Prosecutors ratchet up pressure on parents in admission scandal with new charges
A federal grand jury has indicted a Palo Alto couple on charges they hired William “Rick” Singer, the confessed ringleader of a college admissions cheating scam, to rig their son’s college entrance exam, according to court records filed Tuesday.
The indictments against Amy and Gregory Colburn are the first the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston has secured since it announced a sweeping investigation earlier this month into Singer and dozens of people accused of scheming with him to sneak kids into high-end universities through bribes and faked test scores. The decision by prosecutors to escalate the case against the oncologist and his wife highlighted the stark choice the 30 other parents charged in the case face: Plead guilty or go to battle in court.
Singer, who cooperated with FBI agents as they gathered evidence against coaches and parents and then pleaded guilty to several charges in a deal with prosecutors, worked for years as a high-priced college admissions consultant who offered an array of legitimate services to wealthy families looking to buy their kids a leg up in the competitive world of college admissions.
But he also gave parents options to cheat. For a hefty fee, they could arrange for an expert to take or correct their child’s college admission exam or, for more money, Singer would bribe athletic coaches or administrators at a particular school to sell one of the spots colleges set aside for athletes.
Coaches at Yale University, USC, UCLA, Stanford and several other colleges have been charged in the case.
When they charged the Colburns and other parents with a single count of conspiracy to commit fraud, prosecutors filed a criminal complaint — a legal maneuver that bought both sides a few weeks before the government was obligated to seek indictments from a grand jury. The move was widely seen as a signal from the government that it was willing to negotiate plea deals with the parents.
Patric Hooper, one of the attorneys representing the Colburns, said prosecutors rebuffed requests from the couple’s legal team to learn the strength of the government’s case by showing some of the evidence gathered against the Colburns. And prosecutors made clear that both the husband and wife would have to plead guilty to a felony as part of a plea agreement, Hooper said.
“We weren’t about to plead to something we can’t see,” Hooper said. “We believe the Department of Justice has cast the net much too broadly, painting all of the defendants with the same brush. We believe our clients are innocent. Their lives have been turned upside down. They will insist on a speedy trial to clear their names.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The Colburns are accused of paying Singer $25,000 in March 2018. Singer used some of the money to pay an accomplice at a school in West Hollywood, who arranged to have the Colburns’ son take his SAT exam at the school, according to prosecutors. On the day of the test, Singer paid to have another collaborator who posed as the proctor for the exam correct his answers before the test was submitted.
The West Hollywood school was run by Igor Dvorskiy, a Sherman Oaks resident who has been indicted on a racketeering charge. Dvorskiy and an administrator at a school in Houston are accused of accepting five-figure sums from Singer each time they let Mark Riddell, an expert at taking the SAT and other exams, cheat on a student’s exam, according to the indictment. Riddell has admitted his part in the operation and said he plans to plead guilty.
Riddell, described by prosecutors as “smart enough to get a near perfect score on demand or to calibrate the score,” was told by Singer to correct the Colburns’ son’s answers — but to not aim so high that he realized someone had cheated on his behalf, according to court documents.
With Riddell’s corrections, the Colburns’ son scored a score of 1190 out of 1600 on the SAT, which he submitted to Texas Christian University, Indiana University, the University of Oregon and the University of Arizona, prosecutors say. The indictment does not say whether he was admitted to any of the schools.
Hooper denied the government’s allegations, saying the Colburns believed they were paying Singer for legitimate test preparatory services and thought Riddell was an actual exam proctor. They did not suspect anything untoward about the idea of having their son take his exam in West Hollywood instead of at his own school in the Bay Area and viewed it as a chance to visit Los Angeles, where Dr. Colburn studied medicine, Hooper said.
“They didn’t have any idea of what was happening,” Hooper said.
For having their son’s test doctored, the Colburns paid Singer through his charity, Key Worldwide Foundation, prosecutors said. Gregory Colburn transferred $24,4443 in stock to the charity and cut it a check for the remainder, writing “charitable donation” in the memo line, according to court documents. The charity wrote them a thank you letter, saying “no goods or services were exchanged” for the purported gift, the documents say.
David Sidoo, a businessman and former player in the Canadian Football League is the only other parent indicted so far in the case. Prosecutors indicted Sidoo right away, instead of charging him along with the other parents. One of his attorneys declined to comment.
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