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College Admission Scandal: Everything to Know About Scheme That Landed Hollywood Stars Behind Bars

It was a plot that had it all: bribery, money laundering, and two Hollywood starlets. Here’s a look at the college admissions scandal that ultimately landed Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman in prison.

The 2019 nationwide college admissions scandal can be summed up as a case of lies, bribes, and crew team photos. The widespread cheating operation involved many affluent parents, college athletics higher-ups, and television stars. The three biggest names netted by the federal investigation were Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and Mossimo Giannulli. The scandal left them and scores of others disgraced and facing some major prison time. A lot has happened since “Aunt Becky” got caught by the feds, so here’s what you need to know:

How The Scandal Was Revealed

March 12, 2019, began as any other unsuspecting Tuesday, until Andrew Leeling, the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, dropped a bombshell. The U.S. Attorney announced the results of “Operation Varsity Blues,” an FBI investigation into what the federal authorities called “the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted in the U.S.,” per the Associated Press. Federal prosecutors claimed that wealthy parents paid an estimated $25 million in bribes to William “Rick” Singer, the founder of the Edge College & Career Network, to get their children into college through various illegal ways.

U.S. Attorney for District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, left, FBI Special Agent in Charge Boston Division Joseph Bonavolonta, center, and Kristina O’Connell, Special Agent in Charge of IRS Criminal Investigation in New England, right, depart a news conference after announcing indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal, Tuesday, March 12, 2019 (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

This multi-facet, nationwide cheating scheme included, per the FBI’s affidavit (h/t the Washington Post): bribing college entrance exam administrators to “allow a third party to facility cheating on college entrance exams,” in some cases by posing as the actual high school students, and in others, “by providing students with the answers…or by correcting the answers after the had completed the exams”; bribing coaches and administrators to “designate applicants as purported athletic recruits” even though “they did not play the sport they were purportedly recruited to play,” to improve their chances of admission; having a third party “take classes in place of the actual students”; submitting falsified applications to universities; and by “Disguising the nature and source of the bribe payments by funneling the money through the accounts of a purported charity, from which many of the bribes were then paid.” Overall, 50 people – including thirty-three parents – were initially indicted.

The Colleges Involved

 The scam, which took place from 2011 up to February 2019, involved the athletics department at some of the most prestigious schools in the country: Yale, Wake Forest, Stanford, Georgetown, University of San Diego, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California, and the University of California – Los Angles (UCLA.)

Those netted in the sting include Gorgon Ernst, the head women’s and men’s tennis coach at Georgetown; Donna Heinel, senior associate athletic director at USC; Ali Khosroshahin and Laura Janke, the top women’s soccer coaches at USC; Rudy Meredith, the head women’s soccer coach at Yale; and Jorge Salcedo, the head men’s soccer coach at UCLA. The schools tied to this college admissions case quickly issued statements that said they were unaware of the cheating scheme and cooperating with the investigation.

William “Rick” Singer, exits federal court in Boston on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, after he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

“As the indictment makes clear, the Department of Justice believes that Yale has been the victim of a crime perpetrated by its former women’s soccer coach,” the school said in a statement, per CBS News. “The U.S. Department of Justice announced this morning a criminal case naming UCLA Men’s Soccer head coach Jorge Salcedo as a defendant, and notified UCLA that it is a potential victim of a fraudulent scheme,” the university aid, while Stanford issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned by the allegations in this case.”

The Celebrities & Notable People Involved — And The Consequences

Though more than thirty parents were charged in “Operation Varsity Blues,” two women became the face of the nationwide college cheating scandal: Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

Felicity, known for her work on Desperate Housewives, “made a purported charitable contribution of $15,000” to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation “to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme” on behalf of her and William H. Macy’s eldest daughter, Sophia Grace Macy. With this bribe, Felicity arranged a third party to correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT after she took the exam. Sophia, per the FBI’s affidavit, “ received a score of 1420 on the SAT, an improvement of approximately 400 points over her PSAT, taken…one year earlier.” Felicity “later made arrangements to pursue the scheme a second time, for her younger daughter [Georgia Grace Macy], before deciding not to do so.”

Lori Loughlin with husband, Mossimo Giannulli on the left. Felicity Huffman with husband William H. Macy, on the right (AP/MEGA)

Though William was aware of what was going on – the affidavit states that the Singer met with Felicity and “her spouse in their Los Angeles home and explained, in substance, how the college entrance exam scheme worked,” and that both she and “her spouse agreed to the plan” – the Fargo actor wasn’t charged.

