2019 college admissions bribery scandal

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2019 college admissions bribery scandal
Duration2011–2018
VenueUnited States District Court for the District of Massachusetts
LocationUnited States
Organized by
William Rick Singer via
  • Key Worldwide Foundation
  • The Edge College & Career Network
Suspects50 indicted

On March 12, 2019, United States federal prosecutors disclosed a conspiracy to influence student college admissions decisions at several prominent American research universities, with at least 50 people alleged to have been part of it. A number of parents of college applicants are accused of paying more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to William Rick Singer, a college admissions counselor and leader of the scheme, who used part of the money to fraudulently inflate student test scores and to bribe college officials.[1][2]

Singer controlled the two firms involved in the scheme, Key Worldwide Foundation and The Edge College & Career Network (also known as "The Key"), and pleaded guilty as he supported the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in gathering incriminating evidence against co-conspirators.[3][4] He said he unethically facilitated college admission for more than 750 families.[5] Prosecutors in the District of Massachusetts, led by United States Attorney Andrew Lelling, unsealed indictments and complaints against 50 people, including Singer, the university staff he bribed, and people who are alleged to have used bribery and fraud to secure admission for their children at eleven universities.[6][7][8][9][10] Among the accused parents are prominent businesspeople and well-known actors.[11][12]

The FBI is still pursuing the investigation, nicknamed Operation Varsity Blues after the 1999 film.[13][14] The case is the largest of its kind to be prosecuted by the Justice Department.[15]

Discovery and charges[edit]

The FBI alleged that beginning in 2011, certain parents of high school students conspired with other people to use bribery and other forms of fraud to get their children admitted to top colleges and universities.[16] Authorities reportedly became aware of the scheme around April 2018 when Morrie Tobin, who was under investigation in an unrelated case for alleged pump-and-dump securities fraud, offered information in exchange for leniency. An alumnus of Yale, he told authorities that the women's soccer head coach, Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith, had asked for $450,000 in exchange for helping his daughter gain admission to the school.[17] As part of his cooperation, Tobin wore a recording device while talking to Meredith in a Boston hotel on April 12, 2018; Meredith subsequently agreed to cooperate with the authorities and led them to Singer.[18][19] Meredith pled guilty as part of his cooperation with the prosecution.[18][17]

On March 12, 2019, federal prosecutors in Boston unsealed a criminal complaint charging 50 people with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in violation of Title 18 United States Code, Section 1349.[16] The charges were announced by Andrew Lelling, United States Attorney for the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.[20][21] Lelling heads the securities and financial fraud unit, which includes the lead Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen, and ADAs Justin O’Connell, Leslie Wright, and Kristen Kearney.[22][23] The 204-page affidavit in support of the charges was written by FBI special agent Laura Smith.[24]

Allegations[edit]

Federal prosecutors alleged a college-admission scheme that involved:

  • bribing exam administrators to facilitate cheating on college and university entrance exams;[16]
  • bribing coaches and administrators of elite universities to nominate unqualified applicants as recruited athletes or favored candidates, thus facilitating the applicants' admission;[16] and
  • using a charitable organization to conceal the source and nature of laundered bribery payments.[16]

Court documents unsealed in March 2019 detail a scheme led by William Rick Singer, a 58-year-old resident of Newport Beach, California. Wealthy parents paid Singer to get their children admitted to elite schools by bribing admissions testing officials, athletics staff, and coaches at universities. Payments were made to Key Worldwide Foundation, a nonprofit organization owned by Singer and previously granted 501(c)(3) status; that status allowed him to avoid federal income taxes on the payments, while parents could deduct their "donations" from their own personal taxes. Singer offered college counseling services as The Edge College & Career Network, a limited liability company registered in 2012, which he operated out of his home in Newport Beach.[23][25]

Methods of fraudulent admission[edit]

Singer primarily used two fraudulent techniques to help clients' children gain admission to elite universities: cheating on college entrance exams and fabrication of role in school sports programs.[26]

Cheating on college entrance exams[edit]

Singer arranged to allow clients' children to cheat on the SAT or ACT college admission tests.[12] Singer worked with psychologists to complete the detailed paperwork required to falsely certify clients' children as having a learning disability, giving them access to accommodations, such as extra time, while taking the tests. Singer said he could get a falsified disability report from a psychologist for $4,000 to $5,000,[27] and that the report could be re-used to fraudulently obtain similar benefits at the schools.

