In a major college admissions scandal that laid bare the elaborate lengths some wealthy parents will go to get their children into competitive American universities, federal prosecutors charged 50 people on Tuesday in a brazen scheme to buy spots in the freshman classes at Yale, Stanford and other big name schools.
The Justice Department on Tuesday charged these parents with being part of a long-running scheme to bribe and cheat to get their kids into big-name colleges and universities.
The alleged crimes included cheating on entrance exams, as well as bribing college officials to say certain students were coming to compete on athletic teams when those students were not in fact athletes.
Thirty-three well-heeled parents were charged in the case, including Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders, and prosecutors said there could be additional indictments to come.
The parents included the television star Lori Loughlin and her husband, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli; the actress Felicity Huffman; and William E. McGlashan Jr., a partner at the private equity firm TPG, officials said.
"Operation Varsity Blues"
On Tuesday, as part of a federal investigation known internally as “Operation Varsity Blues,” government prosecutors charged a network of people with conspiring “to use bribery and other forms of fraud” to game the college admissions process.
The indictment lists a variety of deceptive tactics, including having children falsely designated as athletic recruits; bribing proctors to edit answers on standardized college-entry exams; and hiring people to pose as students to raise grade-point averages.
Some students involved in the scandal were unaware that their parents had acted on their behalf, and prosecutors from the Justice Department emphasized that the children had not been the targets of the investigation.
What actually happened?
According to the FBI investigation, parents, recruiters for college admissions and coaches have been accused of giving and receiving bribes to bag college admissions to schools and colleges that otherwise require high scores on tests such as the SAT.
Authorities said the crimes date back to 2011, and the defendants used "bribery and other forms of fraud to facilitate their children's admission" to numerous college and universities," including Georgetown, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California, and the University of California Los Angleles, among others.
One of the cooperating witnesses, according to the court documents, is a former head coach of Yale's women's soccer team, who pleaded guilty in the case nearly a year ago and has since been helping FBI agents gather evidence.
Some of the 33 defendants are accused of bribing college entrance exam administrators to facilitate cheating on tests - by having a smarter student take the test, or providing students with answers to exams or correcting their answers after they had completed the exams, according to the criminal complaint filed in federal court.
High-profile 'acceptances' at USC
Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were among the wealthy parents accused Tuesday of cheating or paying bribes to get their children into elite universities.
Ms. Giannulli, 19, is the daughter of the actress Lori Loughlin and the designer Mossimo Giannulli, whose fashion brand was sold at Target until 2017. Ms. Giannulli is a social media influencer with close to two million YouTube subscribers and over a million Instagram followers. In September, she posted two paid advertisements on Instagram that highlighted her identity as a student.
Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were accused of paying $500,000 in bribes so their two daughters would be designated as recruits for the University of Southern California crew team - even though they were not part of the team.
That helped the pair get into USC, according to the complaint. Some of the money was directed to Donna Heinel, a USC athletics official, and others to the foundation. In a statement, USC officials said the school is cooperating with the federal investigation and has launched its own review. "We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university," the statement says. "USC is conducting an internal investigation and will take employment actions as appropriate. USC is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme. Additionally, the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward."
The legitimacy of Ms. Giannulli's college acceptance has been called into question as a result, along with that of a number of others.
According to the criminal complaint, Huffman reportedly paid US $15,000 (Dh55,050) to doctor the college entrance exam for her oldest daughter. The amount was allegedly disguised as a charitable donation to the Key Worldwide Foundation.
For Huffman’s daughter, the plan was that she would take the SAT not at her school but at a "controlled" testing center, where there would be a special proctor to administer the exam. BuzzFeed News reported that according to the agreed-upon plan detailed in the affidavit, the proctor would then correct the answers after the test without her daughter's knowledge. Her daughter ended up scoring a 1,420 - 400 points higher than she had gotten on a PSAT taken a year earlier, according to court documents.
Huffman allegedly also discussed carrying out the scam a second time with her younger daughter but later decided not to go through with it.
