A high school student might get into a top university based on their test scores and abilities. Or maybe their parents' hefty donation could cause an admissions officer to take a second look.
But for families looking for a sure thing, 58-year-old Rick Singer offered a criminal solution. Over seven years, the entrepreneurial life coach took an estimated $25 million from anxious parents, recording much of it as tax-deductible donations to his charity while actually funneling it toward bribes, authorities say.
The kids got in. Parents sang his praises. And on Tuesday, federal prosecutors revealed what had become a nationwide conspiracy. Fifty people, including TV stars like Full House actor Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives, as well as university coaches, were accused of crimes related to the scheme. Singer pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy to commit fraud, and obstruction of justice. Court documents revealed that he cooperated with the investigation once confronted by the FBI in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.
Here's how he scammed the college admissions system:
Singer founded The Key, a life coaching and college counseling business that advertised services such as test preparation and setting up campus visits. His website touted his experience mentoring clients from "the world's most respected families."
But in a June 2018 phone call that was wiretapped by the FBI, Singer explained the true service he provided.
"What we do is we help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school," he said. "They want guarantees, they want this thing done. They don’t want to be messing around with this thing."
He added that traditionally, there was the front door of admissions: merit and academics. A large donation to a school could also get students in via a backdoor, but Singer stressed, there was no guarantee. He offered what he called a side door. He'd ensure entry into a student's top-choice school, and parents would pay him.
"It’s the home run of home runs," Singer said in one conversation with a father.
"And it works?" the father asked.
"Every time," Singer said, laughing.
The California life coach claimed to have gotten more than 700 teens into the school of their choice, and prosecutors allege they included Yale University; Stanford University; the University of Texas; the University of Southern California; and the University of California, Los Angeles.
For some students, Singer would boost SAT and ACT scores for a fee of $10,000 to $75,000. According to prosecutors, Huffman paid $15,000 for this service on her oldest daughter's college entrance exam.
Singer typically arranged for students to take the tests at facilities where he had paid off the proctors. They were provided with answers, or their answer sheets were surreptitiously corrected, prosecutors said. In some cases, an employee of Singer's would pose as a student and take the test for them.
Often, the students didn't know their parents had paid for their scores to be manipulated, prosecutors said.
"She’ll think she took it," Singer told one parent. "She’ll feel good about herself."
To hide the payments, Singer asked parents to donate money to his charity, Key Worldwide Foundation. The donation to a 501(c)3 organization provided parents with a tax write-off, Singer said, and it would hide where the money had gone. In exchange for a payment, the foundation provided a letter thanking parents for helping "to move forward with our plans to provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth."
Tax documents show the foundation received $3.7 million in contributions in 2016 alone. Several thousand dollars of its revenue were paid as grants to charitable groups, but the vast majority of money was paid directly to universities, their athletic departments, or individual coaches.
It wasn't charity at all, but bribes, prosecutors said. Singer would arrange payouts to coaches who would in return name his students as recruits. Coaches would then send lists of recruited student-athletes to admissions officers — who had no idea the students in some cases didn't even play the sport they were being recruited for.
According to prosecutors, that arrangement netted former Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernst $2.7 million over several years. Ernst was indicted on Tuesday on conspiracy to commit racketeering. The Key Worldwide Foundation lists him as a paid consultant.
And parents seemed to be happy with the thousands they paid in bribes. On the Key website, Singer posted testimonials attributed to clients, including several who were named by prosecutors on Tuesday.
"Matteo is so excited to be studying Environmental Science at USC. It is a dream come true, and you helped to make that a reality," stated a 2018 message attributed to Devin Sloane.
According to prosecutors, in 2017, Sloane agreed to Singer's pitch of using a "financial side door" to secure his son a spot at USC as a recruit to the water polo team.
Though his son didn't play water polo, Sloane purchased gear and worked with a graphic designer to create what looked like a photo of an aspiring athlete in action, prosecutors said. An employee of Singer's created an athletic profile, prosecutors said, and Sloane was directed to pay $50,000 directly to USC's women's athletics department, as well as $200,000 to the Key Worldwide Foundation.
This is also the side door prosecutors allege Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, took, paying $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters into USC as recruits for the crew team, court documents state.
Marci Palatella also wanted her son to go to USC — so badly that she paid almost $500,000 in 2018 to Singer's foundation, prosecutors said. In exchange, Singer arranged for her son to score 1410 on the SAT, and Palatella also allegedly paid USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel $100,000 to present the teen as a football recruit.
Heinel was fired on Tuesday after also being indicted on a racketeering charge.
In January, Palatella spoke again with Singer, thanking him, prosecutors said.
"It was worth every cent."
Donna Heinel was senior associate athletic director at USC. An earlier version of this post misstated her title.