Celebs charged with fraud in buying their children’s admission to top colleges

Federal authorities on Tuesday charged 46 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and college coaches and administrators, in an alleged scheme to win admission to prestigious universities for the children of wealthy parents.

At a press conference Tuesday, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling called the scheme the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.” Yale, Stanford and Georgetown universities were among the schools identified as having been duped into accepting unqualified applicants.

Lelling said the operation, allegedly run out of a Newport Beach, Calif., college-admissions coaching company, had several parts, including coaching applicants to cheat on SAT and ACT admissions tests and bribing athletic coaches to identify applicants as potential recruits who could be admitted under athletic waivers requiring lower academic standards.

Among those charged in what law-enforcement officials called Operation Varsity Blues are 33 parents, the owner of the California firm, SAT and ACT test administrators, an exam proctor, a college administrator and college coaches. The FBI said that many of the students — some of whom have already graduated — were kept in the dark by their parents and didn’t know about the scheme. No students were indicted.

William Singer, who ran the California company, called Key Worldwide Foundation, was charged with racketeering, money laundering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Singer, according to Lelling, laundered money he received from parents under the guise of charitable donations. He is one of two charged as co-conspirators who Lelling said he expected to enter guilty pleas Tuesday.

“Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Singer about $25 million in total to guarantee their children’s admission to elite schools such as Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, USC, University of Texas, UCLA and Wake Forest,” said Lelling, adding, “We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud.”

“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” added Lelling. “They include, for example, CEOs of private and public companies, successful securities and real estate investors, two well-known actresses, a famous fashion designer and a co-chair of a global law firm.”

Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. (Photos: Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images, Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. (Photos: Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images, Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

For Singer’s services, the majority of parents paid between $250,000 and $400,000 per student, payments Singer in part used to bribe college officials, Division I coaches and college exam administrators.

He counseled parents to get letters from therapists requesting their children receive more time to take admissions exams. He paid confederates to register for online high school classes in the students’ names, to improve their grade-point averages. And he worked with parents to create fake athletic profiles for their children, including staging photographs and Photoshopping students’ faces onto stock images, to fill slots allotted by schools for student athletes.

Lelling implicated the head women’s soccer coach at Yale who “in exchange for $400,000 accepted an applicant as a recruit for the Yale women’s team despite knowing the applicant did not even play competitive soccer.”

Others charged include a senior associate athletic director at the University of Southern California (USC), Wake Forest’s women’s volleyball coach, tennis coaches from Georgetown and Texas, Stanford’s sailing coach and the coaches of USC’s men’s and women’s soccer and water polo teams. According to the indictment, they were allegedly bribed “to designate applicants as purported athletic recruits — regardless of their athletic abilities, and in some cases, even though they did not play the sport, they were purportedly recruited to play.”

Huffman, the Oscar-nominated actress, allegedly paid, together with her husband, $15,000 disguised as a charitable donation for her daughter to take the SAT at a “controlled” testing center where a special proctor would correct answers without the daughter’s knowledge. Huffman’s husband is the actor William H. Macy, who was not named or charged in the indictment.

Huffman and Loughlin were charged with mail fraud.

Huffman’s online brand, What The Flicka?, sells mugs that read “Good Enough Mom.” As of Tuesday morning, the mugs were deeply discounted.

Lori Loughlin, Olivia Jade Giannulli and Isabella Rose Giannulli. (Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for Sephora Collection)
From left, Lori Loughlin, Olivia Jade Giannulli and Isabella Rose Giannulli celebrate the launch of the Olivia Jade X Sephora collaboration on Dec. 14, 2018, in West Hollywood. (Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for Sephora Collection)

Loughlin, known for her role as Aunt Becky on “Full House,” and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, “agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team — despite the fact that they did not participate in crew — thereby facilitating their admission to USC,” according to the released indictment.

Loughlin’s daughters, Isabella Rose Giannulli, 20, and Olivia Jade Giannulli, 19, are both enrolled at University of Southern California. Olivia Jade Giannulli posted photos of herself in a USC college dorm room last summer in a promo ad sponsored by Amazon.

In 2017, before Isabella Rose enrolled, Loughlin was asked on the “Today” show how she was preparing for her daughter’s departure for college. Loughlin said, “I think that I’m in complete denial. I really am. Because when I think about it too much, it will make me cry.”

Last year, before attending USC, Olivia Jade explained in a YouTube video that she wasn’t actually all that interested in education, preferring to concentrate on her career as a beauty influencer on YouTube. “With work, it’s going to be hard. My first week of school, I’m leaving to go to Fiji for work.”

She continued: “I don’t know how much of school I’m going to attend. But I’m going to go in and talk to my deans and everyone and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of like game days, partying … I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”