2020 will always be remembered for the coronavirus pandemic, but it was also a year of high-profile scandals.
Some are ongoing, including the college admissions scandal, sex crime allegations against disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein, and investigations into sex abuses by associates of deceased financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Here’s a look back at scandals that rocked the nation.
Jeffrey Epstein and his associates
Jeffrey Epstein was a hedge fund manager who rubbed elbows with the rich, famous and influential, including presidents and a prince.
Epstein was first charged with sex crimes in 2006, according to reports. Under a 2008 non-prosecution agreement, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges in Florida of solicitation of prostitution involving a minor and another similar prostitution charge. That allowed him to avoid federal prosecution and a possible life sentence, instead serving 13 months in a work-release program. He was required to make payments to victims and register as a sex offender.
But Epstein and his crimes returned to the spotlight in 2019, when federal prosecutors in New York charged him with sex trafficking and conspiracy. The new charges stemmed from investigative reporting by The Miami Herald, which accused him of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls and stirred outrage over the 2008 plea bargain.
The 66-year-old was found unconscious at a federal detention center in New York City in August 2019. A city medical examiner deemed his death a suicide by hanging, but many still question the circumstances.
At the time of Epstein’s arrest, prosecutors said they found a trove of pictures of nude and semi-nude young women and girls at his $77 million Manhattan mansion. They also say additional victims have come forward since the arrest.
But his attorneys insisted that Epstein hadn’t had any illicit contact with underage girls since serving his sentence in Florida. They argued that the new charges were improper because they covered largely the same ground as the non-prosecution agreement.
A conviction could have landed him in prison for 45 years.
Just shy of a year after his death, Epstein’s longtime friend and rumored girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested on charges she helped lure at least three girls, including one as young as 14, to be sexualized by Epstein.
Maxwell, a British socialite who lived and traveled with Epstein for years, facilitated his crimes and on some occasions joined him in sexually abusing the girls, court papers alleged.
The 58-year-old was arrested in July 2020 in Bradford, New Hampshire, where she was living on a wooded estate she had purchased for $1 million. The FBI had reportedly been keeping tabs on her after she disappeared from public view following Epstein’s arrest.
The indictment included counts of conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, enticement of a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.
She was also accused of perjuring herself during a deposition in a civil lawsuit over alleged abuse.
Among the most sensational accusations was a claim by Virginia Roberts Giuffre that Maxwell arranged for her to have sex with Britain’s Prince Andrew at her London townhouse. Giuffre bolstered her allegations with a picture of her, Prince Andrew and Maxwell that she said was taken at the time.
The royal denied her story and Maxwell said in a deposition that Giuffre was “totally lying.”
The prince was not mentioned in the indictment, and the charges covered Maxwell’s dealings with Epstein only from 1994 through 1997, a period well before his alleged encounters with Giuffre in 2001.
Maxwell was in an intimate relationship with Epstein for years and also was paid by him to manage his various properties, according to the indictment, which included a photograph of Epstein with his arm around Maxwell and his head nuzzling hers.
She is the daughter of a British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, who died in 1991 after falling off his yacht near the Canary Islands. At the time, he was facing allegations that he had illegally looted pension funds from his businesses.
In December, another former Epstein associate, French modeling agent Jean-Luc Brunel, was placed under formal investigation for sex crimes involving underage girls, according to reports. Brunel has denied any wrongdoing.
College admissions scandal
More than 50 people – including wealthy business executives, celebrities and college coaches – have been charged in connection with a sweeping admissions cheating scandal that federal law enforcement dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.”
The scheme came to light in March 2019 and embroiled actresses Lori Loughlin, known for her role as Aunt Becky in “Full House,” her fashion-designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, and Felicity Huffman, who starred in “Desperate Housewives” as Lynette Scavo. It also involved a former Pimco CEO and an heiress to the Hot Pockets fortune, and several coaches, such as former Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernst, who’s accused of getting $2.7 million in bribes to designate at least 12 applicants as recruits.
Rick Singer, the man accused of being the ringleader behind the scheme, pleaded guilty early on. Singer flipped and started working with investigators as early as September 2018 and secretly recorded his conversations with parents and coaches.
This year had no shortage of controversy surrounding the “Varsity Blues” case. As recently as September, federal law enforcement officials announced charges against another wealthy parent – the 57th person to be charged in the nationwide investigation.
Amin Khoury, 54, of Palm Beach, Florida, and Mashpee, Massachusetts, in May 2014 paid $200,000 to get Ernst to designate his daughter as a tennis recruit even though her “tennis skills were below that of a typical Georgetown tennis recruit,” the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said in a statement.
Loughlin and Giannulli are both serving time after admitting in May to paying a half-million dollors to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California as crew recruits even though neither girl was a rower. Their guilty plea was a stunning reversal for the couple, whose lawyers had insisted for a year they were innocent and accused investigators of fabricating evidence against them.
Loughlin and Giannulli were initially both ordered to report to prison on Nov. 19, but prosecutors and the defense agreed Loughlin could begin her sentence on Oct. 30. Loughlin agreed that she would not seek early release from prison on grounds related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Loughlin was also ordered to pay a $150,000 fine and perform 100 hours of community service, and Giannulli has to pay a $250,000 fine and perform 250 hours of community service.
Meanwhile, Huffman pleaded guilty in May 2019 to paying an admissions consultant $15,000 to have a proctor correct her older daughter’s answers on the SAT. She also considered going through with the plan for her younger daughter before ultimately deciding not to, authorities say. She served two weeks in prison in October.
Harvery Weistein’s sex scandal
Disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein is serving a 23-year prison sentence at the maximum-security Wende Correctional Facility east of Buffalo.
But the former filmmaker might not be there for much longer amid law enforcement efforts to extradite him to California to face sexual assault charges there.
Weinstein, 68, was convicted in New York City in March on charges of rape and sexual assault against two women.
He faces similar charges involving five women in California, stemming from alleged assaults in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills from 2004 to 2013.
In December, a New York judge delayed Weinstein’s extradition, citing his poor health.
Weinstein survived a bout with coronavirus in March at the prison. His lawyers said he experienced symptoms of COVID-19 again in mid-November but did not test positive for the disease at that time.
His trial lasted weeks and included harrowing and excruciatingly graphic testimony from a string of accusers who told of rapes, forced oral sex, groping, masturbation, lewd propositions and that’s-Hollywood excuses from Weinstein about how the casting couch works.
The conviction was seen as a long-overdue reckoning for Weinstein after years of whispers about his behavior turned into a torrent of accusations in 2017. The saga ultimately gave rise to #MeToo, the global movement to encourage women to come forward and hold powerful men accountable for their sexual misconduct.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.