US

Obama Family Tennis Coach One of 50 Charged in College Bribery Scheme

By Zachary Stieber

A tennis coach who instructed Malia and Sasha Obama, as well as former First Lady Michelle Obama, was among the 50 people indicted in a nationwide college bribery scheme this week.

Gordon Ernst, 52, who served as the head tennis coach at Georgetown University, utilized his position to get children of rich parents into the school in exchange for bribes, FBI officials said. He was charged with racketeering conspiracy.

Ernst later went on to become the head women’s tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island.

Prosecutors said in the indictment that Ernst accepted more than $2.7 million in bribes between 2012 and 2018 to place at least 12 students on tennis teams at Georgetown, including students who didn’t play the sport competitively and didn’t participate once they arrived at the college.

Gordon Ernst, 52, in a file photo. (Georgetown University Athletics)

Ernst received the money through Key Worldwide Foundation, also known as The Edge College & Career Network, run by William Singer, who pleaded guilty on March 12 to orchestrating the scheme.

In one case, Ernst received money from Singer to designate Isabelle Henriquez, the daughter of a CEO from California, as a recruited athlete to facilitate her admission to the school, despite the fact that she didn’t play tennis at a competitive level, prosecutors wrote.

Singer drafted one email for Isabelle to later send to Ernst that stated, among other things, “I have been really successful this summer playing tennis around the country. I am looking forward to having a chance to be part of the Georgetown tennis team and make a positive contribution to your team’s success.”

Ernest received the email and forwarded it to an admissions officer, adding “Potential spot.” Singer later created an essay for Isabelle that included “talk about tennis,” in which he wrote for Isabelle that “[B]eing a part of Georgetown women’s tennis team has always been a dream of mine.”

CEO's daughter gloated over cheating on SAT
Isabelle Henriquez “gloated” with her mother and a man who helped her cheat on an SAT exam, prosecutors said. (LinkedIn)

The Henriquez Family Trust later sent $1.35 million to Singer’s organization.

According to the Providence Journal, Ernst was the personal tennis instructor for the three Obama women. The Obamas are not mentioned in the indictment nor believed to be connected to the scam.

According to a New York Times profile in 2014 of Michelle Obama, she took occasional tennis lessons with Malia and Ernst.

“Michelle has a big backhand,” Ernst was quoted as saying.

William "Rick" Singer, front, founder of the Edge College & Career Network
William “Rick” Singer, front, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, exits federal court in Boston on March 12, 2019. (Steven Senne/AP)

Georgetown, Rhode Island Respond

A Georgetown spokesperson told the school paper The Georgetown Voice after the indictment was released, “Ernst has not coached our tennis team since December 2017, following an internal investigation that found he had violated University rules concerning admissions.”

“Admissions Office discovered irregularities in the athletic credentials of students who were being recruited to play tennis. This triggered Mr. Ernst being put on leave in Dec. 2017, an internal investigation, and Mr. Ernst’s separation with the University in 2018,” the spokesperson added.

A press release from July 2018 announcing Ernst’s resignation made no mention of the misconduct nor any investigation. Instead, the university stated at the time that it was grateful “for the many efforts Gordie has made over the years to create a first-class tennis program at the University, both athletically and academically.”

Ernst was later hired by the University of Rhode Island.

After the indictment was released, the university said that Ernst has been placed on administrative leave.

“Ernst was hired by URI in August 2018 as head coach,” it added. “He has not been involved in the recruitment of any current players nor in the signing of any new recruits.”

Ernst was arrested on March 12 and released on $200,000 bond, with an initial court appearance slated for a federal courtroom in Boston on March 25.