College Admissions Fraud Leader Rick Singer Sentenced to 42 Months

Rick Singer, the Pied Piper behind "Varsity Blues", the Government investigation into rich parents paying Singer , his company and even athletic coaches at colleges for tricks to ensure their kids got into certain impressive colleges they knew their kids were likely to be rejected at if they applied the traditional way, was sentenced today to 3.5 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay restitution of $10,668,841 to the IRS and forfeit another $8.7 million. The Government had sought a sentence of 6 years.

According to the NYTimes article, the Government wrote in its sentencing memo that Singer "was a reluctant and duplicitous cooperator who destroyed evidence and tipped off at least six clients. As a result, the government did not call him as a witness at trial." [More...]

Here is the Government's chart of all 55 people charged in the investigation and the outcome of their cases, including which ones cooperated. They were charged in multiple cases, some by Indictment, some by Information. The parents were generally charged together, as were college coaches, inger employees and test cheaters (19-CR-10081)

At the beginning, the Government told the parents charged by Information (19-cr-10117) that if they didn't plead guilty, they would be charged in an Indictment that included an additional fraud count. Many, like Felicity Huffman took the bait and pleaded guilty right away. She received a sentence of two weeks in prison.

The parents that didn't agree to plead right away, like Lori Loughlin and her husband and several others, were indicted in 1:19-CR-10080. Most ultimately pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to prison for periods ranging from 6 weeks to 15 months.

One parent who went to trial was acquitted. One married couple agreed to cooperate and got probation (Case No. 1:19-CR-10115). Jovan Vavic, a water polo coach at USC went to trial and was convicted, but the judge granted him a new trial. The NY Times reports:

In her decision, the judge questioned whether the university could be considered a victim when it had kept the money and even sent thank you notes.

“There was no evidence in the record to suggest that Vavic was taking U.S.C. water polo team money for his own benefit,” she wrote. “And, however distasteful, there is nothing inherently illegal about a private institution accepting money in exchange for a student’s admission.”

There was more to it than that:

[U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani ] ruled Thursday that some statements by prosecutors during the trial were misleading and potentially prejudicial to the jury.

[The judge] said in her ruling that while payments for Jovan Vavic’s sons’ private schooling could be considered bribes, money given to his USC team’s account couldn’t be defined that way. “The government conflated a payment to the USC Water Polo team with a payment to Vavic,” Judge Talwani wrote.

She said prosecutors at Mr. Vavic’s spring trial “flatly ignored” the court’s instructions to the jury about what constitutes a bribe.

Singer has been out on bond all this time. He reeled in a lot of fish with his cooperation. His lawyer says he's now living in a trailer park in St. Petersburg, Fla giving paddle boarding lessons to veterans and autistic children.

The Government asked for higher sentences for the parents that got their kids in through Singer's "side door" than those that just paid money to Singer's phony charity. The "side door" included the parents who faked their kids' athletic photos and lied about their status on their high school teams, parents who paid to have professional testers take the college board exams for their kids or fix their answers before sending the results in, test proctors who allowed the cheating, and paid bribes to athletic coaches or school employees.

A lot of the test-faking happened by Singer coaching the parents to tell their kids' schools they had learning disabilities so they could take advantage of different testing policies for kids with disabilities. These kids could take their test in a city away from home and have more time to take the test.

I think the real cheaters here besides Singer were the athletic coaches, school athletic-department employees, employees of Mr. Singer and testing-site administrators. Here is some more on the coaches. And while these people all pleaded guilty to serious charges, they mostly got minimal sentences, some as light as a day in jail or time served.

The chief test faker, Mark Riddell, only got 4 months. Yes, he cooperated, but he was like the gas in the engine for this part of Singer's scam -- without his intellectual ability to ace the tests and fix answers, the test-cheating arm of Singer's machine wouldn't exist. He really had no excuse: he was an ace tennis player at Harvard, had a privileged life, and was director of college-entrance exam preparation at the prestigious IMG tennis academy (now a multi-sports academy) in Bradenton, FL. when he started working with Singer.

Some of these parents were beyond wealthy, with personal residences valued upwards of $35 million and billions in family fortunes. For some, the collateral consequences were worse than the jail time: having to step down from their CEO positions at global firms, reputational damage, their names stripped from schools and charity event centers named after them, alienation from their embarrassed children, most of whom had no idea their parents were buying their way into school and mortified when they learned about it. Some of the kids withdrew from their schools. Two daughters of one parent were kicked out of their high school.

