Operation Varsity Blues: A Guide to the College Admissions Scandal

College Admissions Scandal
Lori Loughlin, Rick Singer, Felicity Huffman. Photos courtesy of Getty Images

Here’s what to know about the bribery scandal involving Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

America’s secondary education system and Hollywood alike were rocked when 50 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin as well as ringleader William “Rick” Singer, were charged in a massive college admissions cheating scam in March 2019. The charges were the end result of an ongoing investigation dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” named after the 1999 teen film starring James Van Der Beek. (Although, the actor nor the film have any direct relation to the case.) Now, the events have been captured in a Lifetime Film, The College Admissions Scandal, and a new Netflix documentary, Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal. With the renewed attention surrounding the bribery scandal, here’s everything to know, from the parents involved to what happened to Singer.  

What Is Operation Varsity Blues?

According to an affidavit filed by federal prosecutors in the case, Singer used two firms, Key Worldwide Foundation and The Edge College & Career Network, to organize an elaborate scheme to get lesser qualified children of wealthy parents into elite colleges and universities by bribing exam administrators to inflate test scores, bribing coaches and other officials to help fake athletic recruitment, and using a charitable organization to hide the source of and launder bribery payments. 

Cheating on college entrance exams, like the SATs, and fabricating sports credentials were the two primary methods Singer used to help his clients’ children gain admission, USA Today reports. To achieve the latter, some parents allegedly photoshopped their children into athletic competitions to make it look like they had experience in the said sport they were being recruited for. Meanwhile, Mark Riddell, a former director of college entrance exams at IMG Academy, was allegedly paid by Singer to take admission tests on behalf of the clients’ children. 

Over time, parents allegedly paid over $25 million to Singer, who used part of the money to carry out the bribery scheme. Singer claims that he helped children of over 750 families fake their way into a college or university of their choice. 

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Authorities first learned of the scheme when they arrested a Los Angeles businessman in an unrelated case of securities fraud, Vanity Fair reports. He exchanged information about an admissions bribery for a lesser charge in his case. That eventually led authorities to Singer, who cooperated with the FBI in gathering evidence against co-conspirators, including athletic personnel at universities and parents paying for his fraudulent services. According to NBC News, “he helped bring down his own criminal enterprise by becoming ‘a cooperating witness’ and wearing a wire for the FBI.”

On March 12, the FBI coordinated a nationwide raid while federal prosecutors in Boston charged 50 people with conspiracy to commit felony mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. In the months since, many of the parents charged have been in and out of court as they plead their case, with sentencing for some issued in September.

Singer, who pleaded guilty, faces up to 65 years in prison and a fine of $1.25 million. As of now, because he is cooperating with the prosecution, he is still a free man. 

Who Were the Parents Involved?

While over two dozen parents were charged, the two most high-profile names belonged to Huffman and Loughlin, two longtime working TV actresses primarily known for their respective roles on Desperate Housewives and Full House. Their cases and fallout, however, have been very different. 

After her arrest, it was alleged that Huffman paid $15,000 to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation in order to have someone correct the answers on the SAT test taken by Sophia Macy, her daughter with husband and Shameless actor William H. Macy. In May, the actress formally pleaded guilty to the charges brought against her, saying in court that she was “ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community… My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty.”

In September 2020, she was sentenced to 14 days in prison, one year of supervised release, 250 hours of community service working one-on-one with children and a $30,000 fine. On Oct. 15, the actress reported to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California to begin her sentencing. “Felicity was resigned to the fact she has to pay her dues to society. She is looking forward to putting this all behind her,” a sourced told ET

In terms of fallout, Huffman was not formally submitted for Emmy consideration for her portrayal of prosecutor Linda Fairstein in Ava DuVernay’s limited Netflix series, When They See Us, which ended up garnering multiple nominations for its ensemble cast and an acting win for breakout star Jharrel Jerome. Meanwhile, the debut of her Netflix film, Otherhood, was pushed from April to August.

Despite the delayed release, her co-stars, Patricia Arquette and Angela Bassett, remained supportive.“I feel that she's sincerely truly sorry and feels she made a humongous mistake. I think she dealt with it the best way that you can deal with it, but I know she's probably carrying a lot of shame and guilt and all that stuff,” Arquette told ET, while Bassett added: “I think she's handling it like a grown-up person… It's a brave thing and a courageous thing.”

Both consequences were minor compared to what the toll taken on Loughlin’s acting career. 

Facing the same charges, prosecutors alleged that Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to have their two daughters -- Olivia Jade and Isabella Giannulli -- deemed as recruits for the University of Southern California's crew team, despite them never actually participating in the sport once classes began. The couple received an additional charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering before formally pleading not guilty.  At the time, Loughlin believed “she would just get a slap on the wrist.”

Ultimately, in August 2020, Loughlin was sentenced to two months in prison, two years of supervised release, a fine of $150,000 and 100 hours of community service. Her sentencing came just a few hours after her husband was sentenced to five months in prison, two years of supervised release, a fine of $250,000 and 250 hours of community service for his involvement in the scandal.

On Oct. 30, ET learned that the 56-year-old actress surrendered herself to authorities at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, where she served out her time behind bars. Giannulli went to a medium security U.S. penitentiary on Nov. 19 and his release date is currently set for April 17, 2021.

