By Nate Raymond
BOSTON (Reuters) - Former coaches from the University of Southern California and Georgetown University were among a dozen people who pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges that they participated in the largest college admissions fraud scheme uncovered in U.S. history.
The 12 people appeared in federal court in Boston to face charges that they took part in a $25 million racketeering conspiracy in which wealthy parents paid for help cheating on admissions exams for their children and to bribe coaches who secured spots for their children in elite universities as fake athletic prospects.
The defendants included Gordon Ernst, Georgetown's former head tennis coach; Jorge Salcedo, the former head men's soccer coach at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA); and Donna Heinel, formerly USC's senior associate athletic director.
They are among 50 people, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and top corporate executives, charged with participating in a scheme that helped parents buy admission to universities such as Yale, USC and Georgetown.
Others who entered not guilty pleas included former Wake Forest University women's volleyball coach William Ferguson; former USC women's soccer coaches Ali Khosroshahin and Laura Janke; and ex-USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic.
The U.S. Education Department has opened an investigation into eight universities linked to the admissions and bribery scandal, Politico reported, citing individuals familiar with the probe.
The Education Department on Monday notified the presidents of Yale, Wake Forest, University of San Diego, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Texas at Austin, USC and UCLA notifying them of the investigation, which could result in penalties if the schools are found to have violated federal laws or rules, Politico said. The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
The court hearing came as Yale on Monday said it had rescinded the admission of a student linked to the scandal. A former Yale soccer coach, Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith, is set to plead guilty on Thursday to accepting bribes to designate applicants as soccer recruits.
The criminal investigation has already led to the scheme's mastermind, William "Rick" Singer, pleading guilty to running the fraud through his California-based college admissions counseling service, The Key.
Singer called the scam a "side door" to gaining admission and used it on behalf of clients including Douglas Hodge, a former chief executive for asset manager Pimco, and "Full House" actress Loughlin, who prosecutors say paid bribes to have their children admitted to USC.
Prosecutors said Singer paid Ernst $2.7 million in exchange for helping students get preferential admission to Georgetown as "bought-and-paid-for" tennis recruits.
Prosecutors said Singer also bribed administrators of the SAT and ACT college admissions exams to allow an associate to help students with their answers or correct their answers.
Others who pleaded not guilty on Monday included test administrators Igor Dvorskiy and Niki Williams; Mikaela Sanford and Steven Masera, who worked for Singer; and Martin Fox, who prosecutors said helped bribe a coach at the University of Texas at Austin while running a tennis academy.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Berkrot, and Leslie Adler)