Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among more than four dozen people charged in a nationwide college admissions cheating scandal that involved wealthy individuals paying up to $6.5 million to place their children into elite universities, according to court records revealed Tuesday.
The alleged scam — which placed students into top colleges such as Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, University of Southern California, UCLA and the University of Texas — was run by William Rick Singer, from California, who helped parents get their children’s college admission through bribes, court documents unsealed in Boston showed. Officials have been investigating the case, named “Operation Varsity Blues,” for more than a year.
At least 13 people, including Huffman and Loughlin’s husband Mossimo Giannulli, were arrested Tuesday morning and expected to make their first court appearance later in the day.
Singer, who authorities said will plead guilty to racketeering, ran the charity, Key Worldwide Foundation, which received $25 million in total to guarantee the admissions, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said during a Tuesday news conference. The charitable foundation was allegedly used as a front to run the scam.
“This is a case where [the parents] flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense to cheat the system so they could set their children up for success with the best money can buy,” Joseph Bonavolonta from the FBI Boston Field Office said in a Tuesday news conference.
Most of the students didn’t know their admission to the school was due to a bribe, authorities said, but in some cases, the children and their parents took part in the scheme.
“Singer would accommodate what parents wanted to do,” Lelling said, adding that it “appears that the schools are not involved.”
Singer’s college admissions cheating scam allegedly involved extensive coordination with parents. Lelling said Singer had a knack for making fake credentials look realistic enough as to not invite scrutiny.
The children’s parents would allegedly pay a specified amount of money fully aware it would be used to gain college admission. The money would then go toward an SAT or ACT administrator or a college athletic coach who would fake a profile for the prospective student — regardless of their athletic ability, according to the charging documents.
On a call with one parent, prosecutors said, Singer described the business simply: “What we do is help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school… my families want a guarantee.”
Singer would help his clients’ children by having another individual take SAT or ACT tests on behalf of the students, officials said. Parents would allegedly pay up to $75,000 for each test and wire money to “charitable accounts.” He would discuss with his clients what SAT or ACT score they desired for their children that were impressive but “not too impressive.” He would then instruct Mark Riddell, of Palmetto, Florida, to take the exams for the students, or “replace the students’ exam responses with his own.” Riddell had been working with Singer since 2011, documents stated.
“Singer used the purported charitable donations from parents, at least in part, to bribe two SAT and ACT test administrators,” court documents stated.
Some parents would also take their children to therapists paid by Singer in order to receive notes saying the prospective students required extra time to take standardized tests.
Among the college coaches involved in the alleged scheme was Rudy Meredith, the former head women’s soccer coach at Yale, and John Vandemoer, the sailing coach at Stanford University. Vandemoer has been fired from his position, the university said in a statement Tuesday.
Singer would bribe the coaches to fill slots the universities allocated for new players with his clients’ children. To evade suspicion, the coaches and Singer would tell the prospective students to pose for pictures or would alter stock images and photoshop the child’s face onto an athlete, to support the athletic-based admission.
For one applicant, Meredith — who resigned from his position in November — created a fake athletic profile and said the person was a recruit for the Yale women’s soccer team even though the applicant “did not play competitive soccer,” officials said. Singer gave Meredith $400,000 after the student was admitted to Yale.
A Georgetown tennis coach received bribes between 2012 and 2018 from Singer that amounted to more than $2.7 million, according to the documents.
“In exchange for the bribes, the Georgetown coach designated approximately 12 applicants as recruits for the Georgetown tennis team, including some who did not play tennis competitively, thereby facilitating their admission to the university,” documents read.
Some of the “student-athletes” who were enrolled simply never showed up for practice, while others pretended to be injured. Some played briefly, then quit, Lelling said.