Federal prosecutors unsealed hundreds of pages of court documents on Tuesday indicting dozens of people in a massive alleged bribery scheme, implicating college coaches, wealthy parents of prospective students, college entrance exam administrators, and even a few Hollywood actors—including Full House‘s Lori Loughlin and Desperate Housewives‘ Felicity Huffman—who allegedly conspired to help underqualified rich kids get into top schools, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of Texas-Austin. Among the indicted was the head coach of UT-Austin’s men’s tennis team and an administrator at an HISD college entrance testing center. Here’s a rundown of the complicated case and its Texas connections.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the alleged conspiracy “facilitated cheating on college entrance exams and the admission of students to elite universities as purported athletic recruits.” Charges ranged from racketeering to mail fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. A total of 44 people were charged. Here’s a complete list of the names of people who were indicted. Avid television watchers might recognize Full House actress Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives. Others named in the indictments are so wealthy that they have their own Wikipedia pages.
Four people are facing federal charges in Texas. Michael Center, the head coach of the men’s tennis team at the University of Texas-Austin, was charged with mail fraud and is accused of accepting bribes; Niki Williams, a college entrance exam administrator employed by the Houston Independent School District, was charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering and is alleged to have accepted bribes in return for helping falsify entrance exam scores; Martin Fox, a Houston resident and the president of a private tennis academy in Houston, was charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering and allegedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars for his help arranging bribe payments between parents of prospective students and college coaches; and John Wilson, a CEO of a Massachusetts private equity and real estate and development firm, faces charges of mail fraud and allegedly tried to bribe coaches at USC, Harvard, and Stanford to help his son and two daughters get accepted as recruited athletes (it’s unclear why Wilson has been charged in Texas).
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“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said during a press conference in Massachusetts on Tuesday. “The parents charged today, despite already being able to give their children every legitimate advantage in the college admissions game, instead chose to corrupt and illegally manipulate the system for their benefit. We’re not talking about donating a building so a school is more likely to take your son and daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud. Fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribes to college officials.” Lelling added that this is the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.
A cooperating witness identified in court documents as “CW-1” allegedly told investigators that from 2011 through 2018, his clients paid him about $25 million, funneled through a fake charity, to bribe coaches and university administrators at elite universities across the country (CW-1 is described in court documents as having organized the bribery and fraud schemes). Coaches and administrators would then designate the children of these clients as recruited athletes, which helped them get accepted into their universities, even when the students sometimes had no experience playing the sports they were purportedly recruited for. In some cases, parents allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars—again funneled through CW-1’s “charity”—for children to take rigged entrance exams to ensure that their scores would be high enough for acceptance into the top college of their choice.
Michael Center has been a college tennis coach for 27 years, including the last 18 at UT, where he’s turned the program into a frequent championship contender, with an overall record of 365-137 and three appearances in the final four. In 2015, the team advanced to the round of sixteen in the NCAA championships, and one of Center’s doubles teams won the national title. That same year, according to federal prosecutors, Center accepted a $100,000 bribe to help an otherwise unqualified rich kid get into UT. CW-1 told investigators that Center agreed to designate the student as a UT tennis recruit, even though the student did not play competitive tennis. The informant told the feds that Martin Fox, the Houston tennis instructor, introduced CW-1 and Center to each other to arrange the bribe. The student’s application said he was a manager of his high school basketball and football teams, and played one year of tennis as a freshman, but he had no tennis experience beyond that.
Some of the bribe money paid to Center was allegedly funneled through the Key Worldwide Foundation, a for-profit, federal income tax-exempt company based in California operated by CW-1, among others. According to court documents, the fake tennis player’s father “donated” $455,195 worth of stock to KWF in February 2015, and a few days later Center emailed the father to tell him that UT would be sending the student a letter of intent for a “books” scholarship as part of the recruitment process. The student signed a letter of intent to play tennis at UT the next month. According to the indictment, CW-1 directed an employee to purchase a cashier’s check for $25,000, payable to “Texas Athletics,” using KWF funds. The father allegedly made two more large payments to KWF, and Fox was sent a check for $100,000 from KWF for his role in brokering the alleged bribe.
