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Rick Singer had grand plans beyond college admissions. Then scandal brought him down

Rick Singer had grand plans beyond college admissions. Then scandal brought him down
William "Rick" Singer departs federal court in Boston last month after he pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (Steven Senne / Associated Press)

William “Rick” Singer stepped into a conference room at a Newport Beach Marriott one morning last January to hear how his master plan was progressing.

He had paid for the flights and hotel rooms to assemble a group that included an accomplished business executive from the sports world, a Hollywood talent agent, and old acquaintances who had scratched together careers in marketing and other fields.

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One by one, they updated Singer on business ventures they were building and he was funding.

One talked about her progress building a company that would offer less expensive versions of Singer’s exclusive college admissions coaching to the masses online. Another brought him up to speed on We Got U, a concierge service marketed to Asian students at U.S. colleges. A third told the room about the computer algorithm he and Singer were trying to develop that would analyze students’ athletic and academic prowess and spit out the ideal colleges for them to attend.

There was an online addiction counseling service, life coaching for middle-aged women, and something called “Versatile PhD.”

“It was classic Rick,” said Phil Wright, who retired several years early from his assistant city manager post in West Sacramento to team up with Singer. “We were all like, does this guy ever sleep? He had idea after idea after idea.”

Singer is now at the center of the college admissions scandal, the admitted mastermind of brazen schemes to get children of the rich and powerful into top colleges.

But interviews with people who partnered with Singer and internal documents reviewed by The Times show he harbored ambitions far beyond sneaking wealthy kids into elite schools. Though a few of the companies Singer was funding are mentioned in court records, the scope of his business plan as well as his role as a one-man venture capital firm have not been previously reported.

Before his downfall, Singer was committing considerable sums to his ventures. He invested nearly $2.5 million in two of the ideas, and probably millions more into the constellation of businesses he was pursuing, according to interviews with associates and records reviewed by The Times.

At least some of that money, prosecutors have alleged in court records, came from parents who hired him to rig their kids’ college entrance exams or to bribe coaches for spots that schools reserve for athletic recruits.

An attorney for Singer, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to several crimes, declined to comment for this article.

Fifty people have been charged so far in an investigation led by the U.S. attorney’s office in Massachusetts, which has described Singer’s ploy to slip students into top-notch universities with bribes and rigged test scores as the largest college admissions scam ever uncovered.

Along with Singer, college coaches, a university administrator, former employees of Singer’s and dozens of parents have been swept up in the case. Many have agreed to plead guilty, while the rest, including actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer J. Mossimo Giannulli, have pleaded not guilty.

One of the ventures in which Singer was most heavily invested was the brainchild of Chris Li, a Chinese American businessman. Called UES, the computer-based training program would teach Chinese high school students “soft skills,” such as time management and navigating workplace relationships not typically taught in Chinese schools.

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Li told The Times he was introduced to Singer through a mutual friend in 2015. Other potential investors had passed on funding his idea and Li was taken aback when Singer expressed interest. Over the next three years, Li said, Singer gave him a little more than $1 million to develop UES. Li used the money to make several hires, including a team of software developers who were paid six-figure salaries.

Singer, Li said, was “a patient investor.”

“He would say, ‘Chris, don’t rush. Don’t worry about revenue; don’t worry about the short-term. Build me software that’s reliable.’”

Singer, Li said, wanted only to be able to offer the UES training program to clients of GettingIntoCollege.com, the online college admissions business he was pursuing.

Though Singer sold himself to parents as someone who catered only to the wealthy, he also had set his sights on making college admissions counseling available to the hoi polloi. To bring the idea to life, Li and others said, Singer had turned to Donna Orender, a well-regarded sports executive who, among other jobs, ran the Women’s National Basketball Assn. for several years. Public filings in Florida, where Orender lives, show she and Singer have been collaborating on business ideas since at least 2012.

Orender did not return emails and phone calls seeking comment. But a PowerPoint presentation reviewed by The Times that outlined plans for the business proclaimed, “until now, college admissions coaching services and resources have only been afforded to the world's elite. Gettingintocollege was founded on the belief that these services should be accessible to everyone.”

For one-time fees that ranged from $349 to $1,800, students would get varying levels of access to services such as “state-of-the-art standardized test tutoring, an exclusive leading edge college algorithm for optimizing college matching for academic and social fit,” tips on essay writing, and guidance creating “a compelling personal brand” that was meant to help students stand out from other applicants.

The PowerPoint presentation showed Orender had hired several developers to build various parts of the website. She estimated it would cost about $3.5 million to launch the website and get through the first year of operations.

