Inside Rick Singer's college admissions network: An ex-con half brother, a Welsh soccer team and a former NFL owner
The college admissions scam involving Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman shows how some rich families use a “side door” to game an already unfair education system. USA TODAY
The untold story of how Rick Singer, the ringleader of a sweeping college admissions scandal, became a part owner of a Mexican restaurant chain and a Welsh soccer team
Cliff Singer says he didn't know anything about a nationwide college bribery ring until one day in March, when he was sitting in his office and looked up to find a familiar face on the television news.
But as investigators unravel the $25 million that Rick Singer accumulated in the scheme over eight years, one name keeps popping up in the web of companies connected to Singer's Key Worldwide Foundation: Clifford Farrell Singer.
Cliff Singer is Rick Singer's brother. Or maybe half brother, or step brother. Cliff won't say exactly what the relationship is, even as he refers to Rick as his brother while insisting they're not blood relatives.
"Let's be honest. You’re calling me because of everything that’s going on with my brother," Cliff said in a phone interview. "But obviously, it's him. Right? I mean, the only reason my name even popped up is because of Rick. It’s Rick you've got to talk to. This is his drama, which is a complete nightmare for obviously all the other family members."
Using court records, corporate and tax filings, social media and interviews, USA TODAY has assembled the first public account of Cliff Singer's involvement in companies that received profits from Rick Singer's criminal enterprise.
Along the way, Cliff Singer's paper trail also further connects Rick Singer to a network of noteworthy Los Angeles businessmen who referred wealthy families to Key Worldwide, the legitimate face of Rick Singer's college counseling enterprise. They include a former owner of the Los Angeles Rams and a Los Angeles investment adviser who – along with Cliff Singer – are minority owners of the second biggest soccer team in Wales.
William "Rick" Singer has pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering, fraud and obstruction of justice charges. Prosecutors say he was the ringleader of a scheme in which famous and wealthy parents – including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman – paid bribes to standardized test proctors, college coaches and admissions officials to get their children into prestigious universities.
Central to the alleged conspiracy was the Key Worldwide Foundation, a public charity that was supposed to support underprivileged students. It ended up being a vehicle for Rick Singer to launder the millions of dollars that parents were paying him to arrange bribes.
Cliff Singer has his own criminal history. He was sentenced to nine years in prison in 1991 for his role in a mail-order drug trafficking ring that sent six ounces of cocaine a week – via the post office and UPS – to Dallas from his home in California. He was released from prison after seven years.
Now, Cliff works as the chief financial officer for a chain of Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles – the same chain Rick Singer's foundation owns 10% of, according to court records. And Cliff is the public face of the Key Worldwide's unusual investment in Swansea City A.F.C., a soccer team that was then in the U.K.'s top-tier Premier League.
The Singers were part of a group of minority investors that bought into the team in 2017. They were brought into the group by Brian Werdesheim, a Los Angeles investment adviser for Oppenheimer & Co., according to two sources familiar with the transaction. The sources spoke to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity because the terms of the sale were supposed to be confidential.
Werdesheim has already been linked to Rick Singer's operation.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that it was Werdesheim who introduced a family involved in the cheating scam – who have not been charged and are referred to in court records only as "Yale Applicant 1" – to Rick Singer. Werdesheim then helped to facilitate a payment, disguised as a donation, from the parents to a school the student was applying to.
Werdesheim did not return a call and email seeking comment. His office referred questions to Oppenheim & Co. managing partner Joan Khoury, who did not return two phone calls.
For Rick Singer, a connection to Werdesheim would open the door to an invaluable network of high school students from some of Los Angeles's wealthiest families.
That's the way Werdesheim did business. A 2017 story in Forbes Magazine described how Werdesheim and his co-partner brother, Jeff Werdesheim, worked to help solve everyday problems of his wealthy clients.
"Calling in favors from their network is key," Forbes wrote. "A former NFL owner confessed he didn't know how to help his struggling teenager, so the brothers called in a college-prep advisor and identified a learning disability." The student later went to USC's Thornton School of Music, Forbes said.
The story did not identify the adviser or the former NFL owner.
But Dale "Chip" Rosenbloom, a former owner of the Los Angeles Rams who's now a movie pro, was part of the investment group in Swansea City with Werdesheim and the Singers. Rosenbloom's son now attends USC's Thornton School of Music.
Prosecutors say one of the ways Rick Singer helped the students of wealthy parents was to help them get their children diagnosed with a learning disability so they could have more time to take standardized tests. That process also helped to facilitate cheating by allowing Singer to steer the students to proctors he had bought off.
In a since-deleted Facebook post promoting his 2014 book "Getting In: Gaining Admission to the College of Your Choice," Rick Singer listed Rosenbloom among a number of high-profile people who have "elected to have the odds of admission in their favor."
Another person on that list, former investment company CEO Douglas Hodge, has been indicted in the scam, but former NFL quarterback Joe Montana, also on the list, said Singer provided “nothing more than minimal consulting services.”
Rosenbloom's publicist could not be reached for comment.
Werdesheim is well connected in the world of private Los Angeles education. His online resume says he's on the board of trustees of the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., where at least one child of a parent indicted in the scandal attended. And he sits on an advisory board for his alma mater, USC.
Rick Singer and Werdesheim have also worked together on a charitable venture for high-achieving high school students, giving them leadership experience through a group called the Youth Leadership Council.
In a Facebook post in 2017, Werdesheim identified Rick Singer as a member of its board of directors, and thanked him for helping to "create our next generation of philanthropists, leaders and social enterprisers."
The executive director of the Youth Leadership Council is Jon Carroll, the dean of the middle school at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. The private school charges $39,700 a year in tuition and has acknowledged receiving subpoenas for the records of at least two students as part of the investigation into the college admissions scandal. Carroll did not return a call seeking comment.
