UPDATED: March 14, 2019 at 5:59 p.m.
Five Harvard alumni were arrested and charged for conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in a nationwide scheme to fraudulently secure admission for their children to top universities through millions of dollars in bribes and falsified standardized test answers.
Another alumnus, who allegedly took standardized tests like the SAT and ACT in place of college applicants, was charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
The case — the largest admissions scam ever prosecuted by the United States Department of Justice — has once again focused attention on the admissions practices of the nation’s most selective universities. The seven Harvard affiliates under indictment are part of a group of 50 individuals — including actresses Lori A. Loughlin and Felicity K. Huffman and multiple corporate executives — who face charges in connection with the investigation.
As part of the alleged cheating operation, wealthy parents paid a college consulting company millions to bribe varsity sports coaches to falsely classify their children as athletic recruits, vastly increasing the prospective students’ chances of admission. Though athletic directors and coaches at other prominent universities — including Yale and Stanford University — are facing charges for participating in the scheme, Harvard staff appear not to have communicated with the parents now under indictment.
College graduates Gregory O. Colburn ’79 and Stephen P. Semprevivo ’88; Business School degree-holders Douglas M. Hodge and John B. Wilson; and Law School alumna Elisabeth Kimmel are five of the 33 parents who are accused of using bribes to secure spots at top universities for their children. None of the individuals responded to requests for comment for this story.
Mark E. Riddell ’04, the former director of exam preparation at IMG Academy in Florida, allegedly tampered with students’ standardized test answers and, in at least one instance, received an exam from a compromised test administrator and took it himself. He is cooperating with investigators and has agreed to plead guilty to all charges against him, according to prosecutors.
“He didn't have inside information about the answers, he was just smart enough to get a near perfect score on demand or to calibrate the score," the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, said of Riddell.
Riddell said in a statement released by his lawyers on Wednesday that he is “profoundly sorry” for the “damage” and “grief” he caused.
At least two parents — including Wilson — allegedly told the college consultant company at the center of the cheating scheme that they wanted their children admitted to Harvard, according to the affidavit. Wilson allegedly funnelled at least $500,000 to an account he believed would be used to pay off a “senior women’s administrator” at the University to designate his daughter as an athletic recruit.
“So I got the senior women’s administrator at Harvard is going to give us a spot. What we have to do is we’ll have to give her $500,000,” an informant from the consulting company told Wilson. “That money, obviously, like the others, will go through my foundation and then I will fund the senior women’s administrator at Harvard.”
Unbeknownst to Wilson, though, that so-called administrator was “fictitious,” and the Massachusetts account to which he wired the money was opened at the direction of federal investigators.
Jane Buckingham, who allegedly paid tens of thousands of dollars to have Riddell take the ACT in her son’s place, likened the scheme to “cur[ing] cancer.”
“I know this is craziness, I know it is,” Buckingham said. “But, you know, peace in the Middle East. You know, Harvard, the rest of it. I have faith in you.”
Tuesday’s indictment also shone a spotlight on longstanding attempts by wealthy parents to increase their children’s admissions chances at prominent universities.
The ongoing lawsuit against Harvard alleging it discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process has revealed that the College’s admissions office maintains a secretive “Dean’s List” and “Director’s List” – comprised of donors’ relatives and others with special connections to the University. The lists boast an average acceptance rate of 42.2 percent in recent years, more than nine times the overall acceptance rate for the Class of 2022.
In addition, court filings released over the summer revealed that members of the University Development Office, which solicits alumni donations, regularly meet with Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. Private emails among administrators unveiled during the three-week trial brought to light a number of cases in which Harvard favors those who fund it, tying Harvard hopefuls to monumental donations, buildings, and art collections.
The alleged cheating conspiracy unsealed by federal investigators on Tuesday marks at least the second time in less than six months that top universities have been forced to reckon with allegations that students submitted falsified application materials in order to gain admission.
In November 2018, the New York Times published an investigative report detailing allegations of student abuse and rampant application fraud at T.M. Landry College Preparatory School, a Louisiana high school famous for getting underprivileged youth into Ivy League colleges and other highly selective universities, including Harvard.
Correction: March 15, 2019
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Mark Riddell graduated from the College in 2006 instead of 2004.
Correction: March 14, 2019
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Agustin F. C. Huneeus Sr. was charged in the scandal. In fact, it was his son, Agustin F. C. Huneeus Jr., who was charged. Huneeus Jr. is not a Harvard affiliate.