Ex-Georgetown tennis coach indicted in admissions cheating scandal

Georgetown University’s former tennis coach is among those indicted on a charge of racketeering conspiracy as part of a sweeping series of allegations of college admissions bribery and cheating.

Gordon Ernst was the head men’s and women’s coach at Georgetown University for 12 seasons, leaving in 2018 to coach the women’s team at the University of Rhode Island.

Charging documents made public Tuesday said that William Singer, who pleaded guilty later in the day to a variety of charges, paid a total of more than $2.7 million in bribes between 2012 and 2018 to “a Georgetown tennis coach” in order to designate about 12 applicants as Georgetown tennis recruits, “thereby facilitating their admission to the university.”

In a letter to the Georgetown community later Tuesday, vice president and general counsel Lisa Brown, and vice president and senior adviser to the president Erik Smulson, said Ernst had been put on leave in December 2017 “after the Office of Undergraduate Admissions identified irregularities in his recruitment practices and the university initiated an internal investigation.”

That investigation found that Ernst “had violated university rules concerning admissions, and he separated from the university in 2018.”

The university didn’t know about any alleged bribery until the U.S. Attorney’s Office contacted them, the two wrote, adding that the university “fully cooperated” and federal prosecutors “identified Georgetown as a victim in the criminal case.”

Beginning last year, the letter said, the athletics department and admissions office performed audits “to determine whether any recruited student-athletes are not on the roster of the sport for which they were recruited.”

“Mr. Ernst’s alleged actions are shocking, highly antithetical to our values, and violate numerous university policies and ethical standards,” the letter added.

The University of Rhode Island said Tuesday afternoon that it had placed Ernst on administrative leave, adding that “he has not been involved in the recruitment of any current players nor in the signing of any new recruits.”

Prosecutors said in a news conference Tuesday that parents nationwide paid Singer, who ran the consulting service The Edge College and Career Network (also known as The Key), a total of $25 million between 2012 and 2018 for a variety of services, disguising the payments as donations to Singer’s nonprofit charitable organization, the Key Worldwide Foundation.

Singer would then use the money for a variety of purposes — generally cheating on SATs and ACTs, and falsifying athletic records — to get the parents’ children into elite schools.

The Georgetown case

A charging document alleges that an applicant to Georgetown in 2015 indicated that she was ranked in the top 50 in the United States Tennis Association’s Junior Girls rankings for her sophomore through senior years of high school, and made the USTA All-Academic team in her last two years. The document says USTA records show she played no tournaments in high school.

According to charging documents, the applicant sent Ernst an email in August 2015, which was actually written by Singer, saying, “I have been really successful this summer playing tennis around the country. I am looking forward to having a chance to be part of the Georgetown tennis team and make a positive contribution to your team’s success.”

Ernst forwarded it to an admissions officer the next day with the note, “Potential spot,” the documents said.

Singer then rewrote the applicant’s admissions essay to add, ““[B]eing a part of Georgetown women’s tennis team has always been a dream of mine. For years, I have spent three-four hours a day grinding out on and off court workouts with the hopes of becoming successful enough to play college tennis, especially at Georgetown. What is most amazing is how quickly I connected with Coach Ernst. He spent time with me while on campus and at several tournaments I played in.”

In November 2015, the girl received a letter from Georgetown saying her admission was “likely” after an initial review “at the request of Mr. Gordie Ernst, tennis coach.”

A few months later, the family sent a check for $400,000 to Singer’s foundation. The documents said one of Singer’s co-defendants had also taken the ACT for the daughter.

In October of last year, Singer called the student’s mother, saying that his foundation was being audited and wanting to “make sure that you and I are on the same page. In case they were to call.”

He also said, “I’m not gonna tell the IRS that, you know, (his accomplice) took the test for (the student) or that … you know we paid Gordie to help her get into Georgetown, right?”

Ernst received $700,000 from the Key Worldwide Foundation between September 2015 and August 2016, the indictment reads.

The indictment naming Ernst also gives an alleged example from 2015: In August of that year, an applicant to Georgetown forwarded to Ernst an email that Singer had written for him, with false claims that the applicant was a competitive tennis player.

