California

College cheating scandal prompts resignations and questions at elite prep schools

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Harvard-Westlake in Studio City is among the private schools that received subpoenas from prosecutors seeking information about students involved in the college admissions scandal. The prep schools are not targets of the investigation.
(Los Angeles Times)

The college admissions cheating scandal is roiling some of Southern California’s most elite prep schools, leading to resignations and questions as federal prosecutors seek student records from the institutions.

Douglas Hodge and Michelle Janavs, two of the parents charged in the wide-reaching probe, have resigned from their positions on the board of trustees for the famed Sage Hill School in Newport Beach. They are accused of paying bribes to get their children into schools with fake athletic achievements.

Law enforcement sources told The Times that several top private schools in the L.A. area, including the elite Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, where tuition this year runs $38,400, received subpoenas from prosecutors seeking information about some of the students involved in the fraud case.

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Although the prep schools are not targets of the investigation, prosecutors want to know whether the parents and others accused in the case sought or received help from the schools, the sources said.

Several former Harvard-Westlake parents used the services of William “Rick” Singer, the admitted mastermind of “side door” entries to prestigious universities, sources told The Times. One of them is Jane Buckingham, a marketing guru whose daughter attended the school until last year.

Buckingham is accused of paying $50,000 for someone else to take her son’s ACT exam in July while she arranged for the teenager to take a test at home to make him think he had completed the exam. She has pleaded not guilty.

In a statement provided to The Times, Harvard-Westlake said it was conducting an internal review to “fully understand the scope of any relationship that Singer may have had with our families.”

“We will also provide any information that authorities request that will help them with their continuing investigation,” the school said. “Harvard-Westlake has an unwavering commitment to integrity and fairness in the college admissions.”

Singer, who has pleaded guilty to a slew of federal charges and cooperated with the federal government since September, ran his for-profit college counseling business and the nonprofit he used to funnel bribes from wealthy parents to college administrators and coaches from Newport Beach.

He had ties to Sage Hill School and L.A.’s Loyola High School, whose website boasts that its students have gone off to Ivy Leagues and other top universities. Tax documents show that Singer’s nonprofit, Key Worldwide Foundation, gave $39,900 to Loyola in 2016. It’s unclear how the funds were distributed.

Neither Sage Hill nor Loyola responded to inquiries about whether they received subpoenas.

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Hodge, the 61-year-old former chief executive of Newport Beach-based Pacific Investment Management Co., is accused of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to Singer and his various associates to get his daughters into USC and Georgetown as fake athletic recruits.

A charging document states the Sage Hill School trustee worked with Singer as far back as 2008. That year, his daughter’s application to Georgetown said she had won multiple U.S. Tennis Assn. tournaments. But the association’s records indicate she never played a match, the document said.

Four years later, the USC application for Hodge’s younger daughter said she was co-captain of a Japanese national soccer team and an All-American midfielder for a club team in the U.S. The university’s soccer coaches in February 2013 were allegedly bribed to recommend her as a soccer recruit.

The following month, she was accepted. She attended USC that fall, but did not join the soccer team.

Janavs, a Newport Beach resident and a former executive in her family’s food manufacturing business, is accused of paying large sums to get her two daughters into prestigious schools through cheating on the ACT and lying about one’s athletic achievements.

She bribed a USC senior associate athletic director last year to falsely pitch her older daughter as a competitive beach volleyball player who won multiple tournaments in California, according to court documents. Through Singer, she also allegedly arranged for her daughter to take the ACT with extended time at a West Hollywood test center in 2017. She scored a 32 out of 36.

When it came to her younger daughter, court records suggest Janavs was more cautious.

“[My younger daughter] is not like [my older daughter].… She’s not stupid,” Janavs said, according to a transcript of a recorded conversation included in the charging documents. “How do you do this without telling the kids what you’re doing?”

In another conversation, Janavs and Singer discussed plans to have a proctor doctor her younger daughter’s ACT exam. Janavs appeared to be frustrated, because the daughter told her that she wanted to take the test over and over until she scored a 34.

“If she gets a 33 and tells me she’s gotta take it again, then you deal with her,” Janavs said, according to court records.

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Days before her daughter took the test in February, Janavs mailed a $25,000 check to Singer’s nonprofit, records show.

Both Hodge and Janavs have pleaded not guilty.

USC said that six applicants in the current cycle who are linked to the scheme will be denied admission. The university is reviewing, one by one, the cases of current students and graduates involved in the scam.

But the fallout extends far beyond the families and administrators involved in the scandal. Two Stanford University students on Wednesday filed a federal class-action lawsuit against eight colleges ensnared in the scandal, alleging that the rigged system denied them a fair chance to matriculate at the elite institutions and could tarnish their degrees.

Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods allege they were among those cast aside in the admissions process.

Olsen had nearly perfect SAT and ACT scores and had participated in dance, qualifying for the elite dancing squad at Stanford, when she graduated from high school. She applied to Yale in 2017 and paid an application fee of about $80, but was rejected by the university, according to the lawsuit.

“Had she known that the system at Yale University was warped and rigged by fraud, she would not have spent the money to apply to the school,” the lawsuit states. “She also did not receive what she paid for — a fair admissions consideration process.”

Woods has a similar story, according to the lawsuit. She applied to USC in 2017 with stellar marks on her college entrance exams, paid the $85 application fee and was denied admission.

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“At the time she applied, Woods similarly was never informed that the process of admission at USC was an unfair, rigged process, in which parents could buy their way into the university through bribery and dishonest schemes,” the lawsuit states.

The students also claim that since Stanford is linked to the scandal, their degrees may be tainted. One of their concerns is that prospective employers may now question whether they were admitted to the university on their own merits or whether their parents were willing to pay bribes to guarantee their admission, according to the lawsuit.