The US college admissions scam toolkit: bribes, fake profiles and playing 'stupid’

Adam Gabbatt in New York

The years-long, $25m scheme to pump the children of dozens of wealthy Americans into elite schools, revealed on Tuesday, alternated between the elaborate and the almost comically basic.

Beginning in 2011 William “Rick” Singer, who the FBI has charged with racketeering, would variously photoshop the faces of non-athletic, but wealthy, students on to the heads of actual athletes he had found on the internet, and have the director of a private college preparatory school stand in for other students in SAT tests.

Related: Felicity Huffman among dozens charged over admissions fraud at top US schools

In one case, Singer told a parent that his daughter should “be stupid” when she was evaluated by a psychologist in order to get extra time in her exams, and presented one boy as “an elite high school pole vaulter”. The boy’s school had no record of him ever having pole vaulted, or taken part in any track and field events.

Singer pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges including racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice, but it is the parents named in the long-running scam who have attracted much of the attention.

Thirty-three parents, including Hollywood actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged with fraud after paying tens of thousands of dollars to get their children into some of the best schools in the country, including Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California.

The 204-page court filing makes it clear they knew what they were paying for.

Stanford University in California, one of the universities named in the case.

Stanford University in California, one of the universities named in the case. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Loughlin and her husband, clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000, according to the filing, to have their two daughters designated as recruits to the University of Southern California crew, or rowing, team, despite the fact they were not rowers.

To aid the ruse Giannulli and Loughlin sent Singer a photograph of one of their daughters on an indoor rowing machine. Singer then presented the daughter as a high level sportswoman to USC administrators, who approved her as an athletic recruit.

It was a technique Singer would use over and over, allegedly bribing college sports coaches to overlook the students’ lack of athletic ability to help his scheme.

Related: How did the US college admissions scheme work and who was charged?

In one case Elizabeth Kimmel, who is listed as owning a media company, allegedly paid for her son to be presented “as an elite high school pole vaulter” using a photograph of a different individual, apparently pulled from the internet. Singer used the picture to put together an admissions package for USC, touting Kimmel’s son’s sporting ability, and he was admitted to the school.

According to the lawsuit: “The high school attended by Kimmel’s son has no record that he ever participated in pole vaulting or track and field.”

Other children were presented as national level tennis players, or excellent soccer players. Singer put together athletic profiles listing achievements that never happened, and trophies that were never won, to send to universities.

Georgetown University in Washington DC was also named in the case.

Georgetown University in Washington DC was also named in the case. Photograph: Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images

“I’m gonna make him a kicker,” Singer told William McGlashan, an executive at a global private equity firm. He was talking about McGlashan’s son, who Singer intended to get into the University of Southern California by pretending he was a football star.

Singer said he would use “photoshop and stuff” to create a fake athletics profile for the son, who was not a football kicker.

“He does have really strong legs,” McGlashan replied.

The forging of athletic heroism was just one tool in Singer’s kit.

He offered a second, more complicated service where children’s grades would be artificially inflated. According to the court filing, Singer would have the children “purport to have learning disabilities”.

This would allow the students extended time to take their exams, and allow them to sit the exams at “an individualized setting”.

Singer would then arrange for the children to take their exams at one of two exam centers where he had bribed test administrators. At the center a hired tutor would either take the test on the child’s behalf – the filing details how one parent sent Singer an example of their child’s handwriting so the stand-in could attempt to write in their style – or doctor their answers once they were done.

Related: YouTuber Olivia Jade caught up in US college admissions scandal

In the transcript of a phone call presented by the FBI Singer is seen advising Gordon Caplan, a Connecticut-based attorney, on how to get the extended time needed for the ruse to work. Singer told Caplan his daughter needed to “to be stupid” when a psychologist examined her for learning disabilities.

“The goal is to be slow, to be not as bright, all that,” Singer said.

Apparently the daughter wasn’t slow enough. According to the FBI she was denied the extended time request twice before it was finally granted.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The transcript of the Caplan-Singer call demonstrates how specific parents were when requesting certain exam scores. Caplan told Singer his daughter’s highest score so far on a Logic Prep test was 22.

“The score we’re hoping for her is, we’re really hoping for, is a 32,” Caplan told Singer in December last year, after agreeing to pay $75,000.

“I think that’s fine,” Singer said.

In Huffman’s case, she and her husband paid $15,000 for their oldest daughter to take part in the scheme. Huffman’s daughter was granted the extended time to take her SAT exams and went to one of Singer’s centers, where her answers were doctored.

As recently as 13 February 2019 Huffman was still in negotiations with Singer about her younger daughter potentially taking part in the cheating scheme in May. The FBI said Huffman ultimately decided not to go through with it.