News


Palo Alto couple faces money-laundering charge in college-admissions scam

Amy and Gregory Colburn allegedly funneled $25,000 into a charitable foundation purporting to help underprivileged children

A doctor and his wife accused in a college admissions bribery scheme face an additional felony charge, conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to a new indictment released by a federal grand jury on Tuesday.

Palo Alto residents Amy Colburn, 59, and Dr. Gregory Colburn, 61, are now accused of two felonies for their part in a nationwide scam to fraudulently snag coveted spots at major universities involving at least 50 people. The money-laundering accusation is in addition to a previous charge of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud, which federal prosecutors filed earlier in March.

The Colburns are among 33 wealthy parents who allegedly paid off a cabal that included a college-admissions coach, a test proctor, university athletics coaches and admissions officers to get their children into top universities, including Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California, according to federal prosecutors. Scam ringleader William "Rick" Singer told clients that he could get their children into the highly competitive colleges through a "side door" and the bribes were a routine way to game the system.

The scheme allegedly faked college-admissions test scores and produced fraudulent athletics profiles to facilitate acceptance into coveted colleges in exchange for money and stocks. As much as $25 million exchanged hands, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Massachusetts, which filed the indictments.

Ten of the parents have connections to Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and surrounding cities, including the Colburns. The latest charge against the couple stems from a wiretap made by federal authorities in October 2018. The recording captured the couple allegedly agreeing to support lies told to the Internal Revenue Service by Singer. He told IRS investigators that $25,000 in bribes and other payments the Colburns made and funneled through his charitable organization were for donations to the Key Worldwide Foundation and would benefit needy children to have better educational opportunities.

For his part, Gregory Colburn allegedly transferred $24,443.50 in stock to the foundation to facilitate the cheating scheme for his son in December 2017. The foundation then issued a letter to Colburn falsely indicating that "no goods or services were exchanged" for his $25,000 donation. Colburn issued a check to the foundation for $547.45 on Dec. 30 and wrote "charitable donation" in the memo, according to the indictment.

On Oct. 24, 2018, Singer called the Colburns from Boston, Massachusetts. He told Amy Colburn the Internal Revenue Service had asked him about the payments for her son's March 10, 2018 SAT test in southern California at the West Hollywood Test Center, where Singer sent his clients' children to cheat on the college-admissions tests.

"OK, is that a problem?" Amy Colburn allegedly replied.

Singer said that he was not going to mention to the IRS that Mark Riddell, a Florida man Singer had brought in to "proctor" the exams, had taken the test for their son.

"Mmm-hmmm," Amy Colburn allegedly said.

Singer said he told the IRS that her payment "went to the foundation to help underserved kids."

"OK," Amy Colburn responded.

Singer also spoke to Gregory Colburn during that same phone call. He said that he was not telling the IRS that Riddell took the test for his son at the West Hollywood Test Center.

"And just in case they were to call you, I just wanted to -- because I've already told them that, you know, this -- essentially this payment was made to our foundation in lieu of, but we both know that, Mark took the test for (your son). But I just wanted to make sure that we don't -- we're all on the same page," Singer said.

Gregory Colburn allegedly replied, "Right. It was to help underserved kids ... Got it. No problem."

Riddell and Igor Dvorskiy, owner of the West Hollywood center where students took the tests, each received $20,000 each from Singer for their work regarding the tests for the Colburns' child and another student who took the exam at the same time.

The Colburns' son's score was 1190 out of a possible 1600, which was submitted as part of his college applications in November 2018 to Texas Christian University, Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Oregon and the University of Arizona.

The Colburns are being represented by attorneys David Schumacher and Patric Hooper of the Boston law firm Hooper, Lundy & Bookman PC. In a statement, the attorneys said the Colburns completely deny the allegations in the indictment.

"The Colburns' son took his SAT test with no assistance, and the couple were unaware that his test was altered in any way," the attorneys said.

"These types of heavy-handed tactics have resulted in widespread criticism against the DOJ in Boston and nationally. The government has cast its net too widely in this investigation. The Colburns have done nothing wrong and are shocked by the indictment out of Boston, where they have no ties. They will seek a speedy trial to clear their names through their counsel," the attorneys said.

Since the indictment, the Colburns' lives have been turned upside down, their attorneys said. They were arrested at their home in front of their children. The Colburns ask that members of the public respect their privacy and especially the privacy of their son, the statement said.

Gregory Colburn, a radiation oncologist, will be taking a leave of absence from his work so he can devote his full attention to defending his wife and himself against the charges, the attorneys said.

The Colburns' initial appearance in federal court in Boston was scheduled for this Friday, March 29, but that date has been canceled, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. A new date for an appearance hasn't been scheduled by the court.

A conviction on each charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and three years of supervised release, in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines associated with the scheme.

