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NCAA Opens Probe Into Indicted Coaches in College Admissions Scandal

Yale University/image by Shutterstock

Yale University/image by Shutterstock

While eight universities and their general counsel try to determine the legal liabilities in a nationwide college cheating scandal, the national organization that oversees college sports has announced it is looking into allegations against the indicted coaches for possible violations of its rules.

The NCAA released a statement Tuesday announcing the probe and saying, “The charges brought forth Tuesday are troubling and should be a concern for all of higher education.”

In all 50 people have been indicted, including nine coaches and 33 parents, some of them wealthy celebrities. Most of their hearings have been set for later this month in U.S. District Court in Boston.

The scheme had two prongs, according to the indictment. One involved bribes to manipulate students’ admission test scores; another used bribes so coaches of low-profile sports would add names to their preferential admissions list for athletes. Eight schools were involved: Yale, Stanford, University of Texas, Georgetown, Wake Forest, University of Southern California, University of San Diego, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

On the testing front, ACT Inc., a nonprofit group that administers a much-used standardized admissions test, has issued a statement saying it was cooperating with the federal investigation. Two of its testers were indicted.

“ACT contracts with thousands of people to locally administer the test around the country. These individuals certify to follow ACT's policies and procedures to administer the test. In these cases, the two charged individuals allegedly did not follow ACT's rules,” the statement said.

The College Board, another nonprofit group that administers a widely used college admission test called the SAT, issued a statement Wednesday that said, "The College Board has a comprehensive, robust approach to combat cheating, and as part of that effort we work closely with law enforcement, as we did in this investigation."

It said it relies on schools to select administrators and proctors "whose roles are to ensure fair testing environments for all students by following our policies and procedures. When they don’t, we take appropriate action on behalf of students. Further, when schools don’t comply with our policies and procedures, we reserve the right to prohibit them from administering future tests.”

Gregg Clifton of Jackson Lewis. Courtesy photo.

Gregg Clifton, a principal in the Phoenix office of Jackson Lewis, said one of the first things he would advise a school is to examine any potential liability based on the acts of the coaches. “The NCAA part of this will be crucial,” said Clifton, who co-chairs his firm’s collegiate and professional sports practice group.

“Has any of the bribe money benefited school programs directly? Was there even a trickle down that went into a school program?” he asked. If so, the school could be liable.

John Vandemoer, former head coach of Stanford’s sailing team, has already pleaded guilty to accepting $160,000 “as a deposit” in exchange for a spot on his sailing team. He said he never kept the money for himself, and instead used it to purchase new equipment for the team. His sentencing is scheduled for June 12.

The NCAA has authority to levy huge fines if it finds a school at fault. The U.S. Department of Justice did not accuse any of the schools of wrongdoing, and referred to them as victims.

NCAA bylaws require the schools to control the amount of compensation that coaches receive. One bylaw specifically prohibits athletic department staff members from receiving unreported, supplemental compensation from a third party.

Clifton also said the universities will want to explore what can be done to ensure that the SAT and ACT scores can be relied on for admissions.

They need to ask, “What do we need to change to ensure the integrity of the admissions process,” he said.

Arthur Middlemiss, a partner at Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss in New York City, looks at the scandal as a compliance challenge. Middlemiss is a former in-house counsel and director of JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s global anti-corruption program.

“The colleges should be well advised to implement controls and training enhancements so nothing like this ever happens again,” he said.

In the United Kingdom, Middlemiss said, organizations can be held liable for failing to prevent a bribe or corruption. In the U.S., he said, it has more to do with “turning a blind eye” to corruption.

“So the colleges need to take whatever steps they have to to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

At least one school has already done that. Georgetown University general counsel Lisa Brown released a statement saying the school strengthened its recruiting and admissions process in 2018, when it became aware of irregularities in a tennis coach’s recruiting. The coach was dismissed.

“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,” her statement said.

Georgetown’s former tennis coach was one of those indicted. The school allocated him three admission spots a year to recruit players. He allegedly designated at least 12 students between 2012 and 2018 as tennis team recruits, even though some of them didn’t play competitively.

For his efforts, he is accused of accepting $2.5 million in bribes labeled as “consulting fees.”

Gregg Clifton of Jackson Lewis. Courtesy photo.