Feds: Parents paid tens of thousands to game the admissions system

Cheating on college-entrance exams included using a proctor who gave students the answers, using false pretenses to secure more time for students to take tests

The 204-page federal complaint filed by the United States Attorney's Office on March 12 in the case of a nationwide college-admissions scam details the lengths to which wealthy parents of high school students were willing to go to get their children into elite universities, from arranging for their students to cheat on college-entrance tests to making payments in the tens of thousands of dollars for help rigging college admissions.

Numerous local parents -- including two from Palo Alto, two from Menlo Park, two from Atherton and three from Hillsborough -- were indicted on Tuesday in the scheme, which allegedly involved up to $25 million in bribes to university coaches and employees in the college-admissions field. The federal complaint, based on evidence gathered by the FBI, outlined the role each parent allegedly played in the scheme, including how much they paid to a purported charitable foundation -- known as Key Worldwide Foundation, which allegedly laundered the money -- and the conversations they had with employees of the affiliated college-counseling business Edge College and Career Network, also known under the fictitious business name The Key.

William "Rick" Singer, who has been working with investigators since last September in the hope of receiving a more lenient sentence, founded The Key and the foundation. He pleaded guilty on March 12 to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice.

Mark Riddell, a director of college-entrance-exam preparation at a private college preparatory school in Brandenton, Florida, is also cooperating with the investigators. Identified as facilitating test-taking fraud with many of the parents, Riddell agreed to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

In numerous cases, Riddell was paid $10,000 to either take or correct each student's test, the federal complaint states. His involvement was verified through emails, consensual recordings and interviews with other witnesses, or other communications, according to the complaint.

Palo Alto parents Amy and Gregory Colburn allegedly participated in the scheme in October 2017 when Amy reached out to The Key for details about where their son would take a college-entrance exam from the nonprofit College Board. The Key staff responded back on Dec. 31, 2017 with an SAT admission ticket for their son that allowed him to take the test -- with extended time -- on March 10, 2018. The test location was changed from a high school in Palo Alto to the West Hollywood Test Center, according to the complaint. The test was scheduled with Riddell, who served as a proctor, the complaint states.

In December 2017, Gregory Colburn, who is a radiation oncologist with ties to O'Connor Hospital in San Jose and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, gave $25,000 to Key Worldwide Foundation, which was made by a transferred stock valued at $24,443.50 and a check of $547.45 with "charitable foundation" written in the memo.

Menlo Park resident Marjorie Klapper, co-owner of a Palo Alto jewelry business, made a $15,000 donation to Key Worldwide Foundation for her son to take a college entrance exam in late 2017. She had allegedly reached out to Singer months earlier, in March, after hearing that the daughter of another client made plans with him to take the ACT in Los Angeles.

When she asked if her son could also take the test under the same arrangement, Singer told her, "It is not a definite as there (is) a financial consideration to take it here. They will only do with a donation," according to the complaint.

Klapper exchanged emails with Singer about giving her son extra time to take the SAT and ACT exams. On June 10, 2017, she sent him a letter from College Board that allowed her son only 50 percent more time on the SAT -- not 100 percent more time, which she thought was required in order for him to take the test in West Hollywood.

Singer replied, "As long as you have ACT with 100 percent time we can take the test at an alternate site."

Arrangements were made to have Klapper's son take the ACT on Oct. 28, 2017 in West Hollywood with Riddell as the test proctor. The boy received a score of 30 out of 36 points on the exam.

Klapper emailed Singer a copy of the score in November 2017, noting: "Omg. I guess he's not testing again."

Singer replied, "Yep he is brilliant."

Menlo Park resident Peter Jan "P.J." Sartorio is accused of paying $15,000 in cash to have Riddell serve as the proctor for his daughter and correct her answers in June 2017. She had been approved to have additional time on the ACT test a month earlier. Sartorio had withdrawn the $15,000 through three transactions between June 16 and 20. Sartorio's daughter scored 27 out of 36, which put her in the 86th percentile, according to the complaint. This placed her in a better position in comparison to her previous scores of 900 and 960 out of 1600, which she earned through the PSAT, positioning her in the 42nd and 51st percentile, respectively, for her grade level.

