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Everything You Need to Know About How the College Admissions Scheme Worked

The Justice Department announced on Tuesday, March 12, dozens of charges related to a massive college admissions bribery scheme involving Hollywood actresses and a slew of chief executives, with a total of 50 people charged in what is the largest college cheating scam ever prosecuted by the department.

Those indicted in the investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” reportedly paid bribes of up to $6.5 million to get their children into elite colleges, including Stanford, University of Southern California (USC), Yale and Georgetown. According to The Huffington Post, documents describe a scheme in which parents paid to help their children cheat on college entrance exams or bribe college athletic recruiters.

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said when announcing the charges at a press conference. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy and, I’ll add, there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

Indictments in the College Admissions Scheme

According to Lelling, the ringleader of the college admissions scam is William Singer, owner of a charity called Key Worldwide Foundation and a company called Edge College & Career Network. Between 2011 and 2018, Singer reportedly accepted $25 million in bribes from parents to “guarantee their children’s admission to elite schools.”

Singer, who was indicted on money laundering, racketeering, fraud and obstruction of justice charges, plead guilty on Tuesday in a Boston federal court, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

According to ABC News, others who worked closely with Singer to facilitate the scam include: Steven Masera the accountant and financial officer for the Edge College & Career Network and the Key Worldwide Foundation; Mark Riddell, a private school counselor; Mikaela Sanford, an employee of the Edge College & Career Network and the Key Worldwide Foundation; and David Sidoo.

Singer allegedly bribed administrators of college entrance exams to allow other individuals to pose as the students or correct their answers after finishing their exam. He also allegedly instructed parents on how to secure extra testing time for their children or how to obtain medical documentation that their children had a learning disability, according to the indictment. Parents were instructed to take their children to one of two testing centers, one in Houston and one in West Hollywood, California, where test administrators Niki Williams and Igor Dvorskiy helped to carry out the scam.

The indictment stated that Riddell took college entrance exams for students whose parents had paid Singer. In return, Singer allegedly paid Riddell “$10,000 for each student’s test.”

Those charged in the admissions scheme included nine coaches at elite universities, two college admissions exam administrators, one exam proctor, a college administrator and 33 parents, including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

Fake Athletic Credentials Were Created for the Students

According to The San Francisco Chronicle, college applications with fake awards and athletic activities were submitted by the students.

Singer allegedly bribed college coaches that “agreed to pretend that certain applicants were recruited competitive athletes when, in fact, the applicants were not.”

Lelling said the coaches allegedly “knew the students’ athletic credentials had been fabricated,” and that Singer worked with the parents to “fabricate profiles for their kids, including fake athletic credential and honors, or fake participation in elite club teams,” going as far as to stage photos or Photoshopped photos of the students playing in sports.

According to HuffPost, Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to get their two daughters into USC by having them “designated as recruits to the USC crew team — despite the fact that they did not participate in crew.”

Singer and his company created a fake athlete profile for their younger daughter to falsely present her as a crew coxswain for the L.A. Marina Club team. The couple also sent an “Action Picture” of their daughter on an ergometer to create the appearance that she was a rower.

Bribes Were Disguised As Charitable Contributions

Stanford University’s head sailing coach, John Vandemoer, who plead guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy, reportedly agreed to designate a child of one of Singer’s clients as a sailing team recruit in exchange for a payment made to the team, The San Francisco Chronicle reports. Singer, along with his co-conspirators, then created a artificial student athlete profile so the student appeared to be a competitive sailor.

Singer paid $110,000 from the foundation to the Stanford sailing program.

When the student ultimately decided not to attend the university, Vandemoer agreed to keep the spot open for another student in exchange for $500,000 for the program. Again, Singer and his team created another fraudulent profile, but the student didn’t apply to Stanford. Singer paid another $160,000 from the foundation to the sailing program as a “deposit” for a future student.

In another case highlighted prosecutors, former Yale University head women’s soccer coach, Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, was paid $400,000 to accept a student despite the fact that the student did not play the sport. According to ABC News, the parents had allegedly paid Singer $1.2 million.

Huffman was indicted on charges stemming from a $15,000 she allegedly disguised as a charitable donation so her oldest daughter could participate in the college admissions cheating scheme. According to the charging paper, Huffman “made a purported charitable contribution of $15,000 … to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme on behalf of her eldest daughter.”

Her husband, actor William H. Macy, was not indicted, but, Huffman and Macy were caught on a recorded conversation with a corroborating witness in the case, allegedly discussing the $15,000 payment, HuffPost reports.

“Huffman later made arrangements to pursue the scheme a second time, for her younger daughter, before deciding not to do so,” court documents said.

“Today’s arrests should be a warning to others: You can’t pay to play, you can’t cheat to get ahead because you will get caught,” Joe Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Field Office, said.

Emily has also authored political articles for Restless Magazine and numerous inspirational and empowering pieces for Project Wednesday. When she isn't writing, she can be found flying off to her next adventure, attempting new recipes, listening to one of her infinite playlists on Spotify, or cuddling with her dogs. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @emilycveith.