How The College Admissions Scam Unraveled
The investigation snared families at the highest economic echelons accused of cheating, lies and bribery. How The College Admissions Scam Unraveled
Federal authorities were pursuing a securities fraud case last spring when a person involved, a financial executive hoping for leniency, said he had information of great interest on another matter, according to people familiar with the investigation.
The executive told investigators that the head women’s soccer coach at Yale University had sought a bribe in return for getting his daughter admitted to the Ivy League school, a person familiar with the investigation said.
Authorities zeroed on the coach who began cooperating in what federal investigators said was the biggest college-admissions fraud ever prosecuted.
From 2011 to 2018, prosecutors say, parents paid a total of $25 million to William Singer, a college-admissions consultant, to bribe coaches and administrators to designate their children as top recruits in such sports as football, water polo, soccer, track and volleyball at universities including the University of Southern California, Georgetown and Wake Forest. Some parents also allegedly paid Mr. Singer as much as $75,000 for test-cheating services.
Authorities have charged 33 parents who allegedly paid for illegal services to get their children into colleges; three people who were allegedly paid to fraudulently raise scores on SAT and ACT college-entrance exams, as well as nine college coaches and five others.
A day after charges were unveiled, the new details revealed more about the origins and breadth of an investigation that snared families at the highest economic echelons, accused of pushing their way ahead of other college applicants with lies, bribes and cheating.
The case immediately became a national conversation, touching on class, merit and a hint of comeuppance. Most of the accused parents didn’t reveal to the children the lengths they would go to land a seat at a big-name university.
Some of the most brazen deceptions weren’t easy to hide. A school counselor, for instance, wanted to know why one student was being recruited by a college water polo team when their high school didn’t even offer the sport.
Prosecutors said the plot attracted parents from affluent communities in California: Del Mar, Newport Beach, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Atherton, Mill Valley and Palo Alto; and in the east, Greenwich, Conn., and New York City. The families spanned Silicon Valley to Hollywood to Wall Street.
“What we do is help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school.” Mr. Singer told parent Gordon Caplan last June in a recorded call transcribed in a government affidavit released in Boston this week. “They want guarantees. They want this thing done.”
The response from Mr. Caplan, co-chairman of New York law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, echoed other calls with parents, according to the affidavit transcripts: “To be honest, it feels a little weird. But…What do I need to do?”
Mr. Caplan declined to comment. Other parents named in court documents declined to comment, didn’t respond to requests for comment or couldn’t be reached.
The initial tip led investigators to Rudy Meredith, the head coach of women’s soccer at Yale. He had worked with Mr. Singer in January 2018 to get the daughter of a California family into Yale by pretending she was a soccer player, according to prosecutors. The family paid Mr. Singer $1.2 million, according to the affidavit; Mr. Meredith’s share was $400,000. The family wasn’t identified. Mr. Meredith didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In April, Mr. Meredith met with the tipster parent, who was wearing a wire, at a hotel room in Boston, the person familiar with the matter said. During that meeting, Mr. Meredith offered a place at Yale for the parent’s daughter in exchange for $450,000, according to the person and court documents.
Afterward, Mr. Meredith began cooperating, authorities said.
The tipster parent has not been charged in the college case.
The multiagency federal investigation, named Operation Varsity Blues, received court approval to tap Mr. Singer’s phone in June. Investigators secretly recorded conversations between Mr. Singer and at least 16 client families over the next few months.
Mr. Singer allegedly offered two services: Fraudulently boost children’s entrance-exam scores, or pay to have them falsely identified as a recruited athlete, a more expensive but guaranteed path.
Defendants recorded on calls include actress Felicity Huffman, former Pacific Investment Management Co. CEO Douglas Hodge, vintner Agustin Huneeus Jr. and private-equity investor John Wilson.
Federal agents alerted Mr. Singer that he was under surveillance in September. He learned of the federal and grand jury investigation into his operation, according to prosecutors, and began cooperating.
“They had me wired to go into some folks’ homes, plus my calls were being taped,” Mr. Singer said in court Tuesday. At first, Mr. Singer tipped off six families of the investigation, prosecutors said. In one case, according to his court testimony, he arrived early to a student’s home and told the father that he was being recorded and urged him to “not say anything that would be harmful to you guys.”
Mr. Singer said in court, “I am totally wrong, and I did that kind of situation on multiple occasions to multiple families.”
At the request of investigators, Mr. Singer reached out to past clients, including former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz and real estate developer Robert Flaxman. He recounted on the recorded calls their past transactions, explaining that his charity was being audited.
Mr. Singer had long assured worried clients that hundreds of other families had taken advantage of his clandestine services. Yet, as more families engaged Mr. Singer’s Edge College & Career Network, LLC, the secret seemed harder and harder to keep.
In late 2017, a guidance counselor at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles, wanted to know why USC was recruiting Matteo Sloane as a water polo player. The high school didn’t even have a team.
The boy’s father, Devin Sloane, founder and chief executive of aquaTECTURE, a Los Angeles-based company that invests in water-treatment systems, had hired Mr. Singer to bribe a USC official to identify Matteo as an athletic recruit, the affidavit said.
One of the campus officials accused of working with Mr. Singer, Donna Heinel, then the senior associate athletic director at USC, sent an email to the university’s admissions director to explain the discrepancy, according to the affidavit. “He plays at LA Water Polo Club during the year and travels international during the summer with the youth junior team in Italy,” she wrote on April 11. “I don’t know if the people at [his high school] are unaware.”
She added, “He is small but he has a long torso but short strong legs plus he is fast which helps him win the draws to start play after goals are scored.”
USC’s admissions director, not named in court papers, agreed to pass that information along. “They seemed unusually skeptical,” the admissions official said of the Buckley School. A spokeswoman for Buckley didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Heinel warned Mr. Singer in a voice mail that same day: “I just don’t want anybody going into” the high schools, “You know, yelling at counselors. That’ll shut everything—that’ll shut everything down,” according to the affidavit.
In July, the scheme was nearly exposed by a curious USC adviser.
Thomas Kimmel, the son of defendant Elisabeth Kimmel, expressed confusion when he was asked about being a track athlete. Mr. Kimmel allegedly didn’t know it, according to the affidavit, but he had been admitted to USC last year after his mother, who owns a media company, used Mr. Singer to bribe Ms. Heinel. Thomas, according to his paperwork, was a pole vaulter.
Mr. Singer and his associates had crafted a profile of the boy as an elite athlete that included a photo of an actual vaulter. The boy’s high school, the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif., had no record of his track-and-field feats, prosecutors said.
Ms. Kimmel described what happened to Mr. Singer, a phone call recorded by authorities: “So she goes, ‘It has it down that you’re a track athlete.’ And he said, ‘Well I’m not.’ She goes, ‘Oh, okay, well I have to look into that.’”
Mr. Singer reassured the mother that if the adviser poked around more, she would end up speaking with Ms. Heinel, who has since been charged with conspiracy.
Mr. Singer relied on referrals from a circle of affluent parents. He said in recorded calls last year that he had helped 760 students in the previous school year get into college through what he called the “side door.”
Greg Abbott, CEO of International Dispensing Corp. , said on Tuesday that he and his wife had heard about Mr. Singer through a network of New York City mothers: “They all say he’s the best.”
One parent, William McGlashan Jr., wanted to help his son into the USC, and he didn’t want the boy to know how, according to the government affidavit unsealed in Boston this week.
In a conversation recorded by authorities, Mr. McGlashan was quoted a fee of $250,000 by Mr. Singer, who started his company, Edge College & Career Network.
“I would do that in a heartbeat,” said Mr. McGlashan, of Mill Valley, Calif., the managing partner of private-equity firm TPG Growth. He had already paid Mr. Singer $50,000 for an expert to surreptitiously correct his son’s college-entrance exam, according to government allegations. He would pay even more to have his son photoshopped into a star kicker for the USC football team.
