BOSTON — A Napa Valley vintner as well as 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 help get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country, federal prosecutors said.
“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the $25 million federal bribery case.
He called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.
At least nine athletic coaches and dozens of parents were among those charged. A total of 46 people were arrested by midday, including Huffman and Loughlin, in an investigation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, federal authorities said.
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.
Among the implicated parents was Agustin Huneeus, Jr., a Napa Valley vintner and son of Quintessa estate’s founder Agustin Huneeus.
Huneeus, a San Francisco resident, was involved in a college entrance exam cheating scheme and recruitment scheme in 2017 and 2018 to help get his daughter into the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors wrote. He bribed Donna Heinel, USC senior women’s athletic director, and Jovan Vavic, USC water polo coach, to get his daughter into the school through its water polo program, prosecutors allege.
Huneeus worked with nonprofit the Key Worldwide Foundation to pull the scheme off, prosecutors say.
Huneeus paid $50,000 as a charitable donation to an unnamed witness who co-founded the organization. That witness arranged for another witness to try to doctor the SAT exam of Huneeus’ daughter, attorneys wrote. He arranged to have his daughter take the exam at the West Hollywood Test Center, and the second unnamed witness flew from Tampa to Los Angeles to proctor and correct her exam, according to the complaint.
She received 1380 out of a possible 1600, which was in the 96th percentile nationally, but Huneeus complained about this score in a phone call to the first unnamed witness, prosecutors wrote.
“If you had wanted to, I mean [my daughter’s] score could have been 1550 right?” Prosecutors say Huneeus told the first witness in a wiretapped phone call, authorized by the court.
“No,” said the first witness, according to court documents. “’Cause I would have got investigated for sure based on her grades.”
The filing also details conversations in which the first witness allegedly explains to Huneeus that his daughter will be “essentially … admitted before she has even applied” and will make the $50,000 payment after his daughter receives her admissions letter. Huneeus acknowledged during that call that his daughter wasn’t “worthy to be on that team” and he worried about “this thing blow[ing] up in my face,” according to the filing.
The first unnamed witness called Huneeus in November to warn him that the foundation was being audited and he planned to say that Huneeus’s $50,000 payment was a donation for underserved kids, according to the complaint.
“Dude, dude, what do you think, I’m a moron?” Huneeus said, according to prosecutors, later adding: “I’m going to say that I’ve been inspired how you’re helping underprivileged kids get into college. Totally got it.”
The first unnamed witness sent Heinel of USC an email with Huneeus’ daughter’s transcripts, fake SAT score, picture of another girl playing water polo and a fake athletic profile that claimed she was a three-year varsity letter winner, prosecutors wrote.
Huneeus was also expected to make a $200,000 payment to the Key Worldwide Foundation, according to the complaint.
Huneeus and the first unnamed witness communicated about their plans over email, at times, according to the lawsuit.Attempts to contact Huneeus through email addresses and phone numbers associated with him online were not successful Tuesday morning.
Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, he said.
No students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the students were not aware of the fraud.
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.
Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, tennis 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.
The bribes allegedly came through an admissions consulting company in Newport Beach, California. Authorities said parents paid the founder of the Edge College & Career Network approximately $25 million to get their children into college.
Loughlin appeared in the ABC sitcom “Full House,” and Huffman starred in ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” Both were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud.
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 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 the scam to them. The cooperator told investigators that Huffman and her spouse “agreed to the plan.”
A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment. Messages seeking comment from Huffman’s representatives were not immediately returned.