Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among more than 40 people charged over a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and insiders at testing centres to help get their children into some of the most elite schools in the United States.
Authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the US Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated 25 million US dollars (£19 million) in bribes.
At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance, fashion, the food and beverage industry and other fields, were charged.
Dozens, including Huffman, the Emmy-winning star of ABC’s Desperate Housewives, were arrested by midday.
“These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” prosecutor Andrew Lelling said in announcing the results of a fraud and conspiracy investigation code-named Operation Varsity Blues.
The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.
Two more of those charged — Stanford’s sailing coach and the college admissions consultant at the very centre of the scheme — pleaded guilty on Tuesday in Boston. Others appeared in court and were released on bail.
Huffman appeared in a Los Angeles courthouse where a magistrate judge said she could be released on a 250,000 dollar (£191,000) bond.
The actress looked repeatedly at her husband, actor William H Macy, who was sitting in the audience during the proceedings.
Her lawyer cited her community ties in asking that the actress be released on her own recognisance, which the judge refused to grant.
“She’s simply not the kind of person who is going to become an international fugitive,” Huffman’s lawyer, Evan A Jeaness said in court.
Huffman is scheduled to appear in court in Boston on March 29.
On Wednesday, a judge allowed Loughlin to be released on a one million dollar bond and travel to the area around Vancouver, Canada, to work but otherwise imposed strict travel restrictions.
Magistrate Judge Steven Kim said she must surrender her passport in December, inform the court of her travel plans and provide evidence of where she’s been if asked.
Loughlin’s lawyer Perry Viscounty declined comment outside the courtroom, where a day earlier her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, was freed on similar terms.
No students were charged, with authorities saying that in many cases the teenagers were unaware of what was going on.
The central figure in the scheme was identified as admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network of Newport Beach, California.
He pleaded guilty, as did Stanford’s John Vandemoer.
Singer’s lawyer, Donald Heller, said his client intended to cooperate fully with prosecutors and was “remorseful and contrite and wants to move on with his life”.
Prosecutors said that parents paid Singer big money from 2011 until last month to bribe coaches and administrators to falsely make their children look like star athletes to boost their chances of getting accepted.
The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students, and paid off insiders at testing centres to correct students’ answers.
Some parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and some as much as 6.5 million dollars (£5 million) to guarantee their children’s admission, officials said.
Several defendants, including Huffman, were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Mr Lelling said the investigation was continuing and authorities believed other parents were involved.
The investigation began when authorities received a tip about the scheme from someone they were interviewing in a separate case, Mr Lelling said. He did not elaborate.
Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball took payoffs to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. Once they were accepted, many of these students did not play the sports in which they supposedly excelled.
The applicants’ athletic credentials were falsified with the help of staged photographs of them playing sports, or doctored photos in which their faces were pasted onto the bodies of genuine athletes, authorities said.
Prosecutors said parents were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves and get extra time. That made it easier to pull off the tampering, prosecutors said.
Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom Full House in the 1980s and 90s.
A magistrate judge in Los Angeles set a 1 million dollar (£760,000) bond for Giannulli. He and Huffman were both told to surrender their passports.
Loughlin and her husband allegedly gave 500,000 dollars (£380,000) to have their two daughters labelled as recruits to the USC crew team, even though neither participated in the sport.
Their 19-year-old daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, a social media star with a popular YouTube channel, is now at USC.
Court documents said Huffman paid 15,000 dollars (£11,000) that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the entrance-exam cheating scam.
Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he “controlled” a testing centre and could have somebody secretly change her daughter’s answers. The person told investigators the couple agreed to the plan.
Macy was not charged; authorities did not say why.
The couple’s daughter, Sofia, is an aspiring actress who attends Los Angeles High School of the Arts.
A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment.