(The Weekly's requests for comment from some of the purported clients were not returned.)
Though his business was founded in Sacramento and then moved to Newport Beach, Singer was no stranger to Palo Alto area families. He would drive into the Bay Area to spend time with a "circuit" of local clients, according to one Palo Alto father whose daughter met with Singer in 2011 and who asked to remain anonymous.
The Palo Alto father said he paid Singer $5,000 for about seven months of counseling, which involved visits to their home, emails and phone calls. He was connected to Singer by another parent, a prominent venture capitalist who "recommended him as a helpful admission adviser." Other parents in that person's firm had also used Singer in the past, the father said.
While calling Singer an "aggressive guy," the father said the college counselor never mentioned bribery, large donations or falsifying tests to his family.
"He did have a legitimate business. I feel bad for other people like my kid and families in my situation where they're like, 'Oh my god, we worked with this guy. Did we cheat? Did we do something wrong?' I don't think we did. What we did is what other people do. There's a whole industry of these people that read college essays and help you. That was definitely a piece of his business and that's the piece we used."
But Singer offered other services, including personal branding, which rubbed them the wrong way. The father said Singer told them about students he had helped start nonprofits and host conferences or events to boost their applications.
The father said Singer's own background in athletics and as a sports coach came through in his work. There was a sense of, "'This is a game and we're going to win, and I'm going to coach you on how to win,'" the father said.
"On the one hand you kind of like that — I don't want to be passive in this process; I want to be assertive; I want to be thinking about what I need to do here. On the other hand, it was a little much."
The father said he didn't hire Singer again when his second child was applying to colleges.
According to The Key website, Singer had a 26-year career as a life coach and college counselor and was "widely recognized as an elite-level college admissions, sports, career and life coach."
The company is supposedly located in 81 cities throughout the U.S. and five overseas countries.
"The Key's clientele is all referral based; consequently, the quality of the service provided to many of the world's most renown (sic) families and individuals has provided an incredible foundation for The Key to grow its offerings worldwide," the website states.
"Don't leave it to chance! Take the guesswork and frustration out of the college admissions equation," the company pitches on its website. "Even a small oversight or mistake in the college admissions process can make all the difference in your son or daughter gaining admission to the school of their dreams or receiving a valuable scholarship."
In one testimonial posted on The Key website, local parent Marci Palatella — who was indicted this week — thanked Singer for his work with her son.
"My kid who could not read a poem in front of the class is now ... in a comedy troupe!!! He is so happy about school! You were life changing for all of us," she wrote. "Your subtle style made us all comfortable, but it was your deep down encouragement that let him know there was hope for greatness. Bottom line is that you believed in him, and that made all the difference. For my kid to be getting A's plural... is incredible."
Through his nonprofit Key Worldwide Foundation, which according to the United States Attorney's Office was used to launder bribes, Singer claimed to fund organizations that further educational opportunities for underprivileged youth. But staff of one Palo Alto-based charity that educated Cambodian children and was listed as having received nearly $40,000 in foundation grants said they had never received any money from Key Worldwide Foundation and never heard of Singer or the foundation until reporters began to call on Tuesday.
Elia and Halimah Van Tuyl, a former real estate appraiser and teacher, respectively, formed Friends of Cambodia after visiting the country in 2005 to document efforts by a social philanthropist who funds projects in Southeast Asia. While there, they saw children scavenging in a garbage dump and started the fundraising organization to help the Centre of Children's Happiness in Cambodia, which had a residential school program. The Van Tuyls in December disbanded their efforts, deeming their mission to get the children through college completed, Elia Van Tuyl told the Weekly.
Friends of Cambodia, which was not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit but was under the umbrella of another organization, shows up as a grant recipient on Key Worldwide Foundation's Form 990, which is required of nonprofit organizations by the Internal Revenue Service. The foundation listed Friends of Cambodia as receiving more than $19,000 in 2015 and $18,550 in 2016. Notably, Friends of Cambodia is the only organization on the 990 that actually supported children's education. The other recipients were mainly universities and athletics programs, some of which are now implicated in Singer's fraudulent scheme.
Van Tuyl said he has no idea why or how his tiny organization ended up being declared as having received such large sums from Singer's foundation.
"Everything I know I learned today," he said on Tuesday evening. "We never received donations from Key Worldwide. I checked my emails. It's a complete mystery to me how we got on their 990 along with a list of colleges."
The Van Tuyls did not even have any bank account for their organization. "We don't exist as a nonprofit. No one could write a check to Friends that we could cash," he said.
"It just shows the frenzy and insanity of college admissions," he added of the scandal.
In 2000, Singer and three other educators created the University of Miami Online High School with a purported student population of over 18,000 students annually paying more than $15,000 per year tuition. The company was sold to Kaplan College Preparatory School.
Singer also claims to have been a top executive in the call-center industry. He joined The Money Store/First Union Bank and was executive vice president of West Corporation, according to his online bio.
This story contains 1175 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.