At 7:21 a.m. one day last December, an athletic man with a wide smile and a cleft chin, bronzed from the Florida sun, entered a test center in West Hollywood, California. Inside, he introduced himself as an exam proctor to the teenage daughter of an affluent New York lawyer who had been promised ‘‘the home run of home runs,’’ as prosecutors would later detail.
At 11:52 a.m., the girl finished the ACT and left the test center to meet her father. The two drove away, leaving her proctor, whom federal authorities identified Tuesday as Mark Riddell, a college-entrance exam counselor who had flown in from Tampa, Florida, to doctor her answers. His job, according to an indictment, was to ensure that she scored a ‘‘32 or pretty close thereto,’’ as her father wished, willing to fork over $75,000 to see it done. ‘‘She’ll think she took it,’’ he had been assured.
Variations of this plot, in which Riddell spun straw into gold like Rumpelstiltskin, unfolded frequently from 2011 to 2018, the time frame of what the Justice Department says is the largest college admissions scam it has ever prosecuted. Fifty people were charged, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
The multimillion-dollar operation was orchestrated, prosecutors said, by a college preparatory consultant, William ‘‘Rick’’ Singer, who pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Boston to helping students cheat on their standardized tests, and to facilitating bribes to coaches at elite universities who accepted fraudulent athletic credentials.
But the brains behind the operation were provided by Riddell, 36, who is expected to appear in federal court in Boston on Wednesday. He was the one actually filling in the bubbles, prosecutors allege, for the progeny of actresses, lawyers and business leaders — what investigators called a ‘‘catalogue of wealth and privilege.’’
Riddell has been charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, as well as conspiracy to commit money laundering. He has been cooperating in the investigation since February of this year, prosecutors said, ‘‘in the hope of obtaining leniency when he is sentenced.’’
Meanwhile, he has been ‘‘suspended indefinitely’’ from his job as director of college entrance exam preparation at IMG Academy, a private sports academy and preparatory school in Bradenton, Florida, the school announced Tuesday night. He is also an alumnus of the academy, which has trained hundreds of Olympic and professional athletes. Tuition is $77,650 for boarders and $61,650 for day students.
From there, he went on to Harvard, where he dazzled as an NCAA Division I tennis player.
Raised in Sarasota, Florida, Riddell was named tennis player of the year in 1999 by the Herald-Tribune, his hometown newspaper. His father is a prominent real estate lawyer in the area, with degrees from Michigan State University and Wayne State University. A woman who answered the phone at a number listed for his parents threatened to call the police and hung up.
Several phone calls to Riddell himself went unanswered Tuesday evening.
He began his job as IMG’s exam prep director in 2006 and lives in Palmetto, Florida, a suburban outpost of Sarasota.
Records show he married a college classmate and helps direct the local Harvard Club of Sarasota. He has given modest sums to local candidates but otherwise has remained remote from high-profile debates and scandals. By all accounts, he has led a quiet life seemingly at odds with the brazen acts of fraud of which he now stands accused.
Riddell had no inside access at the exam companies that the parents implicated in the scheme so badly wanted to best. What he had was a Harvard degree and good test-taking skills.
Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, offered this assessment of Riddell’s utility: ‘‘He was just a really smart guy.’’
‘‘He did not have inside information about the correct answers,’’ Lelling said at a news conference on Tuesday. ‘‘He was just smart enough to get a near-perfect score on demand, or to calibrate the score.’’
According to the indictment, Singer flew Riddell to Houston and to different locations in California, where the self-described ‘‘master coach’’ had bribed test administrators for their cooperation, and paid the Harvard graduate $10,000 for each student whose test he either corrected or completed entirely by himself.
Sometimes, the students believed they were taking the tests for themselves. Other times, Riddell actively assisted them in the course of the exam, according to prosecutors. In the fall of 2015, authorities said, he sat side-by-side with a student as she completed the SAT at her high school in Belmont, California, providing her with answers, and later he ‘‘gloated’’ about getting away with the cheating. In the summer of 2018, authorities said, he completed the ACT in a Houston hotel room for the son of Jane Buckingham, the CEO of a boutique marketing firm, according to the indictment.
Singer boasted that Riddell was his ‘‘best test-taker,’’ according to the federal indictment, and could ‘‘nail a score - he’s that good.’’
Lelling echoed that assessment when he addressed reporters on Tuesday, explaining how Singer would discuss with parents their child’s target score — which had to be good but also had to elude suspicion — and then direct Riddell to ‘‘attempt to get that score, and he was just good enough to do it.’’
Riddell’s page on the IMG Academy website was removed Tuesday. But a cached version includes the boarding school’s account of his duties and his credentials. As ‘‘coordinator and leader’’ of college entrance exam preparation, he was responsible for the school’s test prep curriculum and ‘‘also recruits tutors to fill the growing need for additional one-one-one [sic] tutoring, which allows IMG students to have private learning opportunities and customize their educational experience.’’
Riddell, the school explained, ‘‘assists thousands of students in gaining admission to top American universities such as Stanford, Duke, Columbia, Dartmouth, University of Chicago, and many other notable institutions.’’
Before returning to IMG Academy, he briefly played professional tennis. He competed in 10 matches between 2003 and 2005, according to Association of Tennis Professionals records. He went 0 for 10, earning $892 in total.
His experience on the professional circuit couldn’t have been more different from his record at Harvard, where he held a top singles spot as a freshman. His victories earned him laudatory coverage in the college paper. An account of a decisive triumph over Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003 ran with a pun for the headline, ‘‘RID OF THEM.’’ He told the Harvard Crimson that he ‘‘played with a deciding-match mentality.’’
Since returning to Florida, Riddell has maintained a low profile.
His most public role has been as a coordinator of the Harvard Club of Sarasota. In 2012, he organized a luncheon with Bill Cotter, a constitutional law professor and former president of Colby College, about the Supreme Court.
‘‘The Roberts court has been shifted to the right, but what does that mean for the future?’’ Riddell wrote in a notice advertising the event. ‘‘With so many landmark cases already scheduled on the Supreme Court’s docket for the coming session, there is plenty of impetus for hearing the inside scoop from a true expert and insider in Bill Cotter.’’
For his part, he has largely stayed away from divisive political issues. Records show that he has kept his activities local, writing a $100 check in 2016 for the campaign of a Sarasota city commissioner.