2019 college admissions bribery scandal
The 2019 college admissions bribery scandal, nicknamed Operation Varsity Blues, exposed a criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions decisions at several top American universities. It was disclosed on March 12, 2019, by United States federal prosecutors, and at least 50 people are alleged to have been part of it, a number of whom have pled guilty or agreed to plead guilty. Thirty-three parents of college applicants are accused of paying more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to William Rick Singer, organizer of the scheme, who used part of the money to fraudulently inflate entrance exam test scores and bribe college officials.
|Venue||United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts|
|Also known as||Operation Varsity Blues|
|Organized by||William Rick Singer via|
|Charges||Felony conspiracy to commit:|
Singer controlled the two firms involved in the scheme, Key Worldwide Foundation and The Edge College & Career Network (also known as "The Key"). He pled guilty and cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in gathering incriminating evidence against co-conspirators. He said he unethically facilitated college admission for children in more than 750 families. Singer faces up to 65 years in prison, and a fine of $1.25 million.
Prosecutors in the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, led by United States Attorney Andrew Lelling, unsealed indictments and complaints for felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud against 50 people, including Singer, university staff he bribed, and parents who are alleged to have used bribery and fraud to secure admission for their children to 11 universities. Among the accused parents are prominent business-people and well-known actors. Those charges have a maximum term of 20 years in prison, supervised release of three years, and a $250,000 fine. One month later, 16 of the parents were also indicted by prosecutors for alleged felony conspiracy to commit money laundering. This third charge has a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, supervised release of three years, and a $500,000 fine.
Discovery and chargesEdit
The FBI alleged that beginning in 2011, 33 parents of high school students conspired with other people to use bribery and other forms of fraud to illegally arrange to have their children admitted to top colleges and universities. Authorities became aware of the scheme around April 2018 when Los Angeles businessman Morrie Tobin, who was under investigation in an unrelated case for alleged pump-and-dump conspiracy and securities fraud, offered information in exchange for leniency in the previously existing, unrelated case. An alumnus of Yale, he told authorities that the Yale women's soccer head coach, Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith, had asked him for $450,000 in exchange for helping his youngest daughter gain admission to the school. As part of his cooperation with the FBI, 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. Meredith pled guilty as part of his cooperation with the prosecution. Tobin has not been charged in this case, but in February 2019 he pled guilty in the unrelated securities fraud case. US sentencing guidelines, which judges often refer to when deciding sentences, call for between eight and ten years behind bars. According to The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, and CBS, prosecutors are recommending 36 months of supervised release. In addition, Tobin has agreed to forfeit $4 million as part of his plea deal. Tobin is scheduled for sentencing at a hearing in June.
On March 12, 2019, federal prosecutors in Boston unsealed a criminal complaint charging 50 people with conspiracy to commit felony mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in violation of Title 18 United States Code, Section 1349. Those charges have a maximum term of 20 years in prison, supervised release of three years, and a $250,000 fine. The charges were announced by Andrew Lelling, United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric Rosen, Justin O’Connell, Leslie Wright, and Kristen Kearney of the securities and financial fraud unit are prosecuting the case. FBI special agent Laura Smith signed the 204-page affidavit in support of the charges.
On April 9, 16 of the original 33 charged parents (i.e., Lori Loughlin, her husband Mossimo Giannulli, Gamal Aziz, Douglas M. Hodge, Bill McGlashan, Diane and Todd Blake, I-Hsin "Joey" Chen, Michelle Janavs, Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez, Elisabeth Kimmel, Marci Palatella, John Wilson, Homayoun Zadeh, and Robert Zangrillo), who had not pled guilty to the original charges, were additionally charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering by federal prosecutors in Boston in a superseding indictment. The indictment added those defendants to an existing case against David Sidoo, another of the 33 parents, that was already pending before Judge Nathaniel Gorton. The indictment alleged that the parents engaged in a conspiracy to launder bribes paid to Singer "by funneling them through Singer's purported charity and his for-profit corporation." This third charge has a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, supervised release of three years, and a $500,000 fine.
Federal prosecutors alleged a college-admission scheme that involved:
- bribing exam administrators to facilitate cheating on college and university entrance exams;
- bribing coaches and administrators of elite universities to nominate unqualified applicants as elite recruited athletes, thus facilitating the applicants' admission;
- using a charitable organization to conceal the source and nature of laundered bribery payments.
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 illegally arrange to have 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.
Methods of fraudulent admissionEdit
Singer primarily used two fraudulent techniques to help clients' children gain admission to elite universities: cheating on college entrance exams and fabrication of elite sports credentials.
Cheating on college entrance examsEdit
Singer arranged to allow clients' children to cheat on the SAT or ACT college admission tests. Singer worked with psychologists to complete the detailed paperwork required to falsely certify clients' children as having a learning disability; this in turn gave them access to accommodations, such as extra time, while taking the tests. Singer said he could obtain a falsified disability report from a psychologist for $4,000 to $5,000, 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 arrange to have their children's test locations 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 Singer could have complete control over the testing process.
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. 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 who took over two dozen exams; he pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud and one count of money laundering, and agreed to cooperate with investigators. Prosecutors said he was paid $10,000 per test, and the government is seeking to recover almost $450,000 from him in forfeiture. Riddell did not have advance access to the test papers, but was described as "just a really smart guy". He could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, but reportedly prosecutors said that because of his cooperation they will instead likely recommend 33 months imprisonment at his July 18 sentencing hearing.
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.
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 (USC). Portions of recorded conversations between Buckingham and a cooperating witness were included in the FBI's affidavit.
Fabrication of sports credentialsEdit
Singer also bribed college athletics staff and coaches. At certain colleges, these personnel can submit a certain number of sports recruit names to the admissions office, which then views 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 to insert a photograph of a student's face onto a photograph of another person participating in the sport to document purported athletic activity.
In one such incident, Michael Center, the men's tennis coach at the University of Texas (UT), accepted about $100,000 to designate an applicant as a recruit for the Texas Longhorns tennis team. A similar fraud occurred at Yale, 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. 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. They were indicted alongside former USC women's soccer coaches Ali Khosroshahin and Laura Janke. Coaches at two other Pac-12 programs, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) men's soccer coach Jorge Salcedo and Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, also allegedly accepted bribes. Vandemoer admitted that he accepted $270,000 to classify two applicants as prospective sailors, and agreed to plead guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy. At Wake Forest, head volleyball coach William "Bill" Ferguson was placed on administrative leave following charges of racketeering. 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. On March 20, 2019, the University of San Diego (USD) revealed that its former men's basketball head coach Lamont Smith allegedly accepted bribes. Hours after that revelation, Smith resigned from his position as assistant coach at the University of Texas at El Paso. Two San Diego families were accused of paying $875,000 as part of the scheme.
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. Similarly, Marci Palatella, wife of former San Francisco 49ers player Lou Palatella, allegedly conspired with Singer to pass her son off as a long snapper recruit for USC. 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 of Mossimo fashion, allegedly paid $500,000 in bribes to arrange to have their two daughters accepted into USC as members of the rowing team, although neither girl had participated in the sport. 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. Caruso is the chairman of the USC Board of Trustees.
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 for alerting a number of subjects to the investigation after he began cooperating with the government. He faces up to 65 years in prison and a fine of $1.25 million.
Involved parties and organizationsEdit
A total of 50 people have been charged in the investigations. This number includes 33 parents of college applicants and 11 named collegiate coaches or athletic administrators from eight universities. Three additional universities are involved, but no staff members from those schools have been directly named or implicated.
Key Worldwide Foundation / The Edge College & Career NetworkEdit
- William Rick Singer, purported college counselor, and author of self-help books for college admission. Singer organized and sold fraudulent college admission services. Singer pled guilty and cooperated with the prosecution.
- Mark Riddell, a Harvard alumnus and former director of college entrance exams at IMG Academy. Riddell was paid by Singer to fraudulently take admission tests, impersonating the clients' children; he also paid College Board (which develops and administers the SAT and related tests), Educational Testing Service, and ACT contractors to deliberately mis-administer the tests. He was fired from IMG Academy and pled guilty.
- Steven Masera, officer at Singer's companies.
- Mikaela Sanford, employee at Singer's companies.
Other involved co-conspiratorsEdit
- Igor Dvorskiy, administrator of standardized tests (including those from ACT and the College Board), and director of an LA-area private school.
- Martin Fox, Houston tennis academy president.
- Niki Williams, administrator of standardized tests for ACT and College Board, Houston-area assistant high school teacher.
