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The tip, the Yale coach and the wire: How the college admissions scam unraveled

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4 days ago Melissa Korn, Zusha Elinson, Sadie Gurman, Jennifer Levitz
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Federal authorities were pursuing a securities fraud case last spring when a person involved, hoping for leniency, said there was another story of great interest, according to people familiar with the investigation.

From there, authorities found the head women’s soccer coach at Yale University, who had allegedly accepted a $400,000 bribe to get a student with false credentials admitted. The coach began cooperating in what federal investigators said was the biggest college-admissions fraud ever prosecuted.

Prosecutors allege that from 2011 to 2018, parents paid a total of $25 million to William Singer, a college-admissions consultant, to bribe coaches and administrators to designate their children as top recruits in such sports as football water polo, soccer, track and volleyball at universities including the University of Southern California, Georgetown and Wake Forest. Some parents also allegedly paid Mr. Singer as much as $75,000 for test-cheating services.

Authorities have charged 33 parents who allegedly paid for illegal services to get their children into colleges; three people who were allegedly paid to fraudulently raise scores on SAT and ACT college-entrance exams, as well as nine college coaches and five others.

A day after charges were unveiled, the new details revealed more about the origins and breadth of an investigation that snared families at the highest economic echelons, accused of pushing their way ahead of other college applicants with lies, bribes and cheating.

The case immediately became a national conversation, touching on class, merit and a hint of comeuppance. Most of the accused parents didn’t reveal to the children the lengths they would go to land a seat at a big-name university.

Some of the most brazen deceptions weren’t easy to hide. A school counselor, for instance, wanted to known why one student was being recruited by a college water polo team when their high school didn’t even offer the sport.

Prosecutors said the plot attracted parents from affluent communities in California: Del Mar, Newport Beach, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Atherton, Mill Valley and Palo Alto; and in the east, Greenwich, Conn., and New York City. The families spanned Silicon Valley to Hollywood to Wall Street.

“What we do is help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school.” Mr. Singer told parent Gordon Caplan last June in a recorded call transcribed in a government affidavit released in Boston this week. “They want guarantees. They want this thing done.”

The response from Mr. Caplan, co-chairman of New York law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, echoed other calls with parents, according to the affidavit transcripts: “To be honest, it feels a little weird. But…What do I need to do?”

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Mr. Caplan declined to comment. Other parents named in court documents declined to comment, didn’t respond to requests for comment or couldn’t be reached.

The initial FBI tip led investigators to Rudy Meredith, the head coach of women’s soccer at Yale. He had worked with Mr. Singer in January 2018 to get the daughter of a California family into Yale by pretending she was a soccer player, according to prosecutors. The family paid Mr. Singer $1.2 million, according to the affidavit; Mr. Meredith’s share was $400,000. The family wasn’t identified. Mr. Meredith didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In April, Mr. Meredith met with the father of another California family seeking entry to Yale, authorities said. The meeting, at a hotel room in Boston, was surreptitiously recorded by the FBI. Afterward, Mr. Meredith began cooperating, authorities said.

William Singer leaves the federal court Tuesday in Boston. © brian snyder/Reuters William Singer leaves the federal court Tuesday in Boston.

The multiagency federal investigation, named Operation Varsity Blues, received court approval to tap Mr. Singer’s phone in June. Investigators secretly recorded conversations between Mr. Singer and at least 16 client families over the next few months.

Mr. Singer allegedly offered two services: Fraudulently boost children’s entrance-exam scores, or pay to have them falsely identified as a recruited athlete, a more expensive but guaranteed path.

Defendants recorded on calls include actress Felicity Huffman, former Pacific Investment Management Co. CEO Douglas Hodge, vintner Agustin Huneeus Jr. and private-equity investor John Wilson.

Federal agents alerted Mr. Singer that he was under surveillance in September. He learned of the federal and grand jury investigation into his operation, according to prosecutors, and began cooperating.

“They had me wired to go into some folks’ homes, plus my calls were being taped,” Mr. Singer said in court Tuesday. At first, Mr. Singer tipped off six families of the investigation, prosecutors said. In one case, according to his court testimony, he arrived early to a student’s home and told the father that he was being recorded and urged him to “not say anything that would be harmful to you guys.”

Mr. Singer said in court, “I am totally wrong, and I did that kind of situation on multiple occasions to multiple families.”

At the request of investigators, Mr. Singer reached out to past clients, including former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz and real estate developer Robert Flaxman. He recounted on the recorded calls their past transactions, explaining that his charity was being audited.

Mr. Singer had long assured worried clients that hundreds of other families had taken advantage of his clandestine services. Yet, as more families engaged Mr. Singer’s Edge College & Career Network, LLC, the secret seemed harder and harder to keep.

In late 2017, a guidance counselor at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles, wanted to know why USC was recruiting Matteo Sloane as a water polo player. The high school didn’t even have a team.

The boy’s father, Devin Sloane, founder and chief executive of aquaTECTURE, a Los Angeles-based company that invests in water-treatment systems, had hired Mr. Singer to bribe a USC official to identify Matteo as an athletic recruit, the affidavit said.

