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14 people, including actress Felicity Huffman, plead guilty in college admissions scam

The Department of Justice announced the plea deals in a bribery and fraud case that captured national attention.

The Stanford logo is displayed on a track on the Stanford University campus on March 12, 2019, in Stanford, California. More than 40 people, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, have been charged in a widespread elite college admission bribery scheme.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Of the scores of people who allegedly took part in a wide-ranging college admissions scam to get the children of wealthy parents into top-ranked colleges, 14 of them will plead guilty to bribery and mail fraud charges, the Department of Justice announced Monday.

According to the Department of Justice, 13 parents, including actress Felicity Huffman, and one former college tennis coach have accepted plea deals, though their sentences are yet to be determined.

In a statement, Huffman said, “I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions.”

As I wrote in March, more than 50 people, including Huffman and actress Lori Loughlin, were initially charged with fraud as part of “Operation Varsity Blues,” a massive investigation into a college admissions fraud in which parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to William “Rick” Singer, a Southern California business executive, to facilitate cheating on standardized testing exams like the ACT and to have their children falsely designated as athletes. In some cases, that even entailed paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to make coaches claim the children were being recruited to play sports for their schools.

The scheme worked in two ways. Some parents paid Singer through his foundation to either have someone take their child’s SAT and ACT tests or “correct” their answers:

First, the Department of Justice alleges that in return for payments from parents ranging from $10,000 to $75,000 per test, Singer paid other people — including a man named Mark Riddell, who was also indicted — to either take standardized tests required for college admissions at many schools for their children or correct their answers after the fact.

He also, according to the DOJ, used those payments to bribe teachers and ACT and SAT test administrators so they would overlook the cheating, often sending those payments via the Key Worldwide Foundation.

When a parent asked whether bribing test administrators worked, Singer laughed and replied, “every time,” adding the kids “just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.”

Other parents paid Singer to bribe college sports coaches to “recruit” their child and get them into universities, even creating fake “recruiting profiles.”

The second part of the scheme is where things get even more interesting. According to the charging documents, wealthy parents collectively paid Singer more than $25 million to get their children into top universities by bribing college coaches and administrators into designating their children as recruited athletes — when they very much were not.

According to the DOJ, the parents who took a tax deduction from their “contributions” to Singer’s foundation (in reality, money used to bribe college coaches or pay people to take standardized tests for students) will also pay back the IRS.

In addition, the Department of Justice notes: “The charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater.”

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