Felicity Huffman gets 14 days in prison for role in college admissions scandal

Huffman pleaded guilty in April to paying $15,000 to college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer to have her oldest daughter’s SAT score boosted

By Martha Ross
The Mercury News

A federal court judge on Friday sentenced actress Felicity Huffman to 14 days in federal prison for her role in the nationwide college admissions scandal, making her the first parent punished for a scheme to cheat and bribe children into elite universities.

Given that the “Desperate Housewives” star was one of 34 wealthy parents charged in “Operation Varsity Blues,” her fate in a Boston courtroom sends a foreboding message to others implicated in the scandal.

Felicity Huffman and husband William Macy arrive at John Moakley U.S. Courthousefor Huffman's sentencing hearing for her role in the college admissions scandal on September 13, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Paul Marotta/Getty Images/TNS)
Felicity Huffman and husband William Macy arrive at John Moakley U.S. Courthousefor Huffman's sentencing hearing for her role in the college admissions scandal on September 13, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Paul Marotta/Getty Images/TNS)

That includes wealthy Bay Area parents who have pleaded guilty and have upcoming sentencing dates. Others — including former “Full House” star Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli — have rejected plea deals.

“I’ve never seen a federal judge sentence a criminal defendant to 14 days,” said former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, who tried drug and fraud cases when he was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego from 2010 to 2012. Judges usually choose probation over a short sentence.

“It appears that the purpose was to send a message that the court is not going to be soft on some celebrity because of her wealth or fame.”

Huffman, 56, pleaded guilty in April to paying $15,000 to college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer to have her oldest daughter’s SAT score boosted. Other parents who pleaded guilty admitted to paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to Singer, the bribery scheme’s alleged mastermind, either to rig their children’s standardized test scores or to portray them as athletic recruits, often for sports in which they did not even participate.

The Bay Area parents who have pleaded guilty and who face sentencing dates in the next two months are Peter Jan Sartorio, of Menlo Park, Marjorie Klapper, of Menlo Park; and Augustin Huneeus Jr., of San Francisco. Both Sartorio and Klapper were charged with paying $15,000 to Singer to participate in the scheme, while Huneeus was accused of paying $300,000 to help his daughter cheat on her SAT and to have her falsely designated as a water polo recruit to USC.

As they did for Huffman, prosecutors have asked for a one-month sentence for Sartorio. They are seeking a four-month sentence for Klapper and a 15-month sentence for Huneeus.

With the 14-day sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani appeared to split the difference between the prosecutors’ insistence on at least one month in prison and Huffman’s attorneys’ request for probation and community service. According to reports from inside the court, her attorneys also asked that Huffman serve her time at the federal prison in Dublin, a low-security facility.

Huffman also received a $30,000 fine, 250 hours of community service and one year of supervised release. Talwani ordered Huffman to report to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on Oct. 25. The bureau makes the final determination on whether Huffman will be housed at the Dublin prison or at another facility in the system.

Huffman walked briskly into court with a grave expression, holding hands with her husband, actor William H. Macy. Following the sentence, the Oscar-nominated actress issued a statement: “I broke the law. I have admitted that and I pleaded guilty to this crime. There are no excuses or justifications for my actions. Period.

“I would like to apologize again to my daughter, my husband, my family and the educational community for my actions. And I especially want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices supporting their children.”

Huffman’s sentence came after she offered a tearful apology, in which she reiterated statements she made in her pre-sentencing letter, according to reports from inside the court. In her letter, Huffman said it was “desperation to be a good mother” that led her to pay to rig her older daughter’s SAT score. She also told the judge that she would would feel “utter shame” for the rest of her life.

In her letter, Huffman admitted to finding motherhood “bewildering,” saying she always was “afraid of doing it wrong.” Huffman described what happened when her older daughter, Sophia, learned about the bribe and the falsified score. She said the teen came to her, “tears streaming down her face” and asked, “Why don’t you believe in me? Why didn’t you think I could do it on my own?”

With regard to Huffman’s statement that she was trying to do things right by her daughter, Talwani said, “Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse this.”

Before she announced the sentence, Talwani said Huffman knew what she did was wrong, saying, “She knew it was a fraud. It was not an impulsive act.”

Legal experts earlier had expressed doubt that Talwani would think it was worth it to lock the actress up for just 30 days. Rahmini said defendants such as Huffman typically get probation, home confinement or community service. That is, defendants who are within the federal sentencing guidelines of zero to 6 months in prison and who have taken plea deals, have no criminal history, have accepted responsibility and expressed remorse.

“Huffman did everything necessary to not go to prison,” Rahmini added.

Manny Medrano, another former federal prosecutor who also is in private practice in Los Angeles, agreed that Huffman’s sentence is a “clear indication that for parents involved in this scheme, they are looking at federal prison time. The issue is how much.”

“If you pled out early, you’re going to get a very low sentence like Felicity did today,” he said. “If you go to a jury trial and lose, you’re looking at multiple years in prison.”

After Loughlin, Giannulli and other parents rejected plea deals, they were indicted on more serious charges of fraud and money laundering, which carry maximum potential sentences of 20 years in prison.

Loughlin and Giannulli are charged with paying $500,000 to Singer and his alleged co-conspirators at the University of Southern California to have their daughters, Olivia Jade and Isabella Giannulli, falsely designated as crew team recruits. Both were admitted to USC and were students there until news of the scandal broke in March. According to recent reports, they still are officially enrolled as USC reviews applications of students of parents charged in the scandal.

Prosecutors have been adamant that Huffman and other parents should face some period of incarceration for the bribery scheme, which allowed their children to take coveted college spots from “more deserving” students whose parents didn’t cheat on their behalf. Prosecutors said prison was necessary to show these parents and everyone else that the rich, powerful and, in some cases, famous are not above the law.

“For wrongdoing that is predicated on wealth and rationalized by a sense of privilege, incarceration is the only leveler,” prosecutors said in their sentencing memorandum. “In prison everyone is treated the same, dressed the same, and intermingled regardless of affluence, position or fame.”

Staff writer John Woolfolk contributed to this report.

©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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