The Wall Street Journal - 07.09.2019 - 08.09.2019

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A10| Saturday/Sunday, September 7 - 8, 2019 ** THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.**

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, above, announced charges on March 12. William ‘Rick’ Singer, below, leaving federal court in Boston.


“He was a marketing guy,”
says a former employee of Mr.
Singer’s Newport Beach, Calif.,
counseling company, called
The Key. “Convincing and per-
Many affluent parents hire
private college consultants as
early as a child’s freshman
year of high school. The advis-
ers can steer class and extra-
curricular selections, test
preparation, essays and the
college search.

Dark arts
Mr. Singer’s company of-
fered legitimate services to
some parents and sold others
on darker arts.
Federal prosecutors say
some paid Mr. Singer $15,
to $75,000 through a sham
charity to cheat on SAT and
ACT college entrance exams.
They allege he steered clients
to doctors to secure special
testing arrangements, whether
or not teens had medical condi-
tions meriting them, and then a
proctor he paid would correct
students’ answers at test sites
in Texas and California.
Other parents, prosecutors
say, paid hundreds of thou-
sands of dollars to Mr. Singer’s
charity for access to what he
called a “side door” into col-
leges, in which he funneled
money to coaches or athletic
programs. They say he ex-
plained to parents that
coaches would designate their
children as recruited athletes,
regardless of ability, nearly
guaranteeing their admission.
Some parents helped craft bo-
gus athletic profiles for their

you thought you needed what
he was selling,” says Tre Con-
way, a former director at a
Los Angeles school where Mr.
Singer counseled students.
Eric Webb, a Peoria, Ill., ex-
ecutive, says Mr. Singer’s en-
cyclopedic knowledge of col-
leges helped his son find a
school that was a good fit.
Mr. Webb hired him again
for a daughter, who he says is
athletic and had excellent
grades. He says Mr. Singer
warned that she faced stiff
competition to get into schools
that were on her short list.
He recalls Mr. Singer advis-
ing: “There are some schools
that you might not be able to
get into even though you have
straight A’s and a good ré-
sumé. But if you go there
through sports, you may have
a leg up.”
Mr. Webb says Mr. Singer
recommended that his daugh-
ter pitch herself for the crew
team—even though she wasn’t
a rower. Mr. Webb bought an
ergometer to see whether his
daughter’s times were in the
ballpark of competitive. She
wasn’t interested in the sport,
so they didn’t pursue it fur-
ther. She landed at a top
A Nevada chief executive
says he hired Mr. Singer in
2012 to counsel his daughter,
after a referral from a Bay
Area CEO. He says Mr. Singer,
on his first visit, asked his
daughter, ranked second in her
sophomore class, to talk about
She told him about her
grades, PSAT scores and com-
munity-service work. “Nope,
you’re not special,” she recalls

Mr. Singer saying. “It just de-
stroyed me, and it scared my
parents. He was really smart
about this. He would pick at
every insecurity. He would
make you feel absolutely
worthless and completely de-
pendent on him to get into
Says the father: “Parents
want a quick fix. This is on
parents, too.”

‘Side door’
During their third or fourth
meeting, she says, Mr. Singer
explained casually that there
was an admissions “front
door,” where applicants got in
the regular way, a “back door,”
where families made big dona-
tions to increase their odds,
and a “side door”—a sure-
thing strategy he had in-
College coaches had excess
walk-on spots that could go
unused each year, she recalls
him saying. He matched cli-
ents to those spots. Teens
wouldn’t have to play, and no
harm resulted because the
“spot would go to waste” oth-
erwise, she recalls him saying.
She says he didn’t mention
money and made it sound like
a benign hack, and that her
family just brushed it off. They
were confident she could get
in to one of the roughly dozen
colleges she applied to the
regular way.
In her senior year, she says,
Mr. Singer told her to decide
“how to identify” on her col-
lege application to be most
competitive. Though she is
white, she recalls him telling
her that if she identified with

College Competition

Mean acceptance rate

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Note: Based on the 50 colleges and universities
with the lowest 2017 undergraduate
acceptance rates








2008 ’10 ’12 ’14 ’

Clients say Mr. Singer, who
visited them in their homes,
was methodical and driven. A
former basketball coach, he
once challenged a client’s child,
who had spouted off about his
athletic prowess, to a push-up
contest, and beat him.
“I liked him because he got
in the kid’s face,” says that cli-
ent, a Los Angeles-area father
who hired Mr. Singer to coun-
sel his two sons. “He took the
gloves off.”
Mackin Carroll, from Or-
ange County, Calif., says Mr.
Singer’s message resonated
with his mother, who worried
he would be left behind in the
college-application process.
Mr. Carroll, now 24 and a
songwriter, says he rejected
the directive to “tweak your