Felicity was arrested at her California home on March 12, 2019, the same day the authorities revealed the scam. She appeared in a Los Angeles Federal Court the following day, where she was released on $250,000 bail. On May 13, 2019, Felicity formally pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. She was facing some major prison time, with the charges carrying a maximum of 20 years behind bars. She was sentenced to 14 days. She was also given one year of supervised release, ordered to pay a $30,000 fine, and sentenced to 250 hours of community service.

“I am deeply sorry to the students, parents, colleges, and universities who’ve been impacted by my actions,” Felicity said inside the courtroom as the judgment was handed down. “I am sorry to my daughter Sophia and Georgia, and I am sorry to my husband, Will. I have betrayed them.”

Felicity reported to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, on October 15, 2019. She was released ten days later, on October 25, two days ahead of schedule. She was allowed to go free early because her initially scheduled release date, October 27, fell on a Sunday, and it’s the prison policy to release inmates when their dates fall on weekends.

Lori Loughlin did not get off that easily. Lori — known for portraying “Aunt Becky” on Full House and its sequel, Fuller House — and husband Mossimo Giannulli were indicted in the original March 12 announcement. Whereas Felicity was accused of paying a $15k bribe, Lori and Mossimo were accused of paying $500,000 to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation “in exchange for having their two daughters [Olivia Jade Giannulli and Isabella Rose Giannulli] designated as recruits to the USC crew team—despite the fact that they did not participate in crew—thereby facilitating their admission to USC,” per the court documents. To help pull the scam off, Mossimo and Lori had their daughters take photos on ergometers to prove they rowers, even though they weren’t. Olivia’s college resume also claimed she was a gold medal-winning rower.

Prosecutors released photographs showing Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli’s daughters — Olivia Jade and Isabella — on rowing machines. The photos were allegedly staged to help get them into USC. ( U.S. Attorney’s Office/ MEGA)

On March 13, 2019, Lori and Mossimo surrendered to federal authorities in Los Angeles. They were released on a bail of $1 million. While Felicity quickly pled guilty, Lori and her husband seemed determined to fight the charges. Even after the feds hit them and 14 other parents with charges of money laundering, the defiant couple pled not guilty on April 15, 2019. In October 2019, Lori and Moss were indicted on one count of bribery, and they pleaded not guilty to this third charge.

Their fight ended on May 22, 2020. After more than a year of battling, Lori and Mossimo worked out a deal. She pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. Mossimo pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and honest services wire and mail fraud.

On August 21, both she and Mossimo were sentenced to prison. Lori was sentenced to two months behind bars, given two years of supervised release, ordered to pay a $150,000 fine, and sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Her husband was sentenced to five months in prison, a fine of $250,000, and 250 hours of community service.

Lori reported to prison on October 30, 2020. Mossimo began serving his sentence on November 19, 2020. Lori was released on December 28, 2020, two days early. Lori completed her jail time at the same correctional facility as Felicity Huffman, while Mossimo surrendered himself to a medium-security prison in Lompoc, California.

William “Rick” Singer,” the mastermind behind the college admissions scandal., pleaded guilty and cooperated with the FBI in their investigation. As of the end of 2020, he has yet to be sentenced. He faces 65 years in jail.

Conclusion — Moving Forward

In the wake of the scandal, Lori Loughlin was dropped from Fuller House. The Hallmark Channel fired Lori from its show, When Calls The Heart, and edited her out of season six’s remaining scenes. Olivia Jade, a YouTube influencer, lost her partnership with Sephora. By October 2019, a USC spokesperson confirmed to ABC News that Olivia and Isabella Giannulli were not currently enrolled in USC.

Felicity Huffman’s daughter, Sofia Macy, retook her SAT and announced in early 2020 that she had been accepted into Carnegie Mellon University. Her younger sister, Georgia, noted in December that she plans to enroll in Vassar.

Lori Loughlin, left, seen out in Santa Monica in February 2020. Felicity Huffman, right, walks her dog during a walk in May 2020. (Backgrid)

While both of her parents were imprisoned, Olivia Jade went on Red Table Talk to speak about the scandal. “I think what hasn’t been super public is that there is no justifying or excusing what happened,” she said.

“[Because] what happened was wrong and I think that every single person in my family can be like, that was messed up, that was a big mistake. But I think what’s so important to me is to learn from the mistake, not to now be shamed and punished and not given a second chance. Because I’m 21, I feel like I deserve a second chance to redeem myself, to show I’ve grown.” The reception to Olivia’s plea and her admitting she was the “poster child of white privilege” were mixed.

By the end of 2020, twenty-nine parents charged in the scandal have pleaded guilty, according to Insider. Seven college admission and school administration officials have pleaded guilty, as have six college athletics officials. The schools involved with the scandal stated they are revising and strengthening their admission policies, per CNN.

Mossimo is set to be released from prison on April 17, 2021.

 


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