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Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin among 50 charged in college cheating scam

March 12, 2019 GMT

Two Hollywood actresses and several high-level executives are among 50 people charged Tuesday in a scam to secure their children’s admissions into elite universities through bribery and other forms of fraud.

Calling it the “largest college admission scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice,” U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling in Boston announced the arrest of 50 individuals nationwide, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, fashion designer Mossimo and other wealthy parents who allegedly used fraud to bribe or dupe admissions departments at elite colleges such as Yale, Georgetown and Stanford to receive preferential acceptance for their children.

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Other well-heeled clients named the 200-page charging document include Jane Buckingham, CEO of a boutique marking firm; Gordon Caplan, chairman who heads an international law firm; and Manuel Henriquez, CEO of Hercules Capital, a publicly traded finance company.

Others charged include sports coaches and administrators at the schools, including Georgetown, the University of Southern California, UCLA, Yale and Wake Forest.

The scheme from 2011 through February 2019 totaled nearly $6.5 million in bribes, according to documents.

“There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy,” said Mr. Lelling, of the case code-named investigation “Operation Varsity Blues.” “There will not be a separate criminal justice system, either.”

The wide-ranging scam outlined by prosecutors involved a California-based “college counseling” company called Key Worldwide Foundation that baked and falsified admissions of clients’ children by submitting SAT and ACT scores taken, in some cases, by another child. In some cases, proctors were paid to correct answers. Finally, in many instances, Key posed applicants as “student-athletes” to grab one of the coveted slots colleges often allotted to Division-1 NCAA coaches who were also paid off by Key for preferential treatment.

As detailed in Tuesday’s press conference, upon entrance, students would fake injuries, quit after a short period, or in many cases not even show up for practice at all.

“It’s a sham that strikes at the core of the college admission process,” said Special Agent in Charge Joseph R. Bonavolonta, for the FBI Boston Field Office.

Although individual charges vary, bribery and racketeering are the most common offenses appearing in the document. Ms. Huffman and Ms. Loughlin face conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud charges.

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Prosecutors say the parents, including Ms. Huffman and Ms. Laughlin, bribed entrance exam administrators to facilitate cheating on the ACT and SAT tests to provide their children with answers during the exams. In some cases, an administrator even posed as a child to take the exams.

Parents also bribed college coaches to falsely present their children’s profile as top athletes. In some cases, the parents paid an administrator to create phony athletic profiles and made-up sports awards.

The children were also photographed participating in sporting events, even when they didn’t play. In the more egregious cases, children’s heads were Photoshopped on top of athletes, prosecutors said.

For example, one student was presented as captain of her soccer team. In reality, she wasn’t even on her soccer team, according to court filings.

College coaches who were allegedly bribed in the scam were aware the kids were not competitive athletes and the profiles were fake, authorities claimed.

The scam was hatched by a man named Rick Singer, prosecutors say. Mr. Singer, a California resident, ran a charity known as Key Worldwide Foundation, which received more than $25 million to ensure children would be accepted to the university of their choice, according to court documents.

Those donations were then used to bribe SAT and ACT administrators, according to court documents.

Prosecutors said four are expected to plead guilty in the coming weeks, including Mr. Singer, the man at the center of the company.

A website for “The Key” on Tuesday billed itself as working with “the world’s most respected families.”

“We partner with your son or daughter to identify their strengths, unlock their potential, choose the right college, position themselves for admission, and outline a course of study and extracurriculuar experiences to lead to a life of success,” the website said.

Mr. Singer told the parents that his job is to “help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school,” promising a “guarantee” that would happen, according to a phone call recorded by the FBI and transcribed in court documents.

Ms. Huffman, and her husband, actor William H. Macy, allegedly donated $15,000 to Mr. Singer’s charity in exchange for helping their daughter with her college admission, according to documents. Mr. Macy was not charged.

Ms. Loughlin paid $500,000 to Mr. Singer in exchange for presenting her two daughters as stars on their high school crew team, despite the fact they did not participate in crew, prosecutors said. The fraud secured their children’s admission to USC.

Prosecutors said many students are still enrolled and the dragnet which started under a different investigation will not target students or the colleges.

“Make no mistake,” Mr. Bonavolonta said. “This is not a case where parents were acting in the best interest of their children,” calling the real victims the “hard-working students” who did everything to set themselves up for success but were “shut out.”

There is no evidence the children were aware of the fraud, authorities said.