Felicity Huffman Sentenced to Prison Time in College Cheating Scandal

The Oscar-nominated actress had pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud for paying $15,000 to a consultant to boost her older daughter's SAT score

What to Know

  • "I am deeply ashamed of what I have done," Huffman said in court, before her 14-day sentence was handed down
  • Huffman pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy and fraud for paying $15,000 to boost her older daughter's SAT test scores
  • Nearly a dozen more parents are scheduled to be sentenced after pleading guilty in the college admissions scheme

Actress Felicity Huffman will serve time behind bars for her part in the nationwide college admissions cheating scheme, a federal judge ruled Friday after the "Desperate Housewives" actress gave an emotional statement in a Boston courtroom. 

In the first of many sentencings to come in the scandal, Huffman got 14 days in prison, a $30,000 fine, 250 hours of community service and a supervised year of release. The 56-year-old Oscar nominee had pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy and fraud for paying $15,000 to boost her older daughter's SAT test scores.

"I was frightened, I was stupid and I was so wrong. I am deeply ashamed of what I have done," Huffman said in court before the sentencing, adding that she would accept whatever punishment she received.

She reiterated that sentiment in a public statement shortly after the sentencing, saying she accepted it "without reservation" and apologizing to students who worked hard to get into college, as well as and their parents. 

"My hope now is that my family, my friends and my community will forgive me for my actions," she said in the statement.

U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani released Huffman, giving her until Oct. 25 to report to prison facility. Her lawyers requested that she be able to serve it at a facility in California, to be near family.

The case is seen as an indicator of what's to come for others charged in the case. Over the next two months, nearly a dozen other parents are scheduled to be sentenced after pleading guilty. A total of 15 parents have pleaded guilty, while 19 are fighting the charges.

Huffman's sentence was greater than what her lawyers asked for — no time behind bars — but less than the prosecutors' request for a month in prison.

Lesser penalties, including probation, would have meant little to someone with "a large home in the Hollywood Hills with an infinity pool," prosecutors said in a Sept. 6 filing. 

Huffman's lawyers said she should get a year of probation, 250 hours of community service and a $20,000 fine. They said that she was only a "customer" in the scheme and that, in other cases of academic fraud, only the ringleaders have gone to prison.

In deliberating the sentence, Judge Talwani said, "The outrage is that in a system that is already so distorted by money and privilege ... you took the step of obtaining one more advantage to put your child ahead."

Huffman arrived at court with her husband, actor William H. Macy. He had submitted a letter of support to the judge describing how Huffman has been a wonderful mother who has also occasionally struggled finding the right balance between her instincts and experts' recommendations. 

In her own letter to the judge, Huffman wrote that, "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. I see the irony in that statement now because what I have done is the opposite of fair."

The couple stood together for a moment after the sentence was delivered, Macy's hands on Huffman's shoulders. They didn't give a statement as they left Moakley U.S. Courthouse in South Boston, where a crowd gathered beyond the large throng of news media.

Some bystanders said they felt the sentence is a slap on the wrist, but not all of them.

"There are so many young people who earn the right to go to college by doing the right thing and they don't have the money so I think it's just a bunch of crap," said Patsy Walton, who was visiting Boston from Detroit.

Before the hearing, Talwani announced that the size of bribes paid in the case will not necessarily influence the severity of sentences.

It settled a dispute between prosecutors, who said bigger bribes should lead to sharper penalties, and the court's probation office, which disagreed after concluding that the scheme caused no financial loss.

Talwani sided with the probation office but said all factors would be considered in sentencing decisions.

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 to get their children into elite schools by having them labeled as recruited athletes for sports they didn't even play.

In the Sept. 4 letter asking for leniency, Huffman said she turned to the scheme because her daughter's low math scores jeopardized her dream of going to college and pursuing a career in acting. She now carries "a deep and abiding shame," she said.

Prosecutors countered that Huffman knew the scheme was wrong but chose to participate anyway. They said she wasn't driven by need or desperation, "but by a sense of entitlement, or at least moral cluelessness."

Among those fighting the charges are actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, who are accused of paying to get their two daughters admitted to the University of Southern California as fake athletes.

"The likelihood is she's ... looking at a significant prison sentence measured in years, not days," legal analyst Michael Coyne told NBC10 Boston, after Huffman's sentencing.

Authorities say it's the biggest college admissions case ever prosecuted by the Justice Department, with a total of 51 people charged.

NBC News producer Ezra Kaplan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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