Desperate Housewives star named in US colleges cheating scandal

Felicity Huffman among those charged with buying places for their children at elite universities

Actors Felicity Huffman (left) and  Lori Loughlin are among those charged in a cheating scandalls in US higher education. Photographs:  Lisa O’Connor  and Tommaso Boddi/AFP/Getty Images

Actors Felicity Huffman (left) and Lori Loughlin are among those charged in a cheating scandalls in US higher education. Photographs: Lisa O’Connor and Tommaso Boddi/AFP/Getty Images

 

Wealthy parents collectively paid tens of millions of dollars to buy places for their children at elite American universities, authorities have alleged, in charges that expose one of the most sweeping cheating scandals in US higher education.

In a criminal complaint filed in Boston, the justice department accused 50 individuals – including prominent financiers and famous actors – of engaging in a scheme to bribe college entrance exam administrators and university coaches.

An FBI affidavit filed in support of the complaint listed Georgetown University, Stanford University and Yale University among the eight institutions affected.

Among the 32 parents charged were Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher; William McGlashan, a top executive at private equity firm TPG; and actors Felicity Huffman, a star of the TV drama Desperate Housewives, and Lori Loughlin. The former head coach for women’s soccer at Yale has agreed to plead guilty to wire fraud and is co-operating with authorities.

The scheme was run by a college test preparation service in Newport Beach, California, called The Edge College & Career Network founded by William Singer, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering.

Mr Singer’s pitch, according to the affidavit, was straightforward: “OK, so, who we are – what we do is help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school,” the Edge’s founder, who has pleaded guilty, told a prospective client.

The company used two methods to skirt the highly competitive admissions process, according to authorities. It coached students to claim medical disabilities, allowing them extra time to take entrance tests, and then steered them to test facilities in Houston and Hollywood where it had bribed the staff.

In some cases, the Edge arranged for others to take the exam in their place, or to have their answers corrected before they were submitted. It charged up to $75,000 (€66,000) for such services, and advised parents to claim their children were travelling for weddings or bar mitzvahs so that they could sit exams in its facilities.

Bribing coaches

Some of the children may not even have been aware that their test results were bogus. In a call intercepted by authorities, Mr Singer told Mr Caplan as he pitched his services: “It was so funny ‘cause the kids will call me and say, ‘Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do even better.’ Right? And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.”

Another ploy involved bribing university sports coaches and administrators to designate applicants as student-athletes, thereby improving their chances of admission. “At each of the universities, the admissions prospects of the athletes are higher – and in some cases substantially higher,” authorities noted.

According to the affidavit, parents paid approximately $25 million in such bribes from 2011 to 2018. The payments were funnelled through a California charity, Key Worldwide Foundation, also founded by Mr Singer.

In one case cited by authorities, an applicant who did not play competitive soccer was listed as the co-captain of a prominent club team in southern California and then designated as a top recruit by the coach of the Yale women’s soccer team. After the applicant was accepted by the university last year, her relatives contributed $1.2 million to KWF, which then sent the Yale coach, Rudolph Meredith, a cheque for $400,000.

Authorities have also charged coaches at universities including Stanford, USC, UCLA, University of Texas and Wake Forest university.

Mr Singer referred to the athletics method as a “side door”, according to the affidavit. As he told Mr Caplan: “There is a front door which means you get in on your own. The backdoor is through institutional advancement, which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.”

At a news conference, Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, blamed the parents, calling them “the prime movers of this fraud”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019