Jennifer Medina and Katie Benner, New York Times

United States Federal prosecutors charged more than two dozen people on Tuesday in a major college admission scandal that involved wealthy parents, including Hollywood celebrities and prominent business leaders, paying bribes to get their children into elite American universities.

Thirty-three parents were charged in the case. Also implicated were top college coaches, who were accused of accepting millions of dollars to help admit students to Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest, the University of Southern California and other schools, regardless of their academic or sports ability, officials said.

Along with Hollywood stars Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, those charged included prominent business leaders, a fashion designer and a top lawyer, officials said.

The case unveiled Tuesday was stunning in its breadth and audacity. It was the Justice Department’s largest ever education prosecution, a sprawling investigation that involved 200 agents nationwide and resulted in the arrest of 50 people in six states.

The charges also underscored how important college has become as a primary determinate of prosperity and success in America, at the same time that admissions have become more competitive and cutthroat. Nearly 50 parents of the nation’s wealthiest and most privileged students bribed and cheated to secure spots for their children at top universities, not only cheating the system, but potentially cheating other hard-working students out of a chance at a college education.

“The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” Andrew E. Lelling, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said Tuesday during a news conference. Mr. Lelling said that those privileged parents used their wealth to create a separate and unfair admissions process for their students.

But, Mr. Lelling said, “there will not be a separate criminal justice system” for them.

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“The real victims in this case are the hardworking students,” who were displaced in the admissions process by “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in,” Mr. Lelling said.

At the center of the sweeping financial crime and fraud case is William Rick Singer, the founder of a college preparatory business called the Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key.

Mr. Singer, who pleaded guilty to the charges and cooperated with federal prosecutors, used the Key and its nonprofit arm, Key Worldwide Foundation, which is based in Newport Beach, Calif., to help students cheat on their standardized tests and classes, and pay bribes to the coaches who could get them into college with fake athletic credentials.

Mr. Singer enabled students to cheat on the standardized tests that schools use to evaluate applicants, the SAT and the ACT. Mr. Lelling said that Ms. Huffman participated in the SAT cheating portion of the scam.

Mr. Singer also bribed Division 1 athletic coaches to tell admissions officers that they wanted certain students, even though the students did not have the necessary athletic credentials.

Mr. Lelling said that the first lead in the case came when the target of an entirely separate investigation gave prosecutors a tip that the bribery and cheating might be occurring.


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