The 10 most shocking revelations from the Operation Varsity Blues scandal court docs
This morning, people around the country woke up to the unexpected news that actresses Felicity Huffman (American Crime) and Lori Loughlin (Full House) had been charged in relation to a massive, nationwide college admissions cheating scandal. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, whose office ran the case alongside the FBI, made relevant court documents available to the public on their website.
Though Loughlin and Huffman are the big names that stood out immediately, this story involves many other rich and powerful people, and the court documents describe multiple strange elements of the case, from faking learning disabilities to bribing college coaches in order to get rich kids accepted to elite universities. Here are the most shocking things we found in the documents.
1. There were two sides to the conspiracy
All the charges and incidents described in the documents fall into one of two categories (or both, in some cases). The first was cheating on college entrance exams by having kids take their ACT or SAT in an individualized setting where proctors (in exchange for bribes) could either give them detailed advice or take the test for them. The second was greasing the admissions process by making up background information to pretend kids were athletes when they were not.
2. All the bribes were channeled through a fake charity
William Rick Singer, the main facilitator of the conspiracy — and also the government’s primary cooperating witness — established the Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF) as a nonprofit around 2012. Soon after, it was given tax-exempt status from the IRS. The KWF became the vehicle for the whole conspiracy, because the bribes were disguised as payments to this “charity” for “underserved kids.” In one of the phone call transcripts, Singer informs Trendera CEO Jane Buckingham that, in addition to getting her son a high ACT score, her bribe check will also count as an IRS tax write-off. “Oh, even better!” Buckingham said.
3. Kids who wanted better test scores pretended to have a learning disability
In order for the kids to get higher test scores than they could get on their own, Singer would have Florida resident Mark Riddell either take the tests for them or give them the answers (Riddell is, like Singer, a cooperating witness in the investigation). This is obviously impossible to achieve in the normal ACT/SAT setting, where students take the tests in a classroom full of others. Instead, Singer would help parents fake medical documentation saying their kids had a learning disability that required “extra time” so they could take the test on their own over multiple days. When that had been achieved, the kids could be brought to one of Singer’s two testing centers in Houston or L.A., where the scam could be completed. In order to secure that medical documentation, Singer told New York lawyer Gordon Caplan that his daughter should pretend “to be stupid” during her meeting with a psychologist: “The goal is to be slow, to be not as bright, all that, so we show discrepancies.”
It didn’t always work, though. Caplan’s appeals for the extra time were rejected by the ACT twice, until law enforcement urged them to accept it so the sting operation could proceed.
4. College coaches at big-name schools were in on the scam
At highly selective colleges and universities, sports coaches have a few designated “spots” that they can give to athletes whose grades might not have gotten them in otherwise. Singer would bribe these coaches to give their spots to his clients’ kids after fabricating non-existent athletic experience. Many such coaches have now been indicted for conspiracy to commit racketeering, including: former Georgetown tennis coach Gordon Ernst, former USC women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin, USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic, UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, Wake Forest women’s volleyball coach William Ferguson, and more.
5. Kids who pretended to be athletes used falsified photos
In order to get non-athletic kids admitted to college as athletes, Singer often had to create fake profiles for them. Sometimes this involved fabricating resumes that listed them having played on elite club teams, but to finish the illusion Singer and his team would also use Photoshop to combine photos of the kids with actual athletes in the sport. Singer did just that with the son of Silicon Valley investor William McGlashan, using Photoshop to make the kid appear to be a football kicker/punter despite only playing lacrosse.
Other times, Photoshop wasn’t even required. Both of Loughlin’s daughters, for instance, were admitted to USC as crew athletes, despite never having rowed crew before. All that was required were photos of the girls sitting on an ergometer machine.
6. Some kids were aware of the scam, others weren’t
Singer’s clients had different attitudes about whether or not they should inform their kids of the scam. McGlashan, for instance, went to great lengths to conceal the truth from his son. Loughlin does not seem to have shared the same compunctions. She literally included her younger daughter on an email to Singer asking for help with filling out the USC application, since her daughter had not yet submitted her college applications “and is confused on how to do so.” Singer directed one of his employees to fill out the daughter’s applications for her.
7. Some people were worried about getting caught — but not worried enough
Singer was approached by law enforcement agents in September 2018 and agreed to cooperate with their investigation. Ironically, at this time he was dealing with Caplan, who seemed more worried about potential consequences from his actions than most of the other parents charged in the case. During a call in November 2018, Caplan repeatedly asked Singer about possible “issues” with the scheme.
“You’ve never had an issue with this? No one has ever gotten in trouble with this?” Caplan asked Singer, not knowing that Singer was recording their call on behalf of law enforcement. Even after Singer gave answers, Caplan still worried: “What I’m asking is, is there any way for this to get back to [my daughter] or to the family? I mean, this comes out… I… I don’t even want to know what you guys do.” Nevertheless, he went through with it and has now been charged.
8. The government’s key witness tried to warn clients of the investigation — and got another charge for it
Even after Singer began cooperating with law enforcement, he tried to warn certain clients of the investigation. For instance, at one point he asked McGlashan to meet him in person at the Santa Monica airport because his phone was “wired,” presumably so that he could convey important information. They never did meet there, and Singer soon started working with the investigation again by calling past clients and recording their conversations to confirm what they had done — but he earned an “obstruction of justice” charge for his dalliance.
9. William H. Macy is not mentioned
Huffman was arrested in L.A. on Tuesday in relation to the charges, but her famous husband William H. Macy was not. Transcripts from wiretapped phone calls included in the documents mention Huffman’s “spouse,” and even have quotes from him. But Macy is never named in the documents and has not been charged so far, unlike Loughlin’s fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli.
10. ‘Ruh Ro!’
One line that appears to sum up the whole story comes from the section on Huffman. In the process of getting her daughter “extended time” so that Singer’s employees could falsify exam results, Huffman hit a snag when her daughter’s high school counselor offered to proctor the exam at her school. “Ruh Ro! Looks like [my daughter’s high school] wants to provide own proctor,” Huffman wrote in an email to Singer in October 2017.
They figured their way out of that situation, but as of Tuesday, they’ve now been implicated in this massive scandal. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts has confirmed to EW that Huffman was arrested on Tuesday; she appeared in federal court in Los Angeles later in the day. Loughlin was not in L.A. on Tuesday morning when arrests were made, but she was contacted by the FBI and has agreed to surrender. Ruh ro, indeed.