U.S. Accuses Actresses, Others Of Fraud In Massive College Admissions Scandal

Updated at 3:14 p.m. ET

Federal officials have charged dozens of well-heeled parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, in what the Justice Department says was a multimillion-dollar scheme to cheat college admissions standards. The parents allegedly paid a consultant who then fabricated academic and athletic credentials and arranged bribes to help get their children into prestigious universities.

“We’re talking about deception and fraud — fake test scores, fake credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials,” Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Lelling said 33 parents “paid enormous sums” to ensure their children got into schools such as Stanford and Yale, sending money to entities controlled by a man named William Rick Singer in return for falsifying records and obtaining false scores on important tests such as the SAT and ACT.

Singer also worked to present his clients’ children as elite athletes, Lelling said. “In many instances, Singer helped parents take staged photographs of their children engaged in particular sports,” he said. “Other times, Singer and his associates used stock photos that they pulled off the Internet — sometimes Photoshopping the face of the child onto the picture of the athlete” and submitting it to desirable schools.

“Singer’s clients paid him anywhere between $200,000 and $6.5 million for this service,” Lelling said.

The scope of the case is massive — a total of 50 people have been charged in the admissions scheme. The Justice Department said in a statement that dozens of people in multiple states have been arrested but gave no further details.

The scheme operated from 2011 through February 2019, Lelling said, adding that in most cases, parents paid Singer between $250,000 and $450,000 per student.

“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” Lelling said. “They include, for example, 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.”

The parents were already able to give their children “every legitimate advantage,” but that instead they “chose to corrupt and illegally manipulate the system for their benefit,” Lelling said.

“There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy,” he added. “And there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

Other defendants in the case include university athletic coaches and college exam administrators — some of whom are accused of accepting bribes. Court documents state that the scheme targeted these schools as part of a “student-athlete recruitment scam”: Yale University, the University of Southern California, Georgetown University, UCLA, Wake Forest University, Stanford University, University of San Diego and the University of Texas, Austin.

Parents allegedly paid Singer approximately $25 million that was then funneled into bribes for coaches and university administrators, according to court documents. In return, the students were allegedly designated as “recruited athletes,” which could increase their chances at gaining admissions.

For example, the indictment states that “Singer and his co-conspirators made payments totaling $250,000 to a bank account at USC that funded [USC head water polo coach Jovan Vavic’s] water polo team.” Vavic then allegedly designated two students as water polo recruits. The complaint also says Singer contributed to the private school tuition for Vavic’s kids, in exchange for his “commitment to designate Singer’s clients as recruits for the USC water polo team in the future.”

The charges are part of a complex case that has been kept under seal. Documents related to the case were revealed Tuesday, as Singer pleaded guilty to a number of federal crimes from conspiracy to commit racketeering and money laundering to obstruction of justice, according to Lelling.

The parents were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

Singer “owned and operated the Edge College & Career Network LLC (‘The Key’) – a for-profit college counseling and preparation business – and served as the CEO of the Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF) – a non-profit corporation that he established as a purported charity,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

On its website, The Key promises to “unlock the door to academic, social, personal and career success.” The foundation says it “has touched the lives of hundreds of students that would never have been exposed to what higher education could do for them.”

The court documents detail numerous examples of how the scheme worked.

For example, the Justice Department said Singer sought to manipulate college entrance exams by either gaining extra time for his clients’ children to take the SAT and ACT or by bribing test officials outright.

Singer also orchestrated scenarios under which students took tests overseen by two test administrators at a public high school in Houston or at a private college prep school in West Hollywood, Calif. Federal prosecutors say Singer paid test administrators Niki Williams (in Houston) and Igor Dvorskiy (in California) bribes of as much as $10,000 per test.

To ensure a high score, Singer allegedly arranged for a third person “to take the exams in place of the students, to give the students the correct answers during the exams, or to correct the students’ answers” after they took the test, the Justice Department said. That role allegedly was often played by 36-year-old Mark Riddell of Palmetto, Fla.

“Singer’s clients paid him between $15,000 and $75,000 per test, with the payments structured as purported donations” to a purported charity Singer controlled, the Justice Department said. “In many instances, the students taking the exams were unaware that their parents had arranged for the cheating.”

In another example, Lelling said former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith took $400,000 to designate a potential student as a recruit for the team — boosting the student’s admission prospects — despite knowing that the student didn’t play the sport competitively.

Once the student was accepted to Yale, her relatives paid Singer approximately $1.2 million, including a $900,000 to one of KWF’s charitable accounts, according to court documents.

Last April, Meredith allegedly met with the father of a second prospective student in a hotel room in Boston — a meeting that was secretly recorded by the FBI. In it, Meredith offered to designate the man’s daughter as a soccer recruit in exchange for $450,000, court documents state.

Meredith resigned his long-held post in November. In a statement to NPR, a Yale representative said:

“As the indictment makes clear, the Department of Justice believes that Yale has been the victim of a crime perpetrated by its former women’s soccer coach. The university has cooperated fully in the investigation and will continue to cooperate as the case moves forward.”

On its website, KWF described many of the students it helped as having “only known life on the streets, surrounded by the gang violence of the inner-city.”

The foundation says it has worked with a number of groups, from Los Angeles-based Ladylike to the Houston Hoops Youth Basketball Program.