Late last summer, Mr. McGlashan sent Mr. Singer sports photos of his son for an admissions package, intended to cast the teen as a recruit to the football team.The boy’s school, Marin Academy in Northern California, had no football team. But, Mr. McGlashan said, “He does have really strong legs…Pretty funny. The way the world works these days is unbelievable.”
Mr. McGlashan was put on administrative leave Tuesday by TPG.
Mr. Huneeus, another defendant, spoke about Mr. Singer’s services with Mr. McGlashan, whose son attended the same school as Mr. Huneeus’s daughter, Agustina. A spokesman for the school, Marin Academy, said there’s no indication anyone who works at the school knew of the alleged scam.
In a recorded call with Mr. Singer, Mr. McGlashan lamented that Mr. Huneeus was “not discreet at all.”
Mr. Huneeus allegedly paid Mr. Singer $50,000 to have someone sit with his daughter and correct answers while she took the SAT at a Los Angeles-area test center in March.
Mr. Huneeus also allegedly bribed Ms. Heinel and USC’s water polo coach to secure a spot for his daughter as a recruited player.
Ms. Huffman, the actress, had allegedly paid $15,000 for Mr. Singer’s services to help her older daughter score well on a college entrance exam and was in talks with him for help with her second daughter. In a call recorded in December, her husband—actor William H. Macy, who hasn’t been charged—said the girl was interested in Georgetown, among other colleges.
In February while making arrangements for Ms. Huffman’s daughter to take the test in March, Mr. Singer said for the girl to get into Georgetown, she would have to score in the 1400-plus range.
Ms. Huffman told Mr. Singer that her daughter had scored around a 1200 in a practice SAT test with a tutor.
“I just didn’t know if it’d be odd for [the tutor] if we go, ‘Oh, she did this in— in March 9th, but she did so much better in May,’” Ms. Huffman said.
Mr. Singer said he didn’t think the tutor would notice. The parents decided not to pay for help cheating on the entrance exam for the younger child, prosecutors said.
Mr. Singer pleaded guilty to four charges Tuesday, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and obstruction of justice. John Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.
The investigation, which also involved the Internal Revenue Service, is ongoing and could implicate more coaches and parents. The IRS called the operation a sweeping financial crime with Mr. Singer and others conspiring to not only make and receive bribes but to funnel the funds through a bogus charity to dodge taxes.
The Yale Dad Who Set Off the College-Admissions Scandal
Morrie Tobin was implicated in separate case in Boston when he mentioned Yale coach bribe.
The original tipster who led federal authorities to the biggest college-admissions scam they’ve ever prosecuted was Morrie Tobin, a Los Angeles resident who was being investigated in a securities fraud case, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
Mr. Tobin was being questioned in an alleged pump-and-dump investment scheme—in which people conspire to inflate the price of a stock so they can sell it at a profit—when he offered a tip to federal authorities in an effort to obtain leniency, according to people familiar with the matter.
The financial executive, who attended Yale University, told investigators that the head women’s soccer coach at Yale had sought a bribe in return for getting his daughter into the Ivy League school, a person familiar with the investigation said.
That tip led investigators to unravel a wide-ranging scheme in which dozens of wealthy parents allegedly paid a college consultant to facilitate cheating on entrance exams and falsifying athletic profiles. It also involved allegedly bribing coaches at schools including the University of Southern California, Georgetown University and Stanford University to take their kids on as recruited athletes, a near guaranteed way of being accepted.
Mr. Tobin wasn’t charged in relation to the alleged college-admissions scheme. He is awaiting sentencing in the securities fraud case in which he signed a plea agreement in November.
TPG’s McGlashan Stripped of Duties in Wake of College-Admission Scandal
Several private-equity and venture-capital figures were charged with trying to bribe their children’s way into college.
Private-equity firm TPG has put William McGlashan Jr., founder of its growth investment unit and head of the firm’s impact investment team, on indefinite administrative leave following allegations he participated in a college admissions cheating scandal.
Mr. McGlashan is among dozens of defendants, including several with ties to the private-equity and venture-capital industry, named in a federal suit unveiled Tuesday. He is accused of channeling payments through a college-consulting company to help his son gain admission to the University of Southern California.
TPG’s co-Chief Executive Jim Coulter will serve as interim managing partner of TPG Growth and the Rise Fund, according to a statement from the firm. Mr. Coulter will lead all investment work for both going forward, in partnership with the organization’s executive team, the statement said.
In documents unveiled Tuesday, government prosecutors describe a wide-ranging scheme in which parents used a private college-counseling service to funnel bribes to admissions-test administrators and, some cases, college coaches and officials to get their children admitted to universities, including the University of Southern California, Stanford University and Yale University.
The college counselors who participated in the scheme promised admission to colleges through what they termed the “side door,” in exchange for payments disguised as charitable donations. The 32 defendants face criminal charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud.
Other defendants have pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges, including three people who helped lead the scheme and cooperated with the investigation and aren’t named in the suit.
Prosecutors claim that in 2017, Mr. McGlashan paid $50,000 get his son’s college-entrance exam answers corrected after the test was over. He also allegedly agreed to pay $250,000 to get his son admitted to USC using a fake athletic profile.
TPG Growth, founded in 2007, is best known for its savvy early bets on technology startups such as Airbnb Inc. and Spotify AB. It closed its most recent fund, TPG Growth IV LP, with $3.7 billion in 2017.
That same year, Mr. McGlashan also co-founded the approximately $2 billion Rise Fund alongside Irish rock star Bono and former eBay Inc. President Jeff Skoll, among others. The fund is dedicated to environmental, social and governance investing, which aims to back companies that have strong ethical and social impacts.
TPG is currently raising its second Rise Fund, seeking $3.5 billion, WSJ Pro Private Equity reported in December.
Other defendants with ties to the alternatives industry named in the suit include Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP and a partner in the firm’s private-equity practice; Robert Zangrillo, founder, chairman and CEO of venture firm Dragon Global; John Wilson, president and CEO of private-equity and real-estate firm Hyannis Port Capital; and Manuel Henriquez, founder, chairman and CEO of venture-focused business development company Hercules Capital.
As of press time, none of the defendants were immediately available for comment.
The charges bring specific criminal and regulatory concerns for those in the financial-services industry, said John Coffee Jr., a Columbia University law professor who has written extensively on regulation and litigation.
Beyond the legal penalties and fees and the possibility of asset forfeiture, the defendants could lose their brokerage licenses if convicted, he said. That could create difficulties for raising money.
Mr. Coffee said the defendants will likely try to negotiate agreements that allow them to avoid or defer being prosecuted in exchange for fulfilling certain requirements, in order to minimize these dangers.
“There are collateral consequences to a criminal conviction regardless of whether you go to prison,” he said.
Lori Loughlin Fired From All Hallmark Projects Over College Cheating Scandal
Lori Loughlin‘s future (or lack thereof) with Hallmark has been decided. Crown Media will no longer be working with the actress — who is currently a series regular on the popular period drama When Calls the Heart, among other projects.
“We are saddened by the recent news surrounding the college admissions allegations,” reads a statement obtained by TVLine. “We are no longer working with Lori Loughlin and have stopped development of all productions that air on the Crown Media Family Network channels involving Lori Loughlin including Garage Sale Mysteries, an independent third party production.”
Some background: Loughlin turned herself over to authorities on March 13 after being indicted for allegedly taking part in a large scheme involving parents who paid bribes of up to $6 million to get their kids into elite colleges, including Harvard and Yale. Loughlin, her husband Mossimo Giannulli and dozens of other parents — including Desperate Housewives alumna Felicity Huffman — allegedly bribed college entrance-exam administrators to allow cheating on the tests and university athletic coaches to designate school applicants as athletic recruits, regardless of their athletic ability or experience playing a sport.
Loughlin and Giannulli allegedly paid a total of $500,000 so that their two daughters would be designated as recruits to the University of Southern California’s crew team, though neither girl participated in the sport. Loughlin was released from custody on $1 million bail, with a judge ruling that she could travel for work as long as she informs the court where she’s going and how long she’ll be away. She’s currently in the midst of making the Hallmark Channel’s latest Garage Sale Mystery movie, which is being filmed in Vancouver.
