You are here
US college admissions scam: Will parents like Felicity Huffman get jail?
[CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts] With the first sentencings on the horizon for a group of wealthy parents accused of paying big sums to get their children into prestigious colleges by cheating, the legal drama has come down to a simple question: Will they serve any jail time?
Actress Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty to paying a consultant US$15,000 to inflate her elder daughter's SAT score, is facing less potential jail time — prosecutors are now recommending one month of incarceration — than many of the about three dozen parents accused of wrongdoing in the scheme.
But with her sentencing scheduled to come first, next week, it will represent an initial test of whether a federal judge believes that parents who acknowledged roles in cheating their children's way into college should spend at least some time in jail.
"Some period of incarceration is the only meaningful sanction for these crimes," prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed Friday for Huffman and 10 other parents who have pleaded guilty to felonies in the case.
The prosecutors are recommending one to 15 months of imprisonment for those other parents, some of whom helped arrange for cheating on their children's standardised tests and others who helped conspire to bribe college coaches to designate their children as recruits in sports they did not play.
"Home confinement would be a penological joke," the prosecutors wrote in their memorandum, "conjuring images of defendants padding around impressive homes waiting for the end of curfew".
In a separate filing, Huffman's lawyers argued that she should get no jail time but instead a year of probation, 250 hours of community service and a US$20,000 fine. They laid out for the first time a detailed narrative of how she got involved, saying that the college consultant, William Singer, worked for her family for nearly a year — providing tutors for her older daughter and building Huffman's trust — before he proposed the cheating scheme.
Then, in a meeting in 2017, Huffman's defence team says, he told her that her daughter's math scores were too low to be considered by the performing arts schools she dreamed of. So he offered the following service, as Huffman wrote in notes on her laptop: "Control the outcome of the SAT — 15 grand — get a proctor in the room with her and she gets the answer she needs to get."
For six weeks, she agonised about the idea, Huffman wrote in a letter attached to her lawyers' memorandum.
"I felt an urgency which built to a sense of panic that there was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter's sake," she wrote. "As warped as this sounds now, I honestly began to feel that maybe I would be a bad mother if I didn't do what Mr Singer was suggesting." Singer, whom prosecutors have described as the cheating scandal's mastermind, has pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors; his sentence is not yet set.
Huffman wrote that she decided to go through with the cheating but that it haunted her. So while she considered doing the same thing for her younger daughter, she decided against it.
Even as prosecutors are arguing that the parents should go to jail, in some cases for more than a year, it appears increasingly likely that they will get short terms of imprisonment, or only probation.
For the first group of parents to be sentenced, which includes Huffman, federal probation officials have said that the sentencing guidelines are zero to six months. Prosecutors have strenuously disagreed with their reasoning, but if the judge ends up siding with the probation officials, the same guidelines would most likely apply to most of the parents who have pleaded guilty. The judge, Indira Talwani, has scheduled a hearing next week to air the dispute.
If the judge ultimately chooses to impose no jail time in the cases of the first parents to be sentenced, it would be a blow to prosecutors, who have said that wealthy parents ought to face significant penalties for a system of cheating that corrupted employees of elite universities and robbed hardworking students of admission slots. It could also have ramifications for the rest of the case, in which dozens more parents and coaches are still fighting charges.
Regardless of any jail time they receive, many parents have suffered serious consequences. They have lost work, seen their reputations damaged and become public symbols of arrogance and greed.
Huffman's lawyers report in their memorandum that she has not received a single offer or audition since she was arrested. Her elder daughter, Sophia, has no college to attend, her lawyers say, because even schools that did not require SATs would not let her audition after her mother's arrest.
Despite this, if many of the parents are sentenced to probation, the prosecutors would be disappointed, said Robert Fisher, a former federal prosecutor who is now a defense attorney at Nixon Peabody, which represents former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, the first person sentenced in the conspiracy.
"That's clearly not the result that they're looking for," he said. "They clearly want people to serve jail time."
Vandemoer was sentenced to only a day in jail, which was deemed already served, and six months of home confinement.
Huffman's lawyers submitted nearly 90 pages' worth of letters from family members, friends and others who testified to her kindness and generosity. They also submitted "a partial list of events and causes Ms. Huffman has supported."
The first letter is from her husband, actor William H Macy. He was not charged in the case even though he was captured on some recordings by investigators, and references in the prosecutors' criminal complaint suggested that he was aware of the plans to cheat.
Macy's and Huffman's letters offered a view into how the charges have affected at least one family.
In her letter, Huffman described Sophia asking her, "with tears streaming down her face, 'Why didn't you believe in me? Why didn't you think I could do it on my own?'"
In his, Macy wrote that Sophia "still doesn't like to sleep alone and has nightmares from the FBI agents waking her that morning" — the morning Huffman was arrested — "with guns drawn".
He said Huffman had found a family therapist that they have seen, in various combinations, over the last several months. He writes of his wife: "She has kept all of us talking and when one of her daughters needs to scream at her, she takes it in and makes no excuses. She only loves them back."
Prosecutors painted a less flattering portrait of Huffman, describing her as pursuing the cheating scheme despite the "staggering advantages" that she and her daughter already enjoyed as a result of her wealth and fame.
They described her as a hypocrite, drawing on a blog and parenting website Huffman maintained before her arrest, on which, they say, she cultivated and monetised "a public persona as a likable everywoman and trustworthy purveyor of parenting wisdom," selling mugs and T-shirts with phrases like "Good Enough Mom".
While on her blog she was "extolling the virtues of imperfection and the 'potential of failure,'" the prosecutors write, "Huffman was paying corrupt testing officials to cheat on her daughter's SAT, an effort that involved manipulating her own daughter along with everyone else."
"In short," they argue, "while her recent expressions of regret are commendable, in real time she profited from fundamental duplicity".