Rick Singer boasted he could get students into top-ranked college through the side door–a system that depended on bribes and lies about students’ athletic ability.
Rick Singer boasted he could get students into top-ranked college through the side door–a system that depended on bribes and lies about students’ athletic ability.

Rick Singer, mastermind of the college admissions scandal, started at Rio

College counselor recall questionable conduct; current teacher was a client in the '90s Rio teacher was a client in the '90s

May 15, 2021

Rick Singer, the disgraced independent college counselor at the heart of the nation’s biggest admissions bribery scandal and subject of the new Netflix documentary “Operation Varsity Blues,” began his career in the 1990s working with students from Rio Americano and other top Sacramento high schools. 

Even before he turned to the elaborate multi-million-dollar bribery scheme that would get rich-but-unqualified students into top universities through what he termed “the side door,” there was something about Singer in the 1990s and early 2000s that raised suspicion and frustration of local parents, high school counselors and private college-admissions coaches.   

“We used to just tear our hair out talking about him, and there was nothing we could do,” Sacramento educational consultant Margaret “Margie” Amott recalled in a recent interview with the Mirada. 

Singer pled guilty to racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice in March 2019. Various FBI wire-taps were not only critical in catching Singer and his super-rich clients in his illegal practices, but provided the foundation for the Netflix film “Operation Varsity Blues” released in March. Since last August, the scandal has also been the source of two books, which include interviews with former Rio students and counselors. 

Singer remains free, and has been spotted in recent months swimming at Rio Del Oro Sports Club and in the area near his Arden Park home. But his legal troubles are not behind him. 

The scandal continues to generate headlines as celebrities begin and end jail sentences for crimes connected to cheating to get their kids into college. Most recently, Mossimo Giannulli, 57, ended his five-month federal prison sentence in April. He and his wife, actress Lori Laughlin, pled guilty in 2020 to one count of wire and mail fraud in connection with paying Singer and his charity Key Worldwide Foundation $500,000 to falsely designate their daughters, Olivia Jade Giannulli, 20, and Isabella Rose Giannulli, 21, as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team, although neither had ever played the sport.

The Beginnings of an Empire

Singer came to Sacramento to coach basketball shortly after graduating from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, in 1986. He had a stint as an assistant coach at Sacramento State and was head coach at Encina High School, but was fired by the district in his first season in 1988, possibly because of parent complaints about his intensity and behavior toward referees.

Singer got his start counseling local students through his for-profit college consulting company, The Key, and he largely publicized his new business through presentations at high schools, including Rio’s first-ever college fair. 

Amott was co-chair of the VICCI,  a parent-volunteer group similar to the current Rio and Beyond, and she organized Rio’s first college fair in 1993. College admissions had not yet become big business, and speakers included a high school counselor and an English teacher who spoke on writing the college application essay.

“We got a call from Rick Singer—we had no idea who he was—but he told us what he did and he wanted to be a speaker,” Amott said. “We didn’t have a lot of speakers so we said sure; he gave a 15-minute presentation at the auditorium and I heard he was fine. He’s kind of dry but it was informational.”

As Singer put his name out through Sacramento and grew his business, more people began using his service and recommended him to their friends, including Amott who gave his name to friends of hers and even used him with her own daughter for a short period of time, although she didn’t care for him and they stopped using his services. 

Former students who used him in the ‘90s describe him as focused and knowledgeable—certainly a coach for students using his services—but not a crook. 

Christy Thomas, a Rio teacher and a volleyball standout as a student here, used Singer in the fall of 1993 for help with sports recruitment.

“I am not sure what other services he offered, but at the time it was more guidance for me on how to navigate the college application process to showcase me in the best possible light,” Thomas said. “I remember finding him a little unctuous at the time, but we were clueless on the whole thing, especially the rules regarding sports, and he had a lot of useful information.”

Singer sold his first college counseling business and worked for The Money Store and as CEO of a telemarketing company for a couple of years. But he returned to college counseling in the early 2000s--this time with national aspirations.

Jill Newman, a Rio counselor from August 2001 to January 2013, described the school perspective as Singer expanded his clientele, reflecting on how Singer would sell his services to families, making them believe he was the only way students could get into the best colleges.

“He kind of targeted Rio, Jesuit, Bella Vista and St. Francis families who either had a standing in the community or he knew they were business members, people who could afford to have him,” Newman said in a phone interview. “He started to build in fear: fear of not getting into college, fear of not getting into the ‘right’ college. He told people the high school counselors are so overworked, they can’t be expected to have time and resources for every student, he said he could fill the huge gaps we had, which we didn’t.”

