HOLLYWOOD HILLS—Documents unsealed in federal court on Tuesday, March 12 detailed a $25 million nationwide college-acceptance fraud scandal, implicating 50 people including two SAT/ACT administrators, one exam proctor, nine coaches at elite schools, one college administrator and 33 parents in what authorities dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.””
Dozens of parents, coaches and facilitators, including “Desperate Housewives” and “Fuller House” actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, are believed to have allegedly paid millions in bribes to coaches to guarantee their children’s admission to top schools of their choice including Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Southern California, the University of Texas, UCLA and Wake Forest.
Huffman and Loughlin are charged for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Huffman was arrested at her Hollywood Hills home by FBI Tuesday morning. Loughlin is expected to surrender to authorities at the Central District Court, as she was on a flight to Los Angeles.
The affidavit in support of criminal complaint revealed that Huffman contributed $15,000 for her eldest daughter to have her incorrect exam answers altered to increase her SAT score. Arrangements were made to re-attempt the scheme for her younger daughter, but she did not pursue it.
Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Gianulli, known for the popular clothing brand Mossimo, “agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team — despite the fact that they did not participate in crew — thereby facilitating their admission to USC.” The complaint also revealed federal agents have recorded phone calls of the celebrities speaking with cooperating witnesses and have incriminating emails from Loughlin.
Loghlin deleted her social media accounts and her daughter, who goes by Olivia Jade on her Instagram and Youtube page, was forced to disable her Instagram comments after people started harassing her over the alleged college cheating scandal.
Jade began attending USC in September 2018 and had been documenting her daily life at college. In one of her vlogs, she caused controversy by saying “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend, but I’m gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of like game days, partying. I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.” Jade posted a second video in response apologizing. “I’m sorry for anyone I offended by saying that. I know it’s a privilege and a blessing and I’m really grateful,” Jade said. On Feburary 19, 2019, Jade again expressed her not being interested in school.
The non-profit college-prep Key World Wide Foundation, between 2011 to 2018, received a total of $25 million in charitable donations, alleged to be bribes, by wealthy parents to founder Willam Rick Singer making this the largest college admissions scam to be prosecuted by the Justice Department according to US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling of the District of Massachusetts. Parents used the donation guise as a tax deduction.
Most clients paid Singer between $250,000 and $450,000 per student with some paying as much as $6.5 million Lelling noted during a press conference on March 12, 2019.
It is believed Singer sold two types of fraud: cheating for students on SAT/ACT by using his connections with Division 1 coaches to create fake test scores and using bribes to get parent’s kids into schools with fake athletic credentials that falsely portrayed them as competitive athletic recruits. Coaches were allotted slots for recruitment and allegedly accepted bribes by Singer to accept fake athletic credentials to convince everyone else internally that this was a good recruit for the team and to be admitted. In some instances, student’s faces were photoshopped onto other athletes bodies and students were allowed more time to take the tests by faking a disability.
Singer and John Vandemoer, head sailing coach at Stanford University have pleaded guilty. Singer is charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud US and obstruction of justice while Vandemoer is facing conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Joseph R. Bonavolonta, Special Agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division, confirmed that “Operation Varsity Blues” culminated early this morning with approximately 300 special agents from the FBI and the IRS criminal investigations that set out to arrest 46 individuals across the country for their roles in a international college admissions bribery and money laundering scam.
Investigations began on May 2018 after uncovering evidence of a large scale elaborate fraud while working a unrelated, undercover operation. “The FBI uncovered what we believe is a rig system robbing students all over the country of their right at a fair shot to getting into some of the most elite universes in this country,” said Bonavolonta. “We believe everyone charged here today had a role in fostering a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for students trying to get into these schools the right way through hard work, good grades and community service.”
No students were charged in the documents presented this morning and it is unknown if they will be charged. Parents and the other defendants were described as the primary movers of the fraud. Some students were aware of cheating. Court documents indicate a particular defendant and his daughter were on a conference call with Singer discussing the scam. Singer is said to have attempted to accommodate what parents wanted to do.
With the exception of one USC administrator who was charged, the schools are not being targeted as co-conspirators according to University of Southern California. USC said they are conducting an internal investigation in a press release. Donna Heinel and Jovan Vavic have been terminated and the university will take additional employment actions as appropriate. USC is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with the alleged scheme. The university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.
The ranges of sentences has not been determined as investigations are moving forward as they pursue additional targets.