An indictment in Massachusetts, which was unsealed today, reads like a Hollywood mobster movie. There are rich, unscrupulous parents desperate to place their children in prestigious schools, fixers and university athletic coaches. And like many mobster movies, it ends with the wise guys being hauled away in handcuffs and charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as the “RICO.”
There is no happy ending for these groups of alleged bad actors — 50 of them altogether — but hard-working and deserving students should take heart. Now that the scope of the elaborate scheme has been exposed, maybe the college admission process will become more transparent.
The affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint is 204 pages long, but let’s unpack some of the allegations.
The alleged bad acts occurred between 2011 and September 2018, which means that there were many years when deserving students could have failed to get a spot because someone else got in through fraud and deception.
The universities ensnared in the scheme, allegedly, by dint of their athletic coaches are Georgetown University, Stanford, UCLA, the University of San Diego (USD), the University of Southern California (USC), Wake Forest and Yale, all of which compete in Division 1 for most sports.
Now, let’s take a look at the cast of characters.
The rich parents
We’re not getting into the details here, but the 33 parents charged include CEOS of private and public companies, two well-known actresses and the co-chairman of a global law firm. You can check all their names in this supporting affidavit. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has charged them with one or more of the following alleged crimes:
- bribing college entrance exam administrators so they would “facilitate cheating” on the college entrance exams their children took;
- bribing coaches and administrators at the seven universities, so they would designate their children “as recruited athletes or as other favored candidates,” and securing a spot for their children; and
- using a charitable organization to hide the “nature and source” of the bribes.
The alleged fixers include:
- William Rick Singer, the owner and CEO of the Edge College & Career Network, LLC (Edge), a college prep business, who also served as the CEO of the Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), a charitable arm he set up, and which was allegedly used to receive money from parents and funnel money to the university employees at the seven prestigious universities;
- Steven Masera, the accountant and financial officer of both Edge and KWF;
- Mikaela Sanford, an employee of both Edge and KWF;
- Lisa “Niki” Williams, an assistant teacher at a public high school in Texas and also a compensated test administrator for the College Board, the developer and grader of the SAT, and ACT, Inc.;
- Igor Dvorskiy, the director of a private elementary and high school in Los Angeles and also a compensated test administrator for the College Board and ACT, Inc.; and
- Martin Fox, the president of a private tennis academy and camp in Houston.
The university athletic coaches
These were the nine coaches who were charged of criminal acts:
- Gordon Ernst, Georgetown men’s and women’s tennis head coach (until January 2018);
- Donna Heinel, USC senior athletic director;
- Ali Khosroshahin, USC women’s soccer head coach (until November 8, 2013);
- Laura Janke, USC women’s soccer assistant coach (until January 10, 2014);
- Jovan Vavic, USC water polo coach;
- Jorge Salceco, UCLA men’s soccer head coach;
- William Ferguson, Wake Forest women’s volleyball coach;
- Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, Yale women’s soccer head coach; and
- John Vandemoer, Stanford sailing head coach.
The bad acts
The bad acts that have been alleged fall into two schemes: cheating on standardized tests and fabricating a stellar athletic record for the applicants whose parents paid for a guaranteed spot in one of the seven universities.
The alleged cheating involved having someone else — typically, a man named Mark Riddell — take the test or having him replace the test-taker’s answers with his own. Allegedly, parents were coached to seek extended test time by having their children fake a learning disability, so they could obtain the required documentation for extended time.
Parents allegedly paid Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 for each test, which was disguised as a donation to KWF. Of this amount, $10,000, allegedly, was generally paid to the test administrators, who would allow the cheating and send the falsified tests to the College Board or ACT, Inc. Another $10,000, allegedly, was paid to Riddell.
The athletic recruitment scam allegedly resulted in payments of about $25 million, in the guise of a donation to KWF, to Singer. He then allegedly used some of the money to bribe coaches and college administrators, so an applicant could get in as an athlete or other favored categories.
The indictment is replete with details of the alleged recruitment scam. For example, an instruction from Singer with regard to a USC applicant, on or about September 20, 2016, allegedly, was “to be a coxswain at USC through HEINEL. A profile needs to be completed. Picture coming.” The applicant, allegedly, had no prior experience in the sport.
The coaches in each instance allegedly let down their schools and their teams for hard cash. For example, according to the indictment, between 2014 and 2018, Singer’s clients made multiple payments of $1.3 million to USC accounts controlled by Heinel, which frequently was to the USC Women’s Athletic Board.
It’s not a secret that the college application process is not exactly fair, but who knew that it could be so easily manipulated? Students should get into colleges on their merit, not because they have rich parents who can afford to spend hundreds of thousands, and even millions, to help them get into schools that they don’t deserve to get into.
Susan Chu is a writer and editor who likes to write about trends in higher education.