Once the paperwork was complete, Singer told clients to invent false travel plans to get their children's tests moved to a test center under his control either in West Hollywood or Houston. Parents might also be advised to fabricate a family event that could provide a pretense for the student to take the SAT, ACT, or other test at a private location where they could have complete control over the testing process.[26]

In some cases, the student was involved directly in the fraud; in others, the fraud was kept secret from the student and corrupt proctors altered tests on their behalf after the fact.[28] In some cases, other people posed as the students to take the tests. Mark Riddell, a Harvard alumnus and college admission exam preparation director at IMG Academy, was one of the stand-in test takers; he agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with investigators.[29][30] Prosecutors claim he was paid $10,000 per test, and he faces two criminal charges for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering.[31] Riddell did not have advanced access to the test papers, but was described as "just a really smart guy".[32]

According to recorded phone calls, the transcripts of which were included in court filings, Singer claimed that the practice of fraudulently obtaining accommodations such as extra testing time, intended for those with bona fide learning disabilities, was widespread outside of his particular scheme:

Yeah, everywhere around the country. What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.[33]

For example, Jane Buckingham was arrested on March 12, 2019, for allegedly submitting false paperwork saying her son had a learning disability and paying $50,000 to Key Worldwide Foundation for a proctor to take the ACT on her son's behalf, scoring a 35 out of 36. The goal was entrance to the University of Southern California.[34] Portions of recorded conversations between Buckingham and a cooperating witness were included in the FBI's affidavit.[30][16][35]

Fabrication of role in school sports programs[edit]

Singer was also bribing college athletics staff and coaches. At certain colleges, these personnel can submit a certain number of recruit names to the admissions office, which then view those applications more favorably. Singer used his Key Worldwide Foundation as a money-laundering operation to pay coaches a bribe for labeling applicants as athletic recruits. He also fabricated profiles highlighting each applicant's purported athletic prowess. In some cases, image editing software (e.g., Photoshop) was used insert a photograph of a student's face onto a photograph of another person to document purported athletic activity.[26]

In one such incident, Michael Center, the men's tennis coach at the University of Texas, accepted about $100,000 to designate an applicant as a recruit for the Texas Longhorns tennis team.[2] A similar fraud occurred at Yale,[17] where the then-head coach of the women's soccer team, Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith, allegedly accepted a $400,000 bribe to falsely identify an applicant as a recruit.[36][37] USC's senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic allegedly received $1.3 million and $250,000, respectively, for similar frauds.[38] They were indicted alongside former USC women's soccer coaches Ali Khosroshahin and Laura Janke.[39] Coaches at two other Pac-12 programs, UCLA men's soccer coach Jorge Salcedo and Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, also allegedly accepted bribes.[40] Vandemoer admitted to accepting $270,000 to classify two applicants as prospective sailors.[41] At Wake Forest, head volleyball coach William "Bill" Ferguson was placed on administrative leave following charges of racketeering.[42] Former Georgetown tennis coach Gordon "Gordie" Ernst is alleged to have facilitated as many as 12 students through fraudulent means while accepting bribes of up to $950,000.[43] On March 20, 2019, the University of San Diego revealed that its former men's basketball head coach Lamont Smith allegedly accepted bribes.[44] Hours after that revelation, Smith resigned from his position as assistant coach at the University of Texas at El Paso.[45] Two San Diego families were accused of paying $875,000 as part of the scheme.[46]

Bill McGlashan, a private equity investor, allegedly discussed using Adobe Photoshop to create a fake profile for his son as a football kicker to help him get into USC.[47][48] Similarly, Marci Palatella, wife of former San Francisco 49ers player Lou Palatella, allegedly worked with Singer to pass her son off as a long snapper recruit for USC.[48][49] In one of the most notable cases, actress Lori Loughlin, famous for her role on the American sitcom Full House, and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters accepted into USC as members of the rowing team, although neither girl had participated in the sport.[27]

