Democratic Donors Charged in College Admissions Scam

The Yale Bulldogs mascot
The Yale Bulldogs mascot / Getty Images

Several Democratic donors were among those charged Tuesday in a federal crackdown on a nationwide fraudulent college admissions conspiracy.

"Dozens of individuals involved in a nationwide conspiracy that facilitated cheating on college entrance exams and the admission of students to elite universities as purported athletic recruits," according to the Department of Justice. Documents unsealed Tuesday in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts show fraud extending to Yale, Georgetown, and other American universities.

Parents paid William Rick Singer, owner of The Edge College & Career Network, LLC, to ensure their children's admissions to university, according to court documents. Singer would then arrange for special proctors to fly from Texas and California for the SAT and ACT tests, correcting students' answers, according to the court filing. He's also accused of creating fake athletic profiles for students, even though some did not play sports at all. Singer then bribed coaches and administrators of NCAA Division I programs like Yale, Stanford, and the University of Southern California to recruit the students, all but guaranteeing their admission, according to the DOJ.

Those charged represent a "catalog of wealth and privilege,"  U.S. attorney Andrew Lelling told reporters Tuesday. "The real victims in this case are the hardworking students" who were denied admissions because the children of wealthy parents "simply bought their way in," according to Lelling.

The 33 parents paid a total of $25 million to Singer's company as part of the scheme, ABC News reported. Also implicated were top college coaches for their alleged role in accepting millions of dollars to help admit students.

Most of the press reaction Tuesday centered on Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, two prominent Hollywood stars charged in the sting.

Huffman, when not acting, is a generous donor to Democratic candidates. Huffman has donated thousands of dollars since 2016 to Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), according to the Federal Election Commission's site. Prior to that, she donated frequently to President Barack Obama's election efforts.

She is far from the only Democratic donor on the list, some of whom have also donated to Republican candidates at times.

Gordon Caplan is co-chairman of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, a major law firm. He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut and New York City. Caplan paid $125,000 to have his daughter's ACT exam corrected by the proctor, according to the DOJ. He is charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in the District of Connecticut.

During a conversation recorded by investigators, Caplan asked how the scheme would work. A cooperating witness explained over the phone:

I just explained it to you. You get extended time, you gotta get the extended time first. Then you’re going to fly to L.A. And you’re going to be going on a fake recruiting visit. You’ll visit some schools, while you’re out here in L.A. And then on a Saturday, which is the national test day if it’s ACT or SAT, she’s going to sit down and take the test. I will have a proctor in the room, that’s why, when you have 100% extended time, you have– you get to take it at a– you don’t take it with everybody else, you get to take it over multiple days. And you get to take it at a– you can take it at your school or another school. Okay? And then this kid, ’cause she’s taking online classes, you have to go somewhere anyway.9 So you come to my school, take the test on a Saturday. She’ll be in the room for six, six and a half hours taking this test. My proctor would then answer her questions, and by the end of the day, she would leave, and my proctor would make sure she would gets a score that would be equivalent to the number that we need to get.

[…]

That’s how simple it is. She doesn’t know. Nobody knows what happens. It happened, she feels great about herself. She got a test a score, and now you’re actually capable for help getting into a school. Because the test score’s no longer an issue. Does that make sense?

Caplan gave the maximum allowable donation to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. He donated an additional $25,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund and $22,300 to the Democratic National Committee in 2016, months before Clinton lost to Donald Trump. Caplan began giving to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) in 2005.

During the 2018 midterms, Caplan shelled out thousands of dollars to support Democratic candidates in Connecticut, Indiana, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada. His lavish political spending used to be bipartisan. In 2011 and 2012, he gave tens of thousands of dollars to both Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns.

Robert Flaxman, the owner of Crown Realty and Development, was also charged. The Beverly Hills, California resident paid for assistance with both his son and daughter's admissions, according to the DOJ. For a fee of $250,000, the fraudulent college consultant had ACT tests falsified and arranged for a varsity coach at the University of San Diego to claim Flaxman's son as an athlete, according to the charges.

During the 2016 election cycle, Flaxman donated to Clinton's campaign and gave thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party in states including Colorado, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. He also donated to several Republicans, albeit on a far less frequent basis. Several years earlier, in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, he also spent upwards of $125,000 supporting Republicans.

Agustin Huneeus is a winemaker in California. He paid $50,000 to administer a false SAT test to his daughter, according to investigators. He is also accused of conspiring to bribe USC athletic staff to accept his daughter as a water polo recruit. During the 2016 cycle, Huneeus gave $33,400 to Clinton's super PAC. He's given over $150,000 the DNC and DCCC, $60,000 the Nancy Pelosi Victory Fund, $10,000 to Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) and thousands more to various other California candidates.

Jane Buckingham is the founder and president of Trendera, a boutique marketing firm. She agreed to pay $50,000 for her son to take a false ACT test in Houston, according to investigators. At the test site, a co-conspirator faked her son's handwriting and took the test for him, investigators say. Buckingham's son received a 35 out of a maximum 36 points. She later expressed interest in arranging the same for her younger daughter, according to the charges.

Buckingham is also a generous donor to the Democratic Party. She gave $35,800 to the Obama Victory Fund and $30,800 to the DNC in 2012. She gave more than $22,000 to support Gillibrand's races.

Of the 50 people charged in the college scandal, the Washington Free Beacon found only one gave consistently to Republican candidates. Mossimo G. Giannulli, founder of the clothing company Mossimo, Inc., is married to actress Lori Loughlin. He and his wife gave over $500,000 to secure admission to USC for his two daughters via the crew team. Neither daughter rows. He supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) in 2016, and Romney and John Boehner before that. He has also donated to Democrats.

The scandal comes at a pivotal moment for admissions policies nationwide. A Massachusetts district federal court is currently determining whether Harvard University's admissions policy of affirmative action unfairly discriminates on account of race. Though the legality of athletic recruitment is not at issue in the latter case, both threaten to pull back the curtain on the secretive process of admissions at America's most selective institutions.