What's Come Out About The Celebrity College Admissions Scandal

Remember the days when rich parents would just donate a library to help their kids get into school? Apparently, those days are long gone. The FBI recently uncovered an unbelievable (but somehow hardly surprising) nationwide college admissions scam where affluent parents allegedly paid millions of dollars worth of bribes to help their children cheat their way into the nation's top universities.

These parents — which included CEOs and Hollywood actors alike — allegedly staged sports photos, gamed the SATs and straight-up paid off Division 1 coaches to recruit their kids for sports they didn't even play (and sometimes, their school didn't offer). It seriously makes it look like all you need to get into an Ivy is some Photoshop skills, Amazon Prime, and a fat check. When it comes down to it, no one's really surprised, and that's why the case has gained so much traction on social media and opened up a larger conversation about how wealth allows kids to succeed. 

Here's everything we know so far about the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the justice department. 

50 people were charged in Operation Varsity Blues

A whopping 50 people have been charged in what the FBI code-named Operation Varsity Blues, a multi-million dollar scam that the New York Times calls the Justice Department's "largest ever college admissions prosecution." According to NBC News, the families of prospective students — including celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman — reportedly paid a whopping $25 million to fake athletic profiles, bribe coaches and administrators, and cheat on college exams to help their children gain acceptance into universities like Stanford, Georgetown, Yale, UCLA, and USC.

The architect of the scheme was William Rick Singer (above), founder of the California-based college preparation business The Edge College & Career Network (also known as "The Key"). The alleged fraudster reportedly used The Key and Key Worldwide Foundation, his business' nonprofit arm, to funnel tax-free bribes to top athletic coaches and administrators. Facing a host of fraud and conspiracy charges, Singer cooperated with federal prosecutors to finger his alleged co-conspirators. NBC News reports that out of the 50 people charged, "33 were parents," "nine were college coaches" and the rest were "test administrators and the scheme's main figures," like Singer. 

Singer reportedly charged big bucks for test taking

Standardized test scores are viewed as the gateway into the best universities — the difference between landing a scholarship versus a rejection letter. So, it's not uncommon for the wealthiest families to pay top dollar for the best SAT prep courses and tutors. Singer's alleged scam took it to a whole new level, because all the tutoring in the world can't help underperforming students get into an Ivy. Fortunately for the rich, money could.

According to the New York Times, parents paid "between $15,000 and $75,000 per test" to help their kids cheat on the SAT and ACT by "giving them answers, correcting their work, or even letting third parties falsely pose as their children and take the tests" on their behalf. According to NBC News, Singer hired a Florida man named Mark Riddell to do the dirty deed. He changed answers and took tests at roughly $10,000 a pop, which was "often funneled through [Singer's] charity."

To make matters worse, Singer also reportedly encouraged parents to have their children "diagnosed with a phony learning disability" in order to get a medical note that would allow them more time on the SAT or ACT (via Deadspin). This allowed children to take their exams in a special location where Singer allegedly "bribed the proctor" to alter the scores.

Singer raked in $25 million to bribe coaches and administrators

Sports recruitment historically allows for the admission of students with lower grades and test scores than the rest of the general academic class. Exploiting this loophole, Singer allegedly racked up $25 million from parents between 2011 and 2018 for bribing Division 1 coaches and university administrators to recruit students as athletes if their GPA and standardized test scores weren't up to snuff. The catch? Most of these students didn't play sports, and in some cases, their schools didn't offer the sports they claimed to play. So, why didn't anyone notice? Well, they did, but the coaches tended to smooth things over with admissions officials after receiving a hefty bribe.

According to the New York Times, Singer created profiles for students that outlined impressive but totally made up athletic credentials. He even encouraged parents to stage or digitally manipulate photos of their kids playing the sport they didn't actually play. In one instance, a family paid $1.2 million to frame their daughter as the co-captain of a prominent Southern California club soccer team in order to get her recruited to Yale's women's soccer team. She didn't actually even play soccer and the coach of Yale's team, Rudolph Meredith, who was allegedly aware of the ruse, was allegedly given a $400,000 bribe to recruit her.

USC's Senior Associate Director allegedly covered up the most obvious lies

At some point Singer's lies became so unbelievable that at least one admissions counselor raised concern. The situation was reportedly smoothed over by USC's Senior Associate Director Donna Heinel, who allegedly served as a backbone for Singer's USC-related admissions fraud along with water polo coach Jovan Vavic (above).

While Vavic and Heinel worked to recruit kids with bogus athletic profiles (like a student who was an alleged 3-year varsity letter winner but included an actual photo of someone else playing water polo in her application), the most egregious example has to be the student whose school never even offered water polo to begin with. According to Deadspin, his parents purchased water polo equipment on Amazon to stage a photoshoot, but a high school guidance counselor raised questions with USC's admissions office. Heinel told the USC Director of Admissions that the student played at the LA Water Polo Club and in international tournaments instead of at school. 

