First published in the Sept. 2 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
It’s a subject that has reverberated throughout the nation, and it made for a detailed presentation during a recent meeting of the Rotary Club of San Marino.
It has several names — Operation Varsity Blues, the college admissions cheating scandal — but many people might be just as familiar with the name Rick Singer and his ploy to gain college admissions for applicants through illegal methods.
Nicole LaPorte, a Los Angeles-based writer whose book “Guilty Admissions” chronicles the scandal, told Rotarians how Singer preyed on the desperation of some of the country’s wealthiest families. She depicted such people as living in a world defined by fierce competition and facing constant pressure to get their children into the “right” schools — starting with preschool — and nonstop fundraising and donation demands in the form of multimillion-dollar galas and private parties. She spoke of “deeply insecure” parents who would do anything to get their kids into name-brand colleges to maintain their A-list status.
LaPorte was invited to speak at the meeting, which was held in the Fellowship Room of San Marino Community Church, by Chris Norgaard, a former four-term school board member and friend of LaPorte. He accompanied the author and facilitated the interview-style presentation.
LaPorte said Singer began his career in the 1990s, with access to “one-percenters” to whom he was presented as “the guy who knew everything.” As the CEO and “master coach” of a large college counseling firm, Singer once claimed he was able to get 1.5 million kids into their first- or second-choice colleges.
“He’s a liar,” LaPorte said bluntly, as the audience erupted in laughter. “People who knew him back when he was as young as 8 years old said he was a liar.”
She then explained what she called Singer’s “two-pronged attack” to get kids into the college of their choice.
“He would take a kid and present him as an athlete,” she said. “Coaches have walk-on slots that they need to round out the team. The water polo team at USC can have as many as 50 kids.” The students would use the walk-on spots to gain admission and were expected to give donations to the sport.
Singer also had a cadre of individuals who arranged for phony standardized tests, to the extent that he arranged for others to take the tests in place of the students, LaPorte said.
“As this whole scandal was exposed it became apparent there was very little fact-checking, even within the admissions department” of various schools, said LaPorte. “It was very ‘church and state.’ If the coach said that a kid was good, they would take him. The people in admissions would say, ‘I’m in admissions. I don’t know if this kid is any good.’ It all just sailed through.”
“After a parent gets a kid in, the first thing they are asked [by Singer] is to make a donation,” explained LaPorte. “Education has become a culture of giving. Singer understood that. Singer knew the culture, he knew the language, and he knew the world they were operating in. He knew the game. If you want to go to USC, you are going to give a donation to USC.”
LaPorte said Singer “was never in doubt and never expressed doubt. He would say, ‘I will get your kid into this school … provided you give me enough money.’”
LaPorte said the ruse worked at USC, UCLA, Stanford University and Georgetown University, among others. She said that authorities’ investigation unearthed 50 parents and 10 coaches and that a reported $25 million changed hands in the scam.
“Those are the ones who have been caught,” LaPorte said. “There are many more he worked with, but those are the ones who were caught on tape.”
Among those arrested were actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and the latter’s husband, Mossimo Giannulli.
LaPorte said that many took joy when the celebrities were arrested.
“This case fed into the ‘There they are again. The rich getting what they want,’” said LaPorte.
On March 12, 2019, Singer pleaded guilty to four criminal charges involving racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, and obstruction of justice.
Huffman formally pleaded guilty to honest services fraud, which involved hiring someone to take SAT tests under her daughter’s name. On Sept. 13, 2019, she was sentenced to 14 days in jail and one year of supervised release, fined $30,000 and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service.
Loughlin was sentenced to two months in prison, two years of supervised release, a $150,000 fine and 100 hours of community service
LaPorte previously was a columnist for the New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek and Variety. She is the author of “The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Movies, Moguls, and a Company Called DreamWorks.”