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Hansen: His college admission scandal came after he lost his cool as a coach — in Omaha

Bob Franzese ordered his lunch, stared across the booth at the volunteer middle school basketball coach causing him all sorts of headaches and wondered ... what in the heck is Rick pitching to me now?

Today, Bob is the dean of Omaha AAU hoops, the guy who helped get Justin Patton and Khyri Thomas to the NBA, the leader of the Omaha Sports Academy and its $10 million sports palace in Elkhorn.

But in 2002, when he sat down to lunch with his troublemaking volunteer coach, Bob had just scored his first administrative job, the athletic director at Omaha’s Jewish Community Center.

The man sitting across from Bob was older than him, more successful — not yet a name synonymous with the scandal rocking American higher education.

They began to eat, and because this was no idle lunch, Bob began to warn this volunteer coach named Rick Singer.

You have to stop losing your cool, Rick. You have to stop cursing refs and trash-talking opposing coaches. You are coaching 12-year-old kids at the Jewish Community Center, Rick. You have to take it down a notch.

Rick brushed aside this warning, as he had before and would again.

Rick Singer wanted to talk about something else at this lunch, an idea he had for a new company that would counsel students and get them into top universities. I’m gonna start it myself, Rick said.

“I just listened, nodded politely and ate my sandwich,” Bob Franzese said. “I had no idea ... ”

If you know the name Rick Singer today, it is because he masterminded the biggest college admissions crime in American history.

He did start a college counseling company and charged rich-and-famous parents millions of dollars to get their kids into top colleges by any means necessary, including rampant test cheating, bribery and kickbacks.

He has pleaded guilty to four felonies and turned state’s witness against the parents, memorably sending actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — best known as Aunt Becky from “Full House” — to the brink of federal prison.

But several small groups of Omahans remember Rick Singer for more than ratting on Aunt Becky. They remember when he was briefly but memorably a resident of our city.

His former players remember a dedicated coach who got them to play harder than they ever had. They also remember a lunatic on the sidelines, the Bobby Knight of middle school hoops, ranting at referees, rankling other coaches and eventually challenging a parent to a fistfight.

His neighbors remember a man with a good executive job at West Corp. who lived with his wife and young child in the Huntington Park neighborhood of northwest Omaha. But they also remember a neighborhood Fourth of July celebration that ended with Rick and a neighbor nose to nose in the street, screaming at one another.

Pretty much everyone who met Rick Singer in Omaha remembers him as smart, talented, charismatic. They also remember a man who crossed every line. Sometimes literally.

“One game in particular, I remember at the start of a game, a referee walked up to him and drew an imaginary line around him and said, ‘Stay inside this box’ because Rick was known for running all over the court,” said Brad Frank, a former player. “He started arguing with that ref right away. I think he got a technical like 10 seconds into that game.

“I liked Rick, honestly. But he was crazy.”

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His former players on the Jewish Community Center select team, who today are young professionals scattered across the country, hold a fascinating insight into the man famous to them long before he became nationally infamous. Some told their stories to Omaha-based writer Jahd Khalil, who penned a fine story for Deadspin.com, which is how I first learned of Rick Singer’s Omaha connection.

The JCC team was slightly above-average for sixth-graders, some players told me, no better or worse than others in the parochial school league.

And then their new coach showed up. He installed an aggressive full-court press. He demanded that they play harder than they ever had. He ran practices like a high school coach might, like a college coach might. He did not seem to care that these were 12-year-olds.

“There was so much screaming,” said Alex Epstein, a former player who is now an Omaha commercial real estate executive. “We would laugh. And then when we laughed, we would run.”

They ran. And then, when the games started, they won.

The Catholics and the Lutherans did not know what hit them. The Jewish Community Center team was pressing full court, getting layup after layup, running up the score.

The team also entered a select league that season. Those opponents got whipped, too, and occasionally embarrassed.

“He wouldn’t take his foot off the gas,” Franzese said. “If he had a chance to beat them by 60, he would try to beat them by 75.”

If a little lack of sportsmanship had been the only issue, coach Singer would have surely made it through the season. His players loved the style of play. And who doesn’t love winning?