Related content:

• 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.

Feds: Parents paid tens of thousands to game the admissions system

William 'Rick' Singer, head of college-admissions scam, had many Palo Alto connections

Pressure over college admissions 'out of control'

Stanford students file class action lawsuit in admissions scandal

Ex-global equity firm exec, a grad of Gunn High, implicated in admissions scam

Opinion: Making the college-admissions system more equitable

Opinion: Lessons parents should learn from the college-admissions scandal

Editorial: The audacity of privilege

In response to college-admissions scandal, Stanford to probe policies, current athletic recruits

$75K for a fake ACT score? Students say cheating happens without the big bucks

Following college-admissions indictments, feds investigate whether Stanford was lax in complying with financial-aid laws

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Comments

9 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 26, 2019 at 9:57 pm

What college did the boy attend? Has he been expelled?


33 people like this
Posted by What were they thinking?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 26, 2019 at 10:24 pm

What were they thinking? is a registered user.

@parent,
The boy is still a student at Paly.

Why pay $25K to get a score to increase/"guarantee" chances of getting into IU (75% acceptance), U of Oregon (80+%) or U of Arizona (80+%)? TCU is a bit tougher.

Now they've guaranteed that he won't get in anywhere.

An 1190? That's respectable, but not eye-popping. Why not just let him get into a school that would accept him for his own performance? What message have they sent to their son? Pathetic.


17 people like this
Posted by Just Saying
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 27, 2019 at 12:11 am

Maybe they didn’t do anything wrong... I can’t see why you’d cheat to get an 1190, and I’m not sure I trust anything that slime ball Rick Singer says! He’s just trying to get time off!
Those aren’t elite schools, I don’t think these people are the problem!


15 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Mar 27, 2019 at 12:45 am

I know I am probably in the minority here but although I think what they did was clearly wrong, I think the potential punishment is too harsh. Cheating is bad but people unfortunately cheat all the time in many different ways, both directly and indirectly in all different walks of life from elementary school to college to corporate America to politics to not disclosing every penny made while doing taxes. It's not ok but it happens and we all know it does.

Sadly, wealthy people have access to a lot of things that others don't, and these types of bribes are probably not all that uncommon in their circles (I assume, but am no where near wealthy so I don't know for sure). I think we should strive for fairness, of course, and make sure that admissions processes are re-evaluated so that this doesn't happen again. But it probably will nonetheless, in other more indirect ways. I would personally rather go after violent criminals who are likely to attack and physically harm people than these people. We need to hold violent offenders in prison so that they do not pose a threat to our communities. These people don't actually pose threats. They were just trying to help their kids succeed in a very poor manner and used terrible judgment. I bet the ring leader of all of this, Rick Singer, made this out to seem normal and common when interacting with the parents and I'm sure he was very persuasive in his sales tactics. He probably didn't give out too many details and downplayed the seriousness of what they were doing. I'm sure a part of what drew parents in was the network - knowing that this guy had strong connections, that other parents used his services, and all of that likely made it seem "ok" to them. Who knows. But my opinion is that they should be punished with fines but not long term jail time, if any at all.


38 people like this
Posted by Javier
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Mar 27, 2019 at 1:14 am

Why is it that the article doesn’t contain not one picture of the Colburns? I bet you had they been a family of color from East Palo Alto a picture would be linked to this article.


19 people like this
Posted by Rolando
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Mar 27, 2019 at 7:40 am

Incredible. Chances are this 'concept' has been going on for awhile...curious as to how far back as some kids have probably already graduated from their respective colleges & universities.

> Why is it that the article doesn’t contain not one picture of the Colburns? I bet you had they been a family of color from East Palo Alto a picture would be linked to this article.

Because in some circles, they are considered worthy of special consideration (i.e. public privacy) based on ethnicity, position & wealth.


5 people like this
Posted by HMMMM
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2019 at 8:09 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


9 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of El Carmelo School
on Mar 27, 2019 at 8:19 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


17 people like this
Posted by MidtownMama
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2019 at 11:20 am

@Javier, I agree that in order for Palo Alto Weekly to be fair and avoid racial hypocrisy, they should post photos of all the Peninsula parents just like they post photos of all other folks arrested for other reasons. Or Palo Alto Weekly should stop posting photos of those arrested altogether until someone is convicted. Do it one way or the other.

When the low-income black students who also were fraudulently promoted to elite schools as more than they actually were, by the principal of their sham private school, their photos were sadly posted all over the internet. For those privileged students who are found to have participated in cheating their way into their colleges and they are over 18, their names should also be made public.

It's only fair. Don't be hypocrites.


10 people like this
Posted by Screed
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 27, 2019 at 11:38 am

Something doesn't make sense here. Is the 1190 the score received BEFORE the cheating? 1190 is respectable but hardly worth that kind of money. Also the Universities listed are excellent schools but hardly Ivy league.


