Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among dozens of wealthy parents, elite college coaches and college prep executives accused of carrying out a national conspiracy to get students into prestigious colleges, according to a massive federal indictment.
Federal prosecutors said the scheme had two major pieces. In the first part, parents allegedly paid a college prep organization to take the test on behalf of students or to correct their answers. Second, the organization allegedly bribed college coaches to help admit the students into college as recruited athletes, regardless of their actual abilities, prosecutors said.
The documents also allege that some defendants created fake athletic profiles for students to make them appear to be successful athletes.
In all, 50 people were charged in the criminal investigation that went by the name “Operation Varsity Blues.” Those arrested include two SAT/ACT administrators, one exam proctor, nine coaches at elite schools, one college administrator and 33 parents, according to Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts.
The parents, Lelling said, were a “catalog of wealth and privilege,” including actors, CEOs, a fashion designer and the co-chairman of a global law firm.
“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”
Athletic coaches from Yale, Stanford, the University of Southern California, Wake Forest and Georgetown, among others, are implicated in the case. The extensive case involved arrests in six states across the country, and accused the defendants of committing crimes between 2011 and 2019.
“The charges brought forth today are troubling and should be a concern for all of higher education,” the NCAA said in a statement. “We are looking into these allegations to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated.”
Actresses are allegedly on tape discussing scheme
Huffman, an Academy Award nominee, has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, according to court paperwork filed Monday in federal court in Massachusetts. A law enforcement source confirms to CNN that the actress has been arrested in Los Angeles.
Huffman, best known for her role on TV’s “Desperate Housewives,” is accused of paying $15,000 to an organization that then facilitated cheating for her daughter on the SATs, the indictment said. Huffman also discussed the scheme in a recorded phone call with a cooperating witness, the indictment said.
Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky on “Full House,” is facing the same felony charge — conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, was also charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
Giannulli allegedly “agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000” in exchange for having the couple’s two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team despite the fact that they did not participate in crew, a complaint said.
The complaint includes emails between a cooperating witness and Giannulli in which the two discussed a “game plan” for his older daughter whose academic qualifications were at or below the “low-end of USC’s admission standards.”
Loughlin also wrote at least one email discussing their younger daughter and her admission, according to the complaint.
Giannulli and Loughlin were recorded on calls with a cooperating witness discussing an Internal Revenue Service audit being done on the business involved in the scam and that if ever asked, Loughlin would say they made a donation to the foundation, “end of story,” the complaint said.
CNN has contacted Iconix Brand Group, which owns Mossimo’s namesake fashion company. CNN is also working to get comment from the actresses’ representatives.
How the alleged scheme worked
Much of the indictment revolves around William Rick Singer, the founder of a for-profit college counseling and preparation business known as “The Key.”
As laid out in the indictment, Singer and his organization allegedly helped students score better on the ACT or SAT tests by cheating on the test.
He also is accused of bribing college coaches to claim that a prospective student should be accepted to college because the student was a recruit for their sports team. However, Singer and the coaches knew that the student was not a competitive player and that his or her athletic profile was fake, the indictment said.
“Okay, so, who we are … what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school,” Singer told one parent, according to prosecutors.
For example, prosecutors said Singer and his co-conspirators used stock photos of a person playing a sport and then put the face of a student onto that image via Photoshop, prosecutors said.
Singer was paid roughly $25 million by parents to help their children get in to schools, the US attorney said.
In another example, the indictment alleges that he and his co-conspirators paid $250,000 to a bank account at USC that funded the water polo team. In exchange for those payments, USC’s water polo coach designated two students as recruits for the team and facilitated their admission to USC, the indictment said.
Singer has been charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice, prosecutors said. He was scheduled to plead guilty Tuesday afternoon, the Justice Department said.
In the wake of the unsealed indictments, several universities said they were suspending coaches named in the case.
Wake Forest said it has placed head volleyball coach Bill Ferguson on administrative leave and has retained outside legal counsel to look into this matter.
The University of Texas said it placed men’s tennis coach Michael Center on administrative leave and is cooperating with the investigation.
USC said it is conducting an internal investigation into the case and said that certain individuals “went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university.”