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Mastermind of college admissions scam sentenced to 3½ years in prison

Rick Singer
William “Rick” Singer leaves Boston Federal Court in March 2019.
(Getty Images)
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William “Rick” Singer, the self-styled college admissions consultant who bribed coaches and rigged exams to slip the children of his wealthy clients into the country’s best universities, must spend three years and six months in prison for masterminding a scheme that made him millions of dollars and rocked the country’s elite academic institutions.

In addition to the prison term, U.S. District Judge Rya W. Zobel on Wednesday ordered Singer to pay $10 million in restitution to the federal government.

The sentence for Singer, 62, brings to an end what prosecutors called the largest college admissions fraud ever uncovered by law enforcement authorities. In addition to sending dozens of wealthy, powerful parents and coaches to prison, the case laid bare profound inequalities within higher education in America.

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Some parents, for instance, argued their payments to Singer were no different than the donations universities regularly seek from applicants’ families. Their lawyers dug into admission practices at one of Singer’s preferred targets, the University of Southern California, revealing that school officials tracked how much a family stood to give when weighing whether to admit their child.

While prosecutors had sought a six-year sentence, the assistance Singer gave authorities prosecuting his clients and conspirators played into the judge’s decision.

Rachael Rollins, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, said that without Singer’s cooperation her office might have prosecuted just 10 defendants rather than the 53 who were charged in all.

“Cooperation is a powerful tool that we need to use, distasteful as it is,” said Stephen Frank, one of the assistant U.S. attorneys who prosecuted Singer, noting that it was a cooperator in an unrelated securities fraud case who tipped off the authorities to a coach on Singer’s payroll. “It leads us into some unexpected places.”

Singer developed his scam after years toiling at small-time college counseling businesses in the Sacramento area, where he developed a realistic, if jaded, view of the college admissions process, his lawyers wrote in a sentencing memo.

Young people could study hard, pursue an interest in sports, the arts or other extracurriculars, and demonstrate to admissions officers at elite universities that they belonged on campus. This route was called “the front door.”

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“The back door,” he told clients, could be opened with a massive donation to a university’s endowment, his lawyers wrote. But Singer cautioned that while a big check bought an edge, it did not come with what his clients wanted most: a guarantee.

To that end, Singer built what he called his “side door” into Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, USC and UCLA, among other schools. Singer cultivated relationships with coaches and other athletic officials willing essentially to sell him admission spots earmarked for recruited athletes.

Federal prosecutors accused top CEOs, two Hollywood actresses and others of taking part in an audacious scheme to get their children into elite universities through fraud, bribes and lies.

May 21, 2020

Using staged photographs and resumes filled with nonexistent accolades, a girl who’d never played soccer competitively found herself at UCLA on its nationally ranked soccer team; the daughter of actress Lori Loughlin was admitted to USC as a recruited coxswain on the basis of a posed photograph on a rowing machine; and the son of a Los Angeles businessman won a spot at USC after his father photographed him posing in water polo gear in the family pool, then paid a graphic designer to impose the boy’s image in a shot of an actual match.

Singer charged parents six-figure sums for the service. For less money, he also arranged for their children to take standardized admission exams with proctors who were in his pocket and would either correct mistakes on the tests or simply take it for them.

Singer grew and refined his scheme while also running a legitimate operation charging clients handsomely to pair their children up with his cadre of tutors who helped prepare them for the entrance exams and advise them on their personal essays. In circles of the wealthy and powerful of L.A., Silicon Valley and New York City, he earned a near mythical status as a seer who understood the opaque, no-holds-barred world of college admissions in America, where elite schools often admit fewer than 1 in 10 applicants.

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Singer was adept at sensing who among his clients were desperate enough to cross the line. In a call recorded by the authorities, Singer held himself out to a Massachusetts financier, John Wilson, as an expert on college admissions and estimated what Wilson would need to donate to either Harvard or Stanford to get his twin daughters in: $45 million.

“God,” Wilson said.

But for just $1.2 million, Singer said he could get them into the same schools through the “side door.”

