Federal prosecutors say that the college admissions scheme that was blown open on Tuesday is the largest of its kind that has ever been prosecuted.
It involves 50 defendants over six states and millions of dollars in illegally funneled funds.
But what sets the scheme apart is that it is incredibly simple but brazen.
It involved cheating on standardized tests then bribing those who decide who gets admitted. And pretend the bribe money was for charity.
William Rick Singer is the central figure in the scheme and US Attorney Andrew Lelling described it as follows, “I’ll speak more broadly, there were essentially two kinds of fraud that Singer was selling. One was to cheat on the SAT or ACT, and the other was to use his connections with Division I coaches and use bribes to get these parents’ kids into school with fake athletic credentials.”
Because students who score high on standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT have a greater chance of entering selective colleges, Singer had a simple plan: cheat their way to a high score, for a price, of course.
He would contract a third party, usually Mark Riddell (who has also been charged with two conspiracy counts) to either take the test in the student’s place or replace their answers with his own. And the proctors wouldn’t “notice” Riddell for a simple reason: they were bribed to look the other way as well.
The indictment states that parents who hired Singer for the scheme allegedly paid between $15,000 and $75,000 per test.
Riddell apologized in a statement, saying, “I want to communicate to everyone that I am profoundly sorry for the damage I have done and grief I have caused those as a result of my needless actions. I understand how my actions contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process. I assume full responsibility for what I have done.”
The other type of scheme involved getting students in through a bogus athletic scholarship.
While college coaches do not directly decide who gets into their university, they can recommend certain athletes to the admissions office. An athlete recruited for a Division I sport is “a very powerful influencer” when it comes to admissions, says Sara Harberson, a college admissions expert and former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College.
Singer simply bribed college coaches and athletics officials so that they would recommend certain students even if those students didn’t play the sport or weren’t really good at it.
“I was bribing coaches for a spot. And that occurred very frequently, your honor,” Singer said in federal court.
Singer didn’t get paid directly by his “clients” but rather had the payments coursed through a nonprofit that he set up as a charity named the Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF). The bribe payments were then disguised as charitable contributions.
“Singer’s foundation purported to be a charitable organization, but was actually a front Singer used to launder the money that parents paid him,” said Lelling, the federal prosecutor in Boston.
A KWF employee would then mail letters to the clients to thank them for the “donation.”
“Your generosity will allow us to move forward with our plans to provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth,” the letter would say. The letters also falsely claimed that “no goods or services were exchanged” for the donations, said prosecutors.
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