Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were charged along with nearly 50 other people Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country, federal prosecutors said.
Authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the United States Justice Department.
"These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the $25 million bribery case, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, against 50 people in all.
The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions – sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents – and that privilege begets privilege.
At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance, or business, were among those charged in the investigation. Dozens, including Ms. Huffman, were arrested by midday.
The coaches 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.
Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to label their children recruited athletes to boost their chances of getting into college. The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams, 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," Mr. Lelling said.
Mr. Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, he said.
No students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the teenagers were not aware of the fraud.
Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo, and volleyball accepted bribes to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. That, in turn, boosted the students' chances of admission.
Among the parents charged were Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Connecticut, a co-chairman of an international law firm based in New York; Jane Buckingham, CEO of a boutique marketing company in Los Angeles; Gregory Abbott of New York, founder and chairman of a packaging company; and Manuel Henriquez, CEO of a finance company based in Palo Alto, California.
The bribes allegedly came through an admissions consulting company in Newport Beach, California. Authorities said parents paid William Singer, the founder of the Edge College & Career Network, approximately $25 million to get their children into college.
Prosecutors said Mr. Singer was scheduled to plead guilty to charges including racketeering conspiracy.
John Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford, was also expected to plead guilty Tuesday.
Colleges moved quickly to discipline the coaches accused of involvement. Stanford fired Mr. Vandemoer, UCLA suspended its soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach.
Several schools, including USC and Yale, said they were victims themselves of the scam. USC also said it is reviewing its admissions process to prevent further such abuses.
Ms. Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom "Full House," while Ms. Huffman starred in ABC's "Desperate Housewives." Both were charged with fraud and conspiracy.
Messages seeking comment from Ms. Huffman's representative were not immediately returned. A spokeswoman for Ms. Loughlin had no comment.
Ms. Loughlin and her husband allegedly gave $500,000 to have their two daughters labeled as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team, even though neither participated in the sport. Their 19-year-old daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, who has a popular YouTube channel, attends USC.
Court documents said Ms. Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the college entrance-exam cheating scam.
Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Ms. Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he "controlled" a testing center and could have somebody secretly change her daughter's answers. The person told investigators the couple agreed to the plan.
Mr. Macy was not charged; authorities did not say why.
He told Parade magazine in January that the college application process for their daughter was stressful. The couple's daughter, Sofia, is an aspiring actress who attends Los Angeles High School of the Arts.
"She's going to go to college. I'm the outlier in this thing. We're right now in the thick of college application time, which is so stressful," Mr. Macy said.
Prosecutors said parents involved in the scheme were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves, with extended time, to make it easier to pull off the tampering.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.