Olivia Jade: The Influencer using her time in college to make money
In a paid post for Prime Student, Amazon’s paid membership program for college students, Ms. Giannulli posed sitting on a bed, with the caption “Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it. I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.” (In a YouTube video posted in early September, Ms. Giannulli said that Amazon had “hooked me up with like, everything in my dorm.”
In another post, an advertisement for Smile Direct Club, a company that sells dental aligners, Ms. Giannulli wrote: “For back-to-school season, I’ve been using a doctor-directed, at-home invisible aligner treatment.”
The fall semester at her school began on Aug. 20; a day later, Ms. Giannulli announced on Twitter that she had just arrived in Fiji. In a YouTube video, she said that she had gone for work.
Ms. Giannulli’s parents were described in the investigation as having paid multiple bribes amounting to $500,000 in order to have Olivia and her sister, Isabella, listed as recruits for the university’s crew team. (Neither participated in crew; both are influencers.) Ms. Giannulli is not mentioned by name in the indictment.
Ms. Giannulli has made sponsored content for numerous brands, including Sephora, Too Faced and TRESemmé. She has posted on Instagram in partnership with Sephora since at least 2016. More recently, Ms. Giannulli released a $28 bronzer and illuminator palette with Sephora Collection, the company’s in-house brand. Sephora did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, the University of Southern California said that it was cooperating with the government’s investigation and that the scheme appeared to have been “carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university.”
Ms. Giannulli has been a public presence for several years, thanks to her frequent social media posting. She was criticized in August after posting a video with the title “basically all the tea you need to know about me (boys, college, youtubers)” in which she said that she was only going to college for “gamedays, partying.”
“I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know,” she said.
At the same time, the new student embraced aspects of life on campus. In a video tour of her dorm room, she said that while she would still make the videos that were familiar to her fans, she would also make more videos about being in college. “I do have the opportunity to, since I’m in college now,” she said.
After the indictment became public on Tuesday, commenters bombarded Ms. Giannulli’s Instagram page with criticism related to the scandal.
“Your mom really paid for you to get into college and get someone to do your sat when there’s people out there that work so hard to get into college you are an embarrassment,” one commenter said.
Ms. Giannulli is one of a number of celebrity offspring who have lived out their teenage years on social media. In the video for which she was criticized, she described how the dissolution of a romantic relationship had been particularly difficult because people would send her tweets, Instagram posts and Snapchats of her ex with other young women.
Ms. Giannulli has not yet released a comment and her agent did not immediately reply when contacted.
What USC said
In a statement, USC officials said the school is cooperating with the federal investigation and has launched its own review.
"We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university," the statement says.
"USC is conducting an internal investigation and will take employment actions as appropriate. USC is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme. Additionally, the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward."
Who was the ringleader?
William “Rick” Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, California, was the ringleader of the operation, funneling money through a “charity” he had established called the Key Worldwide Foundation. The US District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts charged Singer with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. He pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon – NBC News reported.
According to the FBI, in exchange for the bribes paid to and through Singer, the test administrators would allow Mark Riddell, a counselor at a private school, to secretly take the exams for the students or correct their answers after the test – in many cases without the students’ knowledge.
"I am absolutely responsible for it," Singer reportedly told a federal judge Tuesday. "I put everything in place. I put all the people in place and made the payments directly."
Details about the scandal
Others allegedly bribed university athletic coaches and administrators to designate applicants as "purported athletic recruits - regardless of their athletic abilities, and in some cases, even though they did not play the sport they were purportedly recruited to play - thereby facilitating their admission to universities in place of more qualified applicants," the complaint charges.
Defendants include William McGlashan, CEO and founder of a private equity firm, and Jane Buckingham, CEO of a boutique marketing firm in Los Angeles. Investigators allege the scheme was run largely through Key Worldwide Foundation, which ostensibly was a nonprofit, but according to the FBI, was really a conduit for bribing college employees to get rich kids into elite schools.
Last June, Buckingham agreed to make a "donation" to KWF of $50,000, in exchange for someone taking a college entrance test on her son's behalf the following month, authorities say. The FBI secretly recorded Buckingham talking to one of the people arranging the test for her son. On the tape, according to the complaint, Buckingham talks about the complicated logistics of cheating on the test and said, "I know this is craziness, I know it is. And then I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer."
