William "Rick" Singer, the Newport Beach, California man at the head of an elaborate, $25 million fraud to get students of wealthy families into top-rated colleges by cheating on college admissions exams and bribing coaches and admissions officers, has a long history of dealing with Silicon Valley clients.
In one Facebook post for his business, The Key, Singer claims to have shared his "secrets" with clients seeking help for their children with college admissions, including John Doerr, managing partner of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins in Menlo Park; the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs; Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun MicroSystems; and famed NFL quarterback Joe Montana and his wife, Jennifer.
In a tweet on Thursday, Montana confirmed he was one of Singer's clients who gave "minimal consulting services" to his family. "Fortunately our kids were able to pick from a number of schools to attend due to their hard work and their merit," Montana wrote.
(The Weekly's requests for comment Tuesday from some of the purported clients were not immediately returned.)
Though Singer's business was founded in Sacramento and then moved to Newport Beach, Singer was no stranger to Palo Alto area families. He would drive into the Bay Area to spend time with a "circuit" of local clients, according to one Palo Alto father whose daughter met with Singer in 2011 and who asked to remain anonymous.
The Palo Alto father said he paid Singer $5,000 for about seven months of counseling, which involved visits to their home, emails and phone calls. He was connected to Singer by another parent, a prominent venture capitalist who "recommended him as a helpful admission adviser." Other parents in that person's firm had also used Singer in the past, the father said.
While calling Singer an "aggressive guy," the father said the college counselor never mentioned bribery, large donations or falsifying tests to his family.
"He did have a legitimate business. I feel bad for other people like my kid and families in my situation where they’re like, 'Oh my god, we worked with this guy. Did we cheat? Did we do something wrong?' I don’t think we did. What we did is what other people do. There’s a whole industry of these people that read college essays and help you. That was definitely a piece of his business and that's the piece we used."
But Singer offered other services, including personal branding, which rubbed them the wrong way. The father said Singer told them about students he had helped start nonprofits and host conferences or events to boost their applications.
The father said Singer’s own background in athletics and as a sports coach came through in his college counseling. There was a sense of, "'This is a game and we're going to win, and I’m going to coach you on how to win,'" the father said.
"On the one hand you kind of like that — I don’t want to be passive in this process; I want to be assertive; I want to be thinking about what I need to do here. On the other hand, it was a little much."
The father said he didn't hire Singer again when his second child was applying to colleges.
According to The Key website, Singer had a 26-year career as a life coach and college counselor and was "widely recognized as an elite-level college admissions, sports, career, and life coach."
The Key provides one-on-one support for students to help design and realize a life plan, according to its website. The company is supposedly located in 81 cities throughout the U.S. and five overseas countries.
"The Key's clientele is all referral based; consequently, the quality of the service provided to many of the world's most renown families and individuals has provided an incredible foundation for The Key to grow its offerings worldwide."
Singer and his team coached more than 90,000 adults, the company claims.
"With their guidance, thousands of high school and college students have received guidance on the admissions process to either attain an undergraduate or graduate degree in every field imaginable," the website notes.
"Don't leave it to chance! Take the guesswork and frustration out of the college admissions equation," the company pitches on its website. "Even a small oversight or mistake in the college admissions process can make all the difference in your son or daughter gaining admission to the school of their dreams or receiving a valuable scholarship."
Through his nonprofit Key Worldwide Foundation, which according to the United States Attorney's Office was used to launder bribes, Singer claimed to fund organizations that further educational opportunities for underprivileged youth. But one Palo Alto-based charity that educated Cambodian children and was listed as having received nearly $40,000 in foundation grants said they had never received any money from Key Worldwide Foundation and never heard of Singer or the foundation until reporters began to call on Tuesday.
Elia and Halimah Van Tuyl, a former real estate appraiser and teacher, respectively, formed Friends of Cambodia after visiting the country in 2005 to document efforts by a social philanthropist who funds projects in Southeast Asia. While there, they saw children scavenging in a garbage dump and started the fundraising organization to help the Centre of Children's Happiness in Cambodia, which had a residential school program. The Van Tuyls also raised funds to get the children through college, and in December disbanded their efforts, deeming their mission completed, Elia Van Tuyl told the Weekly.
Friends of Cambodia, which was not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit but was under the umbrella of another organization, shows up as a grant recipient on Key Worldwide Foundation's Form 990, which is required of nonprofit organizations by the Internal Revenue Service. The foundation listed Friends of Cambodia as receiving more than $19,000 in 2015 and $18,550 in 2016. Notably, Friends of Cambodia is the only organization that actually supported children's education. The other recipients were mainly universities and athletics programs, some of which are now implicated in Singer's fraudulent scheme.
Van Tuyl said his organization never received any of the money Singer claimed to have given Friends of Cambodia and he has no idea why or how his tiny organization, which mostly received small donations in the hundreds of dollars, ended up being declared as having received such large sums.
"Everything I know I learned today," he said on Tuesday evening. "We never received donations from Key Worldwide. I checked my emails. It's a complete mystery to me how we got on their 990 along with a list of colleges."
The Van Tuyls did not have any bank account for their organization. "We don't exist as a nonprofit. No one could write a check to Friends that we could cash," he said.
"It just shows the frenzy and insanity of college admissions," he added of the scandal.
In 2000, Singer and three other educators created the University of Miami Online High School with a purported student population of over 18,000 students annually paying more than $15,000 per year tuition. The company was sold to Kaplan College Preparatory School.
Singer also claims to have been a top executive in the call-center industry. He joined The Money Store/First Union Bank and was executive vice president of West Corporation, according to his online bio.
• Listen to the March 15 episode of "Behind the Headlines," where Palo Alto college adviser John Raftrey discusses the implications of the nationwide admissions bribery scandal, now available on our YouTube channel and podcast.