College-entrance case ensnares Obama family’s tennis instructor

A college tennis coach who also served as the personal instructor for former first lady Michelle Obama and her daughter, Malia, was among the 46 people charged by federal authorities in a sweeping college admissions bribery case announced Tuesday.

According to the indictment unsealed Tuesday by federal prosecutors in Massachusetts, Gordon Ernst, the women’s tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island, is accused of conspiracy to commit racketeering during the years he served as a tennis coach at Georgetown University.

There is no suggestion that Malia, a sophomore at Harvard, was implicated in the scandal in any way.

Between 2012 and 2018, Ernst allegedly accepted more than $2.7 million in bribes in exchange for placing at least 12 students on the Georgetown tennis team, including “some who did not play tennis competitively,” according to the indictment.

Ernst allegedly received the bribes from charitable accounts set up by William Singer, the owner of a Newport, Calif.-based college consulting business at the center of the case.

At a press conference Tuesday, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling called the scheme the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.” Yale, Stanford and Georgetown universities were among the schools identified as having been duped into accepting unqualified applicants.

Gordon Ernst (Photo: University of Rhode Island)

Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among 33 parents charged in what law-enforcement officials called Operation Varsity Blues.

According to prosecutors, in one instance, in 2015, a Georgetown applicant forwarded to Ernst an email Singer had drafted on his behalf containing “falsified information concerning [his] purported tennis abilities.” The student had never played tennis competitively, according to prosecutors. Ernst forwarded the email to a Georgetown admissions officer and six days later wrote to confirm the student’s acceptance to Georgetown. In exchange, the student’s parents donated $400,000 to a sham charitable foundation set up by Singer, according to prosecutors, and passed on to Ernst.

In a statement, Georgetown said it was “deeply disappointed” to learn of Ernst’s alleged acts, and that the school is fully cooperating with the government’s investigation.

Ernst, who was head men’s and women’s coach at Georgetown, resigned in December 2017. He was hired by Rhode Island as the school’s head women’s tennis coach the next August.

He was placed on administrative leave Tuesday by the school, which said in a statement that Ernst “has not been involved in the recruitment of any current players nor in the signing of any new recruits.”

While at Georgetown, Ernst became friendly with the Obama family, according to the Providence Journal, giving private lessons to Michelle and Malia Obama.

“Michelle has a big backhand,” Ernst told the New York Times in 2014.

In 2015, Ernst, a Cranston, R.I., native, was inducted into USTA New England Tennis Hall of Fame.

According to the charging document, he was a resident of both Chevy Chase, Md., and Falmouth, Mass.

If convicted, Ernst will have to forfeit the $2,719,963 in bribe payments, a Chevy Chase country club membership and property he owns in Falmouth.

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