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.)
In the months that followed, the fallout was swift for those involved in the scam -- especially Huffman and Loughlin, who saw their star power fall to varying degrees -- while Hollywood scooped up the rights to tell versions of this story onscreen. The first of those is 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.
Now that the network has turned its attention to the bribery scandal, here’s what to know about the investigation, its key players and the new movie.
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.
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.
Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin
While over 30 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, 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 and Isabella -- 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.” Their case is still ongoing, with the actress’ next court date scheduled for January 2020.
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.
John Stamos, Loughlin’s longtime Full House co-star, told ET over the summer that “it's a difficult situation for everyone involved.” A month later, When Calls the Heart star Erin Krakow said that she “miss[es] her very much” while thanking fans for continuing “to support the show and rally around us.”
College Admissions Scandal Movie
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. What they do share with Huffman, Loughlin and the others is an obsession with getting their teenage kids into the best possible college -- and doing whatever it takes to get them there.
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.”
Kirshner, meanwhile, has quite a different take on Bethany. “My character is so corrupt, greedy, narcissistic, self-centered,” she says, adding, “And the dialogue is hilarious. I'm glad that they're able to capture the humor about this as well.”