Federal authorities in the United States on Tuesday charged several prominent personalities, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, with fraud in connection with an alleged $25 million-college admissions scheme, Reuters reported. Dozens of people were arrested for helping wealthy Americans commit fraud to get their children admitted to top universities like Stanford and Yale.

William “Rick” Singer, 58, pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. He would charge parents an amount ranging from $100,000 (about Rs 70 lakh) to $2.5 million (about Rs 17.5 crore) to get their child admission into elite universities. The donations were laundered as contributions to a fake charity run by him.

John Vandemoor, a former Stanford University sailing coach who worked with him, also pleaded guilty to racketeering. Rudolph Meredith, the former head coach of Yale University’s women’s football team, was accused of fraud as well.

“I was essentially buying or bribing the coaches for a spot,” said Singer. “And that occurred very frequently.”

So far, prosecutors have named 33 parents, 13 coaches and associates of Singer’s business. Other parents charged include Hercules Capital Chief Executive Officer Manuel Henriquez, law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher’s Co-Chairman Gordon Caplan, and former Chief Executive Officer of investment management firm Pimco, Douglas Hodge.

Huffman, who appeared in television show Desperate Housewives and is married to actor William H Macy, was released on a bond of $250,000 (about Rs 17.4 lakh). The Academy Award nominee was charged with felony and conspiracy to commit mail fraud, CNN reported. Authorities confiscated her passport and the actor will appear in Boston federal court on March 29.

Loughlin played Rebecca Donaldson on Full House and is married to fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli. Both have been charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Giannulli was released on a $1 million (around Rs 7 crore) bond and will appear in the federal court on March 29.

The alleged masterminds of the scam and the parents who paid could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

How the scam worked

The scam involved paying bribes to coaches and fake test-takers and doctoring photographs to show non-athletic applicants as elite competitors to gain admissions. Prosecutors said the scam began in 2011 and also helped children get admitted to the University of Texas, Georgetown University, Wake Forest University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

As part of the scheme, parents were advised to lie to test administrators about their child’s learning disabilities, allowing them additional exam time. The parents were asked to choose a test centre in either Houston, Texas, or in California’s West Hollywood, both of which were controlled by Singer’s company.

Administrators in the centres took bribes to allow Singer’s clients to cheat by either having another person take the exam or by arranging to have the wrong answers corrected. Singer would agree with the parents beforehand on what score they wanted the child to get.

Singer helped parents stage photographs of their children playing sports as well. He even used Photoshop to manipulate children’s faces onto images of elite athletes to showcase their abilities.

“These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” US attorney Andrew Lelling said at a press conference in Boston. “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Both Yale University and the University of Southern California said they were cooperating with the investigation. “The Department of Justice believes that Yale has been the victim of a crime perpetrated by its former women’s soccer coach,” Yale said in a statement. “The corrupt behaviour alleged by the Department of Justice is an affront to our university’s deeply held values of inclusion and fairness.”