And lest I forget, one of the parents, Robert Zangrillo of Florida, was pardoned by UnPresident Trump. Zangrillo's daughter not only knew what her father and Singer had cooked up, she egged it on. On one recorded call, she asked Singer what he was going to do about an "F" grade she had gotten in an online class. True to form, Trump's staff at the White House didn't know it right's arm from its left:

The Trump White House also said that Ms. Zangrillo “is currently earning a 3.9 G.P.A.” at U.S.C., but the university said in a statement that Ms. Zangrillo was not currently enrolled there.

So the Varsity Blues investigation comes to an end with the sentencing of Rick Singer, and a few other loose strands still hanging. Has anything changed in the world of high-stakes college admissions? I think to answer that, you have to ask, is it possible another "Rick Singer" will come along to take his place and the same sort of cheating and bribery will continue? I actually think the answer to that is "no". But that doesn't mean school admissions policies will change.

And it doesn't solve the problem the non-rich have had with the Singer saga. They think the spots these rich kids take would otherwise go to poor kids who have the grades and talent to be accepted, just not the connections.

In that sense, I don't see much changing. Schools and rich parents will just figure out a way to communicate directly with each other and eliminate the crooked middleman arranging for bribes and providing test-takers to cheat on their kids' exams. Schools now know they can be honest and tell the parent directly: "You donate $25 million, your kid gets in". As Judge Talwani said:

And, however distasteful, there is nothing inherently illegal about a private institution accepting money in exchange for a student’s admission.”

Maybe the schools should publish a list:

  • $5 million donation: 1 kid, 1 year
  • $25 million donation: Up to 3 kids, 4 years included
  • No athletic prowess needed.

Final question: Has anyone published how much the Varsity Blues investigation cost taxpayers, from the FBI investigators, to the costs of prosecution (prosecutors, paralegals, discovery costs) and the cost for the early dawn raids arresting parents or cost of incarcerating those sentenced to jail? Maybe they should have just taken down Singer and donated all the rest to scholarship funds. Given the light to ultra-light sentences handed down to everyone involved, it really doesn't seem like the Government got much bang for its buck.

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  • Display: Sort:
    My quick-n-dirty review of (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by Peter G on Thu Jan 05, 2023 at 10:19:03 AM EST
    the federal sentencing guidelines (which I generally consider too harsh) appears to suggest a 7-to-8 year sentence for Singer, so his cooperation still got him a very substantial (c. 50%) benefit. Federal judges adhere to those guidelines about 65-80% of the time (depending on the type of offense and region of the country).

    It almost pays to be Caucasian at sentencing. (5.00 / 3) (#2)
    by oculus on Thu Jan 05, 2023 at 02:06:36 PM EST
    And wealthy.

    It pays to be Caucasian at sentencing. (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by leap2 on Thu Jan 05, 2023 at 02:20:27 PM EST
    And wealthy.



    Yep Graham Nash nailed it in 1974 (5.00 / 2) (#4)
    by jmacWA on Thu Jan 05, 2023 at 03:18:05 PM EST
    And here's a song to sing,
    For every man inside,
    If he can hear you sing
    It's an open door.
    There's not a rich man there,
    Who couldn't pay his way
    And buy the freedom that's a high price
    For the poor.

    I was hoping that Singer's sentence... (none / 0) (#5)
    by Jack E Lope on Thu Jan 05, 2023 at 03:30:10 PM EST
    ...would add up to the combined sentences of all the credulous people he led to commit their crimes.

    I can picture motivated parents being easily convinced that this is just the way it's done, and I doubt that most of them would have committed the crimes without someone packaging and selling the opportunity.  (Though I suspect they all were seeking something to help their children's competitiveness....)

    I'm not too disappointed in the sentence Singer received. In general, I think we tend to make sentences too long in the US.

    I try not to view the length-of-sentence vs. cost-of-prosecution balance sheet as the only measure of value. The publicity brought by these cases will make people more-resistant to the sort of con/fraud that had Singer as a conspirator.

    Judge Talwani already gave us one benefit, by starting us down the road to honesty....

    The people Singer assisted don't strike me as (5.00 / 3) (#6)
    by oculus on Thu Jan 05, 2023 at 08:10:53 PM EST