Key Ingredient In College-Admissions Scheme: A Harvard-Graduate Test Whiz (#GotBitcoin?)
Mark Riddell, a 36-year-old Harvard University graduate, used his uncanny ability to boost scores fraudulently on college-entrance exams for teens of wealthy families participating in the scheme, according to federal filings. Key Ingredient In College-Admissions Scheme: A Harvard-Graduate Test Whiz
Mark Riddell used his uncanny test-taking ability to boost scores for students.
He was a test-taking whiz who could get any score on demand, federal prosecutors say, and the secret weapon in the college-admissions cheating scandal.
“He did not have inside information about the correct answers,” the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, said after announcing Tuesday’s federal charges. “He was just smart enough to get a near-perfect score.”
Prosecutors say Mr. Riddell, who lives outside Tampa, Fla., was central to the cheating scheme. He has agreed to plead guilty to mail fraud and a money-laundering-related charge, according to court documents, and is scheduled to appear in court in Boston in April.
After the charges, Mr. Riddell issued a statement apologizing for the damage and grief he caused. “I understand how my actions contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process,” he said.
Prosecutors said William Rick Singer’s testing scheme took place at least 30 times back as far as 2011. Of the 33 parents who were charged Tuesday, at least 16 are linked in court documents to Mr. Riddell, who was referred to as “Cooperating Witness 2.”
He has been helping with the investigation since February in hopes of leniency, federal filings say.
In one case, a test had to be scheduled at a later date because Mr. Riddell had a baby, according to the filings. Another time, Mr. Riddell used false identification to pose as a student. And after a Los Angeles teen had tonsillitis and couldn’t meet Mr. Riddell at the Houston test site—where the plan was for Mr. Riddell to fix the teen’s test answers afterward—Mr. Riddell asked for a handwriting sample and took the test on his behalf, scoring a 35 out of a possible 36 on the ACT.
Mr. Riddell is among some 50 people charged in Operation Varsity Blues, a federal investigation that resulted in the largest college-admissions scandal ever prosecuted.
From 2011 to 2018, prosecutors say, dozens of parents paid more than $25 million to Mr. Singer, a Newport Beach, Calif., college-admissions consultant, to bribe coaches to designate their children as top recruits or boost test scores. Mr. Singer pleaded guilty to four charges Tuesday.
Mr. Riddell is an alumnus of IMG Academy, a private Bradenton, Fla., prep school where boarding-school tuition for this year runs to as much as $77,650.
From there he went to Harvard, where he studied biology and played on its men’s tennis team, graduating in 2004.
This week, he was suspended indefinitely from his job as director of college entrance exam preparation at his alma mater IMG, which has grown into a factory for a wide range of young athletes in sports including baseball, golf, basketball and lacrosse. The school was purchased in 1987 by sports-marketing giant IMG Worldwide.
Mr. Singer assured parents seeking his services that Mr. Riddell could “nail a score,” the court filings say.
In 2011, Canadian businessman and philanthropist David Sidoo allegedly paid Mr. Singer $100,000 to have Mr. Riddell secretly take the SAT in place of his older son, according to court filings. Directed not to score too high, Mr. Riddell earned a 1670 out of 2400, the filing says.
He also took a Canadian high-school graduation exam for the son and later was paid to take the SAT for Mr. Sidoo’s younger son, the filing says.
Mr. Sidoo, who stepped down as chief executive from East West Petroleum Corp. this week, is scheduled to appear in court Friday in Boston for a plea hearing. He plans to plead not guilty, his attorney said.
In court on Tuesday, Mr. Singer said Mr. Riddell would fly in from Florida to two test centers in Houston and West Hollywood, Calif. Parents were advised to concoct a reason, such as a bar mitzvah, for why they were in town.
There, Mr. Riddell would either take the ACT or SAT test for the student, help them during the test, or change the student’s answers afterward, federal authorities said. Mr. Singer would pay Mr. Riddell approximately $10,000 per test.
Tanned and sandy blond, Mr. Riddell charmed the students during these encounters. “She loves the guy,” one parent, Marcia Abbott, said about her daughter to Mr. Singer in a recorded phone call described in the filings. “She said he was so sweet.”
Ms. Abbott and her husband, Greg, who Thursday stepped aside as chief executive of International Dispensing Corp. , allegedly used Mr. Riddell to correct answers on their daughter’s ACT test and then booked him for the SAT, flying her in from Aspen to the L.A. testing site last October, court filings say.
Ms. Abbott was seeking scores on the SAT above 750 per section, which is what she said Duke University required. In a phone call, Mr. Singer assured her that it could be done, according to the court filings.
“We’ll get 750 and above,” Mr. Singer promised.
“Fabulous,” Ms. Abbott replied.
After the Abbotts’ daughter scored in the mid-600s in the literature section on her own—by Mr. Singer’s estimation—Mr. Riddell fixed some errors and she ended up with a 710, according to federal filings. For math, he got her a perfect 800, according to the filings.
Two More Parents To Plead Guilty In College Admissions Case
California couple to become cooperating witnesses, providing federal authorities with additional information.
