Couple sentenced to one month in prison for paying to rig daughter’s college entrance exams
A couple who split their time between Manhattan and Colorado were sentenced Tuesday to one month in prison each for conspiring to fix their daughter’s college entrance exams, a scam they decided was worth the $125,000 cost if it boosted her prospects of getting into Duke University, her mother’s alma mater.
In choosing to incarcerate Gregory and Marcia Abbott for a month, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani stopped short of the eight-month penalty prosecutors had requested. But she also wasn’t swayed by appeals from the Abbotts and their attorneys to spare the couple prison altogether.
The Abbotts, who must both pay a $45,000 fine and perform 250 hours of community service, are the sixth and seventh parents to be sentenced in the college admissions scandal. Talwani will sentence six more parents in the next month.
In letters to the court and a memorandum filed by their attorneys, the Abbotts described what they portrayed as the uncommon circumstances that led to their corrupt deal with William “Rick” Singer, a Newport Beach college admissions consultant who has admitted rigging dozens of SAT and ACT exams and misrepresenting his clients’ children as standout collegiate recruits for sports they did not play.
In letters to the judge, the Abbotts said their daughter is severely ill with Lyme disease, a condition so grave it forced her to abandon a soloist role with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, withdraw from high school and enroll in an online curriculum.
The Abbotts’ daughter — feverish, her muscles aching and sapped of energy — was struggling on her standardized tests, Marcia and Gregory Abbott said in the letters.
Marcia Abbott said she was introduced to Singer through a friend who, aware of her family’s “fraught circumstances,” recommended Singer as an expert who “did much of his college counseling in exchange for donations to a charity for underserved schools and youth programs.”
Singer did have a charity, although its true purpose was far from charitable. He used his Key Worldwide Foundation to launder five- and six-figure sums from his wealthy clients and, according to federal prosecutors in Massachusetts, parcel out bribes to a number of test proctors, college coaches and a university administrator.
“Rick could be curt and even rude,” Marcia Abbott said, “but I was grateful to have someone to guide us.”
After tutoring their daughter legitimately for a time, Singer proposed a scheme to guarantee she would receive a score of her parents’ choosing, the Abbotts said. The girl would take the test at a private school in West Hollywood, where Singer would bribe an administrator to allow Mark Riddell, his Harvard-educated accomplice, to correct the girl’s answers once she was done.
Riddell has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering; the administrator, Igor Dvorskiy, said last week he would plead guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering and cooperate with the government.
Before founding a packaging company in 2000, Gregory Abbott pursued a career as a theater producer and novelist, according to a notice in the New York Times commemorating his marriage to Marcia Meighan in 1987. Marcia Abbott, the daughter of a former New York state senator, worked as a magazine editor and freelance writer, the notice says.
Gregory Abbott, whose father built a successful lingerie company, also authored a 2006 romantic paperback, “Sheer Pressure,” which tells the story of “Alex, the playboy son of a pantyhose magnate, [who] loves his father but loathes working for him,” according to the book’s summary on Amazon.
Prosecutors say the Abbotts threw themselves into the scheme “eagerly” — not just once, but twice. They “exploited” their daughter’s illness to secure permission for her to take her exams in West Hollywood, thousands of miles from her family’s homes in New York and Colorado, wrote Eric Rosen, an assistant U.S. attorney, in a sentencing memorandum.
Delighted with the score Riddell had fraudulently obtained for their daughter, they asked Singer six months later to fix her SAT subject tests as well, Rosen said, with Marcia Abbott telling Singer a score of 750 or higher out of 800 would be “fabulous.”
Marcia Abbott, however, said her understanding of the scheme was vague, although she knew it required “some kind of cheating” and that Singer couldn’t have promised a particular score “unless he was going out of bounds.”
Gregory Abbott said he was aware his daughter “would be getting some kind of help that was outside the rules,” but that he “didn’t know exactly how and, frankly, I didn’t want to know.”
Rosen described the scheme in his sentencing memo: Gregory Abbott wired $50,000 to Singer’s foundation from his charitable trust in April 2018. Two days after the payment, the Abbotts’ daughter took the ACT at Dvorskiy’s West Hollywood school. Unbeknownst to the girl, her parents and prosecutors say, Riddell corrected her answers afterward. She received a 35 out of 36.
Marcia Abbott called Singer about a month later with a question: Could he fix SAT subject tests as well?
“Yeah,” he told her in a phone call recorded by the FBI. “It’s a little more expensive.”
Marcia Abbott told Singer that her daughter “loves the guy, Mark.”
“She said, ‘He was so sweet, he let me walk around the hallway,’” Marcia Abbott went on. “She said, ‘Can’t I take my SAT subjects with him?’”
Singer told her it would cost $75,000 to rig two SAT subject tests, in math and literature.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” she replied. Duke, her alma mater, “told us they didn’t want anything below a 750,” she told Singer.
In her letter to the court and sentencing memo, Marcia Abbott insisted she “never cared about getting [her children] into name-brand schools,” noting her eldest son dropped out of Dartmouth before graduating to work for a fledgling coffee company, and her younger son briefly attended Bard College, which doesn’t require applicants to submit standardized test scores.
The Abbotts’ daughter took her SAT subject tests at the same West Hollywood school in October 2018. Once again, Riddell corrected her answers.
A month later, however, Marcia Abbott was scared, Rosen said in the memo. The College Board hadn’t released the scores. Worried the scam was coming apart, she contacted the College Board and spoke with a customer service rep, who memorialized the call.
Marcia Abbott was “extremely adamant” and is “filing a legal complaint,” according to notes cited in the prosecution’s memo. Her daughter is a “soloist in Metropolitan Opera in New York City,” the customer service rep noted, and “the student has a chance to be offered scholarship award but she must apply early and the score is only missing on that application.”
Rosen, the prosecutor, blasted the Abbotts for threatening legal action to hold onto scores they had fraudulently obtained.
Prison, he said, “is the only answer for such entitlement and criminality.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.