Nationwide conspiracy to cheat to get into elite universities

Two students have filed a class-action lawsuit in response to what is reported to be the largest ever college admissions cheating scam to be prosecuted in the United States.

Dozens of individuals involved in a nationwide conspiracy to facilitate cheating on US college entrance exams and the admission of students to elite universities as purported athletic recruits were arrested by federal agents in multiple states on 12 March and charged in a federal court in Boston.

Athletic coaches from Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California (USC), Wake Forest University and Georgetown University, among others, are implicated, as well as parents and exam administrators, according to a statement from the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, published by the US Department of Justice on Tuesday.

USC, UCLA, the University of San Diego, the University of Texas at Austin, and Stanford, Wake Forest, Yale and Georgetown universities were named as defendants in the class-action suit lodged by the two students, Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods.

William ‘Rick’ Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, California, was charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Singer owned and operated the Edge College and Career Network LLC (‘The Key’) – a for-profit college counselling and preparation business – and served as the CEO of the Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF) – a non-profit corporation that he established as a purported charity.

Over eight years, from 2011 to February 2019, Singer is alleged to have conspired with dozens of parents, athletic coaches, a university athletics administrator and others, to use bribery and other forms of fraud to secure the admission of students to colleges and universities including Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, Wake Forest and USC, among others.

Also charged for their involvement in the scheme are 33 parents and 13 coaches and associates of Singer’s businesses, including two SAT and ACT test administrators.

The parents charged include Hollywood celebrities as well as prominent business leaders. They include television star Lori Loughlin, her husband fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli and actress Felicity Huffman.

Also charged is John Vandemoer, the head sailing coach at Stanford University, Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Meredith, the former head soccer coach at Yale University, and Mark Riddell, a counsellor at a private school in Bradenton, Florida, the US Attorney’s Office said in a statement.

“The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” Andrew E Lelling, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said during a 12 March news conference. He said that those parents used their wealth to create a separate and unfair admissions process for their own children.

The US Attorney's Office's statement said the conspiracy involved:

  • • Bribing SAT and ACT exam administrators to allow a test taker, typically Riddell, to secretly take college entrance exams in place of students or to correct the students’ answers after they had taken the exam;

  • • Bribing university athletic coaches and administrators – including coaches at Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Southern California and the University of Texas – to facilitate the admission of students to elite universities under the guise of being recruited as athletes;

  • • Using the façade of Singer’s charitable organisation to conceal the nature and source of the bribes.

American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell said: “If these allegations are true, they violate the essential premise of a fair and transparent college admissions process. This alleged behaviour is antithetical to the core values of our institutions, defrauds students and families, and has absolutely no place in American higher education.”

Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman described the allegations as “alarming and deeply disturbing”.

Describing the alleged actions as an elaborate and widespread scheme to circumvent established college admissions procedures, she said: “It appears that the conspirators went to great lengths to hide their deception from the institutions they targeted.

“The actions of the accused not only unfairly tarnish leading educational institutions but stand in stark contrast to the values of openness, scholarship, achievement, inclusion and merit that are at the core of these very same institutions.”

Faked learning disabilities

The US Attorney’s Office statement said that according to charging documents, Singer facilitated cheating on the SAT and ACT exams for his clients by instructing them to seek extended time for their children on college entrance exams, which included having the children purport to have learning disabilities in order to obtain the required medical documentation.

Once the extended time was granted, Singer allegedly instructed the clients to change the location of the exams to one of two test centres: a public high school in Houston, Texas, or a private college preparatory school in West Hollywood, California, where he had established relationships with test administrators, respectively Niki Williams and Igor Dvorskiy, who accepted bribes of as much as US$10,000 per test in order to facilitate the cheating scheme.

They allegedly allowed a third individual, often Riddell, to take the exams in place of the students, to give the students the correct answers during the exams, or to correct the students’ answers after they completed the exams.

Singer typically paid Riddell US$10,000 for each student’s test. Singer’s clients paid him between US$15,000 and US$75,000 per test, with the payments structured as purported donations to the KWF charity. In many instances, the students taking the exams were unaware that their parents had arranged for the cheating, the statement said.

Millions paid in bribes

It is further alleged that throughout the conspiracy, parents paid Singer approximately US$25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators to designate their children as purported athletic recruits, thereby facilitating the children’s admission to those universities.

Singer allegedly described the scheme to his customers as a “side door”, in which the parents paid Singer under the guise of charitable donations to KWF. In turn, Singer funnelled those payments to programmes controlled by the athletic coaches, who then designated the children as recruited athletes – regardless of their athletic experience and abilities. Singer also made bribe payments to most of the coaches personally.

Falsified athletic ‘profiles’ for students were submitted to the universities in support of the students’ applications. The profiles included fake honours that the students purportedly received and elite teams that they purportedly played on. In some instances, parents supplied Singer with staged photos of their children engaged in athletic activity – such as using a rowing machine or purportedly playing water polo.

Tax fraud

Beginning around 2013, Singer allegedly agreed with certain clients to disguise bribe payments as charitable contributions to the KWF, thereby enabling clients to deduct the bribes from their federal income taxes.

Specifically, Singer allegedly instructed clients to make payments to the KWF in return for facilitating their children’s admission to a chosen university. Singer used a portion of that money to bribe university athletic coaches to designate the children as student athletes, the US Attorney’s Office statement said.

A number of the charges provide for sentences of up to 20 years each in prison.