According to the court documents, in May 2015 KWF sent Center a $15,000 check payable to “Texas Athletics Attn: Michael Center,” and a month later CW-1 flew to Austin and met with Center in a hotel parking lot, where he allegedly paid Center $60,000 in cash. That September, shortly after starting classes at UT, the student withdrew from the tennis team and renounced his “books” scholarship, meaning he was no longer an athlete at UT but was able to continue as a regular student.
The court documents include the transcript of a recorded conversation that allegedly took place between CW-1 and Center in October of last year (you can read the full excerpt from the phone call here). During the alleged conversation, Center admits to the 2015 bribe deal, and agreeably discusses the possibility of arranging a similar deal for another student. According to the transcript, Center said he used some of the money he received in 2015 to pay for his son’s bar mitzvah party. According to the Texas Tribune’s government salaries database, Center was paid $232,338 by the university in 2017, the last fiscal year for which his salary data was updated.
Center was placed on administrative leave shortly after the court documents were unsealed, according to a statement released on Tuesday by UT-Austin. “Federal authorities notified us this morning that we were victims of an organized criminal effort involving admissions,” the statement says. “We have just become aware of charges against our Men’s Tennis Coach Michael Center and he will be placed on administrative leave until further notice while we gather information. We are cooperating fully with the investigation. Integrity in admissions is vital to the academic and ethical standards of our university.”
A separate indictment details the allegations against Niki Williams, a college entrance exam administrator in Houston. According to court documents, the same informant, CW-1, told investigators of a complex scheme for cheating on college entrance exams, including the SAT and ACT. Along with KWF, CW-1 also co-ran the Edge College & Career Network, known as “The Key,” a for-profit college counseling and preparation business based California. CW-1 told investigators that he would tell clients of The Key to ask for extended time for their children on college entrance exams, even recommending that their children fake learning disabilities so that the College Board would grant their request.
“Once the students were granted extended time—which generally allowed them to take an exam over two days instead of one, and in an individualized setting—CW-1 instructed his clients to change the location of the exam to one of two test centers he told them he ‘controlled’: a public high school in Houston, Texas (the ‘Houston Test Center’) or a private college preparatory school in West Hollywood, California (the ‘West Hollywood Test Center’),” the indictment says. CW-1 told investigators that he told one of his clients that his son would be able to take the test at CW-1’s ‘facility,’ rather than at his own high school, because CW-1 had bribed a test administrator there. CW-1 told parents to make up an excuse “such as a bar mitzvah or a wedding” that they had to attend in Houston or Los Angeles so that their kids needed to take the test at one of CW-1’s “controlled” facilities. Once the tests arrived at the testing center recommended by CW-1, the bribed administrators would allegedly let a third-party (identified in court documents as “CW-2”) take the exams in place of the actual students, or serve as “proctor” for the exams while giving the students the correct answers. In other cases, the test administrators would have the third party review and correct the students’ answers after the exam was over. In return, parents would allegedly pay between $15,000 and $75,000 per test, with the payments set up as fake donations to KWF. “In many instances,” the indictment says, “the students taking the exams were unaware that their parents had arranged for this cheating.”
Martin Fox allegedly introduced CW-1 to Niki Williams, who administered tests at the Houston facility. CW-1 allegedly made bribe payments to Williams through Fox, though one payment of $5,000 in July 2018 was allegedly sent from CW-1 directly to Williams by check. On another occasion, after allegedly helping the daughters of a wealthy California couple cheat on their entrance exams, CW-1 paid Fox $50,000, part of which was allegedly understood to go to Williams for her help with the alleged scheme. Williams is listed on a Houston ISD website as a special education teaching assistant at Jack Yates High School in Houston. HISD has not responded to requests for comment on the allegations or to questions about Williams’s current employment status.
In another case documented in the indictments, Jane Buckingham, a wealthy Los Angeles CEO of Trendera, a boutique marketing company, allegedly paid CW-1 $50,000 through KWF to have someone take the ACT for her son at the Houston Test Center. CW-1 allegedly arranged the false test with Williams, promising Williams that he would send her money to “go on vacation.” Buckingham later told CW-1 that her son couldn’t fly to Houston due to a case of tonsillitis, and she asked if she could have a copy of the exam for her son to take at home instead of at the Houston Test Center, so that her son would believe that he had actually taken the exam. According to court documents, their conversation was captured by a wire-tap.
