Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman is among more than 40 people charged in a US college cheating scam, according to unsealed court records.
The alleged scheme involved helping students cheat on entrance exams, as well as getting non-athletic students admitted on fake athletic scholarships.
Elite schools Yale, Stanford and Georgetown were among the destination universities.
There was no suggestion that the schools were involved in wrongdoing.
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Who was a part of the alleged scam?
The defendants are largely wealthy and also include CEOs of major companies.
“These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” said US Attorney Andrew Lelling at a news conference about the investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues on Tuesday.
According to the charging documents, Ms Huffman made a “charitable contribution” of $15,000 (£11,500) to participate in the scheme on behalf of her eldest daughter.
She allegedly arranged to use the scheme a second time, for her younger daughter, before deciding not to do so.
Ms Huffman was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. She was secretly recorded discussing the scheme with a co-operating witness.
The papers said the co-operating witness met Ms Huffman and her husband, the actor William H Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained the scam to them. The witness said the pair “agreed to the plan”. Mr Macy was not indicted.
Ms Huffman appeared in a Los Angeles court later on Tuesday and was released on $250,000 bail. The judge ordered the actress to restrict her travel to the continental US.
Mr Macy also attended court.
The actress Lori Loughlin, best known for starring in the US sitcom Full House, was also among those indicted.
Ms Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli – who was also indicted – “agreed to pay bribes totalling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits” to the University of Southern California (USC) rowing team, the documents said. Both their daughters are currently studying at USC.
Federal prosecutors in Boston charged William “Rick” Singer, 58, with running the alleged scheme through his company Edge College Career Network.
Mr Singer pleaded guilty on Tuesday in Boston federal court to charges including racketeering, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. He could receive a maximum of 65 years in prison and more than $1m in fines.
He told the court: “I am responsible. I put all the people in place,” local news site Mass Live reported.
Mr Singer will be sentenced in June.
According to the FBI, athletics coaches at various institutions were also involved in the scheme – recommending the fraudulent applicants internally and pocketing bribes in return.
The head women’s football coach at Yale University was allegedly paid $400,000 to accept a student who did not even play the sport – and those parents gave Mr Singer $1.2m for arranging the bribe.
“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 for wealthy, and I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
In all, 33 parents were charged as well as 13 athletics coaches and associates of Mr Singer’s business.
How did the alleged scheme work?
The documents detailed two alleged scams run by Mr Singer’s firm, Edge College Career Network: cheating on college entrance exams and using connections with coaches at top schools to organise bribes while faking athletic credentials for students.
“Some parents took advantage of one… some took advantage of the other, and some took advantage of both,” Mr Lelling said.
Parents including Ms Huffman and Ms Loughlin paid somewhere between several thousand dollars and $6.5m to Edge for its services, authorities said, earning Singer about $25m between roughly 2011 and 2018.
The firm reportedly instructed parents to claim their child had a disability which required that they be given extra time to complete exams.
The FBI said parents were then told to invent an excuse – such as a family wedding – for their students to sit the entrance exams at specific facilities, where staff had been bribed to turn a blind eye to cheating.
Someone working for the firm involved in the scandal either sat the exam for the students, gave students the answers, or corrected their answer papers, the FBI said.
The Edge staff member who assisted in the cheating was briefed on exactly how well to perform, in order not to raise suspicion that a child’s scores had improved too much, the FBI said.
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In most cases, the students did not know their admissions had been paid for with bribes, but in several the students were involved, officials added.
The firm also allegedly created detailed fake athletics profiles for students – including photo-shopping the faces of potential students on to pictures of athletes found online – allowing students to be recruited on athletic scholarships.
Mr Lelling said the case arose after authorities were tipped off by the “target of an entirely different investigation”.
What’s the reaction?
USC said it had fired two employees who were indicted in the alleged bribery case: senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic.
Court documents say Mr Vavic placed two students on his water polo team to help them get into the university, and was paid $250,000.
Ms Heinel also allegedly accepted bribes to facilitate admissions.
“USC is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme. Additionally, the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.”
Georgetown, Yale, UCLA, Wake Forest and the University of Texas released similar statements acknowledging the investigation.
On social media, many have expressed outrage over the alleged scam, pointing out that the US college system is already biased in favour of wealthier, white Americans.
And others have noted that for the mega-rich, it’s easy to legally donate money to a school in order to receive admission.
Exam cheating around the world
- In China, 2,440 pharmacists were accused of cheating by using earpieces in a national licensing test in 2014, according to China’s state TV.
- Exam cheating is widespread in India. In 2015, several hundred people were arrested in connection with mass school exam cheating in the state of Bihar. A year later student Ruby Rai, who’d been ranked first in state exams, was arrested and her results cancelled after video of a college interview she’d flunked went viral.
- Last year, a Singaporean tutor admitted helping six Chinese students cheat in what prosecutors said was an elaborate plot.
- More students are cheating in GCSE and A-level exams in England, new figures showed last year. The number caught was up a quarter on the previous year. Most were penalised for taking mobile phones into the exam.