Fans of Loughlin’s work with Hallmark have been extremely vocal since news of her alleged involvement in the bribery scandal became public. Viewers have since flooded Hallmark’s social media channels, calling for her firing. “@LoriLoughlin shows or movies will no longer be played in my home,” wrote one angry fan on Instagram. “Should have hired her children a tutor and taught them better study habits.” Another added, “Personally, I don’t want to see her ever on Hallmark Channel again and it would be extremely disappointing to see Crown Media ignore her gross dishonesty.”
In addition to her work on these Hallmark projects, Loughlin also recurs on Netflix’s Fuller House, which was recently renewed for a fifth and final season. TVLine has reached out to Warner Bros. TV for comment about Loughlin’s future (or lack thereof) on the family sitcom.
Coaches, Administrators Allegedly Involved in College Admissions Cheating Scheme Appear in Court
Prosecutors say they took millions in payments and bribes to help clients land their children at elite colleges.
Prominent college coaches and defendants who allegedly arranged for fraudulently boosted ACT or SAT scores began to appear in federal court here Monday as part of the largest college-admissions scandal ever prosecuted by the Justice Department.
The appearances in U.S. District Court in Boston kick off two weeks of visits by high-profile parents, college coaches and others the federal government says were involved in the scheme.
Federal prosecutors on March 12 charged 50 people nationwide in “Operation Varsity Blues.” Prosecutors said participants engaged in a conspiracy that allegedly involved cheating on entrance exams and bribing coaches to get students admitted to competitive schools.
All of those appearing in court Monday were charged with racketeering conspiracy including several of the coaches, two admissions test administrators, a Houston sports promoter and business associates of William “Rick” Singer, the Newport Beach, Calif., college counselor, who led the scheme and pleaded guilty to charges earlier this month.
“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said in announcing the charges earlier this month.
The bribery scheme allegedly landed at least 40 students at schools where they were designated as recruited athletes, often without actually having any skills in the sport.
Some coaches allegedly took the money in personal checks, while others had the funds directed to their athletic programs or private clinics or teams they ran. The students weren’t expected to actually join the teams. Since the charges were announced earlier this month, most of the coaches then still at colleges have been fired or put on leave.
Mr. Singer, who became a cooperating witness last fall, pleaded guilty two weeks ago to four charges, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering-conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and obstruction of justice. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June.
Mr. Singer allegedly directed upward of $6 million to the coaches since 2012, including more than $2.7 million to then Georgetown tennis coach Gordon Ernst and $1.3 million to USC accounts controlled by Donna Heinel, then the senior associate athletic director at the University of Southern California.
A lawyer for Mr. Ernst didn’t respond to requests for comment. Nina Marino, an attorney for Ms. Heinel, said in a statement over the weekend: “These charges come as a complete shock. 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 in the college athletic community.”
Monday’s court date also highlighted the alleged testing scheme. According to authorities, parents paid Mr. Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 to have testing whiz Mark Riddell either take the SAT or ACT for the teens or correct their answers after.
Mr. Riddell, a cooperating witness to the government’s case, has agreed to plead guilty to mail fraud and a money-related charge.
Authorities say Mr. Singer bribed Lisa “Niki” Williams and Igor Dvorskiy, a Houston teaching assistant and a West Hollywood, Calif., school director who both also worked as test administrators for the ACT and the College Board, to look the other way while Mr. Riddell adjusted test answers.
Others implicated in the scheme include Wake Forest University women’s volleyball coach William Ferguson, who has been accused of accepting a bribe to gain admission for one of Mr. Singer’s clients. Mr. Ferguson’s attorney, Shaun Clarke, told a crowd outside the courthouse Monday that his client 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,” said Mr. Clarke.
Also expected in court was Martin Fox, the Houston sports promoter who prosecutors say connected Mr. Singer to Ms. Williams, University of Texas at Austin tennis coach Michael Center and University of San Diego basketball coach Lamont Smith.
“We are confident he doesn’t belong in this indictment,” his lawyer David Gerger, of Gerger Khalil & Hennessy LLP, said over the weekend.
Plea Talks Advance In College Scandal Ahead of Court Date
Hollywood actresses and other high-profile defendants are scheduled for hearings Wednesday.
A father who allegedly bought water polo gear on Amazon.com to falsely portray his son as a competitive player and ease the boy’s admission into the University of Southern California is in plea discussions for his role in the nationwide college-admissions scandal.
A late Tuesday court filing by attorneys for Devin Sloane, a Los Angeles businessman, illustrates the complex, fast-moving legal case that has spawned criminal charges against 33 parents allegedly involved in the scheme. Some of the parents were discussing possible guilty pleas with prosecutors, people familiar with the matter have said.
“Mr. Sloane and the Government are currently in discussions that are calculated to resolve this matter without a trial and reasonably expect that will occur,” his lawyers said in a court filing late Tuesday, asking that Mr. Sloane not be required to appear in federal court here Wednesday.
Federal authorities declined to comment on whether they were in discussions with Mr. Sloane, but Tuesday’s filing said the government was aware of the request to change the court date and “takes no position” on the request. Mr. Sloane’s lawyer didn’t reply to requests for comment.
The apparent progress in plea talks comes on the eve of preliminary court hearings for more than a dozen parents including Hollywood actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.
The government says the parents paid Newport Beach, Calif., college-admissions coach William “Rick” Singer $25 million to arrange for cheating in college-entrance tests or bribe coaches to designate applicants as recruited athletes to nearly guarantee their admission to selective schools. Mr. Singer pleaded guilty to four charges on March 12, the day the U.S. District Attorney’s office in Massachusetts announced “Operation Varsity Blues.”
Other parents on Wednesday’s court docket include fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, Ms. Loughlin’s husband, corporate executives and a top private-equity lawyer.
Beverly Hills trend guru Jane Buckingham, also scheduled to appear Wednesday, asked in a court filing earlier this week to move her date, citing a scheduling conflict for an attorney and stating that she and the government “are currently considering a resolution to this matter that would not require a hearing before the Court.”
It was reported Friday that some of plea deals may include prison time.
Parents set to appear Wednesday before federal Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelly all face a single charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Two of them, a doctor and his wife, from Palo Alto, Calif., also have been indicted on a money-laundering conspiracy charge.
The Journal reported that prosecutors could add money-laundering conspiracy charges for some of the other parents as soon as this week.
Mr. Sloane, the founder of a California company that invests in water-treatment systems and technology, was among several parents who worked with Mr. Singer to craft bogus athletic profiles for their children, according to federal authorities. The teens weren’t expected to play the sport in college—but being tapped as a recruit made admission all but certain.
Mr. Sloane allegedly paid $250,000 for the service, including $200,000 to Mr. Singer’s fraudulent charity and $50,000 to a USC account controlled by the athletics administrator.
The waterfront federal court area in Boston is expected to resemble a red carpet event Wednesday afternoon, with a horde of paparazzi descending to catch glimpses of the defendants prosecutors called a “catalog of wealth,” flanked by their publicists and lawyers.
Sixteen Parents Indicted In College Admissions Scandal
Parents, including actress Lori Loughlin, now face charge of money-laundering conspiracy.
A federal grand jury in Boston indicted 16 parents allegedly involved in the college-admissions cheating scheme on two felony counts, a day after the U.S. Attorney’s Office said 13 others would plead guilty to a single charge.
Nearly all the 33 parents charged so far initially faced one felony count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud. Two of the parents were later indicted on that and a charge of money-laundering conspiracy.
The parents indicted Tuesday now face the money-laundering conspiracy charge as well. Prosecutors say they funneled payments through the sham charity run by the scheme’s alleged mastermind, in some cases even taking tax write-offs on the “donations.”
The indicted parents include actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, as well as former Pacific Investment Management Co. CEO Douglas Hodge, and others in the finance and real estate industries.
It was reported late last month that other parents could be indicted, and could face multiple charges if they didn’t plead before the indictments came down.
