Gregory and Marcia Abbott’s daughter’s scored so extraordinarily on the ACT – a 35, up from a 23 – when they paid $50,000 last spring for someone to correct her answers that they hoped to do the same for her SAT subject exams.
But they didn’t know the scheme’s mastermind, Rick Singer, by the fall was cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was wiretapping their phone calls about the next plot.
The wealthy couple, who reside in New York and Aspen, Colorado, on Wednesday afternoon became two of the latest parents to plead guilty in the nation’s sweeping college admissions bribery scandal in a deal with prosecutors armed with damaging evidence thanks to Singer’s cooperation.
Gregory Abbott, 69, is the founder and chairman of International Dispensing Corp., a food and beverage packing company and the former chairman of Ithaca Industries, a lingerie and underwear manufacturer. After paying to execute the ACT cheating scheme last April, the Abbotts paid an additional $75,000 in September for the same test-taker, Mark Riddell, to correct their daughter’s SAT II exam in Math II and English Lit, the couple admitted.
Peter Jan “P.J.” Sartorio, a 54-year-old packaged food entrepreneur from Menlo Park, California, also pleaded guilty to the same charges as the Abbotts – conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. At the same hearing, he admitted to paying $15,000 in cash to Singer in June 2017 to have Riddell to correct answers on his daughter’s ACT test.
Sartorio is the founder and president of P.J.’s Organics, which specializes in frozen burritos.
The Abbotts and Sartorio were appearing before U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani, who accepted their plea agreements.
“Guilty,” the Abbotts, who sat on opposite ends of the same table, said separately when asked how they plead. They were represented by different attorneys. “Guilty,” Sartorio said minutes later.
Gregory and Marcia Abbott declined to comment leaving Boston federal courthouse’s backdoor just now after pleading guilty to paying $125K to have someone change their daughter’s ACT and SAT subject scores. Gregory Abbott is the one shaking his head. His wife is walking in front. pic.twitter.com/pJ5p4E7yKH
— Joey Garrison (@joeygarrison) May 22, 2019
They are the 14th, 15th and 16th defendants to plead guilty in the Justice Department’s sweeping “Varsity Blues” case out of 50 people charged. Ten parents have now pleaded guilty and an additional four parents have agreed to plead guilty and await their court hearings.
Each faces maximum prison sentences of 20 years but because of their decisions to plead guilty – which waives their right to a trial and the ability to appeal the judge’s decision – prosecutors have recommended the low-end of sentencing guidelines:
A one-year – plus one additional day – prison sentence for both the Abbotts as well as a $55,000 financial penalty and 12 months of supervised released
A prison sentence between 0 to six months for Sartorio, a $9,500 financial penalty and 12 months of supervised release
The government has agreed not to bring additional charges. A sentencing hearing for the Abbotts is set for Oct. 8 and Sartorio for Oct. 11.
All three defendants left the courthouse through the back of the building and declined to comment. Gregory Abbott shook his head repeatedly as reporters peppered him with questions.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin O’Connell, made the prosecution’s case, pointing to phone calls, emails and witnesses that detail each of the defendants participation in a scheme to pay Singer to produce artificially high test scores for their daughters.
In a complaint filed against the Abbotts and other parents, the Justice Department says the Abbott’s daughter took the ACT at the West Hollywood Center in Los Angeles on April 13, 2018. She was joined by Riddell, who had flown in from Florida to be the proctor, and Igor Dvorskiy, who was the test administrator and allegedly another co-conspirator. Riddell has pleaded guilty to charges and Dvorskiy has pleaded not guilty.
The Abbott’s $50,000 payment was wired to Singer’s sham nonprofit The Key Worldwide Foundation around the same time. Prosecutors say three days later, Singer paid $20,000 to Dvorskiy and $20,000 to Riddell to cover $10,000 rates to work with the Abbott’s daughter and also the son of I-Hsin “Joey” Chen, another defendant who has pleaded not guilty.
The Abbotts told they judge they didn’t know about the payments to Riddell or Dvorsiky but confirmed they understood they were entering into an agreement for their daughter’s test scores to be corrected.
“I wasn’t aware of the arrangements made with the proctor and administrator,” Gregory Abbott said. “I understand the rest.”
Peter Levitt, Sartorio’s attorney, said the same was true for his client. “Like the Abbotts, Mr. Sartorio did not know about payments that Singer made to other people.”
In phone calls with Singer, Marcia Abbott, 59, that summer started inquiring about having Riddell correct answers for her daughter’s SAT subject exams because her daughter didn’t think she had performed well in the tests taken so far.
Marcia Abbott agreed to proceed in a Sept. 4, 2018 phone conversation with Singer:
Singer: “Good thing that she did this for the ACT, ’cause her score was not
Marcia Abbott: “What? Excuse me what’d you say?
Singer: “I said it was a good thing that we did it for the first test.”
Marcia Abbott: “Oh yeah, my gosh, I mean, I’m sure her — you kidding me? She was gonna throw up like every single drug in the world for mono and lyme
[disease]. I’m sure it was a disaster.”
Singer: “She got, she got a 23.”
Marcia Abbott: “Yeah, that would be what I would have guessed at, 25, you know. So yeah, I mean, yeah, I don’t know. We’ll see how she does on the math. But she herself even says she doesn’t have high hopes for English Lit.”
She said Duke University didn’t want anything below a 750 out of 800. In a separate phone call later that month, Singer said, “We’ll get 750 and above,” to which, according to court documents, Marcia Abbot replied, “That’s fabulous.”
The Abbott’s daughter, Riddell and Dvorskiy returned to the West Hollywood center on Oct. 6, 2018 for the SAT subject exams. She scored an 800 out of a possible 800 on the math subject test and 710 on the literature subject test. Singer told the Abbotts she scored in the mid-600s on her own, according to court documents.
The same center was also the site where Sartorio’s daughter on June 10, 2017 took her ACT test with Riddell acting as the proctor and Dvorskiy present as well, prosecutors say. She had been granted an extension for extra time on her exam.
Sartorio’s daughter received a 27 on her ACT, which placed her in the 86th percentile. She had not taken the ACT before, but on her practice SAT, she had scored 900 and 960 out of 1600, placing her between the 41st and 52 percentiles.
After he started cooperating with the FBI, Singer called Sartorio on October 25, 2018 to tell him that he was being audited by the FBI. The call, which was recorded, included the following exchange:
Singer: “You won’t show up on my books, because you paid cash, essentially, for
her to take the test with [Mark Riddell].”
Singer: “So that doesn’t show up. Right?”
Singer: “Right. So I — all I want you to do is just — ’cause I could see, at some point, they’re gonna call some families. And I just wanted to make sure that I remind you tha —”
Sartorio: “Oh, oh, yeah. You do — no. No, no. Yeah. I shouldn’t say — absolutely.
Believe me. There would be no — there would be no mention of that. ’Cause that’s never happened. There’s no record of — all I know is I — I — I paid bills that were sent to me, invoiced.”
Image: Marcia, left, and Gregory Abbott leave federal court, Wednesday, May 22, 2019, in Boston, where they pleaded guilty to charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.