Federal agents called it “Operation Varsity Blues,” but the college admissions cheating scandal just as easily could be named the “General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer Blues.”
The nationwide scandal saw rich parents, including one prominent lawyer, allegedly bribe testing officials and sometimes school coaches on behalf of getting their children admitted to their schools of choice.
Federal prosecutors so far have named eight universities as unwitting victims of the cheating. They are Yale, Stanford, University of Texas, Georgetown, Wake Forest, University of San Diego, the University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles.
Prosecutors said it was the largest-ever college admissions fraud in the U.S. They have charged at least 50 people, including actresses, CEOs and several college coaches with conspiracy to commit racketeering or fraud. No university is charged with wrongdoing.
Christine Helwick, former general counsel at California State University and now of counsel with Hirschfeld Kraemer in San Francisco, told Corporate Counsel Tuesday the first thing a general counsel and the school must do is “marshal the facts to find out what’s going on, and what information the institution may have had. There is always a public relations dimension to a scandal, and someone will have to deal with the public relations headwinds.”
Helwick said the general counsel can use those facts to help determine if the school has any true legal exposure, either from the scandal or from a civil suit by a rejected student.
“Someone will probably fashion some claim for liability—they do for everything now,” she said. She said it could involve some form of false advertising or even discrimination.
School general counsel contacted Tuesday either declined comment or referred calls to their media relations departments. For the most part, the schools indicated they were following Helwick’s roadmap.
In statements, most of the schools said the scandal runs counter to their culture and values. Most also said they were cooperating with the federal investigation while conducting their own internal reviews to assess the facts.
Stanford’s statement also said it had fired its sailing coach, who was indicted, and was investigating further to make sure no one else was involved.
An emailed statement from the University of Southern California said the school has fired its senior associate athletic director and its men’s water polo coach.
It also said, “USC is in the process of identifying any funds received by the university in connection with this alleged scheme. Additionally, the university is reviewing its admissions processes broadly to ensure that such actions do not occur going forward.”
In addition, interim president Wanda Austin issued a letter to the USC community, calling the scandal “immensely disappointing … we will be implementing significant process and training enhancements to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”
A statement from UCLA said it had placed its head men’s soccer coach on leave while it conducts its own review to determine what other steps to take.
“UCLA is not aware of any current student-athletes who are under suspicion,” it said.
Georgetown University general counsel Lisa Brown co-signed a statement saying it had already removed its men’s tennis coach in 2018 for recruiting and admission irregularities, when it learned of the federal investigation. It said the school was not aware of any alleged criminal wrongdoing until told by prosecutors.
The statement also said Georgetown strengthened its recruiting and admissions process in 2018. “In addition, our department of athletics and office of undergraduate admissions now perform audits to determine whether any recruited student-athletes are not on the roster of the sport for which they were recruited,” the statement added.
The University of Texas’ statement said it has placed its men’s tennis coach on leave while it continues to gather information. “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,” the university said.
Yale University said it had no statement at this time. Wake Forest and University of San Diego did not immediately respond to messages.