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Georgetown Tennis Coach to Plead Guilty For Taking Bribes in Varsity Blues Scandal

September 16, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Gordon Ernst, a former tennis coach at Georgetown University, agreed to plead guilty just weeks before he was scheduled to go on trial. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — A former Georgetown University tennis coach plans to plead guilty to participating in the college admissions cheating scandal known as Varsity Blues. 

Gordon Ernst is admitting to accepting about $2.7 million in bribes to help children of wealthy families gain admission to the elite school.

He arranged athletic scholarships for at least 12 students between 2012 and 2018. Some of them had never played tennis competitively.

He is awaiting a hearing date to enter a guilty plea in federal court in Boston.

Ernst, 54, agreed this week to accept a plea bargain from prosecutors in which he would plead guilty to conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery and filing a false tax return.

Otherwise, he was scheduled for a trial in November with coaches from other universities in the nationwide scandal that resulted in 57 arrests. One of them was famed actress Lori Loughlin, who spent two months in jail and remains on probation.

In other Varsity Blues developments, attorneys for two fathers argued in court this week that they were duped into making what they called “donations” to get their children into top universities on athletic scholarships.

They are the first parents to go to trial in the scandal. Forty-seven others have accepted plea bargains.

An attorney said in his opening statement on behalf of one of the fathers that bribes paid by “admissions consultant” William Singer to coaches showed how easily college admissions can be manipulated.

Many of the accused parents hired Singer to act as the middleman to get their children into the University of Southern California and other highly-rated colleges. He later pleaded guilty to bribing college coaches to falsely certify that students were recruited for the schools’ athletic teams.

“He thought Singer was legitimate,” attorney Brian T. Kelly said. “He had no inkling that Singer was a skilled con man.”

Among the coaches Singer bribed was Georgetown’s Ernst, who accepted the money under the guise of consulting fees.

University officials asked him to resign effective June 30, 2018 after an internal investigation. They also dismissed students who were admitted to the university as a result of the bribes.

Ernst, a former Chevy Chase, Maryland resident, was arrested on March 12, 2019 and pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Maryland. He was released on a $200,000 bond.

The plea bargain requires Ernst to forfeit money he derived from the scam, which will come to about $3.6 million. Seven charges were dismissed, including the mail fraud charges based on bribe payments that parents mailed to him.

In addition to paying off coaches, federal prosecutors alleged Singer bribed college entrance exam administrators to raise the scores for some applicants. He also used a charitable organization to conceal the source of laundered bribe payments.

The payments Singer received were made to Key Worldwide Foundation, an organization he owned and for which he had won Internal Revenue Service 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit organization. As a result, he was able to avoid federal income taxes on the payments.

The entrance exam cheating was a more complex scheme that sometimes involved paying test proctors to correct answers, using paid proxies to take the tests under assumed names or falsifying the results through Singer’s own company.

In some cases, Singer paid psychologists to falsify certifications that children had learning disabilities, which would allow them special accommodations for the SAT or ACT college admission tests.

When the certification paperwork was completed, Singer would tell clients to arrange for their children’s test locations to be moved to a test center under his control.

A transcript of a recorded phone call that prosecutors submitted as evidence shows Singer saying, “What happened is, all the wealthy families figured out that if I get my kid tested and they get extended time, they can do better on the test. So most of these kids don’t even have issues, but they’re getting time.”

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