Felicity Huffman sentenced: 2 weeks in prison, $30,000 fine for college admissions scandal
Felicity Huffman’s sentencing gives prosecutors a crucial win as they seek prison sentences for other parents charged in the historic case.
BOSTON — A federal judge Friday sentenced actress Felicity Huffman to 14 days in prison in the nation’s college admissions scandal, giving prosecutors a crucial win as they seek prison sentences for other parents charged in the historic case.
U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani also sentenced Huffman to a $30,000 fine, supervised release for one year and 250 hours of community service for paying $15,000 to have someone correct answers on the SAT exam of her oldest daughter, Sophia.
It marked the case’s first sentencing of a parent – a defendant who is also one of its most famous.
“I don’t think anyone wants to go to prison,” Talwani said. “I do think this is the right thing here. I think without this sentence you would be looking at a future with a community around you asking how you got away with this.”
Huffman in May pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
She was confronted in Boston federal court Friday by a prosecutor who argued for a one-month prison term, telling the judge Huffman showed “disdain and contempt for the rule of law” by cheating. But her legal team argued that she should not be treated “more harshly” because of her wealth and fame.
Talwani seemed torn, saying she made her decision based on a number of factors, including Huffman’s “moral character.” She also said the idea the case “undermined confidence in a level-playing field” in college admissions is flawed, noting that the current admissions process does not ensure there’s not a “backdoor” into college.
But she said Huffman “knew what she did was wrong.”
“Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse us,” Talwani said.
Huffman, 56, was directed to report to prison on Oct. 25. “Ms. Huffman, I wish you success moving forward,” the judge told her.
Tearful Huffman: ‘Eternal shame’ for not turning around
Huffman’s husband, actor William H. Macy, rubbed his wife’s back and held her hand as they left the courtroom.
The two left the courthouse holding hands, and did not speak to hundreds of reporters waiting. In a prepared statement, Huffman said, “I accept the court’s decision today without reservation. I have always been prepared to accept whatever punishment Judge Talwani imposed.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts declined to comment.
Earlier, addressing the judge, Huffman, apologized to other students, other parents and her family for her actions and reiterated her regrets.
“I take full responsibility of my actions and making amends with my crime,” she said. “I will deserve whatever punishment you give me.”
She teared up as she recalled driving her daughter to the Los Angeles testing center where the cheating occurred and her “eternal shame” for not turning around. Huffman then recounted the story of how her daughter found out what she had done.
“She said, ‘I don’t know who you are anymore, Mom. Why didn’t you believe in me, Mom? Why didn’t you think I can do it on my own?’ I can only say, ‘I’m sorry Sophia. I was so stupid and I was so wrong’. … I have done more damage than I could have ever imagined.”
Huffman is now the second defendant in the blockbuster “Varsity Blues” cheating and bribery scheme to be sentenced. A former Stanford sailing coach, John Vandemoer, was sentenced to home supervision, not prison, in June. Huffman’s sentence likely signals that other parents who have pleaded guilty are in line for prison as well.
The Justice Department in March charged 51 people, including 34 parents, for paying $25 million collectively to Rick Singer, the mastermind of the nationwide college admissions scheme, to either tag their children as fake athletic recruits to get them into college or to carry out the test scam. Twenty-three defendants have pleaded guilty.
Huffman’s daughter’s SAT score improved to a 1420 as a result of the cheating, up 400 points from when she took the PSAT by herself the previous year.
Her prison sentence came despite Talwani agreeing with the court’s probation officer that there were no “victims” who suffered financial losses as a result of any actions of defendants in the case, including Huffman. Prosecutors had argued universities and testing companies suffered losses.
“The outrage isn’t the harm to the colleges,” Talwani said of a case that has garnered enormous media attention. “The outrage is the system that is already so distorted.”
‘A message must be sent,’ prosecutor says
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen had argued forcefully in court, saying “the only meaningful and efficient sanction is prison” and “there is simply no excuse for what (Huffman) did.”
Huffman, in a letter to the judge submitted before the hearing, said she feared she would be a “bad mother” if she didn’t take part in Singer’s cheating scheme. She said she didn’t want her daughter, who has learning disabilities and wants to act, to not get admitted to college because of a low math score.
“With all due respect to the defendant, welcome to parenthood,” Rosen said. “What parenthood does not do is it does not make you a felon, it does not make you cheat… Most parents have the moral compass to not step over the line. The defendant did not.”
He noted that Huffman did not disengage from her conduct “until the very, very end.” She showed “disdain and contempt for the rule of law,” Rosen said.
