Others in C-U used company at center of college-admissions scandal

Others in C-U used company at center of college-admissions scandal

CHAMPAIGN — Elisabeth Kimmel, who announced her resignation from First Busey Corp.'s board of directors Thursday after being charged in a college-admissions bribery scandal, isn't the only person with ties to the area who was familiar with the company at the center of the allegations — The Key — and its owner, Rick Singer.

Singer, who pleaded guilty in the scheme Tuesday, had several clients in C-U and had made some stops here that had a local college counselor expressing 'serious concerns over his background and philosophy.'

Kimmel's resignation will be effective today, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"There remains an ongoing investigation of the facts surrounding this situation, which the company became aware of only a few days ago," Busey spokeswoman Abby Hendren said. "As with all matters in our long history, this situation is being appropriately handled in accordance with stringent governance processes and appropriate actions will be taken consistent with our internal policies and code of ethics."

Kimmel, who lives in Las Vegas and a suburb of San Diego, has local roots, and served on the First Busey board with her father, August "Chris" Meyer Jr., co-founder of the Meyer Capel law firm. They are also both listed as officers in the Meyer Charitable Foundation, which listed about $27 million in assets and a Champaign address on its most recent tax form.

Kimmel is accused of using bribes from the Meyer Charitable Foundation to donate $475,000 to The Key Worldwide Foundation, which then allegedly passed the money on to a Georgetown tennis coach to help her daughter get accepted there in 2013 and an associate USC athletic director to help her son get accepted there in 2018.

Singer also appeared to offer plenty of services that weren't illegal, touting life coaching, leadership camps, ACT prep classes and help with college applications and essays, and among his other clients is a fellow Busey board member — CEO Van Dukeman.

Dukeman wrote a testimonial — shown on The Key's website — thanking Singer for helping his son, who graduated from USC in 2015, according to his LinkedIn profile.

"Thought you should know that Grant received his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Accountancy from USC last weekend, and achieved all that in only 4 years," the testimonial states. "One of your students does good! Regards, Van Dukeman."

Grant Dukeman could not be reached for comment, and in a statement, Busey's Hendren said Dukeman used Singer's services long before the current scandal and for legitimate purposes.

"The current allegations and situation involve very different activities and are unrelated," Hendren wrote. "The involvement was only related to legitimate career coaching prior to and during college. The connection occurred approximately ten years prior and is not related in any way to the current Key Worldwide Foundation accusations."

And two members of the Comet family, which runs the Pepsi-Cola Champaign-Urbana Bottling Co., also have testimonials on the site.

Paul Comet's testimonial talks about how Singer visited him at the University of Chicago and helped motivate him to graduate.

"Knowing I had my family's and your support gave me the courage to compete with these kids," his testimonial says. "I am truly grateful for everything you have done for my family and me."

And John T. Comet's testimonial says: "I appreciate all that you have done for my family. Thanks for helping to keep the kids on track, and for teaching them to reach for the stars. You have been an invaluable resource to our family and the Champaign community."

The Comets could not be reached for comment.

Lisa Micele, the director of college counseling at the University Laboratory High School, said she first heard of Singer coming to town in 2015 and was disturbed by flyers advertising his speaking engagements.

"I am aware that Rick Singer was hosted here in C-U" in several venues, she wrote in an email. "When you work in this profession (HS counseling and/or college admissions) you NEVER use words like 'leveraging' or 'marketing your student.' While I have never met him, I expressed serious concerns over his background and philosophy, which is not healthy, accurate nor student-centered. Nobody can guarantee a student admission to any highly selective college or university."

She said the flyer was titled: "Getting into college is not a secret. It's a science."

But Micele said college admissions is anything but a science.

"It's an ART!" she said in an email. "It is not something which is governed by clearly-defined rules or formulas, as a science would be. The 'ART' of college admissions is the holistic review process — to build a well-rounded freshman class of unique & vibrant individuals who will add to the academic & campus community."

Micele said she was outraged and saddened by the scandal, but not surprised.

"College selection and the application process is a journey of deep reflection and self-discovery for the student. In this scandal, parents were throwing money at a guarantee for bragging rights. This warped definition of success & self-worth (tied to attending elite schools) is so dangerous and misguided," she wrote. "We are seeing an escalation of teen anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm and abuse of prescription drugs/sleeping aids."

She called the alleged conspiracy tragic.

"I believe Rick Singer preyed on people's fears — focusing families on the wrong things and not on the authentic voice of the young applicant," she said.