William “Rick” Singer, a self-styled college admissions consultant who bribed coaches and rigged exams in order to slip the kids of his wealthy clients into the nation’s top universities, has been sentenced to 3.5 years in prison.
The scheme, which rocked the country’s elite colleges and included Hollywood figures like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Jones as benefactors, earned him millions of dollars.
In addition to prison time, U.S. District Judge Rya W. Zobel on Wednesday ordered Singer to pay $10 million in restitution to the federal government.
The sentence for the 62-year-old defendant presumably marks the end of what prosecutors called the largest college admissions fraud ever uncovered by law enforcement authorities. The scandal resulted in dozens of wealthy, powerful parents and coaches being sent to prison and put a spotlight on profound inequalities within higher education in America.
Singer developed his scam after years toiling at small-time college counseling businesses in the Sacramento area, where he developed a realistic, if jaded, view of the college admissions process, his lawyers wrote in a sentencing memo.
Young people could study hard, pursue an interest in sports, the arts or other extracurriculars, and demonstrate to admissions officers at elite universities that they belonged on campus. This route was called “the front door.”
“The back door,” he told clients, could be opened with a massive donation to a university’s endowment, his lawyers wrote. But Singer cautioned that a donation bought an edge but did not come with a guarantee.
Singer built what he called his “side door” into Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, USC, UCLA and other schools by developing relationships with coaches and other athletic officials willing to essentially sell him admission spots earmarked for recruited athletes. The case was detailed in a Netflix documentary, released in early 2021, entitled “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal.”
A girl who’d never played soccer competitively found herself, with the help of staged photographs and resumes filled with nonexistent accolades, at UCLA on its nationally ranked soccer team. The daughter of actress Loughlin was admitted to USC as a recruited coxswain on the basis of a posed photograph on a rowing machine. The son of a Los Angeles businessman won a spot at USC after his father photographed him posing in water polo gear in the family pool, then paid a graphic designer to impose the boy’s image in a shot of an actual match.
Singer charged parents six-figure sums for the service. For less money, he also arranged for their children to take standardized admission exams with proctors who were in his pocket and would either correct mistakes on the tests or merely take it for them.
Singer refined his scheme while also running a legitimate business charging clients handsomely to pair their children up with tutors who helped prepare them for the entrance exams and personal essays.
Confronted in a Boston hotel room by agents who had been tapping his phones and reading his emails for months, Singer agreed in 2018 to help the government obtain evidence showing that the clients, coaches and administrators involved in his scheme knew it was illegal. Singer called them on recorded lines, said he was being audited by the IRS and asked them to recount bribes that were paid, tests that were fixed and documents that were falsified.
On the very day Singer pleaded guilty in 2019, prosecutors charged dozens of parents, coaches and test administrators with crimes ranging from racketeering to fraud to money laundering. Almost all of them either pleaded guilty or were convicted. While prison sentences for the parents were generally a few weeks or months, a Georgetown tennis coach, Gordon Ernst, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for taking bribes.
Singer’s attorneys, Candice L. Fields and A. Neil Hartzell, asked Zobel to keep Singer out of prison and punish him instead with a year of house arrest, three years of probation and 750 hours of community service.
While calling Singer’s cooperation “unprecedented” in federal prosecutions within Massachusetts, Leslie A. Wright, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston, noted Singer admitted to thwarting the investigators he was supposed to be helping.
Singer secretly tipped off six families to the investigation, either by meeting them without a recording device or calling on an unmonitored phone, Wright wrote. He eventually confessed and pleaded guilty to a count of obstructing justice.
Calling his cooperation both “singularly valuable and singularly problematic,” Wright asked Zobel to send Singer to prison for six years and pay $10 million in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service — the amount he should have paid in taxes on the money he took in through the scheme.
Singer funneled money from parents to coaches, officials and test administrators through a sham called the Key Worldwide Foundation, whose nonprofit status gave his deep-pocketed clients the added benefit of writing off their bribes as charity.
In their sentencing papers, Singer’s attorneys said $27.6 million was deposited in the fake foundation’s accounts over seven years. Singer doled out about $7.5 million in bribes and devoted more than $11 million to what his lawyers called “investments, business development projects mostly focused on enhancing services to under-resourced students, and philanthropic gifts.”
The L.A. Times reported that Singer funded a range of business ventures, including an algorithm that matched applicants to their ideal college, a concierge service aimed at Chinese students and a life coaching service for middle-aged women.
Singer has agreed to forfeit the $5,148,328 balance of the foundation’s accounts. He has also agreed to forfeit his stake in an Oakland basketball gym, which the federal government sold for $100, along with investment in a private equity firm, valued at $131,714. Authorities also recouped $24,000 from a share of a business called “Virtual PhD.” He has also agreed to forfeit investments in the Swansea Football Club, the Sharky’s restaurant chain and other businesses, which the U.S. Marshals Service are still selling off, prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo.
“For the rest of my life,” Singer wrote in a letter to the judge, “I have no expectation or desire to have the lifestyle I had when I was caught.”
After selling his home for $1.2 million and forfeiting the sum to the government, Singer now lives in a St. Petersburg, Florida, trailer park for senior citizens, spending his days exercising and teaching paddle-boarding to veterans and children with autism, his lawyers wrote.