He’s at the top of one of the country’s most venerable law firms. But now he’s in legal hot water for allegedly paying $75,000 to fraudulently inflate his daughter’s college entrance exam scores.
Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, is one of 32 parents charged Tuesday in a massive scheme to get their children into elite universities through bribery and cheating.
The complaint, filed Tuesday at the conclusion of an FBI probe dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” alleges that between last June and December, Caplan worked with middleman William Singer to guarantee that his daughter, who scored in the low 20’s on her practice ACT, would end up with a 32 after her answers were doctored.
Singer admits he took millions in bribes to help the rich buy access to the best schools for their progeny—then decided to cooperate with the feds against his clients.
Like the other parents, Caplan was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud.
As the private equity attorney named “Dealmaker of the Year” by American Lawyer in 2018 was hauled into federal court, it was unclear what professional consequences he might face.
Willkie Farr was founded in 1880 and boasts a blue-chip clientele and offices in 10 countries. The firm said Wednesday that Caplan was placed on a leave of absence.
The evidence against Caplan, as outlined in the complaint, includes detailed excerpts of wiretapped phone calls with Singer.
In the first documented phone call between the two, on June 15, Singer outlined the details of the scheme:
Caplan would take his daughter to a psychologist and get her tested for a learning disability, which would get her extra time on the test and a separate room away from other students. Then the family would fly to Los Angeles on the pretense of a recruiting visit to justify the teen taking the test at one of the schools where Singer had bribed test administrators.
After Caplan’s daughter took the exam, a paid-off proctor would doctor her answers to ensure she scored in an agreed-upon range, according to the complaint.
In a follow-up call, Singer emphasized that Caplan’s daughter had “to be stupid” when she was getting tested for a learning disability to ensure she got the extra time.
“It’s the home run of home runs,” Singer later said.
“It works every time?” Caplan asked.
“Every time,” Singer responded.
Caplan was hesitant at first. “To be honest, this feels a little weird,” he told Singer, who reassured him that “when she gets the score and we have choices, you’re gonna be saying ‘Okay, I’ll take all my kids, we’re gonna do the same thing.’”
“Yeah, I am,” Caplan responded.
His wife wasn’t convinced. When Singer later suggested hiring someone to take some of her daughter’s classes, too, she expressed reservations and Caplan got her off the line.
“Is that kosher? Can we do that?” the lawyer asked, according to the transcript.
“Absolutely,” Singer responded, promising that the only way someone would find out is if one of the Caplans spilled.
“To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here,” Caplan said later in the call. “I’m worried about the, if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”
“It’s never happened before,” Singer replied.
Weeks later, Caplan and his daughter flew to L.A. to meet with the psychologist to obtain the learning disability diagnosis, prosecutors said.
That diagnosis was rejected twice by the ACT administrators, the complaint notes—but on the request of law enforcement officials, the organization approved Caplan’s daughter for extra time in early November.
The Willkie Farr boss once again expressed hesitancy to Singer, noting that “I am a lawyer. So I’m sort of rules oriented,” but Singer reassured him that he’d done with the same process with about 20 other people, and that it had “never been an issue.”
Caplan was apparently convinced. On Nov. 13, he wired $25,000 to a bank account in Boston that Singer told him was connected to his charity. In reality, Singer had opened the account at the behest of federal prosecutors. Two days later, when a nervous Caplan asked him if he could “ever see anyone getting in trouble” because of the scheme, Singer obfuscated.
“I—I’m not—I’ve never seen it happen,” he said. The pair then briefly debated what score his daughter should receive. Caplan balked at Singer’s mention of a 33, noting that she’d only scored as high as a 22. Eventually, the pair settled on a 32.
A few weeks later, Caplan’s daughter arrived for her exam. At about 7:15, a.m she pulled up to the West Hollywood testing center flanked by her father. At 11:52 a.m., she left—entirely unaware that law enforcement agents were watching, and that her testing experience had been a lie.
Two weeks later, prosecutors said, Caplan wired the remaining $50,000.