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Key Ingredient in College-Admissions Scheme: A Harvard-Graduate Test Whiz

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 3/17/2019 Jennifer Levitz, Brian Costa
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BOSTON—He was a test-taking whiz who could get any score on demand, federal prosecutors say, and the secret weapon in the college-admissions cheating scandal.

Mark Riddell, a 36-year-old Harvard University graduate, used his uncanny ability to boost scores fraudulently on college-entrance exams for teens of wealthy families participating in the scheme, according to federal filings.

“He did not have inside information about the correct answers,” the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, said after announcing Tuesday’s federal charges. “He was just smart enough to get a near-perfect score.”

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Prosecutors say Mr. Riddell, who lives outside Tampa, Fla., was central to the cheating scheme. He has agreed to plead guilty to mail fraud and a money-laundering-related charge, according to court documents, and is scheduled to appear in court in Boston in April.

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After the charges, Mr. Riddell issued a statement apologizing for the damage and grief he caused. “I understand how my actions contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process,” he said.

Prosecutors said William Rick Singer’s testing scheme took place at least 30 times back as far as 2011. Of the 33 parents who were charged Tuesday, at least 16 are linked in court documents to Mr. Riddell, who was referred to as “Cooperating Witness 2.”

He has been helping with the investigation since February in hopes of leniency, federal filings say.

In one case, a test had to be scheduled at a later date because Mr. Riddell had a baby, according to the filings. Another time, Mr. Riddell used false identification to pose as a student. And after a Los Angeles teen had tonsillitis and couldn’t meet Mr. Riddell at the Houston test site—where the plan was for Mr. Riddell to fix the teen’s test answers afterward — Mr. Riddell asked for a handwriting sample and took the test on his behalf, scoring a 35 out of a possible 36 on the ACT.

Mr. Riddell is among some 50 people charged in Operation Varsity Blues, a federal investigation that resulted in the largest college-admissions scandal ever prosecuted.

From 2011 to 2018, prosecutors say, dozens of parents paid more than $25 million to Mr. Singer, a Newport Beach, Calif., college-admissions consultant, to bribe coaches to designate their children as top recruits or boost test scores. Mr. Singer pleaded guilty to four charges Tuesday.

Mr. Riddell is an alumnus of IMG Academy, a private Bradenton, Fla., prep school where boarding-school tuition for this year runs to as much as $77,650.

People walk on the Stanford University campus Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. In the first lawsuit to come out of the college bribery scandal, several students are suing Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other schools involved in the case, saying they and others were denied a fair shot at admission. The plaintiffs brought the class-action complaint Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of themselves and other applicants and asked for unspecified damages. (AP Photo/Ben Margot) © AP People walk on the Stanford University campus Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. In the first lawsuit to come out of the college bribery scandal, several students are suing Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other schools involved in the case, saying they and others were denied a fair shot at admission. The plaintiffs brought the class-action complaint Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of themselves and other applicants and asked for unspecified damages. (AP Photo/Ben Margot) From there he went to Harvard, where he studied biology and played on its men’s tennis team, graduating in 2004.

This week, he was suspended indefinitely from his job as director of college entrance exam preparation at his alma mater, IMG, which has grown into a factory for a wide range of young athletes in sports including baseball, golf, basketball and lacrosse. The school was purchased in 1987 by sports-marketing giant IMG Worldwide.

Mr. Singer assured parents seeking his services that Mr. Riddell could “nail a score,” the court filings say.

In 2011, Canadian businessman and philanthropist David Sidoo allegedly paid Mr. Singer $100,000 to have Mr. Riddell secretly take the SAT in place of his older son, according to court filings. Directed not to score too high, Mr. Riddell earned a 1670 out of 2400, the filing says.

He also took a Canadian high-school graduation exam for the son and later was paid to take the SAT for Mr. Sidoo’s younger son, the filing says.

Mr. Sidoo, who stepped down as chief executive from East West Petroleum Corp. this week, appeared in court Friday in Boston for a hearing. He pleaded not guilty.

In court on Tuesday, Mr. Singer said Mr. Riddell would fly in from Florida to two test centers in Houston and West Hollywood, Calif.  Parents were advised to concoct a reason, such as a bar mitzvah, for why they were in town.

There, Mr. Riddell would either take the ACT or SAT test for the student, help them during the test, or change the student’s answers afterward, federal authorities said. Mr. Singer would pay Mr. Riddell approximately $10,000 per test.

Tanned and sandy blond, Mr. Riddell charmed the students during these encounters. “She loves the guy,” one parent, Marcia Abbott, said about her daughter to Mr. Singer in a recorded phone call described in the filings. “She said he was so sweet.”

Ms. Abbott and her husband, Greg, who Thursday stepped aside as chief executive of International Dispensing Corp., allegedly used Mr. Riddell to correct answers on their daughter’s ACT test and then booked him for the SAT, flying her in from Aspen to the L.A. testing site last October, court filings say.

Ms. Abbott was seeking scores on the SAT above 750 per section, which is what she said Duke University required. In a phone call, Mr. Singer assured her that it could be done, according to the court filings.

“We’ll get 750 and above,” Mr. Singer promised.

“Fabulous,” Ms. Abbott replied.

After the Abbotts’ daughter scored in the mid-600s in the literature section on her own—by Mr. Singer’s estimation—Mr.  Riddell fixed some errors and she ended up with a 710, according to federal filings. For math, he got her a perfect 800, according to the filings.

Write to Jennifer Levitz at jennifer.levitz@wsj.com and Brian Costa at brian.costa@wsj.com     

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