Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin among 44 charged in FBI probe into 'scheme to cheat on college exams'

Sarah Harvard

The FBI and federal prosecutors arrested 50 people nationwide involved in a large-scale university admissions scheme to get students accepted into elite university by helping them cheat on college entrance exams.

Federal prosecutors charged William “Rick” Singer, 58, for running the $25m college admissions scam through his Newport Beach, California business, Edge College & Career Network.

Some of the students involved in the cheating plot attended, or were looking to attend, Georgetown University, Stanford University, University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of San Diego, University of Southern California (USC), University of Texas, Wake Forest University, and Yale.

Singer’s clientele include a long list of prominent wealthy figures ranging from chief executives to Hollywood families.

Among the 50 people arrested following the criminal investigation titled “Operation Varsity Blues,” include actress Lori Loughlin from hit sitcom “Full House” and Felicity Huffman from popular television series “Desperate Housewives.”

In addition to Loughlin and Huffman, two SAT/ACT administrators, one exam proctor, nine coaches at top universities, one college administrator and 33 parents.

The Department of Justice also released a chart breaking down the individuals charged in the college admission scam—the largest ever to be prosecuted by the federal agency. The majority of the crimes charged in the case range from conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

Both Huffman and Loughlin were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services fraud.

US Attorney Andrew Lelling, who serves the District of Massachusetts, said the cheating scam is a nationwide scheme with multiple connections in the greater Boston area.

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Mr Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Joseph Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in charge, said in a news conference on Tuesday that from 2011 to last month, parents paid Singer as much as $200,000 to $6.5m for “guaranteed admissions” to elite universities.

“This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense, to cheat the system and set their children up for success with the best education money could buy — literally,” Mr Bonavolonta said.

Prosecutors said Singer described his college scheming business with the following quote: “What we do is help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school. My families want a guarantee.”

Court papers reveal that Singer allegedly received payments between $15,000 to $75,000 from parents to have someone else take SAT or ACT exams in place of their children.

Singer would also allegedly advise students to seek “extended time on the exams, including by having their children purport to have learning disabilities in order to obtain medical documentation that ACT,” the indictment said.

Prosecutors also said Singer allegedly used cash to bribe two proctors who administered the college entrance exams: Igor Dvorsiky of Los Angeles, California and Lisa “Niki” Williams of Houston, Texas.

Dvorsiky and Williams allowed Mark Riddell, a Florida man Singer hired, to secretly take the tests or to replace a client’s son or daughter’s answers with his own.

Riddell was paid about $10,0000 per test. The money was funnelled through a charity-based account created by Singer.

Singer would also allegedly bribe coaches to create fake credentials, or “athletic profiles,” to portray his client’s children as successful high school athletes despite having no athletic ability. This was done to improve the prospective student’s chances of being accepted.

In some instances, Singer colluded with parents to take staged photos of their child participated in a particular sport. Other times, Singer would allegedly use stock photos of an individual playing a sport and the photoshop the client’s child’s face onto the athlete, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors also highlighted one example involving a head women’s soccer coach at Yale who was allegedly paid $400,000 to accept a student even though she did not play soccer. The student’s parents allegedly paid Singer $1.2m.

Singer is scheduled to plead guilty on Tuesday in Boston federal court to charges including money laundering, racketeering, and obstruction of justice.

Huffman and her husband, William H Macy, allegedly made a “purported charitable contribution of $15,000 ... to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme” for one of their daughter’s college admission. Court papers said “Huffman later made arrangements to pursue the scheme a second time, for her younger daughter, before deciding not to do so.”

As for Loughlin, the court documents stated she “agreed to pay bribes totalling $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.”

Loughlin’s daughter, Olivia Jade, who is also a prominent YouTube personality, currently attends USC.​

Several universities released statements in response to the college admissions scandal.

The University of Southern California released a statement on Tuesday noting it has “not been accused of any wrongdoing and will continue to cooperate fully with the government’s investigation.”

It emphasised that the government believes the alleged “illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university,” adding the university will be conducting an internal investigation and will “take employment actions as appropriate.”

The university said it is currently in the process of identifying “any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme,” and will be “reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.”

Wake Forest University also released a statement announcing it is aware of the allegations made against head volleyball coach Bill Ferguson and that it has retained outside legal counsel to look into the matter. The university placed Mr Ferguson on administrative leave and named Randi Smart as interim coach.

University of Texas at Austin said federal authorities notified them this morning of being “victims of an organised criminal effort involving admissions” in a statement released on Tuesday.

It said it is aware of charges and allegations made against Men’s Tennis Coach Michael Centre and that he is placed on administrative leave until the university receives more information.

“We are cooperating fully with the investigation,” university spokesperson J.B. Bird said in a statement. “Integrity in admissions is vital to the academic and ethical standards of our university.”