As they were about to head off to college, the Niles West High School Class of 1978 listed their accomplishments, goals and aspirations in the yearbook.
“SINGER, RICK W.: Football 1, 2, 3, 4; Baseball 1; Letters. I would most like to be remembered for the outstanding personality I have been given, and being able to get along with others,” wrote the senior from Lincolnwood, Illinois.
Rick Singer would be remembered for neither.
Four decades later, the big-haired kid would make national headlines as the ringleader of the largest college admissions cheating and bribery scandal in American history – pleading guilty to charges of racketeering, money laundering, fraud and obstruction.
Only Rick Singer knows exactly when and why he decided to take his college counseling business and turn it into a criminal enterprise.
By the time he began bribing college coaches and test proctors to falsify athletic credentials and inflate test scores, Singer had been lying about his own resume and business dealings for years. It may be, as he has said, that he felt tremendous pressure from “absolutely crazed” parents.
He had studied the college admissions process for two decades, and saw how it could be exploited. And he saw that process as corrupt.
As wealthy parents of students were donating millions to ensure college admissions through the back door, he said his “side door” process was no worse and much cheaper. Everyone’s doing it, he told parents and coaches as he recruited them into his schemes.
Through dozens of interviews over three months, newspaper clippings and hundreds of pages of court documents and public records, USA TODAY has assembled the most complete portrait of a hard-charging and charismatic coach and counselor turned convicted felon.
Friends, classmates, relatives, co-workers and students all said they had no idea what he was doing. But in retrospect, they say, the charges against Singer help fill in the missing piece. “So that’s what he was up to,” Rebekah Hendershot, co-author of his two books on getting into college, told USA TODAY the day he pleaded guilty.
Fraud examiners say there are often three factors that lead to fraud: pressure, opportunity and rationalization. Singer had all three.
“Everybody has a con,” said Joel Margulies, Singer’s business associate and a friend of 25 years. “It’s just a question of whether you get caught at it.”
‘Big hair and a big personality’
William Singer was born in Santa Monica, California, in 1960. As a child, he went by “Ricky,” and by the time he was an adult he was simply “Rick,” relegating William to his middle name except on the most formal legal documents.
His parents had a short marriage; Ricky was the older of two siblings. His mother remarried when Ricky was 8. His father moved away and adopted a new family – including a step brother who would end up playing a role in some of his later business ventures. His father died at age 48.
Singer grew up in Lincolnwood, a North Side suburb of Chicago that was in the middle of a population boom after construction of a nearby expressway.
Even in Little League, Ricky was known for his competitiveness. As a batter, he led the league in home runs. As a hard-throwing pitcher, he led the league in hit batsmen.
“He was a great teammate, a dependable friend … and a guy you’d much rather have on your team than have to bat against,” said teammate Paul Sucherman, now a pianist and college music teacher in Wisconsin.
“Big hair and a big personality,” said classmate William Goren. He remembers a stocky, perhaps insecure kid in junior high who went through a transformation by the time he got to high school: more athletic, more confident, more outgoing.
At Niles West in neighboring Skokie, Singer lettered in football and baseball. It was a tumultuous time in Skokie: At the end of Singer’s senior year in high school, Holocaust remembrance groups held memorials at Niles West. That summer, state police and the Illinois National Guard took over the school as a command post for a planned Nazi march in the predominately Jewish neighborhood.
‘The Chicago strategist’
Singer eventually made his living helping high school kids figure out where to go to college. But as an 18- and 19-year old, it took him a while to figure out his own path.
There were some lost years after high school, but at some point he moved to Dallas, where his father lived. He attended Brookhaven College, a public junior college in Dallas, and later transferred to Our Lady of the Lake, a four-year Catholic university in San Antonio, where he played basketball on a scholarship.
The Saints played in the small-college NAIA – a level below NCAA athletics. His tenure there was unremarkable, but the scholarship gave him his a taste of coaching, allowing him to assist the varsity women’s basketball and softball teams.
In 1983, as a 22-year-old sophomore, he transferred again – this time across town to Trinity University, a non-denominational private university.
Trinity was in a time of transition: from an NCAA Division I college to the smaller-school Division III; from a “country club” college to a more academically rigorous university; and from a largely commuter college to a more residential campus. All provided opportunities for Singer.
Singer had aspirations to coach at the high school or college level, and Trinity allowed him to play on the varsity basketball and baseball teams. He declared physical education as his major.
