'Operation Varsity Blues': A college entrance bribery scheme

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From the newsroom of the Washington Post. Are you in? Washington Post posters. Lori art over. I'm MRs post reports, I'm Martine powers. It's Tuesday March twelve. Today. Dozens arrested in an alleged college admission scheme suicides in the parking lot, and the very particular rules for naming planetary bodies. Operation varsity, blues culminated early this morning when approximately three hundred special agents from the F B I and the IRS criminal investigations set out to arrest. Forty six individuals across the country for their roles in an international college, admissions, bribery and money laundering scam. On tuesday. The Justice department announced the end of year long investigation. We're talking about deception and fraud fake test scores fake credentials fake, photographs ribed. College officials. They were looking into a massive cheating and bribery scheme to get the kids of rich parents into College Central defendant in scheme Williams singer will plead guilty today to charges of racketeering conspiracy money laundering, conspiracy all told dozens of people were charged. They had charged a whole bunch of people fifty people in connection with what they say is the biggest college admission scam that the Justice department has ever charged Matt's Petoskey, a national security reporter cover the Justice department for the post, and he stopped by our studio to talk with us. Yeah. This is crazy after the Justice Department's world wind a press conference. So the US attorney in Boston and F B I official RS official kind of went out and described this massive scandal. It kind of centered around this one guy named Rick singer. Who was just a long time. College adviser, I guess is the best way to describe it. But he had relationships with college coaches like testing officials like SAT ACT type people Rick singer founded what he called a nonprofit this group called the key worldwide foundation. And you know, if you look on it on their website, it's stencils like a foundation that helps advance the interest of kids. Prosecutors say that was sort of all crap this nonprofit was essentially like a slush fund. So he would take in money from parents parents who wanted better test scores for their kids or who wanted. Their kids to be recruited. You know, air quotes as athletes, and who are the people who allegedly tried to get their kids into college in this way. Yes. So the two most interesting are Felicity Huffman, whose an actress and housewife from desperate housewives. I have to admit I haven't seen the show. But I am familiar with her in the name and Laurie Laughlin from full house. There is also the chairman of a big law firm other people who just had money. I mean, not names that anyone would recognize, but very wealthy people who had tens of thousands of dollars to throw around just so their kid could get thirty three on the ACT, and they would pay this guy. Rick singer to make things happen for them. Sometimes it was rigging kids test scores Laming by rigging and kids. So when you go and take a standardized test, you sort of go into a room. And there's a person who monitors you, and you fill it out, you turn into them, and it sort of a very secure process. But if you know all the players involved you can rig it in your favor. So this. Guy. Mr. singer new the testing officials the people who would sort of monitor you taking a test and making sure it was above board. So he would pay them to kind of look the other way. And he also had this person who he would pay while they were looking the other way to go in and like change kids answers. So if I were a kid who had rich parents who we were trying to get me into jail. Let's say I would go and take my test. And then either this guide Mr. singer had paid would sit in coach me about what to write while. Unofficial. Look the other way or I would sort of turn in my test, and he would go and correct my answers afterwards. And he did it just it's not like he had inside information about what the correct answers were the US attorney sort of described today. He was just a really smart guy who could get whatever score he wanted. And sometimes it would be like intentional missing. Because he was aiming for a score that wouldn't arouse suspicion. I wanna make to obviously sixteen hundred right? Maybe somewhere in the fourteen or fifteen right? So that's what I mean by rigging. It's essentially like having a guy. To either coach a kid through a task or to correct their answers when they're done wealthy. Parents paid singer about twenty five million dollars in total to guarantee their children's admission to elite schools including Yale Georgetown, Stanford University of southern California, the university of Texas UCLA and Wake Forest, and then what are some of the other crazy things that prosecutors are alleging the other kind of Wild Thing when you're applying to college, I didn't know this. But apparently when you're plying to college it can help you get in. If you're an athlete, I guess, I've broadly knew that. But not like if you're a star quarterback, it can just help you if you're being recruited as an athlete for the crew team the soccer team. Oh, a lesser known thing. So one of the things he would do is try to make kids who weren't athletes seem like, athletes and coaches to essentially, recruit, none athletes, pretending they were athletes. So he would have coaches again who are on the take he would pay bribes to them. And they would then say, oh, yes, I'm recruiting the student to be on the crew team or the, you know, the most notable example, I think in there as the soccer team, you'll soccer coach, I think admitted taking like a four hundred thousand dollar bribe four hundred thousand dollars, and they would say, yes, we're we're recruiting that person. Sometimes they would need proof of that. So Mr. singer or the parents would Photoshop pictures of their kids face on real athletes body, or they would in one instance. And I think this this might have been the case with Laughlin they sort of put their kid on a rowing machine because she was a stencil being recruited to participate in crew though. She didn't I mean, the thing of it is these people weren't actually athletes. It would just