Parents Duped by ‘Ultimate Con Man’ in College Scam, Jury Told

Lawyers for the first parents to go on trial in the U.S. college admissions scandal told jurors the scheme’s mastermind was the “ultimate con man,” who convinced their clients that the hundreds of thousands of dollars they paid him to get their children into elite schools were legitimate donations.

Brian Kelly, defending former Wynn Resorts Ltd. executive Gamal Abdelaziz, tried to make the point by playing a videotaped pitch the ringleader once made to Starbucks executives on getting their kids into college through a “side door,” in which he boasted of having worked with 61,000 families.

The lawyers assailed William “Rick” Singer in federal court in Boston on Monday as an expert liar who led their clients to believe that hundreds of parents had successfully used the strategy.

Parents Duped by ‘Ultimate Con Man’ in College Scam, Jury Told

Kelly told the jury his client was “actually innocent” of the government’s claim that he bribed his daughter’s way into the University of Southern California as a phony basketball recruit. He said Singer, who cooperated with prosecutors against the parents in the case and secretly recorded his conversations with them, had set Abdelaziz up. He read out notes Singer had made on his iPhone saying federal agents had pressured him to “bend the truth” and “lie” to the parents.

Kelly said Abdelaziz, 64, “never agreed with Singer to bribe or defraud anyone” and thought he was a legitimate college counselor, having previously paid him $5,000 to help get his son into Columbia University. 

In the Starbucks video, Singer claims the admissions committees of “two of the most prominent schools in America” let him sit in and read admissions applications. During the presentation, he bemoans the relative ease with which star athletes and the children of wealthy alumni get into elite schools and warns that most other students have “no chance.” He says he has opened a new, side door to admission, which he presents as a fair way in.

“The front door you got on your own,” he tells the executives. “The back door is institutional advancement and writing the big checks. And the side door is how I can do that for one-tenth of the money.”

‘Master of Manipulation’

Private equity investor John B. Wilson, 62, and Abdelaziz are among a half dozen parents still fighting the charges, with the other four scheduled to go on trial next year, after 33 others pleaded guilty. Michael Kendall, Wilson’s lawyer, described his client in court on Monday as a self-made man raised by a single mother in a housing project, who eventually moved into private equity after getting a degree in engineering on a scholarship.  

“John is book smart and engineering smart, but Singer is a different kind of smart,” Kendall told the jury. “He’s the master of manipulation. Rick Singer is one of the great con men of our time.”

Earlier, a prosecutor told the jurors that the government wouldn’t call Singer to testify and that they would instead hear him on FBI wiretaps and recordings he’d made of his calls with parents.

“The government does not intend to call Singer at this trial, but you will hear his voice in recording after recording and see his words in emails,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Wright said during opening arguments. “This trial is about the parents, what John Wilson and Gamal Abdelaziz, what they knew, what they intended and what they agreed to do. You will hear from these defendants when they did not know anyone was listening.”

Wright told jurors the case was about “lies” and “not about wealthy people donating money to universities with the hope that their children get preferential treatment in the admissions process.” She said both parents engaged in “a sprawling conspiracy that extended from coast to coast,” adding, “None of these kids were getting recruited to play collegiate sports without the money.”

The Varsity Blues sting, as the government called it, exploded into public view in 2019 with the announcement of charges against dozens of parents across the country, in what the Justice Department says is the biggest college admissions fraud it has ever prosecuted. The U.S. alleged that dozens of parents had illicitly paid Singer to get their kids into top universities through manipulation of entrance exam scores or bribes to college athletic coaches. 

From Huffman to Hodge

The 33 who pleaded guilty, from fields including entertainment and finance, got jail sentences ranging from two weeks for “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman to nine months for former Pacific Investment Management Co. chief Douglas Hodge. Wilson and Abdelaziz face as many as 20 years in prison if convicted, though federal sentencing guidelines could reduce such a term considerably. 

Wilson, the founder of private equity and real estate development firm Hyannis Port Capital, allegedly paid $200,000 to Singer to bribe a USC water polo coach to designate his son as a recruit. He’s also charged with later paying Singer more than $1 million to secure spots at Stanford and Harvard universities for his twin daughters as purported athletic recruits. 

Abdelaziz is accused of paying Singer $300,000 and tens of thousands more to a USC athletic official to win admission for his daughter as a purported basketball recruit. He argues his daughter was a talented basketball player and that USC said $200,000 would go to a school arena for basketball and volleyball. 

None of the colleges or students in the case were charged.

The case is U.S. v. Colburn et al., 19-cr-10080, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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