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How the college-admission scammers did it

“It’s truly stunning, it’s almost comical,” said an expert on economic inequality in higher education. “You wonder if it’s an anomaly.”

by Rex Santus
Mar 13 2019, 3:11pm

The man at the center of a newly disclosed college admissions scam — William Rick Singer — admitted in court Tuesday that he orchestrated the nationwide scheme to get unworthy rich kids into elite colleges.

“Everything Mr. Rosen said is true,” 59-year-old Singer said after Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen outlined the four charges he’s facing, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, tax conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. The Department of Justice charged Singer and 49 individuals Tuesday as part of a sting dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.”

He’s cooperating with investigators, and we can probably expect a lot more developments, as Singer is on tape saying he’s gotten more than 700 kids into college over the years.

Singer was the founder and operator of a California firm called Edge College and Career Network LLC (also known as “The Key”) and a charity wing of the enterprise, called the Key Worldwide Foundation. With these two entities and the help of co-conspirators, Singer finagled admissions that relied on two methods:

  • Phony ACT and SAT test scores
  • Phony admission as recruited athletes

“Between roughly 2011 and 2018, dozens of wealthy parents paid Singer about $25 million in total to guarantee their children admission to elite schools,” United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew E. Lelling said during a press conference Tuesday.

The uncovering of the scam comes at a time of heated debate over American higher education’s use of affirmative-action policies to increase the enrollment of racial minorities at elite colleges. Although conservatives argue that it “robs” students of seats, there are already plenty of legal ways for the hyper-rich to buy their children access to elite colleges. Ivy League schools, for example, reserve some admissions for legacy students and the children of big donors.

“If there is room for legacy admissions and athletic admissions, then there’s certainly room for diversity,” Victor Goode, an associate professor at CUNY Law who is an expert in affirmative action, told VICE News.

But what happens when you’re rich but not rich enough to donate a building to, say, Yale? It might be time to wage a class war outside of the law. That’s what sets Singer’s scam apart.

“It’s truly stunning, it’s almost comical,” said Jeffrey J. Williams, an English professor at Carnegie-Mellon University who has written about economic inequality in American higher education, of Singer’s operation. “You wonder if it’s an anomaly.”

Singer is facing a maximum of 65 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine. Here’s how he and his alleged co-conspirators did it.

How they got clients

Singer, who is based in Sacramento, has been assisting wealthy families to get their kids into college for decades.

One of Singer’s co-conspirators, who ended up becoming a cooperating witness with investigators, said he gained parents’ trust after they became clients of “The Key” by claiming he’d successfully rigged admissions for kids many times in the past — often without the kids’ knowledge.

“OK, so, who we are — what we do is, we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school,” the cooperating witness told defendant Gordon Kaplan, the co-chair of an international law firm who participated in the cheating scam, according to court documents.

“It was so funny ’cause the kids would call me and say, ‘Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do better even.’ Right?” the cooperating witness said during another tapped phone call with Kaplan. “And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.”

Cheating on tests

Part of Singer’s scam was that he enlisted Mark Riddell, another defendant and the 36-year-old director of college entrance exam preparation at IMG Academy, and other imposters to take ACT and SAT tests in prospective students’ place. In some cases, the imposter would correct a student’s answer sheet after they took the test.

Singer would bribe test administrators to replace the answer sheets or allow Riddell to physically sit in and take the test instead, according to court documents. Parents discussed with Singer how to make sure the test scores weren’t so high as to raise an alarm.

In some instances, Singer would instruct parents to have their kids fake a learning disability, so they (or an imposter) would get more time to take the test. The charging documents outline one parent providing her son’s handwriting so that Riddell could mimic it. Singer bribed at least two test administrators so that an imposter could either sit in or correct tests.

Parents usually paid him between $15,000 and $75,000 per test, which was covered up as a charitable donation to “The Key.”

Fake athletes

Besides fake test scores, another route into an elite school was by bribing coaches and other university officials to cast the student as an athletic recruit. Student-athletes are often allowed to attend extremely competitive universities despite low GPAs and test scores.

In one instance, Singer fraudulently gained a student admission to Yale by bribing the soccer coach with a check for $400,000, according to court documents, paid out after the student was admitted as an athletic recruit. That was part of a $1.2 million payment the student’s parents gave him as a “charitable” donation.

To throw off other administrators, Singer would get crafty. He would, for example, occasionally PhotoShop his client’s head onto the body of an athlete — even if the client had never played the sport in their life.

In what has already become a notorious part of the scandal, actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli’s daughters were both “recruited” to row crew at USC — even though neither of them had ever participated in the sport.

“I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know,” Loughlin’s daughter, who goes by the name Olivia Jade on social media, previously said in a video post.

Coaches at some schools, including former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith and Stanford sailing coach Jeff Vandemoer, collaborated on scam admissions with Singer more than once.

“Singer's associate [Vandemoer] created a student-athlete ‘profile’ that was sent electronically to Stanford, and that falsely suggested that Stanford Applicant 1 was a competitive sailor,” charging records said.

Meredith pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services wire fraud and helped prosecutors to build their case against many others. Stanford fired Vandemoer on Tuesday, and he pleaded guilty the same day to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

Parents paid Singer approximately $25 million to bribe coaches and administrators to designate their kids’ as recruited athletes, according to court records.

Cover: In this Feb. 26, 2015, file photo, students walk on the University of California, Los Angeles campus. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)