(KGTV) - Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among 50 people charged in a nationwide conspiracy that allowed students to cheat on college entrance exams and eventually gain entry into prestigious schools such as the University of San Diego.
The U.S. attorney in Massachusetts said 33 parents -- including Huffman and Loughlin -- were charged. Nine NCAA Division I athletic coaches, a college administrator, two SAT/ACT exam administrators, an exam proctor were also charged as part of Operation Varsity Blues .
Huffman's husband, "Shameless" actor William H. Macy, was not indicted, authorities said.
Athletic coaches from Yale, Stanford, USC, Wake Forest and Georgetown, among others, are implicated in the case. The extensive case involved arrests in six states across the country, and accused the defendants of committing crimes between 2011 and 2019.
"The charges brought forth today are troubling and should be a concern for all of higher education," the NCAA said in a statement. "We are looking into these allegations to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated."
According to federal prosecutors, 38 of the defendants were taken into custody, seven were working to surrender to authorities and one person was being actively pursued.
The parents are accused of paying bribes of up to $6 million to get students into elite colleges such as Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, USC and USD, according to prosecutors.
USD released the following statement in response to the news:
The University of San Diego has been cooperating with the United States Department of Justice’s investigation involving an alleged criminal conspiracy to facilitate cheating on college entrance exams and admission into colleges and universities. We have no reason to believe that any members of our admissions team, our administration or staff, or our current coaching staff were aware of or involved in the alleged wrongdoing. We believe the federal government agrees with this assessment.
Federal prosecutors said the scheme had two major pieces. In the first part, parents allegedly paid a for-profit college prep organization -- Southern California-based The Key -- to cheat on the SAT or ACT entrance exams by having others take the tests on behalf of students or correct their answers. Secondly, the organization allegedly bribed college coaches to help admit the students into college as recruited athletes, regardless of their actual ability, prosecutors said.
The court documents also allege that some defendants created fake athletic profiles for students to make them appear to be successful athletes.
"This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud," Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said. "There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I'll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either … For every student admitted through fraud, an honest genuinely talented student was rejected."
Prosecutors said William Rick Singer, who ran The Key, was allegedly paid up to $25 million between 2011-2018 to help "wealthy parents" get their children into renowned colleges across the country.
“Parents generally paid Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 per test, typically structuring the payments as purported donations to [The Key Worldwide Foundation] that they wired or deposited into one of the KWF charitable accounts,” according to the indictment.
As laid out in the indictment, Singer allegedly paid college coaches to claim that a prospective student should be accepted to college because the student was a recruit for their sports team. However, Singer and the coaches knew that the student was not a competitive player and that his or her athletic profile was fake, the indictment said.
In one case, Singer even worked with parents to take staged photos of their child engaged in particular sports. In another example, they used stock photos of a person playing a sport and then put the face of a student onto that of an athlete via Photoshop, prosecutors said.
In 2016, prosecutors alleged a coach at USD “designated the son of one of Singer’s clients, who did not play that sport, as a recruit for the university’s team, thereby facilitating his admission to USD.”
The next year, the same coach “designated another student as a recruit to manage the same USD team, thereby facilitating her admission to USD,” prosecutors said in the indictment.
Singer, under a plea deal, is pleading guilty Tuesday to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice.
Huffman, whose credits include "Desperate Housewives" and "Transamerica", is accused of paying $15,000 to have another party cheat on an entrance exam for her daughter. According to the indictment, Huffman also discussed the scheme in a recorded phone call with a cooperating witness.
A law enforcement source told CNN that the Oscar-nominated actress was arrested in Los Angeles.
Loughlin, of "Full House" fame, and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli allegedly "agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000" to get their two daughters into USC as part of the crew team, though neither had ever taken part in crew.
The federal complaint includes emails between a cooperating witness and Giannulli in which the two discussed a "game plan" for his older daughter whose academic qualifications were at or below the "low-end of USC's admission standards."
Loughlin also wrote at least one email discussing their younger daughter and her admission, according to the complaint.
Giannulli and Loughlin were recorded on calls with a cooperating witness discussing an Internal Revenue Service audit being done on the business involved in the scam and that if ever asked, Loughlin would say they made a donation to the foundation, "end of story," the complaint said.
Huffman, Loughlin and Giannulli are each charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, according to federal court documents.
Prosecutors noted that students and the schools themselves were not targets of the investigation at this time.
USC released a statement Tuesday afternoon. Read the full statement below:
We are aware of the ongoing wide-ranging criminal investigation involving universities nationwide, including USC. USC has not been accused of any wrongdoing and will continue to cooperate fully with the government’s investigation. We understand that the government believes that illegal activity was carried out by individuals who went to great lengths to conceal their actions from the university. USC is conducting an internal investigation. Donna Heinel and Jovan Vavic have been terminated and the university will take additional employment actions as appropriate. USC is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme. Additionally, the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.
Stanford also released the following statement after the news broke:
The U.S. Department of Justice today charged a number of people around the country in an alleged scheme in which payments were made to try to win the admission of prospective students to a number of U.S. colleges and universities. Stanford’s head sailing coach was among those charged in the case. Stanford has been cooperating with the Department of Justice in its investigation and is deeply concerned by the allegations in this case. The university and its athletics programs have the highest expectations of integrity and ethical conduct. The head coach of the Stanford sailing team has been terminated. The charges state that sailing head coach John Vandemoer accepted financial contributions to the sailing program from an intermediary in exchange for agreeing to recommend two prospective students for admission to Stanford. Neither student came to Stanford. However, the alleged behavior runs completely counter to Stanford’s values. Based on the Department of Justice investigation to date, we have no evidence that the alleged conduct involves anyone else at Stanford or is associated with any other team. However, we will be undertaking an internal review to confirm that.
CNN contributed to this report