Netflix Operation Varsity Blues: How millionaire celebs bribed staff and lied about their kids to get into top collegesMarch 17, 2021
FELICITY Huffman was already a star when she joined the cast of the drama American Crime – and then she became the star of a real life American crime drama.
That's because she was one of the millionaire parents involved in the 2019 college admissions scandal – where well-heeled actors and business moguls bribed and cheated their kids into elite universities.
The unprecedented scheme was the largest college admission scandal ever prosecuted by the US Justice Department, eventually leading to charges against dozens of rich parents who allegedly tried to cut corners.
It's claimed they paid over $25million to Rick Singer, who masterminded the scheme, who would in turn use the cash to fraudulently improve test scores and bribe university officials.
Now the story of the shocking scandal and the investigation into it is being retold in a Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues.
The scam landed the likes of Huffman and 90210 star Lori Loughlin behind bars.
"If I can make the comparison, there is a front door of getting in where a student just does it on their own, and then there’s a back door where people go to institutional advancement and make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in,” Singer said in his testimony.
“And then I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in. So that was what made it very attractive to so many families, is I created a guarantee.”
Rigged tests and fake athletes
Singer's scandal was shocking not just because of the millions of dollars, the fame of his clients and the reputations of the schools involved –but alsobecause of its audacity.
He conducted fraud on an epic scale through his university preparatory business, Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key.
Singer would use the organisation to help his clients' kids get into desired schools, sometimes without the kid's knowledge, in two main ways.
The first was to cheat their standardised college entrance tests.
This could involve bribing psychologists to fraudulently certify that the child had a learning disability, which would give them more time on the test.
Worse, Singer also bribed test invigilators to fix the students' incorrect answers to get them up to a required score.
In some cases, the student didn't take the test at all, instead having an academically gifted stand-in take the exam on their behalf at test centres under Singer's control.
The other main method he used was faking sports credentials, which can have a huge influence on admissions chances at American universities.
He would bribe college coaches huge sums of cash – sometimes millions – to say his clients' kids were athletically gifted even when they weren't.
In some cases, that meant children who'd never trained for a given sport in their lives being admitted to an elite school as a star recruit of the university team.
Singer would also help parents fake their kids' sporting prowess, sometimes photoshopping their face on to pictures of athletes found online which was then submitted as evidence of their ability.
In one case, a girl's parents paid singer $1.2million to help get their daughter into Yale.
The student, who'd never played football, was falsely described as the co-captain of a prominent team in order to get her recruited to the Yale squad.
Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith, the Yale coach, was bribed at least $400,000 to pick the student.
But it wasn't just football – water polo, sailing, basketball and other university sports coaches all took eye-watering bribes from Singer for years, dating back till at least 2011.
Then in 2019, all hell broke loose.
'I was stupid'
The vast admissions cheating operation only came to the attention of law enforcement when they got a lucky break.
Businessman Morrie Tobin, who was being investigated for a separate fraud, told authorities Meredith had asked him for $450,000 to help his daughter get admitted to Yale.
His cooperation with cops led them to Singer, from which point the true scale of the scam was uncovered.
Over 50 people were indicted by the US government on conspiracy to commit fraud, including some extremely well-known celebrities.
Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman was one of the 33 parents of college applicants involved.
She admitted to paying $15,000 (£11,000) to rig her daughter's SAT scores, tearfully apologising to the teen for not trusting her abilities.
"I was frightened, I was stupid, and I was so wrong," Huffman said as she was sentenced at a US court in Boston.
The Oscar-nominated actress was jailed for 14 days, slapped with a $30,000 fine, and ordered to carry out 250 hours of community service.
"Accountability and responsibility don’t mean s**t to these people," her Desperate Housewives co-star Ricardo Chavira tweeted in anger at news of what he perceived to be a lenient sentence.
Lori Loughlin, who starred in Full House, was also fined and jailed for her involvement in the scam.
Along with her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, Loughlin paid $500,000 to singer to make it look like their daughters were elite rowers to the University of Southern California, even though neither had ever rowed.
Loughlin was sentenced to two months and Giannulli was jailed for five months.
At the time that news of the scandal broke, Loughlin's daughter Olivia Jade was aboard the yacht of the Chairman of USC's Board of Trustees in the Bahamas because she was friends with his daughter, according to TMZ.
Olivia Jade, a famous YouTuber in her own right, also lost lucrative brand partnerships in the wake of the scandal.
In December, Olivia Jade gave her first interview since the scandal broke.
"I confronted them… They didn't have much to say except, 'I'm so sorry'," Olivia Jade told Jada Pinkett Smith on Red Table Talk.
"There is no justifying or excusing what happened – what happened was wrong."
Robert Zangrillo, a Miami businessman who was also accused in the Operation Varsity Blues investigation, was given a full pardon by Donald Trump on his last day in office.
Despite pleading guilty to his charges, Rick Singer is yet to be sentenced – but he could face a $1.25million fine and 65 years in prison for racketeering, money laundering, and conspiracy.
The scandal brought America's college admissions system under renewed scrutiny, drawing criticism for allowing the children of wealthy parents an unfair advantage over others, regardless of academic ability.
Now the new Netflix documentary will bring the issue into the spotlight once again, using "an innovative combination of interviews and narrative recreations of the FBI’s wiretapped conversations between Singer and his clients."
The new film is directed by Chris Smith who also wrote and directed Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and also acted as executive producer on Tiger King.
Operation Varsity Blues is available on Netflix now.
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