by Bruno Pavlicek
A certified fraud examiner rips a story from the headlines as a hypothetical case study in using rationalization theories and face-saving interview techniques when confronting a suspect.
Like most of America, I followed news of the recent college cheating scandal with fascination. But while public outrage grew ever hotter, I considered the case from a colder, more clinical perspective. As a veteran investigator and a forensic interviewer with experience in law enforcement and private security, I wanted to understand the psychology behind such deception and fraud, from the parents to the ringleader.
In part one of this series, I’ll consider the possible motives and rationalizations of the suspected ringleader, William “Rick” Singer, the former college consultant accused of roping ambitious parents into a vast criminal conspiracy to game the admissions system. Not knowing the full breadth of the case, I’ll have to take a few educated guesses about Singer’s motives, if only as an exercise in how to prepare for an effective interview with a hypothetical suspect like him.
In part two, I’ll turn to the affluent families and Hollywood stars who followed Singer down this nefarious path and will suggest a few strategic interview approaches for those suspects.
The Criminological Theorem
One of the most basic criminological theories fraud investigators learn in our training comes from the late sociologist and criminologist, Donald Cressey. Cressey is best known for his theoretical three-legged model of occupational fraud referred to as the “fraud triangle.” He theorized through this model that the factors which motivate someone to commit fraud are:
- Perceived pressure reflective of financial need
- Perceived opportunity
All three components coexist and build on each other toward the culmination: the crime of fraud.
Although Cressey’s theorem generally applies to occupational fraud (e.g., employee embezzlement), it’s not difficult to see how similar drivers might push a person like Singer toward a different sort of fraud. Let’s suppose that Singer’s scheme was born of financial need (theory leg # 1) — or simply greed. In his quest to satisfy that need, Singer saw an opportunity in the status-conscious private-school parents who’d become his clients; he seized upon it (theory leg #2) by offering those striving parents a magic ticket to prestigious colleges, and thence, to life in society’s rarefied classes.
“I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in,” Singer told the court earlier this year, as he pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy, among other charges.
In his guilty plea, Singer offered the hows of his scheme, and even some of the whys: according to prosecutors, his Key Worldwide Foundation, which Singer used as a cover for his admissions scam, took in around $7 million over a four-year period, from families seeking what he called “side-door” access to elite universities (The Mercury News).
A figure like that sums up the financial motivations. The question that remains concerns the conscience, and theory leg #3: how did Singer rationalize his crimes to himself?
Creating the Behavioral Investigative Profile
To begin creating a behavioral profile of Singer, let’s take a closer look at his career counseling company, Edge College & Career Network, more commonly known as “the Key.” That latter name tells us a lot. It’s an interesting choice of terms that shifts focus from the negatives (e.g., bribery, money laundering) to the perceived positives (the “key” to unlocked opportunities, prosperity, a patrician life, etc.) On the website, Singer marketed his company as a college counseling and life coaching service for “the world’s most respected families.” Another interesting term — respected —which carries with it various positive connotations.
Singer started his career as a high school basketball coach. He was later fired, according to the Sacramento Bee, for abusive behavior towards the referees. He then served as an assistant college basketball coach. In time, he opened several college career counseling businesses and was partially responsible for creating the country’s first online high school, which he then sold.
Singer also self-published a book entitled, Getting in: Gaining Admission to the College of Your Choice. Reviewing the first few pages of the book via Google, we see several quotes about living a better life and “getting in.” Singer explains in chapter one that getting into college is an art and not a science. He also adds that one of the goals of his book is for the reader to get into the college of their choice and excel.
When confronted with the prospect of confessing or not, most people would rather portray themselves as anything but a criminal.
So what have we gleaned thus far in establishing our investigative behavioral profile? We see that Singer portrays himself as a sought-after expert who offers respected families the keys to a successful life. In some respects, one might say he was a Robin Hood of academia, who robbed from the unattainable ivory towers of education, only to give back to the respected.
