‘He’s shady’: Ringleader in college scandal irritated others

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (AP) — For 25 years, William “Rick” Singer was in the business of helping high school students get into some of the country’s top colleges, gaining a reputation as a master salesman who got results, but also someone who came across as devious and way too slick, say some of those who knew him professionally.

High school guidance counselors in Sacramento, where Singer started his career as a college admissions consultant, used to trade “Rick stories” and warned each other, “He’s shady. Be careful,” according to one of them.

Now, Singer, 58, is at the center of one of biggest college admissions scandals on record, accused of conspiring with wealthy parents to pay bribes to get their children into prestigious schools such as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and UCLA.

Some of those who encountered him professionally said they were not surprised to see Singer in the middle of the scheme. His popularity with wealthy families in the Sacramento area was not shared by school counselors and educators, who said they had no clue about any illegal practices but found him untrustworthy.

“He was a slick talker and people believed him,” said Jill Newman, who has worked as a high school counselor in Sacramento schools for decades and had several well-to-do students who hired Singer. “But every high school counselor in the area knew about him. He was sneaky from the get-go.”

Singer pleaded guilty to conspiracy and other charges in federal court Tuesday in Boston. Federal prosecutors charged 50 people in the scheme, including coaches and dozens of parents. They included TV stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and high-achieving figures in such fields as law, finance and fashion.

Authorities said parents hired Singer to bribe college coaches and administrators to boost their children’s chances of admission by making them look like star athletes in sports they never played. He also hired people to take college entrance exams for students or paid off insiders to correct youngsters’ answers, officials said.

Some parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and one as much as $6.5 million, prosecutors said.

Newman first met Singer in the early 2000s when she was a counselor at Rio Americano High School in the Sacramento area. Counselors from high schools in the area would compare notes on Singer, who rubbed many the wrong way. “We started trading stories,” she said. “It was like, ‘There’s this guy Rick. He’s shady. Be careful.'”

Newman said Singer was known to deliberately target the children of wealthy people and seemed to be in the business not for the good of the kids but for the money and status it brought him. He talked about the need to build students into “a brand,” which struck counselors as misguided and potentially dishonest, she said.

He would insert himself into school college counseling sessions with parents and students — “Which is not normal, not something we do,” she said — and would do all the talking and demand that students be enrolled in certain classes, often above their skill level, to help them get into colleges of their choice.

In one case, he took charge of a student athlete’s course load in 12th grade, setting him up with three online math classes, which he somehow passed even though at school he had failed Algebra 1, she said.

“He was so good at doing things underhandedly,” Newman said. “We knew kids were getting into places that they weren’t quite capable of doing on their own.”

When she saw Singer’s name in the news this week, her reaction was not shock: “I was jumping for joy, because he finally got caught.”

“He was a master salesperson and very popular. People hired him like crazy,” said Margie Amott, another college admissions consultant in the Sacramento area, who started her own business a few years after Singer did. She said he was charismatic, persuasive and articulate and had the ability to bond with young people.