Patti Demoff awakened Tuesday to news that federal prosecutors had charged celebrities, business owners and other wealthy parents in a Southern California man’s $25 million scheme to cheat to get their children into elite colleges.
One name immediately came to her mind.
"This must be Rick Singer," Demoff said in an interview. "He's such an outlier it could only be him...It should be surprising, but it is not."
For a long time, Demoff, the owner of College Circuit, a college advisement firm that helps families and students prepare for and pick out colleges, had heard talk about Singer and whether he was legitimate.
"I don't believe he is a member of any of our professional organizations," Demoff said. "He's not really a college counselor. He's just a scam artist who says he can get your children into school."
No legitimate college advisor ever says that, Demoff said.
By mid-afteroon, Singer stood before a federal judge in Boston, where he pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said Singer established a for-profit company, Edge College & Career Company, along with a non-profit charity, Key Worldwide Foundation, to perpetrate an elaborate scheme where parents collectively paid millions of dollars during the last eight years to bribe college officials and coaches to enhance student athletic profiles. They also allegedly paid off test companies to hire ringers to take SAT and ACT exams in the place of their children, or to pay proctors to alter test scores.
Besides Singer, more than 40 people were indicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges, including Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman and Full House star Lori Loughlin, parents who allegedly paid bribes to help their children get into school.
"Angry is the right way to be," said Evelyn Alexander, a counselor at Magellan College Counseling in Topanga, discussing the indictments with upset followers in a livestream on Facebook. She said students and parents were correct to be upset that some wealthy people abused the admissions process, using Singer's "side door" to get them into college over others trying to succeed properly.
"It's shameful and horrifying how money can turn people," Alexander said, adding, "These are kids of supremely rich people. The parents obviously knew what they were doing is wrong."
The parents, many of them wealthy business owners, cheated.
"It's insulting to real athletes who are actually working their butts off and going to practice," Alexander said.
On his website, Singer said his business – which he called, "THE KEY" – was a "Private Life Coaching and College Counseling Company" that provided one-on-one support for students "to help them design and ultimately realize a life plan." Located in 81 cities throughout the United States and five foreign counties, the business offered coaching, counseling and mentoring for high school students on the college admissions process.
"As a father myself, I understand the stress the college admissions process can place on the family," Singer said in a video posted to YouTube.
"Getting into the right college will set the trajectory for the rest of your son or daughter's life," Singer said. "Don't leave it to chance. Let a Key coach come alongside you and your family to truly unlock your student’s potential."
Prosecutors said Singer's scheme, along with parents' cash and college coaches' and officials' greed, eliminated any sense of chance. Parents, court documents said, paid Singer $25 million since 2011 to bribe coaches and administrators to designate their children as recruited athletes to bolster their college applications. Among the more than 40 people indicted in the scheme were USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel; former women's soccer coach Ali Khosroshahian; his former assistant coach Laura Janke; water polo coach Jovan Vacic; and Jorge Salcedo, UCLA’s soccer coach.
UCLA immediately put Salcedo on leave. USC fired Heinel and Vacic. According to court documents, some of the allegations involved Singer paying Vavic, Janke, Khosroshahian and Heinel to designate students as recruited athletes. Documents alleged Singer paid $350,000 into accounts for a soccer club controlled by Janke and Khosroshahian; paid $250,000 to Vavic to designate two students as water polo recruits, and sent more than $1.3 million to accounts controlled by Heinel. In exchange, she allegedly helped more than two dozen students gain admission to USC as recruited athletes, even though some did not even play the sport ascribed to them, documents said.
In addition, Singer paid bribes of $10,000 a student to Igor Dvorskiy, director of the West Hollywood College Preparatory School, to administer ACT and SAT tests. In some cases, a suspected ringer took the exams in the students' place. In others, paid off proctors altered the test answers to improve scores.
Reactions from college advisement service organizations was strong. The Higher Education Consultants Association, an organization of educational consultants who assist families with college admissions planning, said Singer was not a member and never could be one.
"All of our members have to apply for membership, vetted for professional credentials and must subscribe to a policy of standards and ethics," the association said in a statement.
Stefanie Miles, president of the National Association of College Admission Counseling and vice president of enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, called the scheme "an unfortunate example of the lengths to which people will go to circumvent and manipulate the college admission process."
Singer maintained two YouTube channels – "Rick Singer" and "The Key Worldwide" – in which he called himself a "master life coach" and lectured on how to get into college. In one video, he said “getting in" has "a lot to do with getting prepared." Singer advised students to take copious notes in class, but not rely on themselves. He advised hiring a tutor.
"Don't be afraid to find other people to help you," Singer said.
In a written testimonial on the Keyworld website, one parent, Marci Palatella, said Singer was "life-changing for all of us." Palatella said Singer's "deep down encouragement" let her son know there was hope for greatness.
"Bottom line is that you believed in him, and that made all the difference," she wrote.
Authorities charged Palatella with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Prosecutors allege the CEO of a liquor distribution company in Burlingame took part in the college entrance exam cheating scheme – her son fraudulently scored, 1,410 – and allegedly conspiring to bribe Heinel to designate her son as a football recruit in order to get him into USC. Janke, also allegedly involved, created a football profile for her son. Palatellia made payments of $75,000 to Keyworld, and a payment of $100,000 to Heinel.
"Our son … is beyond thrilled at the prospect of attending USC as a freshman this fall," she wrote.
In 2018, court documents allege, Palatella wired $400,000 to Keyworld six days after her son was formally accepted.
Another parent, Devin Sloane, also offered an endorsement of Singer’s program. But prosecutors allege he conspired to bribe Heinel to designate his son as a USC water polo recruit. According to the indictment, Sloan allegedly purchased water polo gear, including a cap and ball on Amazon.com, and worked with a graphic designer to Photoshop his son’s body over a background image from a water polo scene.
Prosecutors allege Sloane sent Heinel a $50,000 check payable to USC Women’s Athletics and wired $200,000 to Singer, the documents said.
Alexander called the college scheme "frightening," saying she feared students and families might be afraid to seek out legitimate help.
"This person has tarnished this entire group of people," she said. "Most of us do adhere to ethical standards."
Top Image: Rick Singer of the Key Worldwide Discusses High School Course Selection | Rick Singer/YouTube