help them get in if they were perceived as athletes, so that's how Mr. singer would kind of help them. What happens when they got to college? And they were clearly not. Able to participate in this that they were recruited a great question. So sometimes apparently they would try a little while and quit sometimes they would fake an injury. And then they would be out of it. But they're still sort of in the door. Then the US attorney. I don't think described any case where the person just went on to actually be great athlete, but they would like find a reason pretty quickly to just get out of it. So what are the potential consequences for this prison? I mean, these people will go to prison, it's sort of interesting and almost funny, but the consequences for these peoples are to go to prison Rick singer is this afternoon expected to plead guilty he turned cooperator in the case. So he sort of flipped on all these parents who he helped, but though plead guilty to Iraq tearing charge, which is a very serious thing. And you know, these people face real criminal charges. This isn't like they're just sort of exposed embarrassed criminal charges that could result in prison time, and what happens to the kids. That's a great question. The US attorney was asked that at this. Press conference, and essentially he said that's up to the colleges. But this is recent he said that this investigation has disband about the only the past year and these kids are in colleges. I think it is important to note to the US attorney said that these colleges as institutions weren't in on it. This is not a situation that you sort of hear about like a parent donates building. And then they get in. This is like lower level people at the colleges coaches in one instance on athletes official or like standardized testing officials who aren't even really affiliated with the college. Where all in on it. They'll have a tough decision to make. I guess I mean, I don't know. And it doesn't seem like an all these instances the kids were in on it though. Maybe in some they were I was just sort of rereading the indictment before I came down here. And there was one where a mother wanted her son to take a test instead of this person who could take it and get any score. Just so he thought he was actually taking. A two in some instances. So in some instances, the kids aren't even in on. It is it really fair to rip them out of college. It's going to be a thorny or moral question for colleges, you mentioned the idea that that this isn't like paying money for building a university and getting your kid in that way. And that's what I find so ironic about this case is that there are already so many legal ways to get your kid into college. If you're rich you can give a big donation you can pay for private one on one teetering and that demonstrated that that will get your kid. A pretty good score. You can pay to have your kid play a sport, that's less competitive sport and get in with recruiters that way, you don't have to go this crazy way. And yet these people still allegedly found a really bizarre way of trying to get their kids into these fancy schools. Yeah, we were talking about that sort of as the news was breaking. I was talking with Devon Barrett. My colleague on the Justice department, and it's like why why would you do this? They have extremely wealthy. Parents one of them was like, the co-chairman of this huge law firm, you've got to celebrity actors, but you know, names that you just say anyone sort of knows why didn't you just donate a lot? You know, why are you paying this third party? And I don't know the answer to that. I haven't yet been able to talk to the celebrities or any of the parents who are involved about why to do this though just in talking with colleagues. I think the one difference is it's a little more of a guarantee the parents charged today despite already being able to give their children every legitimate advantage in college admissions game instead chose to corrupt an illegal manipulate the system for their benefit. There's some more guaranteed to getting that high score on the SAT lot more risk though, clearly to what's going to happen next in this case, the feds have a lot of evidence they had wiretaps they have this guy who was the center of it all who is now cooperated in presume. Ably shared all sorts of records. They have a mountain of evidence, you can sort of see why this would be so appetizing for the FBI for federal law enforcement. This is like a question of fundamental fairness. It's not like, oh, ha ha rich parents bribe and get their kids into school. There are victims here in the view of the FBI. And that's the kids who didn't get these spots at maybe rightfully they should have because kids whose parents had a lot of money did in the US attorney at this press conference made a point of that he said look every year hundreds of thousands of hardworking talented students strive for admission to elite schools and that system is a zero sum game for every student admitted through fraud. An honest genuinely talented student was rejected. We're not going to look the other way. Law enforcement. Of course looks for crimes there are crimes here. And that's why they have a hook recketeering on a services fraud, but there's also sort of a public interest, and you can see that that really moved the US attorney thinking about the kids who who didn't get in. Because these people who he said got in because of bribes dig it, but we'll see I mean now there's going to be a court battle big sprawling court battle involving a lot of parents who are accused of pain bribes, essentially, so their kids could go to college, and we'll see what happens. Matt's Petoskey reports on the Justice department for the post. Can we have you start by reading this Email? Good evening. I just finished. Reading your article about veterans committing suicide on hospital grounds. And I have a few experiences regarding one of the facilities. You mentioned. I'm in Iraq veteran and deployed to the flu. And during my tour I suffer from chronic PTSD to such a degree that just over a year ago item to suicide. How many emails like this? Did you get when the story was first posted online? I woke up the next morning to. Over thirty five emails and throughout the day. It was probably about four to five an hour. They