A massive nationwide college entrance exam cheating plot was exposed Tuesday, resulting in charges for dozens of people, including Full House actor Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives.
Among those charged are three accused of organizing the scheme, two ACT/SAT administrators, an exam proctor, one college administrator, nine coaches from elite schools, and 33 parents, US Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said Tuesday.
The scheme, referred to by the FBI as Operation Varsity Blues, involved facilitating cheating on SAT and ACT exams for students and bribing college administrators and coaches to recruit students as athletes, according to a criminal complaint from the FBI in Boston.
"There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy and I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either," Lelling said. "For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected."
For the college entrance exams, cheating was facilitated in some cases "by posing as the actual students, and in others by providing students with answers during the exams or by correcting their answers after they had completed the exams," according to the criminal complaint.
In many instances, the students taking the exams were unaware that their parents had arranged for this cheating, the FBI added.
University athletic coaches and administrators were also allegedly bribed "to designate applicants as purported athletic recruits — regardless of their athletic abilities, and in some cases, even though they did not play the sport they were purportedly recruited to play," court documents state.
In some cases, photos of the students playing sports were staged, and some even had their heads photoshopped onto the bodies of real athletes.
Between 2011 and 2018, about $25 million in bribes were allegedly paid to the coaches and administrators.
The schools that accepted the students include Yale, Stanford, UCLA, Georgetown, the University of San Diego, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, and the University of Southern California.
William “Rick” Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, California, was the ringleader of the operation, funneling money through a “purported charity” he had established called the Key Worldwide Foundation, according to the US District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts.
Singer, who was charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and obstruction of justice, pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon.
"I am absolutely responsible for it," he reportedly told a federal judge Tuesday. "I put everything in place. I put all the people in place and made the payments directly."
According to the affidavit, Singer bribed two test administrators — Igor Dvorskiy in Los Angeles, and Niki Williams in Houston — in order to pull off the scheme.
In exchange for the bribes, the test administrators would allow Mark Riddell, a counselor at a private school, to secretly take the exams for the students or correct their answers after they were done, the FBI alleged.
According to the criminal complaint, Huffman paid $15,000 to doctor the college entrance exam for her oldest daughter. Huffman is married to actor William H. Macy, who is referred to in the complaint as "spouse" but not named or charged, per the court documents.
Huffman was told that her daughter would take the SAT at a "controlled" testing center and that the organizer would arrange for a special proctor to administer the exam. The proctor would then correct the answers without her daughter's knowledge.
Huffman initially ran into a roadblock when her daughter's school tried to make her take the exam on its campus. In order for the scheme to work, she would need to arrange for the test to be administered at a location specified by one of the scheme's orchestrators.
"Ruh Ro! Looks like [my daughter's high school] wants to provide its own proctor," she wrote, according to the affidavit.
Huffman also discussed carrying out the scam a second time with her younger daughter but later decided not to go through with it.
Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were charged with paying $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters into USC as recruits for the crew team, despite the fact that the children weren't playing the sport.
To prove they played, Giannulli sent photos of both daughters on an indoor rowing machine, the complaint states.
The individuals have been charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
Huffman was released from custody in lieu $250,000 bond after she and others indicted in the alleged scheme appeared in federal court in downtown Los Angeles. She was also ordered to restrict her travel to within the continental US until she appears in a Boston courtroom on March 9 to address the charges.
Loughlin was slated to appear after arriving on a flight to LA.
A representative for Huffman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A publicist for Loughlin told BuzzFeed News she was just learning of the charges and had no immediate comment.
Authorities also indicted prominent college athletic leaders for allegedly accepting bribes and helping to fabricate athlete profiles for the teenagers.
Early Tuesday, FBI agents in Hawaii arrested USC's decorated water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who was there for a tournament. The women's water polo team, which is ranked No. 1, is scheduled to play against the University of Hawaii on Saturday. Vavic has led USC's water polo program for decades and become an institution in the sport, winning 16 national championships, the most team titles of any head coach in the school's history.
Later that afternoon, USC announced that it had fired its most high-profile coach, along with Donnal Heinel, its senior athletic director, who allegedly took more than $1.3 million in bribe payments to fake achievements and credentials or more than two dozen prospective students from 2014 and 2018.
Division I coaches from competitive athletic programs at schools like Yale, Stanford, UCLA, and Georgetown were also allegedly involved.
The College Board, which develops and administers the SAT, said in a statement that those who facilitate cheating on its exam "will be held accountable," regardless of their income or status.
Igor Dvorskiy's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.