How the college admission scandal that hit Hollywood and Stanford got its start in Sacramento

A coast-to-coast college admissions scandal that sucked in two Hollywood movie stars, the sailing coach at Stanford and dozens of others had its origins with an over-reaching college-prep consultant who got his start advising anxious high school kids in Sacramento.

Federal prosecutors charged 50 people across the country Tuesday in a stunning $25 million bribery scheme that allegedly had ultra-wealthy parents paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children into such major universities as Stanford, UCLA, Yale and USC. Among those arrested were actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who is Loughlin’s husband; and financier William McGlashan Jr. Also charged were numerous college sports coaches, who were accused of taking bribes to find spots for these children at their schools.

Students were not charged because their parents were running the alleged scheme, prosecutors said, but more charges are possible. Prosecutors are leaving it up to universities to decide on potential consequences for their students.

At the center of the scheme: former Carmichael resident William “Rick” Singer, 58, now of Newport Beach, owner of a private college-prep consulting firm called Edge College & Career Network. He pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston to multiple felony charges, represented by well-known Sacramento defense attorney Donald Heller.

Singer is “remorseful and contrite and wants to move on with his life,” Heller told reporters in Boston. He refused to speak to The Sacramento Bee.

According to court records, Singer agreed to forfeit $3.4 million in cash plus various business holdings controlled by his nonprofit foundation.

Two Folsom residents who’ve worked for Singer also were charged: Steven Masera, 69, the accountant and financial officer at Edge; and Mikaela Sanford, 32, an employee at Edge and Singer’s nonprofit organization, the Key Worldwide Foundation.

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Both appeared in street clothes before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Barnes in federal court in Sacramento on Tuesday to face single counts each of racketeering conspiracy. The count carries a maximum 20 years in federal prison plus a $250,000 fine or twice the gross profit taken from the illegal operation, Barnes said. They were freed on bond ahead of a Boston federal court appearance in two weeks.

The nonprofit foundation was supposed to be dedicated to helping “underprivileged students” secure an education, according to its Internal Revenue Service filings.

In reality, prosecutors said Key Worldwide was a conduit for funneling bribes to college sports coaches and to administrators of the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams.

The SAT and ACT officials allowed a phony test taker — a Floridian named Mark Riddell — to take the exams on behalf of Singer’s clients’ children at exam sites in West Hollywood and Houston, according to prosecutors.

Court records say Huffman, best known for her role on the TV show “Desperate Housewives,” spent $15,000 in phony donations to Key Worldwide in February 2018 to have a front take the SAT exam for her daughter.

Loughlin and her husband Giannulli spent a combined $500,000 to get their daughters designated as recruits to the crew team at USC — “despite the fact that they did not participate in crew,” according to court records.

“The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney in Boston, told reporters at a press conference, according to the New York Times. He said “the real victims” were students who lost their spot in their dream school to the children of parents “who simply bought their way in.” Officials said more than 200 agents across the country were involved in the investigation, which resulted in arrests in six states.

No students or universities were charged. But a host of college sports coaches did get indicted, and the fallout was swift. John Vandemoer, the head sailing coach at Stanford, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and was fired by the university, according to the Associated Press. UCLA placed its soccer coach Jorge Salcedo on leave and Wake Forest University in North Carolina suspended its volleyball coach Bill Ferguson. CNN reported that USC fired water polo coach Jovan Vavic and senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel, both of whom were charged in the case.

The sums of money were breathtaking: The phony test-taking would cost as much as $75,000 for each exam, according to court records. Singer was paid a combined $25 million by his clients to bribe sports coaches to grease the wheels at their universities.

One couple paid him $1.2 million in November 2017 to get their daughter into Yale as a soccer player, prosecutors said. A spot at UCLA for their daughter allegedly cost a couple in Hillsborough, the wealthy San Francisco suburb, a little over $1 million in cash and Facebook stock, all funneled through contributions to Singer’s nonprofit foundation.

Court records show that Singer made his plea agreement with federal prosecutors Feb. 6.

Real estate databases show that Singer moved from Carmichael to Newport Beach in 2012 and set up shop there. But he kept ties to the region; the nonprofit foundation, for instance, retained a Sacramento address, according to IRS records.

The indictment against him said he began his criminal conspiracy sometime in 2011.

Singer had been a mid-level manager for The Money Store, the now-defunct consumer-finance company based in West Sacramento, when he started counseling high school students on the intricacies of the college admissions system, according to former Money Store executive John Wagner. He said Singer left the Money Store sometime in the late 1990s to pursue the college-prep business full time.

For years he ran a company called Future Stars and told The Sacramento Bee in a 1994 interview that he was doing the work that high-school guidance counselors no longer had the time to perform adequately. “I set it all up for them. I call the admissions office and arrange a campus tour. I set up a visit with key professors or department staff.” He charged a flat fee of $1,200. He later sold Future Stars.

Singer quickly built a large client base. But he also generated a reputation for stretching the truth.

Hundreds of area families were turning to Singer for college prep help. Singer’s program was popular among Granite Bay High School teacher Karl Grubaugh’s students about a decade ago, when schools began to place more emphasis on college readiness.

“Our faculty was a little suspect even back then,” Grubaugh said.

Singer was invited to speak to teachers about how to write letters of recommendation for students at one of their regular professional training days. But according to Grubaugh, Granite Bay teachers complained that Singer didn’t discuss how to write letters for students at all. Instead, he spent one hour pitching his private college coaching service.

Many area school districts and private high schools said they have never heard of Singer or the program.

Most schools said they don’t use for-profit companies on campus because there are plenty of free resources to help students get into college. But some area schools are looking into learning if parents and students used The Key independently.

“We don’t know of any St. Francis student who has participated but we are looking into it,” said St. Francis Catholic High School and diocese spokesman Kevin Eckery.

A spokeswoman for Christian Brothers High School said counselors have heard of Singer’s program but that the school does not work with outside companies for college preparation.

Jon Reider, a former admissions officer at Stanford, said he heard that Singer was telling parents that Donald Kennedy — then the president of Stanford — was on his firm’s advisory council. That wasn’t true.

“He was bragging, extremely and openly, about his ties to the Stanford admissions process,” Reider said.

Reider said he also heard that Singer would guarantee parents that their child would get into a particular school — a no-no in the college consulting world.

“The ethical ones don’t make promises — ‘Oh, I can get your kid into Yale or Stanford,’” Reider said.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.