After some discussion of college entrance exams and which schools had better engineering programs, William “Rick” Singer and John B. Wilson, a Massachusetts financier, started talking prices.
If he wanted to get his twin daughters into Harvard or Stanford by making a donation, Wilson would need to pony up no less than $45 million, Singer said.
“God,” Wilson said.
Like any good salesman, Singer was ready with another, more attainable option: If Wilson paid him $1.2 million, he could get the girls into those schools through the “side door” — a euphemism Singer used to describe a scheme in which he bought off college coaches willing to sell spots at schools reserved for recruited athletes.
“Jesus,” Wilson said. “Is there a two-for-one special?”
Singer laughed off the suggestion. Wilson then asked what he could get in the $300,000 to half-million-dollar range.
“That’s, uh, Georgetown,” Singer said, “Boston College, Georgia Tech, USC, UCLA, Berkeley.”
The 2018 phone conversation, intercepted on a wiretap, is one piece of evidence in the sweeping case prosecutors built against Wilson and dozens more accused of conspiring with Singer to rip off some of the country’s most elite universities. This call and others, prosecutors allege, leave little doubt of Wilson’s eagerness to buy into Singer’s scheme.
Last week, however, Wilson’s attorneys tried to turn the 18-minute conversation to their advantage, filing transcripts of the call, four other calls and more materials in federal court to bolster their claim that the government is unlawfully withholding evidence that could undercut its case.
The transcripts and other documents show how Singer deceived his clients while peddling his illegal services, Wilson’s attorneys said in their motion. They want a judge to order prosecutors to hand over similar records they believe could help exonerate Wilson, one of 16 parents who have maintained their innocence in the scandal.
Prosecutors, who are required by law to hand over exculpatory materials to defendants, have told lawyers for Wilson and other defendants they are not withholding anything helpful.
The transcripts offer something new in the much picked-over case — an unvarnished view of how Singer sold his wealthy clients on committing what prosecutors call fraud, bribery and money laundering. Until now, only excerpts of Singer’s taped calls were made public, and only those hand-selected by the government to underscore what they consider the defendants’ culpability.
Singer steered Wilson away from schools where he is not believed to have had connections, the transcripts show. MIT is “not even a fun place to go to school, John.” As for Caltech: “Nobody goes to CalTech or MIT that’s a regular kid.” Dartmouth “doesn’t have a true engineering program.”
But Stanford, he told Wilson, is “the number one school in America.”
“They got everything,” Singer said. “They got the weather — ”
“They got sports, they got grade inflation, they offer every major. I mean, they’re the —”
“If anybody could go there,” Singer finished, “that’s the place.”
But the Palo Alto school, Singer knew, also had a sailing coach, John Vandemoer, who was willing to endorse non-sailors for admission as athletic recruits, in exchange for six-figure donations to his program. Vandemoer pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering in the case.
Wilson asked, “So you’re saying that’s the minimum, the 1.2 and the side door?”
In a call one month later, Wilson said he would put down at least a half-million dollars toward a $1.5-million payment, a sum Singer said would get the twins into Stanford or Harvard, according to the transcript. Singer’s claims of having inroads to Harvard remain unsubstantiated. None of the charges in the case involve students who were admitted to the school.
Unbeknownst to Wilson, one important thing had changed since their earlier conversation: Singer had been apprehended by the FBI. He agreed to cooperate, making hundreds of recorded calls to his current and former clients.
Singer pressed Wilson to commit. He worked on a “first-come, first-served” basis, he said. “I could probably get it done at 1.5 for both girls. I just need to — I need to push now.”
“Uh, yeah,” Wilson said. “So I’ll give you at least half. Maybe I can get ya three-fourths of a million now, if that makes it like, you know, more certain…”
Wilson and Singer’s agreement was interrupted by the federal investigation, and neither of Wilson’s daughters gained admission to a school through Singer’s deceptions.
In their motion, Wilson’s lawyers demand records from virtually every corner of the case. They want summaries of FBI interviews with Singer, discussing whether the consultant presented his side door option to clients as legitimate or illegal. They want information about the people who referred Singer to his clients, and “the degree to which they benefit financially (or otherwise) from their referrals.”
They want to review interviews with employees of the schools Singer defrauded, to see whether the schools — USC, chiefly — endorsed an admissions-for-donations practice as institutional policy. They want records of whether Singer stole from his clients, as Wilson’s lawyers say he stole from the financier, pocketing $100,000 of what Wilson believed was a $200,000 payment to a USC athletics program as his “middleman fee.”
And they want any agreements the government has struck with Singer and USC employees in exchange for their cooperation. In support of that request, the lawyers attached to their filing an email thread between leaders of USC’s athletics department, discussing a father’s $500,000 pledge and whether it could be used to fund his daughter’s beach volleyball scholarship.
“Not sure about all of this,” Pat Haden, the school’s athletic director at the time, wrote in an email. “Let’s discuss tomorrow and get it right.”
Ron Orr, one of Haden’s lieutenants, said while it was a “nice gift,” he too had “some concerns on gift agreement.”
Later that day, Donna Heinel, another top administrator, replied to Orr, Haden and two other USC officials: “Let everyone know it has been approved by compliance. [The father] can give a gift that ultimately is used for scholarship dollars for his daughter.”
Michael Kendall, Wilson’s lead attorney, said in his motion these emails show “USC, as well as some of its employees, likely violated tax laws through the practice of recycling donations into scholarships for at least one donor’s child.” If prosecutors have made a deal with the school to look past the incident, in exchange for cooperation from its employees, that agreement should be disclosed, Kendall wrote.
Doug Fuchs, an attorney representing USC, told The Times that no such deal or agreement exists between the school and prosecutors. “USC cooperates with law enforcement and voluntarily complied with the government’s requests in connection with its investigation into the college admissions fraud,” he said Saturday.
The school “acted properly” with regards to the donation discussed in the email thread, Fuchs said. “The student in question was a highly accomplished athlete and it is unfair to suggest otherwise,” he said.
Kendall hinted that prosecutors may have more leverage on Singer than what has already been made public, pointing to a transcript of a phone call between Singer and Rudy Meredith, Yale’s former women’s soccer coach. Meredith was cooperating with authorities when he called Singer in July 2018; Singer wouldn’t be apprehended until two months later.
In the call, Singer mentions that his brother has “a great business, ‘cause he sits in his (expletive) house and he rings up money.”
“Anybody who gambles offshore comes to him,” he said. “The problem he has is he makes a lot of money, but he also makes a lot of cash.”
“You can’t put cash in the bank,” Singer explained to Meredith, so his brother “invests in a lot of our stuff.” He described a gym his foundation had purchased in Oakland, the home base of the Oakland Soldiers basketball program, which needed “four or five hundred thousand dollars into the facility to upgrade it.”
“We’ll pay that to the contractors, cash,” Singer said. “So that’s his investment in it. That’s how he gets to utilize his money.”
What Singer described to Meredith, Kendall wrote in his filing, is “tax evasion and money laundering.” Singer’s attorney, Don Heller, declined to comment. Singer has forfeited his interest in the Oakland gym, according to his plea agreement.
While Singer has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering and money laundering, defrauding the federal government and obstructing justice, the arrangement he related to Meredith on the recorded call — routing cash from offshore gambling through a purported nonprofit — reveals “exposure that no agreements disclosed by the government address,” Kendall said in his filing.