Mom from China who paid $6.5M to Rick Singer says Stanford daughter a 'victim' of admissions scam
William "Rick" Singer is the accused "mastermind" of the college admissions scandal. But where did he come from and how did he get to this point? USA TODAY
BOSTON — A mother of a Chinese student previously enrolled at Stanford University acknowledges she paid $6.5 million to the ringleader of a college admissions scheme after her daughter was admitted – but she claims she was duped into thinking she was making a donation to the school.
An attorney for the mother of Yusi Zhao, who is no longer at Stanford, confirmed the seven-figure payment to William "Rick" Singer in a statement to USA TODAY.
But she was not a knowing conspirator, the attorney said, claiming the daughter is actually herself a "victim."
The admission of the payment, made in 2017, points to Singer's network perhaps extending far overseas in addition to the 33 wealthy U.S. parents, primarily in California, accused of paying him large sums of money to get their children into elite U.S schools.
Vincent Law, a Hong Kong-based attorney representing the mother, who lives in China, said that since Singer's operation has been reported, Zhao has "come to realize she has been misled, her generosity has been taken advantage of, and her daughter has fallen victim to the scam."
He added that both Zhao and her daughter Yusi Zhao are "shocked and deeply disturbed."
When the Justice Department in March announced charges against Singer, 33 parents and college coaches in a sweeping nationwide college admissions probe, the top prosecutor in Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, said one family had paid as much as $6.5 million – the largest amount in the case – to ensure their child got into a university.
But the identity of that family was not named, nor is it mentioned in court documents.
It remained one of the case's biggest mysteries until the Los Angeles Times and New York Times this week first reported the student was Yusi Zhao, whose family made billions in the pharmaceutical industry. She enrolled in Stanford in 2017.
The Zhao family is not among the 50 defendants charged in the "Varsity Blues" college admission case. Neither is the family of Sherry Guo, also a native of China, whom the Wall Street Journal is reportedly the unnamed "Yale Applicant 1" whose family allegedly paid $1.2 million to Singer to help get their daughter into Yale.
Former Stanford head sailing coach John Vandemoer in March pleaded guilty to racketeering charges for taking bribes to designate applicants as student-athletes. Federal prosecutors say that Vandemoer agreed to designate two applicants as sailing recruits with help from fake documents produced by Singer that falsified their athletic credentials.
In one of the exchanges, prosecutors say Singer made a $500,000 to the Stanford sailing program. But Stanford has said the $500,000 payment came months after the student was already admitted and "played no role" in the student getting accepted into the school.
As the largest-ever college admissions conspiracy case proceeds in Boston federal court, prosecutors have hinted in court documents there's a likelihood that additional parents will be charged.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts did not say when asked why charges have not been made in either the $6.5 million or $1.2 million payment to Singer. But she added that "the investigation remains active, including potentially charging additional defendants."
Donald Heller, Singer's attorney, declined to comment on the statement from Zhao's lawyer. Singer, who has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, is cooperating with prosecutors.
Law said, "Like many families from Asia, Mrs. Zhao is not familiar with the admission process for colleges." He did not disclose Zhao's full name and only identified her as "Mrs. Zhao."
He said that Zhao was referred to Singer by a third-party education adviser and as a result "came to know Singer's charity foundation, which was represented to her as a substantial and legitimate non-profit foundation for supporting education."
Federal prosecutors have said that Singer used his nonprofit, The Key Worldwide Foundation, to funnel payments from parents to either bribe coaches to admit students as athletes or to rig ACT or SAT test scores.
But Law said Singer provided only educational advisory services to Zhao. He said Yusi Zhao had a strong academic record and that she was accepted into a number of U.S. colleges and universities after applying through "ordinary channels." She was accepted into Stanford on March 31, 2017, he said.
Law said that Singer was "surprised to hear" that Yusi Zhao had been admitted into a prestigious U.S school and asked the mother to make a donation to Stanford through his foundation. Law said the purpose of the donation was described as being for the salaries of academic staff, scholarships, athletics programs and helping students who would not otherwise be able to attend the school.
"Based on Mr Singer’s representation, on (April 21, 2017) Mrs. Zhao donated $6.5 million to Mr Singer’s foundation," Law said. "This generous act was not only done for the good of the school and its students, but also done out of the love and support of Yusi by a caring mother."
He added: "The donation is in the same nature as those that many affluent parents have been doing openly to prestigious universities."
Stanford last month rescinded admission of an unidentified student who was associated with the $500,000 contribution to the sailing program. But E.J. Miranda, a Stanford spokesman, said the school can't identify the name of the student because of federal student privacy law.
Stanford said the student was dismissed for falsifying information in the student's application. The university has said the student's entry was not recommended by the sailing coach, Vandemoer, nor has the student ever been affiliated with the sailing program.
In a statement from the university this week, officials sought to clarify that Stanford did not receive $6.5 million from Singer, nor from a student’s family working with Singer. School officials say they were unaware of the $6.5 million payment from the family to Singer until it was reported this week.
In all, the school said Stanford's sailing program received $770,000 through payments from Singer's organization: $110,000 and $160,000 associated with two students – neither of whom was admitted to Stanford – and the $500,000 payment.
Nineteen defendants have either pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty in the nation's college admission conspiracy case.
Among the parents accused of paying bribes to ensure the entry of their children into colleges is actress Felicity Huffman, who is expected to plead guilty in court May 13, and Lori Loughlin who has pleaded not guilty to chares.