The self-described “master coach” warned parents that in the scrabble for a spot at an elite university, their children would hardly stand out without his help. He spoke of a “side door” to top schools he could wrench open to the “wealthiest families in the U.S.” He promised their children nothing short of “a life of success.”
William “Rick” Singer made his name — and, prosecutors say, a fraudulent fortune — by peddling a bleak view of the college admissions process, one he portrayed as a minefield where one “small oversight or mistake … can make all the difference in your son or daughter gaining admission to the school of their dreams,” as he wrote on the book jacket of his guide to applying to college.
Now, the Newport Beach businessman stands at the heart of a scandal that has ensnared Hollywood actresses, chief executives and a fashion designer — what U.S. Atty. Andrew E. Lelling called “a catalog of wealth and privilege” — along with coaches and officials at some of the country’s preeminent schools.
Singer, 58, on Tuesday pleaded guilty in Boston to charges of fraud, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
Using a charity registered at his six-bathroom, $1.5-million Newport Beach home, Singer was paid $25 million by parents who, believing their children lacked the grades and test scores to get into elite universities, turned to a reputed college admissions guru who bragged of helping shuttle more than 700 students a year into top schools through “the side door,” according to prosecutors.
The charity said in tax documents that it helped underserved Oakland schoolchildren and “needy Cambodians.” Prosecutors allege the nonprofit was actually a sham Singer used to launder money and funnel bribes to suborned coaches and university officials.
Singer began cooperating with the government in September 2018 and wore an FBI wire in hopes of getting a reduced sentence, prosecutors said. But not long after agreeing to cooperate, Singer tipped off several parents who were being investigated, according to court filings. For that, he has pleaded guilty to obstructing justice.
If Singer’s website is to be believed, he amassed a college preparation empire called “The Key,” with footholds in 81 American cities and five foreign countries. At least a decade ago, his website said, Singer left the college admissions business to lead several call center companies, including one in India, before returning to “The Key” to develop an online high school curriculum.
“Being a father and coach, I’ve seen the stress that the college admissions process can put on a family,” his biography says.
Singer was employed from 1987 to 1988 as a temporary teacher by the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County, a district spokeswoman said. The Sacramento Bee reported he was fired from his job as basketball coach of Encina High School because of a “personnel matter.”
He co-wrote at least two books about the college admissions process: “Getting In” and “Getting In: Personal Brands.” His coauthor, Rebekah Hendershot, declined to comment.
One reviewer on Amazon called Singer “the college whisperer,” saying he had “singularly helped our family get into five different colleges.”
“Allow Rick Singer to wave his magic pixy dust all over your life,” she wrote. “You will be changed for the better.”
Singer’s charity, Key Worldwide Foundation, says in tax documents its stated mission is “to provide education that would normally be unattainable to underprivileged students.” In truth, the children Singer helped were decidedly privileged, according to court filings.
A Bay Area couple gave the charity 2,150 shares in Facebook and donated to UCLA before writing off more than $1 million in charitable gifts on their taxes, according to a court filing. Singer had guaranteed their daughter a spot at UCLA. The couple were among those indicted.
The charity’s mission statement references one of Singer’s key strategies: “Our contributions to major athletic university programs may help to provide placement to students that may not have access under normal channels.”
Singer used some of the money from parents to bribe coaches and university officials, who in turn helped him misrepresent his clients’ children as recruited athletes, prosecutors allege in the court filings. Current and former coaches at Yale, USC, UCLA, Stanford and other top schools have also been charged with fraud and conspiracy.
Singer’s charity in 2016 paid $825,000 for “consulting” to Gordon Ernst, the former tennis coach at Georgetown University and current coach at the University of Rhode Island, according to the charity’s financial records. Ernst has been charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Over time, revenues to the charity swelled. In 2013, its first year of recognition by the Internal Revenue Service, it collected $451,000 in “gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees,” according to tax documents. In 2016, the most recent year for which documents are publicly available, it took in $7 million. Singer, its president and CEO, said in tax documents he drew no salary.
Its treasurer, Steven Masera, has been charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering. Masera could not be reached Tuesday and it was unclear whether he had a lawyer.
Singer also admitted Tuesday to engineering another college admissions scheme in which parents would pay him $15,000 to $75,000 to rig tests such as the SAT and ACT. Singer would either pay someone to take the tests in their child’s stead or have a bribed proctor change the answers, according to court filings.
Singer was caught on a wiretap telling a parent it was “funny” when students believed they had scored higher themselves, saying, “They just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.”
At another point, Singer was heard describing the scheme as “the home run of home runs.”
Under his plea agreement, Singer will forfeit his charity’s investments in Swansea Football Club, a chain of fast-casual Mexican restaurants, a Texas data company, a Santa Monica private equity fund and an Oakland basketball facility. He will also give up two bank accounts held by the charity and pay a $3.4-million forfeiture judgment.
In Singer’s Newport Beach neighborhood, neighbors were shocked by the allegations.
Caren Darrow said Singer was generous and kind. While he encouraged her son Levi, a basketball player at Newport Harbor High School, to work hard, Singer never pushed his business on him, she said.
“We are shocked at the allegations, but I want to say innocent until proven guilty,” Darrow said.
Times staff writer Hillary Davis contributed to this report.