'Smart guy' Florida test taker pleads guilty in U.S. college admissions scandal

BOSTON, April 12 (Reuters) - A former counselor at a Florida private school pleaded guilty on Friday to secretly taking college placement tests for the children of wealthy parents as part of the largest admissions fraud scheme uncovered in U.S. history.

Mark Riddell, 36, was charged from a role in the scheme that prosecutors said allowed wealthy parents including the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin to use cheating and bribes to help their children secure spots at universities like Yale, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.

Riddell pleaded guilty in Boston federal court to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, prosecutors said on Twitter. Asked at a news conference in March how Riddell knew the exam answers, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said he was "just a really smart guy."

Riddell is among 50 people who prosecutors say participated in schemes to cheat on entrance exams and pay $25 million in bribes over eight years, before a wave of arrests in last month's "Operation Varsity Blues."

California college admissions adviser William "Rick" Singer has pleaded guilty to facilitating the cheating scam and bribing coaches to present the parents' children as fake athletic recruits.

Prosecutors said that as part of the scheme, Singer arranged beginning in 2012 to have Riddell either secretly take SAT and ACT college entrance exams in place of his clients' children or correct their answers.

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Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin arrive at Boston courthouse
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Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin arrive at Boston courthouse
Actress Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court in Boston on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3: Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, wearing green tie at left, leave the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on April 3, 2019. Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among 13 parents scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston Wednesday for the first time since they were charged last month in a massive college admissions cheating scandal. They were among 50 people - including coaches, powerful financiers, and entrepreneurs - charged in a brazen plot in which wealthy parents allegedly schemed to bribe sports coaches at top colleges to admit their children. Many of the parents allegedly paid to have someone else take the SAT or ACT exams for their children or correct their answers, guaranteeing them high scores. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3: Actress Lori Loughlin, in tan at center, leaves as her husband Mossimo Giannulli, in green tie at right, follows behind her outside the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on April 3, 2019. Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among 13 parents scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston Wednesday for the first time since they were charged last month in a massive college admissions cheating scandal. They were among 50 people - including coaches, powerful financiers, and entrepreneurs - charged in a brazen plot in which wealthy parents allegedly schemed to bribe sports coaches at top colleges to admit their children. Many of the parents allegedly paid to have someone else take the SAT or ACT exams for their children or correct their answers, guaranteeing them high scores. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Actress Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court in Boston on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Actress Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court in Boston on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Actress Lori Loughlin, front, and husband, clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, rear, depart federal court in Boston on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Actress Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court in Boston on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Actress Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court in Boston on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, to face charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3: Actress Lori Loughlin, in tan at right, and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, in green tie behind her, leave the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on April 3, 2019. Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among 13 parents scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston Wednesday for the first time since they were charged last month in a massive college admissions cheating scandal. They were among 50 people - including coaches, powerful financiers, and entrepreneurs - charged in a brazen plot in which wealthy parents allegedly schemed to bribe sports coaches at top colleges to admit their children. Many of the parents allegedly paid to have someone else take the SAT or ACT exams for their children or correct their answers, guaranteeing them high scores. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 3: Actress Felicity Huffman, center, leaves the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on April 3, 2019. Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among 13 parents scheduled to appear in federal court in Boston Wednesday for the first time since they were charged last month in a massive college admissions cheating scandal. They were among 50 people - including coaches, powerful financiers, and entrepreneurs - charged in a brazen plot in which wealthy parents allegedly schemed to bribe sports coaches at top colleges to admit their children. Many of the parents allegedly paid to have someone else take the SAT or ACT exams for their children or correct their answers, guaranteeing them high scores. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Actress Lori Loughlin, front, and husband, clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, left, depart federal court in Boston on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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Singer admitted to advising his clients to seek extra time for their children to take the exams, including by claiming they had learning disabilities, and then have their children take the exams at two test centers he controlled.

He controlled those test centers, a Texas high school and a private college preparatory school in California, by bribing test administrators who would then allow Riddell to proctor the exams and carry out the cheating, prosecutors said.

Riddell, who worked at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, received $10,000 for each student's test, prosecutors said.

In exchange, Singer's clients paid him $15,000 and $75,000 per test by making donations to his charity, according to prosecutors. Many children were unaware their parents arranged for the cheating, prosecutors said.

The clients included Huffman, who paid to have Riddell in 2017 secretly correct her daughter's answers on the SAT, prosecutors said.

Huffman and 12 other parents agreed on Monday to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Richard Chang)

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