The youth leadership project was part of Werdesheim's own charity, the Banyan Foundation. Rick Singer's company contributed at least $6,000 to the foundation, according to its most recent tax returns.
Feds seek forfeiture order
When Rick Singer agreed to plead guilty in the bribery scheme in March, federal prosecutors in Boston put him on notice that he would have to forfeit "assets directly traceable to Defendant's offenses."
They included an unusual list of business interests that prosecutors said were "owned or controlled" by Key Worldwide Foundation.
Cliff Singer's name appears on at least three of those assets.
► Swansea Football LLC is the partnership that was set up to purchase the controlling interest in the Welsh soccer team for an estimated 75 million pounds – about $101 million.
The BBC published a partial list of those investors in 2017, which included actress Mindy Kaling and former LA Galaxy star Landon Donovan in addition to Werdesheim and Rosenbloom. Also listed: Cliff Singer. His name escaped attention at the time.
One source familiar with the deal said the Singers' investment was just less than 1%, valued in the high six figures to $1 million.
Cliff Singer would not discuss his role in the soccer team transaction, but told USA TODAY the share of Swansea isn't worth the original investment because the team was relegated from the Premier League, the top level of English Soccer, to the tier-two Championship in 2018. In English soccer, the bottom teams of each league are sent down to the next-lowest league at the end of every season.
"Think about what that's worth now," he said. "There's massive losses."
► Passion Foods Inc., based in Westlake Village, Calif., is the parent company of Sharky's Woodfired Mexican Grill, a franchise of more than two dozen restaurants. Prosecutors say Key Worldwide Foundation owns a 10% controlling interest in the company. Cliff Singer serves as the company's chief financial officer, according to corporate records.
The foundation disclosed an investment in a related company owned by Paperno, Food With Purpose LLC. That investment lost $37,044 in 2016, according to the foundation's tax return.
Company president Steven Paperno did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
► Cliff Singer and Rick Singer's Key Worldwide Foundation are co-partners in a Los Angeles venture called Bluesky Partnership, according to a fictitious business name statement filed with the Los Angeles County clerk. The document shows Cliff Singer's name typed, while the other partner is whited out with "The Key Worldwide Foundation" written in ink.
The partnership, classified as a holding company, earned $75,716 in 2016, according to the foundation's tax return.
Federal court records refer, perhaps mistakenly, to a Bluestone Partnership.
Cliff Singer said he wouldn't discuss any of these ventures.
"The public record is pretty self explanatory," he said. "You gotta call Rick. He's the guy. You’re asking questions about Rick, right?" (Rick Singer's Sacramento attorney, Donald Heller, declined to comment.)
"You see a couple of little things with some ties to me and so therefore I must know all about Rick's money, but that's just not the case," Cliff said.
In a 10-minute interview, Cliff Singer first referred to Rick as "my brother" but later said they weren't related by blood. Social media, obituaries and public records reviewed by USA TODAY show multiple family connections; Rick's father divorced his mother and later married Cliff's mother. Rick is 58 years old. Cliff is 56.
"We’re technically not even brothers. We have the same last name, but that's as far as it goes," Cliff said. "I am not his brother legally. We have no ties in blood. That's all I'll say."
As part of his criminal case, Rick Singer put up $500,000 bond secured by property in Westlake Village, where Cliff lives. The exact address of the property is sealed, and Cliff Singer would not confirm that it was his house.
He said he first learned of Rick's wrongdoing when he saw a television report on it while working in his office. He said he might have more to say about it "whenever a big movie comes out in five or ten years."
Other mysterious ventures
Aside from the Singers' ventures, the Key Worldwide Foundation's ill-gotten assets also made their way into a number of other for-profit entities, according to prosecutors:
► Hauser Private Equity Partners, a group of hedge funds based in Cincinnati and Los Angeles. Co-partners Mark Hauser and Paul Swanson did not return multiple calls and emails seeking information about their affiliation with Rick Singer.
► Whamtech Inc., a Dallas database technology company. The company is also being sued by a court-appointed receiver representing the former payday loan empire of former NASCAR driver Scott Tucker for $2.9 million in unpaid loans first taken out in 2008. CEO Mark Armstrong and Chief Financial Officer Larry King did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
► Jamtown, a Oakland, Calif. basketball facility that helped launch LeBron James and other NBA stars. A source familiar with the sale, who did not want to be identified, said Rick Singer approached the former owners and bought Jamtown's assets in July 2018. Jamtown has since rebranded as Soldiertown. Executive Director Mark Oliver could not be reached for comment.
► The Versatile PhD, a networking site for doctoral students seeking careers outside of academia. Former owner Paula Chambers said Rick Singer bought the company from her in May, 2018, just before the FBI began its court-approved surveillance of Singer in the college bribery probe. Prosecutors identified this company as "Virtual PhD" in court filings.
Chambers said she could not discuss the terms of the sale.
"The truth is I barely know Singer at all. He was just the investor who provided the funds to buy my business," she said. "I can say that while the deal was being made, I had absolutely no idea that Singer was involved with anything immoral or illegal. I am horrified to learn of his activities."
Chambers said Singer "did not even have or want any practical role in operating the business," leaving that to company president Todd Mauer.
Mauer said Key Worldwide is the sole owner of Versatile PhD, but that the two operate independently. Rick Singer is listed as the company's CEO in corporate documents.
"I would emphasize that Versatile PhD continues to serve our community with integrity, and we expect that the company will remain a viable, valuable entity in the higher education marketplace," he said. "Along with everybody else, I was shocked and saddened by the news of the admissions scandal."
Joey Garrison contributed from Boston. Follow Gregory Korte on Twitter @gregorykorte.
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