4 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Mar 27, 2019 at 12:05 pm

To be minimally credible, the new score could not be too much higher than the original score, which could have been very mediocre.


13 people like this
Posted by two kids
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2019 at 1:52 pm

"Cheating is bad but people unfortunately cheat all the time..."

Hmmmm... my parents has a stock phrase for just that situation.

Yours, apparently, is "cheating is really okay".


5 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 27, 2019 at 2:54 pm

Whats the point of this article
Sympathy?


7 people like this
Posted by Anon101
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 27, 2019 at 3:19 pm

@Javier: Here is a photo of both Greg and Amy Colburn: Web Link:

There are photos of their son on the internet but I don't want to post them. I feel sorry for this family. There is plenty of cheating going on in high schools and in college applications since there are too many applications to verify. Colleges should hire more admissions assistants to verify because it's too tempting to lie when college admissions are so rigorous.

His brother, Nick was Paly, Class of '82, now living in Orinda, according to the internet.

@Anonymous: Fines will not deter the wealthy! Prison time will deter them.

Goes back to the ethical question: "What would you do if no one could find out?" They thought so. Thanks, Rick.






12 people like this
Posted by Meritocracy
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2019 at 3:37 pm

As a parent of a kid about to go through this process, I am thankful to the FBI for following up on a tip from another case and uncovering this massive fraud. This may only be the tip of the iceberg but hopefully it is making other cheaters or potential cheaters shake in their boots and reconsider their next step. At least it is shedding light on the faults in college admissions practices. The only sympathy I have is for the honest, hard working kids who got bumped off admit lists to make room for these scammers.


Like this comment
Posted by Be kind to the students
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 27, 2019 at 3:59 pm


While it’s good that this has all been uncovered, I agree with post above that jail time for the parents bit much.

Community service, hefty fines, and hopefully a lot will happen to improve conduct with college admissions - hold the testing companies, Universities etc accountable as well.


6 people like this
Posted by TJ
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 27, 2019 at 5:38 pm

Loads of people have been laundering money in Palo Alto
Finally something is being done
Get in weibo and learn more folks


Like this comment
Posted by This Kid
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 27, 2019 at 7:05 pm

[Post removed.]


6 people like this
Posted by Hmm
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 27, 2019 at 7:22 pm

Wow, FBI, good catch on Singer and all! Kinda makes me want to work for the government to catch bad guys. . . if only it paid better.


Like this comment
Posted by 1190
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 27, 2019 at 7:58 pm

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 27, 2019 at 9:27 pm

Many of us do not condone cheating, misrepresentation, fraud, lying.
It CAN be rough when peer students brag about themselves and one observes naughty tactics.

I think the parents who are convicted hopefully don’t get deals and do serve brief jail time.
The college application process needs to be clean.

I’ve been bemoaning and decrying the (in advance of a course) parent-paid-tutoring and Tiger Mom schemes for years.

Students: be authentic and own your own lives, experiences, scores, applications.

Sheesh. We now hear of moms contacting professors of....master’s degree students!
Talk about helicopters and/or snowplow mommies.


4 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 27, 2019 at 9:47 pm

eileen is a registered user.

What do you mean by, "Get in weibo and learn more folks"?


19 people like this
Posted by Katie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2019 at 11:34 am

My heart breaks for this child. He was set up by his parents and now faces public shame. So what if his SATs weren't over-the-top? Such a pity that they don't have faith in their kid and that a CSU or another less 'prestigious' university or college isn't good enough for them. ugh.


3 people like this
Posted by Nikki
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Mar 29, 2019 at 7:17 pm

What happened to innocent till proven guilty..????
All you holier than thou types judging everyone. All commenting and speculating and you really haven’t got a clue....Were you there? None of us were.Really ....
Wouldn’t place too much credibility on this article. The journalist can”t even get Amy Colburn’s age correct.....


2 people like this
Posted by Jason Moy
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 29, 2019 at 8:23 pm

[Post removed.]


8 people like this
Posted by license
a resident of Mayfield
on Mar 30, 2019 at 1:50 am

If found guilty, Dr. Colburn is likely to lose his medical license, and with it his ability to practice medicine. Simliarly, "Varsity Blues" parents who are lawyers, will likely lose their licenses to practice law. It seems incredible to me that after all the hard work and expense that goes into becoming a doctor or lawyer, it could all be taken away with one moral lapse that reflects poorly on one's character. OTOH this was a pretty big lapse.


3 people like this
Posted by Bill Bucy
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2019 at 9:53 am

Bill Bucy is a registered user.

It bothers me to see people define the behavior alleged as "cheating," something like improving the lie of your golf ball.

