Hollywood stars among dozens charged over US college bribery scam

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Hollywood stars among dozens charged over US college bribery scam

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Updated

March 13, 2019 11:00:30

Federal authorities have arrested dozens of people over a $US25 million ($35 million) scheme to help wealthy Americans, including Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman and Full House actress Lori Loughlin, cheat their children’s way into elite universities, such as Yale and Stanford.

Key points:

  • Test administrators allegedly took bribes to allow clients to cheat, including correcting wrong test answers
  • In some cases, the faces of children were Photoshopped onto images of athletes to exaggerate athletic credentials
  • Prosecutors have named 33 parents and 13 coaches so far, but more could be charged

The largest college admissions fraud scam unearthed in US history was run out of a small college preparation company in Newport Beach, California, that relied on bribes, phoney test takers and even doctored photos depicting non-athletic applicants as elite competitors to land college slots for the offspring of rich parents, prosecutors said.

“These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” US attorney Andrew Lelling said at a news conference.

“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Federal prosecutors in Boston charged William ‘Rick’ Singer, 58, with running the scheme through his Edge College & Career Network, which charged up to $2.5 million per child for the services, which were masked as contributions to a scam charity.

Some 300 law enforcement agents swept across the country on Tuesday to make arrests in what agents codenamed “Operation Varsity Blues”.

Prosecutors have named 33 parents, 13 coaches, and associates of Mr Singer’s business, but said the investigation continued and more parents and coaches could be charged.

Mr Singer is scheduled to plead guilty on Tuesday in Boston Federal Court to charges including racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice, according to court papers.

Ms Huffman and Ms Loughlin were due to appear in Federal Court in Los Angeles later on Tuesday, prosecutors said.

Who has been charged?

The alleged masterminds of the scam and parents who paid into it could all face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Ms Huffman, a former best actress Oscar nominee, who is married to fellow actor William H Macy, starred in the ABC TV series Desperate Housewives.

Court documents said Ms Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so her daughter could take part in the college entrance exam cheating scam.

Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Ms Huffman and Macy at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he “controlled” a testing centre and could have somebody secretly change her daughter’s answers.

The person told investigators the couple agreed to the plan. Macy was not charged, but authorities did not say why.

Ms Loughlin, best known for her role in the ABC sitcom Full House and the recent Netflix sequel Fuller House, is married to clothing company founder Mossimo Giannulli, who was also charged in the scheme.

Prosecutors alleged the couple gave $500,000 to have their two daughters labelled as recruits to the rowing team at USC (University of Southern California), even though neither participated in the sport.

Their 19-year-old daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, who has a popular YouTube channel, attends USC.

On a call with a wealthy parent, prosecutors said, Mr Singer summed up his business.

“What we do is help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school … my families want a guarantee,” he allegedly said.

Prosecutors said it was up to the universities to decide what to do with students admitted through cheating.

Yale University and USC said in separate statements they were cooperating with investigators.

“The Department of Justice believes that Yale has been the victim of a crime perpetrated by its former women’s soccer coach,” Yale said in a statement.

The coach, Rudolph Meredith, resigned in November after 24 years running the women’s soccer team.

Mr Meredith, who accepted a $400,000 bribe from Mr Singer, is due to plead guilty, prosecutors said.

How did the alleged scheme work?

Prosecutors said the scheme began in 2011 and also helped children get into the University of Texas, Georgetown University, Wake Forest University and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Part of the scheme involved advising parents to lie to test administrators that their child had learning disabilities that allowed them extra exam time.

The parents were then advised to choose one of two test centres that Mr Singer’s company said it had control over: one in Houston, Texas, and the other in West Hollywood, California.

The test administrators in the those centres allegedly took bribes of tens of thousands of dollars to allow Mr Singer’s clients to cheat, often by arranging to have wrong answers corrected or having another person take the exam.

Mr Singer would agree with parents beforehand roughly what score they wanted the child to get.

In many cases, the students were not aware 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.

Mr Singer also allegedly 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.

John Vandemoor, a former Stanford University sailing coach, is also scheduled to plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges.

Wake Forest said it had placed head volleyball coach Bill Ferguson on administrative leave after he was among the coaches accused of accepting bribes.

Three other cooperating witnesses, including a former head coach of women’s soccer at Yale, have agreed to plead guilty, prosecutors said.

Reuters/AP

Topics:

law-crime-and-justice,

corruption,

bribery,

courts-and-trials,

crime,

fraud-and-corporate-crime,

arts-and-entertainment,

actor,

united-states

First posted

March 13, 2019 08:50:18

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