This college admissions scandal essay looks at the facts behind what became known as Operation Varsity Blues to law enforcement officials tasked with bringing to justice the criminal conspiracy headed by William Rick Singer, who accepted bribes in exchange for faking entrance exams, creating phony profiles for students, and bribing university officials to look the other way. This essay looks at what happened, why, and what the outcome has been.
The operation of William Rick Singer was organized around the objective of rigging the college admissions process (Pascus). His clients were wealthy elites looking to secure for their children a place among the nationâ€™s top colleges. Singer had a host of accomplices working with him: a test taker, Ivy League coaches willing to take a bribe to allow a student to pass herself off as an athlete, racketeers the lot of them: a test administrator, an athletic director, a head coachâ€”the list went on and on. In total, as of summer 2019, more than 50 people had been implicated in the schemeâ€”from high-ranking partners on Wall Street to Hollywood actresses to employees of Americaâ€™s top-ranked universities. Operation Varsity Blues, as the investigation was known to law enforcement officials, had exposed the underbelly of American higher education and the lengths the rich would go to make sure their kids could get the credentials needed to make the family proud.
Singer used two firms to control the operation. The first was Key Worldwide Foundation, known as The Key, and the second was The Edge College and Career Network. While the Feds were only able to round up a few dozen foolhardy parents, Singer confessed to helping more than 700 families take advantage of his services to get their children into top-tier schools (Winter, Burke). All said and done, Singer was charged with orchestrating a $25 million admissions scheme that started in 2011 and ended when he was arrested in early 2019 in a headline-making bust that sent some of the nationâ€™s most well-connected people running for the shadows.
Among the biggest names to be revealed in the bust were Lori Loughlin and her husband fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, whose daughtersâ€™ ways into USC were paid to the tune of half a million dollars (Pascus). Another big name was Felicity Huffman: she paid The Key $15,000 to have one of Singerâ€™s accomplices proctor Huffmanâ€™s daughterâ€™s SAT test. While Huffman pled guilty and was sentenced to two weeks in jail, 250 hours of community service, and fined $30,000, her Hollywood peer Lori Loughlin decided to fight the charges. Her case is still pending as of October 2019. The irony in this case is that Loughlinâ€™s daughter Olivia Jade was yachting with her friend on the Chairman of USCâ€™s Board of Trustees when Lori was being arrested by the Feds. How much did the Chair of USCâ€™s Board of Trustees know or suspect? That information will probably never come to light, but one can reasonably surmise that at that level of power, one does not ask questions when oneâ€™s friends say their daughterâ€”known up to that point only for a YouTube channel on which she acted as a makeup Influencerâ€”got admitted to USC.
Considering that Agustin Huneeus Jr., had also bribed USC officials to get his daughter admitted, one should probably start wondering just how rampant this whole scheme truly was and just how much guys like Rick Caruso (the billionaire yacht-owning Chairman of USCâ€™s Board of Trustees) actually knew. Huneeus, Jr., for example was no small fry himself: he was â€œowner of a family wine vineyard in Napa Valleyâ€ and was â€œaccused of participating in both the college entrance cheating scheme and the college recruitment scheme for his daughter, that including bribing USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and Jovan Vavic, the USC water polo coachâ€ (Pascus). Huneeus and Laughlin werenâ€™t the only ones to get their kids into USC either.
Doug Hodge, a former Pimco CEO was charged with paying The Key nearly half a million dollars to get two of his kids into USC.
Michelle Janavs was another: she went through USCâ€™s volleyball program to get her kid admitted to the school.
Elisabeth Kimmel, a media mogul, got her son onto USCâ€™s track teamâ€”and it only cost her about half a million dollars paid to Singerâ€™s Key.
Toby MacFarlane was another: he paid a quarter million to Singerâ€™s Key to get his daughter on USCâ€™s soccer team and into the school.
Marci Palatella paid half a million to get her son on USCâ€™s football team.
Bill McGlashan, Jr., is charged with bribing USCâ€™s athletic director to get his kid into the college.
Devin Sloane paid two hundred grand to Singer to get his kid on USCâ€™s water polo team.
John Wilson paid Singer half a million to get his three kids into not only USC but also Stanford and Harvard.
Homayoun Zadeh was charged with paying Singer a bribe to get his daughter on USCâ€™s lacrosse team (even though she didnâ€™t play).
Bob Zangrillo paid two hundred thousand to Singer to get his daughter accepted as an athletic recruit (Pascus).
In short, at least a third of the parents arrested under Operation Varsity Blues were sending their kids to USC.
How could Caruso not know what was going on at the school with so many wealthy, well-connected parents using Singer to get their kids passed off as athletic recruits when obviously they were anything but? Did he never bother to ask Olivia Jade when she was sitting on his yacht how she liked rowing on the crew team, since that was her ticket into the school? Apparently not. Or maybe he just knew better than to ask.
