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Fifty people, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged over a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation's most elite colleges.
Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the US Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $US25 million in bribes.
At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance, fashion, manufacturing and other fields, were among those charged. Dozens, including Huffman, the Emmy-winning star of ABC's Desperate Housewives, were arrested by midday.
"These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege," US Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the results of an investigation code-named Operation Varsity Blues.
The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.
No students were charged, with authorities saying that in many cases the teenagers were not aware of what was going on. And several of the colleges involved made no mention of expelling or taking any other action against the students.
The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions — sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents — and that privilege begets privilege.
College consultants were not exactly shocked by the allegations.
"This story is the proof that there will always be a market for parents who have the resources and are desperate to get their kid one more success," said Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. "This was shopping for name-brand product and being willing to spend whatever it took."
Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to falsely make their children look like star athletes to boost their chances of getting into college. The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students, and paid off insiders at testing centres to correct students' answers.
Parents spent anywhere from $US200,000 to $US6.5 million to guarantee their children's admission, officials said.
"For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected," Lelling said.
Several defendants, including Huffman, were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, he said.
The investigation began when authorities received a tip about the scheme from someone they were interviewing in a separate case, Lelling said. He did not elaborate.
Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball accepted bribes to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. That, in turn, improved their chances of admission.
Prosecutors said parents were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves and get extra time, too. That made it easier to pull off the tampering, prosecutors said.
The fraud included staged photographs of students playing sports, and other photos that were doctored to superimpose applicants' faces on the bodies of athletes, authorities said. In one instance involving a student who was being presented as a rower, the participants talked about looking for photos online of a person in a boat where it was "tough to see the face," according to court papers.
Among the parents charged were Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Connecticut, a co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York; Jane Buckingham, CEO of a boutique marketing company in Los Angeles; Gregory Abbott of New York, founder and chairman of a packaging company; and Manuel Henriquez, CEO of a finance company based in Palo Alto, California. Telephone and email messages seeking comment from them were not immediately returned.
Caplan was accused of paying $75,000 to get a test supervisor to correct the answers on her daughter's ACT exam after she took it. In a conversation last June with a cooperating witness, he was told his daughter needed to "be stupid" when a psychologist evaluated her for learning disabilities, according to court papers.
"It's the home run of home runs," the witness said.
"And it works?" Caplan asked.
"Every time," the witness responded, prompting laughter from both.
At one point, Caplan asked if schools were "concerned with this."
"Schools don't know. Schools don't know," the witness said.
The bribes allegedly were dispensed through an admissions consulting company in Newport Beach, California. Authorities said parents paid William "Rick" Singer, the founder of the Edge College & Career Network, big money to get their children into college.
Singer pleaded guilty in Boston on Tuesday to racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. John Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford, was also expected to plead guilty.
Colleges moved quickly to discipline the coaches and distance themselves from the scandal, portraying themselves as victims. Stanford fired Vandemoer, UCLA suspended its soccer coach, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach. USC said it is reviewing its admissions process to prevent such abuses.
In one case, a former USC women's soccer coach and the consultant allegedly worked together in 2017 to help a client's child get into Yale in exchange for $US1.2 million from the family. A false athletic profile created for the student said she played competitive soccer and had been on China's junior national development team.
The profile was sent to the coach of the Yale women's soccer team and the student was accepted. Prosecutors said the Yale coach, Rudolph Meredith, received $400,000 from the consulting company after the student was admitted, even though he knew the student did not play competitive soccer.
Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom Full House in the 1980s and '90s. Huffman, in addition to starring in Desperate Housewives, was nominated for an Oscar for playing a transgender woman in the 2005 movie Transamerica.
She also starred in the TV show Sports Night and appeared in such films as "Reversal of Fortune," ''Magnolia" and "The Spanish Prisoner."
Messages seeking comment from Huffman's representative were not immediately returned. A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment.
Loughlin and her husband allegedly gave $US500,000 to have their two daughters labelled as recruits to the USC crew team, even though neither participated in the sport. Their 19-year-old daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, a social media star with a popular YouTube channel, attends USC.
Court documents said Huffman paid $US15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the college entrance-exam cheating scam.
Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, Shameless actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he "controlled" a testing centre and could have somebody secretly change her daughter's answers. The person told investigators the couple agreed to the plan.
Macy was not charged; authorities did not say why.
Macy told Parade magazine in January that the college application process for their daughter was a source of stress. The couple's daughter, Sofia, is an aspiring actress who attends Los Angeles High School of the Arts.
"She's going to go to college. I'm the outlier in this thing. We're right now in the thick of college application time, which is so stressful," Macy said.
Sklarow, the independent education consultant, said the scandal "certainly speaks to the fact that the admissions process is broken."
"It's so fraught with anxiety, especially at the elite schools," he said, "that I think it can't be surprising that millionaires who have probably never said no to their kids are trying to play the system in order to get their child accepted."