At Least 50 People Charged In College Admissions Scandal

Originally published on March 12, 2019 8:51 pm
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To the news now that dozens of people have been indicted in a college admissions cheating scam. Among them wealthy parents, including celebrities such as actress Felicity Huffman, also college sports coaches and people who administer the standardized college admissions tests. Kirk Carapezza has details from WGBH in Boston.

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: At least 50 people have been charged with participating in alleged conspiracy that involve cheating on college entrance exams, like the SAT and ACT. Some of their children were admitted to elite colleges, including Yale, Stanford, UCLA and the University of Texas, by bribing coaches.

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ANDREW LELLING: We're not talking about donating a building so that a school's more likely to take your son or daughter.

CARAPEZZA: At the federal courthouse in Boston, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling announced the charges in what he called the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Justice Department.

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LELLING: We're talking about deception and fraud - fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

CARAPEZZA: Here's how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He'd also bribe Division 1 coaches.

LELLING: Singer's foundation purported to be a charitable organization but was actually a front Singer used to launder the money that parents paid him.

CARAPEZZA: In return for bribes ranging from 200- to $400,000, coaches agreed to pretend that certain applicants were recruited competitive athletes.

LELLING: In many instances, Singer helped parents take staged photographs of their children engaged in particular sports.

CARAPEZZA: In other cases, he helped them use stock photos pulled from the Internet, Photoshopping the faces of applicants onto the bodies of athletes.

JOSEPH BONAVOLONTA: Make no mistake. This is not a case where parents were acting in the best interests of their children.

CARAPEZZA: That's Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the Boston FBI. He says more than 30 parents flaunted their wealth to cheat the system and set their children up with the best education their money could buy.

BONAVOLONTA: Some spent anywhere from 200,000 to $6.5 million for guaranteed admission. Their actions were, without a doubt, insidious, selfish and shameful.

CARAPEZZA: None of the schools named in the court filings are under investigation for fraud. The U.S. attorney's office says college admissions officers were tricked. College admissions counselors say the real victims in this case are hardworking students who did everything they could to set themselves up for success in this country's crazy college admissions process.

ELIZABETH HEATON: The scale of it is utterly shocking.

CARAPEZZA: Elizabeth Heaton is with the company College Coach in Watertown, Mass. She works with students and families trying to navigate college admissions.

HEATON: There aren't enough slots for everybody. And it's hard to take - to stomach the idea that a couple of those slots were taken by people who bought their way in.

CARAPEZZA: In federal court, Rick Singer pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. Stanford has fired its sailing coach, who pleaded guilty. In a statement, Yale says the university has been the victim of a crime perpetrated by its former women's soccer coach, and it's cooperating in the investigation. UCLA says it has placed its men's soccer coach on leave for allegedly taking bribes and, in a statement, says the charges against him are deeply disturbing. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.