USC, UCLA Athletic Officials Among 50 Charged In Alleged College Admissions Bribery Scheme

A statue of the school mascot, the Trojan, stands on the campus of the University of Southern California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

A federal criminal investigation into an alleged college exam and admissions fraud scheme led to more than a dozen arrests in the Los Angeles area Tuesday, including of several prominent business owners and Hollywood actresses.

In a criminal complaint filed this week, an FBI agent lays out a widespread investigation in which 50 people have been charged in a conspiracy to bribe college entrance exam administrators and athletic officials at elite universities across the nation, using falsified charity donations as cover.

Authorities allege that parents paid about $25 million in bribes between 2011 and last month for coaches and administrators to "designate their children as purported recruited athletes, or as members of other favored admissions categories, thereby facilitating the children's admission to those universities."

That includes USC and UCLA, with several coaches and athletic officials from the schools named in the complaint.

The complaint also alleges parents paid as much as $75,000 per test to have someone take required entrance exams for their children. One of the parents accused of taking part in the scheme is actress Felicity Huffman, who allegedly paid $15,000 to "arrange for a third party to purport to proctor their daughter's SAT and secretly correct her answers afterwards."

Two businesses based in Newport Beach are named in the complaint: the for-profit Edge College & Career Network and the nonprofit Key Worldwide Foundation.

The criminal complaint noted the founder of the two companies, who allegedly ran the schemes, had been cooperating with federal investigators "since in or about late September 2018, in the hope of obtaining leniency when he is sentenced."

He's known only as "Cooperating Witness 1" in the complaint, but is identified as William Rick Singer in a separate court document.

The Key Worldwide Foundation's website says the organization "has touched the lives of hundreds of students that would never have been exposed to what higher education could do for them."

"Many of these students have only known life on the streets, surrounded by the gang violence of the inner-city."

The federal complaints, however, lay out a much different story, one involving privileged families seeking to get their children into some of the nation's most elite universities.

Among the dozens named in the complaint are fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli and his wife, actress Lori Loughlin, who both allegedly "agreed to a pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team — despite the fact that they did not participate in crew — thereby facilitating their admission to USC."

That included allegedly wiring $100,000 ($50K per daughter) to USC Senior Associate Athletic Director Donna Heinel, who's now been charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering.

At 1 p.m., USC announced that Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who was also implicated in the conspiracy, have been terminated.

The complaint also states that Giannulli has interactions with the "then-USC Athletic Director" in November 2016. The athletic director at that time was, and still is, Lynn Swann. Giannulli allegedly emailed Singer" to ask if he should mention his daughter's admission into USC to the athletic director, as the two took a trip together.

"Best to keep [the USC Athletic Director] out of it," Singer wrote. "When I met with him a year ago about [your daughter] he felt you were good for a million plus."

Giannulli responded with a "HAH!!" according to the complaint.

Getting applicants admitted under the guise of athletic recruitment often meant fabricating photos of the participant's children using Photoshop — something Singer said he'd done "a million times" for other clients, according to the complaint.

RESPONSE FROM LOCAL UNIVERSITIES

USC interim President Wanda M. Austin published a letter to the university community Tuesday addressing the federal criminal investigation, saying that the local scheme was "perpetrated against the university by a long-time Athletics Department employee, one current coach and three former coaching staff."

"At this time, we have no reason to believe that Admissions employees or senior administrators were aware of the scheme or took part in any wrongdoing—and we believe the government concurs in that assessment," Austin said. "The government has repeatedly informed us that it views USC as a victim and that these employees purposefully deceived USC."

Also indicted was UCLA men's soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, who faces a charge of conspiracy to commit racketeering. UCLA released a statement Tuesday saying Salcedo has been placed on leave while the university investigates the claims.

"The conduct alleged in the filings revealed today is deeply disturbing and in contrast with the expectations we have of our coaches to lead their teams with honesty and integrity," the statement said. "If the facts alleged are true, they represent a grave departure from the ethical standards we set for ourselves and the people who work here."

One line in the non-profit Key Worldwide Foundation's tax forms stands out: "Our contributions to major athletic university programs, may help provide placement to students who would not have access under normal channels."

You can look through the full criminal complaint below:

UPDATES:

2:14 p.m.: This article was updated to note that USC has fired Donna Heinel and Jovan Vavic.

9 a.m., Wednesday, March 13: This article was updated with information about founder of the two companies at the center of the alleged scheme.

This article was originally published on March 12 at 11:45 a.m.