Fifty people, including parents, test proctors and college coaches were charged last month in “Operation Varsity Blues,” which prosecutors say is the largest college-admissions fraud case they have ever pursued.
The parents allegedly paid Newport Beach, Calif., college consultant William “Rick” Singer tens of thousands of dollars each to fraudulently boost their children’s SAT or ACT scores. Some also allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe college coaches to designate their children as recruited athletes, all but guaranteeing admission to colleges including Yale University, University of Southern California, Georgetown University and others.
Many of the payments were made through Key Worldwide Foundation, Mr. Singer’s nonprofit, prosecutors say.
Actress Felicity Huffman and 10 other parents—as well as one coach—agreed Monday to plead guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud. Two additional parents agreed to become cooperating witnesses, with the wife pleading guilty to that charge and the husband also pleading guilty to money laundering and tax-fraud conspiracy.
While many have hashed out plea agreements with federal authorities, a few parents indicated in court appearances, filings or public statements that they plan to contest the charges.
“We maintain it is a weak case,” Brian Kelly, the lawyer for former casino executive and defendant Gamal Abdelaziz, said in court late last month. Mr. Kelly said the government’s case hinges on a “deeply compromised” witness, Mr. Singer.
“This is a winnable case for my client, and he intends to fight it and win,” said Mr. Kelly, one of several prominent former federal prosecutors who are now defense lawyers representing the parents.
In addition to Mr. Abdelaziz, Ms. Loughlin, Mr. Giannulli and Mr. Hodge, the list of parents indicted Tuesday includes: Diane Blake and Todd Blake; I-Hsin “Joey” Chen; former Hercules Capital CEO Manuel Henriquez and his wife, Elizabeth Henriquez; Michelle Janavs; Elisabeth Kimmel; founder of private-equity fund TPG Growth William McGlashan Jr.; Marci Palatella; John Wilson; Homayoun Zadeh; and Robert Zangrillo.
According to prosecutors, Ms. Loughlin and Mr. Giannulli agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in return for having their two daughters, including social-media celebrity Olivia Jade Giannulli, identified as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team “despite the fact that they didn’t participate in crew.” The teens were admitted.
Mr. Giannulli allegedly posed his daughters for photographs on stationary rowing machines to help make the case that they were athletes. Prosecutors say other parents also helped Mr. Singer manufacture bogus athletic profiles, even buying equipment for staged pictures.
The charges filed Tuesday each carry a maximum 20 years in prison as well as years of supervised release and hefty fines. Prosecutors recommended that the parents who said Monday that they would plead guilty face sentences ranging from less than six months to a few years, according to the plea filings.
An arraignment date hasn’t been scheduled.
The parents indicted Tuesday could still plead guilty in coming weeks or months, but some may maintain their innocence and proceed to trial.
John Hueston, an attorney for Mr. McGlashan, said Tuesday that the case against his client “is deeply flawed and ignores important exculpatory facts,” adding, “We look forward to presenting his side of the story.”
Students, Graduates May Be Next Targets of College-Admissions Scandal Investigation
Federal authorities send some young adults ‘target letters’ after court papers indicate some knew about their parents’ alleged activities or were involved.
Federal prosecutors have sent letters to some college students or graduates whose parents have been implicated in the nationwide admissions bribery and fraud scandal, informing them that they may also be targets in the probe, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Prosecutors sent the letters to young adults believed to have known about the schemes that aimed to help get them into college, that person said. Such so-called target letters don’t mean the students or graduates who received them will face charges. However, they could prompt the recipients to speak to authorities and push parents to plead in the hopes of protecting their children from additional prosecution, said others knowledgeable about the case.
Not all the children who allegedly benefited from the scheme have received target letters, some of those people said.
Though federal authorities have said many of the students who allegedly benefited from the scheme by landing spots at top colleges didn’t know about their parents’ activities, court papers suggest at least some did. Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said when the charges in “Operation Varsity Blues” were announced a month ago that the investigation was ongoing and students remained part of that probe.
“There was a pretty wide range of how parents tried to play this,” Mr. Lelling said at the time, adding that in one case a defendant and his daughter were allegedly on a conference call with the ringleader of the cheating scam.
In another example, the older daughter of one pair of defendants, Manuel and Elizabeth Henriquez, allegedly received a score of 1900 out of a possible 2400 on the October 2015 test, up by 320 points from the best mark she had received previously. Mark Riddell, the test-taking whiz who mastermind William “Rick” Singer paid to fix wrong answers for students, told authorities he “gloated” with the girl and her mother about getting away with cheating on the test, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigations affidavit.
Messrs. Singer and Riddell have pleaded guilty for their roles in the scheme and are cooperating with authorities. Attorneys for Mr. and Ms. Henriquez didn’t respond to a request for comment Saturday about whether their older daughter had received a target letter. The daughter couldn’t be reached.
Other children of the defendants posed for photos showing their involvement in various sports that they didn’t play competitively, like water polo and crew, or were copied on emails detailing the scheme to bribe college coaches.
Prosecutors have already charged 50 people, including 33 parents, with participating in an alleged $25 million conspiracy to get students into selective colleges by arranging for cheating on the SAT or ACT or bribing coaches to designate kids as athletic recruits.
Thirteen parents have agreed to plead guilty, with another in talks to do so, according to court filings, while 19 others have been indicted on conspiracy charges related to money laundering and mail or wire fraud.
Meanwhile, the University of California, Los Angeles, where a soccer coach has been charged with allegedly taking a bribe in exchange for designating a child of one of Mr. Singer’s clients as a recruited athlete, said late Saturday that it previously came across Mr. Singer in a separate 2014 investigation of potentially improper activity in student-athlete admissions. The school said it uncovered a possible violation of its policy prohibiting admissions “motivated by concern for financial, political or other such benefit to the University,” and launched a probe in response.
In one case, UCLA granted provisional admission to, and then reversed the offer for, a prospective women’s water polo player. Mr. Singer was later identified as an outside college consultant for the young woman’s family and was interviewed in the investigation, UCLA said. He allegedly denied telling the girl’s family that admission could be won in exchange for a significant donation. UCLA said two coaches were found responsible for violating policy. A lawyer for Mr. Singer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
UCLA said that immediately after the investigation, it changed admissions rules including when donations can be accepted from families of prospective student-athletes.
The school said Saturday that “as part of its months-long and ongoing cooperation” with the Justice Department, it shared information about the 2014 investigation with federal authorities.
Former USC Soccer Coach Agrees To Plead Guilty In College Admissions Scandal
Prosecutors say Laura Janke helped create fake athletic profiles to assist some kids in securing acceptance letters.
A former University of Southern California assistant women’s soccer coach accused of participating in the college-admissions cheating scandal will plead guilty, according to a federal filing Tuesday.
Laura Janke will enter a guilty plea to one count of racketeering conspiracy by May 30 and has also agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in the Operation Varsity Blues case, according to plea and cooperation agreements filed in court.
The crime calls for a prison sentence of up to 20 years, but prosecutors said they’d recommend the low end of the 27-33 month range, as well as 12 months of supervised release. Ms. Janke also must forfeit $134,213.90, according to the plea deal.
Prosecutors said they could recommend a shorter prison sentence for Ms. Janke, depending on how useful her cooperation proves to be in investigating or prosecuting other individuals.
In addition, Toby MacFarlane, a Del Mar, Calif. parent charged in the admissions case, will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts said Tuesday. Mr. MacFarlane had signaled in a court filing earlier this month that he was in plea discussions.
Mr. MacFarlane paid $450,000 to have his children admitted to USC as recruited athletes and their fake profiles were created by Ms. Janke, according to court documents. She built one in 2013 claiming Mr. MacFarlane’s daughter was a soccer star, prosecutors say, and another in 2017 listing the son as a basketball player. Both children were admitted to USC.
Ms. Janke was one of four now former USC officials charged in the case, in which wealthy parents allegedly paid Newport Beach, Calif., college counseling coach William “Rick” Singer $25 million to arrange for cheating on entrance tests or to bribe coaches to designate their children as athletic recruits based on false pretenses—all but guaranteeing their admission.
