Anyone who needs an instant dose of outrage can pick from a smorgasbord of choices in the FBI/DoJ’s Operation Varsity Blues. Perhaps the most outrageous of the accusations against Rick Singer and his wealthy and famous clientele is that he coordinated efforts to have their children diagnosed with learning disabilities — which then allowed Singer to corrupt the SAT and ACT processes to ensure targeted scores. ABC News provided a brief description of this particular racket in its initial news report:
Singer would allegedly instruct parents to seek extended time for the children to take entrance exams or obtain medical documentation that their child had a learning disability, according to the indictment. The parents were then told to get the location of the test changed to one of two testing centers, one in Houston and another in West Hollywood, California, where test administrators Niki Williams, 44, of Houston and Igor Dvorskiy, 52, of Sherman Oaks, California, helped carry out the scam, the indictment alleges.
Riddell, 36, allegedly either took ACT and SAT tests for students whose parents had paid bribes to Singer, according to the indictment.
“Singer typically paid Riddell $10,000 for each student’s test,” according to the indictment.
Felicity Huffman allegedly paid $15,000 to Singer for one of her children to use this process, as did other parents in the indictment. This one part of Singer’s scam seemed particularly reprehensible to many, and for good reason. Not only did these captains of industry and entertainment keep more qualified students from getting the admissions they corruptly seized for their own children, they exploited a system created to assist genuinely disadvantaged students with real disabilities to further their corruption.
They’re hardly alone, The Hollywood Reporter informs us today. Despite attempts nearly two decades ago to clean up the disability-claim loophole, wealthy parents routinely buy such diagnoses from unscrupulous psychologists in order to game the SATs and ACTs. It’s a lucrative business even without Rick Singer to coordinate it:
According to parents and school consultants, the extra time charade has been an open secret for years. “Parents talk about it, kids talk about it,” says Christina Simon, a Viewpoint parent and co-author of the book Beyond the Brochure: An Insider’s Guide to Private Elementary Schools in Los Angeles. “The schools are aware of it, but they can’t do anything about the fake diagnoses because they have been provided by doctors. It gets very tricky,” she says.
According to interviews with parents and educational experts, certain psychologists and educational therapists who specialize in learning disabilities charge exorbitant fees, often in the range of $5,000, to give a diagnosis that will result in extra time.
“It takes parents about one second to find these doctors,” says Simon, “These fake diagnoses are part of the problem and it’s something that allowed this scandal in part to take place.” …
“There are high school students who have legitimate learning challenges and who honestly need these accommodations,” says Evelyn Alexander, a certified educational planner based in L.A. who has helped industry parents shepherd their children into dozens of private L.A schools, “It’s insulting to people who truly do need the extra time, it’s just horrible.”
Everyone knew about it, but few talked openly about it, at least until this week. The grotesque corruption exposed by Operation Varsity Blues has given people an opportunity to talk about the ordinary corruption in the college admissions system, and it’s significant. As with most corruption, it spreads outward. Not only does it implicate the parents themselves, but also educational consultants, college sports, university personnel, and now the medical profession too. The Department of Justice might need a whole new department to run down all of the bribery and corruption within the college admissions system.
In the meantime, there are still many, many more shoes that could drop in Operation Varsity Blues alone. Singer told investigators that he’d pushed through almost 800 students through the “side door,” as he characterized his corrupt scheme. That’s a lot of parents who might find themselves on the ugly side of the ledger once the DoJ’s forensic accountants get done with Singer’s books and those of his sham tax-exempt charity.
Two more celebrities stepped forward at the end of the week to acknowledge their association with Singer. Phil Mickelson and Joe Montana insist that they didn’t participate in the corrupt schemes, however. The best defense is a good offense, as one of the two can attest:
Pro golfer Phil Mickelson admitted to using Singer’s company to help his children through the college admission process, but he denies being involved in the alleged scheme. Mickelson’s daughter attends brown university but the family has not been accused of doing anything illegally.
Legendary San Francisco 49 Joe Montana also came forward, tweeting: “Mr. Singer’s company provided nothing more than minimal consulting services to our family, like so many other families, with the college application process. Fortunately, our kids were able to pick from a number of schools to attend due to their hard work and their merit.”
KTVU has more on the charity dodge Singer allegedly ran. Most of the money went to USC and Stanford to fund the bribes paid to coaches there, but that’s not where all of it went. Imagine my surprise to see my alma mater on the list of universities that The Key Worldwide Foundation listed as grant recipients:
In 2013 with Singer as Key Worldwide’s president and CEO, the charity gave out two grants: $10,000 to “Georgetown Tennis” and $100,000 to an organization called “Fullerton Futobol Academy Inc.” with an address belonging to California State University, Fullerton.
Chi-Chung Keung, spokesman for Cal State Fullerton, said the university discovered through state records that the organization listed by Singer is actually tied to USC women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin, who was indicted in the sweeping criminal case this week.
Khosroshahin previously coached at Cal State Fullerton, which does have an affiliation with a different program that bears a similar name to the one Singer listed.
Cal State Fullerton, Georgetown, Yale and New York universities said they never received the donations that the foundation claimed to have dispersed to them.
Cal State Fullerton? Look, I love my alma mater — or at least view it fondly from a very long distance — but it’s not a school for which the wealthy bribe coaches for admission. It’s a solid university, but it’s the kind of college that these wealthy parents probably wanted to avoid for their darlings. The CSU system is the second-tier public-university system in the state, with the University of California system being the top tier — think UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, etc. Admission is rather straightforward and not terribly difficult, tuitions are relatively reasonable (or were back in the day), but its degrees do not have any more magical door-opening power than degrees from hundreds or thousands of other colleges have. (Not that I’d know that personally, you may recall.)
In its own humble way, however, Cal State Fullerton and its sister CSU schools stand for something rather remarkable: education for education’s sake. That system delivers knowledge and discipline rather than status, networking, and social engineering. It probably has its own issues of malfeasance — what organization doesn’t? — but its egalitarian embrace and mission focus on real education should not pass without notice. Maybe the final lesson of Operation Varsity Blues is that we need to demand that approach from everyone … including and especially ourselves.