Austin

UT coach, actresses charged in admissions scheme involving UT, others

AUSTIN (KXAN) — FBI investigators and federal prosecutors busted the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice, officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office announced in a press conference Tuesday. Fifty people were charged in connection with the scam, including a University of Texas at Austin coach, who has been arrested.

The two ways officials say ringleader William Singer of California fraudulently got students into elite schools were either by bribing coaches to accept students through the athletic track or by bribing ACT and SAT administrators to allow someone else to take the test for students or change their answers later. Officials say Singer's non-profit Key Worldwide Foundation was a front for his scams. He's accused of accepting up to $25 million.

UT Tennis Coach Michael Center was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. He allegedly accepted a $100,000 bribe to get a student into UT through the tennis program. He had his initial appearance at the federal courthouse in Austin Tuesday afternoon, where bail was set at $50,000. He paid $5,000 in cash and was released from custody. 

As he was leaving his first court appearance, when we asked him, "Coach Center, do you have anything to say about your charge?" he replied, "Well, we have a match tonight. You guys can go watch the match."

Before he left, he added, "I really can't say anything. I'm disappointed I won't be there tonight."

Center will later have to go to court in Massachusetts, where the main investigation is happening. UT confirms he's been placed on leave.

Texas Athletic Director Chris Del Conte added additional details to Center's status in his statement Tuesday afternoon:

“It’s a difficult day in our department, as we received reports that a member of our staff is accused of wrongdoing. As was discussed in the University’s statement earlier, our Men’s Tennis Coach, Michael Center, has been charged by federal authorities in a criminal effort involving admissions. We have placed Coach Center on leave until further notice while we cooperate with the federal law enforcement authorities in reviewing this situation. In the meantime, with our Men’s Tennis team in the middle of its competitive season, associate head coach Bruce Berque, will serve as our interim head coach going forward as we continue to gather information.”

Center's attorney Dan Cogdell told KXAN his client is innocent.

"It's a very serious allegation, but he is an outstanding human being. He's an outstanding coach," Cogdell said. 

The criminal complaint failed against Center included a phone conversation transcript, in which Center discussed accepting the bribe with an unnamed witness. 

When asked about that, Cogdell said, "Nothing is black and white until it's subject to cross examination. I don't care what is in the transcript or what is in the complaint. Until a witness testifies, it means nothing."

Cogdell went on to say, "He's devastated by the accusation. He's a guy without so much as a jaywalking ticket. He's a fine man. He's a great coach. He's a great father. He's devastated by the accusation."

Two Houston-area people are accused of accepting bribes — Lisa 'Niki' Williams, an ACT administrator, and Martin Fox, who was the president of a private tennis academy and camp. Both are charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering. 

A fourth Texan, John Wilson, faces charges similar to Center, as do Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

Students who were involved in the scheme attended or tried to attend UT, Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, the University of San Diego, USC, Wake Forest and Yale. 

The people charged in the scam include:

  • Three people who organized the scams
  • Two SAT or ACT test administrators
  • One exam proctor
  • One college administrator
  • Nine coaches at elite schools
  • 33 parents 

Athletics Scheme

Singer allegedly helped children of rich parents get into elite schools through the athletic track by bribing coaches and also creating impressive fake athletic profiles for their kids. 

"In many instances, Singer helped parents take staged photographs of their children engaged in particular sports," the official said. Several NCAA Division 1 coaches were indicted in this scheme. 

"In return for bribes, these coaches agreed to pretend that certain applicants were recruited as competitive athletes, when in fact the applicants were not," an official with the U.S. Attorney's Office said. "As the coaches knew, the students' athletic credentials had been fabricated." 

Among those charged is UT tennis coach Michael Center. According to documents, in 2015, Houston-area tennis academy president Fox introduced scam ringleader Singer to a UT tennis coach to gain admission for a student from California. The coach and Fox both allegedly received $100,000. The student didn't play tennis competitively, but was reportedly admitted and was a recruit for the team.

UT Tennis recruitment standards
  • Considered a "headcount" sport. The roster size (number) may vary from year to year
  • Texas allocates 4.5 scholarships toward the men's tennis program. The scholarship size and where it's directed is granted at the head coach's discretion
  • Potential recruits applying for admission to the University are held to different admission standards compared to other prospective students

However, he withdrew from the UT tennis team and gave up his scholarship.

After news broke of Center's indictment in the bribery scheme, UT officials issued a statement Tuesday that read: 

"Integrity in admissions is vital to the academic and ethical standards of our university. The University of Texas at Austin is cooperating with federal investigators and is concerned by the allegations raised, which run counter to the university’s values. Men’s Tennis Coach Michael Center was placed on leave as soon as we learned of the charges against him, which are being fully investigated. We are continuing to gather information and review our processes. Based on what we know at present, we believe this was an isolated incident in 2015 that involved one coach and no other university employees or officers."

Cheating scheme

Singer was a central figure in the scheme, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. He will plead guilty Tuesday on charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. 

"Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Singer about $25 million total to guarantee their children's admission to elite schools," officials said. "Beyond enriching himself, Singer used that money to bribe college officials, Division 1 coaches, college exam administrators, all to secure admission for the children of his clients, not on their merits but through fraud." 

Parents allegedly paid Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 for someone to take the SAT or ACT for their child or to correct their child's answers afterward. 

"To facilitate the scam, Singer counseled parents to take their children to a therapist and get a letter saying that because of purported learning disabilities or other issues, the child needed additional time to complete the ACT or the SAT," the official said. 

Students then took the test one-on-one with a bribed exam proctor in Houston or in California.

The ACT released a statement Tuesday regarding the investigation:

"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."

UT Tennis Responds

The Longhorn men's tennis team played its first match just hours after their coach was arrested. 

The program is ranked fourth in the nation and losing its leader of 18 years has the potential to greatly impact the team. Interim Coach Bruce Berque said he didn't have any reason to believe Center was doing anything illegal.

 

"No, absolutely not," Berque said. "We were all pretty shocked today and I think we're all still in a state of shock."

Berque confirmed the team held a meeting with the players along with leaders of the UT Athletic Department.

"None of us really know anything," he said. "We just got together and confirmed that we didn't know anything more than they did. The leadership of Texas Athletics and the university doesn't really know more than we've read."

The team went on to win its match against Rice 5-2.



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