By Hannah Fry, Richard Winton, Matthew Ormseth and Laura Newberry
In allegations that sent shock waves through academia, federal prosecutors on Tuesday accused top CEOs, two Hollywood actresses and a legendary fashion designer of taking part in an audacious scheme to get their children into elite universities through fraud, bribes and lies.
The scheme, which began in 2011, centered around the owner of a for-profit Newport Beach college admissions company that wealthy parents paid to help their children cheat on college entrance exams and to falsify athletic records of students to enable them to secure admission to elite schools, including UCLA, USC, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown, according to court records.
Fifty people, across academia and college sports as well as a cadre of super-wealthy parents, have been charged in what prosecutors say is the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted. Some parents participated in one aspect of the scheme, while others paid for both, stealing slots from hard-working students with legitimate grades and test scores, authorities said.
William Rick Singer, who owns the admissions company called the Edge College & Career Network, was charged with money laundering, obstruction of justice, racketeering and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Singer, who cooperated with authorities in the investigation, pleaded guilty to the charges in Boston on Tuesday afternoon, according to court records.
"These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege," said U.S. Atty. Andrew Lelling. He said they "knowingly conspired ... to help their children cheat or buy their children admission to elite schools through fraud."
Prosecutors allege that Singer instructed parents to donate funds to a fake charity he had established as part of the scheme. Most of the parents paid at least $200,000, but some spent up to $6.5 million to guarantee their children admission to top universities, authorities said. The parents were then able to deduct the donation from their income taxes, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
The scheme itself was fairly simple, prosecutors said: Singer instructed parents to seek extended time for their children on ACT and SAT exams. In at least one instance, a student claimed to have a learning disability to obtain medical documentation required by the College Board and ACT Inc. to grant additional time on the tests, according to court documents.
Once the students were given additional time, which generally allowed them to take the test over two days instead of one and in an individual setting, the clients were instructed to change the location of the exam to either a public high school in Houston or a private college preparatory school in West Hollywood that Singer controlled, according to the documents.
At those locations, prosecutors allege, Singer bribed test administrators Igor Dvorskiy, of Los Angeles, and Lisa "Niki" Williams, of Houston, with the parents' money to facilitate cheating on the exams. Dvorskiy and Williams allegedly allowed Mark Riddell, of Florida, to take the students' exams himself or provide the students with answers during the tests. In some instances, he corrected the students' answers after they had completed the exams, according to court documents.
Prosecutors alleged the parents' money was also used in some cases to bribe university athletic coaches and administrators to designate applicants as athletic recruits regardless of their athletic abilities and, in some cases, even though they didn't play the sport. In some instances, Singer helped parents doctor images of their children onto the bodies of athletes to provide to coaches to further the scheme, prosecutors said. Singer had a psychologist on his team assign fake learning disabilities to give students an academic advantage, the charges say.
Coaches and private admissions counselors allegedly received money for helping to get students admitted as athletes at Yale, Stanford and USC.
USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and men's and women's water polo coach Jovan Vavic were alleged to have received bribes totaling more than $1.3 million and $250,000, respectively, to help parents take advantage of the relaxed admissions standards for athletes at USC even though their children were not legitimately being recruited as athletes. After the charges Tuesday, the university terminated both coaches.
Former USC women's soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin, who was fired by USC in 2013, and his former assistant coach, Laura Janke, who left the school in 2014, were also named in the indictment, accused of fabricating athlete profiles for the prospective students. Khosroshahin and Janke allegedly received payments totaling nearly $350,000 sent to their private soccer club.
Stanford fired the head sailing coach, John Vandemoer, who agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering. Vandemoer was accused of accepting financial contributions to the sailing program in exchange for agreeing to recommend two prospective students for admission. Neither student ended up at the school, the university said in a statement.
"We have no evidence that the conduct involves anyone else at Stanford or is associated with any other team. However, we will be undertaking an internal review to confirm that," the statement said.
Federal authorities are also seeking records from several prominent Southern California prep schools, according to two sources familiar with the probe.
The sources did not name the schools but said they are some of the most well-known private institutions in the area. They said federal authorities issued subpoenas for records involving some of the students involved in the fraud case.
One source stressed that officials are not at this point accusing the schools of wrongdoing but rather seeking information about student performance and other details.
Interim USC President Wanda Austin issued a statement to the university on Tuesday acknowledging the investigation and calling USC a "victim" in the scheme. She noted that among those accused of involvement were a longtime athletics department employee, a coach and three former members of the coaching staff.
