Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
(BOSTON) — The first batch of defendants ensnared in a nationwide college entrance scam are expected to appear in a Boston courtroom on Monday to face charges stemming from a federal investigation alleging dozens of wealthy parents, including chief executive officers and Hollywood actresses, lied and paid massive bribes to get their children into elite schools.
At least 14 of the 50 people charged in the scandal earlier this month have been ordered to attend the first in a series of hearings on Boston federal court.
Those indicted in the investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” allegedly paid bribes of up to $6.5 million to get their children into some of the nation’s top colleges, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors said.
Federal prosecutors say the ringleader of the scam, William “Rick” Singer, bought off numerous coaches, college entrance exam administrators, one exam proctor and a college administrator to help him in his years-long scheme to academically benefit the children of wealthy families.
Singer has pleaded guilty in a Boston federal court to charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice.
Among the 33 parents indicted are Academy Award-nominated actress Felicity Huffman and actress Lori Loughlin, best known for her character Aunt Becky in the ABC sitcom “Full House.” Loughlin’s husband, fashion designer, Mossimo Giannulli, was also charged in scam.
Tens of thousands of dollars in bribes allegedly went to a sham charity Singer set up called the Key Worldwide Foundation. Singer, according to prosecutors, would funnel the money to those working in cahoots with him, including coaches who listed college applicants as recruited competitive athletes despite some of them never having played sports, according to prosecutors.
At least seven of the nine coaches charged in the scam are scheduled to make court appearances Monday in Boston.
Legendary USC water polo coach Jovan Vanvic, who has been fired by the school, is one of the coaches expected to appear in court Monday. Also set to appear in court Monday are Laura Janke, the former USC women’s soccer coach; former Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernst; former UCLA men’s head soccer coach Jorge Salcedo; former Wake Forest head volleyball coach William Ferguson and former USC women’s head soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin.
Martin Fox, president of a Houston-area tennis academy, has also been ordered to appear in court. Fox, who is also involved in guiding student basketball players to college, allegedly accepted at least $250,000 in bribes to help Singer with both athlete recruitment and test-taking fraud, prosecutors said.
Donna Heinel, the former senior associate athletic director at USC is also expected to appear in court.
“These charges come as a complete shock,” Heinel’s attorney, Nina Marino, said in a statement. “Anyone who knows Donna Heinel knows she’s a woman of integrity and ethics with a strong moral campus. We look forward to reviewing the government’s evidence and fully restoring Donna’s reputation in the college athletic community.”
“He’d have to be dumber than a bucket of hair not to be devastated by the accusation,” Cogdell said. “But he’s a strong person, he’s got great character, and he’ll get through this.”
The nationwide scheme was prosecuted in Boston partly because it was uncovered by FBI agents working there on an unrelated case, officials said. Fake test scores were submitted to Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern University, officials said, but none of those schools were named in the indictment.
Some members Singer’s inner circle are also scheduled to appear before a federal judge in Boston, including his bookkeeper Steven Masera. Mikaela Sanford, who was also employed by Singer, allegedly took online classes for certain students and is accused of “secretly taking” art history and biology classes so that the daughter of Robert Zangrillo, founder and CEO of Dragon Global, a Florida-based private investment firm, could get into USC, according to the federal indictment.
Igor Dvorskiy and Niki Williams, who both served as a college entrance test administrators, are to appear in court Monday to face charges they both allowed Mark Riddell, a private school counselor in Florida, to take entrance exams for students or correct them on the sly, according to the indictment.
Riddell, 36, who is charged with two criminal charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, has apologized for his involvement in the scam.
“I want to communicate to everyone that I am profoundly sorry for the damage I have done and grief I have caused those as a result of my needless actions. I understand how my actions contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process,” Riddell, who is scheduled to appear in Boston federal court in April, said in a statement earlier this month. “I assume full responsibility for what I have done.”
Loughlin and Giannulli have also been ordered to appear in federal court in Boston in April. They are charged with allegedly paying Singer a bribe of $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 the indictment.
Loughlin’s two daughters, including Olivia Jade Giannuli, a popular YouTube vlogger with more than 2 million online followers, are among numerous students under investigation at USC and could face discipline, including being removed and banned from the school, officials said.
Huffman’s husband, actor William H. Macy, was not indicted, but according to court documents he and Huffman were caught on a recorded conversation with a corroborating witness in the case, allegedly discussing a $15,000 payment to ensure their younger daughter scored high on a college entrance exam. Huffman was indicted on charges stemming from the $15,000 she allegedly disguised as a charitable donation so her older daughter could take part in the college entrance cheating scam, the indictment reads. But Huffman and Macy apparently decided not to go through with scheme for their younger daughter.
Huffman is scheduled to appear in Boston federal court on Friday.
Singer, owner of a college counseling service called Edge College & Career Network, allegedly accepted bribes totaling $25 million from parents between 2011 and 2018 to guarantee their children’s admission to elite schools, according to the indictment.
“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said at a news conference on March 13. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy and, I’ll add, there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
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