“I feel that I had a tremendous amount of coaching in my playing days. I’ve seen the good parts and the bad parts. I think I could do a credible job with kids,” he told the student newspaper, the Trinitonian.
“I like to communicate with people, and I’m definitely a person who works hard on my own skills. I think that makes it easier for me to teach,” he said. “If things come really easy for you then it’s sometimes hard for you to teach someone else who isn’t as good.”
Coaching doesn’t pay very well, he said, but would be more personally rewarding. “Other guys may have more talent, but I’ve got a lot of heart,” Singer said. “I don’t like to lose.”
By his own admission, Singer was “definitely not a tremendous player” on the baseball team, where he played shortstop. As a point guard in basketball, he was better known for throwing elbows than scoring baskets.
At Trinity, he forged his reputation on the intramural flag football fields.
Flag football often upstaged intercollegiate athletics as the biggest sport at Trinity. “There were some guys who even quit the varsity football team to play. It was really that competitive,” said Grant Scheiner, a Trinitonian sportswriter.
For eight years before Singer arrived, fraternities dominated the league. But in 1985, Singer assembled a group of guys from the dorms and surprised everyone – especially Scheiner – by taking them to the championship.
The collection of oddballs and misfits self-mockingly named their team simply “Etc.” “We took a bunch of independent guys and beat the pants off of the frat brothers,” Singer said in his college yearbook.
You’d have thought he won the Super Bowl: “Through our hard work, dedication, and willingness to compete under difficult circumstances, we captured the greatest title at Trinity University,” he said.
Like any sportswriter would, Scheiner appreciated Singer for his perfectly crafted soundbites. Singer had studied the legendary, chair-throwing Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight and did a pretty good impression.
Scheiner dubbed the quarterback “the Chicago strategist.”
“He understood personal branding,” Schneider said. “I would not say that Rick was a book-smart guy. I thought he was a street-smart guy who thought a lot about image and the value of it and how to enhance it.”
But his ultra-competitive streak also made him a lightning rod on campus. “I actually liked Rick Singer,” he said. “Not everyone shared that opinion.”
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By the time Singer arrived in California in 1985 to coach basketball two years later, he had what seemed to be an impressive resume. But it wasn’t all true.
Singer told a California sports columnist he was a four-sport standout at Texas A&M University, when he was really an average player in two sports at a much smaller school.
He said he coached basketball at MacArthur High School for two years. It was only one. He wasn’t the head coach; he was an assistant. And he said he took the team to the state playoffs twice. He didn’t.
“I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t like the guy,” said Lee Stubbs, who fired Singer when he became the MacArthur basketball coach in 1988, in a recent interview with the San Antonio Express-News. “There was something about him. He was arrogant and opinionated, and I’d heard he’d had a run-in with several of the players that I’d been coaching.”
Singer told a different story.
“I felt I couldn’t do any more in San Antonio,” he told Jeff Caraska, a columnist for the Auburn (Calif.) Journal, in 1988. “I wanted to get to know the athletes on the West Coast.”
In hindsight, Caraska said he should have been more skeptical.
“There weren’t many high school kids who were playing four sports by then, much less at a Division I college. People had begun to specialize. That should have rung a bell,” he said. “This was, what, a decade before Google? I’m not making excuses, but that was journalism in those days.”
Caraska remembers the head basketball coach at Sierra College, a junior college outside Sacramento, pitching him a story on Singer. “He was a new assistant, and he’s a real go-getter and yadda yadda yadda,” he said.
But he also remembers Singer for something else: a side business.
“He started this service of trying to get kids scholarships,” he said. “He was selling the idea to parents that ‘I can get your kid’s name out there and increase their chances of getting a Division I or Division II scholarship.” He’s help put together profiles of student athletes and even take video that he could send to college coaches and recruiters.
“No one was doing that back then, at least around here. And parents were pretty excited about it,” Caraska said.
Ever the competitor, Singer sought out any technical advancement that could give his team an edge. At Sierra, he worked to implement a sports vision program that used strobe lights and buzzers to train athletes to improve their reaction times.
Singer juggled college duty with a job as head basketball and baseball coach at a high school half an hour away. “It’s hectic, but I love it,” he told Caraska in January 1988.
Three weeks later, the high school fired him. No official reason was given, but the school’s principal told the team that Singer was vulgar and abusive. Parents and spectators had complained about “feverish sideline antics and abusive manner toward officials.”
