A Cranston native and accomplished tennis coach is among dozens of people facing charges in connection with what one federal official has described as an “international college admissions bribery and money laundering scandal.”
Gordon Ernst, known more commonly as Gordie, 52, is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering. It was not immediately clear Tuesday afternoon when he is scheduled to appear in court.
Ernst is currently the women’s tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island. He is charged in connection with his time as the head coach of the men’s and women’s tennis teams at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
At the center of the charge against Ernst is a for-profit college counseling and preparation business known as the Edge College & Career Network LLC, or “The Key,” based in California and founded by William “Rick” Singer, as well as the Key Worldwide Foundation, a California nonprofit established by Singer.
In an indictment, authorities allege Ernst received more than $2.7 million in bribes from Singer – falsely labeled as consulting fees and typically transferred via one of the foundation’s charitable accounts – between 2012 and 2018.
In exchange, authorities say, Ernst “designated at least 12 applicants as recruits for the Georgetown tennis team, including some who did not play tennis competitively, thereby facilitating their admission to Georgetown.”
In a separate indictment, Singer is alleged to have been paid approximately $25 million by clients over several years for the purpose of bribing coaches and university administrators to falsely designate children as recruited athletes. He is also alleged to have engaged in the bribing of SAT and ACT exam administrators to allow cheating on the tests.
Coaches at Yale University, Standford Univesity, the University of Southern California and Wake Forest University are among others charged in the alleged scheme.
A number of parents are also among the roughly 50 people charged in connection with the scheme, including a pair of well-known actresses – Felicity Huffman, whose credits include the television show “Desperate Housewives,” and Lori Loughlin of “Full House” fame.
URI issued the following statement Tuesday afternoon:
“The University of Rhode Island today was made aware of an indictment of head women’s tennis coach Gordon Ernst related to incidents that allegedly took place while he was head coach at Georgetown University. As a result, the university has placed Ernst on administrative leave while it continues to review the matter. Ernst was hired by URI in August 2018 as head coach. He has not been involved in the recruitment of any current players nor in the signing of new recruits.”
During a press conference Tuesday in Boston, federal authorities spoke of the scope of the case.
Joe Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said approximately 300 agents from the FBI and IRS were involved in making arrests across six states in connection with what he called “Operation Varsity Blues.”
Bonavolonta said the investigation began last May while authorities worked on an unrelated matter. It led to the discovery of what he described as “rigged system robbing students all over the country of their right at a fair shot to getting into some of the most elite universities in this country, such as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown.”
“We believe all of them, parents, coaches and facilitators, lied, cheated and covered up their crimes at the expense of hard-working students and taxpayers everywhere,” he said, describing a “culture of corruption and greed.”
Boston U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said the investigation was “complex and extremely labor intensive.”
“We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials,” he said.
Ernst spent 12 years as Georgetown’s tennis coach before returning to Rhode Island for the URI job last year. He also previously coached tennis at the University of Pennsylvania and served as head tennis pro for former President Barack Obama’s family.
A high school tennis and hockey standout during his time at Bishop Hendricken and Cranston East, Ernst attended Brown University – where he also starred in athletics – and was drafted by the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars in 1985. He is a member of the New England Tennis Hall of Fame, Rhode Island Interscholastic Hall of Fame and Cranston Athletic Hall of Fame.
Gordie Ernst is the son of the late Dick Ernst, who was a renowned hockey and tennis coach in Rhode Island.