Millennial ‘Expert’ and Startup CEO Charged in College Exam Scandal

(Bloomberg) -- Among the American elites charged in a sweeping college-admissions scheme was a lifestyle guru and marketing consultant frequently quoted in television and newspaper interviews as a self-proclaimed millennial expert.

Jane Buckingham, chief executive officer of a Los Angeles-based marketing company specializing in research on youth culture, agreed to spend $50,000 to get her child a high score on a standardized test in hopes of getting him into the University of Southern California, according to a Justice Department affidavit.

Millennial ‘Expert’ and Startup CEO Charged in College Exam Scandal

It started with a phone call to William Singer, founder of a college counseling firm. From there, it became a full-blown bribe involving a tax-deductible donation to an affiliated organization in exchange for someone to take the ACT exam in place of Buckingham’s son, who apparently was not told of the scheme, U.S. prosecutors said. Buckingham didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the charges.

“We are trying to get ourselves, like, 34 on the ACT?” said Singer, a cooperating witness, according to the transcript of a Federal Bureau of Investigation recording from July. The highest score possible on the ACT is 36.

“Yeah, yeah,” Buckingham said.

“OK, so your donation is going to be 50,” Singer said, referring to the $50,000 she agreed to donate to the organization.

“I know this is craziness; I know it is,” Buckingham said. “I need you to get him into USC.”

The next day, Singer asked Buckingham for a handwriting sample from her son for the surrogate test taker to emulate. Singer sent Buckingham an email after the exam was completed to say it went well. Later that day, Singer’s colleague emailed Buckingham an ACT practice test for her son to take at home, so that he would believe he had taken it himself.

Buckingham is one of dozens charged in a sweeping criminal conspiracy that aimed to get applicants into top schools through the use of entrance-exam scams or bribing school coaches. Other defendants included celebrities and finance executives, philanthropists and lawyers. Thirty-eight people were in custody, and 33 parents were charged, prosecutors said.

Buckingham is a graduate of Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in English and lists herself as a contributing editor to Cosmopolitan and Seventeen magazines, according to her LinkedIn profile. Buckingham has branded herself as a career and lifestyle expert. She served on the board of an organization seeking to clothe impoverished children, alongside celebrities Jessica Alba and Nicole Richie. In 2015, she had a show on ABC Family called “Job or No Job,” in which she gave young women feedback on what they needed to do to get employers to hire them.

“We wanted to help millennials not only get their feet in the door, but give them the tools and skills they would need to get the jobs,” she said in an interview with Glitter magazine to promote the show. She went on to cite research by her company, Trendera, that found almost half of millennials “felt that their last level of school left them not at all well-prepared to get a job.”

Buckingham has appeared on “Good Morning America” and in the New York Times. Trendera said it has worked with Facebook Inc., Gap Inc., HBO, Netflix Inc., Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Co.

“It’s not easy being a teenager today,” Buckingham said in an interview a year ago with a blog called Gorgmag. “It’s way harder then when I was one. Don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Don’t expect to have it all figured out.”

Buckingham’s son was given a score of 35 on the ACT exam, according to prosecutors. In October, law enforcement agents directed Singer to get in touch with Buckingham again about the ACT test. In a phone call, Buckingham said she’d “probably like to do the same thing” for her daughter, who she described as “not a great test taker.”

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