To nervous parents looking for an edge in the college-admissions process, it’s a familiar pitch.

Game the system. Everybody else does.

And indeed, William Rick Singer appears to have run a regular admissions-consulting business for a time, not unlike countless others in that wildly lucrative industry.

But the same cutthroat competition and parental anxieties that drive affluent Americans to hire tutors, editors, strategists and other experts helped Singer build an even more profitable business, which federal prosecutors described in a massive set of criminal charges unsealed Tuesday.

In that operation, wealthy parents -- including celebrities, a top mergers attorney and a venture-capital CEO -- paid Singer to get their kids into elite colleges using cash to pay off surrogate test takers and bribes so college coaches would designate applicants as athletic recruits, according to the charges. Parents paid a total of $25 million from 2011 to 2018, the government claims, to get their children a lock on a top school and the lifelong advantages that can flow from it. Singer claimed he engineered almost 800 bribes to coaches.

Singer, 58, pleaded guilty Tuesday to racketeering, money laundering, fraud and obstruction of justice. He started cooperating with authorities in September, after he was caught, and helped make cases against others. At a hearing in Boston, he also told U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel he had tipped off some families that he was wearing a listening device, warning them not to say anything incriminating.

“The striking thing to me is, once you get a group of people who are willing to lie as a group, there’s tremendous power in that, because the systems are not built to withstand attacks based on coordinated lies,” said Chris Falcinelli, founder of Focus Educational Services, a private tutoring firm in Brooklyn that also provides college counseling. “That’s what this was.”

Prosecutors called Singer the “mastermind” behind the plot, which appears to be the largest college admissions scam ever, leading to the arrest of dozens of parents, coaches and test administrators. Under his plea agreement, he faces a prison term and will forfeit more than $3.4 million. Sentencing is set for June 19.

Donald Heller, a lawyer for Singer, didn’t immediately respond to an email and phone message seeking comment.

Among college counselors in California, Singer was known as a “world-class braggart,” said Jon Reider, who retired last year as the director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School and is a former senior admissions officer at Stanford, one of the colleges where coaches or former coaches were implicated in the plot. None of the schools or students were charged.

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