How Rick Singer started the college admissions cheating scandal? It began with a reality TV audition

Rick Singer looks straight into the camera, auditioning for his own reality show about the cutthroat world of college admissions.

Wearing a light blue sweater vest, he pitches himself as a “life-coach” for families desperate to get their kids into Stanford, Yale and USC. He has the look of a tennis pro and a voice that could pass for New York “fixer” Michael Cohen.

“This is a game,’’ he says on the production company video submitted to a network in 2010 and unearthed last week by TMZ . “Just realize that this is a game.”

Parents are so stressed out, he says, they need medication to calm down. They are so rich, they send private planes to fly him across the country to meet with their children.

Singer never became a TV star, but last week he became a felon — and the face of the biggest college admissions scandal in U.S. history.

Over the last eight years, Singer exploited a crippling anxiety that every child and parent experience when they click open a college application: Sorry kid. You’re just not good enough.

“Rick is a symptom of a system that has gone off the rails, from the college side and from the parents’ side,” said an old gym buddy from Sacramento who would listen to Singer’s braggadocio while sweating side-by-side on StairMasters. “It’s this whole vicious circle. The colleges are as much responsible for a Rick Singer personality being able to thrive as the parents are.”

William Rick Singer leaves Federal Court in Boston after he agreed to plead guilty in a college admissions scheme that he operated. March 12, 2019 (Staff Photo By Faith Ninivaggi/ Boston Herald/ Media News Group)

Just a year after William “Rick” Singer made that audition tape, federal prosecutors say he began his twisted scheme — seducing the wealthy parents of Silicon Valley, Beverly Hills and New York into paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe test administrators and university coaches in hopes of guaranteeing their children’s acceptance to the country’s most prestigious universities.

So how did he do it? How did this one-time high school basketball coach turn his legitimate college counseling business in suburban Sacramento into a criminal enterprise in Newport Beach, reeling $25 million into a bogus charitable foundation between 2011 and 2018?

How could he convince university coaches and administrators to go along with his game, accepting personal bribes and dirty donations to their programs? And how could he persuade parents who are celebrities, private equity investors and winery owners that they would never be caught?

In interviews with old friends, clients and competitors, plus a deep dive into the 204-page indictment issued Tuesday by federal prosecutors in Boston, a portrait emerges of a big-talking braggart quick to embellish his accomplishments and boast about the parents who hired him, becoming greedier the wealthier his clients became.

Singer lured them all in with the language of a practiced cheat: Everybody’s doing it.

“It’s really simple and easy,” Singer, 59, assures a New York parent, Gordon Caplan, last June in a phone call neither knew was wiretapped by the FBI. “They’re all families like yours.”

He explained how he could set up a proctor to fix his daughter’s answers on her SAT test at a special center in West Hollywood. “It’s the home run of home runs,” Singer said.

“And it works?” Caplan asked.

“Every time,” Singer said.

According to the transcript, they both were laughing.

STANFORD, – MARCH 12: Students and visitors walk on the Stanford University campus on March 12, 2019 in Stanford, California. More than 40 people, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, have been charged in a widespread elite college admission bribery scheme. Parents, ACT and SAT administrators and coaches at universities including Stanford, Georgetown, Yale, and the University of Southern California have been charged. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Singer seemed to start innocently enough, in suburban Sacramento in the late 1990s. Margie Amott was a volunteer in the counseling department at Rio Americano High School where she remembers Singer offering his special services to parents.

“I’ve always thought of him as a master salesman,” said Amott, who went on to earn a credential in college counseling.

It didn’t take long, however, before she heard troubling tidbits about him. High school counselors would complain to her that he would encourage students to exaggerate on their applications, that he would promise parents he could get their teenagers scholarships and into certain schools.

“No ethical consultant will ever make a promise like that. But it was very appealing. Think of your own child,” Amott said. “If he says I can guarantee that, would you be a little interested in hearing it? Then you would see him and say, ‘How can you guarantee it?’, and he couldn’t. Now, with the bribes, I guess he could.”

High school counselors would tell her that he boasted about being hired by numerous universities, including Northwestern, as a “reader” to give initial reviews to thousands of applications.

“My colleague called Northwestern, and they had never heard of him,” she said. “He always implied he knew the secrets to college admissions. He was always talking about marketing and branding. Students are not boxes of cereal. I intensely disliked his approach.”

William Rick Singer leaves Federal Court after he agreed to plead guilty in a college admissions scheme that he operated. Key Worldwide Foundation’s president is Rick Singer of Newport Beach, who stands accused at the center of a massive college-admissions cheating scandal.(Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images) Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Singer’s rise in Sacramento and later in Newport Beach — as college counseling grew into a $2 billion a year industry — came in response to the growing competition at elite universities and California’s own crisis, where taxpaying Californians feel the squeeze for admission at their own schools. At college information nights, high school counselors try to convince parents that colleges are more interested in “well-rounded students” than perfect test scores. But still, parents spend tens of thousands of dollars on tutors, sports travel teams and summer expeditions to help orphans in Africa.

The desperation has intensified as college rankings have become sacrosanct and universities grovel for applicants — advertising no application fees or essays! — then reveal how many they rejected.

In this pressure-cooker climate — made worse in the highly educated Bay Area — can it be any surprise that parents are looking to goose their children’s chances of a golden ticket?

“I live in Cupertino where there’s a college prep center on every corner,” said Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “All that’s coming from parents. It’s not healthy. It’s not helping anybody. You’re putting so much pressure on the student and sending the message that if you’re not at one of these five or 10 elite schools, you don’t have worth somehow.”