But alas, this was not the only issue. Rick refused to accept even the slightest criticism or back away from the smallest challenge to his authority. Mr. Humility, he was not.

“I remember one defining moment in the (parochial) league,” Franzese said. “Rick beat some team by 40. And then he went up to the other coach and said, ‘If I had your team, and you had my team, I would have still beaten you by 40.’ ”

There was also the wild intensity, the almost cartoonish anger. He received multiple technical fouls and was thrown out of several games.

He startled his players when he elbowed one in the face, hard, during a drill — they never figured out if it was an accident or a message.

He ignored warnings from JCC officials, including the young Franzese.

And finally, the last straw: Rick Singer got into it with an opposing fan during a game. He challenged the fan to continue the conversation after the final buzzer sounded.

See you in the parking lot, he snarled.

Soon after that game, Rick found himself in the office of the then-executive director of the JCC. The director asked: Any possible way you can tone this down, Mr. Singer?

No, Rick said. That’s the way I coach. OK then, the director said. That’s it for you here.

And soon that was it for Rick Singer in Omaha. I couldn’t chase down exactly why he left West Corp., though his sudden departure and neighborhood rumors suggest that it wasn’t amicable.

He wasn’t exactly beloved in Huntington Park, in large part due to a July Fourth incident in which he allegedly cursed at some neighborhood kids shooting fireworks too close to his roof. This led to a shouting match, and a neighbor almost called the police on him.

And then, as quickly and loudly as an M-80 explosion, Rick Singer was gone. He was off to ... other things.

Franzese remembers waking up a few months after the end of the Singer-in-Omaha era. It was 3 a.m. His bedroom TV was on.

He blinked his sleepy eyes, looked at the TV, and swore to God that he saw Rick Singer on that television, on some sort of infomercial selling a new college consulting and placement company.

“I went back to sleep, and I woke up in the morning, and I thought, ‘Man, what a weird dream.’ ” he said. “And then a parent called, and told me he saw Rick on TV.”

Singer would found a company and then another that became The Key. The college counseling and placement company eventually went national and then global, making him a very rich man, until it made him a notorious one.

In Omaha, his old players have long swapped stories about the rantings and ravings, the technical fouls, the wild-man coach. They even have developed a particular slang to express extreme anger.

“Are you mad? Or are you Rick Singer mad?” Epstein said.

In Omaha, the small clusters of people who remember Singer say they were initially shocked when suddenly his face was plastered across their TVs this spring — not on 3 a.m. infomercials any longer, but now on the nightly news.

They were shocked. Then they thought about it some more. And then they were not really that shocked.

“He was at a 12 out of 10,” Epstein said. “He couldn’t ever take it down to a 9.”

Photos: Our best shots of 2019 (so far)

Articles
Infrastructure talks crumble amid Trump's ire over probes
PRESIDENT WALKS OUT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump blew up an infrastructure meeting with Democratic leaders at the White House on Wednesday and declared that bipartisan cooperation was impossible while House committees are investigating him, underscoring the increasing combustibility between the warring branches of government.

Trump declined to sit down when he walked into the scheduled Cabinet Room meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He was in the room less than three minutes while he spoke to them.

Then he went straight to a press conference in the Rose Garden and said he gave the surprised Democratic leaders an ultimatum: They needed to choose between pursuing infrastructure or their increasingly aggressive investigations of his finances, businesses and administration.

"You probably can't go down two tracks," he said. "You can go do the investigation track, or you can go down the investment track."

"I walked into the room and I told Sen. Schumer, (Speaker) Pelosi: 'I want to do infrastructure, I want to do it more than you," Trump said. "But (we) can't do it under these circumstances."

It wasn't immediately clear whether Wednesday's extraordinary political theater signaled the death knell of any infrastructure plan before the 2020 election, or indeed, political compromises on any other key legislative issues.

Trump made clear that he was irked by Pelosi's accusations at an earlier press conference that his stonewalling of up to 20 House investigations amounts to a "cover-up."

"I don't do cover-ups," Trump said, blaming Democrats for what he called unfair harassment. "These people are out to get us," he said.

