The college admissions scandal that started with a wide-ranging investigation of wealthy parents paying to fraudulently get their kids into colleges and ended with indictments against actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, among others, has caused an uproar, and understandably so.
As I wrote on Tuesday:
The plot allegedly involved cheating on standardized testing exams like the ACT and having the children of wealthy parents falsely designated as athletes — even paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to make coaches claim the children were being recruited to play sports for their schools.
But the documentation provided by the government as legal backing for its investigation goes even further in showing just how baffling this alleged scheme was on virtually every level — and how effective it was at getting the kids of rich parents into top schools.
As part of the case, FBI special agent Laura Smith created an affidavit in support of the government’s complaint against the defendants, including Loughlin and Huffman. The document is roughly 200 pages long, rife with transcripts of conversations between the defendants and Rick Singer, the man at the center of the scandal who ran a for-profit college counseling business called Edge College & Career Network and a charity called the Key Worldwide Foundation. The foundation was allegedly used to launder money and funnel it from wealthy parents to college coaches, administrators, and others, including Singer himself.
If we lived in a world of my own making, I would have shared screenshots of entire pages from the document, which you can read here. But here are the most telling (and nonsensical) passages detailing how a massive scam to get rich kids into top colleges worked, and how often the people who were supposed to benefit from it — the kids themselves — had no idea.
“And it works?” “Every time.”
In the document, Smith features transcripts of conversations between “CW-1” — short for “Cooperating Witness -1,” referring to Rick Singer — and the defendants who would ultimately be charged with fraud and other charges in the case.
(It’s worth noting that many of the conversations between Singer and his clients that are included in this affidavit took place after Singer had pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and money laundering racketeering charges and begun cooperating with the government. To get a lesser sentence, Singer then gave over reams of documentation and recorded phone calls with his clients. A word to the wise: If someone you have done crimes with calls you out of the blue, maybe don’t answer.)
The services Smith offered included faking their children’s SAT or ACT scores and creating fake athlete profiles and bribing college coaches to recruit them to their schools (and, in some cases, both). The pitch to parents from Singer, the affidavit explained, was that it had always worked.
Take this conversation between Singer and defendant Gordon Caplan. In the transcript featured in the affidavit, Singer tells Caplan that his plan to submit fraudulent test scores on behalf of the children of wealthy parents — sometimes by having someone else take the test for the child, other times by having the answers “corrected” by a test proctor whom Singer had paid — works “every time.”
Repeatedly throughout the affidavit, transcripts and recordings show Singer selling his services by bragging about how many times it has worked before. Some parents are even referred to Singer by other parents who have had success getting their children into universities because of his fraud.
During this conversation with defendant Agustin Huneeus, a vineyard owner in California who wanted to get his daughter into the University of Southern California, Singer and Huneeus are discussing Singer’s alleged plan to falsely portray Huneeus’s daughter as a water polo player so that she could attend USC as a recruited athlete.
When Huneeus makes clear that his daughter isn’t talented enough to play water polo at USC, Singer says that the coach — Jovan Vavic, winner of 16 national titles in the sport — already knows that. And when Huneeus asks if there is any chance “this thing blows up in my face,” Singer responds that in 24 years, he’s never run into a problem.
Perhaps part of why Singer’s scheme proved so successful time and time again is because he attempted to make the fraudulent test scores and fake athlete profiles at least somewhat believable.
Take another excerpt from his conversation with Huneeus: The parent complains about whether his daughter’s faked SAT score (a 1380 out of a possible 1600) could have been higher. Singer responds that no, that wouldn’t have been workable, adding, “I would have got investigated for sure based on her grades,” alluding to the questions that may have arisen over an average student scoring a near-perfect score on the SAT.
In return for more than $50,000, according to the affidavit, Singer then faked an athletic profile for Huneeus’s daughter that portrayed her as a top water polo player, even including a photograph that isn’t of her.
When Singer’s foundation, which he allegedly used to funnel money from parents to the people he bribed to get kids into schools, was audited, he reached out to Huneeus and asked him to make sure not to tell anyone about the extremely illegal fraud they are now accused of. Huneeus responded, “Dude, dude, what do you think, I’m a moron?” before adding that he would tell the IRS that the donations he made were (ironically) to get underprivileged kids into college.
The scam was far-ranging
Administrators and coaches at many of the schools involved in the alleged scheme were deeply enmeshed in it. Take Donna Heinel, who was senior associate athletic director at USC until she was fired on Tuesday. In return for more than $1.3 million in bribes over several years, Heinel allegedly helped funnel Singer’s clients’ children into USC.
