On Wednesday, Michael Center of the University of Texas became the fourth college coach or administrator fired after being hit with charges, in his case conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. The 54-year-old Center, who had been the school’s tennis coach since 2000, was accused of taking a $100,000 bribe in 2015 to help a student get into UT by pretending that he was a recruit to the tennis team, thus making him a preferred applicant.
Calling it “a very difficult decision” to fire Center, Longhorns Athletics Director Chris Del Conte said in a statement Wednesday, “We are grateful for the years of service that he has provided, but winning with integrity will always be paramount at The University of Texas, and it was a decision that had to be made.”
According to court documents, bribes to Center were arranged by a Houston-area resident named Martin Fox, who was charged with racketeering conspiracy. Fox, 62, was described by authorities as having been the president of a private tennis academy, and he was said to have also bribed a Houston teacher and standardized-test administrator named Lisa “Niki” Williams.
The 44-year-old Williams was also charged with racketeering conspiracy for facilitating cheating on SAT and ACT exams, and she was accused of allowing an official with the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to take or correct tests on behalf of some of his students. That official, Mark Riddell, was suspended indefinitely Tuesday by IMG Academy, which is nationally known for its sports programs and which is now facing questions about whether Riddell helped any of the school’s athletes gain improper admission into universities.
“I want to communicate to everyone that I am profoundly sorry for the damage I have done and grief I have caused those as a result of my needless actions,” Riddell, the academy’s director of college entrance exam preparation, said in a statement Wednesday (via the Tampa Bay Times). “I understand how my actions contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process.”
Riddell, 36, was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, as well as conspiracy to commit money laundering, and he was indicated in court documents to be a cooperating witness. Federal authorities claimed that, for each test he took in a student’s place, Riddell was usually paid $10,000 by William “Rick” Singer, a California man who masterminded the vast scheme they said they uncovered.
Singer, the 58-year-old founder of the Edge College & Career Network, as well the CEO of a charitable foundation that figured heavily in the investigation, pleaded guilty Tuesday to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. Singer, who also served as a cooperating witness, said he was “absolutely responsible” for the scheme, which ran from 2011 to this year and was said to have garnered him approximately $25 million, mostly from well-off parents trying to find ways to get their children into preferred universities.
“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth, combined with fraud,” U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said at a news conference Tuesday. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
Singer’s efforts to bribe test administrators and college coaches extended past Texas to universities such as Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Wake Forest and Yale. A third cooperating witness indicated in the court documents was former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith, who resigned in November 2018 and who was charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services wire fraud, as well as with honest services wire fraud.
Meredith, 51, who began coaching at the school in 1995, was accused of, among other things, having designated an applicant “as a recruit for the Yale women’s soccer team — thereby facilitating her admission to Yale — despite the fact that, as he knew at the time, [the applicant] did not play competitive soccer.” He also told her parents that he would “revise” the materials in her art portfolio to “soccer,” per court documents, and after she was admitted to Yale, Meredith was paid by her parents and other relatives a total of approximately $1.6 million.
Yale President Peter Salovey said Tuesday that he was “profoundly dismayed and disturbed” by the investigation’s findings, but he emphasized that Meredith “no longer works at the university,” which he described as the “victim of a crime.” Salovey added, “The corrupt behavior alleged by the Department of Justice is an affront to our university’s deeply held values of inclusion and fairness. I want to assure our community that I am committed to making certain the integrity of the admissions and athletic recruitment processes is not undermined again.”
Others who were still with their schools Tuesday and who were quickly fired after being charged with racketeering conspiracy included: John Vandemoer, Stanford’s sailing coach; Jovan Vavic, USC’s water polo coach; and Donna Heinel, USC’s senior associate athletic director. Two more people associated with USC, former Trojans women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin and former women’s soccer assistant Laura Janke, were also charged.
Vandemoer, 41, pleaded guilty Tuesday in a Boston federal court, after he was accused of designating two children of Singer’s clients as recruits to his sailing team, despite neither having enough sailing ability to merit such consideration. In exchange, Vandemoer was said to have had a total of $270,000 directed to Stanford’s sailing program, and prosecutors asked for an 18-month sentence, less than he could receive, because he did not keep any of the money for himself (per the Boston Herald).