Singer was charged with racketeering conspiracy for his role as the organizer of the scheme. Money was funneled through a 501(c)(3) organization formed by Singer, the Key Worldwide Foundation, in the form of purported charitable donations.[12] Singer pleaded guilty on March 12, 2019, in the U.S. District Court in Boston to four felony counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice.[50] He faces up to 65 years in prison and a fine of $1.25 million.[51]

Involved parties and organizations[edit]

A total of 50 people have been charged in the investigations.[52] This number includes 34 parents of college applicants[35] and 11 named collegiate coaches or athletic administrators from eight universities.[12][52][53] Three additional universities are involved but no staff members from those schools have been directly named or implicated.[7][8][9][54][10]

Key Worldwide Foundation / The Edge College & Career Network[edit]

  • William Rick Singer, purported college counselor, and author of self-help books for college admission. Singer organized and sold fraudulent college admission services.[11][12] Singer pled guilty in cooperation with the prosecution[38]
  • Mark Riddell, a Harvard alumnus and former director of college entrance exams at IMG Academy. Riddell was employed by Singer to fraudulently take admission tests, impersonating the clients' children; he also paid Educational Testing Service and ACT contractors to deliberately mis-administer the tests[29][30][31]
  • Steven Masera, officer at Singer's companies[55][56]
  • Mikaela Sanford, employee at Singer's companies[55][56]

Other involved co-conspirators[edit]

  • Igor Dvorskiy, administrator of standardized tests (including those from ACT and the College Board, which develops and administers the SAT), and director of an LA-area private school[55][56]
  • Martin Fox, Houston tennis academy president[55][56]
  • Niki Williams, administrator of standardized tests for ACT and College Board, Houston-area assistant high school teacher[55][56]

Universities and accused personnel[edit]

The following 11 universities, their associated athletic programs, and 11 university personnel are involved in the case:[12][1][2][53][10]

University Athletic program Indicted personnel Sport Details
Georgetown University[57][58] Hoyas Gordon "Gordie" Ernst Co-ed tennis Former co-ed tennis coach[57]
Harvard University[6][35][8][9] Crimson N/A No staff members have been directly named or implicated.
Northwestern University[10][54][59] Wildcats N/A No staff members have been directly named or implicated.
Stanford University[40] Cardinal John Vandemoer Sailing Former sailing coach, pled guilty, fired[40][56][60]
University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley)[7] Golden Bears N/A No staff members have been directly named or implicated.[7]
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)[61] Bruins Jorge Salcedo Men's soccer Former men's soccer head coach and former Major League Soccer player, placed on leave, then resigned[61][62]
University of San Diego (USD)[46] Toreros Lamont Smith Men's basketball Former men's basketball head coach[44]
University of Southern California (USC)[15][40][63][64] Trojans Donna Heinel Multiple Former senior associate athletic director, fired[63][64]
Laura Janke Women's soccer Former women's soccer coach[64]
Ali Khosroshahin Former women's soccer head coach[64]
Jovan Vavic Men's water polo Former men's water polo coach, fired[63][40]
University of Texas at Austin (UT)[2][65][66] Longhorns Michael Center Men's tennis Former men's tennis head coach, fired[2][65][66]
Wake Forest University[42] Demon Deacons William "Bill" Ferguson Volleyball Volleyball coach, placed on academic leave[42]
Yale University[17][36] Bulldogs Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith[67] Women's soccer Former women's soccer coach, pled guilty in cooperation with the prosecution and led prosecutors to Singer[17][18][36]
University Athletic program Indicted personnel Sport Details

Administrators at the involved universities have claimed a lack of awareness regarding the scandal within their athletic departments. All accused athletic department staff have since been fired, resigned, or placed on academic leave.[53]

Parents[edit]

Officials said Singer had many legitimate clients, who did not engage in any type of fraud.[68] Singer cited famous clients on his Facebook page while promoting his 2014 book Getting In[68][69] and, as a result of this and other public endorsements by Singer,[70] many former clients have made statements to distance themselves and their children from any perceived involvement in the scandal.[68][70]

The table below lists the 34 parents directly involved in the scheme as listed by CNN, CBS News, and People.[6][35][55][56] Note that Morrie Tobin would be the 35th parent if he were not an unindicted cooperating witness in support of the prosecution's case.[17][18][71][72][73]

