A former University of Southern California admissions officer profited by making phony profiles for unqualified students from China and getting them into the private Los Angeles school, prosecutors said Wednesday.
David Chong, an assistant director in USC’s Office of Graduate Admissions from 2008 to 2016, agreed to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud, according to court documents unsealed Wednesday.
The case, led by federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, is separate from the Boston-based "Operation Varsity Blues," which broke up a huge college admission scam last year.
Between February 2015 and December 2018, Chong solicited and received payments between $8,000 to $12,000 to help undergrads from China gain competitive spots at USC graduate programs, according to the plea agreement. Chong netted about $40,000 from the scheme, officials say.
These "international students" were "not otherwise qualified for admission," according to the plea agreement.
Chong "prepared false supporting documents" that included "fraudulent recommendations" and "inflated grades," prosecutors said.
He even offered a sliding scale depending on how much he'd have to fake the student's qualifications according to officials.
In a 2017 e-mail exchange with one prospective client, Chong said he'd charge $5,000 for a student who had a 3.0 grade-point average and a "decent" Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score. But it'd cost $15,000 to help admit a student with a low GPA, to go along with a surrogate test taker, prosecutors said Chong offered.
Prosecutors don't know if Chong actually followed through to arrange for any surrogate test taker.
“The university has cooperated with the government’s investigation," according to a statement by USC. "Chong concealed these actions from the university and continued engaging in them for two and a half years after he left USC. Based on what we know, these actions were isolated to one rogue former employee.”
Court dates for Chong to formally plead guilty or be sentenced have not been set. He could be sentenced to up to 14 months, according to federal guidelines.
"He knew what he did was wrong, but he also thought he was helping people," defense lawyer Stanley Friendman told NBC News.
Chong will ask for probation or house arrest. The defendant is a U.S. citizen but had moved to China to start a new business when he learned of the prosecution earlier this year, according to Friedman.
The 36-year-old opted to return to the United States rather than force an extradition fight - assuming prosecutors would have even pushed it that far, his defense said.
"He acknowledged what he did was wrong and wanted to take responsibility for it," Friedman said.