After dozens of convictions of parents and coaches, Operation Varsity Blues reached something of a final chapter on Wednesday when William Singer, the mastermind of the college admissions cheating scheme, was sentenced in federal court in Boston to three and a half years in prison.
Federal prosecutors identified Mr. Singer, known as Rick, as the ringleader of a $25 million criminal enterprise that “massively corrupted the integrity of the college admissions process.”
He became a government informant after prosecutors began investigating his scheme in 2018 and pleaded guilty in 2019 to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice.
Mr. Singer received a longer sentence than anyone else involved in the investigation, but less than the six years that prosecutors recommended.
“There were very real victims of this scheme,” Stephen Frank, a prosecutor, told Judge Rya W. Zobel in the packed courtroom. He cited applicants who succeeded at sports at the highest level but were passed over, and millions of students who had faith in the system and played by the rules.
Mr. Singer told the judge that he was ashamed of what he had done. “All my life I wanted to help kids and their families,” he said. Looking tanned and fit in a sleekly tailored pinstripe suit, he showed little emotion.
He said he had embraced his father’s belief that “to lie was acceptable as long as it brought victory.”
“Winning and keeping score used to be paramount,” he said, adding that he was trying to change that, with therapy and counseling by friends and family.
Along with the prison term, the judge imposed three years of supervised release and more than $10 million in restitutionto the Internal Revenue Service. Mr. Singer was also ordered to forfeit millions of dollars in assets.
Almost four years have passed since federal agents in several states arrested dozens of people accused of participating in a scheme to get their children into some of the most competitive colleges in the country by doctoring test scores, bribing coaches and embellishing or fabricating athletic credentials.
Key Figures in “Operation Varsity Blues”
More than 50 people charged. In 2019, a federal investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues snared dozens of parents, coaches and exam administrators in a vast college admissions scheme that implicated athletic programs at the University of Southern California, Yale, Stanford and other schools.
The linchpin. William Singer, a college counselor and the mastermind of the scheme, led an elaborate effort to bribe coaches and test monitors, falsify exam scores and fabricate student biographies. He pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government. On Jan. 4, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
The parents. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among the more than three dozen parents — many of them wealthy and powerful — charged in the case. A private equity financier and a former casino executive, who were found guilty on Oct. 8, 2021, were the first to stand trial.
The coaches. The case also involved athletic coaches from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. Jovan Vavic, the former water polo coach at U.S.C., was found guilty of taking more than $200,000 in bribes in exchange for designating high school applicants as recruits. He was later granted a new trial. Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who was among the first to take a plea deal, has written a book detailing how he was duped by Mr. Singer.
The case, which federal prosecutors called Operation Varsity Blues, swept up seeming pillars of the community — actresses, executives, doctors and lawyers — and contributed to the rising cynicism that college admissions favored the rich and connected over ordinary students and their families.
Mr. Singer, a former basketball coach turned college counselor who understood the intricacies of athletic recruitment, bragged about running a “concierge” service for the wealthy. He got students in, not through the front door of ordinary admissions, but a “side door,” paying off college sports officials. He chose low-profile sports where oversight was lax.
The narrative originally appeared to be about overweening parents who would do anything to make sure their children got into prestigious schools. The focus fell on the actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman as well as the powerful, including Gordon Caplan, former co-chairman of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. All three pleaded guilty to mail fraud and other charges.
Federal prosecutors took pains to say that the universities involved — including Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Southern California, Wake Forest and the University of Texas at Austin — were not under indictment or on trial.
But as the facts emerged, colleges were sullied too. The messiness of the admissions process became clear, with colleges searching out wealthy families for legitimate fund-raising. Defense lawyers argued that the government had mounted an investigation in search of a victim, because some universities had benefited from donations.
There were other doubters. Indira Talwani, a federal judge, ordered a new trial for Jovan Vavic, a former water polo coach at the University of Southern California, whom a jury convicted of bribery. In her decision, the judge questioned whether the university could be considered a victim when it had kept the money and even sent thank you notes.
“There was no evidence in the record to suggest that Vavic was taking U.S.C. water polo team money for his own benefit,” she wrote. “And, however distasteful, there is nothing inherently illegal about a private institution accepting money in exchange for a student’s admission.”
Still, the Varsity Blues investigation “threw a spotlight on the connection between fund-raising and admissions decisions,” said William D. Weinreb, a former federal prosecutor who successfully defended a separate but similar case of a father accused of bribing a Harvardcoach. “It will be interesting to see whether the Varsity Blues cases force a national reckoning with that issue or whether there will be a return to business as usual.”
