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‘He’s shady’: Some past colleagues say they didn’t trust Newport Beach consultant at center of college admissions scandal

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William “Rick” Singer of Newport Beach leaves federal court in Boston on Tuesday after being charged with conspiracy, money laundering, obstruction of justice and racketeering in connection with a national college admissions scandal. He has pleaded guilty.
(Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

For 25 years, William “Rick” Singer was in the business of helping high school students get into some of the country’s top colleges, gaining a reputation as a master salesman who got results, but also someone who came across as devious and way too slick, according to some of those who knew him professionally.

High school guidance counselors in Sacramento, where Singer started his career as a college admissions consultant, used to trade “Rick stories” and warned one another, “He’s shady. Be careful,” according to one of them.

Now, Singer, 58, who owns the admissions company Edge College & Career Network, which he operated out of his Newport Beach home, is at the center of one of biggest college admissions scandals on record, accused of conspiring with wealthy parents to pay bribes to get their children into prestigious schools such as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and UCLA.

Newport Beach and Laguna Beach connections abound in college admissions scandal »

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Some of those who encountered him professionally said they were not surprised to see Singer in the middle of the scheme. His popularity with wealthy families in the Sacramento area was not shared by school counselors and educators, who said they had no clue about any illegal practices but found him untrustworthy.

“He was a slick talker and people believed him,” said Jill Newman, who has worked as a high school counselor in Sacramento schools for decades and had several well-to-do students who hired Singer. “But every high school counselor in the area knew about him. He was sneaky from the get-go.”

Singer pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Boston to conspiracy, money laundering, obstruction of justice and racketeering. Federal prosecutors charged 50 people in the scheme, including coaches and dozens of parents. They included TV stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and high-achieving figures in fields such as law, finance and fashion.

Authorities alleged parents hired Singer to bribe college coaches and administrators to boost their children’s chances of admission by making them look like star athletes in sports they never played. He also hired people to take college entrance exams for students or paid off insiders to correct youngsters’ answers, officials said.

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Some parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and one as much as $6.5 million, prosecutors said.

Newman first met Singer in the early 2000s when she was a counselor at Rio Americano High School in the Sacramento area. Counselors from high schools in the area would compare notes on Singer, who rubbed many the wrong way. “We started trading stories,” she said. “It was like, ‘There’s this guy Rick. He’s shady. Be careful.’”

Newman said Singer was known to deliberately target the children of wealthy people and seemed to be in the business not for the good of the kids but for the money and status it brought him. He talked about the need to build students into “a brand,” which struck counselors as misguided and potentially dishonest, she said.

He would insert himself into school college counseling sessions with parents and students — “Which is not normal, not something we do,” she said — and would do all the talking and demand that students be enrolled in certain classes, often above their skill level, to help them get into colleges of their choice.

In one case, he took charge of a student athlete’s course load in 12th grade, setting him up with three online math classes, which he somehow passed even though at school he had failed Algebra 1, she said.

“He was so good at doing things underhandedly,” Newman said. “We knew kids were getting into places that they weren’t quite capable of doing on their own.”

When she saw Singer’s name in the news this week, her reaction was not shock: “I was jumping for joy because he finally got caught.”

“He was a master salesperson and very popular. People hired him like crazy,” said Margie Amott, another college admissions consultant in the Sacramento area, who started her own business a few years after Singer did. She said he was charismatic, persuasive and articulate and had the ability to bond with young people.

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Amott had little direct contact with Singer but said she heard endless stories about him from school counselors. Among them, he would tell kids he would guarantee their admission to certain schools — a promise counselors shouldn’t make, Amott said — and had a website where he would say college admissions is a “science.”

“High school counselors had direct exposure with him. I would hear about it because they would be tearing out their hair because of unethical things he would be doing,” she said.

Rebekah Hendershot, who helped Singer write a 2014 book on college admissions, told USA Today that she was not aware of any test-rigging or bribes but recalled Singer telling a wealthy high schooler to write his college application essay about growing up poor.

