BOSTON — The mastermind of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, Rick Singer, is set to be sentenced Wednesday in Boston for a scheme that federal prosecutors say is “staggering in its scope and breathtaking in its audacity.”
Prosecutors want him sentenced to six years in prison, while Singer is asking the judge to let him off with little or no prison time.
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His sentencing is the capstone in the years-long investigation and prosecution of Singer and more than 50 co-conspirators, and puts the focus back on what has and has not changed since the scandal broke open in March 2019.
Singer, 62, pleaded guilty to raking in some $25 million by selling what he liked to call “a side door” into highly selective universities such as Yale, Georgetown and USC to dozens of clients, from actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin to business titans and big-shot lawyers.
“We help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids in school,” Singer bragged as he pitched one of his clients on a call recorded by the FBI. “They want guarantees. They want this thing done.”
His scheme involved, for instance, bribing college coaches to take students as athletic recruits, even if they were mediocre or had never even played the sport. Singer would just make up a totally fake resume, complete with a student’s face photoshopped onto an image of a real athlete. His menu of cheating services also included fixing students’ wrong answers on their college admissions tests or having someone take the test in their place.
“I can make scores happen that nobody on the planet can get to happen,” he boasted on that recorded call. As was his routine, Singer told the client that his kids would have no chance of getting into their preferred schools without him and leaned heavily on the “everyone’s doing it” pitch.
When Singer said the testing scam costs $75,000, the client didn’t hesitate.
“Consider that a done deal,” the client responded.
Lawyers say Singer is already serving a ‘life sentence’
Of the more than 50 parents, coaches and others caught up in the scheme, more than a third were sentenced to three months or less in prison. Roughly a quarter of the defendants got no time at all behind bars, including five people who cooperated with prosecutors.
Singer is hoping his cooperation will earn him leniency, too.
“He believes he will get some time, but I don’t think he believes it will be a lot of time,” says Bill Blankenship, who lives next door to Singer in a mobile home park in St. Petersburg, Fla. It’s a world away from the last place Singer lived: a grand, gated, five-bedroom home that “displays rare and timeless craftsmanship on one of the most coveted blocks of exclusive Newport Heights,[Calif.],” according to Realtor.com.
“I have lost everything,” Singer wrote in court filings pleading for leniency. He says he’s “woken up every day feeling shame, remorse and regret.”
“He is already serving a life sentence of sorts,” his lawyers say, “vilified by the public, and ostracized, living an isolated, lonely life,” and having lost “the trust and respect of family, friends.”
Despite pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to commit money laundering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud the United States, Singer’s lawyers have asked the court to sentence him to home confinement instead of prison. Or if Singer must serve time, his lawyers suggest, he should get no more than six months behind bars.
The lawyers also say Singer deserves credit for his “crucial” cooperation, helping prosecutors nab his former clients. He secretly recorded hundreds of phone calls with some 30 co-conspirators, methodically and craftily getting them to incriminate themselves by acknowledging the payments and bribes they paid as the tape rolled. His ruse was to tell them that his fake charitable foundation that he used to launder bribe money was being audited by the IRS.
“So, I just want to make sure our stories are aligned,” Singer said on one call.
“Yeah,” said the dad who made three payments to get two kids admitted as soccer and crew recruits and to have one of their entrance exams taken for them.
“Of course I’m not going to tell the IRS this is where the money went,” Singer continued.
“Right, right, right,” the dad agreed, sounding just a little worried.
“What I told them so far, is that that 650k plus was actually gone to pay to our foundation for underserved kids,” Singer said.
“Uh huh,” replied the dad. “I’m assuming that we’re not the only people they’re asking about?”
“No,” Singer says, “tons of people.”
A deal with the devil?
The recordings were damning enough to make dozens plead guilty in cases even the government concedes would have been otherwise hard to win.
“Prosecutors made a deal with the devil in this case, but they always do,” says former federal Judge Nancy Gertner. What makes this case unusual is that the deal is not with low-level co-conspirators ratting out the kingpin, it’s with the kingpin himself, flipping on his former clients.
“I think this is an extraordinarily difficult sentencing,” Gertner says, “because on the one hand, Singer’s cooperation is enormously important. And you get people to cooperate by telling them they will get a benefit in their sentencing.” On the other hand, she notes, as the kingpin who masterminded the whole scheme and used more than $15 million of his clients’ bribe money for his own benefit, Singer would be considered “more culpable than anyone — his cooperation notwithstanding.”
Indeed, prosecutors argue Singer is most culpable “by leaps and bounds” and his sentence must be longer than the longest one to date, which was the two-and-a-half years imposed on former Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernst, who accepted nearly $3.5 million in bribes in cases of at least 22 students.
Prosecutors also argue that while Singer’s cooperation was “singularly valuable,” it was also “singularly problematic.” After he was arrested for his con, Singer actually tried to con prosecutors, too. At the same time he was vowing to cooperate to nab other targets, he tipped off at least six co-conspirators, warning they were under investigation and that if they got a call from him, they should assume they were being recorded and deny any wrongdoing.
It’s partly why prosecutors are not recommending more of a reward for Singer’s cooperation.
The six years they’re calling for is just slightly below the range of 6 ½ to 8 years set by the sentencing guidelines that the court has accepted.
“I’m a little bit surprised,” says Boston defense attorney Aaron Katz, who represented one of the Varsity Blues parents. Six years “for a defendant who gave what the government calls ‘unprecedented’ cooperation is pretty harsh.”