continued for weeks even six weeks later, I still receive emails. I'm Emily wax tiptoe at I'm in national reporter last month. Emily published a story about a disturbing trend veterans taking their own lives on the grounds of veterans affairs, hospitals often in cars parked in the VA parking lot. And the goal of reporting was to figure out why the VA becomes symbol of the war that they fought the government that can't seem to help them the PTSD or the stuff that happened in Iraq or Afghanistan or previously that they're not getting the correct help for. So they often say even in suicide notes on YouTube, in some cases that they are doing this to draw attention to the problems inside the programs and the problem the larger problem of what they have been through. And they want people to hear it. So when they leave. Note saying I did this because the VA system failed me they want people to fix it. Veterans are significantly more likely than the general population to die by suicide, but to get help for PTSD and other mental health issues, they have to navigate the VA systems massive bureaucracy. And that can be frustrating in some cases, that's have to prove that their injuries are connected to their service, which can require a lot of paperwork and appeals, Emily. I heard about this issue of parking lot suicides several years ago from a whistle blower within the VA. And she struggled for a long time about how to report on it in some ways, you don't want people to read it and stay away from getting help on the other hand a lot of the families actually really wanted to talk which is counterintuitive. They felt so. Honored to be able to. Go over what? Lead their family member to this point and how to fix it. So a lot of the families were so. Brave and outspoken about what went wrong and what needed to happen. So that. This phenomenon doesn't keep happening. Listen to a hard job. One of those families that Emily spoke with was the family of a young man named John tombes who served in Afghanistan. His dad David said that when John got home. He struggled to reconcile his life over there with his life here. It was a opponent of something something bigger than sales. And so the camaraderie, the brotherhood. But when they come back, even though they still do drills once a month when he decided not to reenlist in two thousand fourteen I believe it was that's when he sees star to go down. He'll that's slowed a little bits taper. John like a lot of veterans returning home had a hard time transitioning. In the military. You share? Sleeping places you share meals. You have friends you can talk to about what's going on people understand. You don't have to explain to the Mary thing return home in. It's almost like you're on another planet never complained about it. Never had anything to say about it. It gets a lot of things he wouldn't somebody to openly discuss situations might affect my mother told him that he should apply beyond because. He would he would not talk about anything. John finally got into a residential treatment program at a VA facility in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, John was said to be someone who is really improving by one of the nurses who is working with him. But he was still struggling with PTSD and depression and anxiety. Sometimes he would have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. And he would be late you pick up his medications little things at once comb through all the records. He was never violet a ever duty body. Most everybody that I've talked to that has reached out since then said that, you know. He was would you the shirt off his bag? He was very thankful or friendly. But he had eased that. Like most people heavy medications days, and you just don't talk. Anybody? John was eventually kicked out of the program for relatively minor infractions, though were both school to the laws for the very reasons. He was there and that same morning the day before thanksgiving twenty sixteen he took his own life in an abandoned building on the grounds of the hospital. Diva tomb says that from everything that he's heard the program that John was in Tennessee has improved a lot since then, you know, kills me two sons bist form to do it. When Emily learned from her reporting is that some of these problems are not specific to the VA their problems with health care and mental health facilities in the US general. The environments are very sound ties. They're very cold. They have very strict rules. You're taking people who are at their lowest point, mentally and putting them into an atmosphere that may not be nurturing. For instance, in John tombes case, there was a nurse who had a suggestion to let the veterans keep clocks and have a coffee pot. So that when they were woken up for their medications at six AM. They would be able to then go back to sleep and collect their medications by nine AM. They weren't allowed to have clocks or phones in their rooms. And so that little switch can make the atmosphere better and John actually was late to his medication because he would just fall back sleep. So one reason can be as simple as the programs while they say they're trying to improve all the time. Veterans are the best people to ask. What they need to work on other times. The system is silver well-named both in the VA and in the private sector that records can be wrong that there's no follow ups made that there's confusion over whether the veteran has a gun in their car. That was the case with Justin Miller, he was a Marine Corps musician who took his own life outside of the Minneapolis department of veterans affairs hospital the access to firearms issues should have put a red flag on his file from the beginning. And for whatever reason it didn't the VA says that Justin's death was one of nineteen suicides that occurred on its campuses from October twenty seventeen to November twenty eighteen but some advocates say that that number is actually higher. Justin, sister, Alissa Harrington said that this wasn't the life that she expected for him. My brother was a very talented musician. And so when he was in high school, he was looking at the different things that he could do. And a recruiter approached him and said, you know, you can play in the military bands. He knew that he would be asked to do guard duty on base because that