Mr. Singer pleaded guilty to four charges in March, and 13 parents also have agreed to plead guilty.
Of the 50 people charged, nine were coaches from prestigious athletic programs, including Stanford University, Wake Forest University and Yale University. Coaches from Yale and Stanford have already pleaded guilty, while the former head men’s tennis coach from the University of Texas-Austin is scheduled to plead guilty in federal court on Wednesday.
Prosecutors say Ms. Janke created fake athletic profiles for the children of a number of Mr. Singer’s clients, listing false honors and positions on elite club teams and claiming the kids were champions in their respective sports—even when some didn’t play the sports competitively.
In one example cited by prosecutors, Ms. Janke helped fabricate a bogus athletic profile in 2017 presenting the son of media executive Elisabeth Kimmel as an elite pole vaulter, even though his high school had no record that he ever participated in the sport. She allegedly used a photo of another individual pole vaulting as part of the submission designed to get the boy admitted to USC.
Ms. Kimmel has pleaded not guilty to charges of mail fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. A lawyer for Ms. Kimmel didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Janke must also pay any tax penalties related to payments she received from Mr. Singer or his Key Worldwide Foundation. He allegedly compensated Ms. Janke in part by making payments to a private soccer club controlled by Ms. Janke and Ali Khosroshahin, her former boss at USC. Mr. Khosroshahin has pleaded not guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy.
Attorneys for Mr. Khosroshahin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In College Admissions Scandal, Families From China Paid The Most
Families that allegedly paid $1.2 million and $6.5 million show the reach of the cheating ring
Families from China were among those who allegedly paid the most in the college admissions scandal, a new sign of the reach of the cheating ring.
One Chinese family allegedly paid $6.5 million to William “Rick” Singer, the California-based college counselor who has admitted to masterminding the scheme, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Another was the family of a student—referred to in court filings as “Yale Applicant 1”—who paid $1.2 million to secure her admission to Yale University. The student is 21-year-old Sherry Guo, who moved to Southern California from China to attend high school, her lawyer confirmed.
The families have been of particular interest in the case because they allegedly paid far more than nearly all of the 33 parents currently facing criminal charges in the scheme. Many parents paid $250,000 to $400,000 for the illegal admissions services, including securing fraudulent test scores and bribing coaches to have their children designated as recruited athletes, prosecutors say.
Ms. Guo had her eye on Columbia University or Oxford University, said her lawyer, James Spertus of Spertus, Landes & Umhofer LLP in Los Angeles.
But Mr. Singer told her she would go to Yale University. It was a sure thing, he said, according to Mr. Spertus. An attorney for Mr. Singer, who has pleaded guilty to four felony charges, including racketeering conspiracy, declined to comment.
Ms. Guo learned English after arriving in California about five years ago, Mr. Spertus said. She attended JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., south of Los Angeles, starting high school as an older student.
Ms. Guo was “so unfamiliar with how people apply to schools in the U.S.,” Mr. Spertus said. “Rick Singer’s instructions to her didn’t seem as out of place as they would to a student who grew up in the United States and has more of an expectation of free choice.”
The young woman did get into Yale, after Mr. Singer allegedly got her tagged as a recruited athlete, and started school there last fall, according to Mr. Spertus and court filings. She’s no longer at the school, her attorney confirmed.
A growing number of Chinese families are bringing their children to the U.S. for high school, or even elementary school, in the hopes of helping smooth the path to college admission down the line. Colleges sometimes scrutinize foreign agents who help coordinate applications from overseas students, but less so the role of U.S.-based independent college counselors—particularly those whose main client base is domestic.
Mr. Spertus said he was authorized to answer questions on Ms. Guo’s behalf and declined to make her available.
The Wall Street Journal hasn’t learned the identity of the family that allegedly paid $6.5 million.
Ms. Guo’s family was introduced to Mr. Singer by a Los Angeles financial adviser, Mr. Spertus said.
Ms. Guo’s family hasn’t been charged. Prosecutors have said the investigation is ongoing. The family that allegedly paid $6.5 million for Mr. Singer’s services also hasn’t been charged, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“I just don’t think the question of guilt is clear-cut in Sherry’s case, at all,” Mr. Spertus said.
According to court filings, a Los Angeles-based employee of a financial adviser allegedly told Mr. Singer in November 2017 that the father of Yale Applicant 1 wanted to make a “donation” to “one of those top schools” for his daughter’s “application.”
The next day, Mr. Singer sent Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith, then the Yale women’s soccer coach, the student’s résumé and personal statement, which included links to her art portfolio, according to filings by prosecutors.
Mr. Singer wrote that he would “revise” the art materials to soccer, according to a filing, which said that he falsely listed her as a member of a junior national development team in China and co-captain of a prominent club soccer team in southern California.
Mr. Singer paid $400,000 to Mr. Meredith in exchange for having him designate the girl as a recruited athlete, nearly guaranteeing her a spot at the school, according to court filings. Mr. Meredith pleaded guilty last month for his role in the scheme, which prosecutors say started in 2015 and included taking bribes for multiple students.
Yale said it rescinded the admission of a student last month after investigating allegations that its former women’s head soccer coach was involved in Mr. Singer’s scheme. The school said it did so “as a result of this matter,” referring to the admissions scandal, and didn’t identify the individual.
Ms. Guo was listed in the Yale directory as recently as April 10, but no longer appears there.
Ms. Guo won awards for her artwork, according to news stories posted on the JSerra Catholic High School website. She was also listed as an international student officer for the school’s National Honor Society chapter.
Eric Stroupe, the school’s principal, said she is an “unbelievable artist” and “super talented,” and had very strong grades. He said he didn’t know of Ms. Guo’s alleged connection to the admissions scandal until he was contacted by the Journal, and he was shocked.
In College Admissions Scandal, Family Paid $6.5 Million To Get Their Daughter Into Stanford
Family from China met college counselor William ‘Rick’ Singer through a Morgan Stanley employee.
A family from China paid a college counselor $6.5 million for help securing a spot at Stanford University, and connected to the counselor via a Morgan Stanley employee, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The involvement of Morgan Stanley illustrates how William “Rick” Singer, the Newport Beach, Calif., college consultant who has admitted to masterminding the alleged college-admissions cheating scheme, infiltrated wealthy networks to pitch his services.
The $6.5 million payment to the college counselor has been of particular interest since it was the highest payment cited by the U.S Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts when prosecutors announced the sprawling admissions-fraud case in March. The family who made the payment hasn’t been charged in the case.
Prominent financial firms helped give Mr. Singer credibility by bringing him in to speak at employee and client events, or referring him to existing or potential clients. Affluent families rely on these firms for guidance not only on managing wealth, but also on related issues like college planning and philanthropy.
Morgan Stanley has said it at one time included Mr. Singer’s college-counseling business on the firm’s list of referral organizations. A person familiar with the referral arrangement said referrals could be passed to clients, and that Mr. Singer’s company was off the list after 2015. Mr. Singer could have maintained contact with some Morgan Stanley employees after he was no longer an official referral, the person said.
Investigators couldn’t immediately determine the relationship between Morgan Stanley and the family.
It was reported Monday that Mr. Singer connected to another Chinese family, which paid him $1.2 million for help getting a young woman into Yale University, via an employee at Oppenheimer & Co.’s Summa Group.
Oppenheimer said the employee met that girl’s father socially and served as a translator, an activity outside of her Oppenheimer job. During that activity, the company said, the father sought a recommendation for a college counselor. Oppenheimer said the employee subsequently introduced the family to Mr. Singer. The firm said the family has never been a client of the firm. Mr. Singer was a board member of Summa’s philanthropic foundation as recently as January, according to the charity’s website.
The young woman admitted to Stanford got in after her family paid Mr. Singer $6.5 million in 2017, according to the person familiar with the matter.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen said in court in March that Mr. Singer brought an applicant to then-Stanford sailing coach and created a falsified sailing athletic profile for the prospective student.
