Netflix's 'Operation Varsity Blues' Focuses On the College Admissions Scandal Mastermind

Lauren Kranc
·5-min read
Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

From Esquire

In total, 50 people—33 wealthy and influential parents, two SAT and ACT administrators, one exam proctor, nine college athletics coaches, and one college administrator—were charged in “Operation Varsity Blues,” the 2019 college admission scandal. The years-long fraud and the largest college admissions scandal ever prosecuted made splashy headlines—largely about actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman’s arrests and convictions. But Netflix’s new documentary film Operation Varsity Blues, by Fyre director Chris Smith, refocuses the attention onto William “Rick” Singer—the college admissions counselor and confessed criminal mastermind behind the entire scheme. While many of the parents and college employees indicted in the scandal have been charged and sentenced, Singer, who pled guilty to all charges brought against him, is yet to be sentenced.

In 2011, Rick Singer started a for-profit college counseling company called the Key. His business—which he called the “side door” admission to elite colleges—was twofold. One part consisted of facilitating cheating on ACT and SAT entrance exams by having students fake the need for extra time and then having them take the exams with a proctor whom he hired. Singer’s exam proctor would correct his clients’ answers without their knowledge after they finished in order to adjust their scores as needed. The other portion of his criminal enterprise was bribing college athletics directors and coaches with donations to their programs as well as personal payments in order for them to recruit his clients as athletes. As the Netflix documentary explains, the athletic recruitment process is left largely up to a college’s athletics staff, who simply present their recruits to the school for approval every year. With a little Photoshop on Singer’s end, all his client had to do was never show up for practice once at college (which they would not have known to do anyway, as the children were for the most part completely unaware what their parents had orchestrated with Singer behind the scenes). Parents paid anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee admission at elite colleges and universities such as the University of Southern California, Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown for their children through donations to Singer’s fake charity called the Key Worldwide Foundation, which he would then donate to college athletics programs or wire to coaches directly.

From 2011 to 2019, Singer’s “side door” was open for highly profitable business, in which Singer himself collected 25 million dollars. (According to the documentary, the “back door” is a much larger donation than what Singer charged, made directly to the school like, for example, Jared Kushner’s parents the year before he was accepted to Harvard. This method is not only more expensive than Singer’s, but also cannot provide a guaranteed acceptance.) But the scheme began to teeter when a financial executive named Morrie Tobin, who was being investigated in a different financial fraud case, offered investigators a tip about a Yale soccer coach accepting bribes in exchange for admission in an attempt to create goodwill with the FBI. The tip eventually led them to Rick Singer, who was caught in September of 2018.

But in order to spare himself as much as possible, Singer agreed to work with investigators to bring his entire Ponzi scheme down with him. Wearing a wire, Singer made phone calls and in-person visits to his past and present clientele to discuss a fabricated audit of his foundation so that they would implicate themselves by confirming knowledge of phoney donations. He did successfully warn or alert some that he was wearing a wire, which he confessed to in court. Ultimately, though, the government’s case was built on this series of recordings Singer made, and Singer himself pleaded guilty to all charges brought against him—racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice—as well on March 12, 2019. His cooperation and guilty plea will result in a lesser sentence for him when his sentencing date comes. The trials and sentencing proceedings in this sprawling case are ongoing, and Singer's case status simply states that “there is no sentencing hearing scheduled at this time.” According to CNN, he faces a maximum sentence of 65 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $1.25 million fine.

Photo credit: NETFLIX
Photo credit: NETFLIX

The FBI began making arrests in March 2019, starting with actress Felicity Huffman. She and Lori Loughlin, along with other high-powered and influential parents, were charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. Mark Riddell, the exam proctor who facilitated the cheating on college entrance exams, was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, honest services mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Coaches and athletics directors at top U.S. schools were charged with racketeering conspiracy, and some with mail fraud and wire fraud, too. A full list of charges and sentences in the case can be found here.

Felicity Huffman, who was accused of paying $15,000 to Key Worldwide Foundation to facilitate her daughter cheating on a college entrance exam, pleaded guilty on May 13, 2019. She was sentenced to two weeks in prison, one year of supervised release, 250 hours of community service, and fined $30,000. Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannullo were accused of ‘donating’ $500,000 to have their daughters Olivia Jade and Isabella Rose recruited to USC's crew team. Loughlin initially pleaded not guilty, but in May 2020 changed her plea. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, and was sentenced to two months in prison, two years of supervised release, a fine of $150,000, and 100 hours of community service. Olivia Jade, a popular YouTuber before the case broke, went on Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Red Table Talk in December 2020 to address the scandal for the first time.

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Many accused in the largest college admissions scandal case ever prosecuted still await their sentences. As Operation Varsity Blues shows, Rick Singer is one of them. He reportedly enrolled at Grand Canyon University in November 2019 to work towards a doctorate in psychology in an “effort to change his life for the future.” Although his lawyer said he had hoped to be nearly finished with the degree when he was sentenced in 2021 or 2022, Singer dropped out in July of 2020 after completing a total of five courses.

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