To his coach-centric view of the world, one could surmise, status itself was a con—a game of feints and appearances, masquerading as a meritocracy, and available only to in-the-know elites. And Singer had set himself up as the man calling academia’s bluff. In short, he was selling a short cut to prosperity and success for his clients’ children by “getting in.”
That said, in formulating this behavioral glimpse of Singer, we have sketched out an initial theory of rationalization that we can now begin incorporating into an interview strategy.
Establishing Interview Themes
The next question is, what interview themes can we create and set aside for the accusatory phase of our interview with Singer?
As interviewers, our goal is to present Singer with a face-saving version of his story that paints his motives as more complicated — and possibly, nobler — than simple financial need or greed. With that in mind, let’s focus on possible emotional justifications Singer may have had for doing what he did — other than to enrich himself.
For example, we could approach Singer with the idea that although he knew that what he was doing was fundamentally wrong (and against the law), he was offering families a valuable service — by affording them a right to the best of all educations. Who wouldn’t love to see their kids get into Princeton or Harvard, whatever the cost?
In comes Singer, the Robin Hood of Academia, who bucks the system of power, only to give back to the respected families of America. Of course, when you factor in the large fees Singer commanded for this service, it’s tough to argue that he’s democratizing the process. But we’re talking about rationalization here, not reality: By his reasoning, Ivy League schools have the power to giveth and taketh away, even from very wealthy families. And the price tag of gaming the system by the usual, legal method — by donating tens of millions to the institutions in question — is far higher than Singer’s “consulting” fees and payoffs to testing boards and college coaches.
Painting this more altruistic picture of Singer gives him an out of sorts — by letting him feel, at least in part, like a “good guy” and a family advocate, while the investigator uses the educational institutions as the psychological scapegoat for his actions. After all, if it weren’t for his entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to confront the educational Goliaths that created this unfair system, he might argue, the children of respected families would not have been able to rightfully enroll in their college of choice and succeed in life.
We can also proceed with yet another interview theme, particularly if the background investigation showed financial need, by shifting some blame to the respected families who were Singer’s clients. We might offer him the hypothesis that these powerful, ambitious families pushed him into a corner with their increasingly unrealistic demands. To keep from losing the business that he’d worked so hard to build, he had to be a Superman on behalf of their privileged teenagers, all while facing financial pressures these affluent families could not fathom.
We might argue to Singer that his clients pressured him into cutting corners; they had no concept of what it takes to bootstrap your way up from the bottom, to build up a business from nothing and keep it alive. These are people who think the rules don’t apply to them. So really, Singer is not wholly to blame.
Perception Is Reality
A good background investigation and initial interviews can help an investigator uncover rationalization theories for a suspect, well in advance of the accusatory phase of the interview. In that initial phase, the investigator attempts to establish rapport by engaging in friendly conversation and getting to know the interviewee. Rationalization themes can offer a suspect an open door to admission, regardless of whether the particular theme the suspect accepts actually represents the true reason behind their actions.
Why does that matter? It matters because when confronted with the prospect of confessing or not, most people would rather portray themselves as anything but a criminal. Finding a “way out” enables the interviewee to cross over that confessional threshold much more easily, because their concerns of how they will be perceived are allayed. In this case, perception is reality, at least in the eyes of our suspect.
Although there’s an element of emotional manipulation in this method, a good interviewer does not lie or mislead. We should never sit in judgement of an interviewee, but we can certainly offer him a face-saving way to paint his own motives, especially if that paves the way toward a truthful admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility.
About the Author:
Bruno Pavlicek has over 25 years of law enforcement and private sector corporate security experience, mostly in financial and non-traditional organized crime investigations, as well as corporate security operations. He is a certified fraud examiner and holds a PhD in psychology. Bruno has served as an adjunct professor of fraud examination, forensic interviewing, and criminology at two universities. He is President of the Georgia state chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and works in the telecommunications field as a Senior Corporate Security Investigator.