Morrie Tobin was in Boston to cut the deal of his life.
A few weeks before, federal agents had descended on the multimillion-dollar home Tobin shares with his wife and some of their six children in Hancock Park, a moneyed Los Angeles enclave.
Warrant in hand, the agents searched the French chateau-style mansion for financial records and other evidence to nail Tobin, the suspected ringleader of a stock scam that defrauded investors of millions of dollars.
The raid imploded Tobin’s very comfortable life. Faced with the prospect of years in prison and a seven-figure fine, the businessman flew to Boston to meet with the federal prosecutors handling the case. He was looking for mercy.
They offered him a standard deal: Come clean about the con job he had run on investors and, in the end, he might get some leniency.
But Tobin, 55, had something else to offer up — a nugget of information that had nothing to do with stock markets.
He hoped it would interest prosecutors and tip the scales a bit further in his favor.
When Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, unveiled a sweeping investigation into a college admissions cheating scam earlier this month, he made a cryptic reference to how his investigators had uncovered the alleged conspiracy.
“Our first lead in this came during interviews with a target of an entirely separate investigation, who gave us a tip that this activity might be going on,” he said.
The tip led investigators to a soccer coach at Yale University, who, in turn, pointed them to William “Rick” Singer, the college admissions consultant who would confess to being the mastermind of the admissions racket. With Singer’s cooperation, FBI agents set about building cases against dozens of the wealthy parents on his client list as well as people at universities across the country Singer allegedly paid to help students cheat their way into school. Prosecutors needed less than a year from that first tip to file criminal charges, a remarkably quick turnaround for a case so large and with such high stakes.
In all, 50 people have been charged — including 33 parents, several college coaches, a man Singer paid to take college admission exams for students, and Singer himself, who pleaded guilty to several felonies in a deal with prosecutors. The investigation is ongoing, and prosecutors indicated in court last week that more people were likely to be charged.
Not included in the pool of defendants, however, is Tobin, whom multiple law enforcement officials and a person close to him identified as the unnamed tipster Lelling credited with setting the investigation in motion.
Tobin’s role in kicking off the investigation, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, is one in an array of enticing details disclosed in court hearings, documents and interviews that together explain how a team of prosecutors working with FBI and IRS agents pieced together an investigation that has rattled the rarefied worlds of the rich and powerful in L.A., the Bay Area, and the East Coast in which Singer peddled his services. The case has also revealed how Singer and his collaborators exploited weaknesses in the processes some of the most competitive colleges in the country use to admit students.