Fifty people nationwide, including celebrities, powerful financiers, and university coaches, were charged on Tuesday in a massive alleged admissions bribery scam that illustrated how wealth and fraud enabled students with mediocre grades and unremarkable accomplishments to get into some of the country’s most elite institutions.
Federal prosecutors said wealthy parents tapped a California admissions counselor who helped their children cheat on the SAT and ACT exams and bribed college coaches to ensure that the students were flagged as athletic recruits, nearly guaranteeing them seats at institutions including Yale University and Georgetown University.
Families allegedly spent $100,000 to $6.5 million apiece to help their children cheat on tests, to produce Photoshopped applications showing their children playing water polo and pole vaulting, and to bribe college coaches, all to land a seat at these institutions.
The parents included two Hollywood actresses, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, the chairman of a worldwide law firm, real-estate developers, a vineyard owner, and an executive of a global equity firm.
“The parents charged today despite already being able to give their children every legitimate advantage in the college admissions game, instead chose to corrupt and illegally manipulate the system for their benefit,” said US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling of Massachusetts. “There can be no separate college admissions systems for the wealthy. And I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
Elite college admissions are already under intense scrutiny, and the cheating and bribery scandal will likely add fuel to arguments that the balance is dramatically tilted in favor of wealthy students.
In the same Boston federal courthouse where Lelling described the bribery scheme Tuesday, Harvard University spent weeks last year defending its admissions system in a separate case stemming from allegations that it discriminated against Asian-American applicants. The Harvard case is widely seen as a potential challenge to the use of race in admissions nationwide. A Boston federal district judge is likely to make a decision on that case in the coming months.
Nearly a dozen college coaches including those from Yale and Georgetown, along with Stanford University, the University of California Los Angeles, University of San Diego, University of Southern California, University of Texas at Austin, and Wake Forest University, were charged. Harvard is not implicated in the case brought Tuesday.
Federal officials said there is no evidence that the universities themselves were part of the bribery scheme. In most cases the coaches allegedly took the money for their own use, court documents said.
The investigation is ongoing and federal prosecutors said additional charges could be filed.
While no Massachusetts college coaches were charged in the scheme, federal officials said that several schools, including Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern University received the fake test scores from applicants.
The Boston-area FBI division launched the investigation, nicknamed “Operation Varsity Blues,” last May after receiving a lead out of an unrelated, undercover operation, federal officials said.
Many of the phone calls and meetings related to the scam occurred in Boston, investigators said.
Federal prosecutors allege that William “Rick” Singer, a 58-year-old California resident and a private college counseling veteran, was at the center of the conspiracy. Singer owned the Edge College & Career Network LLC and bragged to his wealthy clients that he offered a full-service, “side door” into many competitive institutions, according to court documents.
He deployed his own test proctors to take the exams for students and paid off people running the ACT and SAT test locations to ensure that his clients’ children got “a magnificent score,” Singer said in Boston federal court on Tuesday when he pleaded guilty to four felony counts.
Singer pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice. He is expected to face a maximum of 20 years in prison when he is sentenced in mid-June.
He told the judge he was “absolutely responsible” and “absolutely guilty” of the charges.
Singer said he offered his clients a way to circumvent the traditional admissions system — a highly competitive sorting process where tens of thousands of high school seniors compete every year for a small number of seats at elite colleges based on their merit and their potential to add to the culture and climate on campus.
In court, Singer said his clients were also able to avoid the more expensive and less certain method of admissions used by the wealthy: giving millions of dollars directly to universities for buildings and programs in order to win admissions for their children.
“When you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody, but there’s no guarantee they’re just gonna give you a second look,” Singer said in court documents as he pitched his services to a potential client.
Federal officials described an elaborate setup designed by Singer, where parents would send payments to a charity that Singer created to help underprivileged youth, and then the money would be funneled to pay off college coaches. Parents even got a tax write-off for donating to a nonprofit, investigators said.
Prosecutors said Singer ultimately “was paid approximately $25 million by clients to bribe coaches and university administrators.”
At USC, Singer made payments totaling approximately $350,000 to a private soccer club controlled by two USC coaches, prosecutors said. In exchange for the payments, the coaches designated four children of Singer’s clients as recruits for the soccer team, even though none of them played competitive soccer.
At Georgetown, prosecutors said, Singer paid then-tennis coach Gordon Ernst more than $2.7 million to designate 12 applicants as recruits for the team, even though some did not play competitively.
And at Stanford, sailing coach John Vandemoer allegedly agreed to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school’s sailing program to clear the way for two students — who lacked the sailing skills required to compete at the Division 1 level — to become part of his team so they could gain admission to the school.
Vandemoer pleaded guilty on Tuesday one count of racketeering conspiracy.
Lelling, the US attorney, called the parents “a catalog of wealth and privilege.’’
Huffman, the “Desperate Housewives’’ star, was one of about a dozen people taken into custody Tuesday in Los Angeles.
Court documents say Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so her daughter could take part in the cheating scam.
The documents state a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he ‘‘controlled’’ a testing center and could have somebody secretly change her daughter’s answers.
Macy attended his wife’s initial court appearance. He has not been charged.
Loughlin, another actress, was also charged but was not taken into custody Tuesday. Her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, was arrested at their home.
The universities named in the investigation issued statements on Tuesday, distancing themselves from the alleged criminal activity. Many said they have hired lawyers to look into the alleged schemes.
USC said it has dismissed two employees who were indicted in the bribery scheme. The university said Tuesday that senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic were fired.
USC is conducting an internal investigation and reviewing its admissions process and identifying any funds received by the school in connection with the alleged scheme. The university said it is cooperating with the federal investigation.
UCLA has placed head men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo on leave, the school said, calling the allegations “deeply disturbing.”
Georgetown said Ernst has not coached its tennis team since December 2017, when he was placed on leave over separate irregularities in his recruitment practices. He left the university in 2018 after an internal investigation found he had violated university rules over admissions. Georgetown was not aware of any acceptance of bribes until it was contacted by federal investigators, university officials said.
How widespread the alleged fraud and bribery scheme is remained unclear on Tuesday.
But Singer’s attorney Donald H. Heller suggested that such tactics were not unusual in the competitive world of college admissions.
Singer’s efforts to get his clients’ children into top universities “got out of control,” Heller said.
“I am sure there will be more things coming out,” Heller said. “I would not be shocked if there weren’t others doing the same things.”
Martin Finucane, Milton J. Valencia, Shelley Murphy, and Laura Krantz of the Globe staff contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.