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  • Leslie A. Farber

Legal Implications of the College Admissions Scandal

This spring, the college admissions scandal dominated the headlines and sparked conversations from school campuses to office water coolers. The involvement of high-profile parents in a bribery scheme to secure spots for their children at elite colleges and universities shone a light on the competitiveness of the college admissions process. It also raised numerous questions about what behaviors are considered criminal versus dishonest and disgraceful.

In March, federal prosecutors brought felony criminal charges against dozens of people in what they called the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.” Thirty-three parents were accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes to help their children get into prestigious schools including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, UCLA, and the University of Southern California. College test administrators and coaches were also accused of accepting millions of dollars to help admit the undeserving students.

William Singer, a consultant who worked in the college counseling business, was behind the effort to bribe coaches and test monitors, falsify exam scores, and fabricate student biographies. The bribes ranged from several thousand dollars to $6 million, and much of the money allegedly paid by the parents was disguised as donations to a nonprofit foundation controlled by Mr. Singer’s associates. This allowed the parents to claim tax deductions.

Federal prosecutors have not charged any students or universities. However, some children of parents who were implicated in the scandal have been notified that they could be targets of a criminal investigation, and a number of schools may penalize students connected to the scheme.

Singer has pled guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money-laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S., and obstruction of justice, and will be sentenced this month. Essentially, racketeering is using a form of business to earn illegal money and conspiracy is one of the most common racketeering charges. Under the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) law, someone can be convicted of ordering a crime and it carries the same penalty whether or not the crime was actually committed. Singer could be fined up to $25,000 and sentenced to 20 years in prison for each count, and have to forfeit any money gained from illegal activity.

Many parents were initially charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, which are felony charges that are punishable by fines and jail time. Mail fraud is using physical or electronic mail to commit a crime, and these communications were used to organize the bribery scheme; honest services fraud (a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services) is a type of mail fraud. It will be up to a federal judge to decide whether those who have been indicted will serve time in prison.

Some parents have also been charged with money laundering conspiracy. If they are convicted, their sentences would most likely be influenced in part by the amounts of money involved.

Defending the conduct of the accused parents will vary from case to case. For example, those who reportedly paid for fake test scores may argue that cheating on a test should not be a crime. Parents whose children were allegedly admitted as a result of bribes may claim they knew nothing about the scheme and thought they were paying a consultant or making a donation to the school. Parents may also face tax issues if they improperly took a charitable deduction for their alleged payments.

One thing is certain: by allegedly falsifying test scores and application materials, the defendants deprived the universities of their ability to award those slots to students who were truly deserving. The impact of this case could be even broader if students who were denied admission to make room for someone who bribed his or her way into the school decide to file civil suits seeking damages from schools.

If you or someone you know needs advice or counsel, please call me at 973-509-8500 x213 email

The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.

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