By: Joey Garrison – usatoday.com – May 13, 2019
Actress Felicity Huffman fought back tears as she pleaded guilty in Boston federal court Monday afternoon to charges in the nation’s largest college admissions scandal, becoming the highest-profile defendant to admit to crimes in the blockbuster case.
The former “Desperate Housewives” actress admitted to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for paying Rick Singer, the nationwide scheme’s alleged mastermind, $15,000 to have someone correct SAT answers for her oldest daughter.
As part of a plea deal, federal prosecutors recommended Huffman receive a four-month prison term, substantially lower than the maximum 20 years the charges carry. A sentencing hearing for the star was set for Sept. 13.
Huffman stood and raised her right hand in the courtroom, replying, “Yes, your honor,” when asked by U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani if she understood the terms of her plea deal. The judge accepted the agreement after going over its ramifications, reminding Huffman that she would waive her right to a trial by jury, the ability to appeal the judge’s decision and other rights such as possessing a firearm.
Huffman, 56, became emotional immediately before her guilty plea when discussing how her daughter has seen a neuropsychiatrist since the age of 11. She said issues related to her therapy explained why her daughter needed an extra day to take the SAT. Some parents in the sweeping admissions case have been accused of having their children fake disabilities to get approved for extra test time to facilitate cheating.
“I just didn’t want to create the impression that the neuropsychiatrist had anything to do with this,” Huffman said, struggling to finish her sentence. She said that just like her daughter, the neuropsychiatrist had no knowledge of her involvement. One of her attorneys, Martin Murphy, put his arm around Huffman to console her.
Huffman and her legal team did not answer questions as she exited the courthouse in front of a large swarm of reporters.
At the same hearing, Devin Sloane, a CEO of a water systems company in Los Angeles, pleaded guilty to paying $250,000 in bribes to Singer to falsely designate his son as a water polo player so he could gain acceptance to the University of Southern California. Given the greater dollar amount than Huffman’s case, prosecutors recommended 15 to 21 months of prison time for Sloane.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen told the judge the government recommended four months in jail, the low end of sentence guidelines, in exchange for Huffman not appealing. The judge responded: “There is a trade here. They’ve given up something. I will accept the plea waiver.”
In addition, the government recommended that she receive 12 months of supervised release and pay a $20,000 financial penalty, as well as an undetermined amount of restitution and forfeiture.
The actress arrived at federal court about two hours before her scheduled hearing with her brother, Moore Huffman Jr., tightly clasping her hand as she walked to the front door alongside a metal barricade that separated her from media members.
Actress Lori Loughlin, the other celebrity indicted by the Justice Department, has pleaded not guilty to the same charges and money laundering.
Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, are accused of paying $500,000 to Singer for their daughters to be classified as athletic recruits to get them accepted into the University of Southern California. The couple has a hearing June 3.
The college admissions scam involving Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman shows how some rich families use a “side door” to game an already unfair education system. Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
Huffman and Sloane are the fourth and fifth parents to plead guilty in the “Varsity Blues” case. An additional nine parents agreed to plead guilty and have plea hearings in the coming weeks.
Rosen went over the evidence against Huffman in court Monday. Prosecutors said Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, who is not charged in the case, met with Singer at the couple’s Los Angeles home before her daughter’s SAT exam in December 2017 to discuss how the scheme operated.
Over the course of months beginning in the summer of 2017, according to prosecutors, Huffman and Singer exchanged emails in which they discussed how to double the length of test time allotted to her daughter.
Rosen recounted in court how Huffman wrote “Ruh Ro!” in an email to Singer when her daughter’s school said it wanted to provide its own test proctor. He said they were able to change the venue so she could take the SAT at a center operated by Igor Dvorskiy, who is accused of being involved in the scheme.
Prosecutors said Mark Riddell, who pleaded guilty to secretly taking tests for students or changing their answers, flew from Tampa, Florida, to Los Angeles on Dec. 2, 2017, to proctor Huffman’s daughter’s exam at the West Hollywood Test Center. He flew back the next day.
Huffman, choking up in court, said that she had no knowledge that Singer paid Riddell and Dvorskiy.
“But everything else that Mr. Rosen said I did, I did.”
Huffman’s daughter received a 1420 out of 1600 on the test, approximately 400 points higher than she earned on her PSAT taken one year earlier without Singer’s assistance.
Two weeks after the SAT, Singer – through his sham nonprofit Key Worldwide Foundation – paid Dvorskiy $40,000 for administering the SAT to Huffman’s daughter and three other students, according to prosecutors. On Dec. 27, 2017, Singer allegedly paid Riddell $35,000.
Prosecutors said Huffman and Macy wrote a $15,000 check to Singer’s nonprofit group Feb. 27, 2018. The next month, a note from a Singer associate thanked them for the donation and falsely said it would “allow us to move forward with our plans to provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth.”
Later that year, according to the Justice Department’s complaint, Huffman inquired about arranging the same cheating scheme for her younger daughter. Although she did not follow through with the plan, prosecutors pointed to a series of phone conversations from October 2018 to this February in which Huffman, and in some cases Macy, discuss the prior arrangement with Singer, who by this point was cooperating with the FBI.
On Nov. 12, 2018, Huffman told Singer she wanted to move ahead with carrying out the plan for her younger daughter but probably only after she first took the exam without cheating, according to a transcript of the phone call that’s included in the complaint.
Huffman spoke to Singer by phone as recently as one month before she and 49 others were charged in the sweeping conspiracy case. In that conversation, she asked Singer whether he thought a dramatic increase in her younger daughter’s score would raise suspicion from her SAT tutor.
Singer told her not to worry, but Huffman backed out, prosecutors said.
Last month, Huffman publicly apologized for her actions, saying she was in “deep regret and shame over what I have done” and accepted “full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions.”
She said her daughter “knew absolutely nothing” about her actions.