The idea that a computer program could determine the ideal college for a student or the right job for a recent graduate was cooked into several of Singer’s business ventures, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Times. To build the technology for the college admissions website, Singer hired J. Galen Buckwalter, a psychologist and former "chief science officer” at eHarmony, the online dating website.

Buckwalter said in an interview with The Times that his company, PsyML, created a “preliminary instrument” that could gauge the student side of the equation. But their work together came to an end, he said, when Singer balked at the cost of developing the college side, which would have involved creating metrics to gauge a campus’ academic rigor and social environment.

“The idea had potential, but Rick was certainly a prickly person to work with.… I think he honestly had a passion for making that process effective for kids. He obviously thought about it quite a bit,” Buckwalter said.

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When it came to touting the viability of his business plans and his own business acumen, Singer sometimes used misdirection and falsehoods, according to interviews and emails he sent that were reviewed by The Times.

In July 2017, a few days after he had met with Orender, Li and some other partners in Los Angeles to discuss their work, Singer sent the group an email that recapped a phone call he had with John Rogers, a partner at the Rise Fund, which makes investments in companies it believes are socially and environmentally responsible. The fund’s founder, Bill McGlashan, was fired after prosecutors charged him in the admissions scandal, alleging the financier conspired with Singer to rig his son’s college entrance exams and discussed buying his way into USC with bribes.

“The message was clear,” Singer wrote, according to a copy of the email reviewed by The Times. “RISE and especially John Rogers and Bill McGashan want us as partners.”

Singer went on to say the fund was interested in making a large investment that could total $25 million.

It wasn’t true, said Frank Thomas, a spokesman for TPG, a private equity firm that manages the Rise fund.

“Mr. Singer misunderstood or mischaracterized a polite ‘No,’” Thomas said. “The investment never reached even the first meaningful milestone in TPG’s investment process.”

Singer could also be ruthless with his partners.

In 2017, he convinced Phil Wright, a soccer coach who in years past had helped Singer evaluate the athletic abilities of his clients’ children, to leave his city administrator job in West Sacramento and lead a venture called Counting Stars. The idea, Wright told The Times, was to evaluate high school athletes and use an algorithm — “the secret sauce,” he said — to match them with their ideal college.

Wright said he didn’t remember how much money Singer put into the operation, but at one point, he was paying six employees $2,000 each a month.

“It wasn’t chump change,” he said of Singer’s investment, “but it wasn’t millions of dollars.”

But in July of last year, Wright said, he was on the golf course when Singer called. He asked Wright when he expected Counting Stars to turn a profit. Wright told him the company needed until 2020 to get in the black.

“‘That’s not fast enough. We’re going to shut it down,’” Wright recalled Singer said. “I was pretty upset he just cut me off.”

At the same time he was cutting off Wright’s funds, Singer made a large investment elsewhere. In July, he bought a business that runs a popular basketball gym in Oakland, according to a person familiar with the purchase who asked that his name not be used because of privacy concerns.

Singer turned the facility into the home base for the Oakland Soldiers, a powerhouse basketball program for teenagers. The president of the Soldiers, Mark Olivier, could not be reached for comment and it is unknown what business arrangement Singer made with Olivier.

The purchase harked back to an idea Singer and a partner hatched years earlier to open a trio of private high schools where elite athletes would train, study and live on sprawling campuses in Florida, California and Colorado. In a 2011 message to investors, Singer’s partner, a Florida developer named Tim Morris, said he was drumming up funding by posting bonds for the project on the Luxembourg Stock Exchange. But the funding never materialized, “so it never went anywhere and we dropped the idea,” Morris told The Times last week.

When he was negotiating the deal to buy the Oakland facility, Singer made comments about wanting to expand it to include a school along the lines of the academy model, said the person with knowledge of the deal.

Within months of the gym purchase, FBI agents confronted Singer about his illicit college admissions dealings. He agreed to cooperate in their investigation, allowing agents to record him as he called parents and lured them into making incriminating statements.

Singer also called Li, who told The Times he was a few months away from launching his software product after years of work. Singer’s friendly, supportive demeanor was gone. He told Li he was being audited by the Internal Revenue Service — the same lie agents had him tell parents on the recorded calls — and said he was pulling his funding for the project.

Li laid off his staff and is trying to salvage his company. Because Singer was Li’s sole investor, the government is now expected to take ownership of a majority stake in the company, according to Li and court filings. Li said he is trying to line up investors to buy back the software, but he doesn’t have much hope, given the connection to Singer.

“He let us use his reputation, which was such an asset,” Li said. “And now, because of his reputation, we are radioactive.”

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