Heinel also allegedly took personal "bribes of $20,000 per month" after recruiting a fake basketball player, and suggested Singer use the fake profile as a template for all bogus women's basketball recruits. According to The Orange County Registerboth Vavic and Heinel were fired in the wake of the investigation.

Lori Loughlin allegedly paid half a million into the scam

Full House actress Lori Loughlin was pretty much begging USC's admissions counselors to have mercy on her two daughters. The star, who was one of three Hollywood actors involved in the admissions scheme, reportedly paid $500,000 worth of bribes along with her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli (you might recognize him from his long-running, sensibly priced Target line).  

A phone call recorded by the FBI (via NBC News) revealed that Loughlin also tried to position her daughter as "the crew coxswain for the L.A. Marine Club team." The actress reportedly arranged to have her kid photographed on a rowing machine to make things look extra authentic. If you haven't guessed, her daughter does not row.

According to CNN, Giannulli and Loughlin were charged with "conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud." Giannulli was arrested, his bond was set at $1 million and he was forced to surrender his passport. At the time of this writing, Loughlin "surrendered to federal authorities in Los Angeles."

Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy reportedly paid $15,000 into the scam

Apparently, Shameless actor William H. Macy was wrapped up in exactly the kind of scam you'd expect from one of his on-screen characters. The star, along with his wife, actress Felicity Huffman, reportedly paid $15,000 to get their daughter "unlimited time" on the SATs. According to NBC News, Huffman also considered allowing someone else to take the test for her daughter, but she decided against it after fearing it would raise a red flag on the whole scam.

"I just didn't know if it'd be odd for [the tutor] if we go, 'Oh, she did this in — in March 9, but she did so much better in May,'" Huffman allegedly said on a recorded call (via NBC News). "I don't know if that'd be like — if [the tutor] would be like, 'Wow.'"

According to TMZ, the FBI arrested the Desperate Housewives star at gunpoint around 6 a.m. on March 12, 2019, when the news broke. Sources told the tab that Huffman reportedly knew the arrest was "looming" and "would have gladly surrendered on her own." Later that day, she posted her $250,000 bail. At the time of this writing, Macy had not been charged, according to NBC News.

Stanford's sailing coach pleaded guilty to racketeering

Stanford University's head sailing coach, John Vandemoer (above), almost raked in $770,000 from Singer's scam. According to the federal indictment (via Mercury News), the veteran coach held recruitment spots for two students — neither of whom ended up attending the university — who were "falsely portrayed as competitive sailors" for hefty bribes made out to the Stanford sailing program. 

Vandemoer reportedly received a $110,000 payment made out to the sailing program in May 2018 when the student deferred his application for a year (via Deadspin). Later that summer, the student decided to attend a different university altogether, and Vandemoer allegedly agreed to hold another spot in exchange for a $500,000 payment (which was never actually paid, per Mercury News). That student also decided to attend a different school, but Singer reportedly still mailed the coach $160,000 (via his charitable accounts, of course) as a "deposit" for a future student's spot.

As a result of the federal indictment, Vandemoer was fired from his coaching job of 11 years and pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, according to CNN. He told the court that he didn't actually pocket any of $270,000 he did receive, but rather, he used it to buy equipment for the sailing team.

UCLA's men's soccer coach was placed on leave

Getting recruited for UCLA's soccer team is a dream for young athletes across the nation, but it can be purchased if the price is right. According to the Los Angeles Times, UCLA's men's soccer coach, Jorge Salcedo, was "charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering" for allegedly "accepting $200,000 in bribes" for two soccer player recruits who didn't actually play competitive soccer.

The indictment (via the Los Angeles Times) alleges that one female student used a fake soccer profile that was "forwarded from then-USC women's soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin to Salcedo" along with a transcript and test scores which Salcedo forwarded to "a UCLA Women's soccer coach." The student was admitted to the university in June 2016, which is when Singer reportedly moved $100,000 from his charitable account to a "sports marketing company controlled by Salcedo." Not long after, the student's parents allegedly gave "2,150 shares of Facebook stock" (worth over $250,000) to Singer's charity "as a purported tax-deductible charitable contribution." Singer also reportedly paid out Khosroshahin and gave Salcedo another $100,000 following the admission of a male student who also posed as a competitive soccer player.

Salcedo was placed on leave following the indictment and charged with "conspiracy to commit racketeering."

How an NFL Hall of Famer and golf legend were involved

Two of the nation's highest-profile athletes alsofound themselves wrapped up in Singer's epic scam. According to Fox Business, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana and pro-golfer Phil Mickelson both hired Singer's college prep service but allegedly had no idea of its fraudulent services. The company reportedly offered legitimate college prep assistance alongside their secret "side-door" entry scam.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Montana's links to the scam surfaced with a 2014 Facebook post where Singer bragged about working with the football hero along with some other high-profile clients. In a tweet, the former 49ers QB owned up to using "minimal consulting services" from Singer, but claimed he didn't have to scam anyone because his children "were able to pick from a number of schools to attend due to their hard work and their merit."

Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion, posted a similar response, though Bloomberg reported he had no public connection to the case. Basically, he outed himself. "We are shocked by the revelations of these events," he tweeted. "Obviously, we were not part of this fraud, our kids would disown us if we ever tried to interfere." Neither Montana nor Mickelson were charged in connection to the case.

This case highlights a larger problem in the college admissions space

The reason the college admissions scam hit so hard was because it highlighted an already massive problem in college admissions. The Los Angeles Times reported that it's not abnormal for parents to hire admissions counselors who edit or rewrite their college essays, which is an already dubious practice in itself. Then there's the idea that recruited athletes don't come from money, when most of the competitive sports offered for recruitment (think: sailing) aren't available at schools in low-income areas. Wealthy parents have even shelled out massive amounts of cash for their kids to fly to developing countries and do community service in-between posh vacations.

"This is an extreme, unsubtle and illegal example of the increasingly common practice of using money to get an edge in the race for a place in an elite university," college essay mentor Chris Hunt told the New York Times. "The more common practice is to spend money in indirect ways: High-priced test prep. Coaches so your kid can be a recruited athlete. Donations as an alum. Donations as a non-alum."

The real victims in the scam are the children. According to the New York Times, most students weren't even aware that their parents were trying to stack the deck.

Did Lori Loughlin's daughter even want to go to college?

Loughlin's daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli may have gotten into college with the help of the admissions scam; however, she didn't really seem to keen on being there in the first place. According to People, the popular YouTuber once stated in a video that she only wanted to go to USC for the parties. Giannulli was slammed in the comments section as "ungrateful" and "privileged." After all, not everyone's mama can dump half a million into getting them admitted into a school they don't actually want to attend. Giannulli later walked back her comments.

"I said something super ignorant and stupid, basically. And it totally came across that I'm ungrateful for college — I'm going to a really nice school. And it just kind of made it seem like I don't care, I just want to brush it off. I'm just gonna be successful at YouTube and not have to worry about school," she said in a video (via People).

It's not just that Loughlin's daughter didn't care about going to school. The Daily Beast reports that the star couldn't even fill out her own application, and required the help of scammers to complete them, because she was "confused on how to do so."

What's going to happen to the students involved?

The college admissions scam suddenly threw students into the spotlight — one they didn't necessarily want. Vanity Fair reports that some of the students involved in the scandal have locked down their social media accounts or deleted them altogether. Even though Olivia Jade is used to attention as a social media influencer, the star and her sister Isabella Giannulli reportedly planned to drop out of USC "for fear of bullying," according to TMZ.

Jack Buckingham, whose mother was accused of paying $50,000 to have a proctor take his ACT test, was the only student, as of this writing, to issue a public apology. "I am upset that I was unknowingly involved in a large scheme that helps give kids who may not work as hard as others an advantage over those who truly deserve those spots," he told The Hollywood Reporteradding, "It was probably not a smart idea to say anything, but I needed to get that off my chest."

According to Time, USC has already denied admission to six applicants in the current admissions cycle who were involved in the scandal, but the answer isn't clear for those who were already admitted or have graduated. The university plans to review students on a case-by-case basis. Stanford, on the other hand, already has a policy in place that states students "can be disenrolled" if they provide inaccurate information on their applications. Both Yale and UCLA have similar policies.

How much did the students actually know?

As of this writing, no students have actually been charged in Operation Varsity Blues, but that could change. U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said during a press conference (via Time) that they're still mulling it over. So, how much did students actually know? Is it really possible to stage photos that make yourself look like a star athlete in a sport you've never played and not at least question what's going on?

According to the court filings (via New York Magazine), some kids didn't just know about the scam — they were proud of it. This appeared to be the case for the Henriquez girls, one of whom reportedly "gloated" with a test proctor about getting away with cheating. For others, like the Zangrillos and Isacksons, children probably got an idea after they were CC'd on key emails or directly spoke about the scam to those orchestrating it. In another instance, the son of sales executive Stephen Semprevivo forwarded his transcript and a bogus note about his tennis performance to Georgetown's tennis coach. Did he know? We can't say for sure, but considering he didn't play tennis competitively, probably.

Not all of the students who knew about the scam were comfortable cheating, though. New York Magazine reports that the daughter of dentistry professor Homayoun Zadeh sensed that something was amiss and was "worried" she didn't get into USC "on her own merits."

