Actress Felicity Huffman, right, exits federal court in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. (Photographer: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg)

Felicity Huffman Pleads Guilty in College Admissions Scandal

(Bloomberg) -- Felicity Huffman faces months behind bars after the TV star pleaded guilty to a fraud scheme in the U.S. college admissions scandal, admitting she paid $15,000 to cheat on her eldest daughter’s entrance exam.

Huffman, who issued a pained apology last month, wept as she discussed her daughter’s learning disability with U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani in Boston. Prosecutors have said some parents falsely claimed their children needed extra time on the test as part of the scheme to boost their scores. In court Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen said they weren’t making such a claim about Huffman.

Huffman, 56, told Talwani: “We have been working with a neuropsychiatrist since my daughter was eight years old. She, like my daughter, didn’t know anything about this.”

Just before Huffman’s appearance, Devin Sloane, 