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Operation Varsity Blues

Author: Bill Meagher
January, 2020 Issue

Editor's Note: This story was edited on January 17, 2020, to better reflect the fact that William McGlashan did not pay to have his son admitted to USC. While other defendants in the Varsity Blues scandal did pay to take advantage of side door admission paths at various schools, McGlashan did not.  

William McGlashan Jr. had it pretty good. As a millionaire private equity executive, he counted U2’s Bono as a personal friend, and had a beautiful house in Mill Valley.

Then he decided to help his kid get into college.

McGlashan was scooped up by federal agents in March 2019 and is currently facing a variety of federal charges, and he’s not alone in the North Bay. Diane and Todd Blake of Ross were also arrested and are out on bail. Agustin Huneeus Jr., of Huneeus Vintners in Napa, is as they say, already inside.

Those are just four of the defendants in the scandal known as the Varsity Blues, a bribery and fraud fest that ensnared almost 50 suspects across the country, all in the name of getting kids into the right school. The scandal was named by the feds after a 1999 movie. That irony was not lost on actresses Felicity Huffman and Laurie Loughlin who were also arrested. Huffman, best known for the TV series Desperate Housewives, pleaded guilty and did 13 days in jail. Loughlin plead not guilty and her case is ongoing. She is best known for staring in the sitcom Full House.

The list of universities caught in the harsh glare of the federal spotlight in Boston is impressive and includes Yale, Wake Forest, Georgetown, the University of Texas, the University of San Diego, UCLA, USC and Stanford.

By now, Varsity Blues has almost entered parable territory. Parents looking for a path to get their child into a desirable college reached out to a well-connected man named William Singer. A classic fixer, Singer not only knew the ways of college access, he had keys to side doors of college admission offices across the country. Through a network of test takers, proctors and coaches Singer made it possible for parents to get their kids into school as athletic recruits by simply falsifying tests, submitting phony athletic profiles, and writing big checks.

Parents would write a check to an athletic department and then write another to Singer’s nonprofit, thus washing the cash at the same time. And with the dollars greasing the skids, the student was headed into the designated university.

Singer pleaded guilty in March 2019 to four charges related to cheating on standardized tests and bribing college coaches and administrators. He has been cooperating with federal authorities and has not yet been sentenced.

In all, 33 parents were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Many parents pleaded guilty, like Huneeus. He paid Singer $50,000 to see to it his daughter received 1380 out of 1600 on her SAT score. Huneeus also paid $50K of what would have ultimately been a bribe payment of $250,000, some of which would have lined the pockets of a USC coach so his daughter would be admitted as a water polo player.

After he pleaded guilty last October, Huneeus received a sentence of five months in prison, a fine of $100,000 and 500 hours of community service. In a late September letter to the judge asking for a lighter sentence, Huneeus noted that since his daughter was never admitted to USC, she did not deprive a student of a spot at the school. “I want to pay my dues and feel clean again,” he explained. Perhaps the judge was moved, the government wanted 15 months in jail, and Huneeus only received a third of that time.

McGlashan and the Blakes pleaded not guilty, deciding to fight the charges, which in some cases are tied to legal wiretaps. For their trouble, they saw charges added last October by federal prosecutors, who augmented the indictment with the crime of federal program bribery. Many observers saw the added charges as a punishment for not settling sooner. Hell hath no fury like a federal prosecutor scorned.
McGlashan and the Blakes are set for a status conference on Jan. 17. They do not need to attend according to the court. “The Prosecutor’s case against Mr. McGlashan is deeply flawed and ignores important exculpatory facts,” says a representative for McGlashan. “We look forward to presenting his side of the story.” The attorney for the Blakes did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Ironically, the scandal was only discovered when a microcap stock swindle was prosecuted and a guy named Morrie Tobin was looking to deal his way out. He told the FBI that the women’s soccer coach at Yale had asked him for almost half a million dollars to admit his daughter. Yale is a pretty good school, and Tobin is an alum and had already counted a pair of daughters with degrees from New Haven. Tobin took his sticker shock and went back to the coach wired.  The coach in turn, facing the wrath of the feds, gave up the Varsity Blues operation.

