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.
“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the results of an investigation code-named Operation Varsity Blues.
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.
At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance or business, were among those charged. Dozens, including Huffman, were arrested by midday.
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, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.
Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant 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 alter students’ scores.
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 schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, he said.
No students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the teenagers were not aware of what was going on.
The investigation began when authorities received a tip about the admissions 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 accepted bribes to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. That, in turn, improved their chances of admission.
Prosecutors said parents were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves, with extended time. That made it easier to pull off the tampering, prosecutors said.
Among the parents charged were Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Connecticut, a co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York; Jane Buckingham, CEO of a boutique marketing company in Los Angeles; Gregory Abbott of New York, founder and chairman of a packaging company; and Manuel Henriquez, CEO of a finance company based in Palo Alto, California.
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 in order to get more time for the exam, 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.
At one point, Caplan asked if schools were “concerned with this.”
“Schools don’t know. Schools don’t know,” the witness said.
The bribes allegedly were dispensed through an admissions consulting company in Newport Beach, California. Authorities said parents paid William Singer, the founder of the Edge College & Career Network, the bribe money to get their children into college.
Prosecutors said Singer was scheduled to plead guilty in Boston Tuesday to charges including racketeering conspiracy. John Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford, was also expected to plead guilty.
Colleges moved quickly to discipline the coaches accused. Stanford fired Vandemoer, UCLA suspended its soccer coach, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach.
Several schools, including USC and Yale, said they were victims themselves of the scam. USC also said it is reviewing its admissions process to prevent further such abuses.
In one case, a former USC women’s soccer coach and the consultant allegedly worked together in 2017 to help a client’s child get into Yale in exchange for $1.2 million from the family. A false athletic profile created for the student said she played competitive soccer and had been on China’s junior national development team.
The profile was sent to the coach of the Yale women’s soccer team and the student was accepted. Prosecutors said the Yale coach, Rudolph Meredith, received $400,000 from the consulting company after the student was accepted, even though he knew the student did not play competitive soccer.
Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom “Full House,” while Huffman starred in ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”
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, who has a popular YouTube channel, attends 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.
Macy told Parade magazine in January that the college application process for their daughter was a source of stress. The couple’s daughter, Sofia, is an aspiring actress who attends Los Angeles High School of the Arts.
“She’s going to go to college. I’m the outlier in this thing. We’re right now in the thick of college application time, which is so stressful,” Macy said.