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A network of affluent parents were this week accused of using audacious practices to secure their children places at elite US universities. What exactly is alleged?
“What we do is we help the wealthiest families in America get their kids into school.”
It was quite the mission statement.
The words were spoken by the alleged kingpin of United States’ biggest ever university admissions scam, William “Rick” Singer, according to prosecutors.
He was making a pitch to a potential client, a wealthy New York lawyer, explaining the ways to get his child into a prestigious university.
There were the normal channels – which rich people did not want to be “messing around with”, he said. And then there was the back door and the side door.
The back door necessitated contributing to “institutional advancement” – ie family connections or a multi-million-dollar donation, such as funding a new building, which is all legal.
But the side door – the one that Singer had his foot jammed in and has drawn the attention of the authorities – was more accessible.
He could guarantee success, he said. All you had to do was make a “financial commitment”.
On Tuesday, reams of FBI documents were unsealed from “Operation Varsity Blues”, an investigation named after a 1990s film about the pressures of sports scholarships.
The case looked at a period between 2011 and 2018, when, according to the authorities, $25m in bribes were paid by people looking to sneak around the usual university admittance process.
Fifty people – including 33 parents and various sports coaches – were indicted.
“I have never seen anything like this,” Lenore Pearlstein, publisher of Insight Into Diversity magazine, which is dedicated to making higher education and business more inclusive in the US. “The depth of it, the number of people involved, the amounts of money. It’s mindboggling.”
It feels like a “slap in the face” for those genuinely trying to make change, she told the BBC.
Among the most jaw-dropping revelations was the alleged involvement of Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
“Ruh roh!” as Huffman might say.
The authorities alleged the star of TV series Desperate Housewives using this Scooby Do expression in email exchanges with Singer.
According to the FBI, she was responding to news – in October 2017 – that her daughter’s school wanted to use their own exam invigilator, rather than a compromised one who would be able to boost her scores.
She allegedly emailed her concerns to Mr Singer. “We will speak about it,” he reportedly replied.
Rick Singer, a Californian life coach in his late 50s, presented himself as an expert in the university admissions process.
He wrote books about it, including the self-published Getting In: Gaining Admission to Your College of Choice, which opened with an inspirational quote from Nelson Mandela.
However, he kept his more illicit techniques within a closer circle.
The FBI has traced his scam back to 2011. It is not known if this was a particular turning point in his three-decade career.
In 2014, he founded a non-profit organisation called Key Worldwide, which claimed to help “disadvantaged students around the world”. The website said it would “open doors” for young people escaping troubles such as gang violence.
However, according to the authorities, the organisation functioned as a slush fund. It became a façade through which payments could be funnelled as “charity donations”. Singer pocketed some of the cash and paid the rest in bribes to those who could help him get the results he guaranteed.
Over time he had developed two possible paths to success. One would involve manipulating exam results. The other would involve securing special treatment – most typically via faked sporting prowess.
According to the FBI, the two Hollywood actresses went down separate routes.
Huffman, Macy and the ‘exam plot’
The authorities claim that Felicity Huffman knew she needed to send her oldest daughter to a specific exam centre in West Hollywood to follow the plan. Hence the “ruh-roh” when it nearly went wrong.
Singer had connections there.
It is alleged that he would typically suggest his clients faked learning disabilities for their children and then, once they got a medical certificate, they would be granted extra time and could make a more believable case for switching to external exam centre.
Huffman had allegedly already secured 100% extra time for her daughter’s SAT (college entrance) exam. It is unclear how.
Apparently, this was not enough.
The next step involved bringing in someone else to take the test for her.
Singer often used the services of a man called Mark Riddell. He was in his mid-30s, an ex-tennis professional, and the director of college entrance exam preparation at a boarding school in Florida.
According to the FBI, he would fly in, take the test for students in a hotel room, or sneak them the correct answers in the exam room, or inflate their scores when they finished. Sometimes he would be given a sample of the teen’s handwriting so he could copy it.
Riddell did not know the questions in advance, according to Massachusetts Attorney General Andrew Lelling. He was “just a really smart guy”.
It is not yet known how Huffman first came into contact with Singer.
In 2017, he visited the Los Angeles home she shares with her long-term partner, William H Macy, the star of Shameless and Fargo, the court documents say.
