Authorities charged more than 50 people, like actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, March 12 with being part of a long-running college admittance scam. (Allie Caren, Justin Scuiletti/The Washington Post)

By Devlin Barrett and
Matt Zapotosky
March 12 at 6:11 PM

The Justice Department on Tuesday charged 50 people — including two television stars — with participating in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme that enabled privileged students with lackluster grades to attend prestigious colleges and universities.

The allegations included cheating on entrance exams and bribing college officials to say certain students were athletic recruits when those students were not in fact athletes, officials said. Numerous schools were targeted, including Georgetown University, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and UCLA, among others.

In Boston, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling called it the largest-ever college admissions scam prosecuted by the Justice Department. Of the 50 people charged in the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues, 33 were parents, officials said, warning that the investigation is ongoing and that others could be charged.

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1. The scheme was discovered accidentally by the FBI while working an unrelated undercover operation about a year ago, officials said. That tip led to a sprawling, nationwide corruption probe.

“These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” said Lelling. “This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud. There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add there will not be a separate criminal-justice system, either.”

No students were charged because prosecutors said their parents were the scheme’s principal actors.

Court filings released Tuesday paint an ugly picture of privileged parents committing crimes to get their children into selective schools otherwise unlikely to accept them.

Among those charged are actresses Felicity Huffman, best known for her role on the television show “Desperate Housewives,” and Lori Loughlin, who appeared on “Full House.” A representative for Loughlin declined to comment. A representative for Huffman did not return messages seeking comment. Huffman appeared in federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday and was released on $250,000 bond.

Others arrested Tuesday include a private-equity executive in Northern California, a senior lawyer at a major law firm in New York and a public relations executive in Los Angeles. Prosecutors said they took part in a criminal conspiracy to bribe test officials and college sports officials.

In the wake of the charges, universities began firing or placing on leave some of the accused coaches.

The scheme’s chief architect, William Singer, pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday. Officials described Singer as a well-connected college admissions adviser and say he disguised the bribery scheme as a charity, enabling parents to deduct the bribes from their taxes.

Singer was charged with taking about $25 million from 2011 to 2018 — paying some of it to college coaches or standardized-testing officials for their help rigging the admissions process and pocketing the rest, according to the criminal complaint. He allegedly disguised the money using a nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation, which prosecutors described as a slush fund for bribes.

Singer pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy charges for racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. He had been cooperating since September. Prosecutors said that a month after he came to the government’s side, Singer alerted several people under investigation about the inquiry — which earned him the obstruction charge. Lawyers for Singer did not respond to requests for comment.

Another defendant is Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of the international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. Neither Caplan nor his firm immediately responded to requests for comment.

Court papers charge that in one secretly recorded conversation, Caplan asked Singer: “If somebody catches this, what happens?”

“The only one who can catch it is if you guys tell somebody,” Singer replied.

“I’m not going to tell anybody,” Caplan said, and the two men laughed, according to the court papers.

Two California parents paid Singer in the form of Facebook stock — 2,150 shares worth $251,159 at the time of the bribe in July 2016, according to court papers. Those parents claimed that payment as a charitable donation, the papers said.

Early in the investigation, the FBI was able to flip Yale’s former women’s soccer coach, who provided evidence against others, officials said. Rudolph Meredith pleaded guilty nearly a year ago, after prosecutors gathered evidence he took a $400,000 bribe to pretend that one prospective student was a recruit, despite the fact that the student in question did not play competitive soccer. The student’s parents paid $1.2 million in bribes, officials said.

Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, sent a letter to the Yale community calling the allegations “an affront to our university’s deeply held values of inclusion and fairness. I want to assure our community,” it says, “that I am committed to making certain the integrity of the admissions and athletic recruitment processes is not undermined again. As the investigation unfolds, the university may take further actions.”

Prosecutors also charged Georgetown’s former head tennis coach, Gordon Ernst. Authorities said he made $950,000 promoting several students as potential tennis recruits — when they were not tennis players of that caliber.

For example, prosecutors alleged, Ernst flagged a California couple’s daughter as a “potential spot,” and her application falsely indicated she had played club tennis through high school and achieved a Top 50 ranking in the U.S. Tennis Association’s junior girls category from her sophomore through her senior years. In fact, she had not played at any Tennis Association tournaments in high school, officials said.

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