Last December, at 7:21 am, a sporty man with a wide smile and a crack of his chin, tanned by the Florida sun, entered a test center in West Hollywood, California. Inside, he introduced himself as a supervisor of the examination of the teenage daughter of a wealthy New York lawyer who had been promised "home run home", as prosecutors would later say.
At 11:52, the girl completed the ACT test and left the test center to meet her father. The two men left leaving her supervisor, whom the federal authorities identified Tuesday as Mark Riddell, a college admissions reviewer who had come from Tampa, Florida, to review her answers. . His job, according to an indictment, was to make sure his father scored "32 or close enough", as his father wanted, willing to pay more than $ 75,000 to get there. "She'll think about having it," he assured him.
The variations of this plot, in which Riddell turned straw into gold like Rumpelstiltskin, occurred frequently from 2011 to 2018, which, according to the Department of Justice, is the biggest scam in terms of admission to the university never prosecuted. Fifty people were charged, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.
Prosecutors explained that this multi-million dollar operation had been orchestrated by a college preparatory consultant, William & # 39; Rick & # 39; Singer, who pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Boston for helping students cheat on their standardized tests, and to facilitate elite universities that have accepted fraudulent athletic credentials.
But the brain behind the operation was provided by Riddell, 36, who is scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston on Wednesday. Prosecutors allege that it was he who filled the bullets for the offspring of actresses, lawyers and business leaders – what investigators have called a "catalog of riches and privileges".
Riddell was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services, as well as conspiracy to launder money. He has been collaborating with the investigation since last February, prosecutors said, "prosecutors said," hoping to obtain clemency when he is sentenced. "
At the same time, he was "indefinitely suspended" from his position as director of exam preparation for entrance to the college's IMG Academy, a private sports academy and a preparatory school in Bradenton, in Florida, announced the school Tuesday night. He is also a former student of the academy, which has trained hundreds of Olympic and professional athletes. Tuition fees are $ 77,650 for residents and $ 61,650 for students per day.
From there, he went to Harvard, where he was dazzled as an NCAA Division 1 tennis player.
Riddell, who was raised in Sarasota, Florida, was named tennis player of the year in 1999 by the newspaper Herald – Tribune, his newspaper in his home town. His father is a leading lawyer in the real estate industry, graduating from Michigan State University and Wayne State University. A woman who answered the phone at the number indicated for her parents threatened to call the police and hung up.
Several phone calls to Riddell himself went unanswered Tuesday night.
He began his job as IMG's Exam Preparation Director in 2006 and lives in Palmetto, Florida, a suburban outpost of Sarasota.
The records show that he married a classmate and that he helps run the Harvard Club of Sarasota. He gave modest sums to local candidates, but he also stayed away from high profile debates and scandals. Clearly, he led a quiet life seemingly at odds with the shameless acts of fraud he is now charged with.
Riddell had no internal access to the exam companies that the parents involved in the program wanted so much better. What he had was a Harvard degree and good aptitude to pass tests.
Andrew Lelling, the US District Attorney for Massachusetts, presented this assessment of Riddell's usefulness: "He was a very smart guy."
"He did not have any inside information on the correct answers," Lelling said at a press conference Tuesday. "He was just smart enough to get an almost perfect score on demand, or to calibrate the score."
According to the indictment, Singer took Riddell to Houston and various places in California, where the so-called "master coach" had corrupted test administrators for their cooperation, and paid the graduate of Harvard $ 10,000 for each student that he corrected or completed entirely by himself.
Sometimes students thought they were going to do the tests themselves. On other occasions, Riddell has actively helped them during the examination, according to prosecutors. In the fall of 2015, according to authorities, he was sitting side by side with a student while she was finishing SAT at her high school in Belmont, California, bringing her answers. Later, he "jubilant" to get away from cheating. According to the authorities, in the summer of 2018, he finished the ACT in a hotel room in Houston for the son of Jane Buckingham, CEO of a marketing company, according to the 39, indictment.
Singer boasts that Riddell is his "best candidate," according to the federal indictment, and could "nail a goal, it's excellent".
Lelling echoed this assessment by addressing reporters on Tuesday, explaining how Singer would discuss with the parents their child's target score – which should be good but should also escape suspicion – and then order Riddell to be just enough good to do it. & # 39; & # 39;
Riddell's page on the IMG Academy website was removed on Tuesday. But a cached version includes the account of the internship of his homework and his references. As a "coordinator and manager" of the college entrance exam preparation, he was responsible for the school's test-preparation program and "also recruited tutors to meet the growing need for additional courses." year to year. [sic] tutoring, which allows IMG students to have private learning opportunities and personalize their educational experience. ''
Riddell, says the school, "is helping thousands of students enter the best American universities such as Stanford, Duke, Columbia, Dartmouth, the University of Chicago and many other notable institutions."
Before returning to IMG Academy, he briefly played professional tennis. He participated in 10 matches between 2003 and 2005, according to the records of the Association of Tennis Professionals. He went 0 for 10, earning $ 892 total.
His experience on the professional circuit could have been more different than his record at Harvard, where he held a prime spot as a first-year player. His wins earned him a complimentary cover in the college newspaper. A report of the decisive triumph of Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003 was marked by a play on words entitled "RID OF THEM".
Since returning to Florida, Riddell has been keeping a low profile.
His most public role has been as coordinator of Harvard Club Sarasota. In 2012, he organized a luncheon on the Supreme Court with Bill Cotter, professor of constitutional law and past president of Colby College.
"The Roberts Court has been moved to the right, but what does it mean for the future?", Wrote Riddell in a notice announcing the event. "With many historical cases already inscribed on the Supreme Court's role for the upcoming session, the impulse to give illusion to a real expert and insider Bill Cotter has been widely promoted."
For its part, it has largely deviated from conflicting political issues. The records show that he kept his local business by writing a check for 100 USD in 2016 for the campaign of a city commissioner of Sarasota.