One of the campus officials accused of working with Mr. Singer, Donna Heinel, then the senior associate athletic director at USC, sent an email to the university’s admissions director to explain the discrepancy, according to the affidavit. “He plays at LA Water Polo Club during the year and travels international during the summer with the youth junior team in Italy,” she wrote on April 11. “I don’t know if the people at [his high school] are unaware.”

She added, “He is small but he has a long torso but short strong legs plus he is fast which helps him win the draws to start play after goals are scored.”

USC’s admissions director, not named in court papers, agreed to pass that information along. “They seemed unusually skeptical,” the admissions official said of the Buckley School. A spokeswoman for Buckley didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Heinel warned Mr. Singer in a voice mail that same day: “I just don’t want anybody going into” the high schools, “You know, yelling at counselors. That’ll shut everything—that’ll shut everything down,” according to the affidavit.

In July, the scheme was nearly exposed by a curious USC adviser.

Thomas Kimmel, the son of defendant Elisabeth Kimmel, expressed confusion when he was asked about being a track athlete. Mr. Kimmel allegedly didn’t know it, according to the affidavit, but he had been admitted to USC last year after his mother, who owns a media company, used Mr. Singer to bribe Ms. Heinel. Thomas, according to his paperwork, was a pole vaulter.

Mr. Singer and his associates had crafted a profile of the boy as an elite athlete that included a photo of an actual vaulter. The boy’s high school, the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif., had no record of his track-and-field feats, prosecutors said.

Ms. Kimmel described what happened to Mr. Singer, a phone call recorded by authorities: “So she goes, ‘It has it down that you’re a track athlete.’ And he said, ‘Well I’m not.’ She goes, ‘Oh, okay, well I have to look into that.’”

Mr. Singer reassured the mother that if the adviser poked around more, she would end up speaking with Ms. Heinel, who has since been charged with conspiracy.

Mr. Singer relied on referrals from a circle of affluent parents. He said in recorded calls last year that he had helped 760 students in the previous school year get into college through what he called the “side door.”

Greg Abbott, CEO of International Dispensing Corp., told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that he and his wife had heard about Mr. Singer through a network of New York City mothers: “They all say he’s the best.”

One parent, William McGlashan Jr., wanted to help his son into the USC, and he didn’t want the boy to know how, according to the government affidavit unsealed in Boston this week.

In a conversation recorded by authorities, Mr. McGlashan was quoted a fee of $250,000 by Mr. Singer, who started his company, Edge College & Career Network.

“I would do that in a heartbeat,” said Mr. McGlashan, of Mill Valley, Calif., the managing partner of private-equity firm TPG Growth. He had already paid Mr. Singer $50,000 for an expert to surreptitiously correct his son’s college-entrance exam, according to government allegations. He would pay even more to have his son photoshopped into a star kicker for the USC football team.

Late last summer, Mr. McGlashan sent Mr. Singer sports photos of his son for an admissions package, intended to cast the teen as a recruit to the USC football team.The boy’s school, Marin Academy in Northern California, had no football team. But, Mr. McGlashan said, “He does have really strong legs…Pretty funny. The way the world works these days is unbelievable.”

Mr. McGlashan was put on administrative leave Tuesday by TPG.

Mr. Huneeus, another defendant, spoke about Mr. Singer’s services with Mr. McGlashan, whose son attended the same school as Mr. Huneeus’s daughter, Agustina. A spokesman for the school, Marin Academy, said there’s no indication anyone who works at the school knew of the alleged scam.

In a recorded call with Mr. Singer, Mr. McGlashan lamented that Mr. Huneeus was “not discreet at all.”

Mr. Huneeus allegedly paid Mr. Singer $50,000 to have someone sit with his daughter and correct answers while she took the SAT at a Los Angeles-area test center in March.

Mr. Huneeus also allegedly bribed Ms. Heinel and USC’s water polo coach to secure a spot for his daughter as a recruited player.

Ms. Huffman, the actress, had allegedly paid $15,000 for Mr. Singer’s services to help her older daughter score well on a college entrance exam and was in talks with him for help with her second daughter. In a call recorded in December, her husband—actor William H. Macy, who hasn’t been charged—said the girl was interested in Georgetown, among other colleges.

In February while making arrangements for Ms. Huffman’s daughter to take the test in March, Mr. Singer said for the girl to get into Georgetown, she would have to score in the 1400-plus range.

Ms. Huffman told Mr. Singer that her daughter had scored around a 1200 in a practice SAT test with a tutor.

“I just didn’t know if it’d be odd for [the tutor] if we go, ‘Oh, she did this in— in March 9th, but she did so much better in May,’” Ms. Huffman said.

Mr. Singer said he didn’t think the tutor would notice. The parents decided not to pay for help cheating on the entrance exam for the younger child, prosecutors said.

Mr. Singer pleaded guilty to four charges Tuesday, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and obstruction of justice. John Vandemoer, the former head sailing coach at Stanford, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.

The investigation, which also involved the Internal Revenue Service, is ongoing and could implicate more coaches and parents. The IRS called the operation a sweeping financial crime with Mr. Singer and other conspiring to not only make and receive bribes but to funnel the funds through a bogus charity to dodge taxes.

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