When initial reports of the college admissions scandal surfaced, most of the attention was focused on the big names involved (like a certain famous sitcom aunt and her influencer daughter, for instance), as well as the brand-name schools caught up in the controversy. Few zeroed in on the Zhaos, the Chinese family that paid the staggering sum of $6.5 million — as opposed to the six-figure amounts most parents paid scam mastermind William “Rick” Singer — to get their daughter, Yusi, into Stanford University.
There might be a reason for that — it’s only recently that the identity of the $6.5 million donor has been revealed. Although prosecutors have said that one family connected to the ring paid that amount to get their child into school, the family was not named in any court documents. “The name was not divulged,” a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston told People. “We did not tie the amount to anyone by name.”
On Thursday, however, reports started surfacing that Zhao Tao, the billionaire chairman of Shandong Buchang Pharmaceuticals, was behind the $6.5 million figure — or, more accurately, his wife, who gave a statement through her lawyer claiming that she had been duped by Singer into making the payment illegally. (Zhao was not charged in the first round of indictments.) “Since the matters concerning Mr. Singer and his foundation have been widely reported, Mrs. Zhao has come to realize she has been misled, her generosity has been taken advantage of and her daughter has fallen victim to the scam,” Mrs. Zhao’s said through her lawyer, Vincent Law. For her part, Yusi appears to have been unaware of her role in the scandal, even recording a vlog in 2017 boasting that she had “tested into Stanford through my own hard work.”
According to the statement, Mrs. Zhao was connected to Singer by a Morgan Stanley employee named Michael Wu, who introduced the two because Zhao was unfamiliar with navigating the American college admissions process. (Wu has since been let go from Morgan Stanley, according to CNN.) Zhao claimed that Singer asked her for $6.5 million under the pretense that the money would be given to Stanford University to furnish “the salaries of academic staff, scholarships, athletics programs and helping those students who otherwise will not be able to afford to attend Stanford,” the statement said. Prosecutors allege that Singer pocketed most of the money and gave $500,000 to the sailing team at Stanford to have her admitted as a sailor, despite the fact that Zhao had never sailed competitively. (This was a common tactic for Singer, who is alleged to have athletics coaches and administrators at schools like USC, Georgetown, and Yale in his pocket.)
As the New York Times reports, the Zhaos weren’t the only Chinese family caught up in Singer’s admissions scheme: another Chinese family, the Guos, paid Singer $1.2 million to ensure their daughter’s admission to Yale. (Both the Zhaos’ daughter and the Guos’ daughter have been expelled from their respective universities.) Singer may have been uniquely positioned to run his grift in China, which has given rise to a booming college consultant industry as more and more wealthy parents attempt to get their children admitted to prestigious American universities. As one insider told the Times, it is not uncommon for consultants to use illegal channels (or the “back door,” as Singer called it, according to court documents) to obtain admission for wealthy students, though some American universities have gotten wise to this practice following reports of Chinese applicants cheating on applications and standardized tests.
Fifty people — including parents, athletics coaches and officials, standardized testing proctors, and Singer himself — have been arrested and charged in connection with the wide-ranging college admissions scandal, also known as Operation Varsity Blues. Singer has pleaded guilty to money laundering, racketeering, obstruction of justice and tax evasion; he faces more than 60 years in prison.