By Nelson Oliveira, Nancy Dillon and Ben Chapman
New York Daily News
Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among dozens of people charged Tuesday in a nationwide college admissions cheating scandal, accused of paying up to $6 million to get their kids into elite schools.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston described it as the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted in the country. It implicates athletic coaches, exam administrators and rich parents across numerous states.
The schools include Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest and the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors said.
Huffman, who played Lynette Scavo on the ABC series "Desperate Housewives," and Loughlin, known for her role as Aunt Becky on the ABC sitcom "Full House" and its Netflix spin-off "Fuller House," were each charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Loughlin's husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, was charged with the same offenses.
Prosecutors said Loughlin and Giannulli paid $500,000 in bribes to have their two daughters recruited by the USC crew team, even though they did not participate in the sport — helping them get admitted.
Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said in a news conference Tuesday that families paid a combined $25 million, mostly funneled through charitable accounts, to bribe coaches and university administrators between 2011 and 2019.
William Rick Singer, founder of a college preparation business in California, was the leader of the scam and was expected to plead guilty Tuesday, Lelling said.
Parents would pay Singer to have someone take an SAT or ACT exam for their child or correct the test afterward, Lelling said. Singer also paid coaches to designate unqualified applicants as athletes and would sometimes help families fabricate a profile for their children, sometimes using Photoshop to digitally alter stock photos with an applicant's face, the U.S. attorney said.
"There can be no separate college admission for the wealthy," Lelling said, adding that "honest, genuinely talented students were rejected."
Joseph Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in Boston, called the actions of the 33 parents involved "selfish" and "shameful." The real victims, he said, are the "hardworking students who did everything they could" to get accepted into those schools, but "ended up being shut out because far less qualified students and their families bought their way in."
The investigation, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, began last May.
While the scandal is unprecedented in its scale and scope, educators agree that corruption in U.S. college admissions has been on the rise for years. Experts say scandals in college admissions have escalated as average yearly U.S. college tuition costs skyrocketed from $4,885 in 1985 to $39,011 in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
As more money flows into the higher education industry, so do opportunities for bribery, cheating and other types of fraud.
A 2018 suit alleged that a Vietnamese mom paid $1.5 million to a Manhattan college admissions consultant called the Ivy Coach to help get her kid into a prestigious prep school and Ivy League college. A 2009 investigation found that the University of Illinois gave preferential treatment to applicants with connections to politicians and those who supported the school financially.
In 2011, 20 teenagers from five Long Island high schools were charged after a fraud investigation found that high-scoring students used fake IDs to take SAT and ACT college admission exams for other students who paid them to take the test. After the scandal, the College Board, a for-profit company that administers the exams, promised to tighten security.
Authorities said most parents in the Varsity Blues case tried to conceal the plan from their child, but there were cases in which children did know about it.
At least 14 people were charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, two were charged with money laundering conspiracy and one was charged with conspiracy to defraud United States.
Huffman and Giannulli were arrested Tuesday morning and were expected to appear in court Tuesday afternoon.
A rep for Loughlin said Tuesday she had "no info to share at this time."
USC President Wanda Austin said in a statement that the university would review admission decisions and identify funds connected to the alleged scam, among other actions.
"It is immensely disappointing that individuals would abuse their position at the university this way," she wrote.