LOS ANGELES — Thirteen people, including Hollywood actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, were arrested March 12 in Los Angeles in connection with an alleged multimillion-dollar nationwide bribery scheme to get students into elite colleges, including USC, UCLA and Stanford.
The alleged conspiracy focused on getting students admitted to prestigious universities as recruited athletes, regardless of their athletic abilities, and helping potential students cheat on their college exams, according to an indictment naming dozens of defendants unsealed in federal court in Boston.
Loughlin, best known for her role in the sitcom “Full House,” and Huffman, who starred in the ABC show “Desperate Housewives,” are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services fraud, according to the indictment.
The plot, which allegedly facilitated cheating on college entrance exams and the admission of students to elite universities as purported athletic recruits, led to arrests by federal agents in multiple states. Athletic coaches from USC, UCLA, Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest and Georgetown, among others, were implicated, as well as parents and exam administrators.
There’s no indication that the schools were involved in any of the wrongdoing.
Among those charged are longtime UCLA soccer coach Jorge Salcedo and USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic, according to documents released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Both are charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering.
USC said in a statement that it is cooperating in the wide-ranging probe, dubbed operation Varsity Blues by federal investigators.
“We are aware of the ongoing wide-ranging criminal investigation involving universities nationwide, including USC,” the school’s statement said. “USC has not been accused of any wrongdoing and will continue to cooperate fully with the government’s investigation. We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university. USC is conducting an internal investigation and will take employment actions as appropriate.”
The school stated that it is “in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme. Additionally, the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.”
USC President Dr. Wanda M. Austin issued a separate statement saying that USC is a victim of the conspiracy and that it is “immensely disappointing” that employees would allegedly abuse their positions at the university.
“The federal government has alleged that USC is a victim in a scheme perpetrated against the university by a long-time Athletics Department employee, one current coach and three former coaching staff, who were allegedly involved in a college admissions scheme and have been charged by the government on multiple charges,” Austin wrote. “At this time, we have no reason to believe that Admissions employees or senior administrators were aware of the scheme or took part in any wrongdoing — and we believe the government concurs in that assessment. The government has repeatedly informed us that it views USC as a victim and that these employees purposefully deceived USC.”
Austin wrote that the school has planned “significant remedial efforts” and will “take all appropriate employment actions.”
“We will review admissions decisions,” she stated. “We are identifying all funds received that may be connected to the government’s allegations. And we will be implementing significant process and training enhancements to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”
UCLA and UCLA Athletics said in a joint statement that Salcedo has been placed on leave.
“The U.S. Department of Justice announced this morning a criminal case naming UCLA Men’s Soccer head coach Jorge Salcedo as a defendant, and notified UCLA that it is a potential victim of a fraudulent scheme,” according to the school’s statement. “Coach Salcedo has been placed on leave and will have no involvement with the soccer team while this matter is under review. Assistant coaches Matt Taylor and Phil Marfuggi will lead the team in his absence.
“The conduct alleged in the filings … is deeply disturbing and in contrast with the expectations we have of our coaches to lead their teams with honesty and integrity,” UCLA’s statement added. “If the facts alleged are true, they represent a grave departure from the ethical standards we set for ourselves and the people who work here. UCLA is not aware of any current student-athletes who are under suspicion. The university is cooperating with the Department of Justice and will conduct its own review to determine the proper steps to take to address this matter.”
Described by authorities as the alleged mastermind of the plot is a man named William Rick Singer, who was expected to appear in court in Boston.
Officials said the plot involved cheating on entrance exams, as well as bribing college officials to say certain students were coming to compete on athletic teams when those students were not in fact athletes.
Some of the defendants are accused of bribing college entrance exam administrators to cheat on college entrance exams through a variety of means — by having a smarter student take the test for them, or by providing students with answers to exams or correcting their answers after they had completed the exams, according to the criminal complaint filed in federal court.
Others allegedly bribed university athletic coaches and administrators to designate applicants as “purported athletic recruits” — even though they did not play the sport they were purportedly recruited to play.
Parents allegedly paid up to $6.5 million in bribes. Huffman is accused of paying $15,000 disguised as a charitable donation to the Key Worldwide Foundation to aid her oldest daughter’s university prospects. A confidential informant told investigators that he told Huffman he could arrange for a third party to correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT after she took it, the Washington Post reported. She ended up scoring a 1420 — 400 points higher than she had gotten on a PSAT taken a year earlier.
Huffman also contemplated running a similar scam to help her younger daughter, but ultimately did not pursue it, the complaint alleges.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that Loughlin’s daughters were recruited by USC’s crew team, despite the fact they had no experience in crew.