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The 'really smart guy' who aced SATs for rich students: 'I will always regret' the scandal  2 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

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. 

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 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 for a waiver of indictment and plea to Information hearing. 

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."

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. 

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. 

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. 

"He was just good enough to do it," Lelling said.

In one instance described in the charging document, Riddell called Singer after taking an ACT exam from a Houston hotel room on July 14 of last year. He predicted that he would score a 35 out of 36.

He ended up scoring just that – a 35. 

IMG Academy, Riddell's employer for more than a dozen years, has a boarding school for student-athletes as well as training programs in a wide-range of sports. 

The academy, which is not implicated in the federal case, issued a brief statement Tuesday night on Twitter announcing Riddell's suspension. It came as the academy also appeared to remove a biographical page of Riddell from its web site. 

"Today we were made aware of the charges against Mark Riddell. Riddell has been suspended indefinitely as we investigate this matter," IMG's statement reads.

Some of the cream of the crop in sports have attended IMG Academy, according to the school's web site. Their athletes have gone on to play in the NFL, NBA, MLB, professional tennis and golf, accounting for 133 professional all-star appearances, three Heisman Trophy winners,  63 most valuable player awards, 14 collegiate national titles, 29 world championship titles, and 32 Olympic medals. 

In the current 2019 graduating class, IMG has seven football players who are ranked in the 247Sports's top 300 recruiting prospects list. Three are ranked in the top 10. 

Parents involved in the cheating scheme would make donations to Singer's organization. To facilitate the cheating, prosecutors say Singer often counseled parents to seek extended time on the children's SAT or ACT exams by having their children pretend to have learning disabilities. 

Singer would pay $10,000 to Dvorskiy, who administered ACT exams at a Los Angeles private high school, and would pay $5,000 to Williams, who oversaw testing at a Houston public school. 

A court filing outlining charges against Riddell describes an agreement for a $50,000 payment that one defendant, identified as "Parent 1," made to Singer in exchange for Riddell taking the ACT in place of their son. 

Singer provided Riddell with a sample of the son's handwriting on July 13, the document says, so that he could imitate it. Riddell flew from Tampa, Florida to Houston later that same day. Williams, the test administrator, is accused of providing the test on July 14 to Riddell, who then completed the exam in his hotel. 

The next day, Singer mailed a $10,000 check to Riddell, prosecutors say, and a $5,000 check to Williams, who sent the exam to the ACT for scoring. Days later, "Parent 1" wired $35,000 to Singer's group as a partial payment toward the $50,000 fee.

In addition to the conspiracy charges, federal prosecutors are also seeking to recover $447,000 in forfeitures from Riddell. 

 

 

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