CW-1: “Okay, so here’s the deal.”
CW-1: “So Niki is is willing to do it.”
CW-1: “We are looking for my, correct, that we are trying to get ourselves like 34 on the ACT?”
BUCKINGHAM: “Yeah, yeah.”
CW-1: “So [CW-2] will do that. It’s really—can be a 33, it could be a 34, it could be a 35.”
BUCKINGHAM: “Right. ….”
CW-1: “But, so, anyways, so the, she said she would do it, she would send us a copy of the test that we’re gonna take—”
CW-1: “And then, even though we’re already gonna send in his test, there at least [your son] will have taken the same test.”
BUCKINGHAM: “Thank you, thank you.”
CW-1: “Okay, so your donation is gonna be 50. It’ll it’ll end up being through our foundation.”
CW-1: “And I’m already sending a check to the proctor today, and to Niki today, ’cause she said, ‘I gotta have the money first.'”
CW-1: “I said, ‘Niki, I have been doing this forever.’ She said, ‘I get it, but this like, this is crazy.'”
BUCKINGHAM: “Yeah. I know this is craziness, I know it is. And then I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East.”
CW-1: “I can do that, I can do that if you can figure out a way to boot your husband out so that he treats you well—you’re treated better—”
BUCKINGHAM: “That’s impossible. That’s impossible. But, you know, peace in the Middle East. You know, Harvard, the rest of it. I have faith in you.”
CW-1: “Got it, got it. Alright, so I will tell [CW-2] now that he’s just gonna pick it up [from] Niki, take it, [and] Niki will send us a copy, and then [your son] can take it sometime next week when he’s feeling better.”
BUCKINGHAM: “Yeah, I mean look, he can take it Saturday, I have no problem with him taking [it then].”
CW-1: “But it’s not an issue with that. It can be anytime he wants.”
BUCKINGHAM: “Right, okay, okay.”
CW-1: “That’s not an issue, ’cause it has to be sent in from Houston.”
BUCKINGHAM: “And is—will you send me where and how I should send the check?”
CW-1: “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ll send it so that you get your [IRS tax] writeoff.”
BUCKINGHAM: “Oh, even better!”
CW-1 :Yeah, it will be, it will be through the, our foundation, our 501(c)(3), and then we’ll send the checks to all the parties.”
CW-1: “And that way you, there’s no, people aren’t saying, ‘Well, why [did] you send a check to [the Houston Test Center]?; and da da da.”
BUCKINGHAM: “Right, right.”
According to the indictment, CW-2 took the exam at a hotel in Houston in July of last year. Buckingham’s son allegedly received a score of 35 out of 36 on the exam. In October, Buckingham allegedly called CW-1 and said she would “probably like to do the same thing with [my daughter] with her ACTs” because she is “not a great test taker.” Buckingham faces federal mail fraud charges in California.
The extent of the alleged fraud that some of the parents were prepared to accept in order to ensure their already well-to-do spawns got into an elite school would seem, at times, to be rather delusional. For example, CW-1 explained to one parent, William McGlashan, a senior executive at the global private equity firm TPG Growth, that he’d create a fake online athletic profile for his son to get him accepted into USC as a recruited athlete. CW-1 said he’d use images lifted from Google and Photoshop them to make it appear as though McGlashan’s son was a highly sought punter and kicker on his high school football team. According to court documents, CW-1 said he’d done this “a million times.” McGlashan allegedly appeared to have no problem with the blatant deception. The following is an excerpt from an alleged phone conversation between CW-1 and McGlashan, included in the indictment:
CW-1: “I’m gonna make him a kicker.”
McGLASHAN: (laughs) “He does have really strong legs.”
CW-1: (laughs) “Well, this will be for—this will be good for one of the—”
McGLASHAN: “Maybe he’ll—maybe he’ll become a kicker. You never know.”
CW-1: “Yeah! Absolutely.”
McGLASHAN: “You could inspire him, [CW-1]. You may actually turn him into something. I love it.”
