A legal strategy is starting to emerge among the parents who admitted to cheating their kids’ way into college and are now facing punishment: Blame Rick Singer.
Singer, the admissions strategist who ushered the children of wealthy clients through what he called the “side door” to elite universities, came to them highly recommended, won their trust with his confidence and connections, then played on their insecurities and ultimately wielded a Svengali-like power over them, they say.
Now, as they line up for sentencing before a federal judge in Boston, some parents are asking for mercy by arguing that Singer is as much to blame as they are for ensnaring them in his scheme.
On Thursday it was Stephen Semprevivo’s turn before U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani, who sentenced the Los Angeles sales-outsourcing executive to four months in prison for paying Singer $400,000 to get his son falsely designated as a tennis recruit at Georgetown University.
There, prosecutors say, Singer had a crooked coach in place. The coach, Gordon Ernst, has pleaded not guilty.
“I am fully responsible,” Semprevivo, 53, told Talwani before she pronounced his sentence. He apologized to his wife and son and “to all the young people I’ve mentored throughout my career who I’ve taught to be honest and trustworthy.”
He added, “This is the first and only crime, and certainly the last crime, I will commit.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristen Kearney argued that Semprevivo wasn’t a patsy.
He “was no passive wallflower, or Singer’s puppet,” Kearney told the court. She said “the defendant’s audacity is breathtaking” and that he pleaded guilty “to get the benefit of an early plea and now he says he is the victim.”
Semprevivo, who also must pay a fine of $100,000 and do two years of supervised release and 500 hours of community service, had asked for probation, arguing he led a law-abiding life until Singer came into it.
Semprevivo’s lawyer David Kenner called the government’s suggestion that his client hadn’t accepted responsibility “disingenuous” and said he acknowledged the bribe had knocked other applicants out of the spot Semprevivo’s son got.
Still, he told the judge, “Georgetown is not a victim of Mr. Semprevivo, in my view. It’s a victim of Gordon Ernst.”
Semprevivo hired both a psychologist and a criminologist to describe to the court psychological issues they said made him prey to Singer as well as other mitigating factors. He also said he was looking at $5.5 million in lost income if he went to prison.
“For Singer, parents like Stephen Semprevivo were a perfect target,” Kenner said in a sentencing memo. Semprevivo hired Singer for “legitimate” college advice, but the consultant “became more manipulative, purposeful and focused in his exploitation,” Kenner said.
Semprevivo said his son, Adam, had “sterling” grades and test scores and considered applying to Vanderbilt University. Instead, Singer steered him to Georgetown, where the government says he had a crooked coach in place, only to argue later that the school was out of the boy’s reach, Semprevivo said.
“Having created a problem, Singer, according to his ‘playbook,’ proposed a solution,” that Semprevivo make a $400,000 donation to his charity that he said would benefit Georgetown’s tennis program, Kenner said.
Semprevivo, until recently chief strategy officer of Cydcor, said Singer never told him he was bribing Ernst. He said it was Singer who wrote Adam’s application, including false claims about the teen’s tennis prowess, without telling him.
“Rick became much more aggressive and negative,” Semprevivo told the criminologist he hired. “We were going down a very different road than the one I thought we were on. More than anything, I didn’t want to let Adam down. Rick said: It’s the only shot Adam had.”
Looking back, he said, “I can see that Rick Singer worked me over and got me to do and believe things I am ashamed of and deeply regret. Now I see my reasoning and judgment was impaired.”
The argument is a risky one, said Brad Bailey, a former federal prosecutor in Boston who isn’t involved in the case.
“These are clearly the types of arguments you’d make if you were defending the case at trial,” Bailey said, referring to the 19 parents indicted on charges including money laundering. Fifteen have pleaded guilty to a single count of fraud conspiracy. “But I can see this backfiring before a federal judge at sentencing.”
At the very first sentencing of a parent, of “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman earlier this month, Talwani indicated she’s not letting parents off with probation. Even Huffman, who paid $15,000 to boost her daughter’s test scores and never participated in the elaborate bribing of coaches and doctoring of sports pictures and profiles, got two weeks.
Huffman’s lawyer had argued that Singer played on his client’s concerns about her daughter’s learning disabilities and “said he could do what he perversely described as leveling the playing field.” It didn’t keep Huffman out of jail.
“Judge Talwani has already been clear that people of wealth and means taking advantage of their status to get favorable treatment for their children doesn’t sit well with her,” Bailey said.
On Tuesday it was Devin Sloane, who paid $250,000 to get his son into the University of Southern California as a bogus water polo recruit, standing before Talwani. The water-services executive, like Semprevivo a 53-year-old Angeleno, had blamed Singer for luring him into the scheme, calling him “sociopathic” and “a world-class schemer and manipulator.” Sloane, too, had asked the judge for probation and community service.
Talwani gave him four months.
“Why does it matter, in terms of my sentencing,” she said, “why someone else invited him to do this crime?”