Felicity Huffman
The actress Felicity Huffman leaves federal court beside her husband, the actor William Macy, after her sentencing in Boston, on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. Image Credit: NYT

Felicity Huffman got two weeks in jail for rigging her daughter's entrance-exam scores in the US college admissions scandal, the first parent to be sentenced in the sprawling case that sparked a nationwide debate over class and privilege.

"You take your sentence," US District Judge Indira Talwani told a tearful Huffman in federal court in Boston on Friday. "You move forward. And you can rebuild your life after this."

The punishment of the ‘Desperate Housewives’ star, who paid $15,000 (Dh55,095) for a 400-point boost over the preliminary SAT her daughter took on her own a year earlier, may send a chill through the 14 other parents who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud. Their pleas are part of a deal with prosecutors to win leniency, but some of them paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lock in admission to elite schools for their kids - and may now be wondering what their sentences will look like.

$15,000

paid by Huffman for a 400-point boost over the preliminary SAT her daughter took.

For the 19 who spurned such deals and were indicted on charges including money laundering, Huffman's sentence may be harder to read. It could be a signal to fight on, given the more serious charges they face, or a cue to change their plea in hopes of a shorter term than they'd get if they lost at trial.

Total damage

In pronouncing Huffman's sentence, which includes a $30,000 fine, a year of probation and 250 hours of community service, Talwani said a prison term was necessary because Huffman took "that next step" beyond the privilege she already enjoyed.

"The outrage is a system that is already so distorted by money and privilege in the first place," the judge said.

19

indicted on charges including money laundering in the college scandal did not accept a deal.

After her sentence was read, Huffman, an Emmy and Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee, was permitted to sit down, and took a long drink of water. Her husband, the actor William H. Macy, who wasn't accused in the case, walked over to her and put his hands on her shoulders. Macy was among some 30 people who wrote to the judge seeking leniency for Huffman.

"She hurt her daughters," he wrote. "It was the one thing she swore never to do, and she did it. ... It's a pain I don't think she will ever escape."

‘Ashamed’

"I was stupid and I was so wrong. I am deeply ashamed of what I've done," Huffman told the judge in court Friday. In a statement after the hearing, she said, "I especially want to apologise to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices supporting their children."

Huffman, 56, must surrender to authorities on October 25.

Huffman admitted in May to paying college counselor Rick Singer, the scheme's mastermind, to change the answers on her older daughter Sophia's SAT. She was one of the first parents to acknowledge her participation in the scheme and, partly on that basis, pleaded with Talwani in court papers to be spared prison.

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"Now the bar is set,” said Brad Bailey, a former federal prosecutor in Boston who is in private practice and who isn't involved in the case. "I wouldn't want to be any other defendant in this case,” he said, pointing to the far greater amounts some parents laid out in the scam.

"I was absolutely surprised by Talwani's sentence,” said Bailey, who had predicted probation or house arrest. "I spoke to a number of defense lawyers in the case, and they're all stunned, too." He added, "I have to presume they are also now concerned."

Exposed system

The case cast a harsh spotlight on the college admissions process and the advantages afforded to the wealthy and powerful. In laying it out, prosecutors noted that Singer told parents there were three doors to college - a front door for applicants who get in on their own merits, a back door requiring multimillion-dollar donations, and the "side door" he was offering them.

Talwani acknowledged as much in court on Friday, saying she didn't accept the prosecutors' contention that the scheme had undermined the admissions process. The concept of a level playing field already "has cracks in it," she said.

The US attorney's office in Boston, which brought the case, had argued that Huffman should do a month behind bars to send a message that wealthy parents can't buy their children's way into college. In his sentencing memo, Assistant US Attorney Eric Rosen called her a "sophisticated businesswoman” and not "somehow less guilty" than the crime she committed.

In court on Friday, Rosen referred to the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African-American woman from the inner city of Akron, Ohio, who got 10 days in jail for falsifying her address so her two daughters could attend a better school in the suburban system.

51

defendants in the college admissions scam.

"If we respect the rule of law, we should not treat any defendant differently,” he said.

Diane Ferrone, a criminal defense lawyer in New York who also isn't involved in the case, said Huffman is likelier to serve such a short term not in a prison but in a federal pretrial detention facility near her home in Los Angeles.

"The irony is that a federal jail is likely to be worse than a penitentiary, because they house all kinds of inmates,” Ferrone said.

The bid for longer terms

The US sought enhanced sentences for the parents, arguing they should be held responsible for costs that the colleges and testing facilities incurred from the scandal, such as the cost of conducting internal investigations. That was "a bit of a stretch,” said Brad Simon, a former federal prosecutor in New York who is now a partner at Phillips Nizer LLP and isn't involved in the case. Talwani rejected that effort on Friday.

"The government cast too wide a net to encompass conduct that isn't directly attributable to the parents,” Simon said. "They shouldn't be on the hook” because "a university or testing agency failed to police the actions of their rogue employees."

Case of fraud

The judge had a challenge on her hands in crafting Huffman's sentence, "as this isn't a case where investors lost millions of dollars, yet it's clearly a fraud," said Simon. "These are otherwise law-abiding citizens who crossed the line to give their children an advantage."

The college admissions scam, which rocked academia - and no small number of nervous parents across America who wondered if they'd also crossed the line - is the biggest ever prosecuted in the US. It involves a total of 51 defendants, including the 34 parents and a smattering of test-center personnel, college athletic coaches and Singer's staff.

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.

- Felicity Huffman

The 19 parents who pleaded not guilty include Lori Loughlin, who starred in the hit ABC sitcom ‘Full House’ and has shared tabloid headlines with Huffman since the charges were unveiled in March. The money-laundering charge in their indictment is for sums paid to a charity the US says Singer used to process bribes.

What was the money meant for?

Some of the parents' payments went to boost their kids' test scores, while other payoffs were for a handful of corrupt coaches at elite universities, the government says, from Stanford and the University of Southern California to Georgetown and Yale. The coaches put the applicants on recruiting lists, assuring them of admission whatever their test scores - or athletic prowess. None of the colleges or students were charged.

"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," Huffman wrote in a letter to Talwani before the sentencing, saying her decision to cheat has "haunted" her.