A Palo Alto mother and father who paid $25,000 to facilitate cheating on their son's SAT exams were each sentenced to prison on Thursday, April 14, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts said in a press release.
U.S. District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton sentenced Dr. Gregory Colburn, 65, and Amy Colburn, 53, each to eight weeks in prison, one year of supervised release, 100 hours of community service and ordered them each to pay a $12,500 fine. The Colburns pleaded guilty on Dec. 7, 2021, to one count each of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services mail and wire fraud.
The couple, who initially pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, conspired with college admissions consultant William "Rick" Singer and others to cheat on their son's SAT exam. As part of the scheme, the Colburns paid Singer $25,000 in the form of purported donations to Singer's sham charity, the Key Worldwide Foundation. Singer bribed Igor Dvorskiy, a test administrator, to allow Mark Riddell, a test "proctor," to secretly correct the Colburns' son's SAT exam answers and obtain a fraudulently inflated score.
The Colburns switched their pleas to guilty in December just weeks before they were to stand trial. They previously steadfastly denied the charges. They faced a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater, if convicted.
In a joint sentencing memorandum filed in federal court, lawyers for the Colburns said their clients are "deeply remorseful. The Colburns have accepted responsibility for their conduct and are prepared to accept their punishment and move on with their lives."
And "while they had a comfortable life prior to this case, the Colburns do not remotely resemble the caricature of the typical 'Varsity Blues' defendant in the public view. Neither Greg nor Amy grew up with the trappings of wealth and privilege," the sentencing memorandum said.
While they may have received just eight weeks in prison, their lives have been shattered ways that are much more permanent, according to those who know the couple.
In 27 letters of support submitted to the court on their behalf, family and colleagues described the couple as giving and loving people who were not likely to offend again and who have faced immense consequences as a result of their actions and the public notoriety. They have lost their jobs and been shunned by their friends and community, the letters said.
The couple's eldest son said the charges call into question their parenting in the eyes of some, but they are "incredibly caring and supportive parents" and "continue to be people I look to for moral support."
He described how his mother didn't push him when he was disappointed and depressed by his math grades and that she tried to help him feel that such difficulties are just part of life.
Others described how Gregory Colburn, a radiation oncologist, left a more lucrative job in Seattle, Washington to serve at a nonprofit hospital, where he often cared for indigent patients.
Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, asked the court for a "meaningful" prison term for the Colburns in their sentencing memorandum. They quoted from a Jan. 26, 2015, email Amy Colburn wrote to the Palo Alto Unified School District regarding a purported cheating scandal by 10 students in an AP Calculus class at Palo Alto High School. Colburn wanted stiff academic consequences, including having all of the test scores of the 10 cheating students thrown out and for them to be given zeros.
"Since the tests are graded on a curve, this cheating scandal not only affects the cheating students, but everyone else's grades in the class. ... As a parent of a student taking this course, and for all (high-school) students and parents, it is important that the school be seen not only handing out appropriate consequences to those students who cheated but to be seen making grade reparations to all the honest students who have been adversely affected by this scandal."
Just a few years later, the Colburns paid Singer a $25,000 fake donation to bribe two individuals to cheat on their younger son’s SAT exam, lied about the payment on their taxes and then agreed to lie to cover-up their crimes, prosecutors said.
"The audacity it took for the defendants to publicly accuse children of cheating when it disadvantaged their own son, and then privately engage in cheating, fraud and bribery to benefit their other son, encapsulates the causes of the college admissions scandal and Varsity Blues cases. For an array of reasons — self-aggrandizement, arrogance and a belief that the rules do not apply to those with wealth and privilege — the defendants knowingly chose to break the law and engage in conduct that they obviously knew was wrong," the prosecutors wrote.
At the sentencing, Gorton addressed the Colburns: "You and many of your codefendants have already been punished for your selfish, brazen and frankly stupid conduct," Gorton said, according to an Associated Press article. "You both have time to make it up to the ones you love, and to society in general."
The Colburns are among a group of Bay Area residents who have or will be sentenced in the nationwide scam. Other residents who have taken plea deals and were sentenced to punishments ranging from fines with no jail time to a few months in prison with hefty fines include former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer; Menlo Park residents Marjorie Klapper and Peter Jan Sartorio; Atherton residents Manuel Henriquez and Elizabeth Henriquez; Hillsborough resident Marci Palatella; former TPG Capital senior executive William McGlashan Jr., previously of Palo Alto; and Napa vintner Agustin Huneeus Jr.
Hillsborough residents Bruce and Davina Isackson have pleaded guilty but have not yet been sentenced.