Here’s how Boston investigators uncovered what’s being called the biggest college bribery scam in history
It started, improbably, with a securities fraud investigation out of Boston, a so-called pump-and-dump stock scam that extended overseas.
FBI agents and federal prosecutors quickly homed in on a financial executive, according to several people familiar with the case, who said he was willing to cooperate with authorities. He also offered investigators a tantalizing tip, one entirely unrelated to stock prices — a Yale University women’s soccer coach had asked him for a bribe to help get his daughter admitted into the elite school.
By April 2018, the executive was wearing a recording device for the FBI when he met with coach Rudolph “Rudy” Meredith in a hotel room in Boston. For a payment of $450,000, Meredith said, he would be willing to designate the executive’s daughter as a recruit for the team, all but guaranteeing her acceptance. Meredith left with a $2,000 down payment, court records say.
With that, a low-profile securities investigation had led authorities to uncovering a massive college admissions scandal, a brazen plot in which wealthy parents allegedly schemed to bribe sports coaches at top colleges to admit their children.
In a matter of months after that meeting in the Boston hotel room, Meredith had resigned from Yale, leaving no hint that he had been implicated in a bribery investigation. More importantly, he began cooperating with authorities, paving the way to Tuesday’s charges against 50 defendants, including celebrities, powerful financiers, and university coaches.
The narrative of the investigation, outlined in court records and by several people familiar with the case, sheds light on its Boston roots, its unlikely origin, and its national scope.
“We frankly had the resources and the sophistication to take down a case of this magnitude,” US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling told reporters Tuesday.
Of the investigation, he said only, “Our first lead in this came during interviews with a target of an entirely separate investigation, who gave us a tip that this activity might be going on.”
In all, 200 federal agents nationwide helped with the case and the arrests, authorities said.
Four people described the origins of the investigation to the Globe under the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
A lawyer for Meredith, 51, who was Yale’s most successful soccer coach before his resignation in November 2018, did not return a call for comment. In a statement, Yale said it has been the victim of a crime by its women’s soccer coach, who is no longer at the university, and that the university is cooperating with authorities. Meredith has already agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy and wire fraud, with the hopes that his cooperation could reduce his sentence, according to court records. He faces several years in prison and the forfeiture of more than $550,000.
That cooperation included leading investigators to William “Rick” Singer of California, the architect of the bribery scheme, who agreed to cooperate with authorities as well last September. Singer outlined the entire scheme and secretly recorded calls with parents who allegedly paid him thousands of dollars to gain their children admission to elite colleges. He pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges including conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, and he is slated to be sentenced in June. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
Singer admitted to authorities that he created two admissions counseling companies that secretly created a “side door” for wealthy parents to pay their children’s way into elite colleges. One of the schemes involved having people take SAT and ACT tests for the children of his clients, promising them a “magnificent score,” Singer said in court Tuesday.
Another scheme involved bribing sports coaches to designate student applicants as recruits, which bolstered their chances of getting into the school. The parents would send payments to a charity that Singer created to help underprivileged youth, and the money would in turn be funneled to pay off the coaches. The parents even got a tax write-off for donating to a nonprofit, investigators said.
In all, 33 parents were charged with wire and mail fraud for allegedly paying bribes to get their children into prestigious schools for which they otherwise would not have been qualified.
At least two of the defendants had ties to Massachusetts. John B. Wilson, a 59-year-old investor with homes in Hyannis Port and Lynnfield, allegedly paid $220,000 to get his son into the University of Southern California in 2014, and another $1 million last year to try to get his daughters into Stanford and Harvard.
Also, Gordon Ernst, a former tennis head coach at Georgetown University, has a vacation home in Massachusetts. Many of the other defendants live in California.
Under federal laws, prosecutors have loose authority to bring charges in any venue, even if the alleged crimes have connections to other districts. But Lelling said the alleged conspiracy also had several ties to Massachusetts.
Several of the students whose parents allegedly made payments to Singer had applied to Boston University, Boston College, and Northeastern University. Several phone calls and meetings, including the one at the hotel in April 2018, took place in Massachusetts.
Moreover, authorities established a fictitious bank account in Boston, where a number of parents sent money at Singer’s direction. The case is being handled by prosecutors who are based in Boston and who pursued the tip from the defendant in the stock scam.
In that case, several people were charged last year with securities fraud for artificially inflating the value of stocks. The executive who provided the original tip is not identified in the court records for the admissions case.
But, with the executive’s cooperation, authorities quickly focused in April 2018 on Meredith, and then Singer.
Just five months earlier, in November 2017, Singer had solicited Meredith’s help in facilitating a student’s admission to Yale, in exchange for a $1.2 million payment from the student’s parents, according to court records
The work included sending a false portfolio, with a fake photo, to Yale listing the student as a star midfielder who played for a prominent club in Southern California, even though the student did not play competitive soccer. Meredith knew her credentials were false. In January 2018, Singer mailed Meredith a $400,000 check, according to court records.
By May — after Meredith had been approached by authorities — they were talking on the phone, and Singer was soliciting Meredith’s help to bring other coaches into the scheme. This time, their conversations were being recorded.
“You can say he’s doing it, for this year I did [seven elite schools], we’ve done it everywhere,” Singer had told him, according to court records.