Gordon “Gordie” Ernst, a former director of Vineyard Youth Tennis, is accused of accepting $2.7 million in bribes to help children of wealthy parents — some of whom never played tennis competitively — gain entrance to Georgetown University.
Ernst, 52, is one of the 50 people charged in a college admissions cheating scandal that has grabbed headlines and lit up social media since the indictments were announced Tuesday by U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling in Boston.
Ernst is listed in the U.S. Attorney’s press release as living in Chevy Chase, Md. He is the former head coach for men’s and women’s tennis at Georgetown University, where he is alleged to have helped facilitate as many as 12 students getting into the prestigious school — some of them having never played, and others only marginally skilled on the court.
Ernst left Vineyard Youth Tennis in 2006 to take the job at Georgetown, though a spokesman there refused to confirm that before hanging up. She said that a statement had been issued, and that’s all the university would say on the matter.
In that statement, Georgetown said Ernst was placed on leave in December 2017 after the admissions department “identified irregularities in his recruitment practices and the university initiated an internal investigation.” In 2018, the school’s investigation found he violated recruiting rules, but Georgetown was “not aware of any alleged criminal activity.”
“Mr. Ernst’s alleged actions are shocking, highly antithetical to our values, and violate numerous university policies and ethical standards,” according to the statement.
Ernst, who had been working since then as tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island, has been placed on leave by URI. He is also known as the private tennis coach of Michelle Obama and her two daughters.
The scandal involves wealthy parents helping their children cheat on standardized exams such as the SAT, falsely claiming athletic prowess by bribing coaches, and in some instances pretending that their children are disabled.
Ernst’s alleged role is outlined in the criminal complaint. He allegedly accepted a $400,000 bribe from Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez to “designate their older daughter as a tennis recruit in order to facilitate her admission to Georgetown,” the complaint alleges.
As part of the scheme, in the fall of 2015, the Henriquezes also paid $25,000 to have their daughter take a specially proctored SAT exam and have her answers corrected. The proctor allegedly sat next to the girl during the exam, and later “gloated” about having gotten away with cheating. The girl allegedly scored a 1,900 out of a possible 2,400 points on the October 2015 test, an improvement of 320 points over her best prior score, according to records.
Manuel Henriquez is the CEO of a publicly traded specialty finance company in Palo Alto, Calif.
The elaborate scheme was allegedly spelled out in email exchanges, according to the criminal complaint.
Ernst was indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of racketeering conspiracy. He was arrested on Tuesday and released on $200,000 bond, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Ernst will make his first appearance in federal court in Boston on March 25 at 2:30 pm.
The Henriquezes had their daughter send Ernst an email in her own name, stating, 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.”
Ernst allegedly forwarded the message to admissions with a note that stated “potential spot.” She claimed to be ranked “Top 50” in the United States Tennis Association Junior Girls Tennis. According to a footnote in the criminal complaint, the girl was ranked 207th in Northern California “at her best,” and her overall record was 2-8.
The complaint outlines two other instances where Ernst allegedly took bribes in order to help facilitate admission, but the price he was paid was much higher.
Ernst allegedly helped the daughter of Elisabeth Kimmel, the owner and president of a media company, get into Georgetown. Kimmel’s daughter claimed to be a USTA “ranked player,” but there’s no evidence that she played competitively, according to the court records.
In that case, Ernst was allegedly paid $244,000 out of a nonprofit foundation set up by William “Rick” Singer, the man at the center of the scandal.
Ernst also helped the son of Stephen Semprevivo, a California executive, gain entry in 2016 by claiming to be a top tennis player for all four years of high school, even though he never picked up a racket, the complaint alleges.
Ernst was paid $950,000 for Semprevivo’s recruitment “and the children of other clients,” according to court records.
Chris Scott, executive director of Vineyard Youth Tennis, confirmed that Ernst was director of the youth program prior to Scott Smith. “It was more than 12 years ago,” he said. Chris Scott said he did not know Ernst during his brief tenure on the Vineyard.
Scott Smith, who followed Ernst as director of the Vineyard program, told The Times that he never met him.
Minutes posted online from a 2005 Martha’s Vineyard Commission meeting show Ernst went before the regional authority to advocate for the program’s hours of operation and other changes at the facility. Ernst was already gone when Smith took over the program in 2006.
Still, Smith, who is now the director of tennis at Squire Creek Country Club in Louisiana, said he’s been getting messages from his friends on the Vineyard about the scandal. “I’m personally shocked. It gives us a bad name,” Smith said. “It’s shocking that a tennis instructor would sacrifice their name and reputation for money.”
Paul Adler, a local builder on the Island, remembers selling and building Ernst his house in Vineyard Haven. He said he was shocked to learn Ernst is part of the scandal, but declined further comment.
A source who asked not to be named told The Times Ernst was “a very personable, good-looking guy.” He called Ernst sly, but never suspected he was doing anything illegal. “He put in the minimum effort at Vineyard Youth Tennis,” he said. “He would always show up late, and he would never do anything more than he had to to get by.”