While still awaiting trial -- and an opportunity to defend her case -- Loughlin was quickly fired from Netflix’s Fuller House and Hallmark Channel’s When Calls the Heart, which delayed its sixth season to edit out her scenes and subsequently remove her character from the story. Her other Hallmark series, Garage Sale Mystery, which Loughlin was filming at the time of the FBI raid, has also been put on hold after the network revealed they would no longer be working with the actress.  

Meanwhile, Olivia, who has no plans to return to USC, also faced swift rebuke, losing a number of sponsorships and advertising deals. In the year since the scandal first erupted, Olivia and her sister, Isabella, are gradually returning to the spotlight, with Olivia breaking her silence on Red Table Talk. A source told ET that the sisters are both "hanging in there" and doing "a lot better now" than they were when their parents were first convicted.

In total, 33 parents face charges, with 14 of them pleading guilty and 21 of them sentenced. Aside from Huffman and Loughlin, some of the other notable names include Gamal Aziz, former President and COO of Wynn Resorts and former CEO of MGM Resorts International; Douglas M. Hodge, former CEO of PIMCO; Marci Palatella, wife of former San Francisco 49ers guard Lou Palatella; and David Sidoo, Canadian businessman and former Canadian Football League player.

What Is the Lifetime Movie About?

In the months that followed, Hollywood scooped up the rights to tell versions of this story onscreen. The first of those was a TV movie starring Huffman’s former American Crime co-star, Penelope Ann Miller, as one of the parents who attempts to fraud the system in order to get her child into an elite university. 

“It’s a cautionary tale,” Miller tells ET of The College Admissions Scandal. (Part of Lifetime’s ongoing “ripped from the headlines” series, the film follows Escaping the NXIVM Cult about Smallville actress Allison Mack and the sex cult.) 

While “ripped from the headlines,” Lifetime’s film does not depict the stories of Huffman and Loughlin. In fact, the movie’s two wealthy mothers, high-profile interior designer Caroline (Miller) and successful financial services firm owner Bethany (Mia Kirshner), are a composite of the many parents indicted in the case. 

The two willingly partake in college admissions consultant Rick Singer’s (Michael Shanks) offer to take a side door into the prestigious institutions of their dreams, from inflating SAT scores to faking participating in school sports. But when Singer gets caught, he cooperates with the FBI and exposes everyone else involved, including the mothers who risked everything for their kids and now must face the consequences of their crimes. 

“This story is about privilege and corruption, and it's about people who don't follow the rules because they think they're above rules," Kirshner explains. “I think it's a story about capitalism and greed, so it was fascinating how this played out and their conscience around it.”

Ultimately, the film shows “how this whole thing began, how it unfolded, how it got exposed -- the behind-the-scenes look, if you will,” says Miller, who describes her character as naive. The actress believes Caroline “gets so caught up in her world and what she wants for her son and what she thinks is the best for him that she is not fully aware of what she's getting involved in.”

What Is the Netflix Documentary About?

The second major project, which is now streaming on Netflix, is a true-crime documentary from Chris Smith and Jon Karmen, the filmmakers behind the Emmy-nominated film, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is a deep dive into a fraudulent scheme that exposed the lengths which the wealthy would go to get their unqualified kids into marquee secondary educational institutions. The film goes beyond the “celebrity-driven headlines,” often detailing Huffman and Loughlin’s every move, and examines how Singer managed to convince his clients into cheating the system.

While Huffman, Loughlin or their family members do not participate in the project, both women are very much part of the larger story, as various people associated with Singer explain how parents got roped into his scheme.

“This documentary is like pulling a stone up out in the woods and exposing a lot of creatures that are underneath that stone and we get the opportunity to look at what those injustices look like,” says Matthew Modine, who portrays Singer in scenes alongside WandaVision star Josh Stamberg (Bill McGlashan) and others as they reenact phone calls that were wiretapped and later used by the prosecution to bring charges against the parents.

“Thinking ahead that there was a good chance that we wouldn't have access to Rick Singer and we wouldn't have access to the parents, it seemed like a great way to open a window into that world,” Smith tells ET of using reenactments of the wiretapped calls to help tell the story. 

Which is ultimately about “privilege,” Modine adds. “And the real victims in this story are the children.” The actor goes on to say that what people need to remember is that “it is so important when your child is learning to walk, they have to fall down. You can’t be there to catch them all the time.”

When it comes to a lesson-learned from this, which there are many, Smith says, “If there are other people like Rick Singer out there, I would assume the parents would definitely think twice before engaging in something similar.”

As for Huffman and Loughlin, both seem to be steering clear of the documentary. A source told ET that the latter is trying to "focus on the positive" as the film debuts on the streaming platform, adding that “she wants nothing more than for time to pass so people won't be talking about the college scandal anymore.”  

Meanwhile, the former Desperate Housewives star “will not be watching Operation Varsity Blues,” another source said, adding: “Felicity’s life is back to normal... and she has a big project in the works.”

This article has been updated to reflect recent developments in the case, the latest projects and interviews with ET. For more recent news, see below: