An FBI investigation dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” relied on wiretapped conversations to expose dozens of wealthy parents — including famous actresses and wealthy executives — who allegedly scammed their kids into elite colleges like USC, Yale, and Georgetown University.
The conversations, many of which border on the absurd, show the scheme’s fixer and parents brainstorming how to pass off an otherwise unathletic child as a star — or cheat on admissions tests. Several parents even had “fake profiles” created for sports their kids didn’t play — some with photoshopped images of their kids' faces on other athletes’ bodies.
Fifty individuals — including “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman and “Full House” star Lori Loughlin — were charged in the high-stakes scam, according to federal documents unsealed Tuesday. Many face felony charges of racketeering and mail fraud.
Between 2011 and 2018, the fixer, identified as CW-1 in the documents, received approximately $25 million from parents to bribe coaches and administrative officers at colleges. In other instances, the parents also allegedly paid for imposters to take admissions tests.
After learning the IRS had started an audit of CW-1’s finances, he or she contacted several of the parents involved in the alleged scam to make sure that “everyone was on the same page.” The cover story: the bribe money was meant to “help underserved kids.”
Here are some particularly juicy snippets from the wiretapped conversations:
Elizabeth Henriquez, wife of Manuel Henriquez, CEO of Hercules Capital in Palo Alto, California, just wanted to help “underserved kids”
CW-1: So I just want to make sure that you and I are on the same page--
E. HENRIQUEZ: Okay.
CW-1: --in case they were to call.
E. HENRIQUEZ: So what’s your story?
CW-1: So my story is, essentially, that you gave your money to our foundation to help underserved kids.
E. HENRIQUEZ: You-- Of course.
E. HENRIQUEZ: Those kids have to go to school.
Agustin Huneeus, Jr, who owns vineyards including in Napa, California, worried about what other parents were doing
HUNEEUS: Is Bill McGLASHEN doing any of this shit? Is he just talking a clean game with me and helping his kid or not? ’Cause he makes me feel guilty.
HUNEEUS: Or are you just taking care of him in a way that he doesn’t know because you have other interests with him?
CW-1: No, no, let me-- not at all. Nothing to do with his-- I will say this
HUNEEUS: But he didn’t know-- his kid had no idea and he didn’t have any idea that you helped him on the ACT, or the test you took.
CW-1: ’Cause that was what he he asked for.
HUNEEUS: Bill McGLASHAN?
CW-1: Asked for [his son] not knowing.
William McGlashan, Jr., senior executive at a private equity firm in California, discussed creating a fake sports profile for his son
CW-1: I have to do a profile for him in a sport, which is fine, I’ll create it. You know, I just need him-- I’ll pick a sport and we’ll do a picture of him, or he can, we’ll put his face on the picture whatever. Just so that he plays whatever. I’ve already done that a million times. So--
McGLASHAN: Well, we have images of him in lacrosse. I don’t know if that matters.
CW-1: They don’t have a lacrosse team. But as long as I can see him doing something, that would be fine.
McGlashan said photoshopping his kid’s face onto a kicker would be “pretty funny”
CW-1: So, you know, essentially she [Heinel] told me when I get all the paperwork together, and I gotta create this profile pic. So what I’ll probably need, if you guys have any pictures of him playing multiple sports, or something where you can kind of see his face a little bit in action?
McGLASHAN: Umm. Hmm.
CW-1: It would be helpful because I will Photoshop him onto a kicker.
McGLASHAN: (laughs) Okay. Okay. Let me look through what I have. Pretty funny. The way the world works these days is unbelievable.
CW-1: It’s totally cra-- like, last year I had a boy who did the water polo, and when the dad sent me the picture, he was way too high out of the water. That nobody would believe that anybody could get that high.
CW-1: So I told that dad, I said, “What happened?” He said he was standing on the bottom! I said, “No no no no no.”
McGLASHAN: Yeah exactly. You gotta be swimming. Exactly.
Devin Sloane, CEO of an LA-based provider of drinking water and wastewater systems, was outraged that admissions counselors questioned whether his son was on a water polo team that didn’t exist
CW-1: They know about USC. One of the counselors questioned [your son] getting in as Water Polo player this week. My folks at [U]SC called me so we could restate [your son] playing in Italy as [his high school] does not have a team.
Sloane: The more I think about this, it is outrageous! They have no business or legal right considering all the students privacy issues to be calling and challenging/question [my son’s]’s application.
Bruce Isackson, president of a real estate development firm in California, worried about the scheme being exposed
B. ISACKSON: Oh, yeah. I’m just thinking, oh my God, because you’re thinking, does this roll into something where, you know, if they get into the meat and potatoes, is this gonna be this-- be the front page story with everyone from Kleiner Perkins do whatever, getting these kids into school, and--
CW-1: Well, the, the person who’d be on the front page--
B. ISACKSON: Well, I, I-- But if-- but they, they --
B. ISACKSON: --went the meat and potatoes of it, which a-- which a guy would love to have is, it’s so hard for these kids to get into college, and here’s-- look what-- look what’s going on behind the schemes, and then, you know, the, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities. Oh my God, it would just be-- Yeah. Ugh.
Elisabeth Kimmel, the owner and president of Midwest Television, and her unnamed spouse failed to tell their son that he was on the track team
SPOUSE: So [my son] and I just got back from [U]SC Orientation. It went great. The only kind of glitch was, and I-- he didn’t-- [my son] didn’t tell me this at the time-- but yesterday when he went to meet with his advisor, he stayed after a little bit, and the-- apparently the advisor said something to the effect of, “Oh, so you’re a track athlete?” And [my son] said, “No.” ’Cause, so [my son] has no idea, and that’s what-- the way we want to keep it.
SPOUSE: So he said, “No, I’m not.” So she goes, “It has it down that you’re a track athlete.” And he said, “Well I’m not.” She goes, “Oh, okay, well I have to look into that.”
Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York, isn’t “worried about the moral issue.”
CAPLAN: Done. The other stuff (laughing)--
CW-1: That will be up to you guys, it doesn’t matter to me.
CAPLAN: Yeah, I, I hear ya. It’s just, to be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about the, if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished. So I, I just-- CW-1 It’s never happened before in twenty-some-odd years. The only way anything can happen is if she--
CAPLAN: Someone talks--
CW-1: Yeah, if she tells somebody.
Lori Loughlin was glad only the IRS — not USC — was looking into the alleged scam
CW-1: If you ever-- ever were to say anything.
LOUGHLIN: So we-- so we just-- so we just have to say we made a donation to your foundation and that’s it, end of story.
CW-1: That is correct.
CW-1: I just wanted to make sure I touched base because I didn’t want you--
CW-1: --to all of a sudden what-- like what’s this call coming from.
LOUGHLIN: Okay, yeah. Okay. Totally. All right. So-- so that’s it. So it’s-- it’s the IRS. It’s not anyone from USC, it’s the IRS.
CW-1: That is correct.
LOUGHLIN: Okay. Very good.
Cover image: Photo by: SMXRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2019 12/31/18 Lori Loughlin is seen in Los Angeles, CA.