Everyone involved: The Chain
At the center of the scandal are the Edge College & Career Network, also known as the Key, and a nonprofit organization, the Key Worldwide Foundation, that prosecutors say effectively were a single enterprise. They are accused of helping students cheat on standardized tests, and paying bribes to athletic coaches who could get the students into college using fake athletic credentials.
- William Rick Singer, owner of the Edge College & Career Network, and chief executive of the Key Worldwide Foundation
- Steven Masera, an accountant and financial officer for the two entities
- Mikaela Sanford, an employee who held several roles and is accused of taking classes for high school students
Federal prosecutors accused dozens of parents of paying millions of dollars in bribes to help their children secure spots at prestigious American universities.
Gamal Abdelaziz, a senior executive of a resort and casino operator
Gregory and Marcia Abbott. Gregory is the founder and chairman of a packaging company for the food and beverage industry, and the former head of a private-label clothing manufacturer
Diane Blake, an executive at a retail merchandising firm, and Todd Blake, entrepreneur and investor
Jane Buckingham, chief executive of a boutique marketing company
Gordon Caplan, a lawyer and a co-chairman of the international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher
I-Hsin “Joey” Chen, a provider of warehousing and related services for the shipping industry
Amy and Gregory Colburn. Gregory is a physician.
Robert Flaxman, chief executive of a Los Angeles-based real estate development firm
Mossimo Giannulli, fashion designer, and Lori Loughlin, actress
Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez. Manuel is the founder, chairman and chief executive of a specialty finance company.
Douglas Hodge, former chief executive of Pimco, one of the world’s biggest bond fund managers
Felicity Huffman, actress
Agustin Huneeus, owner of vineyards in Napa, Calif.
Bruce and Davina Isackson. Bruce is the president of a real estate development firm.
Michelle Janavs, a former executive of a food manufacturer
Elisabeth Kimmel, owner of a media company
Marjorie Klapper, co-owner of a jewelry business
Toby MacFarlane, a former senior executive at a title insurance company
William E. McGlashan Jr., a senior executive at TPG, one of the world’s biggest private equity firms
Marci Palatella, chief executive of a liquor distributor
Peter Jan “P.J.” Sartorio, a packaged-food entrepreneur
Stephen Semprevivo, an executive at an outsourcing company
Devin Sloane, founder and chief executive of a drinking water and wastewater systems business
John Wilson, founder and chief executive of a private-equity and real estate development firm
Homayoun Zadeh, an associate professor of dentistry at U.S.C.
Robert Zangrillo, founder and chief executive of a Miami-based venture capital and real estate firm
The Athletic Coaches
Athletic coaches from top colleges were also implicated and accused of accepting millions of dollars to help students gain admission.
Michael Center, head coach of men’s tennis at University of Texas at Austin
Gordon Ernst, former head coach of men’s and women’s tennis at Georgetown
William Ferguson, women’s volleyball coach at Wake Forest
Donna Heinel, senior associate athletic director at U.S.C.
Laura Janke, former assistant coach of women’s soccer at U.S.C.
Ali Khosroshahin, former head coach of women’s soccer at U.S.C.
Rudolph Meredith, former head coach of women’s soccer at Yale
Jorge Salcedo, former head coach of men’s soccer at University of California, Los Angeles
John Vandemoer, former sailing coach at Stanford
Jovan Vavic, former water polo coach at U.S.C.
The Other Players
Teachers, test administrators and private instructors are named as co-conspirators in the federal charging documents.
Igor Dvorskiy, test administrator for the College Board and A.C.T., accused of accepting bribes to facilitate the cheating scheme at the West Hollywood Test Center
Niki Williams, assistant teacher at a public high school in Houston and a test administrator for the College Board and A.C.T. who is accused of accepting bribes
Mark Riddell, a test proctor accused of tampering with students’ test papers to improve scores, and of secretly taking exams in place of students
Martin Fox, president of a private tennis academy and camp in Houston, accused of acting as a middleman for bribe payments