BOSTON (AP/WWSB) — A 36-year-old Palmetto man is among the nearly 50 people, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country, federal prosecutors said.
Authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.
"These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the $25 million bribery case, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, against 50 people in all.
Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children's admission, officials said.
“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.
Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consulting company, Edge College & Career Network, in Newport Beach, California from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to label their children recruited athletes to boost their chances of getting into college. The founder of Edge College & Career Network, William Singer, also hired ringers to take college entrance exams, and paid off insiders at testing centers to alter students’ scores.
Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball accepted bribes to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. That, in turn, boosted the students’ chances of admission.
Authorities said parents paid Singer approximately $25 million over the eight-year period.
Prosecutors say between 2011 and February of this year, Mark Riddell of Palmetto was among those ringers who worked with Singer to either take the exams in place of the students or replace their answers with his own. Riddell was typically paid $10,000 per test, according to court documents.
In one instance, prosecutors say Riddell was supposed to correct the answers of a student test for one of Singer’s clients in Houston, Texas, but the student became ill.
Instead, after examining the handwriting of the student, Riddell allegedly went to Houston in July 2018 where he was given a copy of the ACT by a test administrator. Riddell allegedly completed the test in a hotel room and the test administrator submitted the test. Singer reportedly paid the test administrator $5,000 and Riddell $10,000 for their actions.
Riddell is charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Prosecutors are asking that if he’s found guilty, he forfeit almost $450,000 in assets.
Riddell worked at IMG Academy as the Director of College Entrance Exam Preparation. His biography has since been removed from their website, but a cached version in Google says that Riddell was the coordinator and leader for college exam preparation and also recruited tutors for IMG students. He had reportedly been in that role since 2006, but it’s unclear if he still works at IMG Academy.
He attended IMG from 1995-2000 and graduated from Harvard in 2004. He is a former NCAA Tennis Player.
On Wednesday, Riddell released a statement through his attorney. It says:
"I want to communicate to everyone that I am profoundly sorry for the damage I have done and grief I have caused those as a result of my needless actions. I understand how my actions contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process.
"I assume full responsibility for what I have done. I do, however, want to clarify an assertion that has arisen in the media coverage. I absolutely, unequivocally never bribed anyone, nor has the Information filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged me with any form of bribery.
“I will always regret the choices I made, but I also believe that the more than one thousand students I legitimately counseled, inspired, and helped reach their goals in my career will paint a more complete picture of the person I truly am.”
Riddell also stated that he would not be making any further public comments on the matter.
The academy released a statement on Wednesday stating that they do not believe that anyone else associated with the academy is apart of the misconduct in this scandal.
“After learning yesterday of the allegations against Mark Riddell as part of a larger criminal investigation, we suspended Mr. Riddell indefinitely. With the current information at hand, we have no reason to believe this alleged misconduct extends beyond Mr. Riddell, nor do we believe that these actions have any direct relation to Academy students, parents, or staff.”
Prosecutors said Singer was scheduled to plead guilty to charges including racketeering conspiracy.
At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance or business, were among those charged in the investigation. Dozens, including Felicity Huffman, were arrested by midday.
The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.
Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, he said.
No students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the teenagers were not aware of the fraud.
Among the parents charged were Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Connecticut, a co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York; Jane Buckingham, CEO of a boutique marketing company in Los Angeles; Gregory Abbott of New York, founder and chairman of a packaging company; and Manuel Henriquez, CEO of a finance company based in Palo Alto, California.
Colleges moved quickly to discipline the coaches accused of involvement. Stanford fired head sailing coach John Vandemoer, UCLA suspended its soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach. Vandemoer was also expected to plead guilty Tuesday.
Several schools, including USC and Yale, said they were victims themselves of the scam. USC also said it is reviewing its admissions process to prevent further such abuses.
Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom "Full House," while Huffman starred in ABC's "Desperate Housewives." Both were charged with fraud and conspiracy.
Messages seeking comment from Huffman's representative were not immediately returned. A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment.
Loughlin and her husband allegedly gave $500,000 to have their two daughters labeled as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team, even though neither participated in the sport. Their 19-year-old daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, who has a popular YouTube channel, attends USC.
Court documents said Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the college entrance-exam cheating scam.
Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he "controlled" a testing center and could have somebody secretly change her daughter's answers. The person told investigators the couple agreed to the plan.
Macy was not charged; authorities did not say why.
Macy told Parade magazine in January that the college application process for their daughter was stressful. The couple's daughter, Sofia, is an aspiring actress who attends Los Angeles High School of the Arts.
"She's going to go to college. I'm the outlier in this thing. We're right now in the thick of college application time, which is so stressful," Macy said.
Prosecutors said parents involved in the scheme were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves, with extended time, to make it easier to pull off the tampering.