Federal prosecutors indicted dozens of wealthy parents in what they said was a large-scale college admissions cheating and recruitment scheme the Justice Department said involved paying out millions of dollars in bribes. Prosecutors said that in some cases, parents made it possible for their kids to cheat on SAT and ACT college admission tests, and in others, they paid off college coaches to accept them for admission as student athletes, even if they had no athletic skills.
The parents caught up in the scandal, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” are a “catalogue of wealth and privilege,” Andrew Lelling, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Masschusetts, whose office is prosecuting the case, said on Tuesday when announcing the findings of the case.
The rich and famous caught up in the case include actress Lori Loughlin, “Aunt Becky” on “Full House,” and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli. Felicity Huffman, who for years played “Lynette Scavo” on “Desperate Housewives,” was also charged by prosecutors. Huffman’s husband, the actor William H. Macy, is mentioned in a complaint but has not been charged.
Others caught up include in a Napa Valley winery owner, the chairman of a prestigious New York City law firm, a professor of dentistry from Calabassas, Califorina, a Silicon Valley executive, and other prominent parents.
Some of the elite universities where prosecutors say the defendants tried to have their children admitted include Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California-Los Angeles.
Court documents reveal the scope of the scheme described by prosecutors. Here are seven incredible details alleged in the affidavit in support of a criminal complaint:
1. Federal officials said that when explaining the SAT and ACT scheme to potential clients, “cooperating witness 1” — William “Rick” Singer, who is accused of being at the center of the bribery scandal — sought to earn their trust and confidence by noting that he had done the same thing many times before with other families.
In an excerpt of a wiretap recording officials say was between Singer and defendant Gordon Caplan, Singer described how the kids had no idea that they didn’t actually get the score that they thought they did, the document says.
“I mean, I’m sure I did 30 of them at different, you know, dates because there’s different dates, and they’re families like yours, and they’re all kids that wouldn’t have perform[ed] as well, and then they did really well, and it was like, the kids thought, and it was so funny ’cause the kids will call me and say, ‘Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do even better.’ Right? And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got,” Singer said in the exchange, according to the document.
2. Singer is accused of instructing his clients to seek extended time for their kids on the SAT and ACT exams, including by having the children purport to have learning disabilities, the document says.
3. The document says that between 2011 and 2018, parents paid Singer approximately $25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators to claim their children had been recruited as athletes, or were members of other favored admissions categories.
The recruitment scheme was described as a “side door,” according to the document.
“There is a front door which means you get in on your own,” Singer said in one exchange with a client, the document says. “The back door is through institutional advancement, which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.”
The so-called “side door” involved parents making a charitable donations to the organization Singer owns, which he would then funnel to athletic coaches or to university programs designated by those coaches, according to the document.
4. The “side door” also invovled fabricating athletic profiles for the students, the document says. The fake athletic credentials included fake honors and staged photographs. In other instances, photos of the applicants’ faces were simply photoshopped onto bodies of legitimate athletes, according to the document.
5. Actress Felicity Huffman is accused of participating in the college entrance exam cheating scheme on behalf of her eldest daughter, the document says. Huffman and her husband paid Singer’s charitable foundation $15,000, the document says.
The document alleges Huffman exchanged multiple emails with Singer about how to get extra time on the SAT for two of her daughters. Huffman made arrangements take part in the scheme for her second daughter but did not go through with, the document says.
After her elder daughter obtained extra time for the SAT, a counselor at her high school emailed Huffman that the high school would be the test center, according to the document.
“Ruh Ro! Looks like [my daughter’s high school] wants to provide own proctor,” Huffman wrote and forwarded an email to Singer, the document says.
They made arrangements to have Huffman’s daughter take the exam at a West Hollywood test center that Singer claimed to control, the document alleges. According to the document, Huffman’s daughter received a score of 1420 on the SAT, an improvment of 400 points over her PSAT.
6. In one phone call cited in the document between Singer and Macy, Huffman’s husband, the two are accused of discussing the same cheating scheme for their younger daughter, which the document says was not ultimately pursued.
Macy apparently suggested to Singer that he wanted his younger daughter to get into a college like Georgetown, according to a partially available quote from the phone transcript described in the document.
7. Lori Loughlin and her husband are accused of agreeing to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the crew team at the University of Southern California.
The document says Loughlin and Giannulli provided Singer with photos of both their daughters on ergometers, but that neither participated on the crew team.
You can read the full document here.