Officials say the actresses were involved in the nation’s largest-ever college admissions bribery case prosecuted by the Justice Department.
William “Rick” Singer said he had the inside scoop on getting into college, and anyone could get in on it with his book, “Getting In: Gaining Admission To Your College of Choice.”
“This book is full of secrets,” he said in Chapter 1 before dispensing advice on personal branding, test-taking and college essays.
But Singer had even bigger secrets, and those would cost up to $1.2 million.
Federal prosecutors revealed those secrets in hundreds of pages of court documents Tuesday, charging Singer with being the author of a multi-million dollar scheme to cheat on admissions tests and bribe college coaches. The result: Dozens of wealthy and well-connected parents got their under-qualified children into elite colleges like Yale, Georgetown and Stanford.
“I think my first reaction was something to the effect of, ‘So that’s what he was up to’,” Rebekah Hendershot, the co-author of the 2014 book, told USA TODAY.
The scandal has implicated celebrity actors such as Lori Loughlin of “Full House” and Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives” (and her husband William H. Macy, who is not charged.) Also named: wealthy CEOs, prominent lawyers, and accomplished athletic coaches at Division I schools.
Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, California, pleaded guilty Tuesday to racketeering, money laundering, tax evasion and obstruction of justice in a federal courtroom in Boston.
It was a spectacular end to a college counselor long sought out by California families for his rapport with high school students and his ability to navigate the labyrinthine college admissions process.
A 204-page affidavit from an FBI agent laid out a scheme involving proctors changing test results, fabricated credentials and even doctored pictures to make non-athletic students appear to be accomplished athletes.
‘It’s not an art. It’s a science.’
But there was also a legitimate side to the business, Hendershot said. In addition to the book collaboration, she worked for Singer coaching students on their college application essays.
Hendershot said she felt tremendous pressure from parents to write their sons’ and daughters’ essays for them. “I wouldn’t do that. That’s a hard line for me,” she said.
But one time, she said, Rick told a high school student to write an essay about his experiences growing up impoverished as the son of a single mother.
“The kid was very nervous, very upset,” Hendershot told USA TODAY. “It was a personal statement all about his experiences growing up poor, and I was literally sitting in a mansion when he showed it to me. Rick had been telling him for weeks to write this essay telling him he was a poor student. But the kid was having trouble writing it because he couldn’t imagine what it was like to be poor.”
She said the counseled the student to be honest, but doesn’t know if Singer submitted the fictional essay.
Hendershot said she often met the students in their homes in the wealthy neighborhoods of Orange County, where Singer also lived in a $2.6 million Spanish-style home just a mile from the Newport Beach Pier. “They’re all mansions or McMansions,” she said. “Views of the back bay, custom-built, somebody-thinks-they’re-Frank-Lloyd-Wright houses.”
But she said she was unaware of the test-rigging and coach-bribing alleged in the indictments unsealed Tuesday.
As a ghostwriter, Hendershot collaborated with Singer on two books but said she could not discuss that project because of a confidentiality agreement.
“I’ve been coaching students on the process for 26 years,” Singer wrote in his self-published book Getting In. “I’m one of the people who decides who gets in and who doesn’t. I am a practitioner of that mysterious art. And I’ll tell you a secret.
“It’s not an art. It’s a science.”
Getting in through the ‘side door’
That science often involved what Singer called “side doors” to get his clients into college. In conversations with parents recorded by the FBI last year under a court-approved warrant, Singer described the process.
“What we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school,” he said. “They want guarantees, they want this thing done. They don’t want to be messing around with this thing. And so they want in at certain schools. So I did 761 what I would call, ‘side doors.’
“There is a front door which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement,” — becoming a major donor to the college — “which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.
“Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody but there’s no guarantee, they’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee.”
“And it works?” asked Gordon Caplan, the parent of a college-bound daughter.
“Every time,” Singer said.
They both laughed.
