2 Houstonians accused in college cheating scandal appear in court

By Andy Cerota - Anchor/Reporter, Matt Aufdenspring - Digital Managing Editor

HOUSTON - Two Houstonians are among 12 defendants who reportedly pleaded not guilty inside a Boston federal courtroom for their alleged roles in a nationwide college admissions cheating scandal. 

Lisa "Niki" Williams, a test monitor and assistant teacher at a public high school, and Martin Fox, the president of a private tennis academy, both arrived separately to court Monday morning for their arraignments. 

Williams, 44, is accused of pocketing bribes from parents all across the country to help their children get better SAT and ACT scores. 

VIDEO: Niki Williams enters federal court in Boston

Federal prosecutors say Fox had key connections to collegiate coaches and is accused of giving and accepting bribes to get students into elite universities.  

Fox, 62, and Williams are charged with racketeering and conspiracy in the largest college admissions scheme ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice. 

VIDEO: Martin Fox enters federal court

According to court papers, Williams accepted bribes from the accused ringleader William "Rick" Singer, who founded The Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key and The Key Worldwide Foundation.

Fox is accused of funneling money from Singer to Williams. 

"The fact that Singer, who is the boss of all bosses in this case, has already taken a deal, can only mean bad news for the underlings in this case, including Ms. Williams and Mr. Fox," KPRC2 legal analyst Brian Wice said.

READ the full indictment here

The schools targeted include Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, USC and The University of Texas. 

Yale reportedly rescinded the admission of one student implicated in the college admissions scandal while "Full House" star Lori Loughlin's daughters are still enrolled at USC. 

Fifty people have been indicted, including Loughlin and actress Felicity Huffman. They're expected to appear in court on April 3. 

Another 23 defendants are scheduled to appear in court on Friday.

How prosecutors said the scam worked

"Between roughly 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Singer about $25 million in total to guarantee their children admissions to elite schools," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said.

Singer is accused of telling parents to have their children claim learning disabilities to obtain medical documentation that allowed the students to have extended time to take the exams.

READ: How prosecutors say Niki Williams is involved

"To facilitate the scam, Singer counseled parents to take their children to a therapist and get a letter saying that because of purported learning disabilities or other issues, the child needed additional time to complete the ACT or the SAT. Once the companies that administer those exams had agreed to the extra time, Singer arranged for the child to take the exam individually with one of the administrators he had bribed, either at a location in Houston or a location in California," Lelling said.

Court documents state parents would pay Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 to have another person, usually a Palmetto, Florida, resident named Mark Riddell, take the exams for the students or to replace the students' exam responses with his own.

READ: List of those involved in college admissions and testing bribery scheme

FBI Houston agents arrested Williams and Fox on March 12.

KPRC2 obtained surveillance video of the arrest. In the video, agents can be heard yelling, "FBI! Warrant!"

Video captures arrest of Houston resident

Both Williams and Fox appeared in federal court in Houston that afternoon.

A judge told Williams not to interact with any co-defendants. She told a judge she is currently not monitoring any testing and the judge said she is not allowed to do so during the case. 

Bond for Williams was set at $20,000. She was seen leaving the courthouse the same day.

Fox was being held on a secured $50,000 bond, after prosecutors were concerned he was a flight risk.

The indictment claims Singer paid money to Williams, who administered the exams at a Houston public high school.

READ: Who is Martin Fox?

Fox is accused of funneling money from Singer to Williams. However, Singer also paid Williams $5,000 directly in one instance in July 2018, court documents state.

Singer would then pay Riddell $10,000 per test, according to the indictment.

VIDEO: Federal investigators discuss Williams' connection to cheating scandal

Universities involved include The University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest University, Yale University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and the University of San Diego.

VIDEO: Federal prosecutors discuss UT's connection to cheating scandal

In 2015, Fox introduced Singer to a tennis coach at UT to gain admission for a student by paying the coach $100,000 and Fox $100,000, according to the indictment.

The student did not play tennis competitively, yet was a recruit for the UT tennis team and gained admission, court records state.

Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among parents accused of paying bribes to get their children into the aforementioned universities.

John Wilson, of Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, was also arrested by FBI Houston agents in Houston on March 12 and appeared in federal court the same day.

Prosecutors were seeking a $1 million secured bond because of his strong ties to Europe. They were uncertain as to why Wilson was in Houston.

Wilson, 59, is the founder and CEO of a private equity and real estate development firm.

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