More than a year before the college admissions scandal investigation began, Georgetown University "discovered irregularities" in the athletic credentials of two tennis recruits, initiated a secret investigation and eventually forced coach Gordon Ernst to resign, court records show.
University officials say those two athletic recruits were denied admission.
But none of Ernst's conduct would become public until he was arrested in March on charges he accepted $2.7 million in bribes between 2012 and 2018. He has pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy.
What the universities missed
As the college admissions scandal investigation continues, a key question is what universities knew and whether more could have been done to detect the widespread fraud.
Several universities have launched investigations to examine that question. But there are lingering questions about how such an audacious scam could go on for so long without detection at some of America's top colleges.
The Times reported in April that documents show UCLA knew years ago there were concerns about parents pledging donations to its athletic program in exchange for their children being admitted to the university in violation of rules prohibiting such a practice.
A source familiar with the case also told The Times that prosecutors want to learn more about who at UCLA and USC knew of any recruiting schemes and are asking questions of two parents who pleaded guilty and are now cooperating.
Prosecutors have said the colleges involved in the scheme are victims, not targets, of the growing criminal investigation. The 10 university coaches and officials charged so far in the far-reaching scandal have been characterized as rogue actors who flouted the law and school policies, pocketing bribes to admit the children of wealthy and powerful families as recruited athletes.
Questions at Georgetown
Ernst accepted payments from the mastermind of the college admissions scam, William "Rick" Singer, who used a "side door" to get a dozen students into Georgetown, according to court records.
"The university was not aware of any alleged criminal activity or acceptance of bribes by Mr. Ernst until it was later contacted by the U.S. attorney's office," a university spokeswoman told The Times, noting that the indictments filed by the U.S. attorney named Georgetown and six other institutions as "victims of fraud."
But the spokeswoman also said that after discovering irregularities in 2017, "Georgetown immediately put former coach Gordon Ernst on leave, initiated an internal investigation, established a new policy concerning the recruitment of student-athletes, implemented audits to check whether recruited student-athletes are on team rosters and asked Mr. Ernst to resign."
The university says Ernst violated university policies and the investigation "relied on available information."
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After leaving Georgetown, Ernst took a position coaching women's tennis at the University of Rhode Island in August 2018.
How the scandal unraveled
Georgetown's information about its former tennis coach predates the discovery by federal authorities of Singer's $25-million scheme, in which parents allegedly funneled money to his charity and he is accused of bribing coaches to create phony athletic recruits. Fifty people have been charged in the scandal.
Ernst was already gone from Georgetown in April when federal prosecutors first learned of Singer after a Yale soccer coach was allegedly caught soliciting a bribe from a parent.
Last week, Georgetown kicked out two students by rescinding their admissions and dismissing them. The university said they faked their credentials for entry.
One of the dismissed students, Adam Semprevivo, filed suit against the university, seeking to block his expulsion and his loss of college credits, just hours before Georgetown pulled the plug on his admission. His father, Stephen Semprevivo, has already admitted paying Singer $400,000 to fake his son's entry as a tennis recruit with Ernst's help in 2016.
But the son says he knew none of the subterfuge and sued in an effort to stay in school.
David Kenner, Adam Semprevivo's attorney, said in the lawsuit that Georgetown clearly knew what was happening because the university examined all of Ernst's tennis recruit entries when he was caught trying to slip two non-tennis players into the school in 2017.
"They knew what the coach had done," Kenner said.
The lawsuit says that Semprevivo never wrote his admission essay or signed his application and that Singer, the Newport Beach college consultant, simply typed the student's name into the signature spot.
Universities vow reforms
Some universities already have vowed to improve safeguards to prevent future fraud.
USC said that before an application is forwarded to the admissions staff, each prospective athletic recruit for a particular team would be scrutinized by the head coach, the senior sports administrator overseeing the team and the school's Office of Athletics Compliance.
Officials also have promised an audit of athletic rosters at the beginning and end of every academic year and to cross-check rosters with lists of admitted students.