“This candidate was ultimately accepted to Stanford partly due to the fact that she had fabricated sailing credentials,” Mr. Rosen said.
After she was admitted, Mr. Rosen said, Mr. Singer paid the then-sailing coach $500,000 from his Key Worldwide Foundation charity, which was sent to the Stanford Sailing Program.
A Stanford spokesman said the payment came months after the student was admitted, and the school received a total $770,000 from the charity
Stanford said last month that it had rescinded the admission of one student this spring after determining some material on that student’s application was false. The student hadn’t received recommendations from any athletic coaches and wasn’t affiliated with the sailing team. It didn’t name the individual.
A Stanford spokesman declined to identify the student, citing federal privacy laws, or comment further on the case.
Neither of those applicants attended the school. Mr. Vandemoer has been fired from Stanford.
The school said it came across the student after conducting a review of people potentially tied to Mr. Singer’s scheme. Stanford’s sailing coach, John Vandemoer, has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and admitted to taking bribes in exchange for giving athletic recommendations to two other applicants.
Chinese Billionaire Tied to $6.5 Million Payment for Stanford Met With Trump
Chinese Billionaire Tied To $6.5 Million Payment For Stanford Met With Trump
Pharmaceutical executive Zhao Tao led delegation of entrepreneurs to event in Washington and met with President Trump
Not long after his daughter got into Stanford University with the help of a $6.5 million payment, Chinese pharmaceutical billionaire Zhao Tao met with President Trump to promote a key Beijing foreign-policy initiative.
At the June 28, 2017, meeting in Washington, Mr. Zhao got his picture taken with President Trump alongside the First Lady. Mr. Zhao led a delegation of Chinese entrepreneurs to the event, his company said in a post on its website.
Around the time of his Washington trip, Mr. Zhao’s daughter Yusi was preparing for her freshman year at Stanford. The Zhao family paid $6.5 million to college counselor William “Rick” Singer, to help secure their daughter’s admission. It is the largest-known payment to Mr. Singer, who has admitted to masterminding the largest college-admissions cheating ring U.S law enforcement says it has prosecuted.
Yusi Zhao’s mother said in a statement through her lawyer that she thought the $6.5 million was a donation, and that she was unfamiliar with the U.S. college-admissions process.
Like many affluent Chinese, Mr. Zhao cultivated close ties with Beijing while also seeking to move in influential circles abroad and securing a top-flight foreign education for his child.
Mr. Zhao, in a statement released by his company, said his daughter’s study in the U.S. was a personal matter and the source of funds was not related to Shandong Buchang Pharmaceuticals Co. He didn’t respond to questions raised with the company about his meeting with Mr. Trump.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chinese business groups often seek out meetings with foreign leaders like President Trump on behalf of China’s interests, said Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies China’s influence operations.
“They’ll be going to lobby him as many people do,” said Ms. Brady.
With Mr. Trump, according to the online post by Shandong Buchang, Mr. Zhao and the other executives discussed the Belt-and-Road initiative, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature effort to build infrastructure and project China’s influence around the world.
The Chinese executives attended as members of the Kongzhong—or “Aerial”—Business School, an association of private business executives that it says was set up to promote Chinese culture and “spread the Chinese dream.”
While Mr. Zhao attended the meetings as chairman of Shandong Buchang, he is also a vice chairman of the China Overseas Chinese Entrepreneurs Association, which works closely with the United Front Work Department, a Communist Party agency that rallies Chinese abroad to promote Beijing’s interests.
Mr. Zhao, born in China, acquired Singaporean citizenship at some point, according to Shandong Buchang filings with securities regulators.
The entrepreneurs association is “an organization that’s mobilizing Chinese businesses and linking their business interests” to the Belt-and-Road initiative, said Ms. Brady. The entrepreneurs association, a registered non-government organization, shares a Beijing office address with a unit of the United Front Work Department .
The association and United Front Work Department did not respond to calls and written requests for comment on Friday, a public holiday. Shandong Buchang didn’t respond to calls or emails Thursday and Friday, both public holidays.
In China, the Zhaos have been portrayed as a business-minded family that believes in philanthropy.
The family’s wealth comes from a Chinese-medicine empire founded in 1993 by Mr. Zhao’s father Zhao Buchang, a cardiovascular specialist. The family is ranked No. 82 on the Hurun Rich List of the nation’s wealthy, which is compiled by a Shanghai-based research firm. Zhao Tao’s wife, brother and son work in Shandong Buchang, which was listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange in 2016.
The company sponsors a charity, Heart of China Foundation, which sends doctors to Tibetan areas and other impoverished parts of China.
In a video posted in July 2017 on a Chinese live-streaming site, Douyu, a young woman identified as Yusi Zhao said that she loved horseback riding near her boarding school in the U.K., but had put off riding to cram for college-admission exams. She said she planned to return to China after her studies at Stanford.
“I told myself I must get a perfect score,” she said in the video, apparently speaking to aspiring Chinese applicants. “Because if you set a high bar for yourself, sometimes you can achieve more.”
Actress Felicity Huffman to Plead Guilty for Her Role in College Admissions Scandal
Huffman allegedly paid college counselor William ‘Rick’ Singer $15,000, one of the smaller sums in scheme.
Actress Felicity Huffman is scheduled to plead guilty in federal court here Monday, kicking into high gear a stretch of such pleas by those connected to the nationwide college-admissions cheating scandal.
Over the next two weeks, 11 people are slated to plead guilty to felony charges related to a scheme by which parents paid a college counselor to fraudulently boost college-entrance test scores for their children or had the counselor—William “Rick” Singer of Newport Beach, Calif.—bribe college coaches to designate their kids as recruited athletes. Some parents took part in both elements.
Ms. Huffman plans to plead guilty to the charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud, according to a March 27 plea agreement. The crime can carry up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.
Prosecutors said they would recommend Ms. Huffman be sentenced to the low end of a four- to 10-month range, pay a fine of $20,000 and be under supervised release for a year. Her sentencing will be held at a later date.
“I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences,” Ms. Huffman said in a statement April 8. “My daughter knew absolutely nothing about my actions, and in my misguided and profoundly wrong way, I have betrayed her.”
Fifty people were charged as a result of the investigation, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues. Parent Devin Sloane is also set to plead guilty Monday, and Laura Janke, a former assistant soccer coach at the University of Southern California who allegedly helped Mr. Singer craft fake athletic profiles for clients, will do so Tuesday.
Ms. Huffman, best known for her role in the television show “Desperate Housewives,” paid Mr. Singer $15,000 so he could have someone else correct her elder daughter’s answers on an SAT she completed in December 2017, prosecutors say. Ms. Huffman’s was among the smallest financial outlays in the scheme, prosecutors say.
Ms. Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, discussed repeating the plan for their younger daughter as well but decided not to pursue it, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit. Mr. Macy hasn’t been charged.
Despite the small dollar amount, Ms. Huffman’s involvement in the scheme has garnered significant attention because of her celebrity status. Prior court appearances have brought a horde of paparazzi, satellite trucks and camera crews circling the waterfront Boston courthouse.
Mr. Sloane, the founder of a California company that invests in water-treatment systems and technology, allegedly bought water-polo gear on Amazon.com to falsely portray his son as a competitive player and ease the boy’s admission into the University of Southern California. He was formally admitted in spring 2018.
Mr. Sloane allegedly paid $250,000 for the service, including $200,000 to Mr. Singer’s fraudulent charity and $50,000 to a USC account controlled by an athletics administrator, who has also been charged in the case.
Prosecutors said they would recommend a sentence of one year and one day for Mr. Sloane, below the federal sentencing guideline range of 15 months to 21 months, as well as a $75,000 fine and 12 months supervised release.
According to the FBI affidavit, Mr. Sloane expressed anger when his son’s high school, the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., questioned the boy’s status as a recruited player since the school didn’t even have a water-polo team.
In an April 2018 email to Mr. Singer, included in the affidavit, Mr. Sloane wrote, “The more I think about this, it is outrageous! They have no business or legal right considering all the students privacy issues to be calling and challenging/question [my son’s]’s application.”
