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Former USC admissions officer admits he made money in grad school scheme

International students who were "not otherwise qualified for admission" got in with help from David Chong.
Image: University of Southern California's Engemann Student Health Center
Students walk near the entrance to the Engemann Student Health Center on the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles on May 17, 2018.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images file

LOS ANGELES — A former University of Southern California admissions officer profited by making phony profiles for unqualified students from China and getting them into the private Los Angeles school, prosecutors said Wednesday.

David Chong, 36, an assistant director in USC's Office of Graduate Admissions from 2008 to 2016, agreed to plead guilty to a count of wire fraud, according to court documents unsealed Wednesday.

The case, led by federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, is separate from the Boston-based "Operation Varsity Blues," which broke up a huge college admission scam last year.

From February 2015 to December 2018, Chong solicited and received payments of $8,000 to $12,000 to help undergraduates from China gain competitive spots in USC graduate programs, according to the plea agreement. Chong netted about $40,000 from the scheme, officials say.

The international students were "not otherwise qualified for admission," according to the plea agreement.

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Chong prepared false supporting documents that included fraudulent recommendations and inflated grades, prosecutors said. He even offered a sliding payment scale depending on how much he'd have to fake a student's qualifications, according to officials.

In a 2017 e-mail exchange with a prospective client, Chong said he'd charge $5,000 for a student who had a 3.0 grade-point average and a "decent" score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, prosecutors said. But it'd cost $15,000 to help admit a student with a low GPA, to go along with a surrogate test taker, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors don't know whether Chong followed through to arrange for a surrogate test taker.

"The university has cooperated with the government's investigation," USC said in a statement. "Chong concealed these actions from the university and continued engaging in them for two and a half years after he left USC. Based on what we know, these actions were isolated to one rogue former employee."

No court date for Chong to formally plead guilty or be sentenced has been set. He could be sentenced to up to 14 months, according to federal guidelines.

"He knew what he did was wrong, but he also thought he was helping people," defense attorney Stanley Friedman told NBC News.

Chong will ask for probation or house arrest. He is a U.S. citizen but had moved to China to start a business when he learned of the prosecution earlier this year, according to Friedman.

Chong opted to return to the United States rather than force an extradition fight — assuming prosecutors would have pushed it that far, Friedman said.

"He acknowledged what he did was wrong and wanted to take responsibility for it," Friedman said.