WITH A SLEW OF CHARGES that struck at the integrity of one of the key ladders to success, US Attorney Andrew Lelling on Tuesday attempted to break up a college admissions scam fueled by millions of dollars in bribes paid by wealthy, well-connected individuals from the worlds of business and entertainment.
Dozens of people across the country were arrested on Tuesday morning, according to Lelling’s office, which accused 33 parents and 13 others of participating in criminal schemes to secure admission for college applicants by bribing coaches and administrators and helping applicants cheat on standardized tests. Much of the information in the court documents came from informants who participated in the illegal activities.
The prosecutor’s office has not charged any Massachusetts college administrators or coaches with wrongdoing, but Bay State connections surface repeatedly in the court papers. The defendants include successful figures in the world of business and entertainment as well as athletic coaches at top tier schools, including Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown.
Manuel Henriquez, a Northeastern University graduate and one of the parents charged with fraud in a complaint, allegedly offered to pull strings at his alma mater in lieu of paying $75,000 for help his daughter received cheating on a standardized test. Allegedly making good on his part of the bargain, Henriquez emailed a senior development officer at Northeastern and described an unnamed applicant as an “excellent candidate,” and after repeated follow-ups from Henriquez, the student was admitted to the school.
“Northeastern University is aware of the criminal complaint against several individuals in an admissions bribery scheme that mentions multiple colleges and universities,” the school said in a statement. “While it is not uncommon for alumni and others to recommend applicants for consideration, Northeastern evaluates each applicant on the merits of their application. We are not aware of any impropriety in connection with any Northeastern admissions decisions.”
CNBC reported that Henriquez is the chairman and CEO of Hercules Technology Growth Capital. Henriquez and his company also gave $250,000 to Northeastern to fund a new cybersecurity and privacy institute, according to an article on the school’s website from 2017, which reported he also supports the Torch Scholars Program for first-generation college students. Neither gift is mentioned in the criminal complaint.
According to the criminal complaint, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern all received fraudulently obtained exam scores.
“Because the students are not identified, we cannot determine whether these students completed applications to any of our institutions,” said Jack Dunn, a spokesman for Boston College.
Whereas college sports scandals in the past have involved money inappropriately flowing towards talented student athletes, in this scheme parents allegedly bribed coaches to make it appear as though their children were gifted athletes in sports they often didn’t even play.
The scams involved a purported pole vaulter complete with a fraudulent photo of someone else pole-vaulting, a phony rowing recruit who posed on a rowing machine, and cooked-up soccer credentials.
Gamal Adbelaziz, who served until late 2016 as a top casino executive at Wynn Resorts in China, allegedly paid bribes to an official at the University of Southern California to develop an exaggerated profile of his daughter’s skills as a basketball player complete with made-up awards. The daughter, who had played basketball in high school, gained admittance to the school but never played basketball.
Abdelaziz, according to the indictment, paid $20,000 a month to the USC official and $300,000 to the nonprofit Key Worldwide Foundation. Key was headed by William “Rick” Singer, who funneled money from parents to athletics officials at colleges and university. Prosecutors claim parents paid Singer around $25 million to bribe college officials.
Singer also arranged for people to take standardized tests for students seeking to increase their odds of getting into elite schools. Singer allegedly paid off test proctors to allow his employees to take the test for the student.
Singer reportedly pled guilty to the charges he faced on Tuesday. The charges against other alleged participants are supported in large part through a cooperating witness identified by prosecutors as the founder of Key Worldwide who has agreed to plead guilty. Citing a law enforcement source, CNN reported that witness is Singer.
The complaint describes a phone call between Singer and one of the parents charged in the scheme, Gordon Caplan, a lawyer from Greenwich, Connecticut, who heads a New York City law firm, in which Singer outlines how the admission scam works to “help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school.”
”There is a front door which means you get in on your own,” Singer told Caplan in a June 2018 phone call. “The back door is through institutional advancement, which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in. Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody but there’s no guarantee, they’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee.”
The “back door” Singer describes through “institutional advancement” is the system by which wealthy donors to universities have long been understood to secure advantages for their children in the admission process. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Golden described the process in detail in his 2006 book, The Price of Admission. Golden said a poster boy for the system by which the wealthy help their offspring is Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who gained admission to Harvard not long after his father made a $2.5 million donation to the university in 1998.
In a 2016 article for ProPublica just after Trump’s election, Golden wrote that his book “exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations.” He went on to describe Kushner as a “less than stellar” high school student.
“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at the New Jersey private school Kushner attended told Golden for his book.
The roster of parents charged with pursuing Singer’s illegal “side door” admission scheme includes actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, along with Agustin Huneeus, Jr., the owner of a Napa vineyard, and scores of other wealthy executives.
A Lynnfield CEO of a private equity and real estate development firm is also among the list of suspects. It is alleged that John Wilson bribed the University of Southern California water polo coach to get his son listed as a purported recruit to the men’s team, knowing that he would never actually play the sport.
The complaint also says Wilson “sought to use bribes to obtain admission of his two daughters to Stanford University and Harvard University as recruited athletes.” An informant cooperating with law enforcement told Wilson he had secured a spot at Harvard for one of his daughters, and the informant invented a fictitious administrator who would supposedly designate one of his daughters as an athletic recruit for the price of $500,000.