Felicity Huffman gets two-week jail term in admissions scandal

Contrition helps actress who paid to get answers changed on her daughter's SAT

September 16, 2019

A federal judge issued the first sentencing of a parent in the US college admissions scandal, imposing a 14-day prison term on Felicity Huffman, the Hollywood actress who pleaded guilty to paying a $15,000 (£12,000) bribe.

Ms Huffman, who admitted in May to one count of conspiracy related to the bribe, also was ordered by US District Judge Indira Talwani in Boston to serve one year of supervised release and pay a fine of $30,000.

The television and movie star was the first of 34 wealthy parents to be sentenced in the case in which they were accused of paying coaches, testing officials and private admissions counsellors millions of dollars to falsify student sporting and academic credentials.

Seventeen others, including coaches, were charged with participating over the past eight years at such institutions as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown universities, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.

About half the defendants have pleaded guilty. The first to be sentenced, former Stanford University sailing team coach John Vandemoer, was spared any prison time at his sentencing in June.

Harsher consequences are expected for some of the remaining defendants. Prosecutors had asked Judge Talwani for Ms Huffman to serve just one month, acknowledging that she paid a relatively small bribe and did not include her daughter in the plan.

Ms Huffman had paid the bribe so that a test proctor would correct some of the answers on the daughter's SAT test, and she tearfully told the federal court in Boston of her "eternal shame" for having done so.

Mr Vandemoer was helped in his sentencing by his lawyer noting that the $600,000 he accepted to help get two students admitted to Stanford, purportedly as recruits for his team, was spent entirely on his sailing programme.

Other defendants, however, are accused of taking far more aggressive actions in paying and collecting the bribes. Some parents allegedly created falsified photos of the children in sports poses. They include actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, who are fighting the case and now face charges that could bring maximum sentences of 20 years.

Much of the attention surrounding the case, in higher education and beyond, has focused on the fundamental seriousness of the crimes and the fairness of possible ranges of prison sentences.

Such questions arose when the case was first announced in March. The top federal prosecutor in charge, US Attorney Andrew Lelling, suggested at the time that there were legal ways for wealthy parents to win advantages for their children in college admissions.

“We’re not talking about donating a building so the school is more likely to accept your son or daughter," Mr Lelling said, in an apparent attempt to emphasise the seriousness of the charges. "We’re talking about deception and fraud.”

His prosecutors took a different approach before Judge Talwani, noting that some black defendants in fraud cases at the grade-school level elsewhere in the country have been given handed multi-year sentences.

Judge Talwani also spoke of equity, telling Ms Huffman that the US college admissions system is already known to favour the wealthy, and that she took "the step of obtaining one more advantage to put your child ahead of theirs.”

Leaders of the colleges involved in the case have denied prior knowledge of, or involvement in, the bribery and have fired implicated coaches.

But some institutions may yet be pushed to defend their actions. One of the parents charged in the case, Miami developer Robert Zangrillo, has submitted to the court records of email changes in which USC officials appear to acknowledge a willingness to accept students with poor academic records whose families made generous contributions to the institution.


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