BOSTON-- Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin appeared in federal court Wednesday alongside other wealthy parents to face charges they rigged test scores or paid bribes to cheat the admissions process at prestigious universities.
The actresses and Loughlin's fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, said little during the brief hearing in a packed Boston courtroom and were not asked to enter a plea. They are all free on bail.
Their appearance comes three weeks after they were among dozens of prominent parents and college sports coaches arrested in the sweeping admissions scandal that has sparked outrage and inflamed concerns that the admissions process favors the wealthy.
The scam involved bogus entrance exam scores and doctored photos to make applicants look like star athletes to get them into sought-after schools such as Yale, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.
Authorities stumbled upon the wide-ranging scam thanks to a tip from a Los Angeles executive who was ensnared in a stock manipulation probe. The investigation, which authorities are called Operation Varsity Blues, led to the biggest college admissions scheme ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, officials say.
Loughlin, who is best known for playing Aunt Becky on the sitcom "Full House," and Giannulli are accused of paying $500,000 to get their daughters admitted as recruits to the USC crew team, even though neither is a rower.
Authorities say the couple helped create fake athletic profiles for their daughters by having them pose for photos on rowing machines. At one point, a guidance counselor at the girls' high school became concerned their applications were fraudulent, but was ultimately convinced otherwise, court records show.
The Hallmark Channel — where Loughlin starred in popular holiday movies and the series "When Calls the Heart" — cut ties with Loughlin a day after her arrest.
Huffman is charged with paying the admissions consultant at the center of the scheme $15,000 to have a proctor cheat on her daughter's SAT exam. Authorities say the "Desperate Housewives" star also discussed going through with the same plan for her younger daughter, but she ultimately decided not to.
Authorities say the consultant, Rick Singer, met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he "controlled" a testing center and could have somebody secretly change their daughter's answers, authorities say. Huffman and Macy agreed to the plan, Singer told investigators.
Macy was not charged; authorities have not said why.
Huffman, Loughlin and Giannulli have not publicly addressed the allegations.
They and the other parents are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, which carries up to 20 years in behind bars. But first-time offenders typically get only a fraction of that, and experts said they believe some parents may avoid prison time if they quickly agree to plead guilty.
Other parents charged in the scheme include the former co-chairman of an international law firm and the former head of a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Connecticut, who was co-chairman at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, is accused of paying $75,000 to get a test supervisor to correct the answers on his daughter's ACT exam after she took it. Caplan's firm said after his arrest that he has been placed on a leave of absence.
Manuel Henriquez, who was CEO and chairman of Hercules Capital in Palo Alto, California, and his wife, Elizabeth Henriquez, participated in the cheating scheme and bribed the tennis coach at Georgetown to get their daughter admitted as a recruit, authorities say.
The tennis coach, Gordon Ernst, has pleaded not guilty to accepting $2.7 million in bribes to designate at least 12 applicants as recruits to Georgetown. Former UCLA men's soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, Wake Forest University women's volleyball coach William Ferguson and former USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic have also pleaded not guilty in the scheme.
Three people have pleaded guilty in the scheme, including Singer, who began cooperating last year with investigators. The former head women's soccer coach at Yale, Rudy Meredith, has also pleaded guilty to accepting bribes.
Meredith inadvertently helped investigators uncover the sprawling scheme by dropping Singer's name during a recorded conversation he had last year with a father who he had solicited a $450,000 bribe from. The father was under investigation in Boston for securities fraud when he told authorities that Meredith had promised to get his daughter into the school in exchange for cash.