After returning to the Capitol, Democrats called their own press conference to say they were stunned by Trump's behavior.

"To watch what happens in the White House will make your jaw drop," Schumer said. "We are interested in doing infrastructure. It's clear the president isn't. He is looking for every excuse."

Schumer said the pre-made sign affixed to the president's lectern in the Rose Garden — it said, "No Obstruction, No Collusion" — showed that Trump's move was long planned. He suggested that Trump had stormed out of the meeting because the White House had failed to find a way to fund an infrastructure bill.

Pelosi opted not to speculate as to what motivated Trump's behavior.

The president, she said, "couldn't match the greatness of the challenge that we have. He just took a pass, and it makes me wonder why he did that," she said. She said she would pray for the president.

Trump tweeted back: "and Nancy, thank you so much for your prayers. I know you trulymean it."

More House Democrats called for impeachment proceedings against Trump this week as the White House continued to defy subpoenas, resist congressional requests for documents and bar current and former officials from testifying. Democrats want to look into findings from last month's report from special counsel Robert Mueller, who laid out 10 examples of the president trying to interfere with his investigation.

Repairing the nation's crumbling bridges, airports, roads and other infrastructure was one of the few issues where Democrats and Republicans appeared to have common interests.

Three weeks ago, Trump welcomed Pelosi and Schumer to the White House and vowed to pursue a $2 trillion plan. He later faced blowback from congressional Republicans, who opposed raising the gas tax, the traditional funding source for such improvements.

An hour before Wednesday's follow-up meeting, Pelosi emerged from a meeting with House Democrats that focused on how to proceed with their investigations given the White House resistance and on the prospect of pursuing impeachment.

She told reporters that "no president is above the law" and repeated twice that Democrats believe that Trump is engaged in "a cover-up." And, she noted, Trump met with Democrats on infrastructure three weeks ago even though the House investigations were fully underway at the time.

The White House, according to two sources involved in ongoing discussions, has no plan to generate revenue for infrastructure improvements aside from sweeping cuts to existing nonmilitary programs, something Democrats are sure to oppose.

On Tuesday night, Trump sent Pelosi and Schumer a letter informing them that he wants Congress to ratify the revamped trade agreement with Canada and Mexico before they take up infrastructure. In that letter, Trump asked Democrats to clarify their priorities with specific funding requests.

Schumer, after the implosion of Wednesday's meeting, said he had brought a list of 35 projects to the White House, portraying the Democrats as acting in good faith, in contrast with the president.

"Now that hewas forced to come up with a way to pay for it, he ran away," Schumer said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.


Legislature
Property tax plan goes down in flames; senators vow to block business incentive measure

LINCOLN — A last-ditch effort for more property tax relief went down in flames Wednesday night, with rural senators vowing to get even by blocking a tax incentive plan for new and expanding businesses.

Legislative Bill 183 would have increased state property tax credits by about $100 million via new taxes on pop, candy, bottled water and several consumer services. But when it came time to shut off a filibuster of the tax increases and advance the bill, the measure fell far short, getting only 23 of the needed 33 votes.

Rural senators expressed disappointment and a sense of betrayal. Many had dropped their opposition to the incentive bill, the ImagiNE Act, in hopes that it would translate into enough support to advance the property tax relief measure. The idea was that both bills would advance. It didn’t happen.

“I feel a little bit used,” said Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, a key senator on tax issues. “I should have known better than to trust people.”

It now appears that the 2019 legislative session, which has only four days left, is headed for a rough landing, with several rural senators promising to now oppose the ImagiNE Act, the proposed replacement of the state’s current tax incentive program, the Advantage Act.

“I find it problematic to support corporate giveaways while we turn our backs on everyday property taxpayers,” said Albion Sen. Tom Briese, who offered up LB 183 after a more comprehensive tax relief proposal, LB 289, stalled.

He said the votes Wednesday demonstrated the Legislature’s “indifference” to the plight of Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers, who have seen property tax bills more than double in some cases over the past decade because of steep rises in agricultural land values.

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But first on Wednesday, senators needed to debate the ImagiNE Act, which would deliver about $150 million a year in tax credits for companies that add jobs and investment.

