We all love our kids and want to provide them with the best start in life. With this in mind, how far would you go to secure a place for your child in a top university? For some parents in America, including Hollywood stars Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, the lengths gone to get their children into a good school may have included fraud and bribery.
What is the college admissions cheating scandal?
Federal prosecutors in the United States say that at least 50 people were involved in a scheme which saw parents arranging for their children to cheat on SAT or ACT or bribing college coaches and school officials to accept students as college athletes — even if the student had never played that sport.
The FBI investigation was dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” and it has led to the largest college admissions fraud and bribery scandal ever to be prosecuted by the Department of Justice.
Who instigated the scam?
To get into college, American students must either sit the SAT or ACT test (similar to British students sitting A levels). Since 2011 the scam in question has been operated by William Rick Singer, CEO of a college admissions prep company called Key Worldwide Financial (KWF). Mr Singer has admitted to the charges against him and stated that everything the Prosecutor accused him of is accurate.
According to Vanity Fair, Mr Singer, a college counsellor, told parents “We will get your child into college.”
“These were upper-class parents, the kind who had spent the previous 15 or so years fretting over the butterfly effect of every educational decision they made concerning their child: Did we put them in the right nursery school? Did the private school we chose correctly correlate with our child’s unique style of learning? Does their résumé feature the correct ratio of athletics to community service? In Singer, they found a man who vowed to somehow make sure all of those decisions had been correct.”
The article went on to say:
“Moments after his [sales] spiel ended, Singer found himself in conversation with one concerned mother whose daughter struggled with standardized tests, her scores still not at the level they needed to be. Did Singer have any suggestions for her? According to this mother, who asked not to be identified by name, Singer said within five minutes of beginning the conversation, “We could have her take the test with one of my proctors, and we could jump her score up three or four points so it wouldn’t be that obvious. It will cost you $15,000.”
How did the fraud work?
Regarding the SAT and ACT tests, parents would pay between $15,000 and $75,000 for Mr Singer to arrange a third-party to either take the test secretly in place of their child or swap the test scores with that of the third-party. Test administrators were bribed to turn a blind eye. Students would fake learning disabilities so they could take the tests at a place where administrators had received bribes.
It is alleged that Desperate Housewives and Transamerica star Felicity Huffman paid $15,000 to cheat on her oldest daughter’s SATs.
The fake athletes’ credentials scheme worked by bribing coaches and athletic officials to make recommendations regarding which college applicants should be accepted. According to the Guardian court documents show:
“a parent paid Singer $1.2m to get a student into Yale in 2017. The women’s soccer coach at Yale allegedly received a $400,000 bribe from Singer to designate the girl as a recruited athlete – even though she did not play competitive soccer, and the coach knew it. The student got in”.
Lori Loughlin and her husband are accused of paying bribes of $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team – even though they did not row.
Why has the scandal garnered so much media attention?
Given the current backlash against those in positions of power engineering society to their advantage, so their positions of privilege can be maintained, it is no wonder a lot of people are furious. And the class-action lawsuits have started to erupt; several students are suing Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other schools involved in the scam, saying they and others were denied a fair shot at admission. We can expect many more suits to be brought over the coming months.
Furthermore, the IRS has launched an investigation regarding tax fraud. KWF was set up as a charity, allowing those who made six-figure bribes to write these off against their taxes. The IRS is looking to claw back these deductions.
The issue with this type of fraud is often innocent parties become caught up. Felicity Huffman’s husband, the actor William H. Macy was not charged, and it is suspected he did not play a part in the alleged offence. However, it is unclear whether any of the children who received the benefit of college admission knew of the fraud and they may yet face prosecution.
Jane Buckingham, the founder of brand strategy firm Trendera, is accused of making a $50,000 donation to KWF which prosecutors say was a cover for bribes. Her son Jack has made a statement to The Hollywood Reporter saying:
“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.”
However, Prosecutors may find it hard to believe those close to the scam were not part of the fraud.
I will keep you updated as this matter develops.
Tanveer Qureshi is a Legal 500 barrister, specialising in ASA compliance, business to business fraud, health and safety, food standards, civil litigation, and corporate crime. If you require legal representation, please contact directly on 020 3870 3187.