Education

Man accused in college admissions scam worked with hundreds of students in Sacramento area

Neighbor: Folsom woman named in scam ‘sweet,’ ‘good neighbor’ but he heard the cops knocking

Mikaela Sanford was named in an indictment of a Sacramento man in a college admissions scam. Her neighbor described her as a "sweet lady" and a "very good neighbor," and describes the cops knocking on her door on Tuesday, March 12, 2019.
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Mikaela Sanford was named in an indictment of a Sacramento man in a college admissions scam. Her neighbor described her as a "sweet lady" and a "very good neighbor," and describes the cops knocking on her door on Tuesday, March 12, 2019.

The college admissions scandal that national grabbed headlines Tuesday had particular resonance in the Sacramento area, where the man at the center of the alleged bribery scheme started his business and worked with hundreds of students.

As far back as the early 1990s, local families had turned to William Rick Singer for college prep help from his former companies Future Stars and The CollegeSource, according to reports in The Sacramento Bee and the Sacramento Business Journal. Singer moved from the Sacramento area in 2012, according to real estate records.

Singer, 58, now owns The Edge College & Career Network, more commonly known as The Key, a for-profit college counseling business. He was was one of 50 people indicted Tuesday in an alleged scheme to bribe university officers and coaches to gain admission to top universities for children of wealthy elites.

The Sacramento Bee reached out to San Juan Unified, Sacramento City Unified, Elk Grove Unified, Folsom Cordova Unified and several private schools for comment. 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.

While many districts said they weren’t aware of Singer’s program, some schools are looking into learning whether 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 Sacramento 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.

Counselors at Vista del Lago High School in Folsom said Singer’s program ultimately doesn’t benefit students.

“They need to be a right fit for the school,” said Vista College and Career Center Clerk Julie Calderwood. “If you use false documents, you are cramming students where they are not a good fit. It’s such a shame and it does not serve the students.”

Granite Bay High School teacher Karl Grubaugh said Singer’s program was popular among his students about a decade ago, when schools began to place more emphasis on college readiness.

He 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 student letters at all. Instead, he spent one hour pitching his private college coaching service.

“That raised a lot of eyebrows around here,” Grubaugh said.

Grubaugh said he asked his students Tuesday if they were using any of Singer’s services. They responded that while many do use outside college consulting programs, Singer seems to have fallen off the radar locally since his move out of Sacramento, Grubaugh said.

Granite Bay High grad Jordan Holt, who attends the University of Kentucky, said she hired Singer to help her study for the SAT exam in 2014 while she was in high school. Holt said Singer visited her home once a week for study sessions. She said they discussed her goals as a student athlete, and where she wanted to take her soccer career, but she was already well into the recruiting process when she started her SAT prep with Singer.

Holt played Division 1 soccer for two years, and said that as far as she is aware, Singer never contacted her coach. Holt said Singer was not a factor in her deciding to attend University of Kentucky.

“He was always friendly and willing to help whenever he came over,” Holt said. “It’s crazy to think about the damage that was done and that could’ve been done to my career. Luckily, I took the majority of the recruiting process in my own hands.”

California universities mentioned in the indictment include UCLA, Stanford, the University of Southern California and the private University of San Diego.

According to court documents, Singer used bribe money – in the guise of charitable donations – from parents to pay off test administrators to allow another individual to take the college admission exams in place of the student. Parents allegedly paid Singer between $15,000 to $75,000 per test, disguising the funds as a donation to his organization, Key Worldwide Foundation. Test administrators were paid $10,000 per exam, according to the court documents.

Singer sometimes coached parents how to ask for extended time on college admission exams, the SAT and ACT, by pretending their children had learning disabilities, according to the indictment. Students with proper medical documentation and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can request that the College Board and ACT Inc. extend their exam time.

Singer was paid approximately $25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators to falsify information that would identify students as recruitable athletes, court documents said. Some parents paid anywhere between $200,000 to $6.5 million to land a spot at the university of their choice.

Napa Valley vintner Agustin Huneeus was charged with bribing USC athletic director Donna Heinel to secure a spot on the school’s water polo team for his daughter, which ultimately facilitated her admission into the school, according to the Napa Valley Register. The alleged scheme included doctored SAT scores, which were confirmed through an authorized wiretapped phone call, according to court documents.

In 2016 and 2018, a UCLA soccer coach recruited two children of Singers’ clients, and facilitated their admission to the prestigious university, the indictment alleged. Singer moved $100,000 from his charitable account to a sports marketing company controlled by the UCLA men’s soccer coach, Jorge Salcedo, prosecutors claimed.

The U.S. Department of Justice notified UCLA Tuesday morning that Salcedo was being charged, and that UCLA is a potential victim of fraud, school officials said.

Salcedo was placed on leave and will no longer be involved with the soccer team, according to UCLA spokesman Tod Tamberg.

“The conduct alleged in the filings revealed today is deeply disturbing and in contrast with the expectations we have of our coaches to lead their teams with honesty and integrity,” read Tamberg’s statement to The Sacramento Bee. “UCLA is not aware of any current student-athletes who are under suspicion. The University is cooperating with the Department of Justice and will conduct its own review to determine the proper steps to take to address this matter.”

Stanford University fired head sailing coach John Vandemoer for allegedly accepting $270,000 in contributions to the school’s program for facilitating the admission of two students, according to a statement on the university’s website. Stanford said neither of the students ended up attending the school.

“Based on the Department of Justice investigation to date, we have no evidence that the alleged conduct involves anyone else at Stanford or is associated with any other team,” the statement said. “However, we will be undertaking an internal review to confirm that.”

Of the 50 people named in the indictment, 33 were parents, including celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. Also included were two SAT and ACT administrators, one exam proctor, one college administrator and nine coaches at elite schools.

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” said Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, at a news conference Tuesday.

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

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