Mr. Singer pleaded guilty to four charges, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and obstruction of justice.
Students Were Advised To Claim To Be Minorities In College-Admissions Scandal
Misrepresentations played into efforts by elite campus to diversify their student bodies.
The man behind the scheme to help wealthy students get into elite colleges by cheating on tests and faking athletic credentials also advised some families to falsely claim students were racial minorities, exploiting the push to diversify campuses, according to two people familiar with the situation.
A son of Marjorie Klapper, a parent scheduled to plead guilty Friday for participating in the scheme, was incorrectly listed on his Common Application as being black and Hispanic, the people said. William “Rick” Singer, the college counselor who has agreed to plead guilty in the case and is awaiting sentencing, also arranged for a proctor to cheat on the ACT admissions test for the teen, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit filed in the case.
Ms. Klapper, who lives in Menlo Park, Calif., was one of many parents charged whose child was misrepresented as a minority, according to one of the people, who is familiar with the investigation.
Mr. Singer frequently gave families the option of misrepresenting race and would say that not doing so could put their child at a “competitive disadvantage,” said one of the people, who is familiar with his business.
Lawyers for Ms. Klapper didn’t respond to requests for comment, and efforts to reach Ms. Klapper were unsuccessful. The lawyer for Mr. Singer declined to comment.
In looking to present a teen as a minority, Mr. Singer was tapping into a hot-button aspect of college admissions that has led to numerous lawsuits: decisions that take into account, or even give preference to, students of certain races or ethnicities. Schools that pursue race-conscious admissions policies say they do so to provide a richer learning environment for all students and are following Supreme Court precedent that allows such an approach. Harvard University faces a civil lawsuit accusing it of discrimination, with plaintiffs claiming the school holds Asian-American applicants to a higher standard than applicants of other races. Harvard denies the accusation, saying it uses a holistic approach and a complex set of factors to hand out acceptances.
Applicants can check boxes noting their race or ethnicity in a section on the Common Application, which is accepted by hundreds of schools across the country. Doing so is optional.
On some applications that Mr. Singer’s operation handled, applicants may have claimed to be underrepresented minorities based on a tenuous connection, such as a distant relative of Native American ancestry, said one of the people familiar with his business. In one case, the person said, a teenager was presented as Native American when “there was absolutely nothing Native American about this kid.”
Mr. Singer’s employees often submitted the final application on behalf of clients, according to two people familiar with Mr. Singer’s counseling operation. One of these people said the Klapper family knew the boxes indicating black and Hispanic were checked.
Lying on a college application isn’t necessarily a crime, but can prompt disciplinary actions by schools. The parents charged in the college-admissions cheating scheme face charges related to bribery or test-cheating aspects of Mr. Singer’s operation.
Colleges count on honesty, and it would be difficult to catch applicants who misrepresent their race, said Stefanie Niles, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “You could have a student who looks white but who is multiracial,” she said.
Ms. Niles added that it is unlikely applicants would check a box mistakenly. She said the Common Application prompts students who have selected a racial category to then check additional boxes confirming their selection.
Prosecutors alluded to applicants exploiting presumed preferences in March, when Mr. Singer pleaded guilty to four crimes. Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen listed Mr. Singer’s schemes, including “lying about students’ ethnicities and other biographical information in an attempt to take advantage of perceived benefits from affirmative action and other programs.”
Mr. Singer responded at that hearing that “everything that Mr. Rosen stated is exactly true.”
Public court filings for the case, which has ensnared 33 parents, don’t include specific references to dishonest racial claims and the details haven’t been previously reported.
Ms. Klapper has said she would plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Prosecutors said she paid Mr. Singer $15,000 in exchange for having a proctor in Mr. Singer’s employ take the ACT for her son in October 2017. The son received a score of 30 out of a possible 36.
Prosecutors have said they plan to recommend a sentence at the low end of the 4- to 10-month range, a $20,000 fine and 12 months supervised release.
For Sale: SAT-Takers’ Names. Colleges Buy Student Data and Boost Exclusivity
For 47 cents, the College Board will sell an individual’s information, feeding admissions frenzy.
Jori Johnson took the practice SAT test as a high-school student outside Chicago. Brochures later arrived from Vanderbilt, Stanford, Northwestern and the University of Chicago.
The universities’ solicitations piqued her interest, and she eventually applied. A few months later, she was rejected by those and three other schools that had sought her application, she said. The high-school valedictorian’s test scores, while strong by most standards, were well below those of most students admitted to the several schools that had contacted her.
“A lot of the rejections came on the same day,” said Ms. Johnson, a 21-year-old senior film major at New York University, one of three schools that accepted her out of 10 applications. “I just stared at my computer and cried.”
The recruitment pitches didn’t help Ms. Johnson, but they did benefit the universities that sent them. Colleges rise in national rankings and reputation when they show data suggesting they are more selective. They can do that by rejecting more applicants, whether or not those candidates ever stood a chance. Some applicants, in effect, become unknowing pawns.
Feeding this dynamic is the College Board, the New York nonprofit that owns the SAT, a test designed to level the college-admissions playing field.
The board is using the SAT as the foundation for another business: selling test-takers’ names and personal information to universities.
That has helped schools inflate their applicant pools and rejection rates. Those rejection rates have amplified the perception of exclusivity that colleges are eager to reinforce, pushing students to invest more time and money in preparing for and retaking exams College Board sells. Colleges say the data helps them reach a diverse pool of students they might have otherwise missed.
“The top 10% of universities don’t need to do this. They are buying some students’ names who don’t have a great chance of getting in,” said Terry Cowdrey, an enrollment consultant for universities and Vanderbilt University’s acting dean of undergraduate admission in 1996 and 1997. “Then the kids say, ‘well why did you recruit me if you weren’t going to let me in?’ They do it to increase the number of applications; you’ve got to keep getting your denominator up for your admit rate.”
Vanderbilt’s admissions rate has dropped to 11% in 2017, from 46% in 2002, according to an analysis of federal data. The number of Vanderbilt applicants rose more than three-fold over the same period. Vanderbilt uses College Board names to increase diversity and takes data privacy seriously, said Douglas Christiansen, Vanderbilt’s dean of admissions and a past chair of College Board’s trustees. “We have students from small farming communities, small rural communities, inner cities, large cities, small cities,” he said. “We cannot travel to all of these places.”
The race for applicants has stoked the environment of anxious families who place a high value on getting into elite schools. An increasingly competitive atmosphere helped set the stage for the admissions cheating scandal unveiled in March. At its center was college counselor William “Rick” Singer, who helped applicants cheat or bribe their way into schools. He has pleaded guilty to bribing college coaches and creating false athletic resumes. He also made use of the SAT, helping students get fake scores. A lawyer for Mr. Singer declined to comment.
College Board spokesman Zachary Goldberg said fewer than 1% of SAT tests were canceled last year because of concerns about cheating. He added the board has “significantly increased our test security efforts in recent years.”
The admissions scandal hasn’t put a dent in the SAT’s popularity, which has surpassed its main competitor, the ACT. The more students who take the SAT, the more data College Board has to sell schools.
About a quarter of U.S. colleges have stopped requiring the SAT or ACT for admission, saying they favor the wealthy and don’t predict how students perform in school. A Los Angeles-based civil-rights group is pressuring the University of California system to drop the test requirement.
Mr. Goldberg said the company provides test-taker data to “give students the opportunity to start the important conversations with colleges and scholarship organizations and explore their options,” adding that “the benefits…outweigh the concerns.” College Board says it licenses, rather than sells, student names because schools may use the data for only a prescribed period and agree to abide by certain other rules.
Leonie Haimson, co-chair of Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, an advocacy group critical of College Board, said disseminating the data may harm a student’s chance of getting into college. If a student performs poorly on the SAT and a school buys the test-taker’s data, say, the school will know the approximate score even if it is a test-optional school.
College Board said using the information to disqualify a student would violate the conditions for using the data.
