BRADENTON, Fla. (FOX 13) - Celebrities, wealthy parents, and an administrator at an academy in Bradenton have all been accused of bribing, lying, and laundering money as part of an elaborate scheme to get students from rich families into elite universities.
The allegations are being made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after an investigation - called Operation Varsity Blues - resulted in about 50 arrests.
An administrator at IMG Academy in Bradenton is accused of going to great lengths - for the past eight years - to help students cheat on college entrance exams like the ACT and SAT.
The FBI said Mark Riddell, IMG Academy's director of college entrance exam preparation, would bribe SAT and ACT exam administrators to let him either take the tests for his client's children or change the answers. On one instance, the 13-page indictment says Riddell sat next to a test-taker while they filled in answers.
Riddell allegedly made more than $200,000 in the scheme.
IMG Academy put out a tweet Tuesday night saying it was "made aware of the charges against Mark Riddell," adding he was "suspended indefinitely as we investigate this matter."
Riddell's photo and biography were removed from the school's website.
"He did not have inside information about the correct answers, he was just smart enough to get a near-perfect score on demand, or to calibrate the score Singer would discuss with his clients what kind of score they're looking for," Lelling said.
In a news conference Tuesday, the FBI and the U.S. attorney in Boston, Andrew Lelling laid out how Riddell played a key role in the scheme - and in the 10-month investigation that brought down its apparent mastermind.
"We're here today to announce charges in the largest college admission scam every prosecuted by the Department of Justice," The said in a news conference. "The FBI uncovered what we believe is a rigged system, robbing students all over the country of their right of a fair shot at getting into some of the elite universities in this country."
The biggest names connected are actresses Felicity Huffman, from shows like “Desperate Housewives,” and Lori Loughlin, from “Full House.”
And according to the DOJ, the man at the top of the operation, William Richard Singer has been at this since 2011, until just last year.
He’s the founder of a college prep business called The Key. Prosecutors say he set up a sham non-profit, to which wealthy parents would make large donations in exchange for bribes to exam administrators, university employees, athletic coaches, and others. Those bribes would then turn into acceptance letters at schools like Yale, Georgetown, and Stanford, the FBI said.
Investigators say Singer also bribed coaches at elite universities to fraudulently accept applicants onto their teams to make sure those students got into those schools.
Singer pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court.
"What Singer was good at doing was calibrating the fake credentials to appear realistic and not so impressive as to invite suspicion or additional scrutiny," Lelling explained.
Investigators say Singer worked with Riddell on students' entrance exams. Although his day job is in Bradenton, federal prosecutors say Riddell followed the money. They say he would travel to other states when his services were needed.
Text messages from singer to his customers describe Riddell as the best in the business, able to “nail a score. He's that good.”
According to federal investigators, one parent even sent Riddell a writing example so he could copy her son's handwriting.
In the end, investigators say the real victims here are hard-working, honest students and their families.
"We believe everyone charged here today had a role in fostering a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for students trying to get into these schools the right way," Lelling added.
For students, parents, and legitimate college prep companies who work hard on the admittance process, the revelations are a slap in the face.
I was appalled because our students work so hard and we work so hard at getting their scores up,” said Huntington Learning Center of Tampa employee Diane Rottensteiner. “Perhaps this is a good lesson for everyone that you have to earn things in life, and an education is to help you to make you a better person.”
Federal prosecutors say schools are not seen as co-conspirators in this investigation.
Several universities and like Yale and the University of Texas have released statements saying they were victims of this bribery scheme. No students were charged because authorities believe most of the teenagers were unaware of what was going on.