Wrongdoing Includes Bribes, Cheating on Entrance Exams and Misrepresentation of Athletic Ability
In March, 2019, federal prosecutors announced a total of 50 indictments in what officials say is the most extensive college admissions fraud ever uncovered in the United States. The FBI investigation, codename “Operation Varsity Blues,” led to charges against coaches and parents, including some celebrities. Among the charges levied were conspiracy, racketeering and wire fraud. The colleges and universities at which the fraudulent acts affected admissions included Stanford, the University of Southern California, Yale, Wake Forest, Georgetown and the University of Texas at Austin.
Of the 50 indictments, 33 named parents, who prosecutors say paid as much as $6.5 million to ensure that their offspring would be admitted to one of the elite institutions. The alleged brains behind the scam, William Singer, allegedly coordinated bribes to coaches, test proctors and others. Singer purportedly ran a private “counseling” firm and foundation through which the bribe money was funneled.
According to documents obtained by the FBI, Singer boasted that his company “help[s] the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school.” Singer told prospective parents that he offered a “guarantee,” which he could secure because he had created a “side door” to various institutions of higher learning.
Apparently, the side door most often involved the falsification of student athletic profiles, so that the children of the wealthy parents would be admitted based on alleged athletic ability. In wiretaps, FBI agents overheard one parent detailing plans of how he would get his son into the University of Southern California as a football recruit (listing him as a highly sought after kicker/punter), even though the high school the student attended had no football program. The parent talked about taking a picture of the youth and using Photoshop to create a false impression that the student was a talented athlete.
The coaches indicted represented a number of “second-tier” sports, including men’s and women’s tennis, volleyball, soccer, sailing and water polo. One athletic director was also named.
Singer allegedly charged different fees, based on the college to which the parents sought admission. He also coached parents on how to describe the transaction if it came to light, saying he told the IRS that it was money being used to “help underserved kids.”
The indictments also contend that the participants conspired to cheat on college entrance exams. Some of the children of the indicted parents were encouraged by Singer and others to file requests for extra time on ACT and SAT exams, alleging that they had learning disabilities. Test proctors were also bribed to allow someone to take the test in the applicant’s place. There was also evidence that some test proctors either gave student correct answers or reviewed and corrected their answers after the test was completed (for which they received payments).