WASHINGTON — How could a student ranked 207th in Northern California be recruited as an all-star tennis player, destined for a coveted athletic admission to Georgetown University?
The FBI and federal prosecutors said the lies were staggering, starting with the deceptions of a mediocre college essay.
“Being a part of Georgetown women’s tennis team, has always been a dream of mine,” the statement began. “I have spent three – four hours a day grinding out on and off court workouts.”
But the FBI alleged the dream was a lie, nothing more than a hastily composed re-write of a college essay – a revealing revision, part of a complex conspiracy.
The price of admission for the deceit and duplicity, $400,000.
The high school applicant from Atherton, Calif. claimed to have a top 50 ranking in the United States Tennis Association. Yet records show she played no USTA tournaments.
Her win/loss record found by federal investigators, an embarrassing 2-8. An original copy of her essay to Georgetown showed no interest in tennis.
Charging documents released Tuesday only identified the student’s parents, defendants Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez. An FBI agent said the family lived off the success of Mr. Henriquez’s publicly traded finance company in Palo Alto.
Mr. Henriquez is the CEO of Hercules Technology Growth Capital. His position is now in jeopardy after the company's stock price tumbled more than 10 percent in the hours after the indictment.
The student’s provenance of privilege gave her entrée to the scheme – which charged former Georgetown tennis coach Gordon Ernst with taking $2.7 million in bribes.
The kickbacks for Mr. Ernst were to look the other way, prosecutors said – to admit more than a dozen students with no tennis talent, while he reaped the rewards of a nation-wide cheating scandal.
“Mr. Ernst has not coached our tennis team since December 2017, when he was placed on leave after the Office of Undergraduate Admissions identified irregularities in his recruitment practices,” a Georgetown spokesperson said.
“The University was not aware of any alleged criminal activity or acceptance of bribes by Mr. Ernst until it was later contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, with whom we fully cooperated in its investigation.”
But the university conceded that its own internal investigation found Mr. Ernst indeed violated admissions rules, a conclusion reached months before the staggering indictments.
After none of Mr. Ernst's recruits ascended to the Georgetown tennis team, the university said the Department of Athletics and Office of Undergraduate Admissions now closely examines whether recruited students fail to join athletics programs.
A cooperating witness in the federal investigation told affluent parents the scheme to buy fake athletic admissions into Georgetown was nothing more than a tried and true “side door" into the university.
It was a side entrance reserved for “the wealthiest families in the U.S.”
According to the FBI, parents of privilege paid millions of dollars to a fake non-profit charity known as the Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF).
“In turn, [KWF] would funnel those payments to particular athletic coaches, or to university programs,” FBI Special Agent Laura Smith said in the charging documents.
The criminal scheme was “typically explained to parents that, in exchange for the payments, the coaches would designate their children as recruited athletes—regardless of their athletic abilities—thereby facilitating their admission to the universities.”
The alleged conspiracy began to unravel when the IRS audited the fake charity – with a transcript of apparent panic revealed in a late 2018 phone call.
The conversation, Agent Smith said, involved Mrs. Henriquez and the fraudulent non-profit's founder.
“I’m not gonna tell the IRS that, you know… we paid [tennis coach Gordon Ernst] to help her get into Georgetown, right?" KWF's founder said. "So I just want to make sure that you and I are on the same page.”
The non-profit's founder speaking to Mrs. Henriquez, quoted in the frantic phone call, is now listed as the first cooperating witness for the government.
In reality, investigators said KWF's employees arranged to become special proctors for SAT and ACT exams. The proctors would meet the future college applicants on the day of their exams and help them cheat.
Before she headed to Georgetown, the Henriquezes' daughter claimed to have urgent family business in Houston, nearly 2,000 miles from her San Francisco area high school.
Yet Houston was where she met a fraudulent ACT proctor, who prosecutors said helped her and a second student cheat on the exam.
“Remember she went there because she needed special – accommodations,” Mrs. Henriquez said in the phone call.
Completing the conspiracy, the FBI said the Henriquez family made a contribution of $400,000 to KWS. Investigators said the money eventually flowed to Mr. Ernst, who was still employed as Georgetown's tennis coach.
In an effort to conceal the true purpose of wire transfer, the FBI said the organization composed a donation receipt letter, which stated the May 2016 payment would "allow us to move forward with our plans to provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth."
Prosecutors said the story repeated with Elisabeth Kimmel, who also allegedly bought her daughter's admission into Georgetown as a fake tennis player.
While her application said she was a ranked athlete from La Jolla, Calif., records showed Ms. Kimmel's daughter had no involvement in competitive tennis.
The price of her Georgetown admission through KWF? A donation of $200,000.
In Laguna Beach, Calif., former investment management CEO Douglas Hodge allegedly followed the same path, after the government's KWF cooperating witness said Hodge's daughter had a 50 percent chance "at best" of getting into Georgetown with her academics alone.
She never played a match sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association either.
Yet on Dec. 23, 2008, Hodge's daughter received a Georgetown acceptance letter "at the request of Mr. Gordie Ernst, tennis coach."
She would never play at Georgetown.
According to the indictment, there is still at least one student linked to the conspiracy currently attending the university. The charging documents list the student as the son of Stephen Semprevivo, a sales executive who lives in Los Angeles.
While parents once flocked to KWF, prosecutors said the script finally flipped when Semprevivo sensed the peril of Georgetown's 2017 internal investigation, and a growing IRS audit of the fake non-profit.
"All I know is that we, you know, we used you for the charity stuff and we used you for the counseling, and your dealings are your dealings," Semprevivo said in a recorded phone call.
"I think that you need to be accountable for what you did. So I don’t want to talk about this any more."
Each parent is a defendant in the criminal case, charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1349.