Eric Rosen smiled as he recalled how his team of federal investigators in Boston stumbled on the college admissions scandal. They were working on a routine case of securities fraud in 2018 when a suspect in Los Angeles told them he was paying money to Yale’s soccer coach in exchange for recruiting his daughter as an athlete.
“That was really the first time I think anybody had ever heard that that was a quote unquote ‘thing,’ or that’s what people do,” said Rosen, who, until last October, led the prosecution of the largest college admissions scandal the federal government has ever pursued.
Rosen recently left the government for the private sector. Last week, he gave GBH News an inside look at the nationwide investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues that, to his surprise, captured the nation’s attention. He discussed, for instance, details of the secret wiretapping of the ringleader and how the team obtained his emails and bank records to build the case.
After receiving the unexpected tip, Rosen’s team recorded conversations between the suspect and Yale coach Rudy Meredith inside a room at a downtown hotel, which he declined to identify.
“Like most investigations, it begins typically when you sort of crack open a seam,” Rosen said. “It exposes a lot more — and here it obviously exposed a lot more than we were expecting right off the bat.”
Rosen’s team had cracked open a sprawling college admissions scandal. Dozens of wealthy parents, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, were charged with paying a total of $25 million in bribes to get their kids into selective colleges by having them pose as athletes or having ringers take the SAT, a standardized college admissions test, for them.
Rosen’s boss at the time, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, announced the charges two years ago this month in Boston. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy,” Lelling said at the time. “And I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either.”
Before the salacious details were splashed across the cover of People Magazine and the scandal penetrated popular culture on TV, Rosen told GBH News that he didn’t think the public would even care. The outrage surprised him.
“It probably took me a couple of months to sort of figure out the import that I think it had for America,” he said.
Today, Rosen, 42, is in private practice with the law firm Roche Freedman and has three kids who attend Boston Public Schools. Born and raised in Belmont, he went to Belmont High, Harvard University and Columbia Law School before joining the U.S. attorney’s office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he focused on large-scale narcotics traffickers.
“Heroin, Oxycodone, Opana pills,” he said, ticking off the names of opioids his cases involved.
That work in Pittsburgh, he said, prepared him for Varsity Blues.
“You’re familiar with the wiretap process, what you need for a wiretap, how the wiretap is going to help your case — the fact that recordings are so important sometimes in developing evidence of criminal activity,” he said.
In 2015, during the Obama administration, Rosen was reassigned to the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston.
By now, most of the parents and coaches involved in the Varsity Blues scandal have been sentenced and served their time in prison, ranging from a day to nine months. But the case isn’t over.
Ringleader Rick Singer has yet to appear for his sentencing in Boston’s federal court, where he faces a maximum 65 years in prison. The California-based college counselor to the one percent converted the money he had received from wealthy parents into bribes for coaches who guaranteed seats at selective colleges like Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California. His sentencing on fraud, racketeering and money laundering charges has not been scheduled, but prosecutors have recommended prison time at the low end of federal guidelines for his cooperation in the investigation.
“We did approximately four months of wire tap without Singer knowing,” Rosen said, explaining some of his team’s investigation tactics.
“We had discovered emails he had written. You look at bank records. All the things you can do to corroborate what’s going on,” he said.
In the fall of 2018, Rosen said FBI agents first approached Singer and presented him with the evidence they had gathered. After that, he agreed to cooperate.
Rosen said once the charges became public in March 2019, he was most surprised by students’ reactions.
“How important the case was to them and how hard they had worked to get into school and how a big issue for them was whether they could even afford anything related to higher education,” he said. “I hadn’t been involved in the admission process in twenty odd years, so you sort of forget the anxiety you experience when you’re a 17- or 18-year-old.”
Asked whether he thinks the case would have generated so much attention if celebrities weren’t involved, Rosen said: “It’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing that drove the media coverage. I’m sure celebrity was one of them, but I think most of the comments were not focused on the celebrity aspects of it, but really about the unfairness aspects of it.”
Critics of the case — and how it was handled — point out that two years after the expansive scheme was unveiled, not much has changed in college admissions. The number of applications to selective colleges are higher than ever, and legacy and athletic admissions still give the wealthy and well-connected a lawful edge through the backdoor, rather than what Singer called the “side door.”
“[The sentencing] was more like a slap on the wrist,” said sociologist Tony Jack, who teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and is author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. “People are now taking notes on what not to do.”
Jack, a sociologist, said he thinks Rosen’s team was not aggressive enough in seeking tougher sentences.
“One parent got to choose which jail she wanted to go to,” he said. “I’ve never heard anything like that in my life. People are getting light sentences. It just shows you that that statement that ‘there will be no separate admission and legal system’ was wrong on both accounts.”
In Boston this month, U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani sentenced the former men’s soccer coach at UCLA, Jorge Salcedo, to eight months in prison for taking $200,00 in bribes to have unqualified students admitted as athletes. It is the second longest prison sentence handed down in the case so far.
Rosen, the former lead prosecutor, said he thinks the combination of these sentences and the intense scrutiny college admissions has received as a result of his team’s investigation will, in the end, be effective.
“From a deterrence point of view, I don’t see something like this happening again,” he said. “I’d want to think that people participating in the college admissions system now going forward will have learned a lesson.”