Mr. Carroll says Mr. Singer
urged him to say the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks influenced his
music and moved him to write
patriotic ballads. He was 6
when the attacks occurred. His
mother declined to comment.
Mr. Carroll says he worked
with Mr. Singer for a few
years in high school and was
admitted to USC, without re-
sorting to any trickery, to
study music.
“Rick was so good at selling
that by the time he got done,

Mr. Singer offered
legitimate services
to some and darker
arts to others.


charged were willing partici-
pants. People close to Mr.
Singer said those parents gen-
erally weren’t naive and un-
derstood what he was doing.
Other parents who had deal-
ings with him say they were
unaware of Mr. Singer’s im-
proper actions.
Parents who worked with
him and those that considered
it described him as a disci-
plined, confident and some-
times charismatic man who
claimed to have influence at
top schools. Yet when prospec-
tive clients questioned certain
tactics, some of these people
said, he could grow angry or
evasive, sometimes even
His message to parents hit
on their deepest concern, says
Mr. Larson, the swim-team
dad and owner of an executive
coaching firm: “What if I’m
not doing enough to help my
Mr. Larson says his daugh-
ter is bright and was a com-
petitive swimmer but not a
good test taker. When he con-
sulted Mr. Singer around 2012
about the tutoring service he
offered, he says, the college
counselor floated an unusual
plan. Mr. Singer proposed hav-
ing doctors diagnose the girl
with a condition such as anxi-
ety—making it sound like a
sure thing—thereby allowing
her to take her college-en-
trance exam with a proctor ar-
ranged by Mr. Singer, accord-
ing to Mr. Larson. The charge
would be a $15,000 tax-de-
ductible “donation” to Mr.
Singer’s charity.
When Mr. Larson pressed
for specifics, Mr. Singer be-
came dismissive and acted
surprised, Mr. Larson says. “It
was a ‘This is what we do ev-
ery day’ kind of thing,” he re-
calls. Mr. Larson found the in-
teraction odd. “It never
stacked up as legitimate to
me,” he says. He didn’t hire
Mr. Singer. His daughter
worked with other tutors and
went to the University of
Mr. Singer’s mode of opera-
tion, and how some parents
came to step over ethical and
legal lines in working with
him, are expected to play into
the legal defenses of some of
the 34 parents who were
charged criminally, and in the
sentence-mitigation strategies
of the 15 who have pleaded
guilty thus far, according to
defense lawyers and a college
consultant close to one family
implicated. The sentencings
begin this month in federal
court in Boston.
Mr. Singer, 58 years old, has
admitted to leading a criminal
scheme and pleaded guilty to
four felonies. “What made it
very attractive to so many
families is I created a guaran-
tee,” he said in a March plea
hearing in Boston.
Mr. Singer’s lawyer said his
client, who is awaiting sen-
tencing, wouldn’t comment.
Mr. Singer could be vague
initially about his tactics for
securing spots at schools in-
cluding the University of
Southern California and
Georgetown University, and he
discouraged parents from ask-
ing too many questions, ac-
cording to clients and pro-
spective clients.

Continued from Page One

the African-American struggle,
she could categorize herself as
black, and that he could get
her a “tribal card” if she
wished to check Native Ameri-
“There is zero chance I do
that,” she says she replied. He
told her he was merely offer-
ing options, she says. Other
clients did fudge their ethnic-
ity, say people familiar with
the federal investigation.
The girl, who graduated as
valedictorian, didn’t get her
top choice but landed at an-
other elite university.
Her father says he also
hired Mr. Singer to help his
son. Though a good student
and competitive tennis player,
the boy’s résumé was a cut be-
low his sister’s. His father was
interested in Georgetown,
where prosecutors said Mr.
Singer paid then head tennis
coach Gordon Ernst more than
$2.7 million in bribes between
2012 and 2018 to promote stu-
dents for admission. Mr. Ernst
pleaded not guilty to a charge
of conspiracy to commit racke-
The father recalls that
while visiting Georgetown for
another reason in 2017, he
called Mr. Singer to discuss his
son’s chances. “Do you want
me to make it happen?” he re-
calls Mr. Singer responding,
suggesting a donation of
$400,000 to Georgetown’s ten-
nis program.
Mr. Singer arranged a pri-
vate meeting with Mr. Ernst
for that same day, the father
recalls. The meeting turned
strange fast, he says. When
the dad pressed Mr. Ernst on
how the donation would be
spent—scholarships? travel
costs?—the coach acted con-
fused, he says.
“Well, a coach has to eat,”
Mr. Ernst finally said, accord-
ing to the father.
A lawyer for Mr. Ernst de-
clined to comment.
The father says he left
stunned and was still on cam-
pus when Mr. Singer called
minutes later. “Rick, I don’t
understand. I thought this was
going to the program,” the fa-
ther recalls telling Mr. Singer.
Mr. Singer, he says, insisted
that money to the coach was
the same thing. The father re-
sisted and hung up thinking
Mr. Singer got the message he
wasn’t interested.
On Sept. 20, 2017, Mr.
Singer texted the father: “D-
Day is here,” Mr. Singer wrote.
“I need to know what you de-
“Rick, I thought I told you,”
the father says he told Mr.
Singer over the phone. “This is
not something we would do in
our family.”
He says Mr. Singer barked
back: “What did you say to
me?” Mr. Singer fired him as a
client on the spot, promising
to never help his son with ad-
missions. He even canceled ac-
ademic tutors his company
had arranged, the father says.
He worried Mr. Singer had
enough clout to sabotage his
son. “I was scared out of my
mind,” he says.
After his son was safely
into college—he was rejected
by Georgetown but admitted
elsewhere—the father texted
Mr. Singer. “How sad I was at
the way you chose to conduct
yourself,” he wrote. “I assume
that you have financial pres-
sures...what a terrible choice
you made.”
He wrote that his daughter
“always thought you were a
bluff,” and conceded, “Turns
out the kids are a lot smarter
than I am.”
Mr. Singer, he says, never


