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Lori Loughlin (L) attends the 2018 Hallmark Channel Summer TCA on July 26, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California; Felicity Huffman attends the 70th Emmy Awards on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photos by Rodin Eckenroth and Frazer Harrison/ Getty Images)

Operation Varsity Blues

Wealthy parents and Hollywood stars snared in college bribery sting

By WITW Staff on March 13, 2019

A major college admissions scam has exposed the drastic measures some wealthy parents will take to secure admission for their children at top-tier American universities, and raised concerns about hard-working students who have been cheated out of their rightful places. Federal prosecutors charged 50 people in six states on Tuesday, including high profile actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

Huffman has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit two types of fraud, according to court paperwork filed on Monday in federal court in Massachusetts. She was arrested without incident at her home, the FBI said. The Academy Award-nominated actor is accused of paying $15,000 to facilitate cheating for her daughter on the SATs, the complaint says. A cooperating witness told authorities he traveled from Florida to a California test center to administer Huffman’s daughter’s exam. She received a 1420 on her test, which was 400 points higher than a PSAT taken a year earlier without the same administrator, the complaint states.

Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, also face charges of conspiracy to commit  fraud, prosecutors said. They allegedly agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team. The daughters were recruited as coxswains even though they did not row competitively or otherwise participate in crew, the complaint says. Giannulli was arrested without incident, and the FBI served a warrant for Loughlin who was taken into custody on Wednesday in Los Angeles. She had been filming a Hallmark movie in Canada, sources told ABC News.

Thirty-three parents in all were charged as a result of the investigation, known internally as Operation Varsity Blues, with prosecutors saying there could be further indictments. Those arrested also include two SAT/ACT administrators, one exam proctor, nine coaches at elite schools, and one college administrator. The schools involved in the scam include Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, USC, and others.

In many cases, prosecutors said, students were unaware of their parents actions, and no students or universities have been charged with wrongdoing by federal prosecutors. “The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” Andrew E. Lelling, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, told assembled media on Tuesday.

“The real victims in this case are the hard-working students” who were displaced in the admissions process by “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in,” he said.


Loughlin and Giannulli’s daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli, who is a social media influencer with a large audience, began college at the USC in the fall of 2018, and started to post sponsored content about being a student. Olivia Jade, 19, has close to two million YouTube subscribers and over a million Instagram followers, according to the New York Times.

In a paid post for Prime Student, Amazon’s paid membership program for college students, Olivia Jade is seen seated on a bed, with the caption “Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it. I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.” She also commented in a YouTube video that Amazon had “hooked me up with, like, everything in my dorm.”

In another post, advertising Smile Direct Club — a company that sells dental aligners — Olivia Jade wrote: “For back-to-school season, I’ve been using a doctor-directed, at-home invisible aligner treatment.”

She was criticized in August after posting a video  in which she said that she was only going to college for “gamedays, partying.”

“I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know,” she said.

Although Olivia Jade is not mentioned by name in the indictment, after it became public on Tuesday, commenters bombarded her Instagram page with criticism related to the scandal.


On March 14, the day after Loughlin was arrested, the Hallmark Channel announced it was cutting ties with the actress. “We are no longer working with Lori Loughlin,” the network said in a statement, adding that it had halted development of all productions she was involved with.

Loughlin’s work for the Hallmark Channel defined her career in recent years. She was one of the network’s “Christmas queens,” starring in its popular holiday movies. She also appeared in When Calls the Heart, the Hallmark series about a teacher working in a coal mining town deep in the Canadian frontier in the early 1900s, which she was taping in Canada when the scandal broke.

Her arrest stood in stark contrast with the channel’s sentimental, values-oriented programming. It had practical ramifications, as well: Loughlin has surrendered her passport to authorities and can no longer travel to Canada for shooting.


At the center of the sweeping financial crime and fraud case was William Singer, the founder of a college preparatory business called the Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key. Singer used The Key and its nonprofit arm, Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), to help students cheat on their standardized tests, and to pay bribes to the coaches who could get them into college with fake athletic credentials.

“Singer’s foundation purported to be a charitable organization, but was actually a front Singer used to launder the money that parents paid him,” said Lelling.

Appearing in federal court in Boston on Tuesday, Singer  — who pleaded guilty to counts of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice — described how he arranged for students to sit for the exams in Houston or Los Angeles, where his test proctor would correct their answers after they were done. Parents who hired Singer as part of the scheme allegedly paid between $15,000 and $75,000 per test, the indictment states. Huffman discussed the alleged scheme in a recorded phone call with Singer, according to court documents.

Singer also fabricated athletic credentials for students to submit with their applications, including teams the students had not played on and honors they had not won, and featuring doctored photographs that combined the applicants’ faces with images of athletes found on the internet.

One of the prosecutors, Eric S. Rosen, said that Singer had also in some cases falsified students’ ethnicities and other biographical details to take advantage of affirmative action.

Parents paid Singer about $25 million from 2011 until February 2019 to bribe coaches and university administrators.

Read more at CNN and The New York Times, including the full indictment.


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