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College admissions scandal enters new phase as many parents set guilty pleas

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Felicity Huffman in court in Boston last week
(Associated Press)

Prosecutors moved the college admissions scandal into a new chapter Monday, announcing that actress Felicity Huffman and more than a dozen other wealthy parents charged with participating in the scam have agreed to plead guilty.

The plea agreements, which come less than a month after the government unveiled its investigation into the sweeping bribery and cheating scheme, added a significant victory to the handful of guilty pleas prosecutors have already secured. So far, a third of the 50 people charged in the case have admitted fault or agreed to do so.

The new set of impending pleas reshuffled the 33 parents named in the case into two basic camps: those who jumped quickly at the chance to admit their guilt in a bid for leniency, and those who, so far, have been unwilling or unable to do so.

Nearly all the mothers and fathers yet to strike deals with prosecutors face considerably higher stakes than many of the parents who have admitted to breaking the law.

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The holdouts, by and large, are accused of paying six-figure sums to William “Rick” Singer, the scheme’s admitted mastermind, to sneak their children into top-tier schools as fake athletic recruits. Such allegedly large sums of money and brazen behavior could carry hefty prison sentences, making the prospect of admitting guilt a more daunting concession.

“They’re facing prison time out of the gate, and they are likely finding it hard to accept that,” said Manny Medrano, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney. “But if you don’t plead guilty, that means you are going to trial. And if you lose that trial then the time in prison is going to be a whole lot more.”

FULL COVERAGE: Dozens charged — including Hollywood actresses — in connection with college admissions scheme »

For Huffman, as well as some of the others who agreed to concede their guilt, the plea agreements unveiled Monday were accompanied by public statements of contrition.

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“I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done,” Huffman said. “I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community.”

Such self-reproach is a common strategic move in high-profile cases meant as a signal to prosecutors and the judge who will eventually sentence Huffman that she is taking responsibility for her crime, several criminal defense attorneys said.

Under the terms of the agreements, most of the parents will plead guilty to a single felony — conspiring to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to seek either a specific prison sentence or one at the low end of a range set by federal sentencing guidelines that judges typically use when deciding prison terms. The guidelines are based on the crime or crimes committed and a person’s criminal history.

Huffman, who paid Singer $15,000 to have a 36-year-old Harvard graduate take her daughter’s college entrance exam, faces between four and 10 months in prison, according to her plea agreement and the sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors said in the agreement that they would ask the judge to land on the low end of that range for Huffman, although the judge is not bound by the agreement and could go outside the guidelines when deciding a punishment.

As the amount of money parents paid rose, so too did the time they may spend in prison. For example, Jane Buckingham, a well-known marketing consultant in Beverly Hills, admitted to paying Singer $50,000 to rig her son’s exam scores. She faces between eight and 14 months in prison, according to the guidelines and her plea agreement.

The scenarios are worse for the few parents who made plea deals and admitted paying to access what Singer called his “side door.” In exchange for payments that typically started at $250,000, Singer would fabricate an athletic resume for the client’s child and bribe a college coach on his illicit payroll to give the teen one of the slots schools reserve each year for athletic recruits.

For example, Stephen Semprevivo, admitted to paying $400,000 to get his son into Georgetown as a faked tennis recruit. In his plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to ask that the 53-year-old Los Angeles sales executive be sentenced to 18 months in prison and be ordered to pay a $95,000 fine.

RELATED: The bizarre story of the L.A. dad who exposed the college admissions scandal »

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Along with the 11 parents who made simple plea agreements, Bay Area real estate developer Bruce Isackson and his wife, Davina, agreed to plead guilty for paying Singer $600,000 to get their daughters into UCLA and USC. In addition, the couple struck a deal with prosecutors to share what they know about others complicit in the operation in hopes of winning more substantial leniency at sentencing.

Prosecutors would not have brokered the cooperation agreements if they didn’t believe the couple had credible information to offer, said David I. Levine, a UC Hastings law professor.

“They don’t give you that deal unless you have something going for them,” he said.

Michael Center, the former men’s tennis coach at the University of Texas at Austin, was the lone coach included in the plea agreements announced Monday. Center is accused of accepting $60,000 in cash and a $40,000 donation to his tennis program to ensure a student was admitted as a recruited athlete.

Court hearings have not been scheduled for the parents to formally plead guilty.

In the meantime, prosecutors will continue to deal with the remaining defendants in the case. They have taken a hard line with a group of a dozen people, including coaches and others accused of working with Singer, who were indicted by a grand jury from the outset and face charges of racketeering conspiracy.

All but three of the remaining parents in the case have not yet been indicted, a move by prosecutors that makes plea deals more feasible.


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