He cited an Akron, Ohio case in which a single African-American mother, Kelley Williams-Bolar, was sentenced to 10 days in prison for lying about her daughters’ residence to get them into a better, more affluent school district.
“If we respect the rule of law, we should not treat defendants (differently) because of wealth and status,” Rosen said.
“A message must be sent, and imprisonment is the only way to send that message. In prison, there is no paparazzi. Everyone is treated the same. Prison is the great leveler here.”
‘Not fair’ to treat the rich differently, Huffman’s attorney argues
Huffman’s attorney, Martin Murphy, rejected that argument when it was his time to address the judge.
“It can’t be the case that Ms. Huffman should be treated more harshly because of her financial circumstances. Unlike what the government says, that is not fair.”
He argued for 12 months of probation and 250 hours of community service for Huffman. He disputed the government’s argument that probation is “not real punishment,” calling that a “penological joke. That is simply wrong and it is wrong as a mater of law. … A sentence of punishment is real punishment.”
He noted that Huffman opted against pursuing Singer’s scheme for her younger daughter when given the opportunity.
When Huffman had the chance to decide whether “she was going to do this again, she said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘No, I don’t want to do this. It doesn’t seem right.’ This is a litmus test of Ms. Huffman’s character,” Murphy said.
About 45 minutes before Friday’s hearing, Huffman arrived at the courthouse with Macy. A jostling mob of reporters and cameras focused on them as they got out of a black SUV. Wearing a black dress, she also was accompanied by her brother and an older woman, but her two daughters did not appear to be them.
Inside the courtroom, Macy sat in the first row of the gallery. U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, who doesn’t ordinarily attend hearings in the case his office launched in March, also was there. More than 50 reporters crowded in as well.
Prosecutors had initially sought 4 months of prison for Huffman
Leading up to the hearing, prosecutors argued neither probation nor home confinement for Huffman would “constitute meaningful punishment or deter others from committing similar crimes.” Neither would a significant dollar fine, which they said would “amount to little more than a rounding error for a defendant with a net worth measured in the tens of millions of dollars.” They called community service “hardly a punishment,” especially for the famous.
Prosecutors had previously recommended four months of prison. They said they reduced their recommended length after Huffman acknowledged the agreed-upon payment to be $15,000. She had objected earlier.
Murphy, in a separate memo filed last week argued several reasons why his defendant should be spared prison: No incarceration falls within the federal sentencing guidelines for her crimes; probation would be consistent with cases with similar charges; and Huffman’s conduct was “completely out of character.”
Actress Felicity Huffman is one of 13 parents who negotiated plea agreements in the college admissions scandal. USA TODAY
Huffman said she “didn’t go shopping for a college counselor to find out how to rig a SAT score.” Rather, she hired a counselor for guidance on how to apply to colleges for her daughter, who has learning disabilities. She said Singer was recommended.
She said Singer advised that her daughter’s SAT score would prevent her from getting accepted into her college of choice. He then told her about the cheating scheme, Huffman said, which she pondered six weeks before agreeing to.
“In my desperation to be a good mother I talked myself into believing that all I was doing was giving my daughter a fair shot. I see the irony of that statement now because what I have done is the opposite of fair.”
Two more parents to be sentenced this month
Vandemoer, the former Stanford coach who avoided prison, admitted to collecting $610,000 in payments from Singer. But the judge who ruled on his case noted that Vandemoer funneled payments to Stanford’s sailing program, not for his personal use, and none of the students tied to his payments attended Stanford as a direct result of his actions.
Huffman was not originally set to be the first parent to be sentenced. But hearings for two other parents, Stephen Semprevivo and Devin Sloane, originally set for earlier this week, were delayed so the judge could take up the legal question on financial losses.
In a white-collar fraud case, the severity of sentences often comes down to proving a victim suffered financial loses.
On Friday Talwani issued an order Friday, rejecting prosecutors’ request to apply tougher bribery sentencing guidelines instead of the lighter fraud sentencing guidelines.
The decision could affect the sentencing of parents who paid far greater amounts than Huffman. Sloane, a Los Angeles executive, pleaded guilty to paying $250,000 in bribes to Singer’s organization to falsely designate his son as a water polo player so he could gain acceptance to the University of Southern California. Semprevivo, also a California businessman, admitted to paying $400,000 to get his son into Georgetown university as a fake tennis recruit.
Sloane’s sentencing date was rescheduled to Sept. 24. Semprevivo’s is now Sept. 26.