Actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced Friday to 14 days in prison for paying to rig her daughter’s university entrance exams, a narrow victory for prosecutors in the college admissions case who wanted a heavier penalty but argued that some amount of time behind bars for Huffman and other wealthy parents can be “the only leveler” against their money and influence.
In ordering her to prison, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani rejected pleas from Huffman, 56, and her attorney that she be spared incarceration.
The judge also ordered Huffman to pay a $30,000 fine and serve 250 hours of community service. After her two weeks in custody, Huffman must spend a year under the supervision of probation officials.
“I accept the court’s decision today without reservation,” Huffman said in a written statement. “I broke the law. I have admitted that, and I pleaded guilty to this crime. There are no excuses or justifications for my actions. Period.”
Huffman, who was accompanied in court by her husband, actor William H. Macy, added, “My hope now is that my family, my friends and my community will forgive me for my actions.” Macy was not charged in the scheme.
Friday’s sentencing hearing in Boston capped months of embarrassing scrutiny for the “Desperate Housewives” star, whose reputation in Hollywood as a down-to-earth anti-diva has been tarnished by the revelation she paid $15,000 to William “Rick” Singer, a college admissions consultant who preyed on his wealthy clients’ anxieties about getting their kids into top schools and their willingness to pay huge sums to access his illicit operation.
Huffman was one of 33 parents charged in March in a sweeping investigation into Singer’s scheme. Some, like Huffman, were accused of paying Singer to boost their children’s SAT and ACT scores. Others were alleged to have paid larger, six-figure sums to slip their children into elite schools — Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, UCLA and USC, among others — as purported athletic recruits for sports they didn’t play.
In an emotional, last-ditch plea for leniency, Huffman addressed Talwani on Friday in a courtroom filled with family, friends, and journalists. Huffman began by apologizing for her actions and described to the judge what she was thinking on the Saturday morning two years earlier when she drove her daughter to a SAT testing site in West Hollywood, where Singer had planted an accomplice who would correct wrong answers the girl made on her exam.
Her daughter was nervous, Huffman recalled, and asked if they could get ice cream afterward.
“I thought to myself, ‘Turn around. Turn around. Just turn around,’ ” Huffman said, breaking into tears. “And to my eternal shame, I didn’t.”
Along with the parents, including a 34th who pleaded guilty in July, federal prosecutors in Boston charged about a dozen college coaches, test proctors and administrators with conspiring with Singer in what the U.S attorney’s office in Massachusetts called the country’s largest-ever investigation into corruption in college admissions. Singer pleaded guilty and helped prosecutors build their cases against Huffman and other parents.
Huffman was among 15 parents who didn’t fight the government’s case, pleading guilty in May. A dozen parents who have admitted to conspiring with Singer are slated to be sentenced over the coming months, many of them by Talwani. Other parents have pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Eric Rosen, lead prosecutor in the case, had asked Talwani to sentence Huffman to a month in prison, saying she and the other parents suffered from “an astonishing degree of self-entitlement and moral insularity.”
In court Friday, Rosen made a final, impassioned argument in favor of locking up Huffman, calling her deal with Singer “a considered, deliberate and purposeful criminal act.”
Rigging her daughter’s test took time and commitment to see through, Rosen said, and Huffman “didn’t just go into a Walmart one day, pick up a fake SAT score off the shelf and check out.” The scam, Rosen noted, required deceiving several people over a period of months — her daughter’s high school, the test companies that administer the exams, and her daughter herself.
Rosen scoffed at Huffman’s offer of community service in lieu of prison, pointing out that her lawyers mention her volunteering in a court filing.
“Punishment is doing what you don’t want to do,” he said, “not something you already do and enjoy.”
Rosen has tried to portray the case as an opportunity for the government and judicial system to push back against the greed and outsize buying power of the wealthy in the country’s higher education system. He has asked Talwani to sentence the other parents who have pleaded guilty to between one and 15 months in prison.
