Actress Felicity Huffman is scheduled this afternoon to be the first parent sentenced in the college admission bribery scandal, as a federal judge in Boston weighs whether to send her to jail for paying $15,000 to help one of her daughters obtain a fake SAT score.
Prosecutors are recommending a month of incarceration for Huffman, plus a year of supervised release and a $20,000 fine. Her attorneys contend jail is unwarranted, proposing instead a year of probation, 250 hours of community service and the same fine. Huffman pleaded guilty in May to fraud conspiracy and has expressed remorse.
The punishment U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani chooses for Huffman could influence perceptions of what sentences should, or will, be delivered to others convicted in an extraordinary scandal that has shaken public confidence in college admissions. Fifty-one people, including 34 parents, have been charged in the investigation prosecutors call Varsity Blues.
“In a way, it will help set the market,” said Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University. “Other judges and other lawyers and other defendants are going to be looking at the Huffman outcome as a gauge ... The $64 million question is, does she spend a night behind bars?”
In March, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, disclosed a stunning bribery and cheating scheme to subvert the college admissions process.
William “Rick” Singer, an admissions consultant in California, acknowledged orchestrating illicit efforts to help the children of wealthy clients obtain phony SAT or ACT scores and use fabricated athletic credentials to pose in the application process as recruits for sports such as tennis, water polo and soccer. Singer pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other crimes and cooperated with investigators. He has not been sentenced.
Huffman was accused of participating in the test-rigging part of the scam, but not the athletic-recruiting deception.
Huffman, 56, of Los Angeles, won an Emmy in 2005 for her portrayal of Lynette Scavo in the ABC television series “Desperate Housewives.” She has had numerous other credits in television and film and is married to actor William H. Macy.
Prosecutors say Huffman arranged with Singer in 2017 to obtain an inflated SAT score for her older daughter by having a proctor manipulate the answers. In February 2018, prosecutors say, Huffman paid a Singer-controlled charity $15,000 to reimburse him for bribes that put their plan in motion. The daughter, who has not been charged in the case, obtained a score of 1420 out of a maximum 1600.
In a sentencing recommendation filed last week, prosecutors argued that jail time for Huffman is essential to send a message. “In the context of this case,” prosecutors wrote, “neither probation nor home confinement (in a large home in the Hollywood Hills with an infinity pool) would constitute meaningful punishment or deter others from committing similar crimes.”
They added that “community service, especially for the famous, is hardly a punishment — which is why many non-felons gladly perform it in the absence of court orders.”
Huffman’s attorneys, Martin F. Murphy and Julia Amrhein, wrote to the court that jail time is not warranted for a client who “is remorseful — indeed, deeply ashamed — about what she did.” They noted that Huffman paid far less than other parents charged in the scheme and did not attempt to participate in the elaborate manufacturing of fraudulent athletic portfolios that others used to target admissions offices at prominent universities.
“The Court does not have to send Ms. Huffman to prison to deter others from engaging in similar criminal conduct,” the attorneys wrote.
Huffman is one of 15 parents who have pleaded guilty in the case. Nineteen accused parents — including actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli — are fighting the charges.
In a memo to the court, prosecutors recommended sentences of one month to 15 months of incarceration for 11 parents who pleaded guilty. Factors influencing those recommendations, prosecutors said, were the amount of the bribes paid by each parent, their degree of participation in the scheme and whether the parent repeated the scam.
Huffman ultimately backed out after taking steps toward obtaining a fraudulent score for her younger daughter.
“I have a deep and abiding shame over what I have done,” Huffman wrote in a letter Sept. 4 to Talwani. “Shame and regret that I will carry for the rest of my life. It is right that I should carry this burden and use it as fuel for change in my own life and hopefully it will be a cautionary tale for my daughters and the community.”
The first sentence in the Varsity Blues case was seen as a setback for prosecutors. Former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer, who had pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, was sentenced in June to one day of incarceration for his role in the scandal. He was given credit for time already served, and avoided being sent to prison.