The Justice Department statement listed each of the 50 defendants along with some basic facts about them and the charges they face:

  1. William Rick Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, Calif., owner of the Edge College & Career Network and CEO of the Key Worldwide Foundation, was charged in an Information with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice. …
  2. Mark Riddell, 36, of Palmetto, Fla., was charged in an Information with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud as well as conspiracy to commit money laundering;
  3. Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, 51, of Madison, Conn., the former head women’s soccer coach at Yale University, was charged in an Information with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services wire fraud as well as honest services wire fraud;
  4. John Vandemoer, 41, of Stanford, Calif., the former sailing coach at Stanford University, was charged in an Information with racketeering conspiracy and is expected to plead guilty in Boston before U.S. District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel on March 12, 2019, at 3:00 p.m.;
  5. David Sidoo, 59, of Vancouver, Canada, was charged in an indictment with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Sidoo was arrested on Friday, March 8th in San Jose, Calif., and appeared in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California yesterday. A date for his initial appearance in federal court in Boston has not yet been scheduled.

The following defendants were charged in an indictment with racketeering conspiracy:

  1. Igor Dvorskiy, 52, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., director of a private elementary and high school in Los Angeles and a test administrator for the College Board and ACT;
  2. Gordon Ernst, 52, of Chevy Chase, Md., former head coach of men and women’s tennis at Georgetown University;
  3. William Ferguson, 48, of Winston-Salem, N.C., former women’s volleyball coach at Wake Forest University;
  4. Martin Fox, 62, of Houston, Texas, president of a private tennis academy in Houston;
  5. Donna Heinel, 57, of Long Beach, Calif., the senior associate athletic director at the University of Southern California;
  6. Laura Janke, 36, of North Hollywood, Calif., former assistant coach of women’s soccer at the University of Southern California;
  7. Ali Khoroshahin, 49, of Fountain Valley, Calif., former head coach of women’s soccer at the University of Southern California;
  8. Steven Masera, 69, of Folsom, Calif., accountant and financial officer for the Edge College & Career Network and the Key Worldwide Foundation;
  9. Jorge Salcedo, 46, of Los Angeles, Calif., former head coach of men’s soccer at the University of California at Los Angeles;
  10. Mikaela Sanford, 32, of Folsom, Calif., employee of the Edge College & Career Network and the Key Worldwide Foundation;
  11. Jovan Vavic, 57, of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., former water polo coach at the University of Southern California; and
  12. Niki Williams, 44, of Houston, Texas, assistant teacher at a Houston high school and test administrator for the College Board and ACT.

The following defendant was charged in a criminal complaint with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud:

  1. Michael Center, 54, of Austin Texas, head coach of men’s tennis at the University of Texas at Austin

The following defendants were charged in a criminal complaint with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud:

  1. Gregory Abbott, 68, of New York, N.Y., the founder and chairman of a food and beverage packaging company;
  2. Marcia Abbott, 59, of New York, N.Y.;
  3. Gamal Abdelaziz, 62, of Las Vegas, Nev., the former senior executive of a resort and casino operator in Macau, China;
  4. Diane Blake, 55, of San Francisco, Calif., an executive at a retail merchandising firm;
  5. Todd Blake, 53, of San Francisco, Calif., an entrepreneur and investor;
  6. Jane Buckingham, 50, of Beverly Hills, Calif., the CEO of a boutique marketing company;
  7. Gordon Caplan, 52, of Greenwich, Conn., co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York City;
  8. I-Hin “Joey” Chen, 64, of Newport Beach, Calif., operates a provider of warehousing and related services for the shipping industry;
  9. Amy Colburn, 59, of Palo Alto, Calif.;
  10. Gregory Colburn, 61, of Palo Alto, Calif.;
  11. Robert Flaxman, 62, of Laguna Beach, Calif., founder and CEO of real estate development firm;
  12. Mossimo Giannulli, 55, of Los Angeles, Calif., fashion designer;
  13. Elizabeth Henriquez, 56, of Atherton, Calif.;
  14. Manuel Henriquez, 55, of Atherton, Calif., founder, chairman and CEO of a publicly traded specialty finance company;
  15. Douglas Hodge, 61, of Laguna Beach, Calif., former CEO of investment management company;
  16. Felicity Huffman, 56, of Los Angeles, Calif., an actress;
  17. Agustin Huneeus Jr., 53, of San Francisco, Calif., owner of wine vineyards;
  18. Bruce Isackson, 61, of Hillsborough, Calif., president of a real estate development firm;
  19. Davina Isackson, 55, of Hillsborough, Calif.;
  20. Michelle Janavs, 48, of Newport Coast, Calif., former executive of a large food manufacturer;
  21. Elisabeth Kimmel, 54, of Las Vegas, Nev., owner and president of a media company;
  22. Marjorie Klapper, 50, of Menlo Park, Calif., co-owner of jewelry business;
  23. Lori Loughlin, 54, of Los Angeles, Calif., an actress;
  24. Toby MacFarlane, 56, of Del Mar, Calif., former senior executive at a title insurance company;
  25. William McGlashan Jr., 55, of Mill Valley, Calif., senior executive at a global equity firm;
  26. Marci Palatella, 63, of Healdsburg, Calif., CEO of a liquor distribution company;
  27. Peter Jan Sartorio, 53, of Menlo Park, Calif., packaged food entrepreneur;
  28. Stephen Semprevivo, 53, of Los Angeles, Calif., executive at privately held provider of outsourced sales teams;
  29. Devin Sloane, 53, of Los Angeles, Calif., founder and CEO of provider of drinking and wastewater systems;
  30. John Wilson, 59, of Hyannis Port, Mass., founder and CEO of private equity and real estate development firm;
  31. Homayoun Zadeh, 57, of Calabasas, Calif., an associate professor of dentistry; and
  32. Robert Zangrillo, 52, of Miami, Fla., founder and CEO of private investment firm.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.