FBI accuses wealthy parents, including celebrities, in college-entrance bribery scheme

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Tuesday charged more than 30 wealthy people – including two television stars – with being part of a long-running scheme to bribe and cheat to get their kids into big-name colleges and universities.

The alleged crimes included cheating on entrance exams, as well as bribing college officials to say certain students were coming to compete on athletic teams when those students were not in fact athletes.

The criminal complaint paints an ugly picture of high-powered individuals committing crimes to get their children into selective schools. Among those charged are actresses Felicity Huffman, best known for her role on the television show “Desperate Housewives,” and Lori Loughlin, who appeared on “Full House,” according to court documents.

Authorities said the crimes date back to 2011, and the defendants used “bribery and other forms of fraud to facilitate their children’s admission” to numerous college and universities,” including Georgetown, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California, and the University of California Los Angleles, among others. One of the cooperating witnesses, according to the court documents, is a former head coach of Yale’s women’s soccer team, who pleaded guilty in the case nearly a year ago and has since been helping FBI agents gather evidence.

Some of the 32 defendants are accused of bribing college entrance exam administrators to facilitate cheating on tests – by having a smarter student take the test, or providing students with answers to exams or correcting their answers after they had completed the exams, according to the criminal complaint filed in federal court.

Others allegedly bribed university athletic coaches and administrators to designate applicants as “purported athletic recruits – regardless of their athletic abilities, and in some cases, even though they did not play the sport they were purportedly recruited to play – thereby facilitating their admission to universities in place of more qualified applicants,” the complaint charges.

Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were accused of paying $500,000 in bribes so their two daughters would be designated as recruits for the University of Southern California crew team – even though they were not part of the team. That helped the pair get into USC, according to the complaint.

Some of the money was directed to Donna Heinel, a USC athletics official, and others to the foundation.

In a statement, USC officials said the school is cooperating with the federal investigation and has launched its own review.

“We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university,” the statement says. “USC is conducting an internal investigation and will take employment actions as appropriate. USC is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme. Additionally, the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.”

Huffman is accused of paying $15,000 – disguised as a charitable donation – to the Key Worldwide Foundation so her oldest daughter could participate in the scam. A confidential informant told investigators that he advised Huffman he could arrange for a third party to correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT after she took it. She ended up scoring a 1420 – 400 points higher than she had gotten on a PSAT taken a year earlier, according to court documents.

Huffman also contemplated running a similar scam to help her younger daughter, but ultimately did not pursue it, the complaint alleges.

Other defendants include William McGlashan, CEO and founder of a private equity firm, and Jane Buckingham, CEO of a boutique marketing firm in Los Angeles.

Investigators allege the scheme was run largely through Key Worldwide Foundation, which ostensibly was a nonprofit, but according to the FBI, was really a conduit for bribing college employees to get rich kids into elite schools.

Last June, Buckingham agreed to make a “donation” to KWF of $50,000, in exchange for someone taking a college entrance test on her son’s behalf the following month, authorities say.

The FBI secretly recorded Buckingham talking to one of the people arranging the test for her son. On the tape, according to the complaint, Buckingham talks about the complicated logistics of cheating on the test and said, “I know this is craziness, I know it is. And then I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East.”

 

 

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