Nature of alleged fraud Parent Target of fraud Family member Description
Admissions Gamal Aziz[74] USC Daughter Former President and COO of Wynn Resorts and former CEO of MGM Resorts International[75]
Diane Blake[35] USC Daughter Wife of Todd Blake[35]
Todd Blake[35] Entrepreneur and investor, husband of Diane Blake[35][76]
Mossimo Giannulli[77] USC Two daughters (including Olivia Jade) Founder and fashion designer at Mossimo[78][79]
Lori Loughlin[15] Actress best known for her role on Full House[78][79][80]
Douglas M. Hodge[65] USC Children Former CEO of PIMCO[81][82]
Agustin Huneeus Jr.[35] USC Daughter Napa Valley vineyard owner[35]
Davina Isackson[35] UCLA Daughter Wife of Bruce Isackson[35]
Bruce Isackson[35] Real estate development executive, husband of Davina Isackson[35]
Elisabeth Kimmel[83] Georgetown Daughter Media businesswoman and former owner of KFMB Stations[74][58][83]
USC Son
Toby MacFarlane[35] USC Daughter Title insurance executive[35]
Son
Bill McGlashan[84] UCLA Son Former managing partner and founder of TPG Capital, fired by TPG[85][86]
Marci Palatella[48] USC Son Distillery owner; her husband, former San Francisco 49ers guard Lou Palatella, has not been indicted[49]
Stephen Semprevivo[35] Georgetown Son Sales executive[35]
Devin Sloane[35] USC Son CEO and founder of a water infrastructure company[35]
John Wilson[35] USC[8] Son[8] Private equity and real estate development CEO[35]
Stanford[8] Twin daughters[8]
Harvard[6][35][8][9]
Homayoun Zadeh[35] USC Daughter Associate professor of dentistry[35]
Robert Zangrillo[87][35] USC Daughter Dragon Global founder and CEO[87][35]
Admissions & Testing Robert Flaxman[35] USD Son Crown Realty & Development founder and CEO[35]
ACT Daughter
Elizabeth Henriquez;[35]
Manuel Henriquez[65]
Georgetown Older daughter Elizabeth Henriquez and Manuel Henriquez are married. He is Hercules Capital founder, and resigned as Chairman and CEO[65][84][35][88]
Northwestern[10][89]
ACT and SAT[10][35]
Younger daughter
Michelle Janavs[35] USC Daughter Food industry executive[35]
ACT
William McGlashan Jr.[35] USC Son Former private equity executive[90]
ACT
Testing Gregory Abbott[35] ACT and SAT Daughter International Dispensing Corp. founder and chairman and husband of Marcia Abbot[35]
Marcia Abbott[35] Wife of Gregory Abbott
Jane Buckingham[91] ACT Son Marketing executive and self-help book author[91]
Gordon Caplan[92] ACT Daughter Co-chairman of law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher; placed on leave.[92]
I-Hin "Joey" Chen[35] ACT Son Shipping and warehousing-services operator[35]
Amy Colburn[35] SAT Son Wife of Gregory Colburn[35]
Gregory Colburn[35] Radiation oncologist, husband of Amy Colburn[35][93]
Felicity Huffman[15] SAT Daughter Academy Award-nominated actress best known for her role on Desperate Housewives;[94] her husband, actor William H. Macy, has not been indicted[95]
Marjorie Klapper[35] Entrance exam Son Jewelry business co-owner[35]
Peter Jan Sartorio[35] ACT Daughter Food industry entrepreneur[35]
David Sidoo[96] SAT
Canadian high school graduation exam
Potentially resulted in admission to UC Berkeley[7]
Sons Canadian businessman and former Canadian Football League player[96]
Unindicted cooperating witness[17][18][73]
Admissions Morrie Tobin[17] Yale Daughter
  • Offered information on the case to prosecutors in exchange for leniency on his unrelated fraud charge[17][18]
  • Purportedly was asked for a bribe by Yale coach Rudy Meredith in exchange for Meredith getting Tobin's daughter admitted into Yale[17][18][71][73]
  • Tobin has not been charged or indicted in this case[17][18]
Nature of alleged fraud Parent Target of fraud Family member Description

Responses[edit]

In response to the scandal, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the chief governing body for college sports in the United States, announced plans to review the allegations "to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated".[40][97]

