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College Student Defense

College Admissions Scandal Overview

By January 20, 2020September 25th, 2023No Comments

A former California real estate executive was sentenced to six months in prison for his role in the high-profile college admissions scandal, in which 50 wealthy people, including celebrities like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, paid big bucks to a consultant to secure admission to some of the nation’s top colleges. 

Toby MacFarlane is not among the more famous names on the list of defendants, but his six-month sentence is the longest prison sentence for any of the dozens of people charged in the scheme. He must also pay a $150,000 fine and complete 200 hours of community service. 

It’s not too far off from the punishment that prosecutors recommended: 15 months of prison, a $95,000 fine and one year of supervised release. MacFarlane paid $450,000 to the scandal’s ringleader, William “Rick” Singer, to have his son and daughter admitted to the University of Southern California as star athletes, even though they weren’t. 

But it’s a lot harsher than the punishment that actress Felicity Huffman got. Huffman spent 11 days of a 14-day prison sentence after pleading guilty to mail fraud charges. She was released early because her release date fell on a weekend. Huffman also paid a $30,000 fine and must complete 250 hours of community service. 

Loughlin, on the other hand, is fighting the charges and has pleaded not guilty. 

Other people implicated in the far-reaching scandal include coaches at prestigious universities like the University of Texas and Yale. 

How did the scandal, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by federal prosecutors, work? 


Parents paid for one of two things:

  • Having their children’s test scores altered 
  • Lying about their children being athletes


Shanlon Wu, a CNN legal analyst, former federal prosecutor and current defense attorney who represents college students, said he was naive to think that this type of bribery and corruption was only happening at colleges in other countries. 

“In my representation of college students as well as in my adjunct teaching, I have long recognized signs of the enormous and increasing stress the admissions process, parents and college itself places upon students,” Wu said in a CNN editorial published in March. 

“Until this scandal broke, I had not realized to what extent such pressure could promote or help parents rationalize outright corruption of some of the most cherished ideals of merit-based fairness in college admissions … But that is exactly what these criminal charges reveal.”

Shanlon Wu’s current practice focuses on white collar and student criminal defense. You can learn more about Mr. Wu’s life and work and how to contact him here

These materials have been prepared by Cohen Seglias for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

Shan Wu

Author Shan Wu

Shan’s professional and personal background gives him a unique understanding of academic institutions and the criminal justice system. A former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., he is at home in D.C. Courts and very familiar with all of the Washington, D.C. law enforcement agencies, especially the Metropolitan Police Department. His parents were university professors so he grew up in a university environment. He understands the mindset of academic institutions. As a prosecutor, he supervised in the misdemeanor crime section. This is the section of the Washington, D.C. prosecutor’s office that handles most college student cases. His understanding of charging decisions and how judges view these cases is invaluable to his student clients and their families. Shan served as a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for over ten years. During his tenure there, now Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. appointed him to supervisory positions in the Misdemeanor Trial Section and also in a police corruption task force. His outstanding legal work in the government was recognized through numerous Special Achievement Awards from the Justice Department as well as awards conveyed by law enforcement agencies and community groups. From 1999-2000, Shan served as Counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno, advising her on criminal and civil investigations, E-Gov, E-Commerce (electronic signatures, internet gambling, internet telephony, privacy & public access issues in electronic court filings), congressional oversight, and legislative review. His responsibilities included serving as liaison to the FBI, DEA, Criminal Division, Executive Office of United States Attorneys, National Institute of Justice, and White House Counsel’s Office. Shan serves on the D.C. Bar Association’s Hearing Committee of the Board on Professional Responsibility and is a past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association for the Greater Washington, D.C. area. He is a 1988 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, where he graduated Order of the Barristers, edited two law reviews, and was Co-Director of the Moot Court Program. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from Vassar College as well as a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Following law school, he clerked for the late Hon. Jerry Buchmeyer, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and the late Eugene Wright, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He is admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and Connecticut.

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