Cheating, Bribes & Lies: DOJ Charges Dozens of Rich Parents & Coaches in College Admission Scandal

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Operation Varsity Blues. That’s the name of a sweeping federal probe into what the Justice Department calls the biggest college admissions scam the agency has ever uncovered. On Tuesday, 50 people, including 13 college coaches, were arrested for taking part in a scheme where wealthy parents paid exorbitant bribes to secure spots for their unqualified children in elite schools, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, UCLA, USC and Wake Forest. Prosecutors have charged 33 parents, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; Loughlin’s husband, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli; and Bill McGlashan, a founder of TPG Capital, one of the largest private equity investment firms in the world. We speak with Ivory Toldson, professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and president of Quality Education for Minorities. His new book is titled “No BS (Bad Stats): Black People Need People Who Believe in Black People Enough Not to Believe Every Bad Thing They Hear About Black People.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Operation Varsity Blues. That’s the name of a sweeping federal probe into what the Justice Department calls the biggest college admissions scam the agency has ever uncovered. On Tuesday, 50 people were arrested, including 13 college coaches, for taking part in a scheme where wealthy parents paid exorbitant bribes to secure spots for their unqualified children in elite schools that included Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, UCLA, University of Southern California and Wake Forest. Prosecutors have charged 33 parents, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; Loughlin’s husband, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli; and Bill McGlashan, a founder of TPG Capital, one of the largest private equity investment firms in the world. At the center of the scheme was a man in Newport Beach, California, named Rick Singer, who ran a fraudulent company called the Edge College & Career Network. He promised parents he could get their children into these elite schools for a hefty fee. On Tuesday, Singer pleaded guilty to charges including racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice.

AMY GOODMAN: In one case, a family paid him $1.2 million to secure a spot for their daughter on the Yale soccer team, even though their daughter had never played competitive soccer. To do this, Singer and his cohorts fabricated the student’s athletic bio, faked photos and sent a $400,000 bribe to the head coach of the women’s Yale soccer team. The student was then accepted to Yale as a recruited soccer player. She never played. The Yale coach, Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, who resigned in November, was indicted Tuesday.

Prosecutors also accused Rick Singer of helping students cheat on their college entrance exams using a variety of schemes, from bribing test proctors to fix incorrect answers to arranging for a Florida man in his thirties to take the test for the students. In another case, a family reportedly paid $6.5 million to get their child into college. Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, announced the charges Tuesday.

ANDREW LELLING: Today we have charged 33 parents nationwide with hiring Singer’s group to defraud testing companies and/or various universities. These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege. They include, for example, CEOs of private and public companies, successful securities and real estate investors, two well-known actresses, a famous fashion designer and the co-chairman of a global law firm. Based on the charges unsealed today, all of them knowingly conspired with Singer and others to help their children either cheat on the SAT or ACT and/or buy their children’s admission to elite schools through fraud. Singer’s clients paid him anywhere between $100,000 and $6.5 million for this service, though the majority paid between $250,000 and $400,000, per student. This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud. There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy. And I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Ivory Toldson, professor of counseling psychology at Howard University, the president of Quality Education for Minorities. He’s the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and the former executive director at White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. His new book, No BS (Bad Stats): Black People Need People Who Believe in Black People Enough Not to Believe Every Bad Thing They Hear About Black People.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Toldson. Can you respond to this—well, this largest education scandal, that continues to unfold, yesterday 50 people indicted?

IVORY TOLDSON: Yes, and I’m very happy to be on Democracy Now! This is my first time on the network, but I really admire the work.

But I was very disappointed when I heard what was going on, but I was not surprised. We see, at every level of education, from kindergartners being tested by a private psychologist to say that they are gifted, to the various types of ways wealthy people train for tests and manipulate those outcomes—we see, time and time again, people using their money and their influence to create an unfair advantage for their children. And I’m happy that it’s come to light. I think that little, subtle things have been happening for quite some time. I think if you don’t buy into the notion that rich people are disproportionately smarter than the average person, then there’s a lot of things that you would consider pretty fishy. When you look at some of the high schools, like Georgetown Prep, where Brett Kavanaugh went, when you see how just about every student is going to one of these elite schools, we know that statistically it’s improbable that they would just cluster all at that school. And with a private school like that, we have very little information. They’re not held to the same standards as public schools. So, it is a very clandestine system at some of these elite schools that land all of these wealthy children at some of what’s considered our nation’s top universities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Dr. Toldson, what seemed surprising to me in this, because, clearly, it’s been a rigged system, admissions to colleges now, in terms—

IVORY TOLDSON: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —especially in terms of the poor and people of color, in terms of the advantages that middle-class and upper-class students have. But here you had a situation where there were actually admissions officers and there were coaches in the colleges who were actually participating in a directly, openly corrupt scam—allegedly, because they still have to go to trial.

IVORY TOLDSON: Yeah, right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And that seemed to me most surprising about this, wasn’t it?