After Singer’s team had created fake athletic profiles for students, Singer would then send those profiles to Heinel, who would present them to the subcommittee for athletic admissions as real recruited athletes.
Several of the transcripts included in the affidavit detail discussions between Singer and his clients as they tried to decide which sport they could fake their child being a top athlete in, like this conversation between Singer and defendant William “Bill” McGlashan about whether his son would be a believable football kicker.
But of course, none of the students who were portrayed as recruits so that they could receive admission to USC were actually able to perform as athletes. In the case of the daughter of Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez, the affidavit notes that her application claimed she was a top club tennis player in high school, while in reality, she was decidedly not a top tennis player of any variety, ever.
But Singer planned for that — and had Heinel and others to help him.
Take this conversation for example, in which Singer is speaking with Gamal Abdelaziz, a casino executive and Las Vegas resident who allegedly paid Singer hundreds of thousands of dollars to get his daughter into USC as a basketball player. Singer explains that while the admissions department at USC was beginning to ask questions about why his daughter wasn’t showing up for basketball practice, Heinel told them that his daughter had an “injury” and wouldn’t be able to play. All Singer needed was for Abdelaziz to keep their stories straight.
The “side door”
The heart of the alleged scheme was Singer’s concept of creating a “side door” for college admissions. In his conversations with Gordon Caplan, Singer explained that the “front door” to get into college was to do well academically and score high on standardized tests, and the “back door” was to endow a building or make a massive donation. He was introducing clients to the “side door” — a way for parents who were wealthy but not building-endowing wealthy to guarantee that their underachieving kids would attend the school of their choice.
But it’s worth noting something else Singer says: Only he and the “side door” can do what neither the “back door” nor the “front door” can and guarantee that students are admitted to specific universities. As he says, “Everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody, but there’s no guarantee, they’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee.”
According to the authorities, Singer promised parents that their children would get into the school of their choice and that only he could back up that promise — through bribery, fraud, money laundering, and fake test scores and athletic profiles.
“He wants it that way”
Throughout the affidavit, the transcripts of Singer’s conversations seem to show that in some cases, students helped their parents with getting someone else to take their SAT or ACT exam, or creating fake photographs of themselves playing a sport so that they could submit those fake athletic profiles to colleges.
Take defendant Devin Sloane, for example, who allegedly worked with his son to create just the right photo of him “playing” water polo with props purchased from Amazon so that Singer could create a fake athlete profile to send to Heinel at USC.
But in other cases featured, the students in question seemingly had no idea that the scores they would ultimately receive on the ACT or SAT weren’t theirs. In his conversation with Caplan, for example, Singer says that his daughter “won’t even know that it happened” and adds that that system is ideal for children: “That’s the way you want it. They feel good about themselves.”
When Caplan says that he feels a little strange about the alleged plan — which involved misusing accommodations reserved for students with learning disabilities to give Singer’s clients’ children extra time on the SAT and ACT, thus making it easier to have someone else take the test — Singer tells him that “all the wealthy families” do it. It might feel weird and immoral, he essentially says, but it won’t matter once Caplan’s daughter gets that top score.
But Caplan’s daughter didn’t seem to know about this alleged plan. As the affidavit shows, she took the ACT. In a conversation with Caplan, Singer describes the plan as follows: “So she’s going to take the test on her own, she’s going to do her best, all that stuff, and then we’re going to do our magic on the back end.” In other words, Caplan’s daughter was supposed to take the ACT, fully believing that the score she received was hers — but it wasn’t.
In another conversation with Huneeus, the client who got angry with Singer over his daughter’s (fake) SAT score, Huneeus references another Singer client, Bill McGlashan, and asks whether McGlashan’s son knows that his ACT score was fraudulent.
Singer tells Huneeus that no, his son doesn’t know — by his father’s request. “[McGlashan] has not been as forthcoming with you, and with his own kid, which is — he wants it that way.”
So what have we learned from this criminal complaint?
That parents who took part in this alleged scheme seemed to be well aware of what it was — fraud committed on a mass scale to get their kids into the schools of their choosing (or in the case of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli’s daughter, any school besides Arizona State University). That at least one university administrator and several coaches are accused of accepting bribes to funnel children into their school. That while some parents seemed to have worked with their children to create fake photographs for fake athletic profiles that would be submitted to universities where bribed coaches would use them to get those children admitted, other parents seemingly kept their children in the dark about faking their ACT or SAT scores.
And we learned that while the world of college admissions is often dark and confusing, in this case, it was just plain baffling.