Varsity Blues college scandal mastermind Rick Singer to be sentenced Rick Singer pleaded guilty in 2019 to selling what he called "a side door" into top universities. The scheme snared dozens of wealthy clients, from actors to business titans and big-shot lawyers.

Mastermind of the Varsity Blues college admission scandal is about to learn his fate

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ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Nearly four years after the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, the mastermind, Rick Singer, is due to be sentenced today in Boston. Singer pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges for helping wealthy parents, including actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, bribe and cheat to get their kids into elite colleges. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, Singer is hoping for no prison time, while prosecutors want him to serve six years.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Prosecutors call Singer's scam staggering in its scope and breathtaking in its audacity. He raked in some $25 million selling what he liked to call a side door into selective universities like Yale, Georgetown and USC.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Give them the razzle-dazzle, Rick.

RICK SINGER: No problem.

SMITH: The FBI recorded Singer selling his scam to parents, explaining how he bribes coaches to take students as athletic recruits, even in sports they never played, and how he fixes students' wrong answers on their college admissions tests or has someone take the test for them.

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SINGER: I can make scores happen that nobody on the planet can get to happen. Consider that a done deal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I agree.

SMITH: Of the more than 50 parents, coaches and others caught up in the scheme, more than a third got three months or less in prison. A quarter got no time at all, including five who cooperated with prosecutors. Singer's hoping his cooperation will earn him leniency, too.

BILL BLANKENSHIP: He believes he will get some time. I don't think he believes it'll be a lot of time.

SMITH: Bill Blankenship lives next door to Singer in a mobile home park in Florida, a world away from the gated, five-bedroom California home where Singer used to live. I've lost everything, Singer wrote to the court, pleading for no prison time or, if he must, his lawyer suggest just six months. Singer says he's full of shame, remorse and regret. But he says he deserves credit for helping prosecutors nab his former clients. He secretly recorded hundreds of phone calls, getting his co-conspirators to admit to paying bribes and calling them charitable donations.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Definitely. I did take all three of those as write-offs. Yes, I did.

SINGER: OK. I just want to make sure that you and I are on the same page.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SMITH: The recordings were damning enough to make dozens plead guilty in cases the government concedes would have been otherwise hard to win.

NANCY GERTNER: Prosecutors made a deal with the devil in this case, but they always do.

SMITH: Former federal judge Nancy Gertner says what makes this case unusual is that the deal is not with low-level conspirators, but with the kingpin himself.

GERTNER: I think this is an extraordinarily difficult sentencing because on the one hand, Singer's cooperation is enormously important. And you get people to cooperate by telling them that they will get a benefit in their sentencing. On the other hand, he's more culpable than anyone, cooperation notwithstanding.

SMITH: Also, prosecutors say Singer's cooperation was problematic. They say he actually tried to con them, tipping off some co-conspirators. It's partly why prosecutors are not recommending rewarding Singer's cooperation as much as they could have.

AARON KATZ: I'm a little bit surprised. The recommendation is pretty harsh.

SMITH: Especially, says defense attorney Aaron Katz, who represented one of the Varsity Blues parents, since the government also wants Singer to cough up some $20 million.

KATZ: It's certainly justified. But that massive forfeiture amount plus prison, that's a very harsh punishment for a scheme like this, for sure.

SMITH: Authorities have said from day one their goal was to send a message. As the head of the FBI in Boston, Joe Bonavolonta, put it...

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JOE BONAVOLONTA: You can't pay to play. You can't lie and cheat to get ahead because you will get caught.

SMITH: But to many, the sentences meted out so far to the mostly white and wealthy Varsity Blues defendants have sent exactly the wrong message.

AKIL BELLO: I'm a Black man in America, like, duh.

SMITH: Akil Bello, an advocate for equity in education, compares the Varsity Blues sentences to similar or even stiffer ones given to those who are not white or wealthy. For example, an Ohio mom who lied to get her kids into a better public school or some Atlanta public school educators who inflated test scores.

BELLO: To think that the sentences for those crimes should be anywhere approximating the same is insane.

SMITH: Also disconcerting, Bello says, is that he doesn't see any of the enormous and systemic changes to the college admissions process that prosecutors say resulted from the Varsity Blues cases. The organization that runs the SAT test says it has increased security. And, for example, USC says it's beefed-up reviews of athletic recruits. But, Bello says, none of that addresses the systemic legal inequities in college admissions, which affect far more people than Varsity Blues. For example, schools giving a leg up to children of alumni through legacy admissions or to children of big donors.

SHERRY WALDON-WELLS: In our world, money talks.

SMITH: Sherry Waldon-Wells, a VP with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers, agrees little has changed in that realm.

WALDON-WELLS: Very few entities are going to turn down donations, especially if they're not promising something in return.

SMITH: Varsity Blues also did little to prompt reforms in the world of college consulting, which remains an unregulated industry. Margie Amott, a college counselor who knew Singer years ago, says that's largely why Singer's scam wasn't stopped when she says he first started pushing the envelope.

MARGIE AMOTT: We all knew there was just very unethical stuff going on. But there was nowhere to turn.

SMITH: Instead, Amott says, she watched Singer just become more and more brazen.

AMOTT: So for instance, here's the application that was falsified.

SMITH: From padding students' resumes, Amott says, to lying about a student's ethnicity and even trying to hire someone to take a student's course online.

AMOTT: That made my hair stand on end. And I think he should go to prison for a long time.

SMITH: For his part, Singer says some childhood trauma that the court is keeping sealed caused him to lose his moral compass. And he now wants to atone by helping underprivileged students. He says he plans to start work this month with a pastor in Arkansas. A court filing from that guy says Singer first reached out two weeks ago. Still, Singer's neighbor Bill Blankenship insists Singer is genuinely helpful to him and others around their mobile home park. Blankenship shrugs off suggestions that Singer may be just putting on a show ahead of his sentencing.

BLANKENSHIP: If he is doing all that good just to make himself look good, does that negate the fact that it was good? You know, good is good.

SMITH: Singer will have a chance himself today to make his case for leniency in-person to the judge in what may be his most important and difficult sales pitch of a sordid career.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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