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Family in China paid $6.5 million to college admissions fixer for a spot at Stanford, sources say

Family in China paid $6.5 million to college admissions fixer for a spot at Stanford, sources say
After Yusi Zhao was admitted to Stanford, her family paid the consultant at the heart of the college admissions scandal $6.5 million. (SpVVK / Getty Images)

The family of a Chinese student admitted to Stanford paid $6.5 million to the man at the heart of the college admissions scandal, whom they met through a Morgan Stanley financial advisor, sources familiar with the case told The Times.

Yusi Zhao, who also goes by Molly, was admitted to Stanford in the spring of 2017, and her family, who live in Beijing, paid Newport Beach college consultant William “Rick” Singer the seven-figure sum for the work he did to get their daughter into the highly selective school, according to sources familiar with the case. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

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No one in the family has been charged in the scandal and it’s unclear how much the parents or their daughter knew about steps Singer was taking to secure the girl a spot at the university. A message sent to Zhao was not returned and her parents could not immediately be reached for comment.

Singer has pleaded guilty to committing an array of crimes while orchestrating a bribery and cheating scheme in which he rigged students’ entrance exams and bribed coaches to secure slots at universities reserved for athletic recruits.

To ensure Zhao was admitted to Stanford, Singer targeted the school’s sailing program, putting her forth as a competitive sailor despite there being no indication she competed in the sport, sources familiar with the case said.

It was not immediately known with whom Singer worked inside the university. Stanford’s former sailing coach, John Vandemoer, has pleaded guilty to racketeering and admitted to working with Singer.

The $6.5-million figure has stood out for its size since prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston unveiled their case in March and said an unnamed client of Singer’s paid the eye-catching amount. While 33 parents have been charged so far in a sprawling investigation of fraud and deceit in the college admission process, none is accused of spending sums that even approach what Zhao’s family are said to have paid.

For parents who wanted an expert test taker to take or correct their children’s college entrance exams, Singer admitted to typically charging $15,000 to $50,000, while those who wanted to access Singer’s “side door” — his term for using bribes to secure admission slots reserved for recruited athletes — typically paid about $250,000, according to court records and Singer’s admission.

The only others known to have paid Singer more than a million dollars are the parents of Sherry Guo, who paid $1.2 million for help getting their daughter into Yale, Guo’s attorney has said. They have denied any wrongdoing through their attorney, and have not been charged.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts declined to comment.

Although Zhao and her parents haven’t been accused in the scandal, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts have charged the parents implicated in the scheme so far with fraud conspiracy and money laundering offenses. Fourteen parents have said they will plead guilty or have already pleaded guilty.

In all, 50 people have been charged in the case so far — a group that, along with parents, includes several coaches from various universities, an athletics administrator at the University of Southern California, people who worked for Singer’s college admission consulting business, and others he paid to carry out aspects of his scam.

Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, which is handling the case, have continued to investigate and said in court filings they soon expect to charge more people in the case. Their continued digging has left an untold number of families in the Bay Area, Southern California and elsewhere that hired Singer on edge with worry that they, too, could face criminal charges. Nearly a dozen criminal-defense attorneys contacted in Los Angeles all said they had been retained by people who have not been charged in the case but have some connection to Singer.

The attorneys said some parents, and a small number of students, have been informed by prosecutors they are formal targets in the investigation — a designation that often results in criminal charges.

On Thursday, an attorney in Hong Kong who said he represented Zhao’s mother released a statement on behalf of the woman. Identifying her only as “Mrs. Zhao,” the statement said the woman was introduced to Singer by “a third party.”

Singer “only provided educational advisory services, and did not guarantee admission into any particular school,” the statement said, adding that Yusi Zhao was a strong student and received admission offers from several unnamed colleges in the U.S.

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When the woman’s daughter was admitted to Stanford, Singer asked her to make a donation to the school through a foundation he operated, according to the statement. Singer allegedly told the woman that the money would, among other things, help fund scholarships, so she made the $6.5-million contribution, the statement said.

“Since the matters concerning Mr. Singer and his foundation have been widely reported, Mrs. Zhao has come to realize she has been misled, her generosity has been taken advantage of, and her daughter has fallen victim to the scam,” the statement said.

The attorney, Vincent Law, declined in an email to provide the woman’s first name or information about the girl’s father.

It is believed Zhao’s parents met Singer through the manager of a Los Angeles-area branch of investment bank Morgan Stanley. Sources familiar with the manager said she often brought Singer into the office, and encouraged her financial advisors to offer his college consulting services to their clients. The manager did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley initially declined to comment. Later, the spokeswoman issued a statement saying a financial advisor for the company, Michael Wu, “was terminated for not cooperating with an internal investigation into the college admissions matter. We are cooperating with the authorities.”

Wu was fired in March, said a source with knowledge of the situation. It is unknown what role, if any, Wu played in the deal involving the Zhao family.

Wu's attorney, Raymond Aghaian, said Wednesday evening that Singer had deceived Wu, telling him before any payments were made that the money would fund staff salaries, scholarships and outreach programs “to help the needy to afford to attend Stanford.”

Singer allegedly told Wu that because “he knew Mr. Wu would not engage in wrongdoing,” Aghaian said.

The attorney added that Morgan Stanley fired Wu while he was out of the country and trying to fully cooperate with the bank.

Singer’s college consulting business was on a Morgan Stanley list of referral agencies until 2015, a person familiar with the situation said. Singer kept in contact with some Morgan Stanley advisors after being taken off the list, the person said.

It’s unclear whether Zhao is still a student at the university. Stanford said last month it had expelled a student who had submitted a falsified application. E.J. Miranda, a spokesman for the university, would not identify the student.

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Miranda stressed that Singer, not Stanford, is alleged to have received the $6.5 million payment. He said $770,000 was donated to Stanford’s sailing program through Singer’s sham charity in three separate gifts: two associated with students who were not admitted to Stanford, and a $500,000 gift tied to the student who was expelled last month.

Yusi Zhao’s profile on a Stanford student database is now inactive.

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