Palmetto man played key role as ‘best test-taker’ in college exam scandal, FBI says

A Palmetto man played a key role in what the FBI is calling “the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.”

Dozens were charged in the investigation into alleged payments for proctors to administer and correct ACT and SAT exams for high school students. Among them is IMG Academy’s Director of College Entrance Exam Preparation Mark Riddell, who was the “best test-taker” involved, according to court documents.

Riddell announced Wednesday afternoon that he “regrets the choices” he made.

“I want to communicate to everyone that I am profoundly sorry for the damage I have done and grief I have caused those as a result of my needless actions. I understand how my actions contributed to a loss of trust in the college admissions process,” Riddell said in a statement released through a Tampa-based firm, Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law. “I assume full responsibility for what I have done.”

His statement went on to highlight the fact that he never bribed anyone himself, a charge that the FBI has not levied against him. Riddell said he hopes that the many students he “legitimately counseled, inspired and helped reach their goals” will paint a clearer picture of his true character.

The FBI unsealed a 204-page document Tuesday that revealed Riddell’s involvement in the scheme. The 36-year-old is a cooperating witness in the case against dozens of individuals who allegedly conspired to fake their children’s exam scores for entry into prestigious universities nationwide.

Prosecutors say that Riddell worked closely with William Singer, who founded the operation and allegedly organized for parents to pay to have Riddell correct student scores. In conservations recorded by investigators, Singer called Riddell his “best test-taker.”

Singer reportedly told one parent that Riddell could “nail a score — he’s that good.”

The Bradenton Herald’s review of the federal complaint document revealed that Riddell earned at least $240,000 from his involvement in the scheme and proctored or corrected at least 16 exams for students.

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Mark Riddell is the director of college entrance exam preparation (SAT and ACT) at Bradenton’s IMG Academy, where he began working in 2006.

Late Tuesday, IMG Academy announced that Riddell has been suspended following the charges against him. The Bradenton-based school is conducting its own investigation into the matter.

Throughout the official complaint, investigators outlined numerous instances that involved Singer allegedly wiring payments of about $15,000 per student for Riddell to privately proctor exams. In one instance, he reportedly scored a near-perfect 35 out of 36 on the ACT.

Singer reportedly created a nonprofit organization called Key Worldwide Foundation that he arranged for parents to make “charitable donations” to. In turn, he would order staff to make payments to the proctors involved. FBI investigators say Riddell earned more than $240,000 from his alleged involvement in the cheating scheme.

Court documents show that Riddell was the one to proctor and correct the exam of Hollywood actress Felicity Huffman’s daughter in December 2017. Huffman was also charged as part of the FBI’s sweeping indictment.

Singer often arranged for Riddell to fly out of Tampa International Airport to administer exams across the country in cities such as Houston, Los Angeles and Boston, according to court documents. To assuage the concerns of high school guidance counselors, Riddell reportedly told them he needed proctoring experience to apply for graduate school.

“I would really appreciate the opportunity to proctor the test because I’m applying to grad schools and I could quite frankly use the work,” Riddell wrote in an email to a guidance counselor in San Francisco, prosecutors say.

Riddell allegedly told investigators that “each time he was in Los Angeles to proctor an SAT or ACT, he facilitated cheating, either by correcting the student’s answers after the test or by actively assisting the student during the exam.”

Conspiring parents had concerns, too, according to court documents. In recorded conversations obtained by the FBI, Singer had to reassure parents that there would be no paper trail.

But in October 2018, the IRS caught wind and interviewed Riddell about the payments he received from the charitable organization that Singer wired his payments through. In a conversation with one of his clients, Singer explained how Riddell may have inadvertently tipped off the IRS.

“So I asked (Riddell) what he did with the agent and what they talked about, and he told me that he hasn’t been declaring his payments from my foundation as income for his taxes,” Singer said, according to court documents. “So apparently he’s been declaring all this income as a gift, which was stupid.”

Riddell has agreed to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, according to prosecutors. He began cooperating with investigators in February, and his information hearing is set for April 12.