Shortly before she sentenced Felicity Huffman this month to two weeks in prison for her role in the college admissions scandal, a judge settled a lingering legal dispute.
Prison sentences for parents who admitted to taking part in the scheme would not be based on how much money they paid to take part in the scam, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani ruled.
The ruling didn’t impact Huffman because the $15,000 she paid to rig her daughter’s college entrance exams was far less than what others shelled out. But starting this week, Talwani will sentence 10 more parents, and her decision dealt a blow to prosecutors, who tried to convince her that higher payments should mean longer sentences.
The parents and their attorneys, meanwhile, have been left with mixed signals from the judge. On the one hand, her ruling means parents could receive significantly lower prison sentences or avoid prison altogether. On the other, Talwani’s decision that Huffman should spend some time incarcerated is a sign she’ll come down as hard or harder on other parents, experts said.
“She would need a very compelling reason to give someone with the same or more culpability less time,” said James Felman, an attorney and expert on white-collar sentencing norms who isn’t involved in the case.
The prosecution doubled down after their defeat. In an effort to salvage the prison sentences they maintain are warranted in the case, they are trying a new tack.
Rather than staking the rationale for incarceration to the five- and six-figure sums parents paid to access the bribery and cheating operation run by college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, the government wants Talwani to punish them for the deviousness and audaciousness of their crimes.
Under the new approach put forth in court papers filed by Assistant U.S. Atty. Eric Rosen, parents who took elaborate, deliberate steps to sneak their kids into a school or tried to cover their tracks afterward would be more culpable than someone who simply wrote Singer a check.
Rosen’s gamble will be tested this week when Talwani sentences two Los Angeles businessmen in court hearings Tuesday and Thursday.
Up first is Devin Sloane, an executive at a water technology company who has admitted paying Singer and an alleged accomplice $250,000 to get his son into USC by misrepresenting the teen as a talented water polo player who deserved a spot on the school’s team.
Before Talwani made her ruling, Rosen asked the judge to sentence Sloane to one year in prison.
The prosecutor did not budge from the request in a new filing last week, even though the judge’s order means Sloane — and all of the parents Talwani sentences — are eligible for sentences ranging from no time in prison to six months incarcerated under federal sentencing guidelines that judges consult.
Rosen argued in his recent filing that a year in prison was still the appropriate penalty, pointing to what he called Sloane’s “moral indifference during the fraud, and his lack of remorse afterward.”
Sloane has admitted dressing up his son as a water polo player in gear he purchased online and taking photos of him in the family’s backyard pool. He then hired a graphic designer to digitally manipulate the image to make it appear as if the teen was playing in a real water polo match.
Citing what he called the father’s “breathtaking disregard for basic principles of good parenting and common decency,” Rosen underscored Sloane’s decision to involve his son in the fraud and what he claimed was Sloane’s attempts to disown responsibility for his part in the crime.
Rosen also revived the idea that the size of Sloane’s payment should have some bearing on his sentence, despite Talwani’s ruling. He wrote that while the $250,000 sum is “an imperfect measure of blameworthiness,” it still amounted to an “indication, however rough, of the lengths he was willing to go to obtain the illegal fruits of a fraud scheme.”
Nathan Hochman, an attorney for Sloane, countered with a lengthy written plea, making a case for why Talwani should spare the 53-year-old father from prison. Hochman portrayed Sloane as a stand-up, well-intentioned father who got caught up in the pressure cooker of the college application process and made a regrettable decision. Far from eschewing responsibility, Hochman said Sloane owned up to his crime soon after he was arrested in March.
Instead of prison, Hochman urged to Talwani to give Sloane probation and 2,000 hours of community service.
Attorneys for Stephen Semprevivo, who will be sentenced Thursday, asked Talwani to spare him prison as well, saying probation and 2,000 hours of community service would suffice.
Semprevivo, they wrote in a court filing, was a “victim” of Singer, a “master manipulator” who coaxed and eventually coerced Semprevivo into going through with the fraud.
Rosen rebuffed that portrayal, saying the Los Angeles business development executive should spend 13 months in prison for conspiring with Singer to bribe a Georgetown tennis coach to recruit his son, who didn’t play tennis, at a cost of $400,000.
Rosen laced into Semprevivo for making his son “an active participant in a long-term federal crime” and making the decision to file a lawsuit against Georgetown in an attempt to keep the school from annulling his son’s credits.
The lawsuit, which was eventually dropped, “meets the classic definition of chutzpah,” Rosen said, comparing Semprevivo to a “child who murders his parents and then pleads for mercy because he is an orphan.”
Sloane and Semprevivo will become the second and third parents to be sentenced in the scandal, which burst into public view in March with the arrests of 33 parents, Singer, and more than a dozen of his alleged accomplices.
Fifteen parents and 22 people overall have pleaded guilty and admitted taking part in a brazen, long-running fraud that allowed wealthy parents to fix their children’s entrance exams and bypass standard admissions channels by misrepresenting their kids as promising athletic recruits for sports they didn’t play.
Felman, who has testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission about the guidelines for financial crimes, was critical of Rosen’s failed attempt to use the money parents paid as a benchmark for prison sentences. The government’s new focus on what the parents did is a smarter approach, he said.
“It seems much more reasonable,” Felman said. A parent’s willful attempts to deceive, the decision to involve a child in the ruse, and trying to cover up their crime afterward are “all valid things the court should be considering,” he added.
In sentencing the actress Felicity Huffman last week to 14 days in prison, Talwani acknowledged at least some of those factors have figured into her calculus. She noted that Huffman — whom she called among the “least culpable” of the parents who have pleaded guilty to conspiring with Singer – didn’t involve her daughter in a scheme to rig the girl’s SAT, and ultimately chose not to repeat the scam for her younger daughter.