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Originally published March 12, 2019 at 11:58a.m., updated March 12, 2019 at 04:08p.m.

Former KU tennis coach, TV stars charged in college admissions bribery scheme

In this Feb. 26, 2015, file photo, students walk on the University of California, Los Angeles campus. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

In this Feb. 26, 2015, file photo, students walk on the University of California, Los Angeles campus. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

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BOSTON — Fifty people, including a former University of Kansas tennis standout-turned-coach and Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation's most elite schools.

Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes.

"These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the results of an investigation code-named Operation Varsity Blues.

The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions — sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents — and that privilege begets privilege.

At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance or business, were among those charged. Dozens, including Huffman, were arrested by midday.

The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.

Current Texas tennis coach Michael Center, who was charged in the investigation, played tennis at KU from 1983 to 1986, coached the KU women’s tennis team from 1989 to 1992 and coached the KU men’s tennis team from 1992 until 1996. As a player at KU, Center won a Big Eight singles title and was the first Jayhawk to win 40 matches in a single season, according to his biography on the Texas athletics website.

Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to falsely make their children look like star athletes to boost their chances of getting into college. The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students, and paid off insiders at testing centers to alter students' scores.

Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children's admission, officials said.

"For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected," Lelling said.

Several defendants, including Huffman, were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, he said.

No students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the teenagers were not aware of what was going on.

The investigation began when authorities received a tip about the admissions scheme from someone they were interviewing in a separate case, Lelling said. He did not elaborate.

Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball accepted bribes to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. That, in turn, improved their chances of admission.

Prosecutors said parents were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves, with extended time. That made it easier to pull off the tampering, prosecutors said.

Among the parents charged were Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Connecticut, a co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York; Jane Buckingham, CEO of a boutique marketing company in Los Angeles; Gregory Abbott of New York, founder and chairman of a packaging company; and Manuel Henriquez, CEO of a finance company based in Palo Alto, California.

Caplan was accused of paying $75,000 to get a test supervisor to correct the answers on her daughter's ACT exam after she took it. In a conversation last June with a cooperating witness, he was told his daughter needed "to be stupid" when a psychologist evaluated her for learning disabilities in order to get more time for the exam, according to court papers.

"It's the home run of home runs," the witness said.

"And it works?" Caplan asked.

"Every time," the witness responded, prompting laughter from both.

At one point, Caplan asked if schools were "concerned with this."

"Schools don't know. Schools don't know," the witness said.

The bribes allegedly were dispensed through an admissions consulting company in Newport Beach, California. Authorities said parents paid William Singer, the founder of the Edge College & Career Network, the bribe money to get their children into college.

Prosecutors said Singer was scheduled to plead guilty in Boston Tuesday to charges including racketeering conspiracy. John Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford, was also expected to plead guilty.

Colleges moved quickly to discipline the coaches accused. Stanford fired Vandemoer, UCLA suspended its soccer coach, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach.

Several schools, including USC and Yale, said they were victims themselves of the scam. USC also said it is reviewing its admissions process to prevent further such abuses.

In one case, a former USC women's soccer coach and the consultant allegedly worked together in 2017 to help a client's child get into Yale in exchange for $1.2 million from the family. A false athletic profile created for the student said she played competitive soccer and had been on China's junior national development team.

The profile was sent to the coach of the Yale women's soccer team and the student was accepted. Prosecutors said the Yale coach, Rudolph Meredith, received $400,000 from the consulting company after the student was accepted, even though he knew the student did not play competitive soccer.

Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom "Full House," while Huffman starred in ABC's "Desperate Housewives."

Messages seeking comment from Huffman's representative were not immediately returned. A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment.

Loughlin and her husband allegedly gave $500,000 to have their two daughters labeled as recruits to the USC crew team, even though neither participated in the sport. Their 19-year-old daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, who has a popular YouTube channel, attends USC.

Court documents said Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the college entrance-exam cheating scam.

Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he "controlled" a testing center and could have somebody secretly change her daughter's answers. The person told investigators the couple agreed to the plan.

Macy was not charged; authorities did not say why.

Macy told Parade magazine in January that the college application process for their daughter was a source of stress. The couple's daughter, Sofia, is an aspiring actress who attends Los Angeles High School of the Arts.

"She's going to go to college. I'm the outlier in this thing. We're right now in the thick of college application time, which is so stressful," Macy said.

Comments

Bryce Landon 7 months ago

Holy crap, as if KU doesn't have enough trouble with the FBI these days...

Phil Leister 7 months ago

How does KU have any involvement with this? The only guy tied to this last worked at KU in 1996.

Click-baity headline.

Tim Orel 7 months ago

The NCAA doesn't care if the link is current or 30 years in the past. If there's a link, KU gets a black mark and the NCAA probably thinks a link is tenuous only because the coach or player didn't get caught, not that they were in a clean program. Bitter? Just a bit. Free Desouza!

Joe Black 7 months ago

This has nothing to do with KU. These scam is fairly recent and was years and years after the dude left KU.

Dirk Medema 7 months ago

This is making the Adidas debacle look trivial. It will be interesting to see what the judge(s) do with these affluent folk.

In another, maybe similar story, I think it was the e-network that had a story about a former Penn coach that accepted $$$$$$ from some Miami mogul to get his son into the school. The head coach set up an account that an assistant coach used. The assistant coach isn't at Penn anymore either. {Drum roll, rim shot} He's now at Auburn, though I'm not sure if he's a replacement for Coach Person.

Just amazing.

Damian Glaze 7 months ago

Why is this a big story? I can understand if there were a lot of public schools involved, but most of these schools are private. You can throw a rock at any private K-12 school and hit over half of the student population that is there because of the money. I don't understand how a parent gets in trouble for paying someone to boost their kids appeal into a private institution. Sure, it is sleazy and unscrupulous but worth all this media attention I have seen today??? BFD, some rich folks got caught duping the private education system. That's what Devos and the Charter school folks advocate anyway. Let's just call it "better" choice.

Tracey Graham 7 months ago

Because it is illegal, not to mention a violation of NCAA rules? Because these rich kids are taking spots away from students who can get into these schools on their own merits and don't need their parents to bribe people to get them into these schools?

Unless the kids are directly involved in this scam I feel bad for them because their parents are putting way too high expectations on them. Why not let your kid go to a college that they can get into WITHOUT mommy or daddy bribing someone? There are a lot of very good colleges in the United States. Why do these kids have to go to Yale or Stanford or USC, etc in the first place? Shouldn't you go to the school that best fits your interests? For example, where should you go to school if you want to study agriculture -- USC or Kansas State? I doubt USC even has an agricultural program, so what would be the point of going there? On the other hand, there are majors where USC would be the best place to study.

Damian Glaze 7 months ago

That would be awesome if the NCAA put a school on probation because a kid that was not athletic got admitted to the school through the back door - even if the benefit was not financial. Probably not because I don't think in any case any of these kids ever saw a day of competition. Just on the team for admissions sake and then removed from the team and allowed to maintain admission on their own dime. The offending kid didn't hurt the scholarship situation because they were probably considered a preferred walk-on or something like that.

I guess the only way to combat this system of cheating is to convince people that these ultra private, elite schools aren't that much better than public Universities or lesser known private schools. Because I don't see things at the involved institutions changing much with the amount of preferential treatment given to wealthy families.

Tim Orel 7 months ago

I saw someone write in a different blog how their kid's only way to attend college was through a sports scholarship and managed to win one and participate his freshman year. However, after the year, the coach wanted the bribe money and kicked the player off the team just to have room for one of these privileged kids who didn't need the money from the scholarship but did need the extra juice being an "athlete" gave their application. The story does indicate that these people weren't being given paid sports scholarships, but apparently real athletes were hurt by this. I doubt we've heard many of the stories that are going to come out about this.

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