Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman among 50 people arrested over £19m college admissions scam

Harriet Alexander
Actress Felicity Huffman - AFP

An astonishing list of Hollywood actresses, financial titans and industry executives were arrested on Tuesday on charges of participating in a $25 million (£19m) scam to bribe their childrens’ way into elite American universities.

Oscar-nominated Felicity Huffman, star of Desperate Housewives, and sitcom star Lori Loughlin were among 33 parents who may face up to 20 years in prison if prosecuted and convicted on federal charges relating to the scheme.

They are accused of paying bribes of up to $6 million to secure admission to prestigious universities for their children.

Huffman appeared before a judge in Los Angeles on Tuesday night and was released on $250,000 bail, having surrendered her passport.

All have declined to comment.

With the help of exam administrators and athletics coaches, the parents are accused of either arranging for their child’s entrance exam to be completed by someone else, or corrected, or else they would claim their child was a sporting prodigy who should be given a place at university due to their athletic prowess.

Athletic coaches and exam invigilators were also among those charged.

Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannuli, are both accused of paying $500,000 to the scam Credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The mastermind of the scam, William Singer, on Tuesday pleaded guilty in Boston to racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud and obstruction of justice.

He allegedly arranged to stage photos “proving” the sporting skills of the children. He would also photoshop the child’s face onto a file photo of a high-performing athlete, to help the sporting coaches convince their colleagues to allow the student admission to university.

A sailing coach at Stanford University, John Vandemoer, 41, also pleaded guilty on Tuesday and was fired from the university. He admitted that he had agreed to hold admission spots on his team open for two applicants falsely portrayed as competitive sailors, in exchange for payments to the sailing programme worth $270,000.

Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, the former head coach of Yale women’s soccer team, resigned from the university in November after 24 years, saying merely that he wanted “to begin a different chapter in my life”. He is also facing charges of fraud in connection to Singer’s scheme.

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, said the case was the largest college admission fraud ever uncovered, resulting in almost 50 arrests in six states.

He described the 33 parents as “a catalogue of wealth and privilege”.

Yale university in Connecticut is among those targeted by the scam

Among them are multiple financiers, including Bill McGlashan, founder of $13 billion asset management firm TPG Growth. He also co-founded The Rise Fund, a $2 billion impact investment platform, along with U2’s Bono and eBay’s first president Jeff Skoll.

Miami real estate developer Robert Zangrillo, California dentist Homayoun Zadeh and Nevada gaming executive Gamal Abdelaziz are also charged.

The list of parents further includes Napa Valley-based Chilean wine maker Agustin Huneeus, whose father Agustin Huneeus Sr was CEO of Concha y Toro; and the founder of a Kentucky bourbon distillery, Marci Palatella, whose husband Lou is a legendary American Football player, with the San Francisco 49ers.

None of those named, approached by The Telegraph, responded to requests for comment.

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannuli, are both accused of paying $500,000 to have their two daughters both designated as members of the University of Southern California (USC) rowing team – despite the fact that the girls do not row.

Loughlin's representatives told The Telegraph they did not wish to comment on the charges.

Huffman’s elder daughter, currently studying at the Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA), had a university place secured for her through a $15,000 “donation” to Singer’s charitable foundation, the court documents allege.

Huffman's representatives did not respond to The Telegraph's request for comment.

None of the students are listed in the indictment.

The parents could face possible jail time if convicted, he said, although he said it was too early to specify how long.

“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely-talented child was rejected," said Mr Lalling.

“There can be no separate admissions programme for the wealthy, and there will be no separate criminal justice system, either.”

Adam Citron, senior counsel at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, and the former assistant district attorney in Westchester County, New York, told The Telegraph he was “dumbfounded” by the “brazen” scam.

“And the parents could get 20 years – although given that most of them do not have criminal records they could get probation or community service."

He added that if found guilty: "I don't think they will get much sympathy."

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