“Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman and fellow Hollywood actress Lori Loughlin are among dozens indicted in a $25m scam to help their children cheat their way into top US universities.
The fraud scheme was run out of a small college preparation company in Newport Beach, California, that relied on bribes to sports coaches, phoney test takers and even doctored photos to land college slots, US prosecutors said on Tuesday.
The authorities said the scheme began in 2011 and helped children get into Yale University, the University of Southern California (USC), the University of Texas, Georgetown University, Wake Forest University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
William “Rick” Singer, 58, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges related to running the scheme through his Edge College & Career Network, which charged from $100,000 to as much as $2.5m per child for the services, which were masked as contributions to a fake charity Singer runs.
“I was essentially buying or bribing the coaches for a spot,” Singer said as he pleaded guilty to charges including racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. “And that occurred very frequently.”
John Vandemoer, a former Stanford University sailing coach who worked with Singer, also pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy.
Huffman was in custody in Los Angeles, along with 11 others. Her husband, actor William H Macy, paid bail and she was released from custody.
Loughlin, of “Full House” fame, has not been arrested, but she’s being sought by authorities, according to FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller.
About 300 law enforcement agents swept across the country to make arrests in what agents code-named Operation Varsity Blues.
Prosecutors have so far named 33 parents, 13 coaches, and associates of Singer’s business.
Other parents charged include Manuel Henriquez, chief executive of specialty finance lender Hercules Capital; Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher; Bill McGlashan Jr, who heads a buyout investment arm of private equity firm TPG Capital; and Douglas Hodge, former CEO of the investment management firm Pimco.
Loughlin’s husband, clothing company founder Mossimo Giannulli, was also charged in the scheme.
The alleged masterminds of the scam and the parents who paid into it could all face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Part of the scheme involved advising parents to lie to test administrators and claim that their child had learning disabilities to allow them extra exam time.
The parents were then advised to choose one of two test centres that Singer’s company said it had control over: one in Houston, Texas, and the other in West Hollywood, California.
Test administrators in those centres took bribes of tens of thousands of dollars to allow Singer’s clients to cheat, often by arranging to have wrong answers corrected or having another person take the exam. Singer would agree with parents beforehand roughly what score they wanted the child to get.
In many cases, the students were not aware that their parents had arranged for the cheating, prosecutors said, although in other cases they knowingly took part. None of the children were charged on Tuesday.
Singer also helped parents stage photographs of their children playing sports or even Photoshopped children’s faces onto images of athletes downloaded from the internet to exaggerate their athletic credentials.
Prosecutors said it was up to the universities to decide what to do with students admitted through cheating.