The story of the college admissions scandal that produced more than fifty indictments against some very wealthy parents, and some famous parents, too, has been turned into a documentary by Netflix. Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal premieres on the streaming service on March 17 – green beer in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day optional.
The FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues was an investigation into a substantial college admissions scam. The investigation and subsequent indictments were in the news for months, mostly because of some famous clients of Rick Singer. If a couple of well-known actresses had not been caught up in the scandal, I doubt the story would have been so prominently featured in media coverage for so long. Squeaky clean Lori Loughlin a.k.a. Aunt Becky from Full House and Desperate Housewives cast member Felicity Huffman found themselves in legal trouble for paying big bucks to guarantee admission to college for their children.
Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, were accused of paying bribes to get their two daughters, Bella and Olivia Jade, into the University of Southern California. Thanks to Rick Singer’s efforts, they were recruited for the crew team even though the girls did not participate in a crew. Felicity Huffman was accused of paying $15,000 to William Rick Singer’s fake charity to help her eldest daughter, Sophia, cheat on the SATs. Huffman’s actor husband, William H. Macy, was not charged with any connection to the scam. That is something I still don’t understand – why did Macy get off while his wife took the fall? Surely she didn’t ok a phony SAT scam for her daughter without her husband’s knowledge.
The interesting part to me is the use of recreated wiretapped conversations between wealthy parents and Rick Singer. What did Singer promise and were the parents as aware as they should have been of the legal risks they were taking? In the trailer, you can hear one father asking, “Is there any risk if this thing blows up in my face?” I wonder how long his prison sentence is now.
“We help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school.” That was Rick Singer’s description of what exactly he did for wealthy parents. He boasted of “side doors” he created for students unable to get into schools on their own. Those side doors were his schemes for admission and the price the parents were willing to pay him.
It was interesting to watch this play out. I wrote about Operation Oxford Blues several times. There were varying degrees to which the parents were willing to go along with the FBI once they were caught. Some, like Felicity Huffman, clearly wanted the story to be out of the news as quickly as possible. She was certainly aware, to some extent, that what she was doing for her older daughter was wrong because she made arrangements to do the same for her second daughter but then decided to not go through with the plan. Huffman pleaded guilty right away and received one of the lighter jail sentences – she got fourteen days but served eleven. She’s already pursuing her acting comeback. She has been cast in “a major broadcast production”. Lori Loughlin and her husband did the opposite of Huffman. They pleaded not guilty and pursued legal action to get the charges dropped or reduced. Nothing went their way in court and they finally pleaded guilty and were sentenced. Loughlin is out now and her husband, who received a longer sentence, has been denied his request for early release due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is unclear if Loughlin will be able to return to her acting career.
Though Huffman has already been cast in a major broadcast project, for both actresses, how they move forward will be crucial as they work to make their way back into America’s living rooms. With any new show or film comes a press tour, and even after sitting down with an esteemed journalist for the most perfectly-conducted mea culpa, in the age of Twitter and Google, this story will follow participants of the college scandal for years to come.
The differences in how Huffman and Loughlin handled the situation are certainly noteworthy in the court of public opinion, more significant are the severity of the charges. Loughlin committed more egregious crimes than Huffman, who admitted to paying $15,000 towards her daughter’s faulty college admission, in comparison to the half a million dollars paid by Loughlin and her husband, who played a more active role in the scandal.
“Lori won’t have as easy of a time coming back for a couple of reasons,” Bragman predicts. “Lori hasn’t been cast in the range of parts that Felicity has been. And I don’t think she handled the situation quite as deftly as it could have been handled – and that’s an understatement.”
Whether any network or studio will gamble on Loughlin remains to be seen. But by casting either Loughlin or Huffman, there is a risk of audience alienation, especially in the midst of a pandemic that has resulted in soaring unemployment numbers for millions of Americans, who very well may perceive the college scandal as a case of upper-crust entitlement; not a case of making an honest mistake.
The Netflix documentary will likely bring the college admissions scandal back to the forefront in news coverage, at least when it is first released. It is reported that it shines an unflattering light on a scam centered around wealthy privileged families and their sense of entitlement. How could it not? That is exactly what the scam was all about. Rick Singer built a business around admissions fraud and was paid handsomely for it. The real victims aren’t the parents who were found guilty and sentenced to jail or even Rick Singer himself. The real victims of this kind of fraud are the high school seniors who were denied admission to the college of their choice because someone else’s parent agreed to write a big check to Singer.
Wealthy parents have written checks to fund a new building on a campus or sponsor a visiting fellow on campus to grease the wheel for their child’s college admission. It’s the action of a privileged few, to be sure, but it seems less obnoxious than feeding corrupt scum like Singer who made a career out of it.