain high school-aged children conspired with others to use bribery and other forms of fraud to get their children admitted to top colleges and universities. Federal prosecutors in Boston on March 12, 2019, made a criminal complaint, charging 50 people with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in violation of Title 18 United States Code, Section 1349.
Federal prosecutors alleged a bribery and college admission cheating scheme that involved:
Court documents unsealed in March 2019 detail a scheme wherein wealthy parents bribed admissions testing officials, athletics staff, and coaches at universities in order to gain admission for their children to them. The enterprise was led by William Rick Singer, a then-58-year-old resident of Newport Beach, California, who ran Key Worldwide Foundation, a nonprofit organization previously granted 501(c)(3) status, which allowed it to avoid federal income taxes and allowed Key clients to deduct their "donations" from personal federal income taxes. The Key Enterprise also included The Edge College & Career Network, a limited liability company registered in 2012.
Singer primarily used two separate fraudulent techniques to help clients' children gain admission to elite universities. The first involved cheating on the SAT or ACT. Singer worked with psychologists to complete the detailed paperwork required to certify clients' children as having a learning disability, giving them access to accommodations for taking the tests. Singer stated that he could get a falsified disability report from a personal psychologist of his for between $4,000 to $5,000. Singer noted that this could be re-used to fraudulently obtain similar benefits at university. Once the paperwork was complete, Singer coached clients to make up false travel plans to get their children's tests relocated to one of two centers under his control: in West Hollywood or Houston. Depending on the client's preferences, the child was either involved directly in the fraud, or, in many cases, the fraud was kept secret and corrupt proctors altered tests after the fact. In some cases, the tests were taken by another person posing as the student. Mark Riddell, a Harvard University alum and director at IMG Academy, was allegedly one of the stand-in test takers, who agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with investigators. Prosecutors claim he was paid $10,000 per test, and he currently faces two criminal charges for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering.
According to recorded phone calls included in court filings, Singer claimed that the practice of fraudulently obtaining accommodations such as extra testing time, intended for those with bona fide learning disabilities, was widespread outside of his particular scheme:
Yeah, everywhere around the country. What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.
The second method used by Singer involved directly bribing college athletics staff and coaches. At target institutions, coaches and athletic staff had the ability to submit a certain number of recruit names to admissions, which would then view the applications in light of that status. Singer used the Key money-laundering operation to pay coaches a bribe for labeling applicants as athletes for purposes of gaining admission; he fabricated profiles highlighting each applicant's purported athletic prowess. Among those charged in the March 12 release were coaches and staff at Georgetown, San Diego, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, USC, Wake Forest, and Yale. In one such incident, Michael Center, the men's tennis coach at Texas, accepted approximately $100,000 in exchange for designating an applicant as a recruit for the Texas Longhorns tennis team, thus facilitating their admittance into the university. A similar fraud occurred at Yale, where the head coach of the women's soccer team, Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith, allegedly accepted a $400,000 bribe to falsely identify an applicant as a recruit. Senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic, both of USC, allegedly received $1.3 million and $250,000, respectively, for similar frauds. They were indicted alongside former USC women's soccer coaches Ali Khosroshahin and Laura Janke. In addition, UCLA and Stanford, two other Pac-12 programs, had coaches indicted, including UCLA men's soccer coach Jorge Salcedo and Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who both allegedly accepted bribes. Vandemoer admitted to accepting $270,000 to classify two applicants as prospective sailors. At Wake Forest, head volleyball coach William "Bill" Ferguson was placed on administrative leave following charges of racketeering. Former Georgetown tennis coach Gordon "Gordie" Ernst is alleged to have facilitated as many as 12 students through fraudulent means, while accepting bribes of up to $950,000. At the University of San Diego, an unnamed athletics coach allegedly accepted bribes from two families accused of paying $875,000 as part of the scheme.
In response to the scandal, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the chief governing body for college sports in the United States, announced it would be reviewing the allegations "to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated".
Besides bribery, parents would allegedly hire third parties to take classes posing under the identity of their children, and then submit their results to colleges and universities. The scam allegedly also involved submitting fraudulent exam scores and grades including fake awards and athletic achievements. In one such case, noted private equity investor Bill McGlashan discussed using Photoshop to create a fake profile for his son as a football kicker to help him get into USC. Similarly, Marci Palatella, wife of former San Franciso 49ers player Lou Palatella, worked with Singer to pass her son off as a long snapper recruit for USC. In one of the most notable cases, actress Lori Loughlin, famous for her role on the American sitcom Full House, and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters accepted into USC as members of the rowing team, despite neither child having participated in the sport.
Singer was charged with racketeering conspiracy for his role as the organizer of the scheme. Money was passed through a 501(c)(3) organization formed by Singer, the Key Worldwide Foundation, as charitable donations. Singer pleaded guilty on March 12, 2019, in the U.S. District Court in Boston to four felony counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice. He faces a maximum of 65 years in prison and a fine of $1.25 million.
Universities involved in the case include Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of San Diego, the University of Southern California (USC), the University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest University, and Yale University.
Administrators at the involved universities have claimed a lack of awareness regarding the scandal within their athletic departments. All accused coaches have since been fired or placed on academic leave.
Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator for Massachusetts (where all the criminal cases were filed), told news media that the scandal represented "just one more example of how the rich and powerful know how to take care of their own".