Chelsea Mancilla, Guest Writer
FBI’s code name for the scam, “Operation Varsity Blues.”
On March 12, news broke that numerous celebrities, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were being charged in the largest college cheating scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. In total, the Justice Department on Tuesday charged 50 people — including two television stars — with participating in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that enabled privileged students with lackluster grades to attend prestigious colleges and universities.
Of the 50 people charged in the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues, officials stated that 33 were parents, officials said, warning that the investigation is ongoing and that others could be charged. Among them are Loughlin (known for her appearance in “Full House”) and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli.
By Tuesday, more than 30 parents and nine coaches were charged for their participation in the scheme, which involved bribing insiders to get specific children into top schools, authorities said. Numerous schools were targeted, including Georgetown University, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California, and University of California Los Angeles.
According to Justice officials, parents would pay a predetermined amount of money that would go to either bribing SAT or ACT administrators into letting them alter students’ test scores (in some cases by having someone pose as the student and take the test, in other cases by correcting the students’ answers after they finish) or, it would go to bribing college athletic coaches who would allegedly create a fake profile of the student as an athlete, regardless of their athletic ability.
In the aftermath, the scheme’s chief architect William Singer and parents were arrested, coaches are being fired, and students may be expelled from their respective schools in the coming weeks.
Singer pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday. Officials described him as a well-connected college admissions adviser, and say he disguised the bribery scheme as a charity, enabling parents to deduct the bribes from their taxes.
Singer was charged with taking about $25 million from 2011 to 2018 — paying some of it to college coaches, or standardized-testing officials for their help in rigging the admissions process and pocketing the rest, according to the criminal complaint. He allegedly disguised the money using a nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation, which prosecutors described as a slush fund for bribes.
On Tuesday March 12, Singer pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. He had been cooperating since September. Prosecutors said that a month after he came to the government’s side, Singer alerted several people under investigation about the inquiry — which earned him the obstruction charge. Another defendant is Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of the international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
Loughlin and her husband Giannulli allegedly “agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team,” though neither of their two daughters participated in crew.
Huffman is accused of paying $15,000 — disguised as a charitable donation — to the Key Worldwide Foundation so her oldest daughter could participate in the testing scam. A confidential informant told investigators that he advised Huffman that he could arrange for a third party to correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT after she took it. She ended up scoring a 1420 — 400 points higher than she had gotten on a PSAT taken a year earlier, according to court documents.
The athletics officials that were involved included, Ernst (former Georgetown tennis coach) Donna Heinel, and Jovan Vavic (former USC athletics officials).
Prosecutors have charged Georgetown’s former head tennis coach, Gordon Ernst. Authorities said he made $950,000 promoting several students as potential tennis recruits — when they were not tennis players of that caliber.
For example, prosecutors alleged, Ernst flagged a California couple’s daughter as a “potential spot,” and her application falsely indicated she had played club tennis through high school and achieved a top 50 ranking in the U.S. Tennis Association’s junior girls’ category from her sophomore through her senior years. In fact, she had not played at any Tennis Association tournaments in high school, officials said.
In a statement, Georgetown said the school was “deeply disappointed” to learn of the criminal charges against Ernst and said he “has not coached our tennis team since December 2017, following an internal investigation that found he had violated University rules concerning admissions. Georgetown cooperated fully with the government’s investigation.”
Likewise, the University of Southern California (USC) released a statement, “We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university,” the statement says. “USC is conducting an internal investigation and will take employment actions as appropriate… the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.”
Besides fake athletic credentials, the other main thrust of Singer’s schemes involved cheating on college entrance exams. Sometimes that was done by paying a 36-year-old Florida man, Mark Riddell, to take the tests for students. Riddell was so proficient at the exams that he could get a perfect score or calibrate his answers to get very high marks but not a perfect score, the U.S. attorney said. Riddell also agreed to plead guilty in the case and cooperate with investigators, according to officials. Riddell did not immediately return messages, and no attorney was listed for him in court records.
Other defendants are accused of bribing college entrance exam administrators to facilitate cheating — in some cases, providing students with answers to exams or correcting their answers after they had completed the exams, according to the criminal complaint filed in federal court.
Prosecutors said a key element of the test-cheating scheme was to make arrangements for the tests to be administered privately over a two-day period, making it easier for Riddell to stand in for the students or for a corrupt test administrator to fix the answers.