To pull off the largest college admissions bribery scheme in U.S history, prosecutors say a middleman working for rich and powerful parents funneled money to a private school counselor in Florida to secretly take their children's ACT and SAT exams.
Mark Riddell of Palmetto, Florida, is accused of being the test-taker in the explosive cheating scandal.
Riddell, 36, is a 2004 graduate of Harvard University where he starred in tennis. He also briefly played pro tennis.
And since 2006, he's worked as director of college entrance exam preparation at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a prestigious private boarding school for high school student-athletes that has produced elite college players and professional athletes. IMG Academy suspended Riddell following his indictment Tuesday.
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Prosecutors say that sometimes Riddell himself took the tests for the students and in other instances he corrected their answers after their test was turned in. They say it went on from 2011 to February.
"He was just a really smart guy," said Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, which is leading the prosecution in the sweeping case. "He did not have inside information about the correct answers. He was just smart enough to get a near-perfect score on demand or to calibrate the score."
Riddell apologizes for 'needless actions'
Riddell has been charged with two counts of conspiracy involving both mail fraud and money laundering for his critical role in the cheating portion of the elaborate conspiracy that has led to criminal charges against 50 people including 33 affluent parents. The scheme also involved bribes to college coaches, prosecutors say.
He is set to appear in federal court in Boston on April 12.
In a statement provided by his attorney Wednesday, Riddell apologized for what he called his "needless actions," saying that he understands how they "contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process." He said he accepts "full responsibility for what I have done."
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But he added that he wants to clarify that he "absolutely, unequivocally never bribed anyone," rejecting an assertion that he claims has has risen in media coverage. The Justice Department has not accused him of bribery, but rather accepting the payments.
"I will always regret the choices I made, but I also believe that the more
than one thousand students I legitimately counseled, inspired, and helped
reach their goals in my career will paint a more complete picture of the
person I truly am," Riddell said.
William "Rick" Singer leaves Boston Federal Court after being charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice on March 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts.
William "Rick" Singer leaves Boston Federal Court after being charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice on March 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo: Scott Eisen, Getty Images)
Prosecutors say Riddell would typically get paid $10,000 per test, paid by William "Rick" Singer of Newport Beach, California, the suspected ringleader of the international scheme. Singer operated a sham counseling nonprofit and received more than $25 million in bribe payments since 2011 from parents looking to get their under-qualified students into elite colleges and universities, according to federal charging documents.
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Riddell's cheating was enabled by two test administrators, Niki Williams in Houston, and Igor Dvorskiy in Los Angeles, who received bribe money from Singer as well, according to prosecutors. They would then return the falsified tests to the ACT and SAT.
Lelling said that Singer and parents would settle on an appropriate test score before the ACT or SAT was administered so that it would not increase by such a large amount that it would raise suspicion if the student had taken the test before. Riddell would then try to hit that number.