“Some period of incarceration is the only meaningful sanction for these crimes. Not because the defendants’ relative wealth has generated public resentment, but because jail is a particularly meaningful response to this kind of offense,” Rosen wrote. “For wrongdoing that is predicated on wealth and rationalized by a sense of privilege, incarceration is the only leveler: In prison everyone is treated the same, dressed the same, and intermingled regardless of affluence, position or fame.”
In sending Huffman to prison, albeit for a brief period, Talwani seemed to signal she agreed with Rosen.
David P. Shapiro, a defense attorney in San Diego who is not involved in the case, said the judge’s decision on Huffman “should be cause for concern” for parents who have admitted their guilt and for those who so far have pleaded not guilty.
If Huffman — whom the judge praised for fully accepting responsibility and who prosecutors said was one of the least culpable defendants in the case — still was sent to prison, other parents can expect to receive “the same, if not substantially more” time incarcerated, he said.
Parents who have maintained their innocence but are weighing a plea deal may see Huffman’s sentence as motivation to take their case to trial, knowing an acquittal by a jury may be the only chance of evading prison, Shapiro added.
Talwani did deal prosecutors a setback Tuesday, denying their request that she use the amount of money parents paid to get in on Singer’s scheme to drive up potential prison sentences.
In a letter to Talwani last week, Huffman said she sought out Singer initially to provide legitimate college counseling to her daughter. Singer and his employees had been tutoring the girl for about a year when the consultant told Huffman the teen’s math scores weren’t high enough to get her auditions at the performing arts programs in the colleges she hoped to attend.
Singer told Huffman he had a “proctor” — Mark Riddell, a Harvard graduate in his mid-30s — who could fix her daughter’s test, Huffman wrote in the letter. “We will make sure she gets the score she needs,” he told Huffman, according to her letter.
Huffman said she was “shocked” to hear it could be done. She mulled it over for six weeks, she said, feeling a mounting sense of panic that her daughter might be barred from “getting a shot at auditioning and doing what she loves because she can’t do math.”
“As warped as this sounds now,” she said in the letter, “I honestly began to feel that maybe I would be a bad mother if I didn’t do what Mr. Singer was suggesting.”
Two months later, Huffman’s daughter took the SAT at a private school in West Hollywood. Unbeknownst to the girl, Huffman and prosecutors say, Singer paid an administrator at the school to let Riddell correct her answers once she’d finished the test.
Along with Singer, Riddell has pleaded guilty in the case and is awaiting sentencing. The school administrator, Igor Dvorskiy, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Huffman’s attorney, Martin Murphy, had asked the judge to compare his client’s case to those involving similarly nonviolent, first-time offenders, many of whom are spared prison. Though Huffman should not be treated favorably because of her wealth and fame, he said, it would be equally unfair to punish her more harshly because of her privileged status.
Pointing to letters that 30 of Huffman’s friends, family and colleagues wrote to the judge, Murphy called Huffman a “good, caring and decent person,” who in one instance “strayed from the kind and decent life she led.”
Singer’s scheme has stoked particular outrage, Talwani said, because even without blatant cheating and bribery, the high-stakes gamble of applying to colleges in the U.S. is “already distorted by wealth and privilege.”
Talwani ticked off the many legitimate advantages Huffman was able to offer her children that many parents cannot: a stable household, tutors, a private college counselor, connections that lead to internships and summer jobs.
“In that context, you took the step of obtaining one more advantage to put your child ahead of theirs,” Talwani said.
“Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse this,” the judge added.
Talwani ordered Huffman to report to prison by Oct. 25. Huffman’s attorney asked that she be incarcerated at a low-security prison camp for women in Alameda County. Talwani said that she could make a recommendation but that the decision was up to the Bureau of Prisons.
“I wish you success going forward,” Talwani told Huffman.
“Thank you, your honor,” the actress responded.