A paper funded by College Board, not yet published, suggests the name-selling does little to benefit applicants or schools. Students whose data it sells are only 0.1 percentage point more likely to apply to the college than identical students who didn’t receive outreach, the paper concludes, and the probability of enrolling in the college increased by 0.02 percentage point. College Board’s Mr. Goldberg, said: “The numbers sound small but the effects are significant.”
The odds of getting into a specific elite U.S. school have never looked longer. For the class of 2021, Harvard University received 39,506 applications, up from 19,527 for the 2006 class, and it admitted 5.2%, federal data show. Northwestern’s applications rose to 37,259 from 13,988, and it admitted 9.2%.
Elite colleges are harder to get into partly because a greater number of qualified students are applying from around the world. Students are also flocking to brand-name schools to hedge the risk of high college costs with a degree from an institution they believe will provide better income prospects.
Rejection ratios are rising also because the average student is submitting more applications. In 2017, 36% of freshmen applied to seven or more schools, up from 19% in 2007, according to the most recent Higher Education Research Institute annual freshman survey—so U.S. colleges overall have more applications in total to reject.
The multiple-application trend also forces many colleges to solicit more applicants as insurance—an accepted student is now more likely to choose another option and leave the school with an open slot.
To find more students to solicit, admissions officers can turn to College Board, which sells lists of high-school students’ names, ethnicities, parents’ education and approximate PSAT or SAT scores, at 47 cents a name.
Each year, 1,900 schools and scholarship programs buy combinations from among 2 million to 2.5 million names, College Board said, declining to say how many names in total it sells. Schools target combinations of geography, socio-economic class and academic interests. A college could buy a list of, say, soccer-playing Caucasian girls from Colorado, Wyoming and Montana who scored 1,200 to 1,300 on the PSAT, are interested in engineering and whose parents didn’t attend college.
Some schools buy a half-million names a year, admissions officers say. Tulane University said it bought about 300,000 names last year from College Board. Tulane’s applicant pool climbed 174% between 2002 and 2017 and its acceptance rate declined 62%, federal data show.
Students are asked before taking College Board’s tests if they want to make their information available to schools. Ms. Johnson said it was not clear to her what the information would be used for, but she hoped schools that were interested in her would send mail. She said she didn’t know her data would be monetized.
The four universities she said solicited—then rejected—her application declined to discuss her case or say whether her name was among those they bought from College Board. Stanford, Northwestern and the University of Chicago declined to say how many names they buy.
Stanford spokesman E.J. Miranda said it reaches out to students to help them find the best match and “not because we wish to be known as a most competitive university with a low admit rate.” Stanford last year said it would no longer announce undergraduate application numbers.
Northwestern spokesman Jon Yates said College Board data “is only part of this process” in its admissions procedures, which “are based on a holistic approach that takes many factors into account.”
A University of Chicago spokesman, Jeremy Manier, said its “engagement with prospective high school students is focused on expanding access to high-quality universities and providing support to families as they attempt to navigate the often complicated process of college applications.”
Vanderbilt said it bought between 100,000 and 200,000 names last year. Marching orders to broaden Vanderbilt’s reach and improve its reputation came in the early 1990s, said Ms. Cowdrey, the former acting dean and now an enrollment consultant. Senior administrators said “we have the money, come up with ideas,” she said.
The admissions office doubled its recruiting staff and increased the number of names bought from College Board to about 150,000 from 60,000 during her time at Vanderbilt, she said. Back then, the names were from states where they hadn’t previously recruited, focusing on students with scores above about 1,200 who were interested in education or engineering or were undecided.
Vanderbilt has since grown from a strong regional school that drew the majority of its students from the Southeast to one of the nation’s most elite universities, with students from around the world. “This is part of our pipeline development strategy,” said Vanderbilt’s Mr. Christiansen.
Vanderbilt applications for the 2021 class increased to 31,462 from 9,836 for the 2006 class.
College Board was created in 1899 by a group of private East Coast universities and grew to national prominence after administering the first SAT in 1926. The group’s aim was to identify smart students at Midwestern public high schools whom elite private East Coast colleges would otherwise overlook. As university populations swelled after World War II, the SAT became a way for colleges to sort students from high schools of varying quality.
College Board’s name-selling began in 1972, when it created its Student Search Service at the request of school counselors who wanted a wider array of students to have access to information about more colleges. The practice has grown in recent years along with the expansion in student recruitment.
College Board says it discovered SAT scores correlated closely with family income. Admissions officers and guidance counselors came to see the board as a gatekeeper of privilege rather than a leveler on merit. In 2012, the ACT—College Board’s Iowa City-based rival with a reputation among admissions officers as more egalitarian—surpassed the SAT in total test takers.
The discussion among College Board trustees searching for a successor, said Paul Sechrist, then chairman, was: “It’s time to do something about the SAT.” They hired David Coleman, a former McKinsey consultant and architect of Common Core, the K-12 curriculum that aimed to raise national standards in math and English but drew critics over its rigor and focus on testing.
To get more students to take the SAT, he redesigned it. “We got rid of the tricky math questions and the irrelevant vocabulary words,” he said. “We made the test less intimidating.”
As elite schools’ acceptance rates dropped through the past decade, the pressure on students rose to get good scores on the SAT, taking it multiple times if necessary.
College Board’s business benefited. The number of students taking SATs jumped 36% to 2.2 million in 2019 from 1.6 million in 2016 and surpassed the ACT. In 2017, College Board’s revenue was $1.1 billion, according to its most recent tax returns, up from $760 million in 2012. The nonprofit generated $140 million in profits in 2017 and reported more than $1 billion in assets.
College Board’s business also benefited over the past decade as students began applying to more colleges. College Board recorded $100 million in revenue from its business that includes selling student data in 2017, according to the latest tax return available, up from $63 million in 2010. College Board declined to say how much money the sale of names generates within that business unit. It said it reinvests funds from Search into services that support students.
Growth came as it expanded the PSAT to eighth and ninth-graders, from 10th and 11th graders, in the 2015-2016 school year. Mr. Coleman said the growth has also been driven by the effectiveness of the Search service. “If you want the usual suspects to come to your school,” he said, “you don’t need Search.”
College Board now controls the majority of tests students take to earn college admission, which places it at the nexus of opportunity, resources and ambition in American life, said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and a former vice president at Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT.
By selling student names to attract more applications, College Board is helping colleges expand and market their reputations of exclusivity, he said. “The College Board runs the game, and there is an intimate, mutual dependency between them and the colleges,” he said. “They are selling class and that’s a good business to be in. People are terrified of falling out of the middle class. Basically, your job as a parent is to make sure your kids don’t fall out of the middle class.”
Schools buy scores inside a 50-point range and can’t see a student’s exact score. More than 80% of test takers say they want to make their information available to schools, and students who agree to give schools access to their information are 12% more likely than their peers to enroll at a four-year-college, Mr. Coleman said.
“We’re their agent,” he said. “They say, ‘share this data.’ And, by the way, it is overwhelmingly beneficial to them that we do.”
Last year, after hearing from parents and teachers that the “voluntary nature of these pre-test surveys is not well understood,” the U.S. Education Department issued a guidance note urging school districts to be explicit with faculty, staff and parents. Several states, including Illinois, have laws prohibiting the sale of student data. In October, nine state lawmakers asked the Illinois Attorney General to investigate whether College Board was violating two state laws that bar companies from selling or renting student data without a parent’s consent.
College Board’s Mr. Goldberg said the laws the lawmakers cited “are not applicable to the Student Search Service.”
Cassie Creswell, who lives in Chicago and has two school-age children, helps lead a group advocating for the state to protect the data of its students. Illinois mandates high-school students take the SAT. “You shouldn’t be able to collect data in a school,” she said. “They’re not in the business of making money off of kids.”
Ms. Johnson, the senior at New York University—its 2017 acceptance rate was 28%—said she has helped her younger brother apply to college and has urged him not to fall into the trap she fell into, of thinking that getting into a prestigious school was the most important thing.
“A low acceptance rate is like an indicator of prestige,” she said. “I don’t think the focus is well placed.”