College Admissions Fraud Crimes

William Rick Singer, CEO of a college admissions preparatory company, The Key, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice in March 2019.

 It was part of a wide-ranging scam to help wealthy families get their children into elite universities. His clients included actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, among others.

The U.S. Department of Justice placed Singer at the center of its investigation, named Operation Varsity Blues. But Singer was hardly alone. The government charged dozens of university coaches from Yale, Stanford, and other schools. It also charged exam administrators for their roles in college admissions fraud schemes.

The breadth and brazen nature of these offenses rattled public trust in the admissions process. This article describes these crimes in detail and the various charges they entail. If you face fraud charges, hire a criminal defense lawyer.

College Admissions and the Incentive to Commit Fraud

Consider how the admissions process works to understand how people might want to game the system. Generally, colleges and universities use objective measures to make admissions decisions, such as:

  • Standardized exams (primarily the SAT and ACT)
  • High school grades
  • Athletic achievement
  • Artistic accomplishments

Each school does things differently. For example, they may have a cutoff point for exam scores.

Parents want what is best for their children. There is nothing wrong with wanting your child to get into a good school. But you can't bribe colleges to get your child into a school and deny a child who earned their way into it.

The admissions scandal arose when families of means did just that. These families allegedly gave in to the temptation to buy their children's ways into school.

College Admissions Scandals

The scandal involving Singer and his company consisted of allegations covering two main fraudulent activities:

  1. Bribing university coaches to help falsify athletic credentials, often claiming achievement in sports in which the child never participated
  2. Faking SAT or ACT scores — often bribing test administrators — and paying other students to take the test in the student's place.

According to prosecutors in the investigation, some parents paid as much as $75,000 per test in hopes of gaming the system.

The government charged actress Loughlin (Aunt Becky on "Full House") and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli. They allegedly paid as much as $500,000 in bribes to gain their kids' admission to the University of Southern California (USC).

In 2019, U.S. attorneys filed criminal complaints against over 50 people in the college admissions scandal. Federal prosecutors alleged many violations of federal laws. These charges included fraud charges and other white-collar crimes.

Other acts of college admissions fraud involved cheating, deception, and bribery. They include:

  • The Ivy League imposter: Adam Wheeler pleaded guilty to 20 charges in 2010 for lying his way into Harvard. His charges included identity fraud and larceny. The court ordered Wheeler to repay nearly $46,000 in financial aid.
  • New York SAT cheating ring: High school students paid four college students to take their entrance exams in 2011. The college students used fake identifications to take the test. Charges included scheming to defraud, criminal impersonation, and falsifying business records.
  • Courting politically connected applicants: The University of Illinois maintained a "Category I" list of politically connected college applicants. The purpose was to "encourage" their admission over equally or more qualified candidates. The 2009 testimony of former University of Illinois Associate Director of Admissions Abel Montoya revealed this before a state investigating commission.

For more information about fraud, see FindLaw's White Collar Crime article.

College Admissions Fraud Crimes: Specific Charges

Criminal charges related to college admissions fraud crimes vary. The following are some of the most common charges:

  • Conspiracy to commit racketeering: A "conspiracy" is a plan by more than one person to commit illegal acts. A "racket" is an illegal, fraudulent scheme, often conducted under the guise of legitimacy.
  • Conspiracy to commit mail fraud: This crime includes schemes to get money or property under false pretenses. It involves using the U.S. Postal Service or any private interstate delivery service. Families could send bribes or kickbacks to school administrators through the mail. Some of those charged in the Singer investigation faced this charge.
  • Conspiracy to commit wire fraud: This scheme is like mail fraud. But, a person commits wire fraud through telephone lines or electronic communications.
  • Money laundering: This offense applies when a person paying or taking a bribe tries to hide the source or destination of the bribery funds. For example, Singer allegedly told families to deposit money into his fake charity account.
  • Identity fraud/theft: Identity theft covers many types of crimes. For example, identity fraud is using a fake Social Security number to gain something of value.
  • Honest services fraud: This scheme deprives "another of the intangible right to honest services." Bribing school officials deprives deserving students of their spot at the school.

Consider browsing FindLaw's Criminal Law section for more information about criminal charges.

Involved in a College Admissions Fraud Crime? Get Legal Help Today

Most parents will go to great lengths to provide for their children. But sometimes, they go too far. You may face serious charges if you take part in a fraud scheme. Learn more about your rights by speaking with a criminal defense attorney today.

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