Could the College Admissions Scandal Have Been Kiboshed Years Ago?

The scam’s alleged mastermind, Rick Singer, was named in a UCLA investigation half a decade ago

In April the world was introduced to William “Rick” Singer, a college admissions counselor who’d devised a variety of questionable strategies for helping rich students get into the schools of their choice. Singer operated in relative obscurity until he was indicted for allegedly masterminding a sweeping scam that resulted in the indictments of 50 others, including wealthy parents and college coaches. Turns out, the crisis might have been averted.

Five years ago, an internal investigation at UCLA revealed early indications of what would become the college admissions scandal, but university administrators failed to act, the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this week.

The first ripple in the coming tsunami was in May 2014 when a mother called UCLA to appeal the school’s decision to reject her daughter’s application as a recruit to the water polo team—even though her daughter had never played water polo.

According to the investigation’s report, “[T]he mother stated she was ‘still willing to pay.’ When asked to what she was referring, [the mother] explained that she understood from [Singer] that she was expected to donate $100K to the program, for the admission of her daughter through athletics.”

UCLA investigator William Cormier reported that the mother had retained Singer for $6,000 in August 2013 to counsel her daughter and that she said Singer “strongly encouraged” her to be prepared to donate to UCLA, suggesting a total payout of $100,000. According to the Times, there’s no indication in the report money ever actually changed hands.

UCLA also found enough further evidence against Singer to warrant an interview with him, and to brief Chancellor Gene Block on the investigation. The report said that a number of the students admitted as recruits to the men’s tennis team from 2004 to 2014 had “limited” talent, and that “a relatively high percentage” of those recruits had donated significantly to the tennis program. Although the copy of the report obtained by the Times was highly redacted, it showed that at least two of those recruits had obtained Singer’s services.

“The involvement of [Singer] in these admission instances, as he was in the [water polo] admission matter, adds to this concern,” the report said. Though the report found no evidence that donations were made upon admission, it went on to state, “the pattern suggests that an expectation that a donation might be forthcoming was a factor in the decision to admit.”

Though UCLA says it enacted a series of reforms in the wake of the report, Singer remained closely tied to the school, and it never notified authorities of it findings.

“UCLA should have immediately notified law enforcement authorities,” said former federal prosecutor and white collar criminal defense attorney Bradley Simon. “Had they done so at the time, UCLA would not be enmeshed in the current scandal.”

Singer, who is now working with federal prosecutors, pleaded guilty in March to four felony counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice. He is awaiting sentencing.

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