Singer knew what every wealthy parent wanted: acceptance among their peers. One way to get that acceptance was to show that one could get oneâ€™s children into the best schools, regardless of how bright or academically challenged oneâ€™s kids might be. Singer reeled in his big fish by going fishing at conventions and seminars where he appeared, using speaking themes like â€œRaising a Balanced Child in an Affluent Environmentâ€ to lure his wealthy clients (Armstrong). Word of mouth got around as well. He had hundreds of clients over the course of a decadeâ€”many of them from the same elite social circles. Of course they talkedâ€”of course everyone knew what he was doing. It was an open secret: higher education in America is a big business. It is there to offer elite credentialing the way Mercedes offers luxury vehicles to wealthy clients.
The scandal was busted wide open only because a Wall Street rat decided to sing about it when he was picked up charges of orchestrating a pump-and-dump scheme. His name was Morrie Tobin and he essentially told the Feds that he could put them onto something much more interesting than what he himself was up to. The Fedsâ€™ ears perked up and Tobin was fitted with a wire and sent off to collect incriminating evidence on some of the people he had ratted out in an effort to gain leniency (Rubin, Ormseth, Winton). Tobin helped rope in Rudy Meredith the soccer coach at Yale University who was working with Singer to get kids into the Ivy League university. The coach was just one of many who would fall as a result of Tobin blowing up the whole outfit in an attempt to save his own neck. Tobin himself knew of it all because, of course, he had used Singerâ€™s services too to get his own kid into higher education (Rubin, Ormseth, Winton).
Meredith had been working with Singer from 2015 onward and was what Singer described in court as one of many â€œside doorsâ€ that wealthy parents could use to get their kids into the school of their choice. Parents would make a donation to one of Singerâ€™s two front organizationsâ€”The Key or The Edgeâ€”and then let Singer and his cohort of accomplices take care of the rest. If the kid needed a higher test score on the SAT, Singer could make that happen by pulling strings so that the test could be taken under the proctorship of one of his own proctors. As far as prosecutors have been concerned, the students did not know their scores were being faked. It was a deal between parents and Singer. Singer would then use the money to bribe people like Rudy Meredith to agree that the student should have an athletic scholarship. Over the course of four years, Meredith took nearly a million dollars in bribe money from Singer. Yale was full of fake soccer players, needless to say. And all that time, nobody ever batted an eye or told a world about it to the police.
No one, that is, until Morrie Tobin found himself cornered because of a totally unrelated securities fraud charge.
Tobin had arranged with Meredith to pay nearly half a million in bribe money to get his daughter on Meredithâ€™s soccer team so that she could be admitted to Yale. This is what Tobin ended up confessing to the Feds so that they would go easier on him for his pump-and-dump scheme. The Feds put a wire on Tobin and sent him off to meet Meredith in a hotel room where Tobin was supposed to get Meredith on the tape agreeing to the final terms of the deal. As the Los Angeles Times reported: â€œDuring the meeting, the men finalized the bribe at $450,000, according to court records. Tobin gave Meredith $2,000 in cash toward his balance and the coach told Tobin of a bank account where he wanted the remaining money to be sentâ€ (Rubin, Ormseth, Winton). That set off a cascade of arrests, confessions, more ratting, and eventually the all-out raid that lit the fuse on this firecracker of a scandal.
This college admissions scandal essay shows that when it comes to morals and ethics, the wealthy class is no different from the criminal class in terms of using money, positions of power and influence to get what they want. That so much of this happened at USC should be grounds for opening a wider investigation not only into that school but into every other top-tier school in the country. The reality is, however, that nothing will really come of this. If this wake-up call to the rest of America can be brushed under the rug and the majority of attention focused on Lori Loughlin, who is fighting charges, one can well assume that the real fleecing of ordinary Americans will continueâ€”the fleecing of paying for a top-tier education at a school so obviously implicated in fraud that one should ever after question whether anything it turns out is authentic. And now, thanks to Lifetimeâ€™s movie of the week version of what happened, the college admissions scandal will be even more irrelevant in years to come (Yahr).
Armstrong, Robert. â€œHow Much Meritocracy Can We Take?â€ Financial Times, March
29, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/a2d18024-509c-11e9-b401-8d9ef1626294
Pascus, Brian. â€œEvery Charge AND Accusation Facing the 33 Parents in the College
Admissions Scandal.â€ CBS News, June 3, 2019. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/college-admissions-scandal-list-operation-varsity-blues-every-charge-plea-accusation-facing-parents-2019-05-16/
Rubin, Joel; Matthew Ormseth and Richard Winton. â€œMust Reads: The bizarre story of
the L.A. dad who exposed the college admissions scandal.â€ Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-morrie-tobin-college-admissions-scandal-20190331-story.html
Winter, Tom and Minyvonne Burke. â€œCollege cheating ringleader says he helped more
than 750 families with admissions scheme.â€ NBC News, March 13, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/college-cheating-mastermind-says-he-helped-nearly-800-families-admissions-n982666
Yahr, Emily. â€œThe 5 most bonkers scenes from Lifetimeâ€™s â€˜College Admissions Scandalâ€™
movie.â€ The Washington Post, October 13, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2019/10/13/most-bonkers-scenes-lifetimes-college-admissions-scandal-movie
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