Felicity Huffmans 14-day prison sentence likely signals other parents whove pleaded guilty in the nations college admissions scandal will spend time behind bars.
But a judges order, penned hours before the actress was sentenced, also could mean others who made significantly larger payments will end up with more lenient prison terms than prosecutors say are fair.
In choosing prison for Huffman, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani last week seemed to answer Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosens call that the justice system "should not treat defendants differently based on wealth and status." Absent a prison sentence, the judge told Huffman, the public would always ask "how you got away with this."
She could apply the same rationale to other wealthy parents who paid Rick Singer, the mastermind of the nationwide college admissions scandal. Some parents, like Huffman, paid Singer to have someone cheat on their childrens SAT or ACT. Others paid substantially more money to get their children falsely tagged as athletic recruits to slip them into a prestigious college.
Prosecutors sought one month prison time for Huffman, who paid $15,000 to have someone correct answers on the SAT for her oldest daughter, but are seeking longer sentences for other defendants — more than three years in some cases.
"It does, to some extent, provide a benchmark or a barometer of what other parents should expect who plead guilty," said Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University School of Law.
"There might even be a reason to think that some of the other parents might be treated worse, potentially, because what they did involved more money, and in the eyes of some people more egregious content."
Of the 52 people charged in the blockbuster college admissions scandal, 35 are parents. Fifteen have pleaded guilty in deals with prosecutors, while 19, including actress Lori Loughlin, have pleaded not guilty and are preparing for trial. An additional parent was charged with crimes Tuesday.
Talwani is presiding over all but one of the upcoming sentencing of parents who pleaded guilty, giving added significance to last weeks decision. Huffman, the first parent sentenced in the scandal, pleaded guilty to mail fraud.
Next two sentences will test case further
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Loyola-Marymont University, also called Huffmans sentence "a benchmark." But she noted lawyers for other defendants will be out to prove their clients were less at fault.
"Theyre going to want to distinguish themselves from her by saying they were less culpable. But each case is different," she said.
The next parent to be sentenced in Boston federal court, set for Sept. 24, is Devin Sloane, CEO of Los Angeles-based waterTALENT. He pleaded guilty to paying $250,000 to Singers sham nonprofit to falsely designate his son as a water polo player to gain acceptance into the University of Southern California. Prosecutors are seeking one year in prison for Sloane.
Two days later is Stephen Semprevivo, a former executive at Cydcor, also based in Los Angeles. He pleaded guilty to paying $400,000 to Singer to get his son admitted into Georgetown University as a fake tennis recruit. Prosecutors have asked that Semprevio receive 15 months in prison.
Both cases will test the "Varsity Blues" admissions case on two fronts — whether the judge treats the recruiting scheme the same as the testing scam, and whether she comes down harder on parents who paid more to Singer.
Medwed said tougher sentences could be in store for parents who participated in the recruitment scheme because it had a more "direct effect" on the admissions process than test tampering. Such parents, including Loughlin, accused of paying $500,000 to Singer, have argued they made "legitimate donations" to Singers nonprofit, which they said had a history of donating to colleges.
Why judges order could cap sentences at 6 months
Prosecutors have argued parents who paid more money to Singer should receive longer prison terms. But an order by the judge released hours before Huffmans sentencing could cap sentences at six months for parents regardless of their how much they paid.
Talwani ruled against the governments request to sentence defendants under the federal commercial bribery statute, which allows more severe sentences depending on the amount of money paid. Instead, all sentences will be based on fraud statute guidelines, which recommend six months or less in prison for the offense.
"If the government cant come up with another adjustment for the guidelines for any of these other parents or offenders, theyre going to be stuck with that 0- to 6-month range in all of these cases," said Douglas Berman, a professor at The Ohio State University Moritz School of Law, an expert in federal criminal sentencing.
"However, they can always argue — and I suspect for some parents, they will argue — Hey, here are factors that arent captured in the guidelines but that justify a longer sentence nonetheless."
For example, he expects prosecutors to contend other parents had a "much deeper involvement" in corrupting the admissions system than Huffman.
In her order, Talwani rejected prosecutors argument that universities and ACT and SAT testing companies experienced financial losses as a result of the nationwide admission scheme orchestrated by Singer.
Prosecutors had argued the losses were impossible to quantify, and thus the bribe amount paid by the parents should be used to measure culpability. But Talwani said the payments to Singer cant be viewed as a "gain" for the defendants.
"Defendants before the court did not gain these amounts, but instead paid them to a co-conspirator," Talwani wrote. "Nor did the conspiracy as a whole gain these moneys. Instead, the amounts were passed between the co-conspirators, and cannot stand in as an alternative measure for any loss incurred by the universities or testing companies."
The ruling did not have a direct impact on Huffmans sentencing because her $15,000 payment matched the lowest amount paid by any defendant in the sweeping case. She would have been subject to a similar sentencing range even under the more stringent bribery statute.
More plea deals coming?
In addition to two weeks in prison, Huffman received supervised release for one year, was ordered to pay a $30,000 fine and complete 250 hours of community service.
Medwed said Huffmans sentence might show Talwani is open to compromise. The Justice Department asked for one month in prison while Huffmans legal team asked for no prison.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, expects Talwani to take the upcoming sentencing of parents "one-by-one on their own facts."
"Its a little hard to predict," he said. In regard to Huffman, he added: "Ive heard everything from its outrageous she got any jail time to how could she get such little jail time?"
Legal experts also say Huffmans sentence could factor into the decision making of the 19 parents who have pleaded not guilty, including Loughlin. Now they know prison isnt just a possibility if convicted by a jury, but a likelihood.
"I would be surprised if we didnt see some pleas at this point as result of what we saw with Huffman," said Frank Perrone, a former New York prosecutor and partner at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP in New York.
Perrone noted Huffman likely got a lesser prison term because of her plea deal with prosecutors — meaning those who go to trial could face stiffer penalties.
"I would have to sit down and tell my client at this point, based on what just happened with Felicity Huffman, if you are convicted, youre going to go to jail," he said. "You would be foolish not to reconsider it."