The FBI and federal prosecutors have uncovered a massive bribery scheme to get students admitted to elite universities as recruited athletes and help them cheat on college entrance exams to gain admission.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston says the scheme, which it dubbed "Operation Varsity Blues," includes 50 people, including college coaches, actresses and CEOs who collectively paid $25 million to get their children into schools such as Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Texas, Wake Forest and Yale.
The bribes were orchestrated by William "Rick" Singer, a California admissions consultant who pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges including racketeering conspiracy, prosecutors said.
The nine coaches and sports administrators indicted were Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith, former Yale women's soccer coach; Donna Heinel, USC senior associate athletic director; Ali Khosroshahin, former USC women's soccer coach; Jovan Vavic, USC women's water polo coach; William Ferguson, Wake Forest volleyball coach; John Vandemoer, Stanford sailing coach; Michael Center, Texas men's tennis coach; Jorge Salcedo, UCLA men's soccer coach; and Gordie Ernst, former men's and women's tennis coach at Georgetown. Ernst was hired last year to coach women's tennis at Rhode Island.
Meredith has pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others. Heinel, Vavic and Vandemoer were fired from their jobs Tuesday; Vandemoer also pleaded guilty Tuesday in Boston. Salcedo, Ferguson, Ernst and Center have been placed on leave by their schools.
Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman ("Desperate Housewives") and Lori Loughlin ("Full House") were among those who paid bribes to help their children gain admission into the universities, according to the indictment. Huffman was among 13 people taken into custody Tuesday in Los Angeles. Both actresses face one charge each of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
A judge says Huffman can be released on $250,000 but her travel has been restricted to the continental United States.
Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children's admission, officials said. Authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.
"These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the case in Boston.
Singer operated Edge College & Career Network, a for-profit college counseling and preparatory business in Newport Beach, California. He identified and recruited coaches who were willing to accept bribes from the parents of prospective students to help them gain admission to elite universities.
According to federal prosecutors, from 2011 to February 2019 Singer allegedly conspired with others to facilitate cheating on ACT and SAT exams in exchange for bribes by arranging for a third party -- generally Mark Riddell of Palmetto, Florida -- to secretly take the test in place of the actual students, or to replace the students' answers with his own.
The indictment said test proctors in Houston and Los Angeles were paid to overlook the cheating. Parents paid between $15,000 and $75,000 per test to have someone else take the exams. Riddell was paid $10,000 for each test he took or in which he changed answers.
Singer also retained clients who were willing to pay bribes to the coaches and college administrators in order to gain admission for their children. The coaches allegedly designated the students as recruits for competitive college athletic teams, regardless of their athletic ability, to help facilitate their admission. Singer and others concealed the bribe payments by funneling the money through Singer's charitable organization.
"The charges brought forth today are troubling and should be a concern for all of higher education," the NCAA said in a statement Tuesday. "We are looking into these allegations to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated."
USC said in a statement that it was aware of the criminal investigation and would cooperate fully with the government. A later statement announced the dismissals of Heinel and Vavic.
Tax documents show that a nonprofit company run by Singer donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to universities and athletic departments between 2014 and 2016 -- the three years for which the documents were available.
During that time, Key Worldwide Foundation donated $550,000 to various athletics programs and the Women's Athletic Board at USC. The foundation also donated $546,500 to University of Texas Athletics, $338,379 to NYU Athletics, $150,000 to DePaul University and $100,000 to the University of Miami.
Meredith, who coached women's soccer at Yale for 24 years before resigning in November 2018, is accused of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services fraud.
Federal prosecutors allege that Meredith altered a prospective student's profile and falsely identified her as co-captain of an elite club soccer team in Southern California. The student did not even play competitive soccer, according to Meredith's indictment.
Once the student was admitted to Yale, Singer mailed Meredith a check for $400,000 in January 2018.
In the spring and summer of 2018, the student's relatives paid Singer about $1.2 million in multiple installments, including $900,000 paid to the nonprofit.
Federal prosecutors also allege that Meredith met with the father of a second Yale applicant in a Boston hotel room on April 12, 2018. During that meeting, which was recorded by FBI agents, Meredith told the parent that he would recruit the student as a prospective soccer player in exchange for $450,000.
Meredith allegedly accepted $2,000 in cash as a partial payment and later accepted $4,000, according to the indictment.
"Beginning in or about 2011, and continuing through the present, the defendants -- principally individuals whose high-school age children were applying to college -- conspired with others to use bribery and other forms of fraud to facilitate their children's admission to colleges and universities in the District of Massachusetts and elsewhere, including Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California, and the University of California -- Los Angeles," the indictment said.
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.
Abbott, Caplan and and Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez were released on $500,000 bail after brief appearances in Manhattan federal court Tuesday. They face charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. A prosecutor had sought $1 million bail against Abbott, claiming he was a risk to flee.
Information from ESPN's Dan Murphy and The Associated Press was used in this report.