I know Tobin’s work from my day job, so when I discovered that he was arrested but not sentenced, I knew something was going on, but I had no idea he had kicked off this admissions debacle.

While the Varsity Blues saga has no doubt turned life upside down for the defendant’s families, and made the Department of Justice in Boston feel better about itself, the scandal points to a much larger issue.
For many in this country, the process of getting into college is fraught with the traditional questions. Are my grades good enough? Are my test scores high enough? Can my family afford the costs? Is the school too far away, too close? Is there financial aid available to me?

But the basics are no longer the driving force behind a tidal wave of anxiety and angst surrounding college admissions for students and parents, especially in the North Bay. It’s no longer about getting into college, but rather about getting into the “right school.” It’s a high-stakes puzzle on steroids where families are asked to bundle up Jr. in a tidy package consisting of good grades, advanced placement units, extra-curricular activities, public service, test scores, recommendations, interviews and essays.

“I think it’s important to understand that most parents and students are doing things the right way,” said Lars Christensen, the assistant superintendent for human resources and facilities for the Tamalpais Union School District in Marin. “But the system that families face to get their daughters and sons into colleges is increasingly complex and tests their integrity.”

Christensen proved to be the exception in speaking on the record about the college admissions process in the North Bay. Most administrators preferred to not touch the sensitive issue, or even to have their district’s name in the story.

He says his school is watching students take the SAT test multiple times with the idea of improving their scores as they become more comfortable with the process. Christensen also said that students are taking classes over, even if they did well, with the hopes of raising their grades, something that was unheard of 10 years ago.

Though Christensen's Tamalpais district has a high school in Mill Valley, McGlashan's son did not attend it. Instead, he was a student at Marin Academy, private college prep school in San Rafael. The$50K deal between Singer and McGlashan only covered his son taking the ACT test in Los Angeles where he would receive additional time to complete the exam and benefit from a test polish by Singer's contact.

Singer suggested that McGlashan's son could be presented for admission at USC as a football player despite the fact he didn't play. But unlike others charged in the Varsity Blues scandal, McGlashan did not pay for any access to SC via a side door, in this way setting the private equity exec apart from the others being prosecuted. But that didn't stop Singer from booting the idea around a little.

The fixer said the Marin Academy student could be admitted to USC as a placekicker. Singer planned to photoshop McGlashan's son's face onto the image of a kicker. Court documents show Singer telling McGlashan "The guy who runs the biggest kicking camp is a good friend, so we'll put a bunch of stuff about that on his profile.

McGlashan told Singer the idea sounded “perfect,” according to court documents. The Mill Valley resident is a former trustee at Marin Academy.

Integrity and ethics shouldn’t have been a challenge for McGlashan. He helped create the Rise Fund, a $2 billion portfolio of investments tied to the idea of doing well by doing good. He and U2’s Bono were the front men for Rise, with the focus on investment that leads to “meaningful, measurable and positive change.”

McGlashan created the fund at TPG Growth, a well-known private equity investment house where he was a managing partner before he was, take your pick, either fired according to the company, or quit according to McGlashan. He pleaded not guilty to all federal charges and his case is ongoing.

As a condition of a $1 million bail, McGlashan was forced to give up his passport. And when he made his case to a federal judge to allow he and his family to go south of the border for a long-planned spring break vacation, the judge said “no,” telling McGlashan to spend the holiday in a domestic way.

Christensen worries that the scandal will have a detrimental impact on kids working through the college application process. “We ask far more of our students today than at any other time,” he says. Christensen has been in education 36 years with 24 of those years spent as a principal in Napa and Marin. “We ask them to work hard, show up for school ready to learn, follow their passion, care about their school and treat others with respect. And if they do that, we tell them they will find a seat at a university they want to attend.”

