Dozens of people are facing charges in a nationwide college bribery plot, US Attorney Andrew Lelling of Massachusetts announced Tuesday, in what he called “the largest college admission scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.”
Here’s how the scheme operated, as outlined by officials at a Tuesday press conference.
How did it work?
William “Rick” Singer was the ringleader of the scam, officials said. Singer ran a for-profit college counseling service called the Edge College & Career Network LLC (also known as “The Key”), and also used a charity he created, Key Worldwide Foundation, as a front to accept bribes from wealthy parents to help “guarantee” that their kids get into elite schools.
Singer used two main ways to give his clients’ children a leg up: by fixing their SAT or ACT scores to submit to colleges, and by bribing sports coaches to recruit them.
He also sometimes arranged for someone to take online high school classes in place of certain students, so that those students could submit higher grades to colleges.
“What Singer was good at doing was calibrating fake credentials to appear realistic, but not so impressive as to invite suspicion or additional scrutiny,” Lelling said.
How much did parents pay?
Between 2011 and 2018, parents paid Singer a total of $25 million in the bribery scheme, officials said. He used the money to bribe college officials, coaches, and exam administrators, and kept some for himself, Lelling said.
Singer was paid by parents anywhere between $100,000 and $6.5 million, but the majority paid him between $250,000 and $400,000 per student, Lelling said.
“There should be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either,” Lelling said.
To add insult to injury, Singer’s clients submitted their payments to his charity, and the charity would then send them a letter saying that no goods or services were exchanged.
“This enabled the parents to not only mask the true nature of the payment, but also take a tax writeoff at the end of the year,” Lelling said.
How did the SAT/ACT scheme work?
Numerous parents paid Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 to have someone either take the SAT or ACT for their child, or to correct their answers afterward, Lelling said.
To achieve this, Lelling said, Singer would tell the parents to have a therapist say their son or daughter needed additional time to take the test because of “purported learning disabilities.” Once the testing companies agreed to allot the extra time, arrangements would be made to have the student take the exam individually with one of the bribed exam administrators in either Houston or California, Lelling said.
“At those test centers, Singer had established relationships with test administrators Niki Williams and Igor Dvorskiy, respectively, who accepted bribes of as much as $10,000 per test in order to facilitate the cheating scheme,” a statement from Lelling’s office said.
Then, Williams and Dvorskiy allowed a third individual, typically Mark Riddell, to take the exams in place of the students, to give the students the correct answers, or to correct the students’ answers afterwards. Singer typically paid Ridell $10,000 for each student’s test.
“He did not have inside info about correct answers. He was just smart enough to get a near perfect score on demand, or to calibrate the score,” Lelling said during the press conference, although it wasn’t immediately clear if he was talking about Singer or Riddell.
Singer would discuss with his clients beforehand what kind of score they were looking for on the exam, Lelling said, and then decide on an action from there.
“So if a client’s daughter took the SAT on her own the first time, and got a particular score, when retaking the exam, if her score goes up too much, that would invite scrutiny,” Lelling said. “Singer would discuss what kind of score was impressive but not too impressive, and then would instruct Riddell to attempt to get that score, and he was just good enough to do it.”
Lelling said that Riddell would either take an exam in place of the student, or correct answers after the student handed it in.
“That would be submitted to the college board or ETS [Educational Testing Service], or the ACT Incorporation, and it would just be scored under that person’s name,” Lelling said.
Interestingly, in some cases, parents said it was important that their child not know that their test was being doctored.
“In those instances, the student would take the exam, and someone working for Singer would come in afterward, correct enough of the answers, and submit the exam,” Lelling said.
Some, however, included their kids in the scheme.
“One particular defendant and his daughter were on a conference call with Singer to discuss the scam,” Lelling said, adding that there was a “pretty wide range of how parents tried to play this. Singer tried to accommodate whatever the parents wanted to do.”
How did the sports recruitment scheme work?
One other aspect that Singer used, Lelling said, was to bribe coaches of college sports teams to use the spots allocated to them by the university for recruitment for his client’s children — even if that student had never played the sport before.
