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Felicity Huffman pleads guilty college admissions cheating scam

Actress Felicity Huffman is among 13 parents charged in the college admissions scandal who have agreed to plead guilty to using bribery and other forms of fraud to get their kids into elite colleges and universities, federal authorities announced Monday. 

Actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, who also were among a total of nearly three dozen parents charged in the admissions scheme, were not on the list of those who have negotiated plea agreements with federal prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, which is overseeing the investigation.

Huffman, known to millions from TV’s “Desperate Housewives,” and from her Oscar-nominated role in “Transamerica,” released a statement of contrition to USA TODAY in which she said she felt “deep regret and shame” for the “pain” she caused. 

“I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions,” she wrote. “I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community.

“I want to apologize to them and, especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly,” she wrote.  
 
“My daughter knew absolutely nothing about my actions, and in my misguided and profoundly wrong way, I have betrayed her,” she added. “This transgression toward her and the public I will carry for the rest of my life. My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty.”

There was no indication in the prosecutors’ announcement about the terms of the plea agreements, or whether any of the defendants will be expected to serve time in prison. 

Under federal sentencing guidelines, the mail fraud charge provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, plus three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000 or more.

The charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $500,000 or more. The charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States provides for a maximum sentence of five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine of $250,000.

Huffman and the other parents were among a total of 50 people arrested last month and charged with conspiring with admitted mastermind William “Rick” Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, Calif., and others, to bribe college officials and coaches and pay test monitors to falsely inflate their children’s college entrance exam scores to secure their admission, some as purported athletes.

Several parents and other participants in the wide-ranging alleged scheme have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with authorities. 

Huffman, Loughlin and Giannulli made their first appearances in federal court in Boston last week. All of the parents were charged with one count each of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. 

More: Loughlin, Huffman make court appearance over college scandal as fans, critics chant outside

Huffman, 56, of Los Angeles, agreed to pay Singer at least $15,000 to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme for her oldest daughter, prosecutors said.

Crisis and reputation managers declared Huffman’s decision to plead guilty a “smart” way to begin rebuilding her brand and her image.

“In the court of law, Huffman did the right thing by pleading guilty. She knew she couldn’t run from this, and she cooperated,” commented Ronn Torossian, CEO and founder of 5W Public Relations.

It may take longer to recover in the court of public opinion, he said, but predicted Huffman will emerge “unscathed.”

“With her apology circulating, people will empathize with the motive behind her alleged actions, and with time, she’ll return to steady work,” Torossian said. “Her apology is heartfelt and sincere, and will resonate with the public.  People understand wanting to help their kids.”

The other parents who are pleading guilty under plea agreements are not as famous as Huffman and Loughlin but they are wealthy and influential, including CEOs, financial titans and lawyers. They include:

Gregory Abbott, 68, of New York, N.Y., together with his wife, Marcia, 59, agreed to pay Singer $125,000 to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme for their daughter.  

Jane Buckingham, 50, of Beverly Hills, Calif., agreed to pay Singer $50,000 to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme for her son.

Gordon Caplan, 52, of Greenwich, Conn., agreed to pay Singer $75,000 to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme for his daughter.

Robert Flaxman, 62, of Laguna Beach, Calif., agreed to pay Singer $75,000 to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme for his daughter.

Agustin Huneeus Jr., 53, of San Francisco, Calif., agreed to pay Singer $300,000 to participate in both the college entrance exam cheating scheme and the college recruitment scheme for his daughter.

Marjorie Klapper, 50, of Menlo Park, Calif., agreed to pay Singer $15,000 to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme for her son.

Peter Jan Sartorio, 53, of Menlo Park, Calif., agreed to pay Singer $15,000 to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme for his daughter.

Stephen Semprevivo, 53, of Los Angeles, agreed to pay Singer $400,000 to participate in the college recruitment scheme for his son.

Devin Sloane, 53, of Los Angeles, agreed to pay Singer $250,000 to participate in the college recruitment scheme for his son.

In addition, Bruce Isackson, 61, and Davina Isackson, 55, of Hillsborough, Calif., also both agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Bruce Isackson will also plead guilty to one count of money laundering conspiracy and one count of conspiracy to defraud the IRS.

The Isacksons agreed to pay Singer an amount, ultimately totaling $600,000, to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme for their younger daughter and the college recruitment scheme for both of their daughters. The Isacksons also underpaid their federal income taxes by deducting the bribe payments as purported charitable contributions. The Isacksons are cooperating with the government’s investigation, prosecutors said. 

Michael Center, 54, of Austin, Texas, the former head coach of men’s tennis at the University of Texas at Austin, was charged and has agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, prosecutors said.

In 2015, Center personally accepted $60,000 in cash from Singer, as well as $40,000 directed to the University of Texas tennis program, in exchange for designating the child of one of Singer’s clients as a tennis recruit, thereby facilitating his admission to the University of Texas, prosecutors said. 

All of the defendants who improperly took tax deductions for the bribe payments have agreed to cooperate with the IRS to pay back taxes, prosecutors added.

Next, the federal court in Boston will schedule plea hearings for those pleading guilty, prosecutors said. 

The relatively quick plea agreements from about half of the accused parents will likely increase the pressure on holdouts, says Bo Dietl, a former New York police detective and CEO of private investigators Beau Dietl & Associates. He was not surprised by the pleas.

In fact, he says, “97 percent federal cases result in guilty pleas for a reason: The federal government has all the resources necessary to successfully try these kinds of cases,” he said. “When the government seeks to punish someone severely, pleading guilty avoids the uncertainty of potentially getting a significantly worse sentence at trial.

“A long trial will only result in more stress, bad publicity, and the possibility of being punished with heavy jail time and large fines,” he added. “Admitting guilt is the first step in rehabilitation and may also provide a path forward to the next chapter in their lives.”

Eden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications and author of books on crisis public relations, also concluded the parents pleading guilty did the right thing.

“They need to accept a plea deal, rebuild, and move on,” she said. “The longer the case drags out, the more details will surface, and the worse their and their children’s reputations become.”

Meanwhile, several of the universities involved in the scandal have taken action against the students who were fraudulently admitted. Most recently, Stanford rescinded the admission to one of the students tied to Singer.

Yale in late March took similar action against a student who fraudulently gained entry to the school. And the University of Southern California has frozen the accounts of students associated with the scandal.  

The U.S. Department of Education also has launched an investigation into the universities targeted in the scandal to see if they broke any laws related to the federal’s government financial aid programs. 

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