Universities and accused personnelEdit
|University||Athletic program||Indicted personnel||Sport||Details|
|Georgetown University||Hoyas||Gordon "Gordie" Ernst||Men's and women's tennis||Former men's and women's tennis coach|
|Harvard University||Crimson||N/A||No staff members have been directly named or implicated.|
|Northwestern University||Wildcats||N/A||No staff members have been directly named or implicated.|
|Stanford University||Cardinal||John Vandemoer||Sailing||Former sailing coach, pled guilty, fired|
|University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley)||Golden Bears||N/A||No staff members have been directly named or implicated.|
|University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)||Bruins||Jorge Salcedo||Men's soccer||Former men's soccer head coach and former Major League Soccer player, placed on leave, then resigned|
|University of San Diego (USD)||Toreros||Lamont Smith||Men's basketball||Former men's basketball head coach|
|University of Southern California (USC)||Trojans||Donna Heinel||Multiple||Former senior associate athletic director, fired|
|Laura Janke||Women's soccer||Former women's soccer coach; agreed to plead guilty.|
|Ali Khosroshahin||Former women's soccer head coach|
|Jovan Vavic||Men's and women's water polo||Former men's and women's water polo coach, fired|
|University of Texas at Austin (UT)||Longhorns||Michael Center||Men's tennis||Former men's tennis head coach, fired, agreed to plead guilty.|
|Wake Forest University||Demon Deacons||William "Bill" Ferguson||Volleyball||Volleyball coach, placed on academic leave|
|Yale University||Bulldogs||Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith||Women's soccer||Former women's soccer coach, pled guilty, cooperated with the prosecution and led prosecutors to Singer|
|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.
Officials said Singer had many legitimate clients, who did not engage in any fraud. Singer cited famous clients on his Facebook page while promoting his 2014 book Getting In and, as a result of this and other public endorsements by Singer, many former clients have made statements to distance themselves and their children from any perceived involvement in the scandal.
The table below lists the 33 parents directly involved in the scheme as listed by CNN, CBS News, and People. Morrie Tobin would be the 34th parent, but is not included in the above total due to the fact that he is an unindicted cooperating witness supporting the prosecution's case. Thirteen of the 33 parents have, to date, agreed to plead guilty.
|Admissions||Gamal Aziz||USC||Daughter||Former President and COO of Wynn Resorts and former CEO of MGM Resorts International|
|Diane Blake||USC||Daughter||Wife of Todd Blake|
|Todd Blake||Entrepreneur and investor, husband of Diane Blake|
|Mossimo Giannulli||USC||Two daughters
||Founder and fashion designer at Mossimo|
|Lori Loughlin||Actress best known for her role on Full House|
|Douglas M. Hodge||USC||Children||Former CEO of PIMCO|
|Agustin Huneeus Jr.||USC||Daughter||Napa Valley vineyard owner; pled guilty May 21, 2019.|
|Davina Isackson||UCLA||Daughter||Wife of Bruce Isackson; agreed to plead guilty.|
|Bruce Isackson||Real estate development executive, husband of Davina; agreed to plead guilty.|
|Elisabeth Kimmel||Georgetown||Daughter||Media businesswoman and former owner of KFMB Stations|
|Toby MacFarlane||USC||Daughter||Title insurance executive; agreed to plead guilty.|
|Marci Palatella||USC||Son||Distillery owner; her husband, former San Francisco 49ers guard Lou Palatella, has not been indicted|
|Stephen Semprevivo||Georgetown||Son||Sales executive; agreed to plead guilty.|
|Devin Sloane||USC||Son||CEO and founder of a water infrastructure company; agreed to plead guilty.|
|John Wilson||USC||Son||Private equity and real estate development CEO|
|Homayoun Zadeh||USC||Daughter||Associate professor of dentistry|
|Robert Zangrillo||USC||Daughter||Dragon Global founder and CEO|
|Admissions & Testing||Robert Flaxman||USD||Son||Crown Realty & Development founder and CEO; agreed to plead guilty.|
|Georgetown||Older daughter||Elizabeth Henriquez and Manuel Henriquez are married. He is Hercules Capital founder, and resigned as Chairman and CEO.|
ACT and SAT
|Michelle Janavs||USC||Daughter||Food industry executive|
|Bill McGlashan||USC||Son||Former managing partner and founder of TPG Capital, fired by TPG|
|Testing||Gregory Abbott||ACT and SAT||Daughter||International Dispensing Corp. founder and chairman and husband of Marcia Abbot; agreed to plead guilty.|
|Marcia Abbott||Wife of Gregory Abbott; agreed to plead guilty.|
|Jane Buckingham||ACT||Son||Marketing executive and self-help book author, agreed to plead guilty.|
|Gordon Caplan||ACT||Daughter||Co-chairman of law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher; placed on leave, pled guilty May 21, 2019.|
|I-Hin "Joey" Chen||ACT||Son||Shipping and warehousing-services operator|
|Amy Colburn||SAT||Son||Wife of Gregory Colburn|
|Gregory Colburn||Radiation oncologist, husband of Amy Colburn|
