Admissions scandal: School administrator pleads guilty; Del Mar parent gets six months
The administrator of a small West Hollywood school where the rich and powerful went to rig their children’s college entrance exams pleaded guilty in a Boston courtroom Wednesday to conspiracy to commit racketeering.
A few hours later and a few doors down the hall, a judge dressed down a Del Mar father before handing down the harshest sentence yet in an admissions scandal that has riveted the country and laid bare the ways — in this case, the illegal ways — money offers unequal access to higher education.
The guilty plea from Igor Dvorskiy, a Sherman Oaks resident who oversaw the private West Hollywood College Preparatory School, and the six-month sentence imposed on Toby MacFarlane, a title insurance executive who paid $450,000 to have his children admitted to USC as phony athletic recruits, capped a busy day in the federal courthouse on the Boston waterfront.
Dvorskiy acknowledged that he pocketed nearly $150,000 from William “Rick” Singer, a Newport Beach consultant at the center of the admissions scandal, and in return allowed Singer to run a test-fixing scam out of his school for years.
“I can make scores happen,” Singer boasted to a Greenwich lawyer on a wiretapped phone call, “and nobody on the planet can get scores to happen.” His secret: He arranged for his clients’ children to take their exams at Dvorskiy’s school, where Dvorskiy allowed Singer’s Harvard-educated accomplice, Mark Riddell, to either feed them the answers or correct their tests once they’d finished.
From March 2017 through February 2019, Dvorskiy on 11 occasions allowed Singer to fix ACT and SAT exams for 20 students at his school, Leslie Wright, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in court Wednesday.
Dvorskiy allowed not only Riddell to tamper with exams taken at his school, but a second proctor as well, Wright said. She didn’t identify the proctor, who hasn’t been charged.
“Any disagreement of those facts?” asked U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani. “No, your honor,” Dvorskiy said quietly. His sentencing is set for Feb. 7.
Dvorskiy agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and testify at trial, if called. The government will probably try to use Dvorskiy to buttress its argument that Singer and his clientele were entangled in a single criminal conspiracy, with the aim of defrauding the companies that administer the SAT and ACT exams of their employees’ honest work.
As a test administrator, trusted with certifying that the exams taken at his school were filled out properly, Dvorskiy deprived the testing companies of his honest employment when he chose to take bribes and help Singer rig exams, prosecutors reasoned.
If prosecutors decide Dvorskiy supplied them with useful information or testimony, they have agreed to recommend a sentence below the range laid out in his plea deal, which calls for 24 to 30 months in prison. He has also agreed to forfeit $149,540 — the sum he collected from the scheme, prosecutors say.
Several hours after Dvorskiy reversed his plea, MacFarlane appeared before U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton for sentencing. Prosecutors had asked that MacFarlane spend a year and a day in prison. In a sentencing memo, MacFarlane’s attorneys asked only for a “lenient” sentence.
MacFarlane, 56, has admitted conspiring with Singer to pass off his daughter and son to USC as elite athletic recruits, which they were not. After Singer cut a $50,000 check for two USC soccer coaches in October 2013, the coaches described MacFarlane’s daughter to USC as “a diamond in the rough.”
She didn’t play soccer at a level that would merit a spot on USC’s team, Eric Rosen, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in court Wednesday. The coaches, Ali Khosroshahin and Laura Janke, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.
MacFarlane used a phony invoice to write off his $200,000 payment to Singer as a business expense, specifically “real estate consulting and analysis.”
Two years later, MacFarlane pursued the same scheme for his son. Singer and an alleged conspirator, Donna Heinel, a high-ranking administrator in USC’s athletics department, presented the boy to admissions as a recruited basketball player. Prosecutors noted MacFarlane’s son was 5 feet 5 and didn’t play varsity basketball until his senior year of high school. He was admitted as a basketball player in the spring of 2017.
MacFarlane paid Singer $200,000 and wrote a $50,000 check to a university account under Heinel’s control, prosecutors say. MacFarlane again deducted the $250,000 payment as a business expense.
Heinel has been charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, fraud and federal program bribery. She has pleaded not guilty. MacFarlane’s attorney, Ted W. Cassman, said MacFarlane has since repaid $82,612 in back taxes and interest he owed for taking the illegal deductions.
In arguing for a yearlong sentence, Rosen stressed that MacFarlane had used Singer’s services twice, wrote off the payments “in a bid to make the American taxpayer pay for his bribes,” and encouraged his daughter to cover up his crime by faking an injury when a puzzled soccer coach asked why she was on his roster.
Cassman, MacFarlane’s attorney, said that MacFarlane had encountered Singer at his life’s nadir. In the throes of a drawn-out, crushing divorce that left MacFarlane depressed and anxious, Cassman said, “Rick Singer offered him an easy way out of one of his stresses — the college admissions process.”
Cassman insisted MacFarlane wasn’t aware that the money he paid to Singer would be used to bribe USC coaches. Gorton, the judge, was skeptical.
“So he thought he was making a gift to Mr. Singer, who would miraculously get his kids into USC?” the judge asked. “Whether you call it a bribe or not, that sounds like a bribe to me.”
Before settling on a sentence, Gorton offered MacFarlane a chance to speak. Choking up, red in the face, MacFarlane apologized to his family, colleagues, friends and alma mater, USC.
“I love that school,” he said, “and it’s heartbreaking to me that I brought a shadow upon it.” He said he was sorry to “all its students, past and present, and all the students who didn’t get in and are wondering, what if?”
“I take your apology as a sincere one,” Gorton said, “an indication you will try to make up for this for the rest of your life.”
Then the 81-year-old jurist unloaded on MacFarlane. Unlike Talwani, who in sentencing 11 of the 12 parents before MacFarlane tended to speak in broad terms about the damage their crimes wrought on the country’s education system, Gorton addressed MacFarlane directly.
“You had the audacity and self-aggrandizement to use your wealth to lie and cheat your way around the rules that apply to everyone else,” he said.
Gorton said MacFarlane’s crimes deserved a “substantial and conspicuous” penalty, a sentence fit for “a common thief — because that’s what you are. A thief of the values of decency and fair play.”
He ordered that MacFarlane be incarcerated for six months, pay a $150,000 fine, perform 200 hours of community service, and remain on supervised release for two years after leaving prison. He told MacFarlane to report to prison by Jan. 2.
Cassman, MacFarlane’s attorney, asked that his client be allowed to surrender on Jan. 13, because his lease was up Jan. 4 and he needed time to move out his affairs. Gorton didn’t budge.
“January 2,” he said. “He’ll get the holidays.”
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