The central figure in a criminal conspiracy to influence admissions to colleges and universities across the United States has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison, the longest sentence yet handed down in what is said to be “Operation Varsity Blues“.
William “Rick” Singer of Newport Beach, California, was charged with using bribery and other illicit tactics to celebrities and other wealthy clientele gain acceptance at elite schools such as Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown University.
Prosecutors had sought a six-year prison sentence for Singer, 62, whose cooperation with the Varsity Blues investigation helped uncover the largest academic fraud case ever uncovered in the US.
“It was a plan that was breathtaking in scope and audacity,” assistant attorney Stephen Frank told Singer in the Boston courtroom on Wednesday. “It’s literally become the stuff of made-for-TV books and movies.”
Singer came to the attention of federal investigators in 2018 when a suspect in an unrelated fraud case revealed that a Yale football coach had offered to get his daughter accepted into the top university in exchange for a bribe.
That coach, Rudy Meredith, was recruited as a cooperating witness in the investigation that would become Operation Varsity Blues. He began recording phone calls and meetings with Singer, who prosecutors say raised an estimated $25 million from parents willing to pay to get their kids into top schools.
Including some of Singer’s clients Full House actor Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who spent two and five months in prison respectively.
Although the couple’s legal team initially maintained they were innocent, Loughlin and Giannulli eventually pleaded guilty. Investigators had accused them of spending $500,000 to create fraudulent athletic credentials for their two daughters, who had applied to the University of Southern California as team recruits, even though neither was a competitive rower.
Another celebrity involved in the scandal was “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman, who reportedly spent $15,000 to have a test proctor correct her child’s answers on the SAT, a standardized test used for college admissions. Huffman spent two weeks in jail.
According to prosecutors, Singer directed the plan through a college admissions advisory service called The Key. He also set up a fake charity to funnel money from parents for bribes. Among the recipients were test administrators and sports coaches, who helped aspirants job applicants falsify resumes so that they could be recruited as athletes.
All told, prosecutors allege Singer paid $7 million in bribes while pocketing $15 million for himself.
“This defendant was responsible for the most massive fraud ever committed in higher education in the United States,” Frank, the plaintiff, told U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing.
More than 50 people have been convicted in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, including the heir to the Hot Pockets microwave food line and the former owner of a California wine company.
One parent has been cleared of all charges and another, Miami-based investor Robert Zangrillo, was pardoned by former President Donald Trump after being accused of offering $250,000 to get his daughter into the University of Southern California.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the defense team sought clemency by highlighting Singer’s role in gathering evidence against other participants in the scheme.
Defense attorney Candice Fields said Singer “did whatever it took” to help, allowing investigators to record his phone calls and face-to-face meetings.
She petitioned her client for a reduced sentence of three years’ probation for his participation as a cooperating witness or, alternatively, six months behind bars if a prison sentence was required.
But while prosecutors recognized Singer’s participation as valuable, they also called it “problematic” and accused the consultant of tipping off six of his clients about the investigation. Singer has not been called to testify against any of the defendants at any trial.
Singer had previously pleaded guilty in 2019 to charges including racketeering conspiracy, obstruction of justice, money laundering conspiracy and conspiracy to defraud the United States. The judge in his case also ordered Singer to turn over $19 million in cash and assets, part of which will go to the U.S. IRS because he failed to pay taxes on the bribery scheme’s profits.
In court proceedings, Singer, who now lives in a Florida trailer park, said he lost everything as a result of the scandal.
“I hugged [my father’s] belief that embellishment or even lying to win was acceptable as long as there was victory,” Singer said. “I should have known better.”