By the early 2000s, Singer had tapped into the wealthy ZIP codes and elite high schools of the Bay Area. After the scandal broke last week, football legend Joe Montana and venture capitalist John Doerr came forward to explain why their names appeared on Singer’s Facebook page. They acknowledged hiring him years ago, but said that it was all legitimate and his consulting services were minimal.

Paul and Joann Schweibinz, who own an East Bay marketing firm, hired Singer in 2003 for their son after hearing from other Acalanes High School parents in Lafayette who “raved about him.” They heard one story of Singer arranging a personal meeting between a high schooler and the president of Chapman University in Orange County.

For all the kids who struggled in a competitive environment in high school, Singer helped them make “great gains in either test scores or through personal connections and get into the schools they wanted,” said Paul Schweibinz, whose son graduated from the University of Oregon. “If there’s a chapter before things went south, that’s the chapter where we were. There was no discussion, we were never approached for money — we never suspected anything and the gains were never so dramatic you would say, ‘This can’t be right.’ ”

But as Singer bragged about his college admissions feats to his workout buddy at the Sacramento gym, he also expressed his frustrations, particularly with those universities that put up firewalls between the development office and the admissions department.

“He was really scoffing at the schools that didn’t understand how the system works,” said the workout friend, who didn’t want to be identified because he has a business in Sacramento and didn’t want his name connected with Singer. “He would say, can you believe that at XYZ school, I got them a candidate, their parents are worth millions of dollars, and I can’t even get their kid in?”

Those conversations came up sometime around 2011, give or take, he said, when Singer was commuting between his clients in Northern and Southern California. That’s about the same time prosecutors say that bribes began to coaches and administrators who could hold open coveted admissions spots for athletes.

Singer’s pitch often started with the same story: There’s a front door, where students get in on their own merits; a back door, where chances go up if “somebody knows somebody,” and Singer’s “side door,” where parents pay him tens of thousands of dollars to help their children cheat on the SATs and hundreds of thousands to bribe college officials to “get a guarantee done.”

In one recorded phone call, Singer convinced parent Marci Palatella of Hillsborough that the back door wouldn’t work. “No matter the board member you know, the grades and very good solid scores will not get him in unless you are in the millions” of dollars in donations to the school, he said.

Instead, she reportedly paid him $75,000 to have her son’s SAT answers secretly corrected and another $400,000 to get him into USC with fake football credentials. Marci Palatella told Singer in a secretly recorded call in October how she and her husband — former 49ers football player Lou Palatella — would “laugh every day” about how grateful they were for Singer.

“We’re like, it was worth every cent,” she told Singer.

There were early signs Singer’s schemes weren’t perfect ploys. Newly minted freshmen would call their parents asking why a scheduling adviser said they needed to keep Fridays free of classes so they could travel with athletic teams. One college administrator called a high school inquiring why a water polo recruit came from a school without a water polo team.

Todd Blake, a Marin County entrepreneur, was flummoxed when he heard from a well-meaning USC development officer asking about his $50,000 donation to USC’s women’s basketball program, which he and his wife had allegedly sent as part of a bribe through an administrator in the athletic department. The fundraising officer asked why he chose the basketball team — and asked if he’d like to donate more.

“I’ve been very, like, evasive,” Todd Blake told Singer — saying he forgot whether the check was made out to the basketball or volleyball program. Then, according to court records, he proceeded to mislead the officer. “I said, that, you know, I felt for equity reasons that … it’d be nice to donate money to a program that was, you know, not as — funded as strongly” as men’s sports.

Singer’s scam began to fall apart a year ago, according to the Wall Street Journal, when a financier under investigation in a securities fraud case, hoping for leniency, told the FBI about his brush with Singer’s network. With a court order, the FBI began secretly recording Singer and his clients for months before confronting him and getting his cooperation to wiretap the parents.

So Singer started calling his clients or meeting them at their multimillion-dollar estates and told them his “foundation” was being audited by the IRS and they had to “get their stories straight.” “Oh my god. Hmm. So, wow, gotcha,” Diane Blake said in one of the recorded calls. “Like, should I be concerned? I mean, (our daughter) doesn’t even know, you know?”

On Dec. 3, Singer wore a wire when he drove through the electronic gate at Bruce Isackson’s estate in the Hillsborough hills. Singer had already explained the supposed IRS investigation to Isackson’s wife, Davina, on the phone earlier in the day. He told her what to say if an agent should call asking about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments the couple made to his foundation. In reality, prosecutors say, the money was used as bribes to get the Isacksons’ daughters into UCLA and USC as rowing and soccer recruits.

At home that evening, Bruce Isackson told Singer he was “paranoid” about getting caught, according to the transcripts.

“I mean, I can’t imagine they’d go to the trouble of tapping my phone — but would they tap someone like your phones?” Isackson asked Singer.

When he heard about the IRS investigation, Isackson said, his stomach “fell.”

“It’s so hard for these kids to get into college, and here’s what’s going on behind the schemes and then, you know, the embarrassment to everyone in the communities,” Isackson said in the recording. “Oh my God. It would be yeah, ugh.”

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Less than four months later, the Isacksons and dozens of other parents are facing mail fraud charges and falling in disgrace from prestigious Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood jobs. Their children have become pariahs on campus and a symbol of the privilege that taints the college admissions game — even though many of them didn’t know what Singer and their parents were up to.

The chaos they are experiencing now is nothing like what Singer was describing on that TV reality show audition tape nine years ago, about the emotionally turbulent search for the perfect college.

“After all this chaos,” Singer said wrapping up his audition, “the payoff for me is knowing that these kids found the right place to go to school and feel great about themselves, that they’re empowered to be successful.”

Staff Writer John Woolfolk contributed to this report.