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Actress Felicity Huffman pleads guilty in college admissions scandal

Tearful mother tells federal court the daughter she tried to help played no role in the scam.

Felicity Huffman arrives at federal court Monday, May 13, 2019, in Boston, where she pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. (Steven Senne/AP)

BOSTON — Actress Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty Monday to fraud conspiracy in the college admissions bribery scandal, two months after prosecutors accused her of paying $15,000 to help one of her daughters get a phony SAT score.

“Are you pleading guilty of your own free will?” U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani asked Huffman at a hearing here in federal court.

“Yes, your honor,” Huffman replied. Minutes later, in tears, Huffman told the judge that her daughter had played no role in the scheme.

Huffman, of Los Angeles, was among 33 parents charged in March when federal prosecutors disclosed an investigation of an illicit scheme that a college admissions consultant orchestrated to help children of the wealthy get into prominent universities. The two-part scheme, prosecutors said, included cheating on tests and helping applicants pose as recruited athletes to improve their chances of admission.

The scandal has led schools such as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown universities and the University of Southern California to review their admission practices and the credentials of students who were clients of the disgraced consultant William “Rick” Singer. Some students have been expelled or denied admission.

FBI accuses wealthy parents, including celebrities, in college-entrance bribery scheme

According to an investigator’s affidavit filed in federal court in Boston, Huffman paid $15,000 to a sham charity Singer controlled in exchange for help obtaining a fraudulent SAT score for her older daughter.

The affidavit says Huffman’s daughter took the SAT in December 2017 at a testing center in West Hollywood, and received a score of 1420. The test was proctored by a testing expert whom Singer frequently paid, investigators said, to facilitate cheating by surreptitiously correcting answers or otherwise helping students during the exam.

Huffman had indicated in April that she planned to plead guilty. In a written statement then, she expressed “deep regret and shame over what I have done,” and said she was ashamed for the pain she had caused her daughter, friends and others. She also apologized “to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”

Huffman wrote that her daughter knew nothing about the scheme, “and in my misguided and profoundly wrong way, I have betrayed her.”

‘Certainly a possibility’: Prison for parents accused in college admissions scandal?

Huffman, 56, won an Emmy in 2005 for playing Lynette Scavo in the television show “Desperate Housewives.” She is one of 14 parents who have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. None of their children were charged.

Devin Sloane, 53, a Los Angeles businessman, also pleaded guilty here Monday. He was accused of conspiring to bribe a USC athletic official to designate his son as a recruit for the school’s water polo team, even though the son did not play the sport competitively. The affidavit indicates that Sloane sent Singer a photo of his son in a pool purporting to play water polo. The son’s right arm and upper torso were above the water line, the affidavit said.

“Does this work??” Sloane wrote Singer in an email, according to the affidavit.

Singer, identified in the document as Cooperating Witness One, replied: “Yes but a little high out of the water — no one gets that high.” Eventually, prosecutors say, the son secured admission. Sloane paid $250,000 in 2018 to fund the maneuver, prosecutors say. In Sloane’s plea agreement, prosecutors are recommending he receive a prison term of about a year and a $75,000 fine.

The maximum prison term for the fraud conspiracy count is 20 years. Eric S. Rosen, an assistant U.S. attorney, told Talwani the government is recommending four months in prison for Huffman and a $20,000 fine. Under the terms of her plea agreement, Huffman reserved the right to argue that her offense corresponds to a guideline that could yield a more lenient sentence. The judge will have the final say.

Talwani set Huffman’s sentencing date for Sept. 13 and Sloane’s for Sept. 10.

Nineteen other parents — including actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli — are fighting charges against them.

Huffman is married to actor William H. Macy. He was mentioned several times in the investigator’s affidavit but was not named in the document or charged.

Singer, of Newport Beach, Calif., pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges. Others charged include former coaches and people involved with admissions testing. Prosecutors have secured 10 guilty pleas so far, counting those of Huffman and Sloane. Records show another is expected Tuesday from a former USC assistant soccer coach who prosecutors say worked with Singer.

Anderson reported from Washington.

Authorities charged more than 50 people, like actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, March 12 with being part of a long-running college admittance scam. (Video: Allie Caren, Justin Scuiletti/The Washington Post)