The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Felicity Huffman gets 14 days in jail in college admission scandal

Actress Felicity Huffman was the first sentenced on Sept. 13 among 15 wealthy parents who have admitted guilt in the college admissions bribery. (Video: Reuters)

BOSTON — Actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced Friday to two weeks in jail for paying $15,000 in a conspiracy to inflate the SAT score of her older daughter — a punishment that sets a benchmark for what other accused parents could face in the college admissions bribery scandal.

Huffman, who starred in the television series “Desperate Housewives,” had pleaded guilty in May to one count of conspiring to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. She was the first to be sentenced among 15 wealthy parents who have admitted guilt in the scam known as Varsity Blues. U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani also sentenced Huffman to a year of supervised release, 250 hours of community service and a $30,000 fine.

Huffman’s sentence gave federal prosecutors a victory in their quest to send a message that famous and powerful parents who used money in an illicit scheme to break the rules of college admissions should pay a price that includes time behind bars.

The scandal, which broke in March, has rocked higher education, exposing vulnerabilities in testing and admissions and sparking questions about fairness. It also illuminated the lengths some wealthy parents will go in trying to give their children an edge in the annual frenzy to get into selective colleges and universities.

As she faced the judge, Huffman broke into tears in a statement of apology to colleges, the court, her family, other students and especially her older daughter, who was unaware of the fraud as it was unfolding in 2017 and 2018. The daughter was not charged with any wrongdoing.

“I could only say I’m sorry,” Huffman said, mentioning the daughter’s name in court. “I was frightened, I was stupid and I was so wrong. I am deeply ashamed of what I’ve done.”

Eric S. Rosen, an assistant U.S. attorney, pressed the judge to send Huffman to prison for 30 days. The prosecutor dismissed Huffman’s explanations about her state of mind as she was committing the crime.

“She told you the crime resulted from the bewilderment, anxiety and insecurity of being a mom,” Rosen told the court. “We have no doubt of her sincerity. But with all due respect to the defendant: Welcome to parenthood.”

The punishment Talwani chose for Huffman could influence perceptions of what sentences should, or will, be delivered to others convicted in an extraordinary scandal that has shaken public confidence in college admissions. Fifty-one people, including 34 parents, have been charged. Nineteen of the accused parents — including actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli — are fighting the charges.

Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University, said the Huffman sentence “will help set the market" for Varsity Blues prosecutions. “Other judges and other lawyers and other defendants are going to be looking at the Huffman outcome as a gauge,” he said.

Former federal prosecutor Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School, said the sentence is likely to ignite debate. “Both those who think the conduct here shouldn’t have been prosecuted and those concerned about special treatment for the privileged are bound to be dissatisfied,” he said.

In March, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, disclosed the stunning bribery and cheating scheme to subvert the college admissions process.

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

William “Rick” Singer, an admissions consultant in California, acknowledged orchestrating illicit efforts to help the children of his clients obtain phony SAT or ACT scores and use fabricated athletic credentials to pose in the application process as recruits for sports such as tennis, water polo and soccer.

He pitched himself as an insider who could conjure up a desirable test score and access the “side door” to schools such as the University of Southern California and Yale, Stanford and Georgetown universities. Singer pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other crimes and cooperated with investigators. He has not been sentenced.

Huffman was accused of participating in the test-rigging part of the scam, but not the athletic-recruiting deception.

Huffman, 56, of Los Angeles, won an Emmy in 2005 for her portrayal of Lynette Scavo in the ABC television series “Desperate Housewives.” She has had numerous other credits in television and film and is married to actor William H. Macy. He was not charged.

Prosecutors say Huffman arranged with Singer in 2017 to obtain an inflated SAT score for her older daughter by having a proctor manipulate the answers. In February 2018, Huffman paid a Singer-controlled charity $15,000 to reimburse him for bribes that put their plan in motion. The daughter obtained a score of 1420 out of a maximum 1600.

In a sentencing recommendation filed last week, prosecutors argued that prison time for Huffman is essential to send a message. “In the context of this case,” prosecutors wrote, “neither probation nor home confinement (in a large home in the Hollywood Hills with an infinity pool) would constitute meaningful punishment or deter others from committing similar crimes.”

Huffman’s attorneys, Martin F. Murphy and Julia Amrhein, contended that prison time was not warranted. They noted that Huffman paid far less than other parents charged in the scheme and did not attempt to participate in the elaborate manufacturing of fraudulent athletic portfolios that others used to target admissions offices at prominent universities. They also pointed out Huffman chose not to purchase a fraudulent score for her younger daughter, even though she considered doing so.

Universities race to quell outrage over bribery and cheating scandal in admissions

Prosecutors have recommended up to 15 months of incarceration for 10 other parents who pleaded guilty. Factors influencing those recommendations, prosecutors said, were the amount of the bribes paid by each parent, their degree of participation in the scheme and whether the parent repeated the scam.

Talwani, on the federal bench since 2014, is scheduled to sentence those 10 other parents in coming weeks. Among them are several who, like Huffman, participated only in the test-cheating scam.

In delivering Huffman’s sentence, the judge criticized the admissions process for providing extra advantages to well-off students. Talwani cited preferences for children of alumni, the “incredibly high percentage of spots that go to families in the top 20 percent of income brackets,” and the high rate of additional time granted for tests taken by wealthier versus lower-income students.

Talwani noted that the system “is already so distorted by money and privilege.” Then, the judge chided Huffman for trying to give her daughter an unfair edge. “In a system of that sort, in that context, you took the step of obtaining one more advantage to put your child ahead of theirs,” Talwani told her.

The judge ordered Huffman to surrender to authorities Oct. 25. Talwani told Huffman she will ask authorities to incarcerate her in a relatively low-security facility near her California home.

Huffman was accompanied at the sentencing by her husband. She was dressed in a simple dark dress and Macy in a dark suit. They held hands, looking solemn, and walked past a large media stakeout on their way into the federal courthouse. The couple made no statements as they exited after the hearing.

The first sentence in the Varsity Blues case was seen as a setback for prosecutors. Former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer, who had pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, was sentenced in June to one day of incarceration for his role in the scandal. He was given credit for time already served, and avoided being sent to prison.

Anderson reported from Washington.