One of the most scandalous true crime stories of 2019 may have been devoid of the blood and tragedy that marks most crime cases, but it still left the nation as shocked as it was outraged. Fifty-three people — including coaches, parents, and higher education administrators — were accused of participating in a scheme to get children into elite colleges using crooked methods like bribery and cheating on tests. Celebrities like "Full House" star Lori Loughlin and actress Felicity Huffman would eventually plead guilty to paying thousands of dollars to the mastermind behind the scam, college admissions consultant Rick Singer.
"I keep asking myself why I did this," Huffman wrote her judge before her sentencing, according to "American Greed: Biggest Cons," premiering Monday, July 20 at 10/9c on CNBC.
It's a sentiment most would agree with. After all, the very essence of the college admissions scandal, which took spots away from deserving students and gave them to rich kids, betrays a deeply held American value: that regardless of financial background, everyone has the opportunity to succeed if they work hard.
So, how did Singer even get this scam off the ground in the first place?
For someone who claimed he could get a student into their dream school, Singer wasn't exactly a star in his own school days in Illinois. Gerald Turry, the Niles West High School Dean of Students when Singer attended high school there, conceded Singer was a memorable presence but not because of athletic prowess or academic brilliance: "He was always looking for a shortcut, an angle, a way to make something happen in his favor," Turry told "American Greed."
Singer would leave Illinois behind for Trinity University in San Antonio, where he played football and baseball and received a degree in physical education. Life after university didn't exactly go well, though: He soon lost two high school coaching jobs in Texas and California, according to "American Greed." But Singer soon realized he could succeed as a different kind of coach.
So Singer moved to Sacramento in the '90s and founded The Key. His first internet videos, as shown on "American Greed," described him as an "admissions guru" offering all kinds of services to help students get into college, including test preparation, help with student essays, and basic coaching for $5,000 a year starting in the ninth grade.
“My key method unlocks the full potential of your son or daughter," he promised in the videos, while also spouting aphorisms like, “The Key to being a great student is mastering your work.”
Alexandra Bering, an early client, said she worked with Singer in 1997 or 1998 when she was in high school. She described the experience as being a fairly affordable one, and that he would help her keep organized, write her essays, and study for the SATs.
"He seemed pretty tightly wound or intense. ... I don’t remember him laughing. … he always wore athletic wear – he dressed like a coach," she told "American Greed."
Singer was tapping into a market that was underserved at the time, helping ease anxious parents who were determined to get their children into good schools and have all the tools necessary for success. Singer promised results.
"Rick Singer was the first person Sacramento had seen who presented himself as an education consultant. We had never heard of that profession," educational consultant Margie Amott told "American Greed."
It wasn't clear how much money Singer was actually making: he told the Sacramento Business Journal in 2005 his business cleared $1 million in 2004. At the time, the website for his business claimed he had 40,000 clients in 21 foreign countries. He didn't just make money by direct coaching: He wrote two books about getting into college and had a self-help video series. He also started a charity that purported to "help underserved youth" called the Key Worldwide Foundation.
By 2012, he'd left Sacramento behind for a far more lucrative market with wealthier parents: Newport Beach, where he bought a $1.5 million dollar home. But as Amott speculated in "American Greed," he may have had another reason to leave Sacramento: Rumors of his unscrupulous business practices were starting to surface; Amott claimed to have heard Singer completed a boy's college application for him and filled it with lies, for example.
But that didn't stop Singer from expanding the scope of his business. As he started telling parents, there was a front door to get into college – good grades, athletic pursuits, hard work – and a back door: massive financial donations to the school. And then, there was what he offered: a side door, according to "American Greed."
The side door offered a few different options for entry. A parent could have their child take their SATs at a testing center where Singer paid a proctor to fix the child's SAT answers for them, guaranteeing them a high score; they could pass their child off as an athletic recruit by having Singer pay off coaches to advertise the student as a dazzling athlete in sports like water polo and crew. (Then, once at the school, the student would simply have to fake an injury or illness to get out of competing in the sport they were very clearly not qualified to play).
Cheating on the tests cost thousands, while the effort it took to fraudulently recruit a child could cost a parent hundreds of thousands of dollars. Still, many took Singer up on it — and to avoid suspicion, they paid Singer by donating to his "charity," meaning their illegal activities became a tax write-off.
Of course, Singer was eventually caught, and proved he was just as disloyal as he was dishonest. He gave the feds all the information he had and even went undercover for them: Singer called parents who participated in the scam and told them he was being audited. He asked if they would be willing to lie for him and maintain the money they gave to his charity was a rightful donation. As "American Greed" shows, parent after parent confirmed yes, they would lie for him.
Singer pleaded guilty to four charges in March 2019: racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud U.S., and obstruction of justice, according to USA Today. He has yet to be sentenced. Many other participants, like Huffman and Loughlin, have already been sentenced to prison time.
For more info on how Singer's scam came crashing down, audio recordings of parents conspiring to get their children into school, and interviews with people intimately involved in the case, watch "American Greed: Biggest Cons," which airs on CNBC on Mondays at 10/9c.
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