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High-profile lawyer admits guilt and defends his daughter in college admissions scandal

High-profile lawyer admits guilt and defends his daughter in college admissions scandal
Gordon Caplan arrives at federal court in Boston on Wednesday to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (Steven Senne / Associated Press)

A high-profile attorney who was charged in the college admissions scandal said Friday he will plead guilty and defended his teenage daughter in a public statement, saying she was unaware of the scheme and “has been hurt the most by it.”

Gordon Caplan, who until last month led the private equity practice at New York law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, was among 33 parents charged by federal prosecutors in an alleged scheme to sneak the children of wealthy families into top universities with bribes, fake credentials and rigged college entrance exams.

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Caplan paid the scheme’s mastermind, Newport Beach college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, $75,000 for Singer’s alleged accomplice to correct his daughter’s answers on the ACT, prosecutors said.

The girl was diagnosed with a learning disability after Singer told Caplan she needed “to be stupid” to receive extra time on her college entrance exams, according to transcripts of phone calls recorded by the FBI and cited in court records.

Caplan, a resident of Greenwich, Conn., was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. He is the second parent to announce an intention to plead guilty. Attorneys for Peter Jan Sartorio said in a court filing Wednesday that the frozen food entrepreneur will plead guilty.

It is unclear whether Caplan will plead guilty to the fraud conspiracy charge, and his attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Sartorio’s attorney said Wednesday that he would plead guilty to charges listed in a new document that prosecutors will file by the end of the month.

If Caplan pleads guilty to the fraud conspiracy charge — a felony — he will be disbarred in New York.

Two other parents — Devin Sloane, an executive with a Los Angeles water systems company, and Jane Buckingham, a marketing expert — have indicated in court filings that they are nearing similar deals with prosecutors.

A guilty plea would cap a steep fall for Caplan, an Ivy League-educated attorney hailed for both his grasp of complex financial maneuvers and his public service.

Caplan was named a “Dealmaker of the Year” in 2018 by American Lawyer magazine for structuring the blockbuster $850-million sale of Lord & Taylor’s flagship store in Manhattan.

He also chaired the board of Publicolor, a nonprofit organization that helps New York City schoolchildren repaint their schools, and was recognized by his alma mater, the Fordham University School of Law, for helping a student bring her 12-year-old daughter into the country. The girl needed treatment for a rare disease but was barred by President Trump’s travel ban. Caplan was photographed with others waiting to greet the girl at the airport in January 2018.

Six months later, he told Singer he would pay $75,000 to rig his daughter’s ACT score, prosecutors allege. Caplan wanted her to attend Cornell, his undergraduate alma mater. He was allegedly recorded by the FBI saying he had no moral objection to having a 36-year-old Harvard graduate correct his daughter’s answers on the ACT.

Caplan laughed when Singer told him that his test-rigging scheme — his “home run of home runs” — worked every time, according to transcripts of their conversation quoted in an FBI affidavit. He expressed some uneasiness — “to be honest, it feels a little weird” — but later clarified to Singer that he wasn’t “worried about the moral issue.”

“I’m worried about the, if [my daughter’s] caught doing that, you know, she’s finished,” he said, according to the affidavit.

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Singer told Caplan to bring his daughter to Los Angeles to meet with a psychologist he trusted. The girl should act “stupid,” Singer said, to be falsely diagnosed with a learning disability, a key component of the scheme. Once diagnosed, the girl could receive extra time on her ACT, allowing Singer’s accomplice and ace test-taker to correct her answers, according to the affidavit.

Despite the diagnosis, ACT administrators twice denied Caplan’s requests for extra time. In November, his daughter was granted the extension.

“Totally unexpected,” Caplan told Singer, according to the affidavit. “I mean, it was like third time was the charm.”

Unbeknownst to Caplan, the FBI had asked ACT Inc. to approve Caplan’s third request. Singer by then was cooperating with federal prosecutors in Massachusetts. Caplan wired him a $25,000 deposit to an account controlled by the FBI, according to the affidavit.

On a Saturday morning in December, the affidavit says, agents watched Caplan drive up to a private school in West Hollywood, where Singer’s accomplice watched his daughter take the ACT before correcting her answers. Caplan wired $50,000 more to the FBI-controlled account 12 days later, prosecutors say.

Caplan was arrested March 12 when prosecutors unsealed charges against 50 people, including 33 parents. He appeared in federal court in Boston on Wednesday, alongside actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and a dozen other parents implicated in the scheme.

Willkie Farr & Gallagher, of which Caplan was co-chairman, said Friday he is no longer a partner and has left the firm.

“At Willkie, nothing is more important to us than our integrity and we do not tolerate behavior that runs contrary to our core values,” the firm said in a statement.

Caplan said Friday that his daughter was devastated to learn what he had done. She is a junior in high school and has not applied to any universities, he said.

“She had no knowledge whatsoever about my actions, has been devastated to learn what I did and has been hurt the most by it,” he said.

Caplan apologized to his family, his friends and his former colleagues at Willkie Farr. He also apologized to “students everywhere who have been accepted to college through their own hard work.”

“The remorse and shame that I feel is more than I can convey,” he said.

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