Prosecutors said Mr. Singer funneled bribes disguised as donations and other payments through his college counseling service, the Key, and a nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation, allowing his clients to deduct bribery payments from their income taxes. Prosecutors said Mr. Singer paid bribes totaling more than $7 million and “transferred, spent or otherwise used more than $15 million of his clients’ money for his own benefit.”
The government also said in its sentencing memo that Mr. Singer was a reluctant and duplicitous cooperator who destroyed evidence and tipped off at least six clients. As a result, the government did not call him as a witness at trial.
In their sentencing memo, Mr. Singer’s lawyers said he was a humbled man, now living in a trailer park in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he gives paddle boarding lessons to veterans and autistic children.
The federal investigation had an impact on the institutions that it involved. After the arrests, the College Board, which administers the SAT, announced enhanced security for test-takers who received accommodations for being designated as learning disabled, a weak link in the system that Mr. Singer exploited.
Many universities — Yale, Stanford, the University of Texas and U.S.C. — have said that they have cleaned up what they said were oversights in their admissions process, generally involving heightened scrutiny of athletic recruits.
Prosecutors were strikingly successful. Of the 55 defendants charged in the Singer-led scheme, 53 have been convicted, including Mr. Singer, either by a jury or through a guilty plea, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for Massachusetts.
Some of the prosecutions, which ultimately widened beyond Mr. Singer, highlighted the blurred lines between legal donations to colleges and what the government said constituted bribery.
The former sailing coach at Stanford, John Vandemoer, served one day in jail and six months of house arrest in a guilty plea. He gave checks for $770,000 from Singer to Stanford development officers, to be used for new boats. He did not keep any of the money for himself.
In a book about the case, Mr. Vandemoer wrote that he was duped by Mr. Singer. He said that coaches in sports that do not produce revenue were pressured to raise money, with few questions asked. After the charges became public in 2019, Stanford conducted an internal review and said it would provide stronger oversight of athletic recruits and “enhanced training for coaches on the fund-raising process.” And the university said it would redistribute the $770,000 to support financially challenged high school students seeking admission.
The blurred lines also worked to the advantage of another parent, Amin Khoury. He was accused of bribing his daughter’s way into Georgetown University as a tennis player, by sending Gordon Ernst, Georgetown’s tennis coach, a shopping bag full of cash. Mr. Khoury was not accused of working with Mr. Singer.
The defense said the money was a gift. The jury acquitted him.
One of his lawyers, Roy Black, said the verdict showed that the jury had agreed with his argument that college admissions was not a pure meritocracy.
Just before Christmas, a federal jury in Boston acquitted the former Harvard fencing coach, Peter Brand, and a businessman, Jie Zhao, known as Jack, of scheming to admit Mr. Zhao’s two sons to Harvard in exchange for $1.5 million in bribes.
The case was not part of the Varsity Blues investigation, but it was tried by some of the same prosecutors and had strikingly similar details. It was prompted by a Boston Globe investigation in 2019 that found that Mr. Zhao, chief executive of telecommunications company iTalk Global Communications, had bought Mr. Brand’s house at an inflated price. After the Globe report, Harvard fired the coach.
Mr. Weinreb, Mr. Zhao’s lawyer, said in an interview that Mr. Zhao’s sons were highly qualified for admission — both academically and as fencers. And he said that Mr. Zhao was simply a generous man and a soft touch.
In his closing argument, Mr. Weinreb leaned in on the fund-raising.
“The family not only paid full tuition for the two boys all eight years, they also donated more than $300,000 to the university — and that includes $250,000 that they used to start a trust that will be worth $1 million to Harvard when it matures,” he told the jury.
As soon as the Zhaos made the first $250,000 donation, Mr. Weinreb said, “Harvard kept coming back and back for more, because the Zhaos are exactly the kind of family that Harvard wants in the fold.”
In the Zhaos, he said, Harvard got “great kids, great students, great fencers and a great family that has generously supported the college in its fencing program. Where is the crime in that?”
Rachael Dane, a spokeswoman for Harvard, said that the university was not implicated in Varsity Blues, nor a party to the fencing case, and would have no comment. Mr. Weinreb, she added, “is not employed by Harvard University and has no knowledge of our admissions process or preferences.”
Kevin G. Andrade contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.