“The kid was very nervous, very upset,” Hendershot told the newspaper. “It was a personal statement all about his experiences growing up poor, and I was literally sitting in a mansion when he showed it to me.” She said she advised the student to be honest and doesn’t know whether Singer submitted the essay.

Years before going into the consulting business, Singer was the boys’ basketball coach at Encina High School in Sacramento but was fired in 1988, according to the Sacramento Bee. The school system would not say why at the time, but parents told the newspaper that Singer was abusive toward referees. In the early 1990s, he was an assistant coach for Sacramento State University’s men’s basketball team, the Bee reported.

In 1992, Singer started his first admissions consulting business in Sacramento, Future Stars College and Career Counseling. In 2007, according to prosecutors, he started Edge College & Career Network, also known as the Key.

Around 2012, he moved to Newport Beach and created the Key Worldwide Foundation, a purported charity granted tax-exempt status by the IRS in 2013.

Federal prosecutors said he used the foundation to funnel bribe money from parents to colleges. Parents made big “donations” to the charity, and Singer disguised the payments as charitable contributions so his clients could deduct them on their income taxes.

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Singer received $25 million in all to bribe college athletic coaches and others, prosecutors said.

Since Key Worldwide Foundation was established, its revenue doubled each year, from $451,600 in its first year to $3.7 million in 2016, according to its nonprofit tax filings. The foundation claimed in that span to have given out about $2 million in grants, namely to university athletics, including USC’s water polo and soccer programs and Georgetown tennis.

The address of the foundation was the same as Singer’s $2.6-million Newport Beach home, a five-bedroom house surrounded by well-manicured gardens and potted lemon trees. The house was listed for sale a few weeks ago.

Neighbor Caren Darrow said Singer told her he was moving last week, packed up and left soon after. She said Singer was friendly and encouraged her son, a high school basketball player, to apply himself in school and sports. She said she knew that he worked to help student athletes get into college, but not much more.

“It’s shocking, disappointing,” said her husband, Brian Darrow, “but you know, sometimes people get wrapped up in the wrong thing.”

Amott and other education professionals said Singer’s crimes had cast a negative light on the industry.

“He’s not an education consultant. He’s a charlatan,” said Arun Ponnusamy, chief academic officer at Collegewise, a company that helps students with their applications. “He was completely a con man.”

Meanwhile, Douglas Hodge, former chief executive of Newport Beach-based Pacific Investment Management Co., or PIMCO, appeared in court on charges of paying bribes to get three of his children into top universities as part of the admissions bribery scandal.

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Douglas Hodge of Laguna Beach, former chief executive of Newport Beach-based PIMCO, is charged in the college admissions scandal.
(File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

The Boston Globe reported that Hodge, 61, of Laguna Beach, was released Wednesday on $500,000 bond after briefly appearing in federal court in Boston.

He faces charges including conspiracy to commit mail fraud. He didn’t enter a plea.

Hodge was granted bail despite a plea from prosecutors, who called him a flight risk with “unlimited resources.”

A lawyer for Hodge said he isn’t a flight risk and that he returned to the United States when he learned of the charges.

Other local residents charged in the scandal include Newport resident Michelle Janavs, a former executive in her family’s food manufacturing business, on allegations of using bribery to get her two daughters into preferred schools.

Ali Khosroshahin, a Fountain Valley resident, former USC women’s head soccer coach, and, until last season, the boys’ soccer coach at Newport Harbor High School, was indicted on allegations of fabricating athlete profiles for prospective students.

I-Hin “Joey” Chen, 64, of Newport Beach, who operates a provider of warehousing and related services for the shipping industry, and Robert Flaxman, 62, of Laguna Beach, founder and CEO of Costa Mesa-based Crown Realty & Development, were charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston.

Court documents allege Flaxman participated in two schemes in 2016, paying $250,000 to get his son recruited as an athlete to the University of San Diego and $75,000 to help his daughter cheat on her ACT.

Daily Pilot staff contributed to this report.


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