How rich parents cheated the college admission system

Federal investigators say they have charged 50 people in the case, including the USC administrator who helped Loughlin’s kids, and accomplices whom Singer allegedly paid to rig college admission test scores – as well as coaches at USC, UCLA, Stanford and Yale.

The charges stunned the upper echelons of American academia, heightening debate about the advantages the ultra-rich enjoy in accessing the country’s best colleges amid intense competition in which merit alone is not enough to assure admission, even for students with perfect grade-point averages and stellar resumes. The accusations also raise serious questions about how university admissions officials, athletic departments and others could have allowed such blatant fraud to go undetected.

Led away in handcuffs

The case names celebrities, corporate executives, investment bankers, business owners, top-tier lawyers, and even a best-selling author of parenting books. They sought Singer out from different parts of the country, but with one overriding goal: To get their children into the best colleges.

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney in Massachusetts, calls the defendants “a catalogue of wealth and privilege”.

Lori Loughlin with daughters Olivia Jade Giannulli (left) and Isabella Rose Giannulli. Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli are alleged to have paid $US500,000 to get the girls enrolled at the University of Southern California. CHRIS PIZZELLO

Loughlin and Giannulli face charges, as well as actress Felicity Huffman and 30 other parents accused of hiring Singer to get their children into desired schools.

FBI agents took Huffman into custody early on Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was led away in handcuffs and taken to a federal holding facility downtown along with 11 others, authorities say. She spent hours in detention before being freed on $US250,000 ($354,000) bond during a hearing in a courtroom where her husband, actor William H. Macy, looked on. An attorney for Huffman declined to comment on the charges.

In announcing the charges, Lelling said the yearlong investigation is the largest of its kind in the country and left open the possibility that charges against more people could follow.

Singer, 58, pleaded guilty in a Boston courtroom to racketeering and other charges as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. He admitted to collecting more than $US25 million between 2011 and February this year in a two-pronged scheme in which parents could pay tens of thousands of dollars to have an expert test-taker on Singer’s payroll take their children’s college admission tests or write larger cheques to buy spots that colleges reserve for athletes.

A law enforcement official familiar with the probe but not authorised to discuss it publicly says federal authorities have gone to several prominent high schools in southern California seeking records related to students whose parents are believed to have hired Singer.

In phone conversations with parents secretly recorded by agents, Singer boasted he had helped more than 850 students of the wealthy and powerful to lie their way into colleges in just two years. Lelling says that in some of the cases known to investigators the children were aware of the con carried out on their behalf, but that others were kept in the dark by their parents.

Special needs

Singer, who owns a college preparation company, ran his ploy through Key Worldwide Foundation, a charity he started in 2012. Singer used the foundation to collect payments from parents and pay bribes, court records show. Because they were writing cheques or, in at least one case transferring stock in Facebook, to a charity, parents were able to write off their payments to Singer as tax deductions, Lelling says.

Parents who worried their children would not score high enough on standardised tests were charged between $US15,000 and $US75,000 to put their fears to rest, according to court records.

William Singer leaves the federal courthouse in Boston after pleading guilty in charges related to college admission schemes.  KATHERINE TAYLOR

Singer instructed parents to petition for their children to be designated as having special needs that required them to be allotted additional time to take the exams.

Then Singer would pay a contact at a private school in West Hollywood or one in Houston to arrange to administer the tests to students. For the exams, Singer would fly out Mark Riddell, who worked as a college testing instructor in Florida. For a fee, Riddell would either simply take the exam for the student or correct answers afterward, Lelling says.

Huffman, who garnered fame from her role on the TV show Desperate Housewives, and her husband, Macy, paid Singer $US15,000 last year for a high SAT score Riddell orchestrated for their daughter, according to a criminal complaint filed against Huffman that alleges conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Macy has not been charged, although investigators said in an affidavit that he joined his wife for a meeting with Singer at which the testing scam was discussed.

Riddell got the girl a score of 1420 on the 1600-point SAT exam, according to an affidavit filed by an FBI agent in the case. It was a 400-point jump over what she had scored on an earlier test – an improvement purposefully calibrated by Singer to impress college admissions officers but not so large as to draw suspicion, authorities say.

Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy paid William Singer $US15,000 last year for a high SAT score for their daughter.  Jordan Strauss

“He didn’t have inside information about the answers, he was just smart enough to get a near-perfect score on demand or to calibrate the score,” Lelling says of Riddell.

Lies about athletic abilities

Huffman, who told Singer she was interested in hiring him again for her younger daughter but ultimately decided against it, made a brief court appearance on Tuesday afternoon. As Macy watched from the gallery, she told a federal magistrate she understood the charges against her and was ordered released on bond.

For larger fees, parents could avail themselves of the contacts Singer built with Donna Heinel, the senior associate athletic director at USC, as well as coaches at USC and other schools who were willing to lie about students’ athletic abilities in exchange for bribes. In some instances, Singer had photos doctored to superimpose the faces of children on to the bodies of athletes. Coaches used the fake images to prove to colleagues that the kids were athletes.

To sell the lie that Loughlin and Giannulli’s kids were talented rowers, Singer had Giannulli photograph them both working out on a rowing machine, court documents show. Singer forwarded the photos to Heinel, who used them and other fabrications to sway a selection committee, prosecutors say.

On phone calls captured by investigators and transcribed in court filings, some parents voiced ethical qualms or nerves about getting caught before deciding to press ahead. Others embraced the opportunity with enthusiasm.

“It’s the home run of home runs,” Singer assured Gordon Caplan, an attorney from New York, when he called to ask about Singer’s test-taking service.

“And it works?” Caplan asked.

“Every time,” Singer replied, laughing.

William H. Macy arrives at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles on Tuesday. He watched from the gallery as his wife Felicity Huffman made a brief appearance. Alex Gallardo

MCT

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