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Operation Varsity Blues Revisited

Analyzing Motives for Behavior 

What motivates a parent to bribe key people to get their kid admitted to a prestigious university?  That is the ethical question of “Operation Varsity Blues.”

In March 2019, the story broke of an alarming fraudulent scheme by parents to pay off middleman, William “Rick” Singer, and athletic coaches to give favored treatment to the children of rich and well-connected people.

Singer, CEO of a college admissions prep company, The Key, took in large amounts of money and laundered them as contributions to a foundation he controlled, Key Worldwide Foundation, which only pretended to help underprivileged students. Using Singer’s connections, the parents bribed coaches and administrators at some of the most prestigious institutions in the U.S.

Singer helped parents craft fake documentation to allow students to be admitted as recruited athletes even though they never participated in a sport, and he developed an elaborate system to help students cheat on their college entrance exams. He then paid coaches and administrators to look the other way.

Singer pled guilty to four felony counts, admitting he accepting some $25 million in bribes to rig the admissions process in what he described as a "side door" into college.

The Department of Justice charged 55 parents, coaches, and administrators with fraud that enabled children of wealthy parents to gain admission to college they were not qualified to attend. These included Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, USC, and the University of Texas at Austin. Jailhouse

When the story first broke all attention was on two Hollywood actresses Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman. At her sentencing, Huffman was very contrite saying “I am in full acceptance of my guilt – deep regret and shame.” She also said her daughter had no idea of the scheme. She was sentenced to two weeks in prison.

Laughlin was convicted of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. She was sentenced to two months in prison, a $150,000 fine, two years of supervised released, and 100 hours of community service.

Laughlin’s husband, Giannulli, was convicted of paying $500,000 in bribes to facilitate his children’s acceptance to USC. He earlier had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud.

In her remarks at sentencing, Laughlin owned up to what she did. She said, “I made an awful decision. I went along with a plan to give my daughters an unfair advantage in the college admissions process. I now understand that my decision helped exacerbate existing inequalities in society generally and the higher education system more specifically.”

In other words, Laughlin used the utilitarian method of ethical reasoning by weighing the benefits of getting her kids into a prestigious college rather than the potential costs of an illegal act, jail time, and hit to her reputation.

In another case, California investor Todd Blake and his wife, Diane, pled guilty admitting they paid $250,000 to get their daughter into the University of Southern California as a purported volleyball recruit even though she didn’t play volleyball in any organized way.

At USC, athletic director Donna Heinel and men’s and women’s water polo coach Jovan Vavic were fired after allegedly receiving bribes totaling more than $1.3 million and $250,000, respectively, to help parents take advantage of relaxed admissions standards for athletes at USC even though their kids were not being recruited as athletes.

In one audacious scheme, Singer bribed test administrators in Houston and Los Angeles to allow Mark Riddell, a very bright individual, to secretly take the ACT and SAT tests in place of the children of the parents that Singer represented. He scored 35 out of 36 on the ACT, which put him in about the 99th percentile of ACT takers.

Some of the students were expelled. Others had their admissions revoked. Some of the coaches have been fired. They faced charges – athletic coaches who were involved in misrepresenting people as being recruits.

Of the 55 people charged only a handful are still fighting the charges. The first trial was scheduled to begin in October 2020 but has been delayed due to COVID-19. It is expected to begin in January 2021 at the earliest.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 25, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter .