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Here’s How the College Admission Scandal Worked — And Why It’s Still Working

Operation Varsity Blues has resulted in charges for 46 people across the country. And more could be coming.

Andrew Lelling, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts announced charges against 50 people who took part in a scheme to help the children of the wealthy gain admission to eight different colleges including Yale, Georgetown, and USC, under false pretenses.

Joseph Bonovolanta, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, described Operation Varsity Blues ten months of “intense investigative efforts” that went into exposing “a culture of corruption that created an uneven playing field” on which “far less qualified students and their families simply bought their way in.” It’s a huge, complicated scandal involving lots of powerful people. Here’s what you need to know.

Who was charged?

Forty-six people were charged: 33 parents, a college admissions exam proctor, one college administrator, nine college coaches, two ACT/SAT administrators, and three people accused of organizing the scheme, including William Rick Singer, the purported mastermind.

Among the parents are actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, Loughlin’s husband fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, assorted CEOs, lawyers, and other rich and powerful people.

How did the scheme work?

There were two principal deceptions.

The first was cheating on college admissions exams. According to the criminal complaint, this happened “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.”

It’s this deception that actress Felicity Huffman is accused of. She met with someone who “controlled,” as they put it, an SAT testing location. That person, who became a cooperating witness in the investigation, helped Huffman secure 100 percent extra time for her older daughter to take the test.

After her daughter’s high school counselor tried to schedule her for a test to be proctored at her school, Huffman worked with her contact to move her daughter’s test from the school to the West Hollywood Test Center. There, a proctor who was in on the scheme administered the test. That proctor told the FBI that every time he proctored in Los Angeles, he “facilitated cheating, either by correcting the students’ answers after the test or by actively assisting the student during the exam.”

Huffman’s daughter received a 1420, a whopping 400 point increase over her PSAT score, taken without help a year earlier. Her mother is facing charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

The second was paying athletic coaches and administrators to designate the children of Singer’s clients as recruited athletes with access to reserved admission spots. This often involved faking athletic profiles to make students who often didn’t even participate in sports appear to be successful high school athletes.

Elisabeth Kimmel, owner and president of Midwest Television, Inc., is accused of this kind of deception for her daughter, who applied to Georgetown as a tennis recruit, and son, who applied to USC as a track recruit.

Neither was true, but the respective universities were supplied with athletic profiles of the applicants including, in the case of Kimmel’s son, a picture of a pole vaulter with his face Photoshopped on and false information about him being one of the best pole vaulters in the state. Kimmel took care to submit a final transcript to the NCAA herself, so as to not arouse the suspicion of her son’s high school counselor, who knew full well he wasn’t a varsity athlete.

How did the money change hands?

Lelling said that parents paid between $100,000 and $6.5 million dollars per child to guarantee their admission to the school of their choice. These payments were not made directly to Singer or his business, but to the Key Worldwide Foundation, a charity he set up to collect the bribes and funnel them to others participating in the scam.

Christina O’Connell, the special agent in charge of the IRS Criminal Division in Boston, said that over $25 million was laundered through Singer’s so-called charity as part of the scheme. As the icing on the corrupt cake, she said that they also brazenly wrote off their “donations” on their taxes.

How did they get caught?

The FBI first caught wind of this operation through a tip from the target of an entirely separate investigation. Much of the criminal complaint is built around two cooperating witnesses, who told the Bureau about what was happening and recording incriminating phone calls they had with many of the conspirators.

What happens now?

Singer has a plea agreement in place and will plead guilty to racketeering and other charges later today. John Vandemoer, the head sailing coach at Stanford, will also plead today, with more pleas likely to follow.

Bonovolanta also said that the investigation is not over, and further charges are possible as it continues.