On Tuesday morning, the Department of Justice accused more than 50 people—parents and college-athletics coaches—of a nationwide scheme to get the children of the wealthy into selective colleges such as the University of Southern California, Georgetown, Yale, Wake Forest, and the University of Texas.
William Singer pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges of racketeering conspiracy, money-laundering conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. He was allegedly the fixer behind the scheme, helping parents create fake athletics profiles to give their children a leg up with admissions. Singer is accused of funneling bribe money to coaches at these schools through a fake charity organization he ran that was, ironically, supposed to be helping “underserved kids”—parents received letters after transferring money thanking them for the generosity that would help “provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth.” The organization also allegedly advised parents on how to get their kids more time on standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT, and arranged for graduate students to take the tests for them
In total, from 2011 to 2019, parents paid Singer tens of thousands of dollars, and in one case upwards of $1 million, to falsify students’ athletics profiles. In addition, Singer charged anywhere from $15,000 to $75,000 for each fake test score.
For the most part, the students caught up in the scandal seem to have been unaware of their parents’ underhanded dealings. So far, none of them have been named in the indictments, and whether or not they’ll remain enrolled at their respective colleges is unclear.
The indictment is 269 pages long, and some of the details are truly astonishing. Below are nine of the most striking examples from the document that show the lengths that parents were allegedly willing to go to in order to send their children to prestigious universities.
1. One father, Houmayoun Zadeh, is a professor at USC’s medical school—and yet court documents claim he still felt that he had to bribe his daughter’s way into the school. The indictment reads:
In a lengthy text message exchange that began on or about March 20, 2017, ZADEH discussed the admission of his daughter to USC with CW-1 [Cooperating Witness One], who appears to be a fixer involved in setting up back door deals. In the conversation, CW-1 requested that ZADEH confirm that his daughter would attend USC … ZADEH replied that his daughter was concerned that “she did not get in on her own merits. I have not shared anything about our arrangement but she somehow senses it. She’s concerned that others may view her differently.”
2. Another parent, Jane Buckingham, allegedly pressured her son into getting on a plane to Houston to take the ACT at a fake testing center, even though he had tonsillitis and his doctor advised him against traveling.
BUCKINGHAM: First of all, he can get on that plane like he, according to him, he’s like, “I really don’t feel that bad, I think I’m okay.” And I do think that this doctor is a little over conservative. Part of my challenge is that my ex-husband is being incredibly difficult about the whole surgery, and if I take him to Houston and then he can’t get the surgery he’s gonna be very annoyed with me.
And later, when Buckingham and CW-1 decided to have her son take the test at home instead:
BUCKINGHAM: Yeah. I know this is craziness, I know it is. And then I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East.
3. The indictment describes one of CW-1’s employees submitting applications on behalf of the younger daughter of the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli and his wife, the actress Lori Loughlin, because the daughter was confused about how to do it.
On or about December 12, 2017, LOUGHLIN e-mailed CW-1, copying GIANNULLI and their younger daughter, to request guidance on how to complete the formal USC application, in the wake of her [other] daughter’s provisional acceptance as a recruited athlete. Loughlin wrote: “[Our younger daughter] has not submitted all her colleges [sic] apps and is confused on how to do so. I want to make sure she gets those in as I don’t want to call any attention to [her] with her little friend at [her high school]. Can you tell us how to proceed? CW-1 responded by directing an employee to submit the applications on behalf of the GIANNULLIS’ younger daughter.
4. The actress Felicity Huffman allegedly sent an email to CW-1 about a snag in their plan to have her daughter take a test with extended time, which included the phrase “Ruh Ro!”
On or about October 16, 2017, HUFFMAN’s older daughter received a letter from the College Board advising that she had been approved for 100 percent extended time … The high school counselor wrote back to HUFFMAN the next day, stating, “Now you will register [your daughter] for the December 3rd SAT … Collegeboard considers double time a school based exam, so [our high school] is the test center. I will proctor test on Dec 4th & 5th and that’s the process in a nutshell.” HUFFMAN forwarded the email to CW-1 with the note, “Ruh Ro! Looks like [my daughter’s high school] wants to provide own proctor.” CW-1 responded, “We will speak about it.”
5. Michelle Janavs, a former executive at a food manufacturer, paved her older daughter’s way into college through side-door schemes, according to the indictment. But her younger daughter got suspicious when Janavs allegedly started a similar process for her.
JANAVS: I had a question for you. So I was able to get [my younger daughter] the multiday ACT.
CW-1: Okay, you got her extended time multiple days, got it.
