The University of Southern California was in the college-scandal spotlight again today as a California couple became the first parents to plead guilty in the nationwide admissions scam, admitting they paid at least $600,000 to get their daughters into USC and UCLA.
Bruce and Davina Isackson, who are cooperating with the government in its investigation of the racket, admitted they conspired to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud. Bruce Isackson, identified in court papers as the president of a real estate development firm, also pleaded guilty to two other conspiracy counts in federal court in Boston.
The couple hired the scam’s admitted ringleader, William Singer, to help falsify the college application of their eldest daughter, claiming she was a soccer player and winning her admission to the University of California at Los Angeles. The Isacksons tapped Singer again to get their second daughter into USC, the U.S. says.
At one point, according to a government wiretap transcript, Bruce Isackson contemplated getting caught and said to Singer, “Oh my God. It would be — yeah. Ugh.”
USC has become a nexus of the case, the biggest college admissions scam the Justice Department has ever prosecuted. It was there that Laura Janke, the former assistant women’s soccer coach, and Donna Heinel, the former senior associate athletic director, allegedly took bribes to put children of Singer’s clients on their recruiting lists, ensuring their admission. Heinel has pleaded not guilty. Janke, who is pleading guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge and cooperating with the probe, could be in a position to help the government build cases against still more parents.
The U.S. announced today that Toby MacFarlane, a title insurance executive and one of the parents in the case, would plead guilty to the mail fraud charge. According to court documents, MacFarlane paid $450,000 for Singer and Janke to get his daughter and son into USC as purported athletic recruits, respectively as a soccer and basketball player.
None of the applicants or colleges in the scandal have been charged, but the government appears to be widening its probe, and the Isacksons and MacFarlane could be useful by sharing what they know of how the plot worked. Of 33 parents charged in the case, 14 are pleading guilty, while 19 others are challenging the case.
During a hearing Monday on what evidence should be kept secret, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen cited emails between Singer and Heinel that contain the names of additional students Singer was touting for admission as student athletes. Rosen told the court it would be unfair if those names became public.
“There were parents who plotted with Singer at the beginning but withdrew for a variety of reasons,” he told the judge.
Gary Polakovic, a spokesman for USC, didn’t have an immediate comment on the new pleas or any other parents who sought to get their children into the school. The university has said it is reviewing the status of some students and beefing up its screening of athletic recruits.
In addition to the plot to create fake athletic profiles, the Isacksons were accused of scheming with Singer to boost their daughters’ entrance-exam scores.
“I know it’s a tough day, but do you feel mentally and physically all right?” U.S. District Judge Patti Saris asked Bruce Isackson, 62.
“Yes, your honor,” he replied, before the alleged crime was read out and he said, “Guilty.”
Davina Isackson’s voice faltered when she first addressed the court. The 55-year-old told the judge she had a master’s degree in biomedical engineering.
The government will seek leniency for the Isacksons if they provide “substantial assistance.” As matters now stand, Bruce Isackson faces about 37 months in prison and Davina Isackson faces about 27 months.
The U.S. claims the parents caught in its sting paid a total of $25 million to bribe coaches and for Singer’s test-taking surrogate, Mark Riddell, to ace the SAT or ACT for their children, funneling some payments through a charity Singer ran. Singer and Riddell have pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government.
One family from China allegedly paid Singer $6.5 million, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Another paid him $1.2 million to secure their daughter’s early admission to Yale as a soccer recruit, even though she’d missed the deadline. Federal prosecutors haven’t charged anyone in either family. The allegations were reported earlier by the Wall Street Journal.
The Isacksons, of Hillsborough, used Singer’s services three times, prosecutors said.
In 2016, they had Singer help them create the fake soccer profile for the first daughter, prosecutors said. He sent the profile to Janke, who sent it on to Ali Khosroshahin, the former head of women’s soccer at USC, the government claims. Khosroshahin allegedly then forwarded it to Jorge Salcedo, a soccer coach at UCLA at the time. Both Salcedo and Khosroshahin have pleaded not guilty.
The Isacksons ultimately paid Singer more than $250,000 in Facebook Inc. shares for these services, prosecutors said.
The next year, the Isacksons tapped Singer to get their second daughter into USC, first hiring him to improve her score on the ACT college entrance exam, the U.S. said. Singer also allegedly sent to Heinel a sports profile claiming the girl, actually an avid equestrian, was a varsity rower. To reimburse Singer for that effort, Bruce Isackson transferred more than $100,000 in stock to Singer’s charity, prosecutors said, and the couple later transferred almost $250,000 in stock to his foundation.
Heinel would go on to help Singer get other students in as recruited athletes even if they didn’t participate in the sports, the U.S. claims.
Then, last August, the Isacksons reached out to Singer for their youngest child and were caught on the wiretap talking about making a $100,000 donation to Singer to help her cheat on her entrance exam, prosecutors said. Singer was cooperating with the U.S. at this point and secretly recorded a meeting with Bruce Isackson in December.
The government said Isackson worried it would turn into a “front page story” about “getting these kids into school.” According to the FBI transcript, he spoke of “the embarrassment to everyone in the communities.”
In a statement last month after they agreed to plead guilty, the Isacksons said, “No words can express how profoundly sorry we are for what we have done. Our duty as parents was to set a good example for our children, and instead we have harmed and embarrassed them by our misguided decisions.”
Sentencing for the couple is scheduled for July 31.