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Operation Varsity Blues: How The FBI's College Admissions, Recruiting and Bribery Scandal Worked

The two-part scheme allegedly involved funnelling money through a fake charity to facilitate bribes.

On Tuesday, news broke of a nationwide college admissions scheme that used bribes to help potential students cheat on college entrance exams or to pose as potential athletic recruits to get admitted to high-profile universities. The FBI and federal prosecutors in Boston charged 50 people in the scam, including two SAT/ACT exam administrators, one exam proctor, nine collegiate coaches, one college athletics administrator and 33 parents.

US Attorney Andrew Lelling explained the basics of the scheme Tuesday in a press conference, breaking down the simple yet scandalous way bribes were used to help students get into selective colleges.

How It Worked

Parents paid a California man named William Rick Singer– who pled guilty to four charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and obstruction of justice on Tuesday– a predetermined amount to his fake charity. Those funds would then be used to bribe either an SAT or ACT administrator to cheat on the exams, or a college athletic coach or official to designate non-athletes as recruits.

"I'll speak more broadly, there were essentially two kinds of fraud that Singer was selling," Lelling said at a press conference Tuesday where the arrests were announced. "One was to cheat on the SAT or ACT, and the other was to use his connections with Division I coaches and use bribes to get these parents' kids into school with fake athletic credentials."

According to the indictment, money that went to cheating on college examinations was used to pay a third-party, generally Mark Riddell, who is charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Riddell would then allegedly take the test in place of a student or replace their responses with his own, an action that was allowed by exam administrators who had been bribed.

Both Igor Dvorskiy and Lisa 'Niki' Williams are accused of accepting bribes to allow Riddell to take the tests and face charges of conspiracy to commit racketeering. Parents who hired Singer allegedly paid between $15,000 and $75,000 per test.

Former Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman was implicated in this end of the scheme. Singer allegedly paid an exam proctor to fly to a West Hollywood test center to administer Huffman's daughters exam, on which her daughter scored significantly higher than on a PSAT taken a year earlier, per the indictment.

The second part of the scheme involved bribing coaches and college athletics officials to help non-recruits get into school by saying they were recruits, a sort of favored candidate, "regardless of their athletic abilities," per the indictment. These individuals would then use false athletic credentials to recommend to admissions officials that certain students be accepted as recruits.

Georgetown University, Stanford University, UCLA, the University of San Diego, USC, University of Texas, and Yale were among the universities allegedly connected to the nationwide scheme. Several coaches and administrators implicated in the scheme have already been suspended or terminated by the schools.

Singer admitted to the scheme in court, explaining to the federal judge, "I was bribing coaches for a spot. And that occurred very frequently, your honor."

For example, former Full House actress Lori Loughlin and her husband were charged with paying $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters into USC as recruits for the rowing team. Neither daughter rowed competitively or otherwise participated in crew.

In another instance, a parent who wanted his child admitted to the University of Texas paid $455,194 in the form of stock to Singer’s foundation. Through a middleman named Martin Fox, who knew both Singer and Texas's tennis coach, Michael Carter, Singer bribed the coach to designate that child as a student-athlete and a recruit of the University of Texas tennis team. Another student was allegedly posed as a USC lacrosse recruit despite the lack of a lacrosse team in the Trojans' athletic programs.

Bribe payments from clients were disguised as charitable contributions to the Key Worldwide Foundation. KWF was a nonprofit set up by Singer as a charity that allowed him to launder the money the parents paid him.

Most of the students allegedly admitted under these false pretenses that they did not know their admission was contingent on a bribe. The indictment also clarifies that it does not appear that schools themselves were involved in the wrong-doing.