Bizarre Requests and Big Mistakes

Singer acted as what he called an “advocate” for students in the college admissions process, and Newman says when it came to his involvement between students and the school, he would push for students to have a certain teacher, or to take online classes to make up credits or poor grades in classes. He would frame it as a discussion had taken place between him and the student’s family and they had collectively decided whatever he was requesting was the best course of action for the student.

In their book, “Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal,” authors Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz recount stories of Singer changing a client’s race or inflating involvement in extracurriculars. In one instance that may have foreshadowed future conduct, Singer insisted that a Rio athlete who had struggled in math be allowed to take three online math classes rather than a remedial course that counselors recommended to better guarantee he would pass and get needed credits to graduate. The student completed the college-prep courses in less than a semester and did well enough to keep his eligibility to compete for a four-year university. 

Newman and Amott both expressed hesitations about Singer as his career grew and Newman especially said that really, nothing he ever did was normal or typical.

“Most requests from Rick were at least bizarre if not unethical,” Newman said. “It felt like going to a used car salesman. It just didn’t feel on the up-and-up but we could never pinpoint as to why exactly, and we were never aware of anything illegal.”

But, Newman said Singer’s personality as a “schmoozer” helped diffuse anger and concern and he was always willing to explain anything that raised concern or questions. However, when it came to questioning him, Rick liked to be in control.

“Generally, the way he wanted it was he would sit on one side, the students in the middle, and the parent(s) on the other side in front of my desk and he would do all of the talking,” Newman said, remembering her efforts to engage the student in the conversation and inability to get an answer about the family’s feelings about the actions Singer requested. “I would say that I needed to hear from the student/parents, I didn’t realize he had already coached them all on what to say.”

As the years progressed, Rick Singer continued using his so-called “side doors” to illegally get students into college through “donations” to his foundation which he used to bribe coaches, admissions employees, and other important businesspeople to admit students. Singer explained that directly donating to a school in exchange for admissions was like taking the “back door” while going through the admissions process normally was like the “front door”. But, he explained, his “side door” was a combination of the two, guaranteeing his clients would get into the college of their choice.

Even students who couldn’t make huge donations to Singer’s foundation could have fallen victim to his corrupt practices; Amott recalled looking over a college application for a friend of hers and seeing lies about the student on the application.

“It said he spoke Spanish and he didn’t, and it said he had raised money to build playgrounds at Helen Keller Park, but there’s no Helen Keller Park in Sacramento,” Amott said.

Amott added that even families suspicious of Rick’s legitimacy were hesitant to confront him because of the connections he said he had in the highest echelons of institutions nationwide. “I believe there are dozens if not hundreds of people in Sacramento who used him, and he exaggerated or lied on the applications, and parents either turned a blind eye or thought it was okay because he told them everyone was doing it.”

Others simply chose not to listen to some pieces of Singer’s advice. Thomas recalled Singer suggesting that she exaggerate her high school club involvement to make it seem like she was in leadership club positions, but she refused.

“In the end, I was a 4.0 student with lots of AP classes, a two-sport Varsity athlete and had lots of other extracurriculars; I didn’t really need to embellish my resume,” Thomas said. “For me, he was most helpful with understanding the rules regarding athletes and in directing me to which college might be best suited for me.”

A Common Experience

As Singer’s business grew, he became more present on the school campuses, and counselors throughout the area started to talk and realize that their experiences weren’t isolated.

“He would go from Rio down to Jesuit and we would be on the phone to warn their counselors Rick was coming, and they would do the same for us,” Newman said. “We were always very attentive to helping our fellow counselors out because it’s always going to be a challenging time when Rick shows up.” 

Years later, when FBI wiretaps and confessions from related people provided sufficient evidence for authorities to arrest Singer, Newman was relieved, feeling that the punishment was long overdue.

“People shouldn’t have been hiring him,” Newman said. “I was very ecstatic.”

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  • GraceAnn LesserJun 8, 2021 at 1:47 PM

    This story still manages to shock me every time I hear about it. I will definitely be watching the documentary after reading this.

  • Abigail fJun 1, 2021 at 1:49 AM

    It’s so crazy that this app took place here, lies on applications and jobs here and there, all the way up to a Netflix film, great and very interesting essay !!

  • Metzli LemusMay 31, 2021 at 11:24 PM

    Very well researched article! Still very shocking that this started in Sacramento and was able to continue for so long.

  • Alyssa NewberryMay 31, 2021 at 7:05 PM

    I recently watched the Netflix documentary, and it’s crazy to think it started here in Sacramento!

  • Maribel ArenasMay 31, 2021 at 5:35 PM

    It’s crazy to think people seek the help of Rick Singer back in the day, not knowing what he would do in the near future.

  • Darya PahlavanMay 27, 2021 at 2:39 PM

    Wow! I can’t believe that this started in Sacramento.