Caplan, 52, is the co-chairman of an international New York-based law firm Willkie, Farr & Gallagher. He’s charged with paying $75,000 to have Singer arrange for a test proctor to change the answers to his daughter’s ACT test. Neither Caplan nor his law firm returned a call seeking comment.
The Caplan case illustrates how elaborate the arrangement could be. In the wiretapped conversation, Singer told Caplan to get his daughter tested by a psychologist and to tell her “to be stupid” so that she could be diagnosed with a learning disability and get extra time to take the test.
Singer then arranged for the daughter to fly to West Hollywood, California, to take the test, because he had a proctor there who would be in on the scheme. But Singer said the process was designed so that no one would be suspicious – and even the kids taking the test wouldn’t know about the cheating.
“She won’t even know that it happened,” he said, according to an FBI transcript. “It will happen as though, she will think that she’s really super smart, and she got lucky on a test, and you got a score now. There’s lots of ways to do this. I can do anything and everything, if you guys are amenable to doing it.”
Starting as a basketball, softball and tennis coach in Sacramento, Singer began to do college recruiting and eventually started a business in the growing industry of private college counselors. He founded Future Stars in Sacramento before selling it and joining the Money Store, a West Sacramento home equity lender, and then managed call centers.
He later founded the CollegeSource, charging $1,500 to $2,500 a year for in-home college counseling with high school students and their parents. He boasted of a network of well-placed college and philanthropic officials on his advisory board.
One of them was Ted Mitchell, then the president of Occidental College and now president of the American Council on Education. In a 2005 profile in the Sacramento Business Journal, Mitchell gave Singer a glowing endorsement.
“Rick has an encyclopedic knowledge of colleges and universities in America,” Mitchell told the newspaper. “Far more important, Rick is really great at getting at the heart of what kids and families want – and finding the right match.”
Mitchell could not be reached for an interview Tuesday, but his office sent out a statement following the announcement of charges. “If these allegations are true, they violate the essential premise of a fair and transparent college admissions process. This alleged behavior is antithetical to the core values of our institutions, defrauds students and families, and has absolutely no place in American higher education.”
Singer’s most recent venture was formally known as Edge College & Career Network LLC, but Singer called it simply “The Key.”
He took the title of CEO and master coach, and described it as the “world’s largest private life coaching and college counseling company.”
“That’s up for debate,” said Brooke Daly, who said she’d never heard of Singer before Tuesday. And she would have: She’s president of the Higher Education Consultants Association. The 1,000-member organization has an ethical code that prohibits advisers from making guarantees for placement or working on commission.
“There is exponential growth in this field of college consulting,” she said. “People like him, unfortunately, give our business a bad name.”
She said families already feel like the college admissions system is rigged, or that there’s a secret.
“Parents are going to have a heightened sense of fear that they need to have the inside track to get into that best-fit college,” said Daly, who’s the founder of Advantage College Planning in Raleigh, N.C.
‘I am not going to tell anybody’
Singer’s criminal scheme to bribe college coaches and doctor admissions tests began even before he legally incorporated The Key in 2012, federal prosecutors said. He also created a charity, the Key Worldwide Foundation, that prosecutors said he used to launder “donations” to college officials in order to secure a placement.
In some cases, prosecutors said Singer paid off athletic coaches to reserve an admissions slot for sports the students didn’t even play – including a soccer coach at Yale and tennis coach at Georgetown. Sometimes, photos of athletes were doctored using Photoshop.
The FBI affidavit is full of transcripts of wiretapped conversations in which parents eagerly agreed. Many of those conversations happened after the FBI turned Singer as a cooperating witness.
In several conversations, parents seemed to get cold feet before Singer assured them that he’s done this kind of thing hundreds of times.
“Let me put it differently: If somebody catches this, what happens?” Caplan asked him.
“The only one who can catch it is if you guys tell somebody,” Singer said.
“I am not going to tell anybody,” Caplan said.
They both laughed.
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