If these people did what the feds allege they committed fraud, -- a crime deemed serious enough to be punished by prison sentences and fines. Fraud doesn't get re-defined as cheating simply because the perpetrators are wealthy or live in a nice house or committed the crime because they wanted their kids to do well in life.


3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 30, 2019 at 12:47 pm

"Wouldn’t place too much credibility on this article. The journalist can”t even get Amy Colburn’s age correct....."

Well, I guess that completely exonerates Colburn. :-|


"Fraud doesn't get re-defined as cheating simply because the perpetrators are wealthy or live in a nice house or committed the crime because they wanted their kids to do well in life."

Sir: What planet have you been living on? I want to go there.


11 people like this
Posted by Anon101
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 31, 2019 at 8:35 pm

@Jason Moy: You didn't read the article. USC was the Full House actress' daughter. The Colburn's son applied to "Texas Christian University, Indiana University Bloomington, the University of Oregon and the University of Arizona." It's really a pity that the parents had to cheat to get into those schools, making this whole situation even more embarrassing for them. In regular lanes at Paly, he could have been accepted to those schools if he just lifted a finger. It's the AP classes that are killer at Paly and Gunn. All he needed was Bs and some As in the regular lanes (doable without tutors) but the parents should have just paid for tutors and this nightmare would not have occurred. UA and ASU are considered back-up schools by Palo Alto standards because they have low admissions requirements due to having lots of open spaces because people are deterred by the heat, but UA is a nice campus and a good school. ASU has well-ranked programs even though it was considered a party school in the past.


11 people like this
Posted by UA
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2019 at 11:38 pm

My 2.0 GPA daughter was accepted at University of Arizona even though she never actually submitted the application she started on their website. Like MANY other colleges (including a number of decent privates) the criteria for admission seem to be 1) a heartbeat and 2) the ability to pay at least a portion of the tuition.


Like this comment
Posted by CMC
a resident of another community
on Apr 8, 2019 at 3:37 pm

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by PapaBear
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 13, 2019 at 5:58 am

To the person who suggested the student has a brother class of '82, that doesn't make any sense. His parents probably graduated closer to 1982 given their ages. A HS class of 1982 student would be in their 50s today.

I don't understand comments from people saying the parents shouldn't have been so worried about prestige. Universities of Oregon and Arizona are absolutely fine schools, but they aren't reach schools people try to get into to brag about at cocktail parties. It's hard to imagine the student didn't have a strong shot at them even with a low SAT score, especially paying full out-of-state tuition. This kid wasn't applying to super select schools. There are other parents like this indicted who do not have students at T-20 schools (Nova Southeastern, Boulder.) I don't know what it was about; laziness?


3 people like this
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 13, 2019 at 1:05 pm

Yes, fraud is a crime. So is money laundering. And so are the various conspiracies detailed in this article.

However, these parents (whose celebrity status makes them meat for the media) responded to a well established culture of quid-pro-quo college admissions practices the burden of which rests with the colleges and universities themselves.

Why? These institutions have, perhaps since forever, been highly responsive in their admissions practices to not only "legacy admissions," but also to generous donations to their endowments by affluent parents. Or, to put it bluntly, the universities themselves created this culture of money greasing the admission wheels.

Those parents whose names today are so prominently displayed in the media have, apparently, over-stepped the rules of the game, illegally to be sure, but they have done so in a culture -- the limits of which they obviously didn't fully understand -- in which it has been a long standing practice for university development offices to not discourage parental generosity as a buy-in for their kid. Au contraire.

Don't we often ask ourselves, say, about somebody who has become President for instance, how did they ever get into and through college? We know the answer, don't we!

Which is to say, there's more than enough blame to go around.


3 people like this
Posted by Anon101
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 15, 2019 at 3:45 pm

@PapaBear: Greg Colburn (the father) has a brother, Nick, who lives in Orinda, Class of '82. Uof OR, UofAZ, and ASU are very good schools, but embarrassing to Palo Alto subculture because they aren't as rigorous for admittance. Arizona schools have lots of openings so their requirements for admission are easier. Doesn't mean they are easier schools. ASU has actually risen in their status but will always be considered lesser to the Palo Altans who want more bragging rights. Fortunately, students can opt-out of the annual Paly college map these days, it's really no one's business, just fun bragging rights for the Top 10%. This year was particularly tough for college admissions; it seems to get worse every year.


3 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 16, 2019 at 1:09 pm

The fact that the kid went to West Hollywood to take his exam suggests wrongdoing. Then the exam was corrected. These parents were recorded confirming the facts. They are guilty and at this point damage control is the only reaslistic option. Filing a motion to dismiss is not a good strategy. They will serve time in a federal penitentiary, which will be a good thing. Was it worth it?


2 people like this
Posted by Just Curious
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 16, 2019 at 2:51 pm

[Post removed.]


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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