JANAVS: Yes, so I got that, the only thing is [my younger daughter] is not like [my older daughter] … She’s not stupid. So if I said to her, “Oh, well, we’re going to take it up at CW-1’s testing center] she’s going to wonder why … She’s smart, she’s going to figure this out. Yeah, she’s going to say to me— she already thinks I’m up to, like, no good.
6. CW-1 explained to one father, George Caplan, that his daughter needed “to be stupid” when undergoing an evaluation to get extra time on the ACT—an accommodation to help students with learning disabilities. As the indictment describes it, Caplan seemed to recognize he was acting unethically, but did so anyway.
CW-1: The goal is to be slow, not as bright, all that, so we show discrepancies. And she knows that she’s getting all this extra time, everywhere that she is right now. At the Academy kids are getting extra time all the time.
CAPLAN: You mean the Greenwich Academy?
CAPLAN: Oh, oh you mean at her tennis academy. I see. Yeah. Okay.
CW-1: Yeah, everywhere around the country. What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.
CAPLAN: No, no its not. I mean this is, to be honest, it feels a little weird. But.
CW-1: I know it does. I know it does. But when she gets the score and we have choices, you’re gonna be saying, okay, I’ll take all my kids, we’re gonna do the same thing. (laughing)
CAPLAN: Yeah, I will.
7. Robert Zangrillo, the CEO of a private investment firm, is accused of planning for someone to retake supplemental classes that his daughter had failed in community college.
ZANGRILLO’s daughter inquired, in substance, what CW-1 was doing about an ‘F’ grade that she had received in an art history class she had taken. CW-1 explained that he had [arranged for someone to retake the class].’ CW-1 asked if this plan made sense. ZANGRILLO and his daughter both replied, ‘Yes.’
ZANGRILLO then inquired, in substance, whether Sanford could take his daughter’s biology class as well. Sanford replied that she was ‘happy to assist.’ ZANGRILLO added: ‘If you can do the biology thing, just makes sure it gets done as quickly as possible, so we have a backup plan for the conditional [acceptance to USC and then you do the best you can to overturn the art history grade].’
8. Devin Sloane, a CEO and businessman, is accused of purchasing water-polo gear from Amazon and hiring graphic designers to create fake images of his son playing the sport to send to college recruiters.
Records obtained from Amazon.com indicate that, on or about June 5, 2017, and June 16, 2017, SLOANE purchased water polo gear, including a ball and a cap.
Thereafter, on or about June 26, 2017, SLOANE received an e-mail from a graphic designer bearing the subject line, “Water Polo Photo 06/26/17.” The designer wrote:
We researched a few water polo athlete images and the majority are cropped against a background so they can use them in promotional materials (and it takes out undesirable elements from the crowd etc). We were able to adjust the color and complete a clean extraction to mimic this look (attached).
On or about June 27, 2017, SLOANE e-mailed a photograph of his son
purporting to play water polo, with his right arm and upper torso exposed above the water line. In the e-mail, SLOANE asked, “Does this work??” CW-1 responded: “Yes but a little high out of the water- no one gets that high.”
On or about the following day, June 28, 2017, SLOANE sent a photograph in which his son appeared to be lower in the water, with his torso and arm now mostly submerged. SLOANE wrote, “Hope this works...” CW-1 replied, “perfect.” In both photographs, SLOANE’s son appears to be using the items SLOANE purchased from Amazon.com a few weeks earlier.
9. Parents allegedly consented to being recorded on the phone with a cooperating witness as they discussed different elements of their fraud. Here’s an example of one of those calls, with Marjorie Klapper, the owner of a jewelry business.
On a telephone call with KLAPPER on or about October 24, 2018, CW-1 acting at the direction of law enforcement agents, told KLAPPER that his foundation was being audited. The following is an excerpt from the call, which was consensually recorded.
CW-1: So, I wanted to let you [know]—our foundation, is, is being audited—
CW-1: —which is very normal. Right?
CW-1: And so they’re lookin’ at all of our payments.
KLAPPER . Mm-hmm.
CW-1: And so they’re lookin’ at, you know, the payment—including your payment that you made for 15K, to have [CW-2] take the test for [your son].
CW-1: So I just—I just want to make sure that you and I are on the same page. Cause, of course, I’m not gonna tell the IRS that—that, you know, you paid 15,000 for to take the test for [your son], obviously. So I just wanted to make sure that you and I are on the same page, in case you get a call.
KLAPPER: Okay. So if I get a call—
CW-1: You’re gonna say that the—the $15,000 that you paid to our foundation was to help underserved kids.
It's brazen enough to commit fraud, but even more so to admit it on a recording and apparently not suspect you might get caught. Taken together, the lurid details from the case reveal just what their kids’ admission to elite colleges is worth to some parents—in terms not only of the money they are willing to spend, but of the lines they are allegedly willing to cross.