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Parenting guru, 2 others plead guilty to paying bribes to get kids better ACT scores  2 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

BOSTON — Jane Buckingham built a career as a parenting and lifestyle guru, giving advice to young people and women about raising a family, building a career and even how to survive “sticky situations.”

But on Friday afternoon, Buckingham, author and CEO of the youth marketing company Trendera, became one of three new parents to plead guilty in the nation's largest-ever college admissions scandal. 

Marjorie Klapper, a jewelry business owner, and Robert Flaxman, a heavyweight real estate developer, also pleaded guilty at the same hearing. In separate agreements with the Justice Department, all three parents admitted to paying to have someone either take the ACT for their children or change their answers to boost scores.

Each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. They were appearing before U.S. District Judge Indira Walwani, who accepted the plea agreements. 

Buckingham, Klapper and Flaxman declined to comment as they left the courthouse. Their guilty pleas mean they waive their right to a trial and can't appeal the judge's sentence.

Buckingham, of Los Angeles, admitted to paying $50,000 to the ringleader of the nationwide admissions bribery scheme, Rick Singer, to have Mark Riddell, a private school counselor from Florida, take the ACT for her son. She later inquired about the same action for her daughter.

"I knew my son would take the test, and at some point he would get a higher score, but I didn't have an explanation as to how," Buckingham told the judge before pleading guilty.

Buckingham, 50, whose company specializes in tracking trends of youth, is the author of self-help series called, "The Modern Girl's Guide to Life," which also included "The Modern's Girl's Guide to Motherhood," "The Modern Girl's Guide to Sticky Situations" and "The Modern Girl’s Guide to Raising Decent Daughters."

The flagship book provides advice on entertaining, etiquette, housekeeping, basic home repair, decorating, sex and beauty. The guide to "sticky situations" is billed as a handbook to survive "headaches, pickles, jams, and everyday emergencies."

The books were turned into a television series on the now-defunct Style Network. More recently, Buckingham hosted the ABC Family television series "Job or No Job."

Klapper, 50, of Menlo Park, California, the co-owner of the jewelry company M&M Bling, admitted to paying $15,000 to Singer's sham nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation, to have Riddell correct answer's on her son's ACT.  

Reading prepared remarks to the judge, Klapper said she "willingly and remorsefully" admits her guilty but had no knowledge of the other participants in the scheme when she paid Singer.

Flaxman, 62, president and CEO of a Los Angeles-based real estate firm Crown Realty & Development, admitted to paying $75,000 to have Riddell change answers on his daughter's ACT exam. Flaxman, who resides in Beverly Hills, California, specializes in developing luxurious resorts. 

The three defendants are the 17th, 18th and 19th to plead guilty in the Justice Department's sweeping "Varsity Blues" case out of 50 people charged. That includes 13 parents. 

Each defendant faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, but prosecutors have recommended the low-end of sentence guidelines because of their guilty pleas:

The government has also agreed not to bring additional charges against the defendants.

Klapper's sentencing hearing is set for Oct. 16; Flaxman's, Oct. 18; and Buckingham's, Oct. 23. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Wright told the judge that telephone calls, emails, other documents and witness testimony prove Buckingham's guilt. Buckingham's $50,000 payment came in June 2018 for Singer to arrange for Riddell to serve as the proctor at a test center in Houston on behalf of Buckingham's son the next month.

Riddell had been given a sample of the son's writing so he could copy his handwriting. The plan was for Buckingham's spouse to pay an additional $15,000 to Singer.

Wright said Singer sent the center's test administrator Niki Williams money in exchange for allowing Riddell to serve as the proctor. Riddell, who was paid as well, has pleaded guilty to charges related to being the test-taker in Singer's scheme while Williams has pleaded not guilty.

Buckingham's son took the exam on July 14, 2018, and later scored a 35 out of 36.

Two days before, Buckingham had told Singer by phone, "I have faith in you," according to a transcript that's in the criminal complaint against Buckingham. But by this point, unbeknownst to Buckingham, Singer was cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In a wiretapped phone conservation on July 12, prosecutors say the following exchange occurred:

Singer: "Okay, so your donation is gonna be 50. It’ll -- it’ll end up being through our foundation."

Buckingham: "Okay."

Singer: "And I’m already sending a check to the proctor today, and to Niki today,

’cause she said, 'I gotta have the money first.'"

Buckingham: "Okay."

Singer: "I said, 'Niki, I have been doing this forever.' She said, 'I get it, but this

like, this is crazy.'"

Buckingham: "Yeah. I know this is craziness, I know it is. And then I need you to get

him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East."

After her son got his scores back, Buckingham then inquired about the same arrangement for her daughter, who she told Singer by phone was a poor test-taker. Buckingham said she would need to get a 35 to get into the school of her choice but that a 32 or 33 would "make her pretty competitive."

Prosecutors say Klapper reached out to Singer March 1, 2017 after learning that the daughter of businessman Peter Jan Sartorio – who pleaded guilty to charges on Wednesday – was planning to take the ACT at a center in Los Angeles. She asked whether her son could do the same.

Klapper's son eventually received 50 percent extra time on his ACT exam, according to prosecutors. They say Riddell flew from Florida on Oct. 27, 2017 to serve as the proctor at the West Hollywood Test Center for Klapper's ACT exam the next day. Her son scored a 30.

 “Omg. I guess he’s not testing again," Klapper wrote in a November email to Singer, to which he replied, "Yep he is brilliant."

Wright told the judge that "other relevant conduct" has been considered in the government's recommended sentence for Klapper. She did not elaborate. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Klapper's son was incorrectly listed as a being black and Hispanic on his Common Application.

Wright said Flaxman was introduced to Singer by Robert Zangrillo, a founder and CEO of a private investment firm who has also been charged by the Justice Department in the admissions case. Zangrillo has pleaded not guilty. 

Prosecutors say that Flaxman in October paid $75,000 to Singer's sham nonprofit organization in exchange for Riddell flying to Houston to change answers on his daughter's ACT exam.

Riddell told federal investigators that he advised Flaxman's son and a child of a co-defendant who was taking the exam the same time to answer questions differently so they did not have the same incorrect answers on their tests. It was to not raise suspicion by the ACT of cheating. 

She scored a 28 after earning scores of 24 and 20 on her own earlier in the year.

In the original March complaint against Flaxman, prosecutors had also alleged that Flaxman's son was admitted to the University of San Diego as an athletic recruit with fabricated credentials. They said Flaxman's company wired two separate donations of $125,000 to Singer's nonprofit following the son's acceptance. But the alleged $250,000 payment was ultimately not part of Flaxman's guilty plea.

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