Felicity Huffman to kick off sentencing of parents in college admissions case: Will judge 'send a message?'
Felicity Huffman's sentencing gives prosecutors a crucial win as they seek prison sentences for other parents charged in the historic case. USA TODAY
BOSTON – The Justice Department suffered a setback in June when the first defendant sentenced in the nation's college admissions scandal, a former Stanford University sailing coach, avoided any prison time.
The prosecution soon has an opportunity to rebound as the historic "Varsity Blues" case enters a critical new phase.
Parents who pleaded guilty to paying Rick Singer, the mastermind of a nationwide college admissions cheating and bribery scheme, are set to be sentenced, beginning next week. Fifteen parents, three college coaches and two other co-conspirators of Singer are to be sentenced this fall.
First up is one of the two celebrities charged in the sweeping case: actress Felicity Huffman, whose sentencing is set for Sept. 13. In a deal with prosecutors, Huffman pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for paying Singer $15,000 to have someone correct her daughter's SAT answers.
The college admissions scam involving Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman shows how some rich families use a “side door” to game an already unfair education system. USA TODAY
At the time of her plea, prosecutors recommended four months in prison for the "Desperate Housewives" actress, substantially lower than the maximum 20 years the charges could carry. They recommended 12 months of supervised release, a $20,000 fine and other undetermined amounts of restitution and forfeiture.
A 'unique opportunity' to hold the wealthy accountable for cheating
A stiff sentence that includes prison time – particularly for one of the highest-profile defendants in the case – could send the message prosecutors had hoped for in the sentencing of former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer.
Looking to "set the tone" out of the gate, prosecutors sought 13 months in prison for Vandemoer. He admitted taking $610,000 in payments from Singer in exchange for designating applicants as sailing recruits to get them into the prestigious university. He was sentenced to two years' supervised release and a $10,000 fine.
If Huffman and the parents who follow her in court also avoid prison time, some criminal justice advocates said, it would signal to the public that the rich and connected can get away with cheating the system.
“The criminal scheme carried out in this case shocks the conscience and underscores the way in which wealthy people can exploit their privileged status to their benefit and to the detriment of others," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "These federal crimes must not be treated lightly in order to send a strong message that no one is above the law and that wealthy people will be held accountable."
Clarke said the crimes committed by parents in the case "undermine public confidence" in the college admissions process and show universities must "redouble their efforts" to ensure diversity on campuses. She noted most of the wealthy parents who participated in the scheme are white.
She called the case a "unique opportunity" to hold accountable individuals "who feel that money, race and privilege can allow them to evade the justice system."
Of the 51 people charged in the college admissions scandal, 34 are parents accused of making significant payments to Singer's sham nonprofit group, the Key Worldwide Foundation. Prosecutors said they paid to have someone secretly take ACT or SAT tests for their children, change poor results or get them falsely tagged as athletic recruits to get them into college.
Huffman was originally scheduled to be the third parent sentenced in the case, but the sentencing hearings of two other parents who pleaded guilty, Devin Sloane and Stephen Semprevivo, were pushed back to later this month.
The delays will allow U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani, who presides over the cases of Huffman and other parents, to hold a hearing Tuesday on a legal dispute that could determine the severity of sentences.
The judge will consider whether to listen to probation officers, who identified no financial losses to any victim in the case, which could mean lighter sentences for many parents. Prosecutors object to the potential lighter sentencing guidelines and do not want Talwani to confer with the probation department in the admissions case.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, who leads the prosecution, declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the upcoming round of sentencing. Huffman's attorney Martin Murphy referred questions to a public relations spokesperson who did not respond to questions from USA TODAY.
Both sides are likely to file sentencing memos to the court that will make final arguments and sentencing recommendations to Talwani before next week's hearings.
"If there isn't at least a request for a strong sentence, even if it isn't granted, then I think it would seem like there's sort of different justice for different people," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in federal courts.
"I do think they will continue to press," he said of the prosecution, "and part of it is to make an example that everybody ought to be equal before law and this is not appropriate behavior."
Because no parents have been sentenced to date in the admissions scandal, Tobias said it's tricky to predict what's in store for Huffman and those sentenced after her.
"We'll see what arguments are made and how her defense attorney frames it. That could be important," he said. "And, if Huffman has more to say that may account for something, too."
The other parents on deck for sentences
Huffman, 56, apologized to the "students who work hard every day to get into college." She fought back tears when she pleaded guilty in court.
One fact that may play in her favor is the substantially lower amount of money she paid compared with other parent defendants. Singer typically charged parents $15,000 to carry out the test cheating and higher amounts to pay off college coaches to get their children admitted as athletic recruits. The latter cost more because it guaranteed a child's entry into college.
Sloane, CEO of Los Angeles-based waterTALENT, which builds water systems, 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. Prosecutors recommended he serve 15 to 21 months in prison.
Semprevivo, an executive at Cydcor, a privately held provider of outsourced sales teams, pleaded guilty to paying $400,000 to Singer to get his son admitted into Georgetown University as a fake tennis recruit. Prosecutors recommended a prison sentence of 18 months for him.
Through Singer's scheme, Huffman's daughter received a 1420 on her SAT after Mark Riddell, a counselor at a private high school in Florida, secretly corrected answers on her exam at a testing center in Los Angles. It marked a 400-point improvement from when the girl took the PSAT one year earlier without Riddell.
Huffman's daughter received extended time to take the exam in December 2017 – a common practice among Singer's clients to help carry out the cheating. Huffman said the additional time was the result of her daughter's therapy with a neuropsychiatrist.
Why no prison for Stanford coach could be the exception
The sentence for Vandemoer, the ex-Stanford sailing coach, was decided by U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel. She presides over Singer's case but is not assigned to any of the cases involving parents or other coaches. Singer pleaded guilty to four felonies and is cooperating with prosecutors.
Although prosecutors didn't get the sentence they wanted for Vandemoer, the case doesn't necessarily foreshadow how the next round of sentences will go. As part of an agreement with prosecutors, Vandemoer pleaded guilty to racketeering charges.
The case had unique circumstances. None of the students tied to the payments was admitted into Stanford as a direct result of the coach's actions, leading Zobel to question whether the university suffered any losses. Vandemoer funneled payments directly to the school's sailing program and did not pocket any of the bribe money he took from Singer.
Zobel called Vandemoer "probably the least culpable of all the defendants."
Twenty-three defendants in the college admissions case, including Huffman, pleaded guilty to felonies; 28 others pleaded not guilty, including actress Lori Loughlin.
How the first group of parents is sentenced could affect whether other parents plead guilty or dig in for trial, according to Adam Citron, a former state prosecutor in New York, who practices at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron.
That's the biggest concern for prosecutors, he said.
"It could go two ways. If (the parents) are getting jail time even on pleas, a defendant may think to themselves, 'I better plea out because I don't want more jail time,' " Citron said. "By the same token, that defendant might say to themselves, 'I'm going to get jail anyways, so I might as well fight it.' "
Citron said the judge in Huffman's case may be less lenient than the judge with the Stanford coach, who did not benefit personally by accepting payments from Singer.
"They can make examples out of these people. Obviously, there's not much sympathy with the 1 percenters right now," Citron said. "A judge may be less sympathetic to a big-time star who needed to get her child into college knowing what they were doing was wrong."
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter at @joeygarrison.