A couple of days later, Ernst allegedly wrote to an admissions officer to “confirm my usage of three spots” for competitive tennis players. All three spots, the indictment says, went to Singer’s clients, including the applicant with the false claim. It’s not clear whether this indictment is referring to the same case.

50 charged

Around 50 people — coaches, test administrators and parents — nationwide have been named in indictments so far.

Singer’s activities included paying people to take tests for students or correcting their answers afterward. Singer would advise parents to get their children diagnosed with learning disabilities so that they could have extra time to take standardized tests, including the SAT and ACT, and they could take them alone, with proctors Singer had bribed.

Singer also arranged fake athletic profiles for students in order to enhance their value to universities, in some cases taking photos of students playing sports they didn’t really play, and Photoshopping children’s faces into photos of athletes.

Parents then wrote letters falsely claiming that no goods or services were exchanged, which also allowed them to take tax write-offs for their payments, which prosecutors said ranged from $100,000 to $6.5 million, though most payments ranged from $250,000 to $400,000.

Among the indicted include three people who organized the alleged scam; two SAT/ACT exam administrators; one exam proctor; one college administrator; nine coaches, and 33 parents.

In one case, a former USC women’s soccer coach and a consultant allegedly worked together in 2017 to help a client’s child get into Yale in exchange for $1.2 million from the family. A false athletic profile created for the student said she played competitive soccer and had been on China’s junior national development team.

The profile was sent to the coach of the Yale women’s soccer team and the student was accepted. Prosecutors said the Yale coach, Rudolph Meredith, received $400,000 from the consulting company after the student was accepted, even though he knew the student did not play competitive soccer.

Meredith is also named in an indictment as having solicited a bribe directly from a parent.

‘Wealth and privilege’

U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling described the parents as comprising “a catalog of wealth and privilege.”

Parents charged include actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, along with Loughlin’s fashion-designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli; 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.

All of the parents “knowingly conspired with Singer,” Lelling said. “This case is about the widening corruption in elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud. … For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, hardworking, talented student was rejected.”

Loughlin appeared in the ABC sitcom “Full House,” and Huffman starred in ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” Both were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud in indictments unsealed Tuesday in federal court in Boston.

Court documents say Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation.

Court papers say a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained the scam to them. The cooperator told investigators that Huffman and Macy “agreed to the plan.” Macy has not been charged; authorities haven’t said why.

‘Your donation is gonna be 50’

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, prosecutors released a partial transcript of a phone call Singer had with a parent.

“OK, so … what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school,” Singer said. ” … My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me, ‘here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done.”

He told another parent, “The number on the testing is $75,000. OK? It’s $75,000 to get any test scores you would like to get on the SAT or ACT.” He added that the parent needed for his daughter “to be stupid” when she was tested for a learning disability.

In another case, Singer and a parent allegedly discussed a plan in July 2018 for her son to fly to Houston to take the ACT, but for one of the defendants to actually take it for him, unbeknownst to the student.

Later, the parent says her son has been diagnosed with tonsillitis and has been advised against travel. She suggests her son take the test at home — “so that he would believe he had taken the test,” prosecutors said — while Singer’s accomplice takes the test for him in Houston.

After the details are arranged, Singer says, “We are looking for … we are trying to get ourselves like 34 on the ACT?” The parent agrees.

“OK, so your donation is gonna be 50,” Singer says. “It’ll end up being through our foundation.”

“OK,” the parent says. She later sent Singer a sample of her son’s handwriting.

Guilty pleas

Singer will plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer will also plead guilty Tuesday.

No students have been charged, and authorities said many children didn’t know about their parents’ activities.

In one of the charging documents, Singer told a parent over the phone, “They’re all kids that wouldn’t have perform[ed] as well, and then they did really well, and … the kids will call me and say, ‘Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do better even.’ Right? And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.”

Investigators said they learned about the alleged scam from a witness in an unrelated investigation. They added that the universities for the most part didn’t know about Singer’s operation.

The indicted coaches were head and assistant coaches in sports including tennis, soccer, sailing, water polo and volleyball.

Tuesday afternoon, Stanford said it had fired Vandemoer, and Wake Forest University said it suspended head volleyball coach Bill Ferguson.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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