Atherton couple Elizabeth and Manuel Henriquez allegedly participated in the scheme four times for their two daughters. The couple is also accused of bribing Georgetown University head tennis coach Gordon Ernst to list their older daughter as a tennis recruit, though records from the United States Tennis Association showed she didn't play in USTA tournaments as a high school student. Ernst allegedly received $950,000 from the foundation between Sept. 11, 2015 and Nov. 30, 2016.

In fall 2015, the Henriquezes paid $25,000 to have Riddell serve as the test proctor for their older daughter's SAT exam and correct her answers; $15,000 of the payment went to Singer's account. Riddell flew to the Bay Area and allegedly sat down next to the daughter during the test to provide her the answers at a private school in Belmont. She received a score of 1900 out of 2400 possible points, up by 320 points from her previous score on the same test. She was ultimately offered admission to Georgetown in spring 2016.

In May 2016, the Henriquez Family Trust paid $400,000 to Key Worldwide Foundation in an effort "to provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth," the complaint states.

The Atherton couple also set up their younger daughter to take the ACT in Houston, Texas, with extra time in October 2016. Riddell proctored the test for the Henriquezes' daughter and another student; he allegedly told them to give wrong answers for different questions to conceal the conspiracy from ACT Inc., the complaint states. The younger daughter of the Henriquezes ended up with a score of 30 out of 36.

In lieu of payment, Manuel Henriquez agreed to use his influence at his alma mater, Northeastern University in Boston, to help Singer secure admission for an applicant to the school.

The Henriquezes allegedly also worked with Singer to have a third party take three SAT subject tests and the ACT test in 2017 for their younger daughter in West Hollywood at a cost ranging between $25,00 and $30,000. She received a score of 33 out of 36 on the ACT and scores of 720, 740 and 770 out of a possible 800 points on the SAT subject tests for math, Spanish and history, respectively.

Hillsborough resident Marci Palatella allegedly conspired in the cheating scheme to ensure that her son became a football recruit in his application to the University of Southern California. A psychologist who is Singer's acquaintance evaluated Palatella's son and provided the necessary medical documents that would allow him more test-taking time on the exams, according to the complaint.

On Feb. 27, 2017, Palatella's son was granted extended SAT time, and eight days later she wired $75,000 to one of the foundation's accounts. Her son took the test on March 12, 2017 in West Hollywood with Riddell as the proctor, coming out with a score of 1410 out of 1600.

Palatella also reached out to Singer seeking tips on ways to "position" her son in his college applications. Singer allegedly provided her with a price list that showed "the number it would take to get admitted even with the fudging of the scores." Through emails, she described that the boy had played football but took a year off and wasn't necessarily "the team's star but a good solid player" with plans to continue participating in the sport the following year.

Singer worked with Laura Janke, a former assistant coach of women's soccer at USC, to create a false profile of Palatella's son that inaccurately called him an active player of his high school football team who assisted his team in winning local and state championships in 2015 and 2017, the complaint states.

In November 2017, the profile was leveraged by Donna Heinel, USC's senior associate athletic director, who sent it to a university subcommittee for athletic admissions and later in the month sent Singer an email indicating Palatella's son gained conditional acceptance. Palatella sent Heinel a $100,000 check made out to the USC Women's Athletic Board and also wired $400,000 to the foundation on April 1, 2018.

In September 2015, Bruce and Davina Isackson of Hillsborough allegedly worked with Singer to create a false profile for their older daughter to gain admission to USC as a recruited soccer player through Janke, the complaint document states. About five months later, an assistant athletic director at USC told the university's women's soccer coach that the application was transferred to the regular admissions process as a result of a "clerical error."

After she was not admitted to USC, former USC women's head soccer coach Ali Khosroshanin sent the allegedly false profile to Jorge Salcedo, head coach of the University of California, Los Angeles's head coach of men's soccer. In June 2016, the Isacksons daughter was given provisional admission for that fall. The following month, The couple transferred 2,150 shares of Facebook stock valued at $251,249 to the foundation.

