US federal prosecutors have charged Hollywood actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, along with almost 50 other people, over a $25m scheme to help wealthy Americans buy their children’s way into elite universities including Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and the University of Southern California.
Huffman appeared in court in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon, where a magistrate judge said she could be released on a $250,000 bond. The judge ordered the Desperate Housewives star to restrict her travel to the continental US. Huffman’s husband, the actor William H Macy, attended his wife’s initial court appearance.
Two hundred FBI agents were involved in the investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues”, which exposed how parents bribed college coaches and insiders at testing centres to get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country, federal prosecutors said on Tuesday.
William “Rick” Singer, 58, was charged by federal prosecutors in Boston with running the racketeering scheme through his Edge College & Career Network, which served a roster of clients including chief executives and Hollywood actors.
Thirty-three parents, including Huffman and Loughlin, were charged, as well as 13 college sports coaches and associates of Singer’s business. Dozens, including Huffman, were arrested by midday in what authorities called a “conspiracy nationwide in scope”.
“These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for the district of Massachusetts, said in a press conference on Tuesday morning. “Based on the charges unsealed today, all of them knowingly conspired with Singer and others to … buy their children’s admission to elite schools through fraud.”
Lelling said the parents included CEOs, successful securities and real estate traders, a fashion designer and the co-chairman of a global law firm.
Four people arrested in New York City, Gregory Abbott, Gordon Caplan, and Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez, have each been released on $500,000 bail after brief appearances in Manhattan federal court. Their lawyers declined to comment after their clients appeared before a magistrate judge to face charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
Abbott is the New York founder of a food and beverage packaging company. Caplan is the co-chairman of the Willkie Farr & Gallagher law firm, which has 700 lawyers in 10 offices in six countries. Manuel Henriquez, the chairman of Hercules Capital Inc, shook his head repeatedly in court. Elizabeth Henriquez appeared distressed, repeatedly running her hands through her hair.
Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5m to guarantee their children’s admission, officials said.
Huffman and Macy are accused of making a $15,000 payment disguised as a charitable donation as part of a scheme to allow their daughter to take part in a college entrance exam cheating scam. Macy is not named in the filings and has not been indicted.
According to charging documents, Singer’s operation arranged for examiners to take college admissions exams in place of his clients’ children, advise them of correct answers, or change their test answers after they had been completed. Lelling said that in cases where the test was being administered for the second time, scores were raised in a calculated way so as not to raise suspicion.
“What Singer was good at doing was calibrating the fake credentials to appear realistic and not so impressive as to invite suspicion or additional scrutiny,” said Lelling.
A lawyer for Singer said on Tuesday evening his client intended to cooperate fully with federal prosecutors.
The attorney Donald Heller told reporters that Singer was “remorseful and contrite and wants to move on with his life”. Heller said Singer was “relieved that this part is over”.
In the charging documents, prosecutors produced a handwriting sample a student was asked to submit so that a fraudulent test-taker could try to match it.
In other cases, Singer allegedly conspired with college athletic coaches to have applicants listed as recruited athletes, even if, as in several cases, they had never played the sport in question. Pictures of students’ heads were Photoshopped on to the bodies of athletes to create fake image profiles.
The coaches worked at such schools as Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles.
In one exchange captured in the complaint, a parent is asked for a photo of his son “a little bit in action” so he could be photoshopped on to a football player in an attempt to be admitted at USC.
“The way the world works these days is unbelievable,” the father replied, while agreeing to look for a suitable image.
In another case, a family paid about $1.2m in multiple installments, including approximately $900,000 “as a purported charitable donation” for a falsified athletic profile in an attempt to get a student accepted to Yale through the soccer team “despite the fact that … she did not play competitive soccer”.
The former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith was among those caught up in the investigation, which prosecutors said took over a year to complete. Meredith is accused of accepting a $400,000 check from the family of a Yale applicant, and facilitating her admission to the university as part of the women’s soccer team, according to filings.
Meredith left his position with the team last year. He pleaded guilty and helped prosecutors build the case against others. John Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford, also pleaded guilty on Tuesday to racketeering conspiracy. Stanford said Vandemoer had been fired.
The University of Southern California on Tuesday fired two employees who had been indicted in the bribery scheme. The water polo coach Jovan Vavic was paid $250,000 and designated two students as recruits for his water polo team to facilitate their admission to the university, the court documents said. Prosecutors said the senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel helped facilitate admissions after she was bribed. Heinel’s attorney had no comment Tuesday.
Singer admitted on Tuesday in Boston federal court to charges including racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice, according to court papers.
Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom Full House, while Huffman starred in ABC’s Desperate Housewives. Both were charged with fraud and conspiracy.
Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and Macy at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he “controlled” a testing center and could have somebody secretly change her daughter’s answers in a college entrance exam. The person told investigators that the couple agreed to the plan.
Representatives for Huffman, Loughlin and Macy also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Also among the parents charged was Jane Buckingham, the CEO of a boutique marketing company in Los Angeles.
Lelling said it “remains to be seen if we charge any students” and that the colleges themselves “are not considered co-conspirators”. Authorities said in many cases the teenagers were not aware of the fraud. - ENDS -
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