“Jesus,” Wilson said. “Is there a two-for-one special?”

Wilson was found guilty of conspiring with Singer, but is appealing his conviction. Stanford’s former sailing coach pleaded guilty to conspiring with Singer, but no evidence has emerged that Singer suborned any coaches or officials at Harvard.

Confronted in a Boston hotel room by agents who had been tapping his phones and reading his emails for months, Singer agreed in 2018 to help the government obtain evidence that the clients, coaches and administrators involved in his scheme knew it was illegal. At his handlers’ direction, Singer called them on recorded lines, said he was being audited by the Internal Revenue Service and asked them to recount bribes that were paid, tests that were fixed and documents that were falsified.

On the same day Singer pleaded guilty in 2019, prosecutors charged dozens of parents, coaches and test administrators with crimes ranging from racketeering to fraud to money laundering. Nearly all of them either ended up pleading guilty or getting convicted. Prison sentences for the parents were generally a few weeks or months. The longest term was handed to a Georgetown tennis coach, Gordon Ernst, who got 30 months in prison for taking bribes.

Singer’s attorneys, Candice L. Fields and A. Neil Hartzell, asked Zobel to keep Singer out of prison and punish him instead with a year of house arrest, three years of probation and 750 hours of community service.

While calling Singer’s cooperation “unprecedented” in federal prosecutions within Massachusetts, Leslie A. Wright, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston, noted in a sentencing memo that Singer admitted to thwarting the same investigators he was supposed to be helping.

Singer secretly tipped off six families to the investigation, either by meeting them without a recording device or calling on an unmonitored phone, Wright wrote. He eventually confessed and pleaded guilty to a count of obstructing justice.

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Calling his cooperation both “singularly valuable and singularly problematic,” Wright asked Zobel to send Singer to prison for six years and pay $10 million in restitution to the IRS — the amount he should have paid in taxes on the money he took in through the scheme.

Singer funneled money from parents to coaches, officials and test administrators through a sham called the Key Worldwide Foundation, whose nonprofit status gave his deep-pocketed clients the added benefit of writing off their bribes as charity.

In their sentencing papers, Singer’s attorneys said $27.6 million was deposited in the fake foundation’s accounts over seven years. Of this total, Singer doled out about $7.5 million in bribes and devoted more than $11 million to what his lawyers called “investments, business development projects mostly focused on enhancing services to under-resourced students, and philanthropic gifts.”

The Times reported that Singer funded a dizzying array of business ventures, from an algorithm that matched applicants to their ideal college, to a concierge service aimed at Chinese students, to a life coaching service for middle-aged women.

Singer has agreed to forfeit the balance of the foundation’s accounts, $5,148,328; his stake in an Oakland basketball gym, which the federal government sold for $100; his investment in a private equity firm, valued at $131,714; a share of a business called “Virtual PhD,” from which the authorities recouped $24,000; and investments in the Swansea Football Club, the Sharky’s restaurant chain and other businesses, which the U.S. Marshals Service is still selling off, prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.

Wilson’s lawyer, Michael Kendall, claimed in a letter to Zobel that Singer transferred money to his brother and stashed millions of dollars in Panama, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. Kendall pointed to a note Singer had written in his iPhone: “How do I have money when I get out? Sell house, 401 K etc Sprinter Van card etc[.] What do I do about restitution . . . ?”

Laura Smith, one of the FBI agents who investigated the case, wrote in an affidavit there was no evidence Singer hid money through his brother or stashed it in overseas accounts.

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As for the question Singer raised in his note, his lawyers say he is “optimistic about finding gainful employment” and asked Zobel to spare him from prison so he could work and make restitution to the IRS.

“For the rest of my life,” Singer wrote in a letter to the judge, “I have no expectation or desire to have the lifestyle I had when I was caught.”

After selling his home for $1.2 million and forfeiting the sum to the government, Singer now lives in a St. Petersburg, Fla., trailer park for senior citizens, spending his days exercising and teaching paddleboarding to veterans and children with autism, his lawyers wrote.

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