Federal prosecutors say more arrests could come soon in their investigation of a large-scale college admissions bribery and cheating ring, with a number of defendants already charged in a sealed complaint.
Hints about additional cases are sprinkled in various court filings since the U.S. attorney in Boston announced the first 50 people charged in the scheme last month. Those defendants include college consultant Rick Singer, college coaches, atheltics administrators, test proctors – and the wealthy parents of college-bound students.
But an unspecified number of other defendants already face charges that federal prosecutors say will be unveiled "in the near future." Prosecutors typically ask that charges against suspects who haven't been arrested remain under seal.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling has signaled from the beginning that their investigation is ongoing.
Singer, a private college consultant based in Newport Beach, California, has pleaded guilty to a decade-long scheme to help parents buy their way into prestigious colleges, either by bribing coaches to recruit them as athletes or test proctors to cheat on college admissions tests.
Affidavits filed in the cases suggest that the scope of college cheating went far beyond the 33 parents already charged.
► Singer said he's used some version of the scam to get almost 800 students into prestigious colleges and universities. "So I did 761 what I would call, 'side doors,' he told one parent last year.
► Prosecutors say Singer earned more than $25 million from the scheme. But the amounts accounted for in court filings total less than $6 million of that income.
► The earliest criminal activity alleged in court filings dates back to 2008, but most of the cases charged are from admissions in just the last two years.
'So that's what he was up to': Rick Singer, architect of scam, peddled a 'side door' to college admissions
It's likely that not everyone who participated in the scheme will wind up facing charges. The statute of limitations for most fraud and bribery offenses is five years. Criminal tax fraud charges can go back six years, based on when the return is filed, but there's no limit on civil penalties.
And the evidence is strongest in cases from last year because the FBI had more than three months of court-authorized wiretaps in which neither Singer nor the parents knew they were being recorded.
After that warrant expired last September, the FBI had Singer call parents back – one after the other – to get them to incriminate themselves on tape. But that gambit seemed to run its course last month when one parent who used Singer three years ago seemed to catch on to Singer's cooperation and denied everything.
Federal prosecutors in Boston, now obliged to turn over evidence to defendants, have requested gag orders forbidding them from talking about what's in those documents. That's partly because so much of the evidence relies on sensitive financial records, grades and test scores – even psychological evaluations of some of the students.
But also, prosecutors said, "the discovery materials further include information concerning uncharged co-conspirators and targets of the investigation who have not yet been publicly charged."
Even more specifically, they've asked for an extension until at least May 31 to provide the court with an inventory of all wiretaps used in the case because the investigation is continuing.
"The Government further expects, in the near future, to charge and arrest (redacted) through a criminal complaint that will be unsealed upon the arrest of the charged defendants," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen said in a court filing.
There could be several reasons those charges are still sealed, said Mark MacDougall, a former federal prosecutor who's now a white-collar defense attorney at Akin Gump.
"It’s possible people have been charged and it’s under seal because they’re cooperating in an unrelated case. But that gets complicated," he said. "I think what’s more likely is you have someone who's overseas."
MacDougall said he's skeptical that there will be another wholesale round of dozens of indictments.
For one, prosecutors likely picked the strongest cases. With Singer facing the most prison time of anybody, a jury is unlikely to take his word on other cases without independent evidence like audio recordings.
So if there are parents who worked with Singer and are worried they could still be charged, MacDougall had this advice: "Be cool," he said. "The last thing I would be doing is calling the prosecutors in Boston."
Dozens of calls
The Varsity Blues cases are unusual because the FBI caught ringleader Singer first, and used him to incriminate the parents – like getting the drug dealer to flip on his customers instead of the other way around.
That's how prosecutors gathered evidence against actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. While they obtained some emails, most of the evidence consists of phone calls with Singer last fall. In those calls, recorded by the FBI, Singer had them concoct a cover story in case they were questioned about the payments by the IRS – which prosecutors submitted as evidence of guilt.
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Singer made dozens of those calls. But with the investigation dragging on and college acceptance letters coming every day, prosecutors may have decided to wrap up the case because they were getting diminishing returns.
The week before the FBI unsealed the indictments, one parent seemed to get wise.
Singer had been systematically calling parents while the FBI listened in, hoping to get them to implicate themselves. But the first Sunday in March, Singer called Stephen Semprevivo, a 53-year-old Los Angeles sales executive, under the pretext that he was being audited by the IRS. Semprevivo wouldn't bite.
"You know, all I know is that we – you know, we used you for the charity stuff and we used you for the counseling, and your dealings are your dealings," he told Singer.
"No I get that," Singer said. "And I understand that, but at the same time we were all a part of ..."
"No, I don’t agree with that at all," Semprevivo said. "You know, you did what you did, (Rick), and that was your stuff. Okay?"
Two days later, Singer signed a plea agreement, effectively wrapping up his cooperation. One week after that, Semprevivo was indicted. He has since agreed to plead guilty to mail fraud and serve 18 months in prison.
Follow Gregory Korte on Twitter @gregorykorte.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: More arrests could be coming 'in the near future' in college admissions case, prosecutors say