Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin among dozens charged in alleged college cheating scam

By Eric Levenson and Mark Morales, CNN

(CNN)Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among dozens of wealthy parents, elite college coaches and college prep executives accused of carrying out a nationwide fraud to get students into prestigious colleges, according to a massive federal indictment.

Federal prosecutors said Tuesday the scheme had two major pieces. In the first part, parents allegedly paid a college prep organization to take the test on behalf of students or to correct their answers. Second, the organization allegedly bribed college coaches to help admit the students into college as recruited athletes, regardless of their actual abilities, prosecutors said.

The documents also allege that some defendants created fake athletic profiles for students to make them appear to be successful athletes.

In all, 50 people were charged in the criminal investigation that went by the name "Operation Varsity Blues." Those arrested include two SAT/ACT administrators, one exam proctor, nine coaches at elite schools, one college administrator and 33 parents, according to Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts.

The parents, Lelling said, were a "catalog of wealth and privilege," including actors, CEOs, a fashion designer and the co-chairman of a global law firm.

"This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud," Lelling said. "There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I'll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either."

He added, "For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected."

FBI Special Agent Joseph Bonavolonta said the parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee admissions for their children.

Coaches from Yale, Stanford, the University of Southern California, Wake Forest and Georgetown, among others, are implicated in the case. The extensive case -- the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted, attorneys said -- involved arrests in six states across the country. The criminal accusations stretch from 2011 to 2019.

Lelling said it was not an accident that no students were charged on Tuesday, and said the parents and other defendants were "the prime movers of this fraud." Still, he said they were considering charging students down the road.

Actresses are allegedly on tape discussing scheme

US Attorney Andrew Lelling says the 30-plus parents arrested were a "catalog of wealth and privilege."

Huffman and Loughlin are not just the most famous names in the case; their cases represent the two major aspects of the alleged scheme.

Huffman, an Academy Award nominee, has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, according to court paperwork filed Monday in federal court in Massachusetts. She was arrested without incident at her home, the FBI said.

Best known for her role on TV's "Desperate Housewives," Huffman is accused of paying $15,000 to William Rick Singer's fake charity the Key Worldwide Foundation to facilitate cheating for her daughter on the SATs, the complaint says.

Another cooperating witness told authorities he purportedly traveled from Tampa to a West Hollywood Test Center to administer Huffman's daughter's exam. She received a 1420 on her test, which was 400 points higher than a PSAT taken a year earlier without the same administrator, the complaint states.

Huffman, who is married to "Shameless" star William H. Macy, also discussed the scheme in a recorded phone call with a cooperating witness, the complaint says.

Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman are among 33 parents accused of illegally using their wealth to get their children into prestigious colleges.

Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky on "Full House," is facing the same felony charge -- conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, was also charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

Giannulli and Loughlin allegedly agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team, even though they did not participate in crew, the complaint said.

The complaint includes emails between Singer and Giannulli in which the two discussed a "game plan" for his older daughter, whose academic qualifications were at or below the "low-end" of USC's admission standards, Singer wrote.

Singer facilitated bribes to Donna Heinel, the senior associate athletic director at USC, who then got the students in to USC as recruited athletes, according to the complaint.

"I wanted to thank you again for your great work with [our older daughter], she is very excited and both Lori and I are very appreciative of your efforts and end result!" Giannulli wrote in an email to Singer included in the complaint.

Giannulli and Loughlin were recorded on calls with a cooperating witness discussing an Internal Revenue Service audit being done on the business involved in the scam. If ever asked, Loughlin agreed to say they made a donation to the foundation, "end of story," the complaint said.

Giannulli was arrested without incident, and the FBI served a warrant for Loughlin, but she was not home at the time, an FBI spokesperson said. Loughlin is on a flight to Los Angeles where she is expected to surrender at the Central District Court later this afternoon, according to a law enforcement source

CNN has contacted Iconix Brand Group, which owns Mossimo Giannulli's namesake fashion company. CNN is also working to get comment from the actresses' representatives.

How the alleged scheme worked

Much of the indictment revolves around William Rick Singer, the founder of a for-profit college counseling and preparation business known as "The Key."

"OK, so, who we are ... what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school," Singer told one parent, according to prosecutors.

Lelling explained the two main avenues for carrying out the scheme.

"I'll speak more broadly, there were essentially two kinds of fraud that Singer was selling," Lelling said. "One was to cheat on the SAT or ACT, and the other was to use his connections with Division I coaches and use bribes to get these parents' kids into school with fake athletic credentials."

For example, prosecutors said Singer and his co-conspirators used stock photos of a person playing a sport and then put the face of a student onto that image via Photoshop, prosecutors said.

Singer was paid roughly $25 million by parents to help their children get in to schools, the US attorney said.

In another example, the indictment alleges that he and his co-conspirators paid $250,000 to a bank account at USC that funded the water polo team. In exchange for those payments, USC's water polo coach designated two students as recruits for the team and facilitated their admission to USC, the indictment said.

Singer pleaded guilty on Tuesday to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice, prosecutors said.

In the wake of the unsealed indictments, several universities said they were suspending coaches named in the case.

Wake Forest said it has placed head volleyball coach Bill Ferguson on administrative leave and has retained outside legal counsel to look into this matter.

The University of Texas said it placed men's tennis coach Michael Center on administrative leave and is cooperating with the investigation.

USC said it is conducting an internal investigation into the case and said that certain individuals "went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university."

"The charges brought forth today are troubling and should be a concern for all of higher education," the NCAA said in a statement. "We are looking into these allegations to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated."

CNN's Melanie Schuman, Jill Martin, Madeleine Thompson and Lauren Del Valle contributed to this report.