BOSTON — Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin appeared Wednesday in a packed federal courtroom to face charges in connection with the sprawling college admissions scandal that has rocked the higher education world and mesmerized the public.
Huffman, Loughlin and 10 other parents, including Loughlin’s husband, Mossimo Giannulli, arrived at the Moakley Courthouse to a swarm of media held back by metal barricades. Huffman wore a teal top and black suit. Loughlin was in a camel-colored suit and Giannulli, a fashion designer who founded the brand Mossimo, wore a dark navy suit and a green and blue striped tie.
They arrived to a packed courtroom: Lawyers flanked their clients and officers of the court buffered them from reporters who came from television networks, celebrity-tracking shows and local newspapers. Loughlin, star of the 1980s and 1990s television show “Full House,” leaned over, smiled and shook the hands of the government lawyers prosecuting her case.
The Justice Department last month charged the actresses and 48 others in connection with the scandal. Those accused include 33 parents who prosecutors say sought to use their wealth to circumvent the admissions process so their children could win admission to elite schools. Prosecutors say most of the parents targeted the University of Southern California, but others set their sights on Georgetown, Stanford, Yale and the University of Texas. The FBI branded its investigation “Operation Varsity Blues.” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling in Boston called the case the largest college admissions scam prosecuted by the Justice Department.
During the brief hearings Wednesday, Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley read the charges aloud to each of the defendants, confirmed they understood what they were accused of and established the conditions of their release.
Loughlin, Huffman and the other defendants have forfeited their passports as a condition of their release, and are permitted to travel internationally only for important business. They also have to remove firearms from their houses — one couple, Manuel and Elizabeth Henriquez, have 10 firearms at home, according to their attorney. And they are not permitted to violate local, state or federal law, including by using marijuana, which is permitted by the state of California, but prohibited by federal law.
Kelley changed one condition she had imposed last week on some defendants connected with the alleged multimillion-dollar bribery scheme to get their underqualified children admitted to selective schools. Now, all the parents will be allowed to talk about the case with their children and immediate family members, who could be called to testify. But the magistrate judge admonished them to be mindful of the risks of obstructing justice and tampering with witnesses.
“I don’t think it’s good for parents not to be able to talk to their children about the case,” Kelley said in explaining her reasoning, adding it would be “unmanageable” to try to police such conversations.
Two other defendants who made appearances Wednesday, Amy Colburn and Gregory Colburn, had already been indicted and were arraigned. They pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit fraud.
In addition to the television stars, those who appeared Wednesday included Homayoun Zadeh, an associate professor of dentistry at USC, where he allegedly sought to gain admission for his daughter; Gordon Caplan, a lawyer and the co-chairman of a global law firm; and Henriquez, who recently stepped down as head of a Bay Area venture debt firm.
William “Rick” Singer, the corrupt college consultant whom prosecutors have cast as the mastermind of the scheme, pleaded guilty last month to racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering and obstruction of justice. The FBI made contact with him last year, and for months he cooperated with the investigation, recording conversations and gathering evidence against his wealthy clientele.
Prosecutors say parents paid Singer to doctor test scores and bribe athletic coaches. In exchange for a “donation” to a charity he controlled, Singer bribed test proctors and hired Mark Riddell, who was director of test preparation at a well-known Florida sports academy, to take tests for prospective students. But the activity allegedly went further: Prosecutors say Singer persuaded a USC assistant athletic director, a Yale soccer coach and a Georgetown tennis coach to fabricate athletic profiles for clients’ children so they could be admitted as recruits — even if they did not play the sports for which they were recruited. Prosecutors say all three coaches fabricated the profiles in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes.
According to the criminal complaint, Giannulli, Loughlin’s husband, emailed Singer telling him he was concerned about his daughter’s college prospects and wanted to ensure “we have a road map for success as it relates to [our daughter] and getting her into a school other than ASU!” At Singer’s instruction, the couple had their daughter pose on a rowing machine for a photo used to create her fraudulent athletic profile. Singer then paid an athletic department official to create the profile. They repeated the process for their younger daughter, and both young women were admitted to USC.
Huffman, who starred in the series “Desperate Housewives,” allegedly schemed with Singer to hire Riddell to take the exam for her daughter, paying $15,000 to the charity. In tax forms, Singer wrote the charity served underprivileged children.
The scandal sent shock waves through the world of higher education. The college admissions process has long been criticized as favoring wealthy students by tipping the scale in favor of the children of alumni, high-figure donors and athletes who participate in sports more prevalent in affluent communities.
The schools in the scandal have pledged to review their admissions processes to ensure that recruited athletes are carefully vetted. Yale and USC have rescinded offers of admission to students implicated in the scandal.
Balingit reported from Washington.