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A look inside the case to take down a massive college cheating scheme

The criminal case against dozens of parents exposed how the wealthy and connected were paying to get their children into elite universities.

It's been called the biggest college admissions cheating case ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice: Operation Varsity Blues, in which wealthy parents paid thousands in bribes to get their children admitted into some of the country's top universities.

Test scores were inflated, and students were recruited as athletes even though they didn't play sports or did not play them at a competitive level. Athletic records were faked.

The mastermind of the scheme, William "Rick" Singer, who operated a for-profit college counseling and preparation business, pleaded guilty in the $25 million scheme and said he put everything in place.

"Desperate Housewives" actor Felicity Huffman served almost two weeks in prison. "Full House" actor Lori Loughlin served two months. Among those who have pleaded guilty are top CEOs and lawyers. The longest sentence handed down to a parent so far has been nine months.

"I do think they were fair," Andrew Lelling, former U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, told NBC's "TODAY" show.

"One of the hardest things about a case like this, is that you don't want to treat the wealthy and famous any better than anybody else in the criminal justice system — but you also don't want to treat them worse," said Lelling, who called the sentences proportional to their crimes.

A Netflix documentary, "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal," is set to be released Wednesday.

The criminal case dealt with wealth, privilege and a basic sense of fairness in the admissions process for students across the country vying for spots at top universities.

"This case comes along, and I think it reaffirmed a lot of people's worst fears," Lelling said.

More than 50 people were charged. Many have pleaded guilty, but not all. Miami investment firm CEO Robert Zangrillo was pardoned by President Donald Trump in January.

The scheme involved payments to Singer and bribes to college entrance exam administrators and some coaches.

It included having ACT and SAT scores corrected in order to inflate those scores; or having children recruited as student-athletes when they did not participate in the sports or did so but not at a competitive level, or both.

Lelling said he thinks there were more parents involved than those charged, whom prosecutors felt they did not have enough evidence to charge.

Charges in Operation Varsity Blues were announced in March 2019.

Image: Lori Loughlin
Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli leave the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on Aug. 27, 2019.John Tlumacki / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Investigators were dealing with a totally unrelated securities fraud case when a witness tipped off officials that coaches were being bribed to admit students with fake athletic profiles, Lelling said.

When they got to Singer and confronted him, he cooperated and wore a wire as authorities developed the case. Singer has not yet been sentenced.

Some parents fought charges, including Loughlin. Her attorneys argued that the parents believed the payments were donations that would help the school rather than bribes. But Loughlin and her husband pleaded guilty in May.

Lelling said the universities were victims, too, and that there have been some signs that they have strengthened their auditing procedures.

There will still be cases of people trying to cheat in order to get their children into elite U.S. universities, Lelling said, but he added: "I do think Rick Singer’s is the most ambitious one on record."

"Its sheer extent, the sheer number of parents involved,and the sheer intricacy of Rick Singer’s fraud, I think makes that case a special case," he said. "I don't think you're going to see a lot of cases like that."