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LA’s elite on edge as prosecutors pursue more parents in admissions scandal

Actress Felicity Huffman, center, left federal court in Boston on Wednesday, April 3.
Actress Felicity Huffman, center, left federal court in Boston on Wednesday, April 3.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

LOS ANGELES — Federal prosecutors are pursuing a new set of parents in the college admissions fraud scandal, sending ripples of fear through elite circles in Southern California and stirring speculation about which well-heeled executive or celebrity might be the next to be charged.

The prosecutors have informed some of the parents — the exact number is unclear — that they are under investigation in the nation’s largest-ever college admissions probe, according to four defense lawyers. During a trip to Los Angeles in April, the lead prosecutor conferred with lawyers for at least two of these parents.

At the same time, defense lawyers say that a larger array of parents is worried that they, too, will be targeted and is scrambling to hire lawyers and figure out what to do. And, even with these new lines of investigation underway, prosecutors said that they have sent target letters to three students, raising the prospect that the students could face criminal charges and compounding their families’ anxieties.

William Singer, the college consultant at the center of the scheme, was based in Newport Beach, and many of his clients were in the Los Angeles area. Some of those clients are now grappling with a secret, nerve-racking waiting game, while fellow parents openly gloat about cheaters getting their due or whisper about which high school senior might have benefited from some shady help.

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“For many of these people, this is the only thing they can think about,” said one defense lawyer in Los Angeles whose firm represents multiple parents who have not been charged, some of whom have been in contact with the government. He declined to be quoted by name, citing concerns about how that might affect his firm’s clients.

He said these clients have watched as the 33 parents already charged have been publicly shamed. They worry that they, too, could be exposed for having ties to Singer, and that, like the parents already charged, they could have been caught on recorded phone calls talking about their children and their prospects for college.

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This story is based on interviews with seven defense lawyers and more than a dozen parents at Los Angeles private schools where families have been implicated in the scandal.

Christina Sterling, spokeswoman for the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, which has brought the case, declined to answer specific questions about who will next face charges but said: “I can confirm that the investigation remains active, including potentially charging additional defendants.”

Ever since prosecutors first announced that they were charging 50 people in a brazen scheme involving cheating on college entrance exams and millions of dollars in bribes paid to secure spots at schools like the University of Southern California, Yale and Stanford, they have said that they believed more parents were out there who had taken part in the scam. The prosecutors have alluded to one family, so far not charged and not named, who they say paid $6.5 million — more than any other family — for their child to be admitted to an unnamed college as a recruited athlete.

The prosecutors have acknowledged that they are pursuing new targets, writing in a recent court filing that it was important to limit dissemination of discovery materials because they would include “information concerning uncharged co-conspirators and targets of the investigation who have not yet been publicly charged.”

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In a federal courtroom in Boston on Monday, the lead prosecutor, Eric S. Rosen, an assistant U.S. attorney, suggested that there were more students who may have been admitted to USC as recruited athletes based on fabricated qualifications than is publicly known so far.

He also alluded to evidence of additional families — not charged at this point — who he said initially pursued the admissions scheme for their children before backing out of it, saying, “There are a lot of kids or parents who at the beginning plotted with Singer and then withdrew for a variety of reasons.”

Of the parents, coaches and others already charged in the case, 20 people, including actress Felicity Huffman, have pleaded guilty or agreed to do so. Singer, who cooperated with the government in its investigation, has pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges. Thirty others, including actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, have pleaded not guilty.

It’s unclear for the moment how many additional parents have newly been told by the government that they are under investigation, but some of the parents are considering pleading guilty, while others believe they have done nothing illegal, according to two defense lawyers who represent some of them.

Among a contingent of white-collar defense lawyers in Los Angeles and Boston, seemingly everyone either already has a client in the case or is considering taking one. The lawyers who are new to the case — whose clients have not been charged but are waiting and worrying — are calling their colleagues who are already immersed in it for orientation, asking for their assessments of Rosen and other basic information (such as what kind of plea deals the government has offered and whether defendants have received discovery yet).

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The prosecutors’ steps to investigate additional parents already have moved beyond phone calls and target letters: They have issued subpoenas seeking banking records, information from accountants and phone logs, according to two defense lawyers representing families who are now targets.

Meanwhile, there is a different group of Southern California parents — people who had hired Singer but haven’t heard from the prosecutors at all — who are worried enough to have hired lawyers anyway. Several of them are weighing whether to volunteer themselves to authorities, in the hopes of lenient treatment, or whether to lay low and hope their circumstances do not draw notice.

Even as three students have received target letters from prosecutors, numerous others also have hired lawyers to deal with a separate problem — potential discipline from their schools.

At USC, about two dozen current students have been notified that their admission is being investigated by the student judicial affairs office. In recent weeks, lawyers for the students have been shuttling to campus almost daily to meet with university officials. Once the investigation is complete, officials will determine whether students will face sanctions, which could be as severe as expulsion.

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Adding to a sense of confusion and worry for families tied to the case is lingering uncertainty about why some people have been charged and others have not. Two students connected to the scandal have already been removed from their colleges, although neither they nor their parents have been criminally charged. Yale rescinded the admission of Sherry Guo, a 21-year-old freshman whose parents paid Singer $1.2 million in connection with her application. Stanford rescinded the admission of a student who has not been publicly named who worked with Singer and whose application, prosecutors say, contained fabricated sailing credentials.

At Los Angeles’ exclusive private schools, the case has changed the mood in recent weeks as seniors were receiving college acceptance notifications.

Even before the charges were announced, parents at the schools said, people seemed to keep quiet about measures they were taking to boost their children’s chances, from hiring testing preparation tutors to calling on connections at universities. Now many were speculating about which families had hired Singer and what lengths they had gone to.

The mother of a junior at a school where some families had hired Singer said the entire episode had left her skeptical about some of the students’ college acceptances. The mother declined to be named, saying she feared harming her school’s reputation.

“If their parents are friends with some of the people who were indicted, you start to wonder, ‘Huh, did they do something?’” she said. “It’s terrible to cast doubt on these children’s real achievements but you wonder, ‘Who cheated?’”