Gordon R. Caplan, one of New York’s top lawyers, was fretting last summer that his daughter couldn’t get into his alma mater, Cornell University. He wasn’t prepared to take any chances, federal prosecutors say.
On June 15, 2018, the senior mergers attorney and co-chair of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP rang up William Singer, the founder of a corrupt college counseling and test-prep business who would later become a cooperating witness in a massive admissions-bribery case, government investigators in Boston said March 12 in a criminal complaint.
Singer, whose California-based Edge College & Career Network LLC is at the center of the alleged scam, told Caplan that he could cheat on his daughter’s ACT or SAT admissions tests for a mere $75,000—just like plenty of other wealthy families with kids aiming for the Ivy League.
“Look, I’m particularly interested in working with you guys and figuring out what’s best for [my daughter],” Caplan said, according to the criminal complaint, which details the conversation intercepted on a court-authorized wiretap.
“It’s the home run of home runs,” Singer said.
“And it works?” Caplan asked.
“Every time,” he responded while laughing, according to the U.S. filing.
In hundreds of pages of detailed court filings, investigators lay out an allegedly brazen scheme for the wealthy and powerful to bribe and cheat their way into the nation’s top colleges, including Yale, Stanford, UCLA and Georgetown. In all, the government said clients paid $25 million in bribes to coaches and college administrators from 2011 to 2018.
The records provide a remarkably intimate look at the insecurities of otherwise powerful parents who are willing, it seems, to do anything to get their kids into a top college. Those accused in the indictments include a former chief executive officer of bond-giant Pimco, a managing director of private equity firm TPG and Hollywood actresses.
Caplan, for example, showed a lawyer’s attention to detail, according to court filings.
“Explain to me how that works,” he asked.
The crucial first step, Singer told Caplan, was for his daughter “to be stupid” during a psychological evaluation so she would be listed as having a learning disability, investigators said. That would get her an extension on the ACT or SAT test, allowing her to take the exam later over two days, instead of one, and, in an individualized setting. All the family had to do then, Caplan was told, was travel to California so the test could be taken at a facility where Singer’s corrupt “proctor” would make sure the test shined, the U.S. said.
One important tip, Singer said, is for parents to make sure they’re out of town after they get the extension, so the test can be taken at his facility. “What I do is, I always tell the family, Oh, you got a bar mitzvah out of town that weekend, so you found a school to take it at,” Singer said, according to the court filing.
In some cases, Singer told Caplan, the children could secure winning scores without even knowing what their parents had done.
“She will think that she’s really super smart, and she got lucky on a test,” Singer said in the recorded phone call.
After securing an extension on the test, Caplan was told, he could then fly to Los Angeles with his daughter on a fake college-recruiting trip and have her take the test at a predetermined facility while they were in town.
“That’s how simple it is,” Singer told Caplan. “She doesn’t know. Nobody knows what happens. It happened, she feels great about herself.”
“Does that make sense?” Singer asked.
“That does,” Caplan said, according to the complaint.
Singer assured Caplan he’d done this many times. “They’re all families like yours, and they’re all kids that wouldn’t have perform[ed] as well, and then they did really well,” he said. He told Caplan that in some cases the children believed they had legitimately scored well, and even asked to take the tests again so they could try to do better. The government didn’t charge any of the children mentioned in the indictment.
Caplan ultimately made a $25,000 “deposit” in the form of a donation to a charitable organization tied to Singer, according to the complaint. Singer then allegedly arranged to have another cooperating witness in the case fly in from Florida on Dec. 8 and provide the correct answers for Caplan’s daughter at an empty testing facility in West Hollywood, California, the U.S. said.
A few weeks later, Caplan paid another $50,000, according to prosecutors. He and his law firm didn’t respond to requests for comment. The government didn’t charge any of the children mentioned in the complaint with crimes.
Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive officer of Pacific Investment Management Co., used what Singer called a “side door” into college: athletic recruiting. Colleges give an edge to those applicants sought after by coaches; often, they will be admitted with lower grades and test scores. The complaint says he paid $475,000 in bribes through the test prep company, its foundation and the USC Women’s Athletic Board.
But there was a problem: One of his sons seeking admission didn’t actually play the sport. In January 2015, Hodge’s spouse sent an email to Singer. She said she couldn’t find a photo of her son playing football, even though he was applying to play on the University of Southern California team. So she sent one of his brother, according to the court filing. Singer sent one to a USC coaching official: “See below—I am sure there is a tennis one too. The boys look alike so I thought a football one would help too?”
In addition to the two children who were admitted to USC, Hodge’s eldest daughter gained admission to Georgetown University on a tennis scholarship, but “did not play tennis at Georgetown,” according to the complaint. Pimco declined to comment.
Hodge, who retired in 2017 after 28 years with the firm, declined to comment when reached on his mobile phone, saying, “I can’t talk right now.”
William McGlashan, a managing partner of TPG, the private equity firm, used approaches similar to both Hodge and Caplan, investigators said. He paid $50,000 to a charity with the understanding that his son’s answers on the ACT exam would be improved, according to court documents. McGlashan discussed paying at least $250,000 in the scheme, according to the complaint.
In December 2017, a proctor traveled to Los Angeles from Tampa, Florida to administer the ACT at the test center rather than at the son’s high school, the documents show. The proctor corrected the answers to show a score of 34 out of 36.
Singer also offered to create a fake sports profile of McGlashan’s son to help him gain admission at USC as a recruited athlete.
McGlashan said he had pictures of his son playing lacrosse. But since it was their understanding that USC didn’t have a lacrosse team, they settled on making the student a football player, the government said. But his high school didn’t field a football team, so they decided to turn him into a punter who learned the skills at a sports camp, according to the FBI.
“He does have really strong legs,” McGlashan joked, according to an account of a wiretap used in the investigation “The way the world works these days is unbelievable.“
McGlashan even found humor in the situation: “I love it. I love it. That is so funny. So, so, and then, just remind me again, we get all these done and the, the obvious deal you and I talked about, the 50K and the 200K. And—and then, do we know he’s in? You and I at least know he’s in?”
In a statement, TPG, based in San Francisco and Fort Worth, Texas, said it had put McGlashan on administrative leave. McGlashan, who couldn’t be reached, heads up the TPG unit investing in companies that promote social good.
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