A nonprofit that was allegedly used to funnel bribes allowing rich parents to fraudulently get their kids accepted to elite universities had earmarked more than $500,000 in “donations” to the University of Texas at Austin in 2015 and 2016, according to the nonprofit’s financial documents. That’s much more than the $100,000 identified in federal indictments that was allegedly used to bribe a UT tennis coach—and it’s unclear where the money went.
Key Worldwide Foundation, a federal tax-exempt organization that federal prosecutors say was used as a front to facilitate a massive college admissions bribery scheme, claimed on its Form 990 (a U.S. Internal Revenue Service document that provides the public with financial information about nonprofits) that it had “donated” $294,000 to “University of Texas Athletics” in 2015, followed by $252,000 in 2016.
In hundreds of pages of court documents released on March 12, prosecutors alleged that a cofounder of KWF paid UT men’s tennis coach Michael Center $100,000 in 2015 on behalf of a parent of a prospective student in order to ensure the student’s admission. Center was indicted and charged with mail fraud and was fired by UT on March 13.
That alleged $100,000 bribe may be included in the dollar figure KWF claimed to have donated to UT in 2015, but federal prosecutors did not identify any other bribes that were allegedly sent to UT coaches or employees, raising questions about the $546,000 KWF claims to have donated to UT Athletics in 2015 and 2016.
UT spokesperson J. B. Bird told Texas Monthly in an email that the university does not have records matching the large donation amounts described in KWF’s tax forms and that the university is “in the process of reviewing other gifts that could be related to the 2015 incident, which could total several hundred thousand dollars.” Bird added that the university is sharing all information with federal investigators. Center was the only UT employee implicated in the indictments.
The university does have records of a $15,000 donation from KWF on June 10, 2015, money that Bird said went toward an outdoor tennis facility. “To our knowledge, this is the only record we have of a donation from or related to the organization,” Bird said.
That $15,000 “donation” came at the same time that federal prosecutors say Center received his bribe money. According to a federal indictment, on June 5, 2010, KWF mailed Center a $15,000 check, payable to “Texas Athletics Attn: Michael Center,” in exchange for allowing the son of wealthy parents to be admitted to UT as a recruited tennis player. The teenager hadn’t played on a tennis team since his freshman year of high school.
Three days later, KWF sent Houston tennis camp instructor Martin Fox a check for $100,000 for his role in allegedly brokering the bribe deal between a KWF employee and Center. Also in June 2015, a KWF employee allegedly flew to Austin, met with Center in a hotel parking lot, and gave him $60,000 in cash. The money had allegedly originally been “donated” to KWF by the parents of the student and funneled through KWF to Center to make it look like a charitable donation to the organization rather than a bribe.
In a written statement on March 13, UT president Gregory Fenves said that the university is conducting a “thorough review” of the allegations against Center and will investigate “whether the university has the necessary rules and procedures in place to prevent violations in the future.”
“The integrity of UT admissions is essential to our mission as a research university and to the students and families we serve,” Fenves said. “That is why any act of wrongdoing, no matter how singular, matters so deeply. At UT, tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff members, coaches and admissions officers conduct themselves with honor and distinction every day. Any ethical breach overshadows their accomplishments and violates our culture of service and distinction. Moving forward, we must continue to strive for the highest ethical standards at The University of Texas.”
KWF’s tax documents also listed donations to other schools, including Yale University, University of Southern California, DePaul University, Chapman University, New York University, University of Miami, and Baruch College. None of those “donations” topped the amount KWF claimed to have given to UT. Representatives of one of the organizations KWF supposedly donated to, Friends of Cambodia, a small charity based in California, said they had never heard of KWF until now. Elia Van Tuyl, the cofounder of Friends of Cambodia, told Palo Alto Weekly that his organization doesn’t even have a bank account. “We don’t exist as a nonprofit,” Van Tuyl said. “No one could write a check to Friends that we could cash.”
A total of 44 people have been charged in relation to the scandal, with crimes including mail fraud, racketeering, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. Among those charged are Hollywood actors, prominent lawyers, and successful businessmen. Here’s a complete list of the names of people who were indicted. In addition to Center, three others face federal charges in Texas: Niki Williams, a college entrance exam administrator in Houston; Martin Fox, the Houston tennis instructor; and John Wilson, the CEO of a Massachusetts private equity and real estate and development firm.
“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 March 12. “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, that the investigation is ongoing, and that others may still be charged.