|Felicity Huffman||SAT||Daughter||Academy Award-nominated actress best known for her role on Desperate Housewives; On May 13, 2019, Felicity Huffman pled guilty to honest services fraud.|
|Marjorie Klapper||Entrance exam||Son||Jewelry business co-owner; agreed to plead guilty.|
|Peter Jan Sartorio||ACT||Daughter||Food industry entrepreneur; agreed to plead guilty.|
Canadian high school graduation exam
Potentially resulted in admission to UC Berkeley
|Sons||Canadian businessman and former Canadian Football League player|
|Unindicted cooperating witness|
|Admissions||Morrie Tobin||Yale||Youngest daughter|
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".
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. 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.
Indicted coaches were fired or suspended, or had already left the university at the time of the charges. Mark Riddell, who took tests on behalf of the students, was suspended from his position as director of college entrance exam preparation at IMG Academy and fired a week later.
On March 26, 2019, Yale became the first university to rescind the admission of a student associated with the scandal. On April 2, Stanford announced they also expelled a student connected to the fraud.
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. According to The Hill, Netflix decided to drop Loughlin from Fuller House as well. Her youngest daughter Olivia Jade also lost her partnership with TRESemmé and the Sephora chain of beauty products. It was reported by TMZ, Page Six, and others that Loughlin's daughters dropped out of USC due to fears of being "viciously bullied"; however, a USC spokesperson later confirmed that they both remained enrolled at the school. According to the San Jose Mercury News, USC scheduled a hearing in March 2019 to determine if Olivia Jade should be designated a "disruptive individual", which would result in her lifetime ban from the university's campus and properties.
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. 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.
After the scandal broke, multiple American news sources including The Atlantic, Vox, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times characterized it as a symptom of a broken college admissions system. Alan Dershowitz, professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, said it was "the worst scandal involving elite universities in the history of the United States". 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".
Much of the news coverage attempted 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. And even for families of such means, there would be no guarantee of return on investment, while Singer was selling certainty. In open court, he said: "I created a guarantee." 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.
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." Arizona State University (ASU) president Michael M. Crow described the "crisis of access to these social-status-granting institutions" as a full-blown "hysteria". 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. 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." It was also recognized that any workable long-term solution would need to alleviate the underlying anxiety driving the crisis, either by restructuring the college admissions process or the American labor market.
HuffPost explained that such anxiety barely exists in Canada, whose four-year universities do not show such extreme disparities in selectivity and prestige, and in turn, most Canadian employers do not rigidly discriminate between job candidates based upon where they graduated. In contrast, selective American universities have evolved into gatekeepers for the highest echelons of certain socially prestigious and financially lucrative industries like law and finance. University of Oklahoma history professor Wilfred M. McClay told Newsweek: "I’m not going to pretend there isn’t a difference between Harvard and Suffolk County Community College, but I think this situation where the Supreme Court is made up entirely of Harvard or Yale Law School graduates is wrong. The thing driving the current scandal seems to be that ultimately parents were willing to do anything to game the system to get their kids these advantages, not because the education was better but because the legitimation of social position would be better.”
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According to the FBI, he would fly in, take the test for students in a hotel room, or sneak them the correct answers in the exam room, or inflate their scores when they finished. Sometimes he would be given a sample of the teen's handwriting so he could copy it. Riddell did not know the questions in advance, according to Andrew Lelling, US attorney for the District of Massachusetts. He was "just a really smart guy".
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- District Court dockets:
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