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All parents want their children to get into the best possible college. But paying bribes to have them admitted to elite schools as athletes, or having someone provide the answers for their standardized tests, clearly crosses the boundary into unacceptable conduct.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors in Boston charged 33 parents and 13 coaches with engaging in a long-running scheme to get children into colleges by gaming the admissions process. Among those caught up in the case are the actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman; William E. McGlashan Jr., a partner at the private equity firm TPG; Gordon Caplan, the co-chairman of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher; and Doug Hodge, the retired chief executive of Pimco.
But how is paying bribes or submitting falsified test scores to get a child into a private college like Georgetown or the University of Southern California a federal crime?
Mail and wire fraud statutes identify a scheme to defraud as including the “right of honest services.” That turns the dishonesty of getting your child admitted to their college of choice into a crime that is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The honest-services law had been a means to police corporate or official dishonesty without requiring proof of a benefit to the defendant. But in 2010, the Supreme Court, in the appeal of former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, limited honest-services fraud to cases involving bribes and kickbacks.
Now if a university coach or employee takes payment in exchange for improperly admitting a student who is not otherwise qualified, it can be a federal crime because it violates the honest services owed to the school. For the parents charged in the case, paying the bribe means that they are just as guilty for acting as an accomplice in the fraudulent scheme.
How do people go off the rails so easily by engaging in clearly dishonest conduct? The criminal complaint is replete with exchanges that show the parents had little regard for the possible criminality of what they were doing.
Mr. Caplan was quoted as telling a cooperating witness in the case: “I’m not worried about the moral issue here. I’m worried about the— if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”
Another parent charged in the case, Jane Buckingham, is quoted as telling a confidential informant: “I know this is craziness; I know it is. And then I need you to get him into U.S.C., and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East.” Ms. Buckingham paid $50,000 to have someone else take the ACT exam for her son, according to the complaint.
Mr. Caplan, a lawyer, especially should have recognized that the conduct had crossed the line into criminality. But for Mr. Caplan, Ms. Buckingham and the other parents, getting their child into the best school seemed to override any concerns about ethics.
So why would otherwise law-abiding individuals flout the law?
The answer may lie in the fact that most white-collar crimes do not have an obvious victim. As a result, individuals can convince themselves that they have not really done anything wrong.
Gaming the system to get your child into a top-tier college is much the same. There is no easily identifiable victim, and applicants denied admission may well chalk up their rejection to the luck of the draw or the unknown factors that lead one college to turn away a prospective student and another to accept that person.
Of course, the action of the parents charged did cause actual harm, even if the victim is unaware of it. University admissions are largely a zero-sum game, so taking one slot means a worthy student was sent away. Not knowing who that person is does not lessen the harm.
Wealth can buy a lot of access. Paying bribes to sneak your child into a favored college, though, might result in short prison terms for some of the parents.