BOSTON | “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman was sentenced Friday to 14 days in prison for paying $15,000 to rig her daughter’s SAT scores, tearfully apologizing to the teenager for not trusting her to get into college on her own.
“I was frightened, I was stupid, and I was so wrong,” Huffman, 56, said as she became the first parent sentenced in a college admissions scandal that ensnared dozens of wealthy and well-connected mothers and fathers.
The scandal exposed the lengths to which parents will go to get their children into the “right” schools and reinforced suspicions that the college admissions process is slanted toward the rich.
In sentencing Huffman, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani noted the outrage the case has generated, adding that it “isn’t because people discovered that it isn’t a true meritocracy out there.” The outrage, she said, was because Huffman took steps “to get one more advantage” in a system “already so distorted by money and privilege.”
Prosecutors had sought a month in prison for Huffman, while her lawyers said she should get probation.
A total of 51 people have been charged in the scheme, the biggest college admissions case ever prosecuted by the Justice Department. Prosecutors said parents schemed to manipulate test scores and bribed coaches to get their children into elite schools by having them labeled as recruited athletes for sports they didn’t even play.
Huffman paid $15,000 to boost her older daughter’s SAT scores with the help of William “Rick” Singer, an admission consultant at the center of the scheme. Huffman pleaded guilty in May to a single count of conspiracy and fraud as part of a deal with prosecutors. Singer, who has pleaded guilty, allegedly bribed a test proctor to correct the teenager’s answers.
The amount Huffman paid is relatively low compared with other bribes alleged in the scheme. Some parents are accused of paying up to $500,000.
Huffman must report for her prison sentence in six weeks. She also must pay a $30,000 fine and perform 250 hours of community service.
“I would like to apologize again to my daughter, my husband, my family and the educational community for my actions,” Huffman said in an emailed statement after the sentencing hearing. “And I especially want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices supporting their children.”
In arguing for incarceration, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen told the judge that prosecutors had no reason to doubt the rationale Huffman offered — her fears and insecurities as a parent — for taking part in the scheme.
“But with all due respect to the defendant, welcome to parenthood,” Rosen said. “Parenthood is terrifying, exhausting and stressful, but that’s what every parent goes through. … What parenthood does not do, it does not make you a felon, it does not make you cheat, in fact it makes you want to serve as a positive role model for your children.”
Huffman’s lawyer Martin Murphy argued that her crimes were less serious than those of her co-defendants and noted that she did not enlist her daughter in the scheme. The actress has said her daughter was unaware of the arrangement.
The case is seen as an indicator of what’s in store for other defendants. Over the next two months, nearly a dozen other parents are scheduled to be sentenced. Fifteen parents have pleaded guilty, while 19 are fighting the charges.
Among those contesting the charges are “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, who are accused of paying to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California as fake athletes.
Former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer is the only other person sentenced so far and received a day in prison. He admitted helping students get into Stanford as recruited athletes in exchange for $270,000 for his sailing program.
Authorities said Huffman’s daughter Sophia got a bump of 400 points from her earlier score on the PSAT, a practice version of the SAT. Prosecutors have not said which colleges her daughter applied to with the fraudulent SAT score.
Huffman’s husband, actor William H. Macy, was not charged.
In a letter this month asking for leniency, Huffman said she turned to the scheme after her daughter’s dreams of going to college and pursuing an acting career were jeopardized by her low math score.
“I honestly didn’t and don’t care about my daughter going to a prestigious college,” Huffman wrote. “I just wanted to give her a shot at being considered for a program where her acting talent would be the deciding factor.”
Prosecutors countered that Huffman was driven by “a sense of entitlement, or at least moral cluelessness, facilitated by wealth and insularity.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of Huffman’s daughter to Sophia instead of Sofia in all references.