The Isacksons allegedly continued to engage in both the cheating and athlete-recruitment scheme with their younger daughter beginning in January 2017, when they requested arrangements to have the girl take the ACT over successive days, according to the complaint. Singer had the student take the test in West Hollywood in June 2017 with Riddell as the proctor, and she received a score of 31 out of 36.

The girl later secured admission to USC as a rowing recruit, a sport where she had no experience, though she was "an avid equestrian," the complaint states.

In October 2017, Singer sent Heinel a transcript and false ACT score for the Isackson's younger daughter; Janke created a profile for the girl that included false honors as a member of the Redwood Scullers. By the end of the year, she received conditional admission to USC but the family was advised to keep the news secret until late March 2018.

On April 20, 2018, Isackson transferred shares of stock valued at $249,420 to the foundation, $50,000 of which was set aside for Heinel.

In August 2018, the couple allegedly called Singer to help their third child get into college through false college entrance exam scores, a call that was intercepted by a court-authorized wiretap. Through the end of the year, Singer had three phone calls and an in-person meeting with the couple verifying the funds previously made in the scheme involving their other two children.

According to the complaint, an IRS audit of the Key Worldwide Foundation triggered the broader investigation.

Evidence for the cases against the Peninsula parents included consensually recorded phone calls with Singer under the direction of law-enforcement agents in either October or November 2018, in which Singer verified that he and the parents were "on the same page" about the payment to "help underserved kids."

Facing the court

The Henriquezes appeared before a judge in the U.S. Southern District of New York with their attorney Jeffrey Brown on Tuesday, when they were each released on $500,000 bond and restricted to travel within the continental U.S., with a 48-hour notice to be filed for any travel outside the Northern District of California. They also agreed to surrender travel documents and have no contact with other defendants in the case, except each other.

No federal court records for Davina Isackson were available online as of Wednesday afternoon.

The other Bay Area residents with Midpeninsula ties made their initial court appearance on the case before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero in San Francisco on Tuesday. They were advised of their rights and charges alongside a court-provided attorney, Jodi Linker of the Federal Public Defender's Office, with the exception of Palatella, who was represented by Camilo Artiga-Purcell.

They were each released after posting varying amounts: Amy and Gregory Colburn, each on $500,000 bond; Marjorie Klapper on $250,000 bond; Sartorio on $100,000 bond; Palatella on $1 million bond; and Bruce Isackson on $2 million bond.

The eight defendants are scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston, Massachusetts on March 29.

The Weekly's requests for comment from the families were not immediately responded to.

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16 people like this
Posted by MAGA
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Mar 12, 2019 at 10:29 pm

What is the point of going through this back door scheme? Why not just bribe the college outright, like Jared Kushner's father's $2.5 million "donation" to get his son into Harvard.

17 people like this
Posted by susan smith
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 13, 2019 at 6:16 am

So this is what happened to the people who cheated and copied my work in high school, people who would do 'anything' to get ahead...people who think the golden rule is he who has the gold makes the rules. Your reputation is like a feather once you let go of it, it can de difficult to get back. Cheaters NEVER prosper and now your kids are screwed. Parenting at it's worst.

4 people like this
Posted by susan smith
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 13, 2019 at 6:16 am

So this is what happened to the people who cheated and copied my work in high school, people who would do 'anything' to get ahead...people who think the golden rule is he who has the gold makes the rules. Your reputation is like a feather once you let go of it, it can de difficult to get back. Cheaters NEVER prosper and now your kids are screwed. Parenting at it's worst. Really disappointing.

11 people like this
Posted by lelkins
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 13, 2019 at 12:44 pm

lelkins is a registered user.

What a shining example of me-firstism. Not only did these parents disserve their own children by teaching them that their money and status puts them above others and above the law, but they took opportunities away from kids who had worked hard to earn these spots legitimately. Despicable, pathetic and disgusting. I hope these indictments cause other people to question their privilege and check their behavior.

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