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College admissions scam’s test-taking ace sentenced, former USC coach found guilty

<i>Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Mark Riddell leaves federal court in Boston in April 2019 after pleading guilty in the case. Riddell
AFP via Getty Images
Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Riddell leaves federal court in Boston in April 2019 after pleading guilty in the case. Riddell

By Jason Hanna and Ray Sanchez, CNN

A key figure in the sprawling college admissions scam was sentenced to four months in prison Friday — the same day a former University of Southern California water polo coach was found guilty of conspiracy and fraud.

Mark Riddell, 39, who helped wealthy parents buy their children’s way into universities, was also sentenced to two years of supervised release after his prison sentence. He was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and submit to $239,449 in forfeiture, according to Caroline Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the US Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts.

Before the sentencing, former USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic was found guilty of conspiracy and fraud for soliciting and accepting bribes to facilitate admissions of students in the scam.

Riddell, a standardized test-taking savant, was paid to either ace SATs and ACTs in students’ place, or correct the students’ answers before they were handed in, prosecutors said.

CNN has reached out to Riddell’s attorney for comment.

Riddell, one of many people caught up in the wider scheme in 2019, pleaded guilty that year to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Authorities arrested and charged Riddell, dozens of parents, college coaches and administrators in the sprawling 2019 investigation known as “Operation Varsity Blues.”

Riddell agreed to a plea deal in 2019 that calls for incarceration at the low end of sentencing guidelines for the charges. Federal prosecutors have suggested a 33- to 41-month sentence, a law enforcement source told CNN that year. He had faced up to 20 years in prison.

Prosecutors have said Riddell was associated with William “Rick” Singer, a former college admissions coach who masterminded the scam.

Singer, prosecutors said, ran two general scams: First, to cheat on standardized tests for students whose parents paid; and second, to use Singer’s connections with college sports coaches and use bribes to get paying parents’ kids into school with fake athletic credentials.

Riddell was a key player in the testing scam, prosecutors said.

For years starting in 2011, Singer, the owner of a college prep business, bribed test administrators to let Riddell take tests in students’ place or correct students’ answers, prosecutors said. Singer would funnel money from a bogus charity, to which his clients donated, to test administrators at a Los Angeles private school and a public high school in Houston, authorities said.

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

“He was just a really smart guy,” Andrew Lelling, US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said at a March 2019 news conference. “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.”

Singer, who aided the investigation, pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges, and is awaiting sentencing.

‘One of the largest scandals in the history of academia’

US Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins said her office is “grateful” for the verdict in the Vavic case, part of what she called “arguably one of the largest scandals in the history of academia.”

“To say that the conduct in this case was reprehensible is an understatement,” Rollins said at a press conference. “The rich, powerful and famous, dripping with privilege and entitlement, used their money and clout to steal college admissions spots from more qualified and deserving students.”

Vavic accepted bribes from Singer.

Vavic was accused of designating certain USC applicants as water polo recruits, thereby facilitating their admission to the university, by relying on fake athletic resumes, in exchange for bribes. He was fired in March 2019 after his allegations of his involvement in the scam were made public.

On Friday, Stephen Larson, an attorney representing Vavic, said they are “disappointed” with the jury’s decision finding Vavic guilty of all of the charges against him.

“We are disappointed with but respectful of the jury’s decision,” Larson said.

Most people charged in ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ investigation have pleaded guilty

The vast majority of those charged have pleaded guilty and served out their sentences, generally measured in weeks or months.

Among the more high-profile parents charged in the test-taking portion of the scheme was actress Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for paying $15,000 to the Singer to boost her older daughter’s test scores. Huffman spent 11 days in jail in 2019.

Another actress, Lori Loughlin, spent two months in prison and her husband Mossimo Giannulli spent five months in prison for paying $500,000 to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California as fake recruited athletes.

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Laura Ly, Travis Nichols, Braden Walker, Mark Morales and Eric Levenson contributed to this report.

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