Two more parents in the college-admissions cheating scandal have agreed to plead guilty and said Monday they would continue to cooperate with prosecutors, bringing to four the number of defendants who have admitted to fraud to help their children get into elite colleges.
Bruce Isackson and Davina Isackson, a married couple from Hillsborough, Calif., allegedly paid $600,000 between 2015 and earlier this year to have college-admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer help their two daughters be designated as recruited athletes to virtually guarantee them spots at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.
The payments also covered Mr. Singer helping the younger of the two cheat on her college entrance exams. The couple were also in discussions to participate in the test-cheating scheme for their third child, prosecutors said.
The pair will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud. Mr. Isackson also agreed to plead guilty to one count each of money-laundering conspiracy and conspiracy to defraud the U.S., also known as tax-fraud conspiracy.
The couple are also becoming cooperating witnesses, according to people familiar with the matter.
“No words can express how profoundly sorry we are for what we have done,” they said in a statement released by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP and Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, the law firms representing the couple. “Our duty as parents was to set a good example for our children and instead we have harmed and embarrassed them by our misguided decisions.”
Gordon Caplan, former co-chairman of law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, and another parent, Peter Jan Sartorio, have both indicated in court filings and public statements that they intend to plead guilty.
The Wall Street Journal reported late last month that a number of parents were discussing pleas with federal authorities, and that some of those agreements could include jail time, according to people familiar with the matter.
A number of parents, including Mr. Isackson, were caught on recorded phone calls with Mr. Singer last fall stating that they had taken tax write-offs on the payments they made for Mr. Singer’s services. Many paid him via donations to his allegedly sham charity, Key Worldwide Foundation.
Test-Taking Whiz In College Admissions Scandal Expected To Plead Guilty
Mark Riddell will appear at Boston federal court on Friday.
A crucial player in the college admissions cheating scandal is expected to plead guilty in federal court here Friday, according to federal court filings.
Prosecutors say Mark Riddell, 36 years old, helped teens cheat on college-entrance exams by correcting their answers, often to achieve a score that was higher but not so high that it would arouse suspicion.
Mr. Riddell is a cooperating witness in the case. He has agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to a plea agreement with the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office.
His charges carry as many as 20 years in prison, but prosecutors are recommending incarceration “at the low end” of sentencing guidelines. Mr. Riddell led college-exam test preparation at IMG Academy, the elite sports academy in Florida, but he was suspended from his job after being charged in Boston.
William Ferguson—Lawyer said he isn’t guilty and will fight to clear his name, “I can’t speak to what happened at any other university but not at Wake Forest.”
Martin Fox—Martin has helped thousands of kids through sports programs in the last 30 years. We are confident he doesn’t belong in this indictment.”
Donna Heinel—”Anyone who knows Donna Heinel knows she is a woman of integrity and ethics with a strong moral compass. We look forward to reviewing the government’s evidence and fully restoring Donna’s reputation.”
Mark Riddell—”I understand how my actions contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process.”
David Sidoo—Asked people not to rush to judgment.
Rick Singer—”He pled guilty to serious, serious offenses that he admitted straight out. But there’s another side to Rick.”
Lamont Smith—Resigned from position at the University of Texas-El Paso, “Lamont is deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with the talented athletes and coaching staff” at the school.
John Vandemoer—When pleading guilty in court, said he knew he was doing something that violated the law when he brought Mr. Singer’s clients to Stanford’s admissions committee with the understanding they were interested in making donations to the school’s sailing program.
Robert Zangrillo—”I am deeply troubled by the recent complaint regarding Key Worldwide Foundation and I regret my and my daughter’s involvement in this college admissions matter.”
He must also forfeit $239,449 that he made from the scheme, according to the plea deal.
Mr. Riddell is scheduled to appear before U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton, the latest in a flurry of court appearances and pleas in what prosecutors describe as an active investigation.
Federal prosecutors in March charged 50 people, including test proctors, college coaches and 33 parents, in “Operation Varsity Blues.” Between 2011 and early this year, parents allegedly paid more than $25 million to California consultant William “Rick” Singer to arrange for test cheating or to bribe coaches to designate their kids as recruited athletes.
Mr. Riddell would be the fourth person to plead guilty, after Mr. Singer, and two former coaches, one from Yale University and one from Stanford University.
In addition, 13 of the parents—including actress Felicity Huffman—and one college coach on Monday agreed to plead guilty.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Singer would pay Mr. Riddell about $10,000 per test, and Mr. Riddell had the extraordinary ability to land a score just impressive enough to not raise red flags.
“I would already tell him the score that we wanted to get, and Mark would get that score exactly,” Mr. Singer testified.
How Not To Bribe College Basketball Coaches
The alleged bribery of top collegiate players and coaches sounds like a slick operation. But an ongoing federal trial shows that ineptness and low comedy were sprinkled in liberally with the cash.
The suite at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas looked like the set of a heist film: iridescent blue light cast shadows across low-slung couches, where three men in suits made deals. One by one, college basketball coaches came through. Some left with stacks of cash and agreements to steer star players to the men, who said they were starting a sports-management company.