was his secondary MOS. So he he knew that was a possibility. But I don't think it was something that they had really talked about in in terms of what that meant fully is. It wasn't just him. It was the entire band who was going over there with the same secondary MOS of being basic unity. We'd hear the funny stories about how it's a slightly ridiculous idea to give a bunch of band. Geeks walkie talkies that had musical tones hundred number Pat because they would spend their days sending each other musical notes using the keypad, and then we would also hear stories about how he had to shoot people. Got a lot of emails about how veterans go to war. And they're often asked to do things that they regret or that. They feel morally confused about it's really tough to be a soldier and both men and women come back with high levels of PTSD and depression, and a lot of the emails detailed why they were suicidal and why they were trying so hard to get their mental health under control. There's also the trauma of senior friends get hurt or killed and just the trauma of being afraid all the time. David Hume said that once his son did open up at that PTSD force. We got in the program started on and more about PTSD and himself. He told me said, you know, sometimes t SDN so much of what happened to you is the end his opinion of constantly wondering what's getting ready to have? And we says that all of the veterans and families that she spoke with for her story and afterward. They said that they're glad that the VA is there. They just want the system to get better. It's important that we talk about it and important that we continue to have these conversations because without being honest about it without engaging everyone in the conversation. We can't come to good solutions. In the VA is a huge part of that. There is no desire for myself or my family to destroy the VA. We want the VA to be there as a public health portion as well. As a crisis intervention center of one of the things that the via needs to do is make sure that their staff is supported and paid entering. It's so hard for me to hear these stories from people who've worked at the VA about how unsupported they feel 'cause I know that this has nothing to do with the care of the providers. I know that the people who were caring for my brother were doing what they could with what they can. And that this likely is haunting them as much as it's haunting us. The VA has a new executive director for suicide prevention, and she said that the agency now trains parking lot attendants and patrols onto aside intervention. The agency is also expanding suicide prevention efforts and piloting a peer mentoring program. The Trump administration has said that preventing veteran suicide is its top priority. You can read Emily wax. Timid oh story on VA parking lot suicides at post reports dot com. Now, one more thing from science reporter, Sarah Kaplan, a story about celestial names. So last year scientists announced that they had detected twelve previously undiscovered moons orbiting around Jupiter. Most of them were pretty tiny hadn't been seen before the moons were discovered by astronomers associated with the Carnegie institution for science. And now that they've been found they need names. So the Carnegie institution of science sent out a press release saying that they need help. Finding names the asked people on Twitter and on social media to contribute, and I'm looking at this news release, and I'm like, that's cool. You get to name a new piece of real estate in the solar system. But then you see all of the rules for naming them a moon of Jupiter has to be named for a lover or offspring of God known as Jupiter or Seuss, depending on whether you're looking at can. Have any associated with any military or political or religious cannot be offensive to anyone can't be named for anybody champion name for somebody's retro program than any? That seems like a lot of rules just to come up with a name for the dinky little space rock, but Sarah says that this complicated system is there for a reason there are rules for naming basically everything in the solar system, and they come from the international astronomical union. It was founded in nineteen nineteen and previous to the people sort of just named stuff willy nilly, and so there were fights over whether or not your initial be named urine or George which was the king of England at the time that William Herschel discovered the planet. You know, multiple astronomers would say that they discovered the same asteroid each give it different names. And so when the I came about they're like, we need to bring some order to this chaos, and so they began establishing committees and working groups what scientists love best to sort of put things in order, and one of the roles of the working groups is to stop Bush, these imagine guidelines for different features and different planetary bodies. So for example on titan which is a moon of Saturn. There are mountains that are named for mountains on Middle Earth in the five of mount docked Lord saw secret lost ring. The magical landscape of the Lord of the rings books. Features on Venus are all named for women except for one which is named after the scientists whose discoveries were really important for our I observe Asians Venus, James clerk Maxwell. Asteroids are one of the few things in the solar system that can be named for living people. So there asteroids named for all four Beatles. Cross. All three Bronte sisters athletes musicians movie stars Tom Hanks asteroid there's a make Ryan astroid. I turn on my computer. So maybe they're sending emails to each other. So Sarah says that if you've got a name for one of many, new moons all you have to do is tweet your suggested name to at Jupiter lunacy. And you have to include the hashtag named sitters moons until Carney. Why you picked it? Thera- Kaplan is a science reporter for the post. And if you do decide to tweet a suggested name, remember that you have to make sure that your suggestion fits all of the requirements must be sixteen characters. Few can't be related to any kind of commercial can't be too similar. That's it. For today's episode post reports, I'm Martine powers. We'll be back tomorrow with more stories from the Washington Post.

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