Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and a slew of chief executives are among 50 wealthy people charged in the largest college cheating scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice, federal officials said Tuesday.
Those indicted in the investigation dubbed “Varsity Blues” allegedly paid bribes of up to $6 million to get their children into elite colleges, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors said.
“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said at a news conference Tuesday.
“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,” Lelling added.
He said the ring leader of the scam is allegedly William Singer, owner of a college counseling service called Key Worldwide Foundation, who accepted bribes totaling $25 million from parents between 2011 and 2018 “to guarantee their children’s admission to elite schools.”
Singer is expected to plead guilty in a Boston federal court on Tuesday on charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice, Lelling said.
Those charged in the probe include nine coaches at elite schools, two SAT and ACT exam administrators, one exam proctor, a college administrator and 33 parents, including Huffman and Loughlin.
“The parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” Lelling said. “They include, for example, the CEOs of private and public companies, successful securities and real estate investors, two well-known actresses, a famous fashion designer and the co-chairman of a global law firm.”
He said in many of the cases, Singer allegedly bribed the coaches, who “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.”
Other elite schools named were the University of Texas, UCLA and Wake Forest.
Joe Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Field Office, said 300 special agents fanned out across the country early Tuesday and arrested 38 people. He said seven others were working to surrender to authorities and one is being actively pursued.
In most cases the students did not know their admission was contingent on a bribe, officials said.
According to the charging papers, Huffman “made a purported charitable contribution of $15,000 … to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme on behalf of her eldest daughter.”
“Huffman later made arrangements to pursue the scheme a second time, for her younger daughter, before deciding not to do so,” the documents allege.
Federal agents secretly recorded telephone calls with Huffman and a cooperating witness, according to the court papers.
The documents say Loughlin — best known for her role as Aunt Becky on the ABC sitcom “Full House” — and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, “agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team — despite the fact that they did not participate in crew — thereby facilitating their admission to USC.”
Federal agents obtained emails from Loughlin implicating her in the scam, according to the documents.
Federal authorities ultimately had three cooperating witnesses to help them build their case.
One of the cooperating witnesses is a founder of the non-profit Key Worldwide Foundation based in California and another worked as the director of college exam prep at a prep school and sports academy in Bradenton, Florida, according to the court papers.