The players, though, took Singer’s side. They voted 10-0 to boycott their first game after Singer was fired.
“We feel very strong about this,” team captain Willie Martin told The Sacramento Bee at the time. “The only way he could get through to us was by yelling. And occasionally he cussed, but so does every other coach you see. Singer was the best thing we’ve ever had.”
Sunday morning quarterbacking
Singer rebounded, getting a job in 1989 at Sacramento State, a Division I school. He got married. He bought a house. He earned a master’s degree. A few years later, a son was born.
Soon he established a company called Future Stars to do private college counseling for student athletes. Singer enjoyed working with kids but told people he didn’t like running the business. So he sold it and went to work in a number of call center management jobs.
That’s when Margulies met him, beginning a 25-year friendship that continues to this day. At the time they worked for different companies but had the same client.
Singer quit his call center job and went back into the college counseling business. His second company, called The CollegeSource LLC, was started in 2002.
A large part of Singer’s business was working with small, private schools that didn’t have their own in-house college counselors. One was the University of Miami Online High School, a joint venture with the Sagemont School, a college prep school in Weston, Florida.
Neither the university nor Sagemont would discuss Singer’s role, but Singer claimed to have an ownership interest in the school. Later, when one prospective business partner asked him how a college tutoring business was so lucrative, Singer said he had sold his interest in the school to Kaplan Inc. for $100 million in 2007. “Now that I think about it, I wonder if any of that was true,” said the California businessman, who did not want to be identified because he didn’t want to be publicly associated with Singer.
Kaplan announced the acquisition at the time but did not disclose the sale price.
Singer also claimed to have invested in another online high school, the Laurel Springs School, and “helped it grow exponentially both from an enrollment and a college acceptance perspective.”
“He was never an owner of us at all. He was a vendor of ours 10-plus years ago,” said Julie McGovern, the school’s director of marketing. “Before we had a college counseling department, he worked with some of our students, but it was completely outside of Laurel Springs.”
That same year, Singer launched the Edge College and Career Network Inc. Singer called it simply “The Key.” Prosecutors call it a racketeering enterprise.
But even as it arranged bribes for well-connected parents of college-bound high school students, The Key also performed what appeared to be legitimate college counseling services.
One person Singer called on to help was his friend from his call center days. Margulies had an interest in psychometric analysis, which uses a battery of tests to determine someone’s ideal job based on their personality and interests. “I owe him a number of favors, and when he called up and said he needed someone to evaluate a student, I would,” he said.
In an exclusive hour-long interview with USA TODAY, Margulies said he knew nothing about Singer’s criminal activity. And while he doesn’t take the prosecution’s case at face value – Margulies has had his own run-in with federal prosecutors, facing unrelated securities fraud charges – he acknowledged that Singer has pleaded guilty to the charges.
“None of the people who were involved in the wholesome side (of his business) knew anything about the dark side,” he said. “I had nothing to do with celebrities, and I don’t have any children.”
But Margulies said he can see how demanding parents, incorrigible children and a corrupt admissions system would push Singer to extreme measures. “If you look behind a kid who says it doesn’t matter, you’ll find a parent who thinks it’s life-and-death,” he said. “I have no idea why he flipped. I can only tell you that he would be under a significant amount of pressure from the parents.”
Singer himself described that pressure as “unbelievable.” And he said felt that pressure most on Sunday mornings. “Saturday night is an amazing night. Why? Because Mom and Dad go to a dinner party. They hear about every kid who’s getting into this school, doing this summer program,” Singer said in an audition video he submitted to a television reality show in 2010. The video was obtained by the online gossip site TMZ.
“Sunday morning, my phone rings off the hook. They’re out of control,” he said. “I’m the mom’s coach, I’m the dad’s coach. I’m the grandparent’s coach who calls me and says, ‘Tell her to go to this place.'”
Singer was cynical about the higher education system, Margulies said.
“Do you know how colleges select which students they accept? It’s a room full of people going through document piles,” Margulies said. “It is the most inhumane, unintelligible version of discovery you can imagine.”
And so, he said, students, parents and college counselors figure out how to game the system.
A connection at Georgetown
It’s not clear exactly when Singer’s college counseling service first cheated. But in a 204-page FBI affidavit laying out the scope of Singer’s scam, the first allegation of bribery comes in 2008, less than two months after The Key was incorporated.
“I spoke to my connection at Georgetown and he will work with us. He helped me get two girls in last week,” Singer emailed to Douglas Hodge, then an executive at Pacific Investment Management Co., or PIMCO, and the father of a college-bound girl.
