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California couple that paid $600,000 in college admissions scam pleads guilty

Bruce Isackson outside federal court in Boston last month.
Bruce Isackson outside federal court in Boston last month. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

A wealthy Hillsborough, Calif., couple who paid bribes totaling about $600,000 to get their daughters admitted to UCLA and USC as part of the nationwide college admissions cheating scam admitted to felony charges Wednesday in federal court in Boston.

Bruce Isackson, 62, president of a real estate development firm, and his wife, Davina Isackson, 55, each quietly pleaded guilty in US District Court in Boston to a count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

Bruce Isackson also pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy and one count of conspiracy to defraud the IRS, officials said.

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Husband and wife sat with their lawyers at separate tables during the hearing before US District Court Chief Judge Patti B. Saris. The couple remains free pending sentencing on July 31.

Assistant US Attorney Leslie Wright said the government believes sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of 37 to 46 months for Bruce Isackson and 27 to 33 months for Davina Isackson. Prosecutors will seek incarceration at the low end of the guidelines under terms of a plea deal, and the Isacksons have agreed to cooperate with the government, records show.

The Isacksons are among 50 people ensnared in the scheme, which exploded into the headlines in March and outraged the public. The feds say wealthy parents, including Hollywood celebs and business moguls, paid bribes to William “Rick” Singer, the scheme’s admitted ringleader, to have their children falsely presented as athletic recruits at fancy schools, or to facilitate cheating on their kids’ SAT and ACT exams.

A number of parents, including film and television star Felicity Huffman, have agreed to plead guilty in connection with the breathtaking con.

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A lot has happened since dozens were charged in March in the high-profile college admissions scandal. (Mark Gartsbeyn, Eva Maldonado, Caitlin Healy)

In Bruce Isackson’s case, the money laundering and conspiracy to defraud charges stem from sham contributions he made to a charity Singer used to hide bribe payments, as well as Isackson falsely writing off the fake donations on his tax return.

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Saris said the elements of the money laundering and tax fraud allegations seem clear. She added, however, that she’s uncertain about one government theory supporting the conspiracy to commit mail fraud count that both parents admitted to Wednesday.

“There are some thorny issues here,” Saris said, suggesting she’s uncertain about a government contention that admission slots and test materials are considered property in the context of the conspiracy statute.

Wright, referring to schools and their admission slots, said earlier during the hearing, “They could sell them if they so chose, but they choose not to do that.”

In the Isacksons’ case, authorities say, their oldest daughter was accepted to UCLA in 2016 after Singer created a fake profile for her as a soccer recruit. Soon after, Davina Isackson e-mailed Singer to thank him “from the bottom of my heart and soul for your persistence, creativity and commitment towards helping [our daughter],” a federal affidavit says.

A month later, in July 2016, one of the Singers allegedly transferred 2,150 shares of Facebook stock worth about $251,249 to the Key Worldwide Foundation, the nonprofit that Singer used to funnel bribes to college coaches, according to court filings.

The foundation sent a letter to the Isacksons stating, “Your generosity will allow us to move forward with our plans to provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth.”

In 2017, the Isacksons’ younger daughter allegedly took the ACT test at the West Hollywood Test Center, where Singer was bribing the test administrator, according to prosecutors. She received a 31 out of a possible 36 on the exam. That same month, Bruce Isackson transferred unspecified stock valued at approximately $101,272 to Singer’s foundation, the affidavit says.

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Prosecutors say Singer also promoted the Isacksons’ younger daughter as a rowing recruit, even though she was an avid equestrian and not a competitive rower.

The profile Singer created for her contained fake rowing awards and described her as the “Varsity 8 Stroke,” or lead rower in the varsity boat, for the Redwood Scullers, the affidavit says. After the younger daughter was accepted to USC in April 2018, Bruce Isackson sent more shares of an unspecified stock, valued at nearly $250,000, to Singer’s foundation, records show.

Four months later, in August 2018, Davina Isackson spoke with Singer about “engaging in the college entrance exam cheating scheme” for their third child, an affidavit said. By this point, however, Singer was cooperating with federal authorities, who were directing his actions and recording his phone calls with parents.

In one recorded conversation at the Isacksons’ home in December 2018, Singer told Bruce Isackson that his foundation was being audited. Bruce Isackson said when he heard that news, “my stomach, like, kind of fell out,” according to a transcript of the conversation.

Isackson said he was worried federal prosecutors might be listening to their conversations.

“You know, I am so paranoid about this [expletive] thing you were talking about on the phone,” Bruce Isackson said, according to the affidavit. “I mean, I can’t imagine they’d go to the trouble of tapping my phone — but would they tap someone like your phones?”

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Isackson said he dreaded what might happen if the ruse hit the press.

“The embarrassment to everyone in the communities,” he said, according to a transcript. “Oh my God, it would just be — Yeah. Ugh.”

The Isacksons left court Wednesday without commenting, ignoring questions from reporters as they got into a waiting car outside the Moakley Courthouse in the Seaport.

A lawyer for Bruce Isackson declined to comment afterward, and attorneys for Davina Isackson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Prior to entering their pleas in court, the Isacksons answered standard questions from Saris about whether they understood their due process rights. At one point, Saris, while conducting a routine assessment of Bruce Isackson’s fitness to enter a plea, asked how he was feeling.

“I know it’s a tough day,” Saris said.


Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.