Federal prosecutors charged dozens of people across the country Tuesday with paying bribes to get their children into elite universities — including celebrities, wealthy business people and an investor in a controversial Little Haiti redevelopment project.
Snared in the investigation were Robert Zangrillo, the CEO of Miami-based investment firm Dragon Global; Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; and Mark Riddell, the director of college entrance exam preparation at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Zangrillo was one of 33 parents — including Huffman and Loughlin — accused on Tuesday morning of cheating on college exams and posing their children as athletic recruits to gain admission at prestigious schools such as USC, Yale and Stanford. Dragon Global is one of the main investors in the controversial Magic City Innovation District project in Little Haiti.
Riddell was charged with taking SAT and ACT exams in the place of students and correcting students’ exams for money. He is alleged to have done this for students from 14 families, including for Huffman’s daughter. Late Tuesday, Riddell’s employer, the Bradenton-based IMG Academy, said, “Riddell has been suspended indefinitely as we investigate this matter.”
A total of 50 people were charged. Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes.
“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the results of an investigation code-named Operation Varsity Blues. Dozens, including Huffman, were arrested by midday.
Joseph Bonavolonta, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Boston field office, said deserving students were screwed out of spots at universities because their positions were sold to the highest bidder. The 33 parents charged, including Zangrillo, got their kids “the best education money could buy, literally,” he said.
At least nine of the coaches charged worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.
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Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to falsely make their children look like star athletes to boost their chances of getting into college. The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students, and paid off insiders at testing centers to alter students’ scores.
Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children’s admission, officials said.
“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.
Cash for grades
The charges against Zangrillo come at a critical time for the $1 billion Magic City Innovation District, which has faced pushback from Little Haiti residents and caused contentious debate among government officials.
The project comes before a City Commission vote on Thursday to give the massive Magic City Innovation District project initial approval. That vote was delayed two weeks at the end of a tense hearing that sparked frustration from elected officials and the project’s opponents and supporters.
“We are unaware of any specifics or details regarding Mr. Zangrillo’s personal life or his daughter’s college application,” said Danielle Alvarez, a spokesperson for the Magic City Innovation District. “Mr. Zangrillo has a minority interest in the development and is not involved in the day-to-day operations. As a partnership we have always conducted ourselves with integrity and transparency.”
According to the complaint filed in the Southern District of Florida on Tuesday, Zangrillo paid $50,000 to USC Women’s Athletics in 2018 for his daughter Amber Zangrillo to be recruited by the crew team, even though she had never rowed competitively.
Zangrillo made another payment of $200,000 to the Key Worldwide Foundation, a non-profit college prep business whose CEO is William Rick Singer. That group arranged for someone to secretly take classes on behalf of Amber to improve her grade point average.
USC had denied Amber’s college application in 2017.
On her Facebook page, Amber posted on July 2018 that she had started school at USC.
In a separate complaint, the Department of Justice said IMG Academy’s Riddell conspired with Key Foundation’s Singer from 2011 to February 2019 to commit mail fraud by bribing test administrators. Documents appear to identify Riddell as a cooperating witness who agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He has been cooperating with the government in its investigation since February.
Singer used the facade of his charitable organization to conceal payments to Riddell, who was paid $10,000 per test. Riddell often flew to Los Angeles, Houston and San Francisco to proctor exams for students, which he would then correct, or secretly take the tests for the students.
In one case, he sat next to two students and fed them answers — making sure they had different answers as to not raise suspicions of cheating — and even “gloating” that they had gotten away with it.
IMG Academy is a springboard for elite high school athletes to Division I college athletic programs.
In one example from June 2018, Singer paid Riddell to secretly correct the answers on the ACT exam taken in Houston, Texas, according to the complaint. But when the student fell ill and couldn’t travel to Houston, Riddell agreed to take the exam in place of the student, according to documents.
Singer provided Riddell with an example of the student’s handwriting on July 13, 2018, and Riddell flew from Tampa to Houston to take the test that same day. A test administrator provided the ACT exam to Riddell, who completed the exam in his hotel room. Riddell later called Singer and predicted he would score a 35 out of 36 on the ACT exam before flying home to Tampa.
According to documents, Singer then mailed a check to the test administrator for $5,000 and sent Riddell a check for $10,000 drawn from one of the charitable accounts. Riddell scored a 35 on the exam, and the student’s parent wired $35,000 to one of the charitable accounts as a partial payment to the fee of $50,000.
The Miami Herald has reached out to IMG Academy for comment but has not received an answer.
According to the school’s website, Riddell is an IMG Academy alumnus who attended Harvard University and played Division I NCAA tennis. He began working at the school in 2006.
Riddell is credited with assisting “thousands of students in gaining admission to top American universities such as Stanford, Duke, Columbia, Dartmouth, University of Chicago, and many other notable institutions” as well as creating the test preparation program at IMG Academy.
“His knowledge of test preparation, tutoring prowess, athletic background, and experience as a former IMG Academy student make him an important mentor for IMG Academy students,” the website read. Riddell’s page has since disappeared from the IMG Academy website.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Harvard as one of the colleges impacted by the investigation.
Herald staff writers David Smiley and Joey Flechas contributed to this report. This report was also augmented by reporting from the Associated Press.