Netflix’s ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ sheds new light on college admissions scandal

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In November 2017, “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin learned from college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer that her youngest daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli, would be guaranteed a spot at the University of Southern California. But he told her to keep it “hush-hush” until March, according to the new Netflix documentary “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” out Wednesday.

What happened next made the accomplices in his scam — in which parents paid big bucks to his foundation in exchange for fraudulently getting their kids into elite colleges — very nervous.

Olivia Jade’s school counselor had a routine meeting with USC about his student applicants and saw Loughlin’s daughter had been flagged as a recruit for the crew team. Both Olivia Jade and her sister, Isabella, had posed on rowing machines for their college applications in order to pass themselves off as coxswains. The counselor said he had no knowledge of her being involved in the sport. The meeting got back to her father, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who had referred to the counselor in a recording as a “nosey f–k.”

Giannulli confronted him at the school, “aggressively” asking why he was meddling in his daughter’s future. Donna Heinel, the USC administrator who had allegedly been facilitating Singer’s scam at the school, learned of the incident and left a panicked voicemail for Singer.

“I don’t want anybody walking into the school and yelling at the counselors,” she said.

The federal authorities would get wind of the conspiracy a few months later, but the Giannulli incident was emblematic of the brazen entitlement exhibited by those involved in the scam, which launched the federal investigation known as Operation Varsity Blues. The new documentary untangles the explosive case that charged 57 people — including Loughlin and fellow actress Felicity Huffman, who both served prison time — and exposed how big money can compensate for mediocrity when it comes to the college admissions process in America.

The film mixes real-life players with dramatic re-enactments that use verbatim conversations recorded by authorities during their investigation. In the film, Matthew Modine plays Singer, a slippery, robotic failed basketball coach who became an independent college counselor in Sacramento during the late ’90s when such a service was rare. There are also actor stand-ins for defendants including prominent New York attorney Gordon Caplan (but not Loughlin or Huffman) — all uttering dialogue taken from FBI recordings.

While explaining his winning formula to client Caplan, Singer refers to the “side door.”

There was the front door for kids who can get into elite colleges on their own merits. There was the back door where parents could write a very sizable check, hoping it has enough zeroes to sway the admissions office. And then there was Singer’s side door, which he opened with his company called the Key.

“We are a $290 million company that I own,” Singer tells Caplan, who in 2019 pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud for having a proctor change answers on his daughter’s ACT.

“We help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school. We have every NBA owner, every NFL owner. We’ve got everybody … They don’t want to be messing around with this thing, so they want in at certain schools. So I’ve done 761 [of] what I would call side doors,” he says, adding that it has always worked: “My families want a guarantee.”

According to investigators, between 2011 and 2018, parents paid him $25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators to open up the side door for their children.

He did that by exploiting two avenues.

Singer would get students classified as learning disabled, which would earn them special privileges when taking standardized tests. Then he’d have proctor Mark Riddell, a Harvard-educated college exam prep expert, essentially take the test for them.

Singer would also have the prospective students pose as recruits for lower-profile sports such as sailing, water polo and crew. Coaches and administrators would take the money to admit them as walk-ons, and the student would simply not show up for the team. In a bizarre twist, the film shows how parents tried to conceal this from their own children.

Though industry peers and former clients paint Singer as slimy and uncharismatic, his fraud was seemingly simmering under the surface for decades.

“Rick was always drumming up business,” Sacramento-based college counselor Margie Amott says in the film. “He was always giving presentations at the country clubs … and I also knew what his presentations entailed, and they were promises he couldn’t keep. And lies.”

But his undoing didn’t happen because Giannulli harassed a counselor or a client had loose lips at a cocktail party.

Rather, the scheme unraveled after Los Angeles businessman Morrie Tobin was arrested on an unrelated securities charge in spring of 2018. Tobin traded information, telling investigators that a Yale soccer coach, Rudy Meredith, asked him for a bribe.

Meredith then dropped a dime on Singer, who in turn cooperated, taping phone calls and in-person conversations with his clients.

As the film shows, many of them have already been sentenced and served time. But Singer — who pleaded guilty in 2019 to racketeering, money laundering and fraud — remains a free man until every person charged is sentenced for their role in the conspiracy.

Singer is back in Sacramento, swimming twice a day at a local tennis club, and takes calls on his multiple phones. According to Amott, he is telling people he won’t be going to jail because he knows the judge.

“Knowing Rick Singer, you just don’t know what to believe,” says Amott, adding, “You don’t know if he believes it; if it’s an outright lie.”

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