IVORY TOLDSON: Yeah. There’s a lot of surprising aspects of it. And when I look at the statements from the universities involved, they’re positioning themselves as victims of the system. But I think they really need to look at the culture and their environment. They need to look at the way that they have appreciated the type of wealth that came to their universities and undervalued diversity at those schools. So, I think there’s a lot of soul searching that needs to be had. And, you know, we have to look well beyond the 49 people who were arrested, and look at the entire system.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to FBI special agent Joseph Bonavolonta speaking at Tuesday’s news conference.

JOSEPH BONAVOLONTA: The FBI uncovered what we believe is a rigged system, robbing students all over the country of their right at a fair shot to getting into some of the most elite universities in this country, such as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. We believe everyone charged here today had a role in fostering a culture of corruption and greed, that created an uneven playing field for students trying to get into these schools the right way, through hard work, good grades and community service. Unfortunately, what many students didn’t know was that the odds had already been stacked against them by corrupt practices, including but not limited to bribery, falsification of athletic profiles and near-perfect SAT and ACT scores that were fraudulently obtained on behalf of other students, when, in reality, they were far from perfect.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the FBI special agent talking about this scandal. No actual schools were charged, though people within the schools, like, you know, the head of soccer at Yale, for example. You had these pictures sent in of athletes with their heads photoshopped to be a student who didn’t even play the particular game, in cases like water polo. What message does this scandal send to black and brown children, to white not wealthy children, who believe that higher education is a meritocracy? What do you say to them?

IVORY TOLDSON: Yeah, yeah. Well, I hope it’s a wake-up call for people who have bought into the system that people become wealthy because they have worked hard. It’s a deception that’s pervasive in our society. Among the wealthy, their objective is passive income. You know, they talk actively about making money without working. That’s what they talk about in their own social networks. But yet, when they’re talking to people who may work for them, they try to make it seem like it’s all about working hard. In reality, it should be about working hard. Everybody should work hard for what they have. But there are people in this country, unfortunately, who would rather manipulate the system so that some people work hard to get enough, and other people work not at all and get more.

And I think it also does a disservice to their children, because their children will grow up feeling a false sense of entitlement, believing in unearned privilege, believing in inherited wealth and all of the things that will lead to certain types of predatory behaviors, whether it be predatory lending, manipulating markets, predatory landlords—you know, different aspects of society that we’ve all grown to loathe. All of this is cultivated in these types of environments.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of entitlement, this news has brought renewed attention to President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, whose father, the New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner, pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, shortly before his son was admitted to its freshman class. In his book titled The Price of Admission, ProPublica editor Dan Golden interviewed a former official at Kushner’s high school who said, quote, “There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard. … His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scored did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.” Your thoughts on that?

IVORY TOLDSON: Yeah, yeah. And if I’m not mistaken, Jared Kushner went on to graduate from Harvard with honors. And, in fact, I think—and I don’t know the precise numbers on it, but there was an extraordinary amount of students who graduated from Harvard with honors. And there’s been a lot of talk about grade inflation at some of these so-called elite schools. And so, you know, when we look at the complicity in this, when we look at all of the players involved, you have schools like Harvard and Yale who don’t just want the smartest students, but they also want the wealthiest students. And they are rewarding these students by giving them an academic experience that’s not just about rigor, but it’s about positioning them into a certain social network. So we do have to look at this entire system.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you look at the whole battle over affirmative action, and you see what is the real affirmative action here.

IVORY TOLDSON: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. You know, they’re quick to point out any non-merit-based system that’s giving an advantage to someone who truly had some barriers and hurdles to overcome, whether it be racism, poor schools, a lack of resources to get certain things. And so, you know, there are certain people in society who deserve certain advantages because of things that were unfairly taken away from them. And a lot of times that occupies so much of our attention that we miss certain things that are just blatantly going wrong with people with unearned privileges and people who are using money in order to falsify a system or make their child look like something that they’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end with actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli’s kid on video. They are the parents charged with fraud in the college admissions scandal—one set of parents. According to the complaint, they paid bribes totaling half a million dollars in having their daughter, Olivia Jade, and her younger sister designated as recruits to the USC crew team, despite the fact they didn’t participate in crew. The complaint reveals both Olivia Jade and her sister both posed for pictures on an ergometer to fake an action shot. Olivia is a social media influencer with more than 2 million YouTube subscribers and a million followers on Instagram. She has posted ads featuring her status as a college student. In August, Olivia posted a video on YouTube answering questions about starting college.

OLIVIA JADE GIANNULLI: And then the whole college thing, yep, I’m going. I’m living in a dorm with a roommate, who is so sweet. With work, it’s going to be hard. Like, my first week of school, I’m leaving to go to Fiji for work. And then I’ll be in New York a bunch this year for work, and traveling to a different country, because I’m creating something with this country, and that’s for work. So, I don’t know how much of school I’m going to attend, but I’m going to go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying. I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.

AMY GOODMAN: Olivia Jade and her sister both got into USC. Her parents paid half a million dollars. This is Democracy Now! Ivory Toldson, thanks so much for being with us, professor of counseling psychology at Howard University, president of Quality Education for Minorities.

When we come back, we look at the possible presidential run of Joe Biden, in 30 seconds.

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