Racketeering Charges and Likely Defenses in “Operation Varsity Blues” Indictment

Today, federal prosecutors made headlines when they announced that the government has charged fifty people with racketeering, fraud, bribery, and money laundering offenses. The government is accusing these individuals of participating in an alleged college admissions scheme through which the defendants helped students get into elite universities by helping them cheat on exams and bribing college coaches and administrators to grant the students scholarships.

As part of its investigation, the government targeted a wide variety of people connected to colleges and the college admissions process, including SAT administrators, exam proctors, college coaches, university administrators, and over thirty parents. The charges are being brought in over ten federal districts, including districts in Florida, Texas, New York, and California. The schools involved include Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest, UCLA, and Georgetown, among others.

Prosecutors have also charged these individuals in different groups and with a variety of crimes. The central allegations, however, are that William Singer and others were engaged in a racketeering enterprise through Singer’s for-profit college counseling and preparation business, The Key. The Key was an organization set up to help students get into the colleges of their choice.

The government has alleged that The Key received money from parents to help their children gain admission to elite colleges and that Singer disguised these payments as donations to his charity. The government also alleges that the individuals running The Key used that money to bribe exam proctors and college coaches in order to cheat on college entrance exams or obtain athletic scholarships, respectively. Singer has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government as it prosecutes other individuals targeted in its investigation.

Twelve exam proctors and college coaches have been charged in an indictment for violations of the federal RICO statute, which criminalizes racketeering. The government is basing its racketeering charges on its allegations that the exam proctors, coaches, and administrators received money in exchange for selecting students for admission and athletic scholarships that the students allegedly didn’t deserve. Meanwhile, prosecutors have filed “criminal complaints” against thirty three parents in which they accuse the parents of joining a criminal conspiracy with individuals associated with The Key in order to help their kids get into college through fraudulent means.

Of course, we shouldn’t rush to judge these people as guilty just because federal prosecutors have been eager to announce charges and hold press conferences regarding an investigation they’ve nicknamed “Operation Varsity Blues.” The presumption of innocence is very important in a case like this, where it looks like the government has overreached in order to get news headlines.

That’s especially true regarding the government’s allegations that The Key and these other individuals were involved in a racketeering enterprise and that the parents were all complicit in that racketeering solely by virtue of paying The Key to help their kids get into college. When we hear “racketeering,” most people think of mob bosses and criminal organizations that rely on violence and extortion. We don’t generally think of cheating on the SAT or kids trying to get into college.

To prove that individuals working for The Key were involved in racketeering under the RICO statute, the government will have to prove that the individuals were engaged in a “pattern of racketeering activity,” which means that they had to commit at least two separate crimes as part of a common scheme. Here, the government is alleging mail fraud, honest services fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering as “predicate offenses.” That means the government will have to prove the elements of each of these offenses as they try to show a “pattern of racketeering activity.”

That could be particularly tricky in proving the racketeering charges against the exam proctors, coaches, and college administrators, especially if these individuals acted independently from each other and without criminal intent. The key to the government’s prosecution will be showing that these people were associated with The Key and part of a broad, illegal operation to secure college admission for students through fraud and bribery.

Regarding this alleged conspiracy by the parents to get their kids into the colleges of their choice, the government will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that each parent knew that The Key would engage in specific crimes, such as bribery and fraud, to get their children admitted into their preferred colleges. The government’s case includes allegations that the parents disguised payments to The Key as charitable contributions because they knew they were hiring The Key to do something illegal.

It’s not enough for the government to show that the parents should have known something illegal was happening, however, or that they suspected something unethical was happening. And the fact that some of the parents may have referred each other to The Key certainly isn’t enough to show a criminal conspiracy. The government must prove the parents knew they were paying The Key to get their children admitted into colleges through the specific crimes of bribes and fraud.