Some of the 33 parents charged Tuesday with cheating to get their children into prestigious schools may have paid enough in bribes to cover the full cost of a college education and then some.
Two SAT/ACT administrators, an exam proctor, nine coaches at elite schools, a college administrator and 33 parents — a total of 50 people — are accused of participating in a scheme that involved cheating on standardized tests and bribing college coaches and others to admit students as athletes regardless of their abilities, prosecutors revealed in a federal indictment. The scandal is being called the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted.
FBI Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta said some parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee admissions for their children.
The relatives of one applicant paid a California business owner $1.2 million to falsely describe the individual as the co-captain of a well-known soccer California soccer team, although the applicant did not play competitive soccer, prosecutors said.
The average annual cost of tuition and fees at a private, four-year college is $29,478, according to the most recent report from the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.
“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
The parents alleged to have been involved include CEOs, a fashion designer, the chairman of a global law firm and actors including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, Lelling said.
He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”
How the money was spent
Much of the indictment revolves around William Rick Singer, the founder of a for-profit college counseling and preparation business known as The Key.
“OK, so, who we are … what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school,” Singer told one parent, according to prosecutors.
Lelling explained the two main avenues for carrying out the scheme.
“I’ll speak more broadly, there were essentially two kinds of fraud that Singer was selling,” Lelling said of the accusations that span from 2011 to 2019. “One was to cheat on the SAT or ACT, and the other was to use his connections with Division I coaches and use bribes to get these parents’ kids into school with fake athletic credentials.”
For example, prosecutors said Singer and his co-conspirators used stock photos of a person playing a sport and then put the face of a student onto that image via Photoshop.
Singer was paid roughly $25 million by parents to help their children get in to schools, the US attorney said.
Singer pleaded guilty on Tuesday to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice, prosecutors said.
Actresses are allegedly on tape discussing scheme
Best known for her role on TV’s “Desperate Housewives,” Huffman is accused of paying $15,000 to Singer’s fake charity, the Key Worldwide Foundation, to facilitate cheating for her daughter on the SATs, the complaint says.
Her daughter received a 1420 on her test, which was 400 points higher than a PSAT taken a year earlier without the same administrator, the complaint states.
Huffman also discussed the scheme in a recorded phone call with a cooperating witness, the complaint says.
Huffman has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, according to court paperwork filed Monday in federal court in Massachusetts. She was arrested without incident at her home, the FBI said.
She appeared Tuesday in a federal court in Los Angeles where a judge set bond for her at $250,000 and federal agents took her passport.
Her next court date has been set for March 29 in Boston.
Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky on “Full House,” is facing the same felony charge. Her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, was also charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
Giannulli and Loughlin allegedly 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, the complaint said.
The money was given to Singer’s fake charity, and in a recorded phone call Singer clarified that the money was actually for getting their daughters into USC crew, according to the complaint.
Giannulli appeared in court Tuesday, where a magistrate judge set a $1 million bond and ordered him to surrender his passport.
Even though she was not present in court, prosecutors and Loughlin’s attorneys agreed on similar terms as well as permission for her to travel to Vancouver and back for work.
CNN has contacted Iconix Brand Group, which owns Giannulli’s namesake fashion company, Mossimo.
CNN is also working to get comment from the actresses’ representatives.
The colleges involved
Coaches from Yale, Stanford, the University of Southern California, Wake Forest and Georgetown, among others, are implicated in the case. The extensive case involved arrests in six states across the country.
“The Department of Justice believes that Yale has been the victim of a crime perpetrated by a former coach who no longer works at the university,” the university said in a statement sent out to the school. “The corrupt behavior alleged by the Department of Justice is an affront to our university’s deeply held values of inclusion and fairness.”
Georgetown told students that the coach arrested in their case, “has not coached our tennis team since December 2017, when he was placed on leave after the Office of Undergraduate Admissions identified irregularities in his recruitment practices and the University initiated an internal investigation.”
The University of Southern California said it is reviewing its application process.
What happens to the students?
It was not an accident that no students were charged on Tuesday, said Lelling, the US attorney. The parents and other defendants were “the prime movers of this fraud,” he said. He said students may face charges down the road.