CW-1: “I know. Well I had a boy last year, I made him a long snapper. And—”
McGLASHAN: “I love it.”
CW-1: “—he was 145 pounds. Long snapper. So—”
McGLASHAN: “I love it. I love it. That is so funny.”
In a later alleged conversation described in the indictment, CW-1 asks for a photo of McGlashan’s son so he can Photoshop him into an athlete. McGlashan laughs, and says, “Okay. Okay. Let me look through what I have. Pretty funny. The way the world works these days is unbelievable.” Unbelievable, indeed.
Like McGlashan, many of the parents involved in the alleged fraud schemes are described as having flippant attitudes. On another alleged phone call with a different parent—Gordon Caplan, a big-time attorney in New York—CW-1 and Caplan share a few laughs about the scheme.
CAPLAN: “Well again, thanks for taking the time earlier today. Look, I’m particularly interested in working with you guys and figuring out what’s best for [my daughter]. She’s an interesting kid. I’m sure you’ve seen them all. But this notion of effectively going in, flying out to L.A., sitting with your proctor, and taking the exam is pretty interesting.”
CW-1: “It’s the homerun of homeruns.”
CAPLAN: “And it works?”
CW-1: “Every time.” (laughing)
CW-1: “I mean, I’m sure I did 30 of them at different, you know, dates because there’s different dates, and they’re all families like yours, and they’re all kids that wouldn’t have perform[ed] as well, and then they did really well, and it was like, the kids thought, and it was so funny ’cause the kids will call me and say, ‘Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do better even.’ Right? And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.”
CW-1: “Which is great, that’s the way you want it. They feel good about themselves.”
CAPLAN: “Yeah, absolutely, and there’s nothing, just ask you directly, there’s nothing that the schools are concerned about with this, or have a problem with?”
CW-1: “Schools don’t know. Schools don’t know. That’s why you have to get 100% time or you have to get 50% multiple days. The only, so the way it works is, if you get 50% time you have to take it at a national test center okay? If you get 100% time you have to find a school that’ll actually give you the test. So, if she were at a traditional school, she would be taking it at that school. What I do is, I always tell the family, ‘Oh, you got a bar mitzvah out of town that weekend, so you found a school to take it at,’ and they go take it at our school and then they come home and they get a score. So the key is the testing, and we have to get the testing so that we show a discrepancy. It sounds like she has a discrepancy, but I need the discrepancies to be significant enough so that we don’t have to appeal and we can go forward. The fact that she’s in an online school, that may be helpful for us as well.”
CAPLAN: “And you work all of that out? You figure that out? Or?”
CW-1: “Yeah, absolutely.”
CAPLAN: “And do you ever have a problem getting the 100% time?”
CW-1: “Oh yeah, there’s times when we have to appeal because, you know, for whatever reason. You have to understand that College Board and ACT both outsource their decisions to a committee, ’cause they’re tired of being sued. For, you know, so they do the outsourcing. So, sometimes you have to re-appeal so that psychologist that’ll do the testing, will actually write up an appeal. So we’ll do that, and I also need to tell [your daughter] when she gets tested, to be as, to be stupid, not to be as smart as she is. The goal is to be slow, to be not as bright, all that, so we show discrepancies. And she knows that she’s getting all this extra time, everywhere that she is right now. At the Academy kids are getting extra time all the time.”
CAPLAN: “You mean the Greenwich Academy?”
CAPLAN: “Oh, oh you mean at her tennis academy. I see. Yeah. Okay.”
CW-1: “Yeah, everywhere around the country. What happened is, all the wealthy families that figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time. The playing field is not fair.”
CAPLAN: “No, it’s not. I mean this is, to be honest, it feels a little weird. But.”
CW-1: “I know it does. I know it does. But when she gets the score and we have choices, you’re gonna be saying, okay, I’ll take all my kids, we’re gonna do the same thing.” (laughing)
CAPLAN: “Yeah, I will.”
CAPLAN: “If somebody catches this, what happens?”
CW-1: “The only one who can catch it is if you guys tell somebody.”
CAPLAN: “I am not going to tell anybody.”
CW-1: “Well…” (laughing)
Caplan was charged with mail fraud in Connecticut.