The state Chamber of Commerce, bankers and other business groups made passage of the ImagiNE Act their top priority for 2019, saying that such incentives are essential to keeping Nebraska competitive for new jobs and businesses.

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, the main sponsor of the ImagiNE Act, said it was a big improvement on the Advantage Act, calling it simpler for companies and more transparent in reporting job gains and tax credits.

He said that since Nebraska first adopted business tax incentives back in 1987 — a move to keep ConAgra and Union Pacific from moving from Omaha — it has inspired $30 billion in business investment and the creation of 100,000 jobs.

But critics said the ImagiNE Act wasn’t much of an improvement over the Advantage Act, which drew fire for being fiscally unpredictable and much more expensive than originally projected. It was also criticized for granting tax credits for even low-paying and part-time jobs.

Comments to that effect sparked bawling out from the speaker of the Legislature, Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, who told rural senators to stop “trashing” the ImagiNE Act and start looking out for the state of Nebraska as a whole.

“What this body needs is a little bit of trust,” said Scheer, who urged rural senators to advance the incentives bill to the second of three rounds of debate in exchange for a fair shot for the property tax bill.

The measure, LB 720, then advanced on a 29-5 vote.

But the good vibes didn’t last long. When debate began on the property tax relief proposal, it was clear that not even all rural senators supported it.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, a key author of the stalled LB 289, slammed the alternative proposal for failing to change the state’s system for distributing state aid to K-12 schools, which sends very little aid to two-thirds of the state’s school districts.

“As a fiscal conservative, I will not vote for something that just throws money at something,” he said.

Groene and several urban senators, including Ernie Chambers of Omaha, said the new sales taxes in LB 183 would be paid mostly by urban residents, and then distributed to farmers and ranchers. They especially objected to the repeal of existing sales tax exemptions on hair cuts, veterinary care for pets and motor vehicle repairs.

Chambers also warned rural senators that they could be left empty-handed this year because Gov. Pete Ricketts is expected to veto the property tax measure.

Briese portrayed the bill as a make-or-break effort to boost property tax relief for Nebraskans, boosting the property tax credit program from its current $224 million to $375 million while leaving the thorny questions about revising the school aid formula for later.

“It’s straightforward, it’s effective and it’s simple,” Briese said.

With the death of LB 183, the main property tax relief measure of 2019 is a $51 million increase in the property tax credit program that was proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts. It would translate into an extra $20 for the owner of a $100,000 home, and $24 more for every $100,000 worth of farmland.

There is also a citizen-led petition drive to get an initiative on the 2020 ballot to give Nebraska landowners a 35% refund on property taxes paid, a change many legislators have branded as too drastic. Senators also pledged to keep working on LB 289 for passage next year.

Meanwhile, debate on the business incentive bill is scheduled to resume later this week, likely on Friday.

During debate Wednesday, a package of amendments was attached to the ImagiNE Act to address some of its critics. One amendment ensures that only full-time jobs are used to qualify for tax credits and another creates a $2 million fund to grant to “high impact” businesses in small towns that don’t qualify for the act.

There were also discussions of placing a limit or cap on how much money the state would forgo in taxes every year in tax incentives. Neighboring Iowa, Kansas and Missouri all cap how much in tax breaks they give away, which makes the fiscal impact predictable.

Kolterman said he’s willing to consider that, but it would be difficult to do that in Nebraska because our tax incentives are open ended, based on the amount of investment and new jobs that are created.

He added that despite the vowed blockage by rural senators, he’s moving forward. “We’re going to continue to work my bill and make it happen,” Kolterman said.

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Articles
IN OMAHA, A FULLDAY OF BASEBALL UPSETS
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT

The Big Ten baseball tournament opened here Wednesday, and the top three seeds — Indiana, Michigan and Illinois — all lost before fifth-seeded Nebraska took on No. 4 Minnesota in the finale. The Huskers scored early and often, setting up a clash tonight with Iowa, the No. 8 seed, which beat No. 1 Indiana. Here, NU's Jaxon Hallmark gets loose at sunset.

COMPLETE COVERAGE IN SPORTS AND ON OMAHA.COM