College admissions scandal prompts whistleblower “hotline” reward

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A federal college admissions probe that has led to the criminal indictment of more than 50 people nationwide, and sparked a class action lawsuit naming the University of Texas and the firing of the UT tennis coach, has now prompted the offer of a $10,000 reward for more information.

Government Crime Stoppers, which has been operating in Texas since the end of 2017, is offering up to $10,000 for unique information that “substantively” contributes to the prosecution of anyone who has illegally sidestepped or undermined the admission process at a Texas institution of higher education.

“We have been mostly focused on Texas, but we will take tips on this admissions scandal from anywhere,” Patricia Martinez, the new executive director of Government Crime Stoppers, said Monday. “This is a far-reaching investigation and there is going to be a need for more people to come forward.”

Since the story of what FBI agents called “Operation Varsity Blues” broke last Tuesday, dozens of parents — several of them minor celebrities  — and academics have already entered pleas to felony charges including fraud, bribery and cheating to get unqualified students into universities.

The University of Texas last week fired men’s tennis coach Michael Center after learning that he had been charged with several felonies for allegedly taking about $100,000 in bribes four years ago to recruit and carry a student as a team member who had no competitive tennis experience.

The UT men’s tennis team is currently ranked third in the nation.

As part of the investigation, Martin Fox, described in court documents as the former president of a private tennis academy in Houston, has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit racketeering. He is accused of bribing both Center and Lisa Williams, a Houston high school administrator who was charged with taking money to facilitate cheating by students on college entrance exams.

Two Stanford University students have named UT, seven other universities, and William Singer, the operator of a college preparatory business and the chief target of the federal investigation, in a sprawling class action lawsuit filed in California that could eventually involve hundreds of students.

The suit argues, among other things, that the overall value of the degrees and the reputations of the two students were damaged by corruption of admission standards at the schools named in the suit, several of which the plaintiffs had applied to in addition to Stanford. UT was not among the schools the students had applied to.

In addition to UT, the suit includes Stanford, UCLA, San Diego, USC, Wake Forest and Yale and Georgetown universities.

Singer, who channeled bribery money through a for-profit consulting firm and a Sacramento nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation, has already pleaded guilty to several felony counts connected to the investigation.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement calling on officials at every university in Texas to review their admissions policies and admissions practices.

“The integrity of the admissions processes at Texas’ institutions of higher education depends upon the unbiased assessment of the merits of each applicant,” Abbott wrote.  “I expect that all universities will closely examine these issues and safeguard the integrity of the college admissions process.”

The admissions scandal has also resuscitated debate over the response by Texas school officials, some of the state’s most powerful political figures, and the media to substantive admissions cheating in UT’s School of Law.

After months of document chasing, reporter Jon Cassidy (who writes for The Texas Monitor) assembled a database that established that UT Law between 2006 and 2013 admitted dozens of unqualified students, several of whom were related to politicians like longtime state Sen. Judith Zaffirini and former House Appropriations Committee chairman Jim Pitts, who retired from the House in 2015 in the wake of the scandal.

As Cassidy reported at the time for Texas Watchdog, rather than clean house, state political leaders lined up to defend UT President Bill Powers, who was dean of the law school during the period examined by Cassidy. Instead, those leaders went after Wallace Hall, a UT regent who had gotten wind of the scandal and begun demanding to see admission records.

Much of the coverage, aside from Cassidy’s reporting, portrayed Hall as being on a “witch hunt” for Powers.

“Politicians who take money and free dinners from people and then get their kids into universities are engaging in the same quid pro quo arrangements as the guy who got caught taking cash for the same service,” Hall told The Texas Tribune after the most recent admissions scandal broke. “If a hotline was opened for whistleblowers to turn in cheaters it would be flooded because everybody knows who cheated.”

One of Hall’s vocal opponents at the time was Abbott, then Texas attorney general, who  “banded together with a pack of angry baying wolves in the legislature to shut Hall up and prevent him from exposing the full extent of the scandal to the public,” Jim Schutze, an investigative reporter for the Dallas Observer, wrote on Monday.

“This new case probably illustrates the power and importance of federal prosecutions,” Schutze went on. “If the Hall story illustrates anything, it shows the depths to which local and state power-wielders and opinion-makers including the media will lower themselves to protect a valuable scam.”

Martinez, who retired as a detective after a 34-year career with the San Antonio Police Department, said she’s hopeful that a $10,000 reward will open the kind of whistleblower hotline Hall referred to, providing new information on the current admissions scandal.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected]

 

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