The college admissions scam’s test-taking guru pleads guilty

Mark Riddell arrives for a court hearing at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on April 12, 2019. - (Photo credit should read JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — The standardized test-taking savant who was paid off to pose as high school students and ace SATs and ACTs pleaded guilty Friday to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Mark Riddell, 36, an essential cog in the scheme to help wealthy parents buy their children into universities of their choice, arrived in a Boston courtroom wearing a dark suit and a scarf to enter his plea to the two charges.

At one point, Riddell told the court, “I’m being charged with conspiracy … for cheating on the SAT and ATC.”

Sentencing was set for July 18. Federal prosecutors are suggesting a 33- to 41-month sentence, a law enforcement source told CNN.

Riddell agreed to the terms in a plea deal signed last month in exchange for his cooperation with investigators and a reduced sentence.

Riddell, who was director of the Florida-based college entrance exam preparation academy IMG at the time of his arrest, was the brains of the college scam operation crafted and run by William “Rick” Singer, prosecutors have said.

From 2011 to 2019, Singer bribed test administrators to let Riddell take tests in students’ place or have Riddell correct answers before they were handed in, prosecutors said. Singer would funnel clients’ donations to his bogus charity to test administrators at a Los Angeles private school and a public high school in Houston.

Riddell was paid $10,000 per test, prosecutors said.

“He was just a really smart guy,” said Andrew Lelling, US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts at a March news conference announcing the indictment of 50 parents, coaches and administrators. “He didn’t have any side information about the correct answers. He was just smart enough to get a near-perfect score on the exam or to calibrate the score.”

Prosecutors want Riddell to serve 36 months of supervised release and a pay $239,449.42 fine, which is about what he earned from his crimes, his plea agreement states. He had faced 20 years in prison. He is expected to be sentenced at a later date.

Singer, who has aided the investigation, has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges.

Riddell tailored scores to students, records show

Riddell couldn’t just go all out on the exams. Too high a score would draw unwanted attention, while too low a score wouldn’t help the students surmount admission hurdles. Singer told investigators he instructed Riddell to not exceed a 30% jump in score over a student’s practice SAT to avoid attention, court records show.

“Singer would discuss with parents what kind of score was impressive — but not too impressive,” Lelling said. “Then he would instruct Riddell to attempt to get that score, and he was just good enough to do it.”

Riddell was essential in getting actress Felicity Huffman’s older daughter into college, court documents show.

Singer told investigators that before December 2017, he met Huffman and her spouse at their Los Angeles home and told them he “controlled” a test center and could arrange for a third party to pretend to proctor the exam, then correct her answers after she handed in her test. The couple agreed to the plan.

Huffman is married to actor William H. Macy. He has not been charged with a crime.

That December, Riddell flew from Florida to Los Angeles so he could correct the exam for Huffman’s daughter at the West Hollywood Test Center, records show.

Huffman’s daughter scored a 1420 on the SAT, almost 400 points higher than her practice test score, records show. Weeks later, Riddell was paid $35,000 for purportedly proctoring tests for Huffman’s daughter and several other Singer clients, records show.

In February, Huffman made a $15,000 donation to Singer’s fake charity, the Key Worldwide Foundation, records show.

Months later, Huffman and Singer spoke about running the same scheme for her younger daughter, though Huffman and Macy opted not to pursue it, court documents show.

Guilty pleas bolster the case, expert says

Huffman is expected to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. She released a statement on Monday accepting full responsibility for her actions.

“My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty,” the “Desperate Housewives” star said.

In exchange for Huffman’s guilty plea, federal prosecutors will recommend incarceration at the “low end” of the sentencing range, a $20,000 fine, 12 months of supervised release and no further charges. She faces up to 20 years in prison.

Eighteen defendants have pleaded guilty in the case so far, ratcheting up pressure on the scam’s remaining alleged participants, CNN legal analyst Elie Honig said.

“The more people who are talking, the better it is for prosecutors. It can create a potential narrative for the jury,” he said. “It gets harder when you have two different people telling similar stories.”

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