Legally Speaking: Here’s the latest on the college bribery scandal

Apr 10, 2019, 10:05 AM

Parenting is a tough job and there is no one way to do it. Some parents subscribe to the “helicopter school of thought” and others are more free range — both have their advantages and disadvantages. Our government gives us freedom to parent our children as we wish and do things for them — with one caveat, it has to be legal.

This is where several celebrities — including Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin — coaches and “economically advantaged parents” — one with Arizona ties — went wrong with Operation Varsity Blues (great movie, by the way), the recent college admission scandal, and some ended up pleading guilty to charges of fraud and bribery.

A Massachusetts Department of Justice press release explained 13 parents, including Huffman, pleaded guilty in Operation Varsity Blues to “using bribery and other forms of fraud to facilitate their children’s admission to selective colleges and universities.”

Here are the basics of what happened in this scam. There were two different situations uncovered during the investigation.

The first scam had the guilty parents hiring William Rick Singer to help their kids get higher scores on the ACT and/or SAT.  The parents first had to prove to the ACT/SAT administrators their child had a learning disability and needed additional time to take the exams or needed to take it in a different location. In order to prove this the parents had to obtain medical evidence of the disability. Once they had the doctor’s note or records, they submitted it to the exam administrators who then approved the extra time or different location. Singer was in charge of the administering of the exams in these situations. The student showed up to take the test and a third party would sit with them and would either: Give them the answers, take the exam for them or switch the exam answer sheets after it was turned in. Magically, the student would receive high scores on the exams.

The second scam had to do with athletics. Singer or his team would create an athletic identity for the kid so they could get in the school of their choice as an athlete. Most schools set aside a certain number of admission spots for each athletic team it has. Those spots can allow the coach and athletic department to recommend the admission of athletes who may not be able to get into the school without the sport. Parents paid Singer to create a resume with athletic experience in a particular sport, fabricate pictures of the kid playing the sport and making up various awards and accomplishments. That information was provided to the coach – who was in on the scam and getting paid for it – who would then recommend the admission of the student.

Parents paid $30,000 to $600,000 for their kid to get into the school of their choice. As if the above wasn’t dicey enough, here is where it gets really idiotic. The payments the parents made to Singer were made to his “for-profit” college admissions company, but it was pretending to be a “non-profit.” As such, the parents could claim the payments as a charitable contribution on their taxes and receive the deduction. Yep, you got it — tax fraud. It may be one thing to lie to the ACT/SAT administrators and school admissions offices, but it is an entirely different game when you lie to the IRS.

They were caught, 13 so far have pleaded guilty and will live the rest of their lives as convicted felons. Fraud and bribery. Lying to the doctors, lying to the exam committees, lying to the schools, possibly lying to the IRS and bribing coaches. All these lies hurt the universities/schools and the general public, not to mention those students that had the legitimate scores and numbers to get in.

So this brings up some ethical or moral things to think about it. No doubt you have heard stories where a parent graciously donates thousands or millions of dollars to a school and magically their children are accepted into the program. I have been asked if this is really any different than what Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman did for their children. The answer is yes, one is legal and one is not. “But Monica, isn’t this bribery?” Yes, in a sense, but it is legal bribery.

There has also been the discussion about whether their actions are any different than parents hiring a tutor or a private coach. The argument is that parents are using advantages and money to get their child ahead. Yes, that is true. In all these situations the parents are using their money and influence to help their kids; however, once again, all these are legal except what was done in Operation Varsity Blues. Whether you agree with the morality or not, cheating is unlawful.

#LegallySpeaking, I can condemn these parents and others for breaking the law and say, “Shame on you.” As a parent, I can say I would never do what they did but I can understand wanting to do everything possible to help your children. Did these parents go to this extreme to help their children or to help their own reputation and ego? That is a question only they can answer.

The parents set a horrible example for their children. It is done — there is no going back. However, what they do now can make a bigger impact on their kids. These parents have the opportunity to take responsibility and to show their children — and the world — that when you make a mistake you take accountability for it and handle it like an adult.

#LegallySpeaking, will the parents go to jail? They could, although I doubt it. They are not a danger to society, they are not at risk for offending again and do we really want them to take the spaces of those who are a danger to society? No. I propose they be sentenced to 100-plus hours of community service for every $1,000 they spent, helping others get into college legally.

Monica Lindstrom

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Legally Speaking: Here’s the latest on the college bribery scandal