By Nate Raymond
BOSTON (Reuters) -The architect of the largest U.S. college admissions fraud scheme ever uncovered was sentenced on Wednesday to 3-1/2 years in prison for helping wealthy parents secure the admission of their children to elite universities through cheating and bribery.
The sentence imposed on former college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer by U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel in Boston marked the longest issued to any of the dozens of people charged in the sprawling “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation.
Singer, 62, admitted in 2019 to facilitating cheating on college entrance exams and funneling money from wealthy parents to corrupt university coaches to secure the admission of their children as fake athletic recruits.
The years-long investigation into the scheme exposed inequalities in higher education and resulted in the conviction of more than 50 people, including actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, two of the many wealthy parents Singer counted as clients.
“It was a scheme that was breathtaking in its scale and audacity,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank said in court. “It has literally become the stuff of books and made-for-TV movies.”
Overall, Singer paid out more than $7 million to bribe coaches and administrators at schools including Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, Yale University and Stanford University.
Singer took in more than $25 million from his clients while running a California-based college admissions counseling service called The Key and a related charity and kept $15 million for his own benefit, prosecutors said.
Zobel ordered him to turn over about $19 million in forfeited assets, money and restitution to the Internal Revenue Service for his failure to pay taxes on the proceeds of his illegal scheme.
Frank argued that Singer deserved an even longer prison sentence of six years, but Zobel questioned whether that request took into account his extensive cooperation with authorities, which helped them unravel his fraud and bring the cases they filed.
Prosecutors acknowledge that Singer’s decision in 2018 to cooperate and allow the FBI to record calls he placed to clients allowed them to prosecute dozens of celebrities, businesspeople and other parents as well as coaches and associates of Singer’s.
Frank, though, said his cooperation was also “problematic,” as he also tried to obstruct it, tipping off six individuals to ensure they avoided incriminating themselves. Prosecutors decided against calling Singer at two trials.
Two wealthy businessmen were convicted in one trial and are appealing, while a judge recently ordered a new trial for a University of Southern California water polo coach, Jovan Vavic, who was convicted of taking bribes.
But while defense lawyer Candice Fields said Singer deserved “greater credit for his cooperation than the government concedes,” Zobel said there was still “no doubt” prison was warranted given the size of the fraud.
“It was a serious business alright, with huge amounts of money, large amounts of dishonesty by various parties, not just you,” Zobel told Singer.
Singer, who now lives in a Florida trailer park, in a court filing said that he lost everything as a result of the scheme. Appearing in court, he apologized to his family, students and the schools to which he had caused “great embarrassment.”
“I lost my ethical values and have so much regret,” he said. “To be frank, I am ashamed of myself.”
U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins (NYSE:) told reporters that while the cases had resulted in widespread reforms in higher education, families were right to be angry about how the admissions system had been corrupted.
“I was never foolish enough to believe it was a meritocracy,” Rollins said. “But I had no idea how corrupt and infected the college admissions process was until this case exposed anything.”