Especially, Katz says, given that the government also wants Singer to pay $20 million in forfeiture and restitution. “It’s certainly justified,” he says, “but that massive forfeiture amount, plus prison [is] a very harsh punishment for a scheme like this, for sure.”
Authorities have made it clear from day one that they wanted the Varsity Blues prosecutions to send a message to anyone who might consider any similar scheme to game the college admissions system.
“Today’s arrests should be a warning to others,” Boston FBI Special Agent In Charge Joe Bonavolanta said on the day the case broke open. “You can’t pay to play. You can’t lie and cheat to get ahead because you will get caught.”
Varsity Blues hasn’t changed inequities in admissions
But to many, the sentences meted out so far to the mostly white and wealthy Varsity Blues defendants have sent exactly the wrong message.
“I’m a Black man in America, so duh!” says Akil Bello, a longtime advocate for equity in education. “The sentences to me seem particularly light, especially when compared to other education-related sentences” of underprivileged and minority defendants, he says. Bello points to an Ohio mom who lied to get her two kids into a better public school and was sentenced to two five-year terms to be served concurrently (though she was allowed to serve just nine days with other conditions).
He also points to some of the Atlanta public school educators who in 2015 were sentenced to up to seven years in prison for inflating students’ standardized test scores. Sentencing those defendants to more time than the Varsity Blues parents got is “a travesty of justice,” Bello says.
“To think that the sentences for those crimes by those people should be anywhere near the same, is insane,” he says. “It makes me want to cry.”
Also disconcerting to Bello is that the whole Varsity Blues scandal seems to have “prompted a lot of noise,” he says, “but I’m not sure it prompted a lot of solutions.”
He doesn’t see any of the “enormous and systemic changes in the college admission process” that prosecutors have touted.
The College Board, the organization that administers the SAT test says it has increased security around testing, but declined to elaborate. And USC says it’s beefed up reviews of athletic recruits. Some other schools say they are just trying to be more vigilant in enforcing rules they already had.
Even so, Bello says, that completely misses the systemic — and legal — inequities baked in to the college admissions process that affect far more people than the Varsity Blues scam did. For example, he says schools continue to give a leg up to children of alumni, through legacy admissions, or to children of big donors.
“In our world money talks,” says Sherry Waldon-Wells, a vice president with the nonprofit American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. She agrees little has changed in that realm. “Very few entities are going to turn down donations, especially if they’re not promising something in return.”
A judge in one of the Varsity Blues cases put it bluntly in an order granting a new trial to one of the coaches who was convicted: “However distasteful, there is nothing inherently illegal about a private institution accepting money in exchange for a student’s admission.”
Varsity Blues also has done little to prompt reforms in the world of college consulting, which remains an unregulated industry. Some membership organizations did see a spike in the number of people signing up after the Varsity Blues scandal broke, as college coaches sought ways to attest to their legitimacy. But membership in those groups is voluntary, and many consultants don’t join. Today, independent consultants can charge up to $50,000 to have a heavy hand in shaping students’ college applications. As one put it, services include “crafting [a student’s] persona and life goal” as well as “all the evidence showing that they’ve been committed to this all along.”
Margie Amott, a college counselor in California who got to know Singer when she was a competitor of his some 20 years ago, says the lack of regulation is why Singer’s scam wasn’t stopped when she says he first started pushing the envelope.
“We all knew there was very unethical stuff going on, but there was nowhere to turn,” she says.
Instead, Amott says she watched Singer become more and more brazen, from padding students’ resumes to lying about a student’s ethnicity and even trying to hire someone to take a student’s course online.
“That made my hair stand on end,” she recalls. “I think he should go to prison for a long time.”
So does Karl Armbrust, who says he was rejected by some of the schools that admitted Singer’s clients.
“It definitely shattered my belief that America was a meritocracy, completely,” he says. He continues to worry that similar shenanigans will hurt other students applying now and in the future.
“You can’t let him off [easy] just because cooperated with authorities,” Armbrust says. “It just seems like he’s trying to save his own skin.”
For his part, Singer acknowledges the harm he has caused to “not just the students who were part of my scheme, but also all of those who felt like they didn’t get the same chance to go to the school of their choice because they couldn’t pay or didn’t cheat their way in.”
Singer says it was because of some childhood trauma — details of which the court is keeping sealed — that his “moral compass was broken.” He says he now wants to atone for his sins by helping others and that he plans to start working next month with a pastor in Hot Springs, Ark., to help underserved and underprivileged youth.
A reference from that pastor, filed with the court, says Singer first reached out to inquire about the job two weeks ago.
Still, Singer’s neighbor Bill Blankenship insists Singer is genuinely helpful to him and others around their mobile home park, helping a homeless man find short term housing, taking some people with disabilities out for paddle board rides and helping Blankenship lose nearly 100 pounds by buying him sneakers and getting him on a walking routine.
Blankenship shrugs off suggestions that Singer may be just putting on a show ahead of his sentencing.
“If he is doing all that good, just to make himself look good, does that negate the fact that it was good?” Blankenship asks with a chuckle, before answering his own question. “No, good is good.”
Singer will have a chance in court Wednesday to make that case himself to the federal judge who’s deciding his sentence, in what may be the most important — and difficult — sales pitch of his sordid career.
NPR’s Kaitlyn Radde contributed to this story.