This combination of pictures shows US actress Felicity Huffman (L) in 2018 and actress Lori Loughlin in 2017
New York (AFP) - "Desperate Housewives" star Felicity Huffman and fellow Hollywood actress Lori Loughlin were among 50 people indicted Tuesday in a multi-million dollar scam to help children of the American elite cheat their way into top universities.
The accused, who also include chief executives, financiers, a winemaker and fashion designer, allegedly cheated in admissions tests or arranged for bribes to get their children into prestigious schools including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors said.
They paid a bogus charity run by Californian William Singer millions both to arrange for people to fix SAT and ACT entrance exams for their children, and also to bribe university sports coaches to recruit their children, even when the children were not qualified to play at that level of sports.
Huffman, 56, and Loughlin, the 54-year-old star of "Full House," were among 33 parents accused of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in joining the scheme.
Loughlin's fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli was also on the list, while Huffman's husband William Macy, the star of Showtime's "Shameless," was not, despite the indictment making clear he was partly involved in talks with Singer's operations.
A Justice Department official in Los Angeles said 13 of those indicted were taken into custody Tuesday morning; according to reports Huffman was among them.
Loughlin was reportedly in Canada.
The scheme aimed to take advantage of the two years of stress parents across the United States often endure as they put high school-age children through the standardized SAT and ACT tests needed to gain entry into heavily competitive colleges and universities.
Many parents pay handsomely for test preparation and have their children take the tests two or three times to better their scores.
In this case, however, the scheme either had someone take the test for the students, or someone fixed their tests to ensure high scores that would get them into highly desireable universities.
"Wealthy parents paid Singer about 25 million dollars in total," said Andrew Lelling, the US attorney in Boston, Massachusetts where the case was filed.
"These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege. 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," he said.
Four people accused of running the scam over seven years, and 13 officials associated with university sports and the testing system were also charged.
- Fixing test scores -
Over the one-year investigation, investigators supported by informants recorded conversations between parents and Singer's people discussing just how high to elevate the scores and how to prevent the students from discovering the reason behind their test results.
The scheme had two levels: fixing the test scores, and gaining bogus admission into universities by paying coaches to "recruit" them onto their teams.
In Huffman's case, she "donated" $15,000 to Singer's fake charity Key Worldwide Foundation in 2017 for someone to set up a special testing site and date for her oldest daughter and then to fix the answers on the daughter's test.
She then had discussions about doing the same for her younger daughter, but never followed through.
- Fake athletes -
In the second "side door" scheme, Singer's operation would create bogus athletic profiles for the students and manage payoffs to coaches in minor sports like soccer, tennis and sailing at universities so that the student could be accepted on that basis.
"What is going to happen when they see his application, he'll be flagged as an athlete," one of Singer's people told William McGlashan, an executive at the huge investment group TPG Capital, who wanted to get his son in a certain school.
"But once he gets here, he just goes, he doesn't go to athletic orientation, He goes to the regular orientation like all my other kids just did ... and everything's fine."
McGlashan, who paid $50,000 for testing help for one son, was told he would have to pay $250,000 to use the athletics "side door" to enter University of Southern California.
Lelling said Singer's clients paid up to $6.5 million for both services.
Loughlin and Giannuli paid $500,000 to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California.
Coaches, including the women's soccer coach at Yale University and the sailing coach at Stanford University, took between $200,000 and $400,000 to accept the students onto their teams.
"Some simply never showed up" to play, Lelling said of the students. "Some pretended an injury and some played and then quit," he said.
None of the students were charged and most remain at the universities, he said.
"The parents and other defendants are clearly the prime movers in this fraud."
Lelling added that none of the universities were charged in the scheme, and were not seen as co-conspirators.