Mark Riddell, test-taker ace in college admissions cheating case, pleads guilty in court

Joey Garrison

BOSTON — Mark Riddell, the man who secretly took ACT and SAT tests for students in exchange for cash in an elaborate college admissions scheme involving wealthy parents and coaches, pleaded guilty Friday in Boston federal court. 

Riddell, a 36-year-old former private school counselor from Florida, took the stand, stood and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud and one count of money laundering. 

He was appearing before U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton, who accepted the plea agreement. Prosecutors and Riddell reached a deal in February, three weeks before the nation's largest-ever college admissions cheating case was unsealed in court. 

Riddell, who last month publicly apologized for what he called his "needless actions, arrived at court alongside his attorney wearing a scarf tightly around his neck, blue suit and brown plastic-framed glasses. 

He needed help from the judge to locate the witness stand when he was called up. He then listened to Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen reel off the claims against him – that Riddell took bribes of usually $10,000 from rich parents to fly to cities such as Vancouver, Houston and Los Angeles and take ACT or SAT tests for their children to artificially boost their scores.

Prosecutors say he was paid to take exams 25 times, and that it was part of a larger scheme, led by ringleader Rick Singer, to help students get into some of the nation's finest colleges and universities. 

"No, your honor, I do not," Riddell said when asked by the judge whether he disagrees with any of the charges Rosen described. 

More: The 'really smart guy' who aced SATs for rich students: 'I will always regret' the scandal

Mark Riddell arrives for a court hearing at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on April 12, 2019.

Riddell, a Harvard University graduate who majored in biological sciences, faces maximum penalties of up to 20 years in prison, supervision for three years and a fine of $250,000. But prosecutors have recommended that his jail time and fees be at the "low end" of the sentencing ranges because of his guilty plea.

It would mean between 33 months and 41 months of prison time, but that won't be decided by the judge until a July 18 sentence hearing. 

Riddell would also have to forfeit $239,449 that he made from the scheme, under the recommendations of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts. He would not be able to be released on parole. 

When asked by the judge if he understood the consequences of his guilty plea, he replied, "I do, your honor." 

Riddell, who resides in Palmetto, Florida, and his attorney Ben Stechschulte declined to comment as they were swarmed by a horde of media members leaving court on the way to their vehicle. 

Riddell joins other main participants in the alleged college admissions scheme who have pleaded guilty to charges. They include Singer, the alleged middleman who accepted bribes from parents through a sham college counseling organization, and former Yale women's soccer coach Rudy Meredith, whose cooperation with prosecutors is seen as the key domino that helped open the case for the FBI.

Earlier this week, 13 parents, including actress Felicity Huffman, agreed to plead guilty to bribery and other forms of fraud to get their kids into elite colleges and universities.

More: Felicity Huffman pleads guilty in college admissions cheating scam; 'I am ashamed,' she says

Prosecutors say Riddell, a counselor at the prominent athletics-focused boarding school IMG Academy for the past decade, sometimes took the tests for the students himself and in other instances corrected their answers. They say the scheme lasted from 2011 to February. 

A former soccer player at Harvard University, Riddell not only had the ability to ace the exams, prosecutors say, but he could also achieve an appropriate score that would not raise the suspicion of the test companies.

Rosen, the assistant U.S. attorney, told the judge that Riddell first accepted cash payments from Singer to carry out the test-cheating scheme. Later, he accepted checks.

He said Rosen's participation began by taking the test of student at a private school in Miami before later flying to Vancouver to take the test for the son of businessman David Sidoo. He used a fake ID to take the ACT for Sidoo's son and received nearly a perfect score. The son was later accepted to the University of California-Berkeley. 

Riddell would go on, Rosen said, to secretly take tests in Texas and California in addition to Florida.

He would sometimes take the tests at hotels, prosecutors say, and return the completed exams to one of two test administrators – one from Houston, the other Los Angeles, who are also defendants in the case. Both were allegedly paid off to accept the falsified tests.

"At times, the students were in on it," Rosen said. 

On one occasion, he said, Riddell and one of the daughters of Manuel and Elizabeth Henriquez "celebrated" in a car on the way back to Riddell's hotel in San Francisco after he had helped her cheat on a test.

A poster containing a photo of William "Rick" Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network, is displayed during a news conference Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Boston, where indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal were announced.

More: Ex-Yale coach pleads guilty for soliciting almost $1 million in bribes in college admissions scandal

Parents involved in the cheating scheme would make donations to Singer's college counseling organization. Singer then funneled money to Riddell, they say. To facilitate the cheating, prosecutors say Singer often counseled parents to seek extended time on the children's SAT or ACT exams by having their children pretend to have learning disabilities.

In addition to the test-cheating allegations, prosecutors say other parents accused in the conspiracy allegedly paid Singer to bribe college coaches in exchange for classifying their child as an athlete on their team as a way get them admitted into a school.

In his public apology in March after being arrested, Riddell said he understands how his actions "contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process" and that he accepts "full responsibility for what I have done."

But he sought to clarify that he "absolutely, unequivocally never bribed anyone," rejecting an assertion that he claims has has risen in media coverage. The Justice Department has not accused him of bribery, but rather accepting the payments.

"I will always regret the choices I made, but I also believe that the more than one thousand students I legitimately counseled, inspired, and helped reach their goals in my career will paint a more complete picture of the person I truly am," Riddell said last month. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mark Riddell, test-taker ace in college admissions cheating case, pleads guilty in court