Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were among 50 people indicted Tuesday by federal prosecutors for allegedly conspiring to bribe college sports coaches, test proctors and other individuals to get their children admitted to elite universities.
The sensational conspiracy, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by the FBI, is the largest college admissions scheme the Department of Justice has ever prosecuted, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said when he announced the charges in a press conference. Sports coaches and professionals from multiple universities were indicted, along with SAT and ACT examination administrators and employees from a college counseling and preparation business. Thirty-three parents, including Loughlin and Huffman, were charged in the scheme, which prosecutors say ran from 2011 until 2019.
At the forefront of the investigation is defendant William Singer, the owner of The Edge College & Career Network (also called The Key), a for-profit college preparation and counseling program, and CEO of Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), the company’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Singer, who allegedly made $25 million from parents since 2011, has pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering, fraud and obstruction of justice charges.
Three cooperating witnesses provided accounts to build the case, all of whom pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy.
Here’s what you should know about the admissions scandal:
William Singer, “The Key” and KWF
The indictment claims that The Key, based in Newport Beach, Calif., was a facade for William Singer to facilitate briberies of college sports coaches and standardized test cheating. Parents would pay non-taxed donations to the non-profit organization, KWF, to keep up the scheme, which promoted itself as a college preparation and counseling program.
Singer pleaded guilty to the four counts of his indictment on Tuesday. He has been cooperating with federal investigators in the case since September 2018, The New York Times reports.
Employees of The Key helped parents reschedule exams to ensure third party test-fixers or test-takers could be present, as well as directly facilitating or helping parents facilitate bribes of university officials, the complaint says. A representative for The Key did not immediately return a request for comment.
None of the students involved with The Key are charged, and it’s believed that many of them were not aware of the false pretenses under which they were entering college, authorities said.
Lori Loughlin’s charges
Lori Loughlin, who rose to fame with her role as Aunt Becky on the acclaimed series Full House between 1988 and 1995, was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, also known as wire fraud, by the Central District of California. Her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, was indicted on the same charges.
Giannulli was released on $1 million bail on Tuesday, according to the court filing, and Loughlin was also released on $1 million bail on Wednesday, an FBI spokesperson told the Associated Press.
The criminal complaint, unsealed on Tuesday, alleges that Loughlin and Giannulli (referenced as the Giannullis throughout the complaint) paid bribes totaling $500,000 “in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team.” But the Giannullis’ two daughters — Isabella, 20, and Olivia, 19 — never participated in crew, competitively or otherwise, according to the complaint. It is not apparent whether either of the Giannulli children knew of the allegations in the complaint.
Loughlin’s team declined to comment. A representative for Giannulli could not immediately be reached.
Olivia Giannulli, who has nearly 2 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, Olivia Jade, came under fire last year for saying that she was only at USC for the partying, rather than the education. “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend,” she said in the video, citing her busy work schedule. (She works with companies to create sponsored content and now has a collection with Sephora.) “But I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying,” she said.
Olivia Jade later apologized for her comments in a separate video. “I’m sorry for anyone I offended by saying that,” she said.
Felicity Huffman’s charges
Actor Felicity Huffman is charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud for her payment of individuals to facilitate cheating on college admissions exams for her older daughter. The complaint also alleges the actress sought a similar plan for her younger daughter, before deciding not to follow through with it (Huffman is only charged in the allegations involving her elder daughter). Huffman is married to Shameless star William H. Macy, but Macy is neither indicted nor named in the complaint. (He is referenced as “Spouse” in conversations quoted in the complaint.)
A judge on Tuesday ruled that Huffman could be released on a $250,000 bond, according to the Associated Press.
Huffman’s agent did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.
Cooperating Witness No. 1 told law enforcement officials that he met with Huffman and her husband in 2017, the complaint says, and said that he could hire someone to pose as a proctor for their daughter’s SAT exam and correct her answers thereafter.
Cooperating Witness No. 2 proctored the exam for Huffman’s daughter and other clients, according to the complaint. Huffman’s daughter received a score 400 points higher than her practice exam the previous year, the complaint alleges. Huffman and her husband donated $15,000 to KWF in 2018, allegedly for no exchange of goods or services, the KWF receipt said, according to the complaint.
Macy told Parade in January that the college application experience for their younger daughter has been difficult. “We’re right now in the thick of college application time, which is so stressful,” he said.
Why isn’t William H. Macy indicted?
Although Macy is recorded discussing the alleged bribery plan with Huffman on phone calls cited in the complaint, he’s not currently indicted. Lawyer and former district attorney from New York Adam Citron tells TIME that’s likely because investigators want to take extra precaution in such a high profile case. “They want to be very cautious in a case like this,” Citron says, “that you’re not going to arrest and indict individuals that you don’t have a strong case against.” In this case, Citron says, they might not have enough “hard evidence.”
A representative for Macy did not immediately return a request for comment.
Coaches from universities involved
Coaches and professionals from USC, Yale University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Texas at Austin and Wake Forest University are implicated in the case. One of the three cooperating witnesses is a former head coach of women’s soccer at Yale.
A former women’s soccer coach at Yale, Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, is also indicted on two counts (wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud). That complaint alleges that he made $450,000 in total for designating one child as a recruit for the Yale soccer team. In a statement, Yale said that it would continue to cooperate fully with investigators. “The Office of Undergraduate Admissions relies on varsity coaches to provide honest and expert evaluations of individual applicants’ athletic accomplishments and potential to contribute to a varsity team,” the statement said. Meredith’s attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.
USC’s athletic department announced on Twitter that it would “cooperate fully” with authorities.
Here is USC’s statement regarding the college admissions investigation: pic.twitter.com/IwZUuWfWA5— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) March 12, 2019
Georgetown released a statement Tuesday, saying that they were “deeply troubled” by the news of the charges against former tennis coach Gordon Ernst and that he left the university in 2018 when an internal investigation found that he violated admissions rules. Ernst has not yet entered a plea and did not immediately return requests for comment.
Stanford also released a statement, stating that the sailing team’s head coach, John Vandemoer, had been “terminated” from the university. Vandemoer was charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering pleaded guilty to all counts on Tuesday. An attorney for Vandemoer said that the former coach regrets involving Stanford in the scandal, according to the Associated Press.
The men’s soccer head coach at UCLA, Jorge Salcedo, has been placed on leave, according to a joint statement from the University and its athletics department. Salcedo, who was charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, did not immediately return a request for comment.
University of Texas at Austin’s head men’s tennis coach, Michael Center, is charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. He was released on bond on Tuesday and his lawyer, Dan Cogdell, told reporters that he planned on pleading not guilty to the charges. “He is innocent,” Cogdell said.
A spokesperson for UT-Austin said that the university was fully cooperating with investigators and that Center was placed on leave. “Integrity in admissions is vital to the academic and ethical standards of our university,” the statement says.
In a statement on Twitter, Wake Forest University’s president commented on the charges, announcing that volleyball coach Bill Ferguson, who was also charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, has been placed on administrative leave. Ferguson did not immediately return a request for comment.
Of the universities involved, no institution is charged with crimes in the case.