William “Rick” Singer, the mastermind of the sprawling Varsity Blues college admissions cheating scandal, was sentenced Wednesday to three and a half years in federal prison for directing a brazen fraud that ensnared Hollywood celebrities, titans of industry, corrupt coaches, and administrators.
Singer, 62, appeared solemn as his fate was announced during a highly anticipated sentencing hearing in US District Court in Boston, punctuating a four years’ long legal drama that cast a spotlight on the influence of wealth on college admissions and sent dozens of people to prison. He was also ordered to pay $10.7 million in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service, in addition to the $8.7 million in cash and assets he had previously agreed to forfeit.
Before he was sentenced, Singer apologized to students, family, friends, and colleges he defrauded, saying he felt shame and regret and wanted to help people in the future.
“I lost my ethical values and have so much regret,” said Singer, who now lives in a trailer park in St. Petersburg, Fla. “To be frank, I’m ashamed of myself.”
Assistant US Attorney Stephen Frank told the court that Singer had provided “unparalleled cooperation” to the government after his scheme was uncovered that led to dozens of convictions, but deserved a six-year sentence — longer than any other participant — because the scheme never would have happened without him.
“This defendant was responsible for the most massive fraud ever perpetrated on the higher education system in the United States,” said Frank, adding that it spanned a decade and allowed dozens of students to get into elite schools from coast to coast as fake athletic recruits or by cheating on their admissions exams.
“It was a scheme that was breathtaking in its scale and audacity,” Frank said. “It has literally become the stuff of books and made-for-TV movies.”
Singer’s attorney, Candice Fields, urged the judge to sentence Singer to a year of home confinement and probation, arguing that he recorded thousands of calls and wore a wire to record meetings “which subjected him to significant personal risk” and gave the government evidence it wouldn’t have had.
While announcing the sentence, US District Judge Rya Zobel cited the length of the scheme and the amount of money involved.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that there has to be some period of incarceration,” Zobel said.
She ordered Singer to report to prison on Feb. 27 and agreed to a defense request to recommend he serve his time at a federal prison camp in Florida or New York.
Singer declined to comment as he left the courthouse.
US Attorney Rachael Rollins said during a press conference after Singer’s sentencing that the sprawling case has changed the way colleges do business and led to reforms of the admissions process.
“The conduct in this case was something out of a Hollywood movie: wealthy entitled parents paying for their children to secure admission to colleges using fake test scores, falsified resumes, and even staged or photoshopped pictures,” Rollins said. “They gained admission that was not based on merit or athletic ability but rather on cheating, bribing, and lies.”
Singer, a college admissions consultant, had orchestrated a scheme to help his wealthy clients get their children accepted to elite colleges by cheating on admission tests or posing as fake athletic recruits. When confronted by federal agents, he quickly cooperated — secretly recording conversations and arranging payments totaling millions — to help authorities convict more than 50 parents, coaches, and administrators.
Cash payments from parents totaling millions of dollars were funneled to Singer’s nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation, to make it appear as though they were donations to support disadvantaged children, according to prosecutors.
Singer then funneled the bribes to coaches and administrators at schools across the country, including Yale University, Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles, Wake Forest University, and the University of Texas at Austin.
In a separate cheating scheme, parents paid Singer to arrange for corrupt test proctors and administrators to take the college admissions exams for their children or correct their answers after the children had completed the exams.
Singer took in more than $25 million from his clients and paid bribes totaling more than $7 million, using the remainder for his own benefit, according to prosecutors.
Singer pleaded guilty in 2019 to racketeering, money laundering, obstruction, and fraud charges.
Prosecutors acknowledged that Singer’s cooperation “is unprecedented in scope in this District,” but wrote in a sentencing memorandum last week that it was also “problematic.” He admittedly warned six clients that his phone was being tapped in an effort to prevent them from being snared in the probe, deleted text messages, and sometimes failed to follow instructions from his federal handlers. The government opted not to call Singer to testify in the few Varsity Blues cases that went to trial. Instead, jurors heard recordings of Singer’s calls implicating others in his scheme
Singer’s lawyers argued in a sentencing memorandum that Singer deserved leniency because of his extensive cooperation and also, in part, because of a “significant trauma” that he had suffered in his youth. However, details of the trauma were not made public because Zobel granted the defense’s request to seal portions of its sentencing memorandum and 14 letters written on Singer’s behalf to protect the privacy of Singer and others.
Intense publicity about the Varsity Blues case has forced Singer, a California native, to relocate “to avoid physical threats and harassment,” his lawyers wrote in the sentencing memorandum. They said he offers twice-weekly paddle boarding lessons to autistic children and veterans. To date, he has paid $1.2 million of the $8.7 million he must forfeit in cash and assets, according to his lawyers.
Fifty-seven people were charged in the sweeping scandal that cast a spotlight on the influence of wealth on college admissions and sent dozens of people to prison. Fifty-one people pleaded guilty, including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, and received sentences ranging from probation to 30 months in prison. One parent received a pardon from then-President Donald Trump, and another was given a deferred prosecution agreement. Only three cases went to trial, ending in the acquittal of one parent and the conviction of two parents and a coach. But the two parents remain free pending an appeal of their convictions, and the coach is awaiting a retrial after a judge vacated his conviction.
At a news conference Wednesday, Joseph Bonavolonta, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said, “Operation Varsity Blues exposed a bold and shameless, decade-long scheme that undercut hard-working students trying to get into these prestigious universities the right way, through hard work, good grades, community service, and sheer perseverance.”
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.