BOSTON — Felicity Huffman will spend 14 days in prison for her role in what authorities have called the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted.
The “Desperate Housewives” actress also will have to serve one year of probation, perform 250 hours of community service and pay a $30,000 fine as part of the sentence handed down in federal court in Boston on Friday.
Huffman — the first of more than 30 parents charged in the scheme to be sentenced — was accused of paying $15,000 to the scam’s mastermind to boost her daughter’s SAT scores.
She had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Her lawyers asked for no jail time, one year of probation, 250 hours of community service and a $20,000 fine.
With her husband and about a dozen other loved ones looking on, Huffman read from a piece of paper and apologized to the judge, her daughters and husband, actor William H. Macy.
“I am deeply ashamed of what I have done,” she told the judge. “At the end of the day I had a choice to make. I could have said, ‘no.'”
Prosecutors had suggested Huffman spend one month in prison and pay a $20,000 fine.
Arguing for time behind bars, Assistant US Attorney Eric Rosen cited a letter Huffman submitted to the judge last week, in which she tried to explain why she participated in the scheme.
Huffman said, in part, that she wanted to give her daughter “a fair shot,” adding she now sees “the irony in that statement.”
“With all due respect to the defendant,” Rosen said, “welcome to parenthood.”
“Most parents have the moral compass and integrity not to step over the line,” he said. “The defendant did not.”
Ultimately, Huffman “knew it was a fraud,” Judge Indira Talwani said, adding, “it was not an impulsive act.”
“Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse this,” Talwani said.
Talwani said the sentence she handed down was “the right sentence here,” but also told Huffman that she can “move forward.”
“You can rebuild your life after this,” the judge said. “You’ve paid your dues.”
Huffman will report to prison in six weeks, on October 25. Where she’ll serve her sentence has not been announced and will ultimately be decided by the Bureau of Prisons.
Huffman explains her actions
More than 50 people — parents, coaches, test administrator and conspirators — were charged in the scandal, in which prosecutors said mastermind William “Rick” Singer either facilitated cheating on standardized tests or bribed college coaches to give students an advantage in the admissions process.
Of those charged, more than 30 are parents, accused of conspiring with Singer. More than a dozen of those parents, including Huffman, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud.
Only one other person connected to the case has been sentenced: Former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who served no jail time.
Singer pleaded guilty to four charges in March related to cheating on standardized tests and bribing college coaches and administrators.
In last week’s letter to Talwani, Huffman tried to explain why she felt she had to participate in the scam.
“In my desperation to be a good mother I talked myself into believing that all I was doing was giving my daughter a fair shot,” Huffman said in the three-page letter. “I see the irony in that statement now because what I have done is the opposite of fair. I have broken the law, deceived the educational community, betrayed my daughter and failed my family.”
Huffman has written that before she paid $15,000 to rig her daughter’s SAT test, she worked with Singer’s college counseling and preparation business legitimately for a year to try to improve her eldest daughter’s math SAT scores.
But the scores didn’t improve, and Singer warned her that none of the colleges her daughter was interested in would consider her auditions to their acting programs, Huffman wrote to the judge.
She wrote that Singer eventually offered to have a proctor boost the daughter’s scores after she took the test, without the daughter ever knowing. Huffman struggled with the offer for weeks before relenting, she wrote.
Huffman recalled the moment her daughter “looked at me and asked with tears streaming down her face, ‘Why didn’t you believe in me? Why didn’t you think I could do it on my own?'”
“I had no adequate answer for her,” Huffman wrote.
Prosecutors and the defense differed on sentence length
After Huffman pleaded guilty this year to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, prosecutors, defense attorneys and even US Probation and Pretrial Services officials have been battling over how the mother of two should be punished.
In a motion filed Wednesday, Huffman’s defense team said the government’s sentencing memo cited examples of previous cases that are “very different” than hers, and any comparison is “apples to oranges.”
Huffman’s lawyers argued that the sentencing guidelines in those cases were much higher and reserved for the mastermind of schemes, not mere participants.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, had argued that universities and testing companies were the victims of the schemes, and the amount that parents paid should correspond to the penalties’ severity.
But US Probation and Pretrial Services, which prepares pre-sentence investigation reports for each defendant, has argued overall, that the universities and testing companies suffered no monetary harm, and the price of the parents’ bribes is therefore not relevant to any sentences.
Her loved ones wrote letters of support to the judge
Macy and other loved ones submitted letters to Talwani on Huffman’s behalf, pleading for leniency.
Each letter outlined Huffman’s loyalty and commitment to the writer — an attempt to show her role in the admissions scam was an outlier in her life.
Macy also shed some light on the immediate aftermath of Huffman’s early morning arrest by the FBI in March.
Two days after the arrest, Macy wrote, their eldest daughter was headed for an audition at a school she had her heart set on — one that didn’t require SAT scores. But when she got off the plane, the school emailed her, formally rescinding its audition invitation because of the scandal.
Macy wrote their daughter “called us from the airport in hysterics,” begging them to “do something, please, please do something.”
Macy also said his daughter still was traumatized from watching her mother’s arrest.
Eva Longoria, Huffman’s former “Desperate Housewives” costar, wrote a letter, saying she remembered Huffman always helping with Longoria’s charity aimed at helping poor Latino children.
Longoria specifically cited Huffman’s help during contract negotiations. Longoria was set to be paid less than the other main performers, until Huffman stepped in and made them all negotiate for the same pay, she wrote.
“It wasn’t about the money for me; it was the fact that I was seen as an equal, which is how Felicity had always seen me,” Longoria wrote.