Architect of US college admissions scam receives prison sentence

The central figure in a criminal conspiracy to influence admissions at United States colleges and universities has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison, the longest sentence handed down so far in what has been dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues“.

William “Rick” Singer of Newport Beach, California, was accused of using bribery and other illicit tactics to help the children of celebrities and other wealthy clientele gain acceptance to elite schools like Yale, Stanford and Georgetown University.

Prosecutors had sought a six-year sentence for the 62-year-old Singer, whose cooperation in the Varsity Blues investigation helped expose the largest academic fraud case ever uncovered in the US.

“It was a scheme that was breathtaking in scale and audacity,” assistant US Attorney Stephen Frank told the Boston courtroom where Singer was sentenced on Wednesday. “It has literally become the stuff of books and made-for-TV movies.”

Singer came to the attention of federal investigators in 2018 when a suspect in an unrelated securities fraud case revealed that a Yale football coach had offered to get his daughter admitted into the top-tier university, in exchange for a bribe.

That coach, Rudy Meredith, was recruited as a cooperating witness in the investigation that would become Operation Varsity Blues. He started to record phone calls and meetings with Singer, who prosecutors say collected an estimated $25 million from parents willing to pay to get their children into top schools.

Some of Singer’s clients included “Full House” actor Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, who spent two and five months in prison, respectively.

Though the couple’s legal team initially maintained their innocence, Loughlin and Giannulli eventually entered guilty pleas. Investigators had accused them of spending $500,000 to create fraudulent athletic credentials for their two daughters, who applied to the University of Southern California as crew (rowing) team recruits, though neither was a competitive rower.

Another celebrity caught up in the scandal was “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman, who allegedly spent $15,000 to have a test proctor correct her child’s answers on the SAT, a standardised test used for college admissions. Huffman served two weeks in prison.

According to prosecutors, Singer ran the scheme through a college admissions counselling service called The Key. He also set up a fake charity to funnel money from parents for bribes. Recipients included test administrators and sports coaches, who helped would-be applicants falsify resumes so they could be recruited as athletes.

All told, prosecutors allege Singer paid out $7 million in bribes while pocketing $15 million for himself.

“This defendant was responsible for the most massive fraud ever perpetuated on the higher education system in the United States,” Frank, the prosecutor, told US District Judge Rya Zobel at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing.

More than 50 people have been convicted in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, including the heir to the Hot Pockets microwaveable food line and the former owner of a California wine company.

One parent has been acquitted on all charges and another, Miami-based investor Robert Zangrillo, received a pardon from former President Donald Trump after he was charged with offering $250,000 to get his daughter into the University of Southern California.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the defence team sought leniency by highlighting Singer’s role in collecting evidence against other participants in the scheme.

Defence lawyer Candice Fields said Singer “did whatever was necessary” to help, allowing investigators to record his phone calls and in-person meetings.

She requested her client get a reduced sentence of three years probation for his participation as a cooperating witness or, alternatively, six months behind bars if a prison sentence was necessary.

But while the prosecutors acknowledged Singer’s participation as valuable, they also called it “problematic”, accusing the consultant of tipping off six of his clients about the investigation. Singer has not been called to testify against defendants at any trials.

Singer had previously pleaded guilty in 2019 to charges including racketeering conspiracy, obstruction of justice, money laundering conspiracy and conspiracy to defraud the United States. The judge in his case has also ordered Singer to turn over $19 million in money and assets, some of which will go to the US Internal Revenue Service for his failure to pay taxes on the bribery scheme’s profits.

In court filings, Singer, who now lives in a Florida trailer park, said he has lost everything as a result of the scandal.

“I embraced [my father’s] belief that embellishing or even lying to win was acceptable as long as there was victory,” Singer said. “I should have known better.”



Al Jazeera and news agencies

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