Hollywood actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced on Friday to 14 days in jail for paying $15,000 to have her daughter’s university entrance exam doctored as part of a massive cheating scandal that has rocked US higher education.
Huffman, star of the hit television drama Desperate Housewives and an award-winning film actress, is the first high-profile figure to be sentenced for her part in the scheme. In addition to the jail time, she was sentenced to a year of probation, and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine and perform 250 hours of community service.
She was arrested in March along with dozens of other parents accused by federal prosecutors of paying bribes — some $25m in all — to a crooked university admissions consultant in order to gain entrance to top schools for their children.
The case has prompted a reckoning about the inequities and excesses in a US college admissions game that purports to be meritocratic but is often tilted in favour of the wealthy.
According to reports, Huffman was accompanied by her actor husband William Macy and broke down as she told a judge in Boston she was ashamed of her behaviour. She also recounted her daughter’s anguished reaction when the scheme was revealed: “I don’t know who you are any more, mom? Why didn’t you think I could do it on my own?”
Huffman pleaded guilty in May, as did Gordon Caplan, who lost his job as co-chairman of the white-shoe law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
Other prominent defendants have denied wrongdoing and are fighting the charges. Among them are actress the Lori Loughlin and her husband, the clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli; William McGlashan, the former head of TPG’s social impact investment fund; and Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of Pimco.
“I don’t think this bodes well for the other defendants going to trial if they are convicted,” Christopher Bruno, a former federal prosecutor, said of the sentence handed down by judge Indira Talwani.
Mr Bruno noted that Huffman had accepted responsibility for her conduct and that the bribe she paid was small compared to others.
The mastermind of the scheme, William “Rick” Singer, a basketball coach-turned-California admissions consultant, has already pleaded guilty and been co-operating with authorities.
According to court papers, Mr Singer funnelled payments to proctors at two test centres where he held sway to fix students’ answers or even take the entrance exam on their behalf.
Mr Singer also schemed with university coaches to have applicants designated as elite athletes, granting them admission through a “side door” to sought-after schools including the University of Southern California, Yale and Stanford — even if they did not actually play a sport.
In a sign of how the scandal is still rippling through campuses, the athletics director at USC, one of the most affected schools, this week announced his resignation.
Huffman has admitted she contributed $15,000 to a bogus charity controlled by Mr Singer so that he would arrange for her elder daughter’s test scores to be doctored in December 2017.
Court papers featured recordings of exchanges in which Huffman and Mr Singer discussed testing dates, arranging for her daughter to be granted additional time to take the exam, and how much to boost her scores without arousing suspicion.
The papers show that Huffman and her husband, Mr Macy, considered a similar ploy for their younger daughter but ultimately backed out.
Huffman has insisted “the worst decision” of her life was driven by parental panic. In a letter to the judge last week, she asked to be spared jail time. “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,” she wrote.
Prosecutors sought at least a month in prison for Huffman, arguing that home detention would not be punishment for a defendant who lives in a Hollywood Hills home with a pool. She was driven, they wrote, by “a sense of entitlement . . . facilitated by wealth and insularity”.