By Alanna Durkin Richer and Collin Binkley / Associated Press
BOSTON — Fifty people, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation’s most elite schools.
Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes.
At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance, fashion and other fields, were among those charged. Dozens, including Huffman, the Emmy-winning star of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” were arrested by midday.
“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the results of a fraud and conspiracy investigation code-named Operation Varsity Blues.
The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.
Two more of those charged — Stanford’s sailing coach and the college-admissions consultant at the very center of the scheme — pleaded guilty Tuesday in Boston.
No students were charged, with authorities saying that in many cases the teenagers were unaware of what was going on. Several of the colleges involved made no mention of taking any action against the students.
The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions — sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents — and that privilege begets privilege.
College consultants were not exactly shocked by the allegations.
“This story is the proof that there will always be a market for parents who have the resources and are desperate to get their kid one more success,” said Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. “This was shopping for name-brand product and being willing to spend whatever it took.”
The central figure in the scheme was identified as admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network of Newport Beach, California. He pleaded guilty Tuesday, as did Stanford’s John Vandemoer.
Prosecutors said that parents paid Singer big money from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to falsely make their children look like star athletes to boost their chances of getting into college. The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students, and paid off insiders at testing centers to correct students’ answers.
Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children’s admission, officials said.
“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.
Several defendants, including Huffman, were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The IRS is also investigating, since some parents allegedly disguised the bribes as charitable donations. The colleges themselves are not targets, Lelling said.
The investigation began when authorities received a tip about the scheme from someone they were interviewing in a separate case, Lelling said. He did not elaborate.
Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball took payoffs to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience.
Prosecutors said parents were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves and get extra time. That made it easier to pull off the tampering, prosecutors said.
The fraud included staged photographs of students playing sports, and other photos that were doctored to superimpose applicants’ faces on the bodies of genuine athletes, authorities said.
Among the parents charged was Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Connecticut, co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York. He and other parents did not immediately return telephone or email messages for comment.
Caplan was accused of paying $75,000 to get a test supervisor to correct the answers on her daughter’s ACT exam after she took it. In a conversation last June with a cooperating witness, he was told his daughter needed to “be stupid” when a psychologist evaluated her for learning disabilities, according to court papers.
“It’s the home run of home runs,” the witness said.
“And it works?” Caplan asked.
“Every time,” the witness responded, prompting laughter from both.
In another case, a young woman got into Yale in exchange for $1.2 million from the family. A false athletic profile created for the student said she had been on China’s junior national development team.
Prosecutors said Yale coach Rudolph Meredith received $400,000, even though he knew the student did not play competitive soccer. Meredith did not return messages seeking comment.
Colleges moved quickly to discipline the coaches and distance themselves from the scandal, portraying themselves as victims. Stanford fired the sailing coach, UCLA suspended its soccer coach, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach. USC said it is reviewing its admissions process to prevent such abuses.
Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom “Full House” in the 1980s and ’90s. Huffman was nominated for an Oscar for playing a transgender woman in the 2005 movie “Transamerica.” She also starred in the TV show “Sports Night” and appeared in such films as “Reversal of Fortune,” ”Magnolia” and “The Spanish Prisoner.”
Messages seeking comment from Huffman’s representative were not immediately returned. A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment.
Loughlin and her husband allegedly gave $500,000 to have their two daughters labeled as recruits to the USC crew team, even though neither participated in the sport. Their 19-year-old daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, a social media star with a popular YouTube channel, is now at USC.
Court documents said Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the college entrance-exam cheating scam.
Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he “controlled” a testing center and could have somebody secretly change her daughter’s answers. The person told investigators the couple agreed to the plan.
Macy was not charged; authorities did not say why.
The couple’s daughter, Sofia, is an aspiring actress who attends Los Angeles High School of the Arts.
Sklarow, the independent education consultant, said the scandal “certainly speaks to the fact that the admissions process is broken.”
“It’s so fraught with anxiety, especially at the elite schools,” he said, “that I think it can’t be surprising that millionaires who have probably never said no to their kids are trying to play the system in order to get their child accepted.”