William “Bill” Ferguson, the head volleyball coach at Wake Forest University, has been placed on administrative leave after being charged with racketeering in a massive national college admissions bribery case that includes wealthy executives and Hollywood actresses.
Ferguson is one of 12 defendants who are either collegiate coaches or involved with private athletics groups in what federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts call Operation Varsity Blues.
According to prosecutors, parents paid a combined $25 million to an admissions consultant, William Rick Singer, who prosecutors say bribed college coaches and insiders at testing centers to help get the children into some of the most elite schools in the country. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among 50 people nationally to be charged in the case.
“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said. He called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.
The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation and no students have been charged, Lelling said.
According to the more than 230-page indictment, Ferguson is accused of accepting $100,000 from Singer to help the daughter of a Singer client get into Wake Forest after she had been put on a wait list.
Wake Forest said in an initial statement that “it is aware of the allegations regarding head volleyball coach Bill Ferguson. The university has retained outside legal counsel to look into this matter.”
WFU President Nathan Hatch later sent an email to students, faculty and staff about the matter. “The broader criminal investigation also alleges widespread cheating on admissions exams; however, these allegations do not pertain to Wake Forest,” Hatch wrote. “The indictment does not allege misconduct by the university or any other employees.”
Wake Forest will continue to cooperate fully with federal authorities, Hatch wrote.
“The alleged conduct is in direct conflict with the values and integrity of Wake Forest and its athletics program,” Hatch wrote.
The university said it would have no further comment, including when asked about the accuracy of a Justice news release, which listed Ferguson as a former coach.
Singer operated two groups: The Edge College & Career Network LLC, a for-profit college counseling and preparation business based in Newport Beach, Calif.; and The Key Worldwide Foundation, a nonprofit also based in Newport Beach that was established as a charity in 2012.
Prosecutors said Singer in 2017 had one of his charitable accounts send $50,000 to a private volleyball camp that Ferguson controlled, $40,000 to Wake Forest women’s volleyball program and $10,000 to the Deacon Club. The university didn’t say in its statement whether it had received the money.
In exchange, prosecutors say, Ferguson agreed to designate the daughter of Singer’s client as a volleyball recruit, which assisted her in being offered admission to the university. It’s unclear whether the student associated with Singer and Ferguson enrolled at the university, whether she joined the volleyball program or if her parents have been charged in the case.
Ferguson would be required to forfeit the $50,000 as part of a criminal judgment.
Grades, test scores
Though a number of universities were affected, the main elements of the indictment appears to focus on the University of Southern California and Georgetown University.
The 12 defendants each face one count of racketeering conspiracy that includes a segment addressing racketeering forfeiture allegations. Racketeering could involve mail fraud, wire fraud and laundering money.
Singer was charged with racketeering conspiracy, money-laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice and pleaded guilty in Boston federal court Tuesday to charges including racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
John Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford University, also pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge.
The scheme operated between 2011 and February 2019, prosecutors said. Prosecutors said parents paid Singer anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to bribe coaches and administrators to label their children as recruited athletes to ensure they got into the schools.
Also charged for their involvement in the scheme are 33 parents and 13 coaches and associates of Singer’s businesses, including two SAT and ACT test administrators. They include Vandemoer, Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, former head soccer coach at Yale University, and Mark Riddell, a counselor at a private school in Bradenton, Fla.
Prosecutors said Singer directed employees of The Key and the KWF to create falsified athletic “profiles” for students, which were then submitted to the universities in support of the students’ applications.
The profiles included fake honors that the students purportedly received and elite teams that they purportedly played on. In some instances, parents supplied Singer with staged photos of their children engaged in athletic activity — such as using a rowing machine or playing water polo.
Prosecutors allege that fake athletic profiles were made to make students look like strong high school athletes when they actually weren’t. Some of the students did not play the sport they were associated with or did not play well enough to be scholarship athletes.
For example, 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.
“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.
The indictment did not include a specific wiretap conversation or other Singer-to-parents conversations connected to Ferguson.
Singer allegedly described the scheme to his customers as a “side door” in which the parents paid Singer under the guise of charitable donations to KWF.
In turn, Singer funneled those payments to programs controlled by the athletic coaches, who then designated the children as recruited athletes — regardless of their athletic experience and abilities. Singer also made bribe payments to most of the coaches personally.
The indictment said Wake Forest typically establishes 128 admissions slots for athletic recruitment. “Recruited students are typically assured of admission to the university provided they meet certain minimum academic standards,” according to the indictment.
Other universities cited have similar admissions policies for recruited athletes.
Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved.
“There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy and I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either,” Lelling said.
Brought in after another scandal
Ferguson has been head coach at Wake since June 4, 2016. He previously coached at the University of Southern California from 2005 until he was fired in 2015 after missing the NCAA Tournament for three consecutive seasons.
Ferguson replaced Ken Murzcek, who resigned at Wake Forest in April 2016 in the face of a second investigation into his treatment of his players over 18 months. The controversy put the spotlight on a program that has struggled to remain competitive in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Athletics Director Ron Wellman announced Ferguson’s hiring in 2016, saying Ferguson was chosen mainly because of his extensive background in the sport. Ferguson had led USC to three NCAA Tournament Final Four appearances.
Wellman, who will retire in May, said in 2016 he saw Ferguson as a coach who would help the team rebuild after the player-treatment scandal.
“I think he will be a healing agent,’’ Wellman said then.
“He’s a communicator and he’s very transparent in everything that he does. So I think that the team will relate well to him and get excited about the future of the program.’’
The university said Tuesday that Randi Smart has been named as interim volleyball coach, effective immediately.