There is a pause across the phone line like Christensen is gathering a thought, “For us [education professionals] the scandal was a news story with a perp walk. For our students, it was disheartening. They learned that they are doing everything the right way—and others are getting into schools ahead of them by cheating.”

Left unsaid by Christensen is a million dollar question; what are we teaching those students?
The uber competitive world of college admissions pushes some to cut corners, or seek advantages in ways far less brazen than a backdoor admission. One retired special education administrator in Marin says it was not uncommon to meet with parents who said their high school student had learning issues, though the disabilities had not been demonstrated via assessments, testing, observation or teacher feedback. “You would get to a point in an IEP [individual education plan] where you would talk with parents about accommodations, what we could do to aid a student, and with some parents you would brace yourself.  You knew what they were going to say—that they wanted extra time on tests though there was no demonstrated need for the extra time.”

She shook her head. “There was no need for extra time, but that’s what they wanted for the SATs.”   
According to court filings, McGlashan justified his going to bat for his son because a neuropsychologist had diagnosed the student with a learning disability. The student was given two days to complete the ACT and McGlashan’s payment to Singer’s nonprofit included his son’s entry receiving corrections.   

Seeking out edges and advantages can fall further below the radar. Kevin Anderson, a longtime counselor on the central coast, told the story of a former student who became creative with her personal essay. “To begin with, she cast herself as Latina because the advisor she paid to help her with the applications said her family was from Italy and with the Latin influence, she could refer to herself as Latina. Then she wrote that for the last two years she had been serving nutritious meals to low-income indigenous people. The truth was she worked in a deli serving sandwiches at $13 a pop.”

Sharon Baer is a Sonoma-based independent educational consultant who has spent the last 13 years helping families with the college application process, and she says the process has changed substantially since she began in 2006. “Back then, they didn’t feel the same pressure they do today. Our culture has made it seem like there is only one way to get there and the first step is critical.”

She says her clients too often “live in the state of hope.”

The Varsity Blues scandal vilified her profession, she says, when she and others are simply guiding students and families through a complicated process and she in part blamed the schools involved for failing to do “quality in-house due diligence” on the students coming in through the side door. And also mentions that many IECs do pro bono work with programs for first generation students, or for those on their own.

She called on colleges to be more transparent about the admissions process and for families to have more conversations focused on what they really want the college experience to be. “We live in a branded culture,” she says. “I hear about the same 20 schools from students all the time, but they aren’t really paying any attention to their ability to get in. They want what they want.”  

Her clients run the gamut from students who only want the Ivy League schools or the University of Californias to those focused on what they will get out of school, not where they are going.

Christensen echoed Baer regarding the need for universities to become clearer with what they are looking for in students. “Not knowing more and not understanding what schools want creates more frustration for kids and for their families, which serves no one,” he says.

One of the primary problems emerging from the overheated college admissions environment is the aggressive approach many students are fashioning in their pursuit of the right college. “Kids get so wrapped up in putting the right resume together, that I worry that learning takes a back seat to achievement,” says Christensen.

Baer points to students loading up on too many advanced placement courses in the name of wowing admissions officers, while Christensen worries about kids pushing themselves with public service projects. “They are doing some great things out in the community. I just don’t know when they sleep. I worry about them.”

Anderson thinks the way to take some of the pressure off students is to help them understand how competitive things have become and that a quality education can be had at schools not found at the top of everyone’s list. “UCLA will get more than 135,000 applications this year—not everybody’s getting in. I went to San Bernardino for grad school and it served me well, but kids hear that and go San Bernardino?”

At the end of the day, what do we know? We know that for some people the quest to get their prodigy into the right college knows no bounds. We know that a group of 20 universities seem to reside at the center of the universe. And we know the price of admission through USC’s side door is a cool quarter million dollars—but the orange coveralls are free.




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