Hollywood actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman are among 50 people charged in a $25 million college entrance exam cheating scheme, according to court documents unsealed in Boston on Tuesday, March 12.
The alleged scam focused on getting students admitted to elite universities as recruited athletes, regardless of their athletic abilities, and helping potential students cheat on their college exams, according to the indictment.
Authorities said the FBI investigation, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, uncovered a network of wealthy parents who paid thousands of dollars to a California man who boosted their children’s chances of gaining entrance into elite colleges, such as Yale and Stanford, by paying people to take tests for their children, bribing test administrators to allow that to happen, and bribing college coaches to identify the applicants as athletes.
“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth, combined with fraud,” U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said.
“There can be no separate college admission for the wealthy, and I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either,” he said.
Lelling stressed that the colleges themselves are not targets of the investigation, which is ongoing. No students were charged, and authorities said in many cases they were kept in the dark about the alleged scam.
Some of the parents spent between $200,000 to $6.5 million to ensure that their children received guaranteed admission at the schools of their choice, John Bonavolonta, FBI special agent in charge, said.
“Their actions were, without a doubt, insidious, selfish and shameful,” he added.
The scheme’s mastermind, William Rick Singer, pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon to charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice.
“I am absolutely responsible for it,” Singer, 58, told U.S. District Judge Rya W. Zobel. “I put everything in place. I put all the people in place and made the payments directly.”
William “Rick” Singer leaves federal court after being charged in a nationwide college admissions cheating scam in Boston on March 12, 2019.Brian Snyder / Reuters
Singer, who operated a for-profit college counseling and preparation business, orchestrated the scheme and helped torpedo it when he agreed to wear a wire and cooperate with investigators, authorities said.
“In retrospect, looking at everything that occurred, he is remorseful and contrite and wants to move on with his life,” Singer’s lawyer Donald H. Heller said outside the courthouse.
Loughlin, best known for her role in the 1980s-90s sitcom “Full House,” and Huffman, who starred in the 2004-12 ABC hit show “Desperate Housewives,” were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services fraud.
Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 to bolster their two daughters’ chances of gaining admission to the University of Southern California, court papers say. Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, paid $15,000 to get one of their daughters unlimited time for her SAT test, prosecutors say.
The FBI recorded phone calls involving the celebrities and a cooperating witness, according to the criminal complaint.
Loughlin allegedly told the cooperating witness that she would arrange for one of her daughters to be photographed on a rowing machine to bolster the false claim on the application to USC that her daughter was the crew coxswain for the L.A. Marine Club team, according to court papers.
Elizabeth Much, a representative for Loughlin, told NBC News she had no comment.
In addition to putting up $15,000 to get her daughter more time on the SATs, Huffman also explored a plan to boost the test scores of a second daughter, according to court papers.
Of the 50 people charged so far, 33 are parents and nine were college coaches. The others were a mix of standardized test administrators, a test proctor and Singer associates, authorities said.