2 in Houston charged in college bribery scheme

Fifty people, including at least two people in the Houston area, were charged in a sweeping college admissions bribery case in federal court today.

Lisa "Niki" Williams and Martin Fox are both charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering.

According to court documents, Williams was employed as an assistant teacher at a public school in Houston and served as a compensated standardized test administrator for the College Board and ACT, Inc.

Court documents say Fox was employed as the president of a private tennis academy and camp in Houston.

The FBI says Williams and Fox were both arrested in Houston this morning. The FBI in Houston also arrested 59-year-old John Wilson, the founder and CEO of a private equity and real eastate development firm in Massachusetts, who is charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in this case.

A spokesperson for ACT released the following statement on Tuesday:

ACT commends the actions taken by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts and other law enforcement units to investigate and uncover these unlawful activities by several individuals. We appreciate the efforts of the authorities and the attention that they have brought to the importance of fairness in testing. We have been fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts and other law enforcement units on this case to identify and expose the few bad actors who have attempted to undermine a fair testing environment. We will continue to assist in this ongoing investigation to ensure individuals involved are held accountable for their actions.

ACT contracts with thousands of people to locally administer the ACT around the country. These individuals certify to follow ACT's policies and procedures to administer the ACT test. In these cases, the two charged individuals allegedly did not follow ACT's rules.

ACT is committed to ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned in school through their hard work. No student should have an unfair advantage over any other. The integrity of the ACT scores that we send to colleges and scholarship agencies is of critical importance to students and their parents. ACT works hard to ensure that the ACT scores we report to colleges are fairly earned. The ACT was founded in 1959 to extend opportunities to those who engage in honest, hard work; it remains the foundation of our mission today. We encourage anyone with information regarding possible misconduct on the ACT to report that information using ACT’s anonymous Test Security Hotline.  More information on the investigation can be found here: https://www.justice.gov/usao-ma/investigations-college-admissions-and-testing-bribery-scheme  

In Austin, the Department of Justice says 54-year-old Michael Center, the head coach of men's tennis at the University of texas at Austin, is charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

Fifty people, including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged in a scheme in which wealthy parents bribed college coaches and insiders at testing centers to help get their children into some of the most elite schools in the country, federal prosecutors said. 

"These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the $25 million federal bribery case.

He called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.

At least nine athletic coaches and dozens of parents were among those charged. A total of 46 people were arrested by midday, including Huffman and Loughlin, in an investigation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, federal authorities said.

Prosecutors said parents paid an admissions consultant from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to label their children as recruited athletes, to alter test scores and to have others take online classes to boost their children's chances of getting into schools.

Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children's admission, officials said.

"For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected," Lelling said.

Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, he said.

No students were charged. Authorities said in many cases the students were not aware of the fraud.

The coaches worked at such schools as Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.

Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, tennis and volleyball accepted bribes to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. That, in turn, boosted the students' chances of admission.

The bribes allegedly came through an admissions consulting company in Newport Beach, California. Authorities said parents paid the founder of the Edge College & Career Network approximately $25 million to get their children into college.

Loughlin appeared in the ABC sitcom "Full House," and Huffman starred in ABC's "Desperate Housewives." Both were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud.

Court documents said Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the college entrance cheating scam.

Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained the scam to them. The cooperator told investigators that Huffman and her spouse "agreed to the plan."

A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment. Messages seeking comment from Huffman's representatives were not immediately returned.

The Associated Press Contributed to this report.