LOS ANGELES (DPA) - The mother of a former Stanford student acknowledged that she paid US$6.5 million (S$8.9 million) to the man at the heart of the college admissions scandal, but said she was tricked into believing the sum would go towards scholarships, university salaries and programmes for needy students.
The woman now considers her daughter, Ms Yusi Zhao, to be a victim of a scam perpetrated by Newport Beach consultant William "Rick" Singer, according to a statement released on Thursday (May 2) on her behalf by a Hong Kong lawyer who said he represents the mother. He identified her only as "Mrs Zhao".
Ms Yusi Zhao, who also goes by Molly, was admitted to Stanford in March 2017. Her family, who live in Beijing, gave US$6.5 million the following month to Singer's foundation, according to the attorney, Mr Vincent Law.
Singer solicited the payment from Ms Zhao's mother, telling her the money would go towards staff salaries, scholarships and programmes at Stanford that help students who could not otherwise afford to attend the prestigious school, Mr Law said.
"This generous act was not only done for the good of the school and its students, but also done out of the love and support of Yusi by a caring mother," he said. He added that the payment was made "in the same nature" as donations that other wealthy families routinely make to universities.
The mother believed Singer's foundation was legitimate when she made the payment, Mr Law said.
Singer's business has since been exposed as a sham, one that he used to launder payments from parents and dole out bribes to coaches, a university official and test administrators.
Since the scheme was uncovered by the US attorney in Massachusetts, Mr Law said: "Mrs Zhao has come to realise she has been misled, her generosity has been taken advantage of and her daughter has fallen victim to the scam."
The mother, he added, is now "shocked and deeply disturbed".
No one in the Zhao family has been charged with a crime, and it's unclear how much the parents or their daughter knew about what Singer was doing to secure Ms Zhao a spot at Stanford. The family's attorney said Singer never guaranteed Ms Zhao a seat at a particular university and was in fact "surprised" to learn she had been admitted to Stanford.
Singer has pleaded guilty to four felonies and admitted to committing an array of crimes.
To ensure Ms Zhao was admitted to Stanford, Singer targeted the school's sailing programme, representing her as a competitive sailor despite there being no indication she participated in the sport, sources familiar with the case said.
It was not immediately known with whom Singer worked inside the university. Stanford's former sailing coach, John Vandemoer, has pleaded guilty to racketeering and admitted working with Singer.
The US$6.5 million figure the Zhao family paid has stood out since prosecutors in the US attorney's office in Boston unveiled their case in March and said an unnamed client of Singer's paid that eye-catching amount.
While 33 parents have been charged so far in a sprawling investigation of fraud and deceit in the college admission process, none is accused of spending sums that even approach what Ms Zhao's family is said to have paid.
The only others known to have paid Singer more than US$1 million are the parents of Sherry Guo, another student from China, who paid US$1.2 million for help getting their daughter into Yale, Ms Guo's attorney has said. They have denied any wrongdoing through their attorney and have not been charged.
Although Ms Zhao and her parents haven't been accused in the scandal, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts have charged many parents implicated in the scheme with fraud and money laundering offences.
Fourteen parents have said they will plead guilty or already have done so.
In all, 50 people have been charged in the case - a group that, along with parents, includes several coaches from various universities, a University of Southern California athletics administrator, people who worked for Singer's college admission consulting business and others he paid to carry out aspects of his scam.