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Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were charged along with nearly 50 other people Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents bribed college coaches and insiders at testing centers 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," Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said at Boston federal court in announcing the $25 million bribery case against 50 people in all.
At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents were among those charged in the investigation, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues. Dozens, including Huffman, were arrested by midday Tuesday.
Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to label their children as recruited athletes, to alter test scores, and to have others take online classes to boost their children's chances of getting into schools.
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.
The coaches worked at such schools as Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Southern California and 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.
According to the federal complaint, children of clients "submitted the fraudulently obtained exam scores as part of their applications to universities nationwide, including Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern University."
No students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the teenagers were not aware of the fraud.
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.
Among the parents charged was John Wilson, of Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, founder and CEO of a private equity and real estate development firm.
According to the complaint, Wilson "conspired to bribe Jovan Vavic, the USC water polo coach, to designate his son as a purported recruit to the USC men’s water polo team, thereby facilitating his admission to USC. Wilson also sought to use bribes to obtain the admission of his two daughters to Stanford University and Harvard University as recruited athletes."
Another defendant, Gordon Ernst, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, a former tennis head coach at Georgetown University, also has a residence in Massachusetts.
The bribes allegedly came through an admissions consulting company in Newport Beach, California. Authorities said parents paid William Singer, the founder of the Edge College & Career Network, approximately $25 million to get their children into college.
Singer pleaded guilty in Boston federal court Tuesday to charges including racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
John Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford, was also expected to plead guilty Tuesday.
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.
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 that the couple agreed to the plan.
Macy was not charged; authorities did not say why.
Messages seeking comment from Huffman's representative were not immediately returned. A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment.
With reporting by the WBUR Newsroom
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