Dozen college-scam defendants plead not guilty, while test taker makes deal

A dozen people charged in the U.S. college-admissions scandal pleaded not guilty Monday, while nearly two dozen parents swept up in the government’s sting await court appearances scheduled for Friday.

Among six former college coaches who appeared in federal court in Boston were Gordon Ernst, who was head tennis coach at Georgetown University; William Ferguson, who coached women’s volleyball at Wake Forest University; Jovan Vavic, former water polo coach at the University of Southern California; and Jorge Salcedo, who was head coach of men’s soccer at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Along with an athletic director, the head of a tennis academy, two test administrators and two employees of the admitted ringleader’s college consultancy, they are accused of taking part in a brazen national scheme in which wealthy parents got their children into elite schools by cheating.

The alleged plot: to bribe college coaches, pay for a surrogate to take the ACT or SAT entrance exam for a student, or both. The dozen, charged with racketeering conspiracy, are among 50 people accused of participating in the scheme, which the Justice Department called the biggest college admissions racket it has ever prosecuted.

A total of 33 parents, from top corporate executives to the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, allegedly paid William Rick Singer, the college consultant, a total of $25 million to bribe the coaches and exam personnel to get their children into schools including Yale and Stanford, as well as Georgetown, USC, UCLA and Wake Forest.

They face as many as 20 years in prison if convicted.  

Magistrate Judge Page Kelley said she would impose the same conditions of release for all of the defendants. She reminded them that they mustn’t violate any state or federal laws while on release.

“That includes possession or use of marijuana, because that’s a violation of federal law,” the judge advised.

Outside the courthouse, Shaun Clarke, an attorney for Ferguson, said his client will fight to clear his name.

“I can’t speak to what happened at any other school, but no one was admitted at Wake Forest who didn’t earn it as a student and as an athlete,” Clarke said. “Bill Ferguson does not belong in this indictment.”

Singer operated Edge College & Career Network, a Newport Beach, California, college admissions consultancy, and Key Worldwide Foundation, a not-for-profit he established through which he funneled the bribes, according to prosecutors. He agreed to cooperate with the U.S., secretly recording his conversations with parents, and pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges on March 12, the day the news of the scam broke.

For the test-taking part of the plot as prosecutors described it, parents paid between $15,000 and $75,000 per test to Singer, structuring their payments as donations to the not-for-profit. His test administration accomplices took it from there.

The test-taking stand-in, Harvard grad Mark Riddell, was charged with conspiracy and money laundering. He has struck a plea deal with prosecutors under which he could serve on the low end of 33 to 41 months in prison and forfeit $239,449. A judge could still sentence Riddell, 36, to as many as 20 years in prison. He is scheduled to plead guilty on April 12.

For the sports part, the parents are alleged to have paid Singer far greater sums to bribe the college coaches. According to the government, Singer helped fabricate profiles of his clients’ children, often digitally placing their heads on stock sports images. The coaches allegedly reserved coveted slots on their team for the children, some of whom had little or no athletic prowess.

Also arraigned Monday were Igor Dvorskiy and Niki Williams, test administrators; Steven Masera and Mikaela Sanford, employees of Edge College & Career Network, Singer’s consultancy; Martin Fox, president of a private tennis academy; and three former USC employees: Laura Janke, former assistant coach of women’s soccer, Ali Khoroshahin, who was head coach of women’s soccer, and Donna Heinel, a former senior associate athletic director.

At least 21 of the parents are scheduled to make an initial appearance in court in Boston on Friday. All but one of the parents were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud in a criminal complaint rather than a formal indictment. The charge also carries up to 20 years in prison, but under federal sentencing guidelines, lawyers say, they are unlikely to serve much if any time in jail.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}