In October 2018, two weeks after he was arrested by the FBI, William “Rick” Singer pulled out his iPhone and wrote a note in it about a “loud and abrasive call” with his handlers.
“They continue to ask me to tell a fib,” he wrote, “and not restate what I told my clients as to where [their] money was going — to the program not the coach and that it was a donation and they want it to be a payment.”
Thursday made for an eventful day in a college admissions scandal that has riveted the nation: A judge set an Oct. 5 start date for a blockbuster trial featuring Lori Loughlin and other parents charged with defrauding USC, and notes emerged showing Singer had written that his FBI handlers wanted him “to bend the truth” and tell his clients that payments they made to his charity were bribes, not donations to university athletic programs.
At the heart of the case is this question: Did Singer’s clients believe their payments were bribes that would induce college coaches and officials to accept their underqualified children, swindling the schools of their employees’ honest employment? Or did they think the payments were genuine donations, routed through proper channels and no different from the checks deep-pocketed parents often write to universities they hope to see their children attend?
It is a question that probably must be settled at trial, which U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton on Thursday scheduled to begin in October, with Loughlin, her husband, J. Mossimo Giannulli, and others charged with defrauding USC.
In his iPhone notes, which prosecutors disclosed to defense attorneys on Wednesday, Singer wrote that his handlers insisted he “tell a fib and not restate” what he had previously told his clients: that their money was destined for a school’s athletic program, not the coach personally, “and that it was a donation.”
“Essentially,” Singer wrote, “they are asking me to bend the truth which is what they asked me not to do when working with the agents and Eric Rosen,” the case’s lead prosecutor.
Jack Pirozzolo, who represents William McGlashan Jr., a San Francisco Bay Area financier who is among the other parents charged in the case, seized on Singer’s notes in court papers filed Thursday, saying they show prosecutors and agents told Singer to “manufacture evidence” that would support a bribery case “when no such case existed.” A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston declined to comment.
When Singer noted in his iPhone that he had been told to “not restate” that his clients’ money was bound for university programs, not coaches’ pockets, it appears he was recording an instruction to more narrowly focus his conversations with clients who were under investigation, his attorney, Don Heller, said in an interview.
“My impression is they wanted to get something specific, rather than have Rick’s conversations range all over the place, as they can do, and miss the point,” Heller said. “Rick’s a talker.”
Singer was instructed to use two iPhones while cooperating with government agents, Heller said. He used one phone, which agents had wiretapped for several months prior to him becoming a cooperator, to communicate with his handlers and call targets of the investigation on a recorded line, Heller said. Singer was supposed to use the other phone to communicate with his lawyer.
Singer, however, was using the phone designated for government work to write notes and email them to his attorney, Heller said. A member of the prosecution team first saw one of the notes in late October 2018, Rosen told defense attorneys in a letter dated Wednesday. When prosecutors learned of Singer’s writings, they believed the records were communications to Singer’s attorney and therefore privileged, Heller said. “That perception was a correct perception,” he said.
A “taint team” of government lawyers was brought in to review the notes and determine whether they were protected by attorney-client privilege. The review began in August, Rosen wrote in his letter. After some delays in parsing through the notes, prosecutors decided last week they should be disclosed, Heller said.
Sean Berkowitz, who represents Loughlin and Giannulli, called this timeline “incredible on its face.” It strains belief, he wrote, to think that “on learning that the supposed mastermind at the center of a vast conspiracy involving dozens of university officials and public figures keeps notes of his daily interactions on his phone,” agents and prosecutors “responded by not reviewing these notes for evidence.”
Their disclosure, 16 months after a member of the prosecution team first saw one of them, shows the government has adopted a “win at all costs effort,” Berkowitz wrote, “rather than following their obligation to do justice.”
Berkowitz asked a judge to force the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston to turn over every FBI report of Singer’s interviews. He also requested a hearing to determine how the prosecution team learned of Singer’s iPhone notes, why they were withheld and whether the government is holding back any other evidence.
Despite his characterization of a call with his handler as “loud and abrasive,” Singer was never coerced or pressured to continue cooperating, his lawyer said, and every phone call he placed at an agent’s direction was consensual. Defense attorneys can squabble over whether their clients did or didn’t use the word “bribe,” Heller said, but a payment can still be an illegal quid pro quo, even if the payer calls it a “donation.”
“It doesn’t require the parties to say, ‘I’ll bribe you ‘x’ dollars in exchange for ‘y’ and ‘z,’” he said. “It’s a wink and a nod. It’s ‘This is what it’s worth to me.’ And that’s how bribery cases have unfolded throughout the annals of history.”
In light of the iPhone note disclosures, Gorton, the judge, said Thursday that defense attorneys have until March 13 to file motions to dismiss the indictment, suppress evidence or seek sanctions for government misconduct.
Gorton on Thursday divided the 15 parents who have pleaded not guilty into two trial groups: the first, slated to begin Oct. 5, includes Loughlin and Giannulli, along with Robert Zangrillo, a Miami investor; John Wilson, a Massachusetts financier; Homayoun Zadeh, a USC dentistry professor; Gamal Abdelaziz, a casino executive; and Diane and Todd Blake, a Bay Area couple.
The second trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 11, includes McGlashan, a former private equity chief; David Sidoo, a Canadian investor and former professional football player; I-Hsin “Joey” Chen, who owns a shipping company in Torrance; Elizabeth Kimmel, a media executive; Marci Palatella, chief executive of a liquor company; and Palo Alto oncologist Gregory Colburn and his wife, Amy.