The couple – who met in the early 80s and married in 1997 – are not usually caught in negative headlines. Macy’s hobbies reportedly include woodturning and playing the ukulele, while Huffman has been running a wholesome parenting site, What The Flicka, based on her childhood nickname.
They have been known to post loving messages to each other on social media.
Early on Tuesday morning, FBI agents turned up at their door.
Only Huffman was indicted. The crime she stands accused of relates to mail fraud, which is when communication methods are used to conduct a scheme that intentionally deprives another of property or honest services. Macy has not been charged.
Neither has commented publicly.
The couple made a $15,000 payment to the Key Worldwide Foundation for their older daughter’s exam scheme, according to court documents.
In an art-mirrors-life twist, it was the exact same amount that Huffman’s character in Desperate Housewives had paid to a headmaster in an episode about corrupt schools admissions.
In real life, her older daughter’s exam score jumped 400 points – a huge leap – after Singer’s involvement, it is claimed.
If those claims are proven, Huffman and Macy appear to have secured a bargain. Many people paid hundreds of thousands for his help. He usually paid $10,000 to the surrogate test-taker alone.
The sports scam
Academic manipulation was only one side of this story, and the alleged sports scam was even more outrageous.
Singer was taking students with no prowess, and turning them into sporting stars on their applications, it is claimed.
In some cases he would arrange for their heads to be Photoshopped on to more sporty bodies. In others, their basic stats would be manipulated – one basketball player had his height changed from 5ft 5in to 6ft 1in, presumably betting on a once-you’re-in-you’re-in outcome.
Police found their first strong piece of evidence of this scheme during a wiretapped encounter in a hotel room in Boston, Massachusetts, according to the Boston Globe.
The newspaper says that investigators had been working on an entirely different story – alleged fraud in the stock market – when they received an unexpected tip.
A financial executive told them a sports coach from Yale University, Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, asked for a bribe to help the businessman’s daughter gain admittance to the Ivy League school.
The executive agreed to wear a recording device and meet Meredith, who then offered to designate the young woman as a member of his soccer team.
Meredith – as well as Singer and Riddell – have been working with the police, hoping to reduce their sentences.
Sports bring in such huge amounts of money and prestige to US universities that they will often lower academic requirements to bring in new talent.
“Student athletes often have excellent leadership qualities and excel both in the classroom and on the field, recognising that makes sense for colleges looking for the best students,” says Eric Yaverbaum, author of Life’s Little College Admissions Insights.
“The hard work it requires to be a student athlete is what makes the fact that some of these parents took advantage of this route so disturbing. It’s appalling that some parents and coaches betrayed those students by buying and selling those coveted positions.”
The daughters of Full House actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli were not outstanding sportswomen.
However, the couple allegedly spent $500,000 to get them into University of Southern California by presenting them as accomplished rowers. They have not commented since the charge were filed.
After getting her place, their youngest daughter, Olivia Jade, made matters worse by bragging online, saying she would rather be concentrating on her Instagram career. She is an influencer and has 1.3 million followers.
“I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend but I’m gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all,” she said on her YouTube channel. “But I do want the experience of like game days, partying… I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”
She has since apologised for her comments, but the backlash has been huge.
It is not clear how much any of the children knew about the alleged plots. According to the court documents, some were involved, at least to a certain degree, while others were in the dark.
“[The entire scandal] is a perfect example of the entitlement that comes with wealth and privilege,” adds author Eric Yaverbaum.
“We knew the system was unfair (after all, wealthy parents can pay for multiple test retakes and expensive tutoring, and the wealthiest can pledge large donations to a school just as their children are applying), but we didn’t know wealthy parents were taking it even further. In either case, it only reiterates the need for the admissions process to be re-evaluated.”
In recent days, the US media has uncovered that Loughlin’s Full House character, Aunt Becky, was also involved in a school cheating story – perhaps indicating just how common the idea is, at least in theory.
In real life, however, the story unfolding in the news has outdone the scriptwriters.
Though the focus may have been on the two actresses so far, the rest of the cast of real-life characters is almost as intriguing.
Other parents indicted include a self-help author, a casino operator and a Napa Valley vineyard owner.
One of the many questions outstanding is – who will play whom in the inevitable TV adaption?