"It is immensely disappointing that individuals would abuse their position at the university in this way," Austin said. "As our work on culture and values continues, we must take the appropriate action when we become aware of behavior that is contrary to our values."
Some of the children had knowledge of the scheme, while others were kept completely in the dark and believed they had earned admission on their own merits, prosecutors said.
Among those charged were Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
Huffman is in custody in Los Angeles, along with 11 others. The Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner was taken into custody at 6 a.m. after FBI agents knocked on the door of her Los Angeles home and informed her of the charges. She was handcuffed and taken to a federal jail in downtown Los Angeles.
Loughlin has not been arrested, but she's being sought by authorities, according to FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller. Law enforcement sources told The Times she was flying to Los Angeles to surrender.
Loughlin, of "Full House" fame, and Huffman, whose credits include the hit ABC show "Desperate Housewives," are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. According to court records, Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, the creator of 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" even though they did not participate in crew.
Huffman is accused of disguising a $15,000 charitable payment in the bribery scheme, according to court records. Prosecutors alleged Huffman met with a confidential witness who explained that he could control an SAT testing center and could arrange for someone to proctor her daughter's test and correct it. Huffman's daughter allegedly took the test in December 2017 and received a score of 1420. That was a 400-point improvement from her first test. In October 2018, Huffman was recorded by the FBI discussing participating in the same scheme for her younger daughter; however, she did not ultimately pursue it.
Douglas Hodge, the former CEO of Newport Beach-based Pacific Investment Management Co., was also indicted in connection with his alleged participation in the scheme. Prosecutors alleged Hodge used bribery to get his children admitted to USC and Georgetown as purported athletic recruits. When Hodge's daughter applied to Georgetown in 2008, her application indicated that she had won multiple United States U.S. Tennis Assn. tournaments. Association records, however, indicated she had never played a USTA match, according to court records.
Jane Buckingham, a consumer trends expert and author of "The Modern Girl's Guide to Life" parenting book series, was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
As part of the scheme, parents paid money to Key Worldwide Foundation, a charity Singer formed in 2012 with a mission "to provide education that would normally be unattainable to underprivileged students," according to its tax forms. It described spending thousands of dollars on trips for dental students to help "needy Cambodians" and offering math tutoring to underserved children in Oakland.
Prosecutors said the charity was nothing more than a means to launder money to an array of people requiring bribes.
"Our contributions to major athletic university programs may help to provide placement to students that may not have access under normal channels," the organization stated in tax documents.
Federal law enforcement began the investigation, dubbed "Operation Varsity Blues," in May 2018, based on a tip from a confidential source who was being interviewed as part of a separate investigation, said FBI Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta.
"Make no mistake: This is not a case where parents were acting in the best interests of their children. This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense, to cheat the system so they could set their children up for success with the best education money could buy, literally," Bonavolonta said. "Their actions were without a doubt insidious, selfish and shameful. And the real victims in the case are the hardworking students who did everything they could to set themselves up for success in the college admissions process, but ended up being shut out because far less qualified students and their families simply bought their way in."
USC students expressed disgust with the scam's alleged participants.
"It's extremely frustrating to hear how some people were able to buy their way in when I worked really hard for the honor to have this kind of education," said Natalia Parraz of Phoenix, 19, a freshman majoring in international relations. "This shows us where we are as a society. Money can buy you anything."
Romil Audhkhasi, 25, a doctoral student in electrical engineering, added, "It's unfair to other students who got in honestly and by working hard."
"This is just really sad," he said. "I'm from India, and these kinds of things are common over there. I assumed this doesn't happen in the U.S."
Rick Caruso, chairman of USC's Board of Trustees, said in a statement: "The charges filed today against employees of USC are disturbing and the alleged activity is absolutely wrong. I am saddened for any innocent students that may be impacted. There is no option other than zero tolerance for this type of behavior, and everyone involved will be held accountable."
Singer operated his business out of a $1.5-million home in Newport Beach. Neighbors were shocked by the allegations.
Caren Darrow said Singer was generous and kind and encouraged her son Levi, a basketball player at Newport Harbor, to work hard but never pushed his business on him.
"We are shocked at the allegations, but I want to say innocent until proven guilty," Darrow said.
Times staff writers J. Brady McCollough, Hillary Davis, Matt Hamilton, Suhauna Hussain and Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.
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