Played on


BOSTON—Federal prosecu-
tors are recommending prison
time for parents who have
pleaded guilty in the college-
admissions cheating case, urg-
ing the judge to send a message
about privilege and fairness
when deciding sentences.
Proposed sentences, though,
are generally at the low end of
or even below initial sentencing
recommendations laid out in
plea agreements this spring.
They range from one month
each for Felicity Huffman and
Peter Jan Sartorio to 15 months
each for Stephen Semprevivo
and Agustin Huneeus Jr. Ms.
Huffman, an actress, is the first
to be scheduled for sentencing,
on Sept. 13.
Fifteen parents have pleaded
guilty in the sprawling admis-
sions-fraud case.
The defendants have their

own opportunity to request le-
niency, filing letters of support
to the judge from friends and
Ms. Huffman’s legal team
submitted a memo Friday, say-
ing she is “remorseful” and
“ashamed,” and that her behav-
ior was “completely out of
A lawyer for Mr. Semprevivo
had no comment, and a lawyer
for Mr. Huneeus didn’t respond
to a request for comment.
“Perched at the apex of
wealth, privilege and, in some
instances, fame, these defen-
dants were not content with
the distinct advantages they al-
ready enjoyed in the admis-
sions process,” said a memo
submitted by U.S. Attorney An-
drew Lelling to the court Friday
In total, 51 individuals have
been criminally charged, ac-
cused of working with college
counselor William “Rick”

Singer to fraudulently secure
spots at top colleges for
wealthy teens. Some parents
admitted to using Mr. Singer to
secure diagnoses of learning
disabilities for their children,
allowing them to cheat on SAT

or ACT exams with the help of
Mr. Singer’s paid proctors. Oth-
ers bribed coaches or adminis-
trators to flag their teens as re-
cruited athletes, regardless of
athletic ability. Some partici-
pated in both prongs of the

The memo, written by Assis-
tant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen
and other prosecutors, said
parents showed “an astonishing
degree of self-entitlement and
moral insularity” and corrupted
the admissions system, shut-
ting out other qualified candi-
dates. Calling home confine-
ment “a penological joke,”
prosecutors said jail is “a par-
ticularly meaningful response
to this kind of offense.”
There is an unusually public
dispute between prosecutors
and the federal probation of-
fice, which advises the court on
sentences for defendants. In
guilty plea agreements ham-
mered out in recent months,
prosecutors tied punishments
to financial loss, using the
money parents paid to Mr.
Singer as a proxy for loss. The
government has portrayed col-
leges, testing agencies and
other qualified applicants who

didn’t get in as victims.
Probation officials have so
far found no direct financial
loss, however, for the victims,
which could mean parents re-
ceive lighter punishments.
Findings of no financial loss of-
ten result in guidelines of zero
to six months in prison, which
judges often reduce to proba-
tion for first-time defenders. A
federal judge has called a hear-
ing for Tuesday on the dispute.
Prosecutors earlier recom-
mended four months in prison
for Ms. Huffman. One reason
for the relatively light sentence,
they said, is that Ms. Huffman
chose not to hire Mr. Singer for
a second child, after agreeing
to pay $15,000 to participate in
the exam-cheating scheme for
her older daughter.
Ms. Huffman’s legal team
asked in a separate legal filing
Friday for one year of proba-
tion, 250 hours of community
service and a fine.


Prison Sentences Urged in College Case

Prosecutors recommended a one-month sentence for actress
Felicity Huffman, down from four months proposed earlier.

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