That Georgetown connection was tennis coach Gordon Ernst. He’s accused of taking $2.7 million in bribes – all orchestrated by Singer – to put students with shaky or non-existent tennis experience on his team to secure their place at the prestigious Catholic university. This became Singer’s “side door” of college admissions.
Hodge, who later become CEO of the $1.6 trillion asset management company, proved to be a valuable connection. He served on the board of trustees at two private high schools: the Sage Hill School in Newport Beach and the Thacher School in Ojai, California.
Singer often networked with private school board members to recruit new clients; Michelle Janevs, the Hot Pocket heiress who’s also charged in the scam, served with Hodge on the Sage Hill board until they were both removed following their indictments.
Ernst, Hodge and Janevs have all pleaded not guilty.
Through Hodge and others, Singer got access to PIMCO employees through speaking engagements. The Wall Street Journal reported that Singer gave at least two talks at the company, in 2008 and 2015. PIMCO has hired an outside lawyer to investigate just how deep Singer’s ties with the firm go.
It wasn’t just PIMCO. Singer touted connections at Morgan Stanley, Oppenheimer Financial and UBS, which he said used The Key “for both private wealth management clients and employees.”
On the corporate speaker circuit, Singer often suggested that there were “other strategies” to getting into college, but he didn’t elaborate. But when dealing with desperate parents, he would casually mention his “side door” as if everyone was doing it.
By the time he was arrested a decade later, Singer boasted that he had helped nearly 800 students get into college that way, and none had ever been caught.
Just as Singer networked with wealthy Los Angeles families to get more clients, he networked with coaches to find expand his network of side-door colleges. The FBI says Singer sought to earn the confidence of new coaches in much the same way: by making clear that others were already doing it.
“We’ve done it everywhere,” Singer told Yale soccer coach Rudy Meredith in a phone call last year recorded by the FBI. At the time, Meredith – not Singer – was the target of an FBI investigation.
Singer told Meredith of seven elite schools where he said coaches would take bribes. “Okay, see that might, yeah it definitely would make them feel more comfortable with all those places,” Meredith said.
“Absolutely,” Singer said. “But it’s all – it’s different programs at every school.”
It wasn’t just Meredith. Former USC women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin directed one of Singer’s clients to Jorge Salcedo, the men’s coach at UCLA. Martin Fox, president of a tennis academy in Houston, connected Singer with former Texas tennis coach Michael Center.
They’ve all been charged in the case. Center has already pleaded guilty, and Khosroshahin has agreed to a plea deal. Salcedo and Fox have pleaded not guilty.
Singer didn’t always wait for an introduction. John Vandemoer, a sailing coach at Stanford University who was sentenced to home supervision last week for his role in the scheme, told the Wall Street Journal that Singer called him on his cell phone out of the blue. Singer told Vandemoer he had worked with coaches in other sports and wanted to do the same for sailing. “He was really engaging, seemed very interested in me,” Vandemoer said.
There were few sports Singer wouldn’t use to falsify a student’s athletic profile, but lower-profile sports were best: soccer, tennis, lacrosse, volleyball, swimming, water polo or track and field. Basketball could work, but only for women, and even football if it was a specialty position like kicker or punter.
Singer would often have an accomplice use Photoshop to put a student’s face on another athlete’s body and submit the doctored photos to an admissions committee. Rowing was an especially easy sport to fake. All it took was a student’s photo on an indoor rowing machine.
That’s how Lori Loughlin’s two daughters got into the University of Southern California, according to prosecutors. They accuse the Full House actress and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, of paying $500,000 in bribes to Singer and USC officials to get their daughters in via the crew team – despite the fact that neither participated in the sport.
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By 2011, Singer was using another variation of this scam: He recruited and paid test proctors either to take tests for his client students or to change their answers after the fact. He charged less for this service – about $10,000 – partly because test scores alone were no guarantee of admission. With the athletic angle, Singer could buy and sell slots at will.
This is the variation used by actress Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives fame. She has pleaded guilty to fraud for paying Singer $15,000 to have a proctor take the SAT on behalf of her older daughter in 2017.
To make it work, Singer needed to “control the test room.” And that meant having the parents obtain a diagnosis of a learning disability in order to get permission for her to take the test over two days outside school. “Hurray! She got it!” Huffman emailed to Singer when the accommodation was approved.