But one of the three men was an undercover FBI agent posing as an investor. Another was a cooperating witness. The cash was provided by the federal government, and the hotel encounter was recorded by law enforcement.
Oh, and their plan—to bribe college coaches and secure their players as clients—was ridiculous. Even one of the men who was charged by federal prosecutors in connection with the alleged bribery scheme thought it was a bad idea.
Testimony and government evidence in a federal trial under way in Manhattan has exposed the seedy underbelly of college basketball—showing how shoe companies, athlete managers and university coaches undermine college amateurism rules.
But while the trial is about how a handful of people attempted to beat the system, their scheme also shows how not to.
Federal prosecutors from the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office allege that Christian Dawkins, an aspiring sports agent, bribed assistant college coaches so they would steer star players to his fledgling sports management business. But Dawkins’s lawyer told the jury that federal investigators concocted the bribery plan, then drew his client into it. His defense was the idiocy of the plan: Dawkins, his lawyer said, thought bribing coaches was “a complete waste of money” that “made no business sense.”
Dawkins and his co-defendant, Merl Code, were convicted in a related trial last fall, on charges that they bribed high school players’ families alongside a former Adidas AG executive. Both cases emerged in 2017 from a yearslong probe of college basketball corruption that implicated some of the biggest names in the sport.
The alleged bribery of top collegiate players and coaches sounds like a slick operation. But this trial—featuring a cooperating witness, secret recordings and undercover FBI agents in featured roles—shows that ineptness and low comedy were sprinkled in liberally with the cash.
In June 2017, a month before college coaches paraded through the hotel room, the key figures met on a yacht docked off downtown Manhattan’s Battery Park.
Because, of course, every ruse like this needs a yacht.
“I’ve never heard of a story where two guys get on a yacht where it turns out good,” said Dawkins’s lawyer, Steve Haney.
On board was an undercover FBI agent who went by the name Jeff D’Angelo. Posing as a wealthy investor—Haney told the jury to picture Sperry boat shoes, with a sweater tied over his neck—and came with a “very attractive” blonde. She was also an undercover FBI agent.
The agents were working behind the scenes with Louis “Marty” Blazer, a Pittsburgh financial adviser who had been cooperating with federal investigators. Publicly, Blazer had created a partnership with Dawkins and another financial adviser. Together they devised a scheme to secure the next generation of basketball stars for their sports-management company by giving money to the right people. Dawkins, his lawyer conceded, had done similar things before.
Dawkins and the other man thought D’Angelo was going to fund their business—which seemed awfully easy when D’Angelo went downstairs on the yacht and returned with a duffle bag holding tens of thousands of dollars.
Dawkins didn’t think highly of his new business partner, Haney told the jury during his opening arguments. “He calls Jeff D’Angelo stupid,” Haney said. “He calls him an idiot.” But he proceeded to work with him anyway.
The Shoes Full of Money In The Shoe Money Trial
Not long after, Dawkins had a problem. He had been a runner for a sports agency, gaining access to top basketball players at the grass-roots level by greasing hands. He was looking to get money to Robert Williams, then a top player at Texas A&M, according to Blazer’s testimony at trial.
In July 2017, Dawkins met with Blazer in the Vegas hotel suite and explained that he needed cash quickly. Blazer and the undercover FBI agent, D’Angelo, agreed to give Dawkins $11,000. The only question: how would they get the illicit payment to Williams?
Which is how $11,000 of the government’s money ended up in a shoebox that would be sent across the country.
After D’Angelo gave Dawkins the money, the men went downstairs to a store inside the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Blazer says. There, they bought a pair of shoes. The trio stuffed the cash inside the shoes, went to a nearby FedEx and shipped it off to Williams. (Williams, who now plays for the Boston Celtics, has said he never received improper payments.)
The ‘I Got Lost On My Way To Zion’s House’ Routine
Before Zion Williamson laid siege to college basketball rims around the country and extirpated his own shoe on national television, he was a South Carolina teenager with millions of Instagram followers who hadn’t decided where he wanted to go to college. And because he lived in South Carolina, Clemson had the ambitious notion that it could potentially nab the prized recruit.
That’s why Clemson assistant Steve Smith came into the Cosmopolitan hotel suite, where he was also unwittingly recorded by federal investigators. On that recording, Dawkins said powerhouses like Duke and Kentucky would have their “resources” ready to get Williamson, and that if he picked Clemson, they would be prepared to provide Smith with the same. And Smith believed he had an in.
On the wiretap, Smith bragged that he was so familiar with Williamson’s stepfather—who also coached his AAU team—that Smith knew precisely how long it took to drive to his house: one hour and four minutes.
Smith knew that he shouldn’t know this. Such trips would have violated NCAA rules. And in order to cover his tracks in front of his boss, his idea was to play dumb.
So when Smith and Clemson head coach Brad Brownell took an official trip to the house at a time that didn’t violate NCAA rules, Smith planned to purposefully take a number of wrong turns en route so it would look like he had never been there before.
Clemson has said it is reviewing information from the trial.
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