The case has already impacted the parents' careers

Things aren't looking so great for some of the parents allegedly involved in the scandal. Undoubtedly, being implicated in a criminal case of this magnitude tends to have a nasty effect on any highly public career. According to the Los Angeles Times, Loughlin was fired from the Hallmark Channel, and there were no plans for her to reprise her role on the fifth and final season of Netflix's Fuller House.

Loughlin's daughter didn't fare any better than her mom, even though she might not have been aware of the scam or its illegality. According to Entertainment Tonight, Olivia Jade lost her partnerships with TRESemme and Sephora. Other parents, like TPG Growth managing partner Bill McGlashan, were fired or stepped down from the prominent roles. McGlashan was reportedly booted from his private equity firm, while lawyer Gordon Caplan, who allegedly paid $75,000 into the scam, was placed on leave at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, where he was a co-chairman.

Some parents still haven't faced many repercussions for their alleged behavior beyond public shaming. Nicollette Sheridan, who starred alongside Huffman in Desperate Housewives, told Access Live the scam was "disgraceful," but it doesn't look like Huffman's Netflix show will be taking a hit (beyond the irony of an actress playing a prosecutor after her arrest). According to Entertainment Tonightthe Emmy winner is also allegedly facing marital problems as a result of her charges.

The FBI stumbled upon the evidence unexpectedly

The FBI wasn't looking for a college admissions scandal when it stumbled upon the multi-million dollar scheme. According to NBC News, the bureau launched a probe in May 2018 after uncovering evidence of "large-scale fraud" during a different undercover investigation. Since then, the investigation has spanned 10 months and six states, involving an impressive 200 agents. The probe utilized court-authorized wiretaps, recorded phone calls, and a key cooperating witness: William Rick Singer. According to one recorded phone call (via the NBC News), Singer claimed more than 800 families have used his "side door" into college entry.

"What we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school," Singer said in court documents obtained by The Washington Post. "They want guarantees, they want this thing done."

FBI special agent John Bonavolonta told NBC News that his team used "sophisticated techniques" to uncover what they "believe to be a rigged system, robbing students all over the country of their right to a fair shot of getting into some of the most elite universities in this country."

Huffman admits guilt, says she 'betrayed' her child

In April 2019, Felicity Huffman released a statement owning up to the fact that she paid $15,000 to help her daughter cheat on the SATs. Huffman claimed she would take full responsibility for her actions, which she deeply regretted. According to The New York Times, the actress plans to plead guilty. 

"My daughter knew absolutely nothing about my actions, and in my misguided and profoundly wrong way, I have betrayed her," she said (via the Boston Globe). "This transgression toward her and the public I will carry for the rest of my life. My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty."

Huffman isn't alone — 12 other parents are reportedly following suit with guilty pleas. According to the NYT, most will "plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud." This carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Sentences will likely be determined by the amount of money paid into the scam. Huffman's $15,000 was reportedly one of the smallest sums. Combine this with the fact that she's saving the government from having to go to trial, and her sentence is expected to be lenient.

Loughlin and her husband face additional charges

Lori Loughlin and her fashion mogul husband, Mossimo Giannulli, were among 16 parents who were given additional charges following the initial indictment. According to a statement from the Department of Justice, these parents aren't just accused of participating in the scheme — they allegedly tried to conceal their involvement by "funneling" payments through Singer's charity and for-profit corporation (i.e. making their bribes look like actual charitable donations or payments for legitimate college prep services). They also allegedly transferred foreign cash into the United States "for the purpose of promoting the fraud scheme." Members of the group were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, which each carry a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and "a fine of at least $250,000," according to NPR.

According to People, Loughlin and Giannulli have rejected any type of plea agreement that carried jail time (They reportedly could have gotten around 18 to 24 months as part of a plea deal). An anonymous source who spoke to People claimed the pair is "really not seeing how serious this is."

Stanford expels a student

As colleges review their student rosters in the wake of the scam and try to determine the fate of those involved, Stanford University is already making moves. The school booted a student whose application contained false information (which, as you'd expect, is against Stanford's policy). A statement from the college's website confirms that the student "is no longer on Stanford's campus" and the credits she earned while attending the university have been revoked. Though her identity was not revealed, The New York Times reported that she falsely claimed to be a competitive sailor. Singer reportedly gave half a million dollars to Stanford's sailing program following her admission, though the student wasn't actually recruited to the team.

Stanford remains in some legal hot water following the scam. According to the Los Angeles Times, two students "filed a federal class-action lawsuit" against eight of the colleges involved in March 2019. The suit included Yale, Georgetown, USC, UCLA and Stanford. The lawsuit, helmed by Stanford students Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods, sought damages for anyone who applied and was rejected between 2012 and 2019. Olsen, a competitive dancer with near-perfect SAT and ACT scores, was rejected from Yale in 2017. Woods, who also had exemplary scores on her entrance exams, was rejected from USC in 2017. Both students feel their Stanford degrees "may be tainted" because of the scandal.