It’s a special time of year for college-bound high school seniors. They are deep in the college admissions process, taking the ACT and SAT and completing applications for admission to their desired institutions of higher learning. The thought of Junior becoming a college man warms a parent’s heart–or perhaps gives rise to cheating thoughts. While Junior is hard at work earning admission to college the old-fashioned way, Mom and/or Dad may be deep in legal trouble from trying to “help” Junior get in. Hello college admissions scandal!
The latest white collar criminals making the headlines are good old mom and dad. Make that good old RICH mom and dad. Thirty-three parents were busted as a result of Operation Varsity Blues. Their crimes? The fancy-schmanzy legal term is wire fraud, but for the average citizen what the parental units did was try to scam their offspring’s way into an elite university by bribery and false athletic credentials. OK, make that allegedly scam college entrance for their offspring for the 28 of the 33 parents who have not yet been tried or sentenced.
Haven’t heard of Operation Varsity Blues? Certainly you have heard of some of the high profile individuals arrested as a result of the investigation. Lori Laughlin of “Full House” and Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives” are the two most famous of the arrestees. Lori is fighting charges so she won’t have to go to the big house. Felicity followed up her TV role with a real life role as a “Desperate Parent.”
Why the need to scam a child’s way into college? Well, it wasn’t just ANY college. The colleges for which the scams were undertaken involved “elite” colleges such as Georgetown, Northwestern, Stanford, UCLA, and Yale to name a few. Noticeably absent from that list, I am proud to say, is any SEC school. Competition is so fierce to get into these “elite” schools that apparently people will do anything, legal or otherwise, to get in or to get their kids in.
What did these desperate parents do to ensure their offspring would go to the right school? They did something wrong. The first wrong step was getting hooked up with 58 year old Rick Singer, CEO of The Key, the world’s largest private life coaching and college counseling company. Singer, clearly old enough to know better, helped students from wealthy families gain admission to the right school by engaging in wrong behavior. He admits to unethically facilitating college admission for children in more than 750 families. His scheming dates back to 2011.
How did Singer manipulate the system? One scheme was to assist students in cheating on their ACT’s and SAT’s. These tests are the standardized tests widely used for U.S. undergraduate college admissions. In some instances, Singer arranged for a stand-in test taker for the student. Mark Riddel, a Harvard alumnus and a college admission exam prep director, took a number of exams in place of students whose parents had sought (or perhaps more accurately bought) Singer’s assistance. Wow, a Harvard grad whose mark on the world is to excel at cheating? Even if the student took the test himself, Singer could pay off someone to alter the scores, i.e., make them higher. Gregory and Marcia Abbott paid $125,000 to have their daughter’s college entrance exam scores changed. For their efforts they were awarded admission to prison for one month each.
Felicity Huffman was was charged with paying $15,000 to Singer to facilitate cheating for her daughter on the SAT. Amazingly, as a result of Singer’s efforts and that of a bribed test administrator, Huffman’s daughter made 400 points higher on the SAT than she had on the PSAT one year earlier. A proctor changed the daughter’s SAT answers after the test to achieve the higher than would be anticipated score.
Huffman plead guilty to the charges against her. She was sentenced to 14 days in prison, a $30,000 fine, 250 hours of community service, and one year’s probation. Judge Indira Talwani told the former Desperate Housewife turned Desperate Parent that “Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse this.” Huffman reports to prison on October 25th; thus, she’ll be behind bars on Halloween. Trying to treat her daughter to an undeserved admission to an elite school resulted in a bad trick for Huffman–admission to the big house.
A second wrong strategy pursued by Singer on his clients’ behalf was to bribe college coaches and athletic officials to say an applicant should be accepted because the student was a recruit for their sports team. In Lori Loughlin’s case, she and her fashion designer husband Massimo Guannulli allegedly paid bribes of $500,000 to have their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team. Of course, neither daughter rowed competitively or otherwise participated in crew. Details…minor details, right?
The most recently sentenced parent, 53 year old San Franciscan Agustin Huneeus, didn’t want to leave anything to chance. He decided to get his daughter’s ACT score fixed AND to try and bribe her way into acceptance as a fake water polo recruit. Because of his double-pronged scam, prosecutors sought an elevated sentence for Huneeus, who, prior to the scandal had owned and operated a family Napa wine business. As a result of this desperate parent’s poor decisions, he resigned his job and was sentenced to 5 months in prison. In addition, a $100,000 fine and 500 hours of community service were imposed.
Singer’s goal of helping students achieve admission to an elite college superficially seems to be a good one. Nevertheless, his goal turned into getting students into the college of their parent’s dreams. But the end, college admission, cannot justify the wrong means by which Singer sought to attain it. He slyly set up a nonprofit foundation, KWF, to serve as a front for laundering the money paid to him to get parents’ kids in by hook or crook–apparently mainly the latter, i.e., by a crook. Perhaps Singer should spend time now figuring how to get out instead of in–that’s out of jail where he will hopefully and deservedly end up.
As for the parents who sought to “help” their children in this way, I can only shake my head. What kind of “help” did they think breaking the law, cheating, and being deceitful could possibly be to their child? What kind of role model are they for their child? And, with all due respect to Judge Talwani, no “good” mother (or father for that matter) does these type things. A good parent raises his or her child to be all that he can be. The emphasis is on “all that he can be.” It’s not what he can be if the parent breaks the law and cheats to make sure his child gets to the top of the heap.
Were these actions even about the child? Maybe mom or dad was more concerned about themselves and how they would look if their child were successful. Mr. Huneeus admitted that his cheating for his daughter “was not about helping her, it was about how it would make me feel.” Sad. Shouldn’t parents be more concerned about their children than themselves? Apparently not today. We live in desperate times which for some call for desperate, i.e., illegal, measures.
Can a parent go too far in trying to “help” their child that they end up hurting them? Do you determine “help” by the actor’s intentions or the reality of the consequences? Is a prison sentence justified for these parents who broke the law trying to “help” their children?