The FBI dubbed it “Operation Varsity Blues,” a nationwide college admissions bribery and cheating conspiracy that guaranteed students would get into their dream schools, if their parents were willing to pay a hefty price.
But William “Rick” Singer, the California college admissions consultant who orchestrated the scheme, described it as a “concierge service” in a conversation secretly recorded by the FBI and played for jurors Tuesday at the federal trial of two parents accused of paying Singer to get their children into top-tier schools as fake athletic recruits.
“We help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school,” Singer told a New York lawyer who was seeking assistance for his daughter during the June 2018 call. Unaware that the FBI had been tipped to his scheme and tapped his cell phone, Singer boasted that he was the go-to guy for every NBA and NFL team owner and had helped 761 students get into college through the “side door,” a system he had developed for people who “want guarantees.”
Singer told the lawyer he charged $250,000 to $500,000 for his admission scheme, and for an additional $75,000 could have a proctor inflate his daughter’s SAT score. That scheme, he said, was “the home run of home runs.”
Singer’s pitch to a prospective client came on the second day of testimony at the trial of John B. Wilson, 62, of Lynnfield, founder of Hyannis Port Capital, a real estate and private equity firm, and Gamal Abdelaziz, 64, of Las Vegas, a former Wynn Resorts executive. They are accused of conspiring with Singer to commit bribery and fraud.
In US District Court in Boston, FBI special agent Keith Brown testified that he was working on a squad that investigated corporate and securities fraud when a tip led to an investigation of Yale’s soccer coach, Rudolph Meredith, who then led investigators to Singer. After tapping Singer’s cell phone for several months, agents confronted him. He agreed to cooperate, and consensually recorded calls for months, getting parents to incriminate themselves, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors allege that Wilson paid Singer $220,000 in 2014 to have the USC’s water polo coach, Jovan Vavic, designate his son as a recruit; and $1.5 million in 2018 to have his twin daughters admitted to Harvard University and Stanford University as fake sailing recruits. Vavic has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial, while Stanford’s former sailing coach, John Vandemoer, pleaded guilty to conspiring with Singer in exchange for donations to the sailing program.
Yet Singer was already cooperating with the FBI when, as part of a ruse, he told Wilson he had secured his daughter admission to Harvard through a fictitious “senior women’s administrator.”
Abdelaziz, whose company, Legacy Hospitality Group, was involved in the development of the Bellagio resort casino in Las Vegas and the Wynn Palace in Macau, is accused of paying Singer $300,000 in 2018 to have his daughter admitted to USC as a purported basketball recruit.
During opening statements, lawyers for Wilson and Abdelaziz told jurors the men believed their payments were legal donations to the schools.
Singer has pleaded guilty to a litany of charges and is awaiting sentencing, and prosecutors told jurors they don’t plan to call him as a witness.
Instead, Brown identified Singer’s voice on recordings of his conversations with two parents, who have already pleaded guilty in the national scandal.
In the June 2018 call, Singer detailed his schemes to Gordon Caplan, a former partner in a high-powered New York law firm, who was seeking help getting his daughter into college.
In a phone conversation that August, Agustin Huneeus, a Napa Valley vineyard owner, asked Singer how he was going to get his daughter admitted to USC as a water polo recruit since “you understand that [she] is not worthy to be on that team.”
Singer, who was not yet cooperating with prosecutors, claimed that he had been working with Vavic for 12 years and had helped his children get into colleges.
In his second day of testimony, California businessman Bruce Isackson, testified that he paid Singer $600,000 to get his daughters into UCLA and USC as fake athletic recruits and to inflate one daughter’s ACT exam.
Prosecutors played a threatening voicemail Singer left for Isackson’s wife in April 2016, accusing the couple of undermining his efforts to get their daughter into UC Santa Barbara and ruining his reputation by talking to the college’s soccer coach behind his back. He vowed to retaliate against their daughter, who was also applying to college in Miami.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to ruin her reputation in Miami and your family’s reputation . . . because you just screwed me and everything that I do and stand for,” Singer said.
Isackson said he was shocked by the call. He said he had never reached out to UC Santa Barbara’s soccer coach and didn’t know what Singer was talking about.
On cross-examination, Abdelaziz’s lawyer, Brian T. Kelly, asked Isackson why he would continue to meet Singer after that message.
“He threatened you, and yet you still invited him to your home?” Kelly asked.
Isackson said he kept working with Singer because he was convinced he needed his help to get his daughter into a top college.
“He had an intimidating personality,” he said. “It was either his way to do business” or your children weren’t going to get into the colleges of their choice, Isackson said.
Isackson said he had never met Abdelaziz and had met Wilson while attending a fund-raiser at his home years ago.
“I have no idea what he was doing with other parents,” Isackson said.
Isackson told jurors Singer was evasive when he asked him where his payments were going.
“I believe you’d have to be a fool to think money was not going to people who were helping him with this scheme,” Isackson said.
Fifty-seven people, including celebrities, business moguls, athletic coaches, and administrators, have been charged in the case since March 2019. Forty-six have pleaded guilty, and one parent was pardoned by former president Donald Trump.