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), of the Senate Finance Committee, plans to sponsor a bill making donations to schools taxable if the donor has children attending or applying to the college.[98] Separately, Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) have agreed to reintroduce 2017 legislation that imposes a fine on colleges and universities that have the smallest proportion of low-income students.[98]

Actions against involved individuals[edit]

Indicted coaches were fired or suspended, or had already left the university at the time of the charges.[99] Mark Riddell, accused of taking tests on behalf of the students, has been suspended from his position as director of college entrance exam preparation at IMG Academy.[100]

The Hallmark Channel cut its ties to Lori Loughlin, star of the program Garage Sale Mystery and When Calls the Heart, after she was named as a parent in the indictments.[70] According to The Hill, Netflix decided to drop Loughlin from Fuller House as well.[101] Her youngest daughter Olivia Jade also lost her partnership with TRESemmé and the Sephora chain of beauty products.[102] It was reported by TMZ, Page Six, and others that Loughlin's daughters dropped out of USC due to fears of being "viciously bullied";[80] however, a USC spokesperson later confirmed that they both remained enrolled at the school.[70][103] On March 13, 2019, media sources reported that, when news of the scandal broke Loughlin's younger daughter was on Rick Caruso's yacht in the Bahamas with her friend, Gianna, Caruso's daughter.[104][105][106][107] Caruso is the chairman of the USC Board of Trustees.[108][109]

On March 26, 2019, Yale became the first (and so far, the only) university to rescind the admission of a student associated with the scandal.[110]

Lawsuits[edit]

Multiple lawsuits were immediately filed against universities and individuals. Three students from Tulane University, Rutgers University, and a California community college filed a complaint against Singer and the affected universities that they hope will be certified as a class-action suit.[111] A Stanford undergraduate claimed a loss for the time and money she spent applying to schools named in the scandal, as well as the possibility that the stain on Stanford’s reputation will decrease the value of her degree. A parent filed a $500 billion civil suit in San Francisco against all the indicted individuals, claiming that her son was denied admission to some schools because of other parents buying access.[112]

Commentary[edit]

After the scandal broke, multiple American news sources characterized it as a symptom of a broken college admissions system.[113][114][115][116][117][118] Alan Dershowitz, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, said it was "the worst scandal involving elite universities in the history of the United States".[119] Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator from Massachusetts (where all the criminal cases were filed), told news media that the scandal represented "just one more example of how the rich and powerful know how to take care of their own".[120]

Much news coverage was devoted to attempting to explain why anyone would have been tempted by Singer's scheme. A common attribute among the defendants was that many were rich, but not ultra rich. According to The New York Times, college admissions at certain elite American universities had become so selective that a family would have to make a minimum donation of $10 million to inspire an admission committee to take a second look at their child.[121] And even for families of such means, there would be no guarantee of return on investment, while Singer was selling certainty.[121] In open court, he said: "I created a guarantee."[121] The Los Angeles Times explained that there was probably also a social signaling element at work, in that admission to an elite university based purely upon an applicant's apparent merit publicly validates both the child's innate talent and the parents' own parenting skills in a way that an admission coinciding with a sizable donation does not.[122]

In turn, others examined why certain universities had become so selective in the first place. The Atlantic pointed out that college seats are not scarce in the United States, except at a handful of universities which became selective on purpose: "[S]carcity has the added benefit of increasing an institution’s prestige. The more students who apply, and the fewer students who get in, the more selective an institution becomes, and, subsequently, the more prestigious. And parents are clawing over one another to get a taste of the social capital that comes with that."[123] Arizona State University (ASU) president Michael M. Crow described the "crisis of access to these social-status-granting institutions" as a full-blown "hysteria".[123] It was alleged in court filings that one of the defendant parents had named ASU as a university they were specifically trying to avoid; the non-selective university has been the "butt of jokes" in American television shows for many years, as well as the 2015 film Ted 2.[124] The inevitable result, according to Newsweek, was that the most elite institutions had created a situation in which purely meritocratic admissions had become impossible because they were already turning away too many overqualified candidates—former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust had once said, "we could fill our class twice over with valedictorians."[125] It was also recognized that any workable solution would have to alleviate the underlying anxiety driving the crisis, either by restructuring the college admissions process or the American labor market.[123][125]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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