Rich Kids, Ruthless Parents, and a Controversial “Honest Services Fraud” Charge

A massive fraud scheme has preliminarily taken down a score of rich parents across the U.S., who all allegedly gamed the college admission system for their kids. The most famous names in the mix of individuals indicted this week are Desperate Housewives and Full House actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, as well as the latter’s husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli. Lesser known but similarly wealthy figures include prominent tech venture capitalist Robert Zangrillo, New York-based Hercules Capital CEO Manuel Henriquez, Willkie Farr co-chairman Gordon Caplan, and former Warner Bros exec. Stephen Semprevivo, among others. 

With the help of college sports coaches, athletic officials, and SAT and ACT proctors, among others, the scam’s mastermind William “Rick” Singer created what he calls “a side door that would guarantee families would get in.” That side door took the form of his Newport Beach-based college prep company called The Key, in furtherance of which he offered parents the opportunity to have their kids’ SAT and ACT tests corrected before they were turned in and/or to create completely falsified athletic credentials to get their kids into college more easily as sports recruits. 

"All of these things, and many more things, I did," 59-year old Singer admitted in court this week, and he was not the only one hauled into federal court over the past few days in connection with what federal officials are calling “the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted in the U.S.”

His clients, some 33 parents, were all indicted, as well. Their crimes? Allegedly paying between $250,000 and $1.2 million to get their children admitted to top colleges, including Yale, Stanford, UCLA, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California. The latter of which is precisely where Loughlin and Giannulli paid $500,000 to land their daughters, influencer Olivia Jade (pictured above), and Isabella Rose, who – despite what their USC applications boasted – are not – nor have they ever been – on a crew team. 

According to complaints filed in courts across the U.S. this week, the now-indicted parents “conspired (1) to bribe college entrance exam administrators to facilitate cheating on college entrance exams; (2) to bribe varsity coaches and administrators at elite universities to designate certain applicants as recruited athletes or as other favored candidates, thereby facilitating the applicants’ admission to those universities; and (3) to use the façade of a charitable organization to conceal the nature and source of the bribe payments.” 

“We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said on Tuesday. The tactics at play here amount, instead, to “deception and fraud.”

The defendant parents – who range from established physicians and litigators to television and beverage company executives, hailing from some of the ritziest neighborhoods in Los Angeles and San Francisco to Miami Beach and Manhattan – have at least one charge in common: honest services fraud. 

What might appear to be something of a little-known criminal charge buried within the federal mail and wire fraud statute, the conspiracy to commit honest services fraud claim is hardly that. In fact, this charge – which the Congressional Research Service recently called “one of federal prosecutors’ most potent existing tools for combating [public- and private- sector] corruption” – has been at the center of a number of high-profile scandals over the past couple of decades, including in the prosecution of Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of the now-defunct Wall Street darling that was Enron in “one of the government’s biggest corruption cases ever.”

More than that, though, the honest services fraud claim has been the focal point of a debate that has been raging before American courts, including the nation’s highest court on more than one occasion, thanks to the sheer breadth of its 28-word-long existence: “For the purposes of this chapter, the term ‘scheme or artifice to defraud’ includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” That’s all there is to it. 

The scope and vagueness of the statute is, of course, why courts have struggled for years to grasp – and agree upon – its meaning and bounds, what kind of wrongdoing, exactly, fits within its confines. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia went so far in 2009 as to issue a scathing dissent from the court’s decision to deny review in a 2008 honest services fraud case, pointing to a bevy of examples of how “preposterous” the honest services fraud provision is. 

Since then, the Supreme Court has taken on a number of honest services cases – including U.S. v. Skilling and U.S. v. Black – ultimately holding that mail and wire fraud prosecutions brought on the basis of honest services fraud charges, when “properly confined, criminalize only schemes to defraud that involve bribes or kickbacks.” In other words, honest services fraud charges are not borne from a catch-all “moral compass” statute, as it had been described.  

Regardless of the highest court’s continued attempts to address the scope of honest services fraud, and the subsequent task of lower courts to apply those findings, the parents at play in what is being dubbed, “Operation Varsity Blues,” appear to fall neatly within even modest interpretations of the scope of the law, which does not bode well for them given that the charge carries with it potential prison time.

This is all to say: these are cases worth paying attention to see how the latest in a string of headline-making scams (from Fyre Fest to the legally-questionable wellness advice being peddled by Goop) plays out for the rich and well-established parents at play; their kids, most of which have been deemed unaware of their parents’ misdeeds; and the inevitably high-price-tag legal counsel that will be trotted into court on their behalf. More than that, though, it will be interesting to see the long-controversial honest services fraud statute in play yet again.