“Singer worked with the parents to fabricate impressive athletic profiles for their kids, including fake athletic credentials or honors, and fake participation in elite club teams,” Lelling said.
In many instances, Singer helped parents take staged photos of their children engaged in a particular sport, such as rowing or water polo, Lelling said.
The most egregious cases involved Singer and his associates pulling stock photos off the Internet and Photoshopping the student’s face onto an athlete’s body, Lelling said.
In one example, Lelling said the head women’s soccer coach at Yale, Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, in exchange for $400,000, accepted an applicant as a recruit for the team despite knowing the applicant did not play competitive soccer.
“The student was in fact admitted, and afterward, the student’s family paid Singer $1.2 million for that service,” Lelling said.
The coaches that accepted the bribes sometimes would invest a portion of that money in the program; in fact, Lelling said, one coach did not keep any money for himself.
“Some took all of it for themselves; most gave some portion to the school’s program and took some for their own use,” he said.
As for what the students would do when they arrived on campus and couldn’t actually play the sport they were recruited for?
“Some simply never showed up for athletics, some pretended injury, some played briefly then quit,” Lelling said.
Who exactly is involved?
In addition to Singer, the exam administrators, and the coaches, more than 30 parents were charged. They include actresses Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”) and Lori Loughlin (“Full House”), as well as a “famous fashion designer,” Lelling said. Huffman specifically took advantage of the SAT scheme, he said.
He described the parents as “a catalog of wealth and privilege” and included CEOs of both public and private companies, securities and real estate investors, and the cochairman of a global law firm.
“The parents charged today, despite already being able to give their children every legitimate advantage in the college admissions game, instead decided to corrupt and manipulate the system,” Lelling said. “We’re not talking about donating a building so the school is more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud, fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, and bribed college officials.”
Additionally, Lelling said the investigation remains active and said more parents and coaches could be involved in the scheme.
“We will be moving ahead to look for additional targets,” he said.
What schools were named?
Among the schools that were named in connection to the scheme: Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, University of Southern California, University of Texas, UCLA, and Wake Forest.
Were the universities aware?
As of Tuesday, the universities that have been named are not seen as coconspirators, Lelling said. “Right now, the schools themselves are not targets of this investigation,” he said.
Were there any Boston schools named?
Yes — Lelling said fake test scores were submitted to Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern University, but he did not elaborate beyond that.
He also noted that Northeastern may have been involved in a particular plot: “One of the defendants entered a quid pro quo with Singer, where Singer would help that defendant’s student commit fraud, and in exchange, the parent would help one of Singer’s other clients with admission to Northeastern University.”
Lelling did not elaborate further but said more details on that particular incident would be available in the complaint.
Meanwhile, Lelling also mentioned that two of the defendants live in Massachusetts and said a lot of the conspiratorial activity — such as phone calls and meetings — happened here.
How was the scheme uncovered?
Joseph Bonavolonta, who heads up the FBI’s Boston branch, said the investigation began last May “after we uncovered evidence of large-scale, elaborate fraud when working an unrelated undercover operation.”
Following 10 months of “intense investigative efforts using a variety of sophisticated techniques,” the FBI uncovered “what we believe is a rigged system,” he said.
He did not elaborate any further on how the case was uncovered.
Lelling said the first lead in the current case was a target of the other investigation and that person gave a tip “that this activity was going on.”
What consequences will those charged face?
Lelling said some of the statutes that people were charged under “have high maximums,” but as for providing the highest sentence someone might face, “it’s too premature for that.” He added, “Some of these bribes are substantial.”
He said Singer has agreed to plead guilty to racketeering, among other charges. (Singer, indeed, pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon.) Some of the charges Singer is facing carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison each.
Many of the parents were charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, which can also carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
What will happen to the students?
Because most of the activity in the investigation is fairly current, the vast majority of students admitted under false pretenses are currently enrolled at the schools, Lelling said.
However, “it’s not an accident no students were charged,” Lelling said. “The parents, the other defendants, are clearly the prime movers of this fraud. It remains to be seen whether we charge any of the students.”
Just to note: The FBI’s name for the operation?
Operation Varsity Blues.
How can I find out more?
Officials have released the complaint in the case, which can be read below.