Federal authorities have charged nearly 50 people for participating in a $25 million nationwide college admissions cheating scheme, according to court documents unsealed in Boston on Tuesday.
According to ABC 11, participants in the scheme paid a man in California to bribe test proctors, college admissions officials, and college coaches to alter admissions test results and student profiles to help them gain admission to elite schools.
Those schools, which include Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, UCLA, the University of Southern California, the University of San Diego, the University of Texas, and Wake Forest, were not directly implicated in the court documents. Nine college coaches—such as Stanford’s sailing coach, Yale’s women’s soccer coach, and Georgetown’s tennis coach—and administrators of college entrance exams have been charged as participants in the scheme. According to NBC News, 33 parents were charged as well.
According to prosecutors, the California man at the center of the scheme, identified as William Rick Singer, the founder of a for-profit college preparation business based in Newport Beach, California, would direct the bribe to an SAT or ACT administrator, who would then hire proctors to take the test on behalf of the students or correct the answers after the student had taken the test. When Singer or his associates bribed college coaches, the coach would allegedly create a fake profile of the student that listed the applicant as an athlete. According to the documents, most students did not know their admission was the result of a bribe.
Here are just a few of the best details from the largest college admittance scam ever to be prosecuted in the U.S.
Aunt Becky and Lynette Scavo
The actress Lori Loughlin, who is known for her role in Full House, allegedly arranged with her husband to pay a bribe of $500,000 to have their two daughters designated as recruits for the USC crew team, even though the two daughters did not participate in the sport, according to the charging documents. Those two teenage daughters are themselves Instagram influencers, and the younger daughter has more than 1 million social media followers.*
Felicity Huffman, who starred in Desperate Housewives and is married to the actor William H. Macy, allegedly “made a purported charitable contribution of $15,000” to have a proctor change her daughter’s answers on the SAT. Macy, who appears not to have been charged, is mentioned in the documents as helping to arrange the fraudulent SAT scores. Their bribe was disguised as a charitable donation for “educational programs [for] disadvantaged youth,” making it, as historian Angus Johnson pointed out on Twitter, tax deductible.
The two actresses have been charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services fraud, according to NBC News.
Code name: VARSITY BLUES
While this scandal has unearthed some of the less conventional ways in which influential and wealthy people break the rules to give their offspring a leg up in life (the more conventional way: donating enough to have a building named after you), it did show us a surprisingly fun side of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to NBC News, the FBI’s code name for the investigation was the undeniably excellent “OPERATION VARSITY BLUES.” According to the authorities, more than 200 federal agents launched investigations in six states after agents found evidence of fraud in a separate undercover investigation.
While some people allegedly coughed up bribes of just a few thousand dollars, the documents list the high end of the bribery: Someone allegedly paid $6 million—a sum that could probably get anyone’s child into college through more traditional means—in a fraudulent scheme.
According to the documents, fraudsters did more than just enter false information when they created profiles for their fake athletic recruits.
In what may be the best detail from the filing, we learned that Singer’s associates used Photoshop to place some applicants’ faces on photos of actual athletes’ bodies. According to one part of the filing, one alleged fraudster bought water polo gear from Amazon, and a graphic designer researched how to make the resulting photo appear authentic.
Parents deceiving children
The transcripts of emails and phone conversations in the filing show the lengths some parents went to not just to get their children into college but also to do it without their child’s knowledge. In one conversation, a mother told one of Singer’s co-conspirators, referred to in the filing as “Cooperating Witness-1,” that her son had become sick and could not fly to Houston to take the admissions test, as had been the plan. The mother then asked if CW-1, who lived in Florida, could take the test on her child’s behalf in Houston while she had her son take a copy of the test at home so he believed he had actually taken it.
Some of the teenagers may have been a little more clued in to their parents’ involvement, though, at least based on their apathy when dealing with the application process. Lori Laughlin’s younger daughter did not complete all of her college applications, according to the filing. CW-1 responded by telling an employee at the fraudulent business to submit the applications on her behalf.
Fake disability accommodations
According to the filing, CW-1 coached parents to invent medical conditions for their children so they would be given the opportunity to take tests at one of the facilities where Singer and his co-conspirators had allegedly bribed administrators. Huffman appears to have been one of the parents accused of faking or abusing her daughter’s disability in order to get the accommodation to allow her daughter to take the test alone with a prearranged proctor.
But even then, the parents allegedly would sometimes have to push to get the student to have one of their bribed proctors. At one point, after Huffman’s daughter’s school emailed Huffman to tell her that the school would serve as her daughter’s test center, Huffman forwarded the email to CW-1. “Ruh Ro!” she wrote. “Looks like [the school] wants to provide own proctor.” CW-1 wrote back that they would “speak about it.”
Bad handwriting, good photos
Transcripts from the conversations between the cooperating witnesses and the suspects made for a lot of great material, but the cherry on top came from some of the more visual evidence. As can be seen in the attachment in an email from one parent to CW-1, in which the parent fretted that their child “has not great writing”:
And from one falsified athlete photo:
Update, March 12, 2019, at 2:30 p.m.: This post has been updated with more details from the filing.
Correction, March 12, 2019, at 4:35 p.m.: This post originally misstated that both of Lori Loughlin’s daughters had more than 1 million social media followers.
Read more about the college admissions scandal in Slate.