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2 parents challenge prosecutor’s case in admissions scandal

Dr. Gregory Colburn and his wife, Amy, left federal court this month. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

A California doctor and his wife are the first parents charged in the college admissions cheating scandal to push back against federal prosecutors. They’re urging a judge to rule that they should not be charged with conspiring with people they do not know.

Gregory and Amy Colburn are among 19 parents indicted in a single criminal conspiracy and money laundering case for allegedly paying scam mastermind William “Rick” Singer to engage in a variety of schemes to assure their children got accepted into exclusive colleges nationwide.

The Colburns are accused of paying Singer $25,000 to dispatch Harvard-educated Mark Riddell to proctor an SAT test their son took in 2018 and to modestly improve the results so “the child would not be alerted to the cheating on his behalf,’’ according to court papers.


Riddell, who pleaded guilty last week to charges that he faced, allegedly did improve the grades, according to court papers.

Attorneys for the Palo Alto-based radiologist and his wife argue they cannot legally be accused of conspiring with other people in Singer’s scam when the only person they allegedly interacted with was Singer.

“The only thing the defendant parents have in common is their common relationship with William ‘Rick’ Singer, who the government alleges was at the center of the conspiracy,’’ the attorneys wrote. “There is simply no reasonable basis for a jury to conclude that the Colburns had any interest in whether other people’s kids got into college.”

Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office has generated widespread publicity with its investigation, which law enforcement dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” by linking the parents involved together, the lawyers said.

But, as a matter of law, Lelling is wrong, the lawyers said.

“While the Government’s strategy of lumping together all of the parents into a single conspiracy has had the intended effect of creating widespread public outrage against all of the parents regardless of their actual conduct, there is no legal basis for including the Colburns in this single conspiracy under the allegations in the Indictment,’’ the attorneys argued.


Attorneys for the Colburns also noted that they are accused of providing a relatively small amount of money — about $25,000 — while other parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in one case $1.2 million. The attorneys said that is further proof the parents’ actions were not interdependent, as federal law requires for a conspiracy prosecution.

“The parents’ circumstances are each unique and personal, and their alleged schemes are not interdependent,” the attorneys argued. “Thus, rather than being a member of a single mass conspiracy, the allegations establish at most that the Colburns are members of a much smaller separate conspiracy.”

The Colburns have pleaded not guilty. Lelling’s office has not yet filed its response.

A total of 50 people face charges in the scam, authorities said, including 33 wealthy parents, some of whom are celebrities. Hollywood actress Felicity Huffman was among a group of 13 parents who have already agreed to plead guilty, while actress Lori Loughlin is among a group of 19 who are under indictment. One other parent is in the process of negotiating a possible plea, according to court documents.

In related news, Law360 and some other news outlets have reported that adult children who allegedly gained admission through the scam are now being sent target letters by federal prosecutors, warning them they could be charged, too.


Lelling has previously said his office was not pursuing the children who benefited from their parents’ actions. A spokeswoman for Lelling declined to comment Tuesday.

John R. Ellement can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.