The 57-year-old Vavic has been arguably the biggest name in relation to his sport to fall thus far, as he won 16 national championships with the Trojans’ men’s and women’s water polo teams dating back to 1995. He has also won a slew of awards, including national coach of the year 15 times, as well as Pac-12 coach of the century, but he was terminated by USC after allegedly accepting a bribe from a parent to falsely tell a school athletics administrator that the parent’s son “would be the fastest player on our team.”
While Vavic was alleged to have received bribes totaling at least $250,000, authorities claimed Heinel took in more than $1.3 million to falsely portray applicants as athletes. Khosroshahin and Janke, both of whom had left USC by 2014 and went on to run a private soccer club, were accused of receiving $350,000 for similar actions.
Authorities said Singer reported to Janke in a 2016 episode that, for an applicant who was being falsely presented as a rowing coxswain, Heinel wanted a photo of an actual crew member in a “boat,” and he asked that Janke find examples of photos in which it was “tough to see the face.” Singer also provided Janke with a falsified list of regattas in which the applicant had purportedly competed, for a profile to be submitted to USC.
At UCLA, men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo was placed on leave Tuesday after being charged with racketeering conspiracy, as were Wake Forest women’s volleyball coach Bill Ferguson and Rhode Island tennis coach Gordon Ernst, who held the same position at Georgetown when he was alleged to have participated in Singer’s scheme. A girl for whom Ernst vouched in 2015, per court documents, falsely claimed to have had, among other credentials, a “Top 50 ranking” in the U.S. Tennis Association junior rankings for her sophomore through senior years of high school.
In all, the 52-year-old Ernst was accused of receiving bribes amounting to $2.7 million between 2012 and 2018 for having “designated at least 12 applicants as recruits for the Georgetown tennis team, including some who did not play tennis competitively, thereby facilitating their admission to Georgetown.”
In a statement Tuesday to the Georgetown community (via NBC 4), university administrators said that Ernst “has not coached our tennis team since December 2017, when he was placed on leave after the Office of Undergraduate Admissions identified irregularities in his recruitment practices and the University initiated an internal investigation.” They added that a Georgetown investigation found that Ernst “had violated University rules concerning admissions,” and they said he subsequently “separated” from the school.
The student-run Georgetown Voice reported a news release was removed from the Georgetown Athletics website Tuesday afternoon that announced Ernst’s resignation from the school and praised his accomplishments there without noting the nature of his departure. The University of Rhode Island said in a statement that Ernst, who was hired in August 2018, “has not been involved in the recruitment of any current players nor in the signing of any new recruits.”
Of Ferguson, who was accused of taking $100,000 from Singer to help a client’s daughter gain admission to Wake Forest, the school said it was “aware of the allegations” regarding the coach and had “retained outside legal counsel to look into this matter.” In a message Wednesday, Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch said his staff had “no reason to believe the student was aware of the alleged financial transaction” involving Ferguson.
That assessment jibed with one offered by federal authorities, who said in a court document that “in many instances, the students taking the exams were unaware that their parents had arranged for this cheating.”
Describing the charges as “troubling” and “a concern for all of higher education,” the NCAA said Tuesday that it was “looking into these allegations to determine the extent to which NCAA rules may have been violated.” A sports attorney told The Post that coaches generally are not required to demonstrate to their universities’ admissions offices that people they designate as recruits actually possess sufficient athletic skills.
“You assume that a coach is not going to spend any time recruiting a player that doesn’t have the ability to participate in the program,” said the attorney, Don Jackson. He added that there “may be some culpability that will fall on the schools for lack of institutional control,” once the NCAA is able to gather more information.
Dan Cogdell, the attorney for Center, the fired Texas coach, said Tuesday that his client was “innocent” and would plead not guilty when he is set to appear in a Boston court later this month.
“He’d have to be dumber than a bucket of hair not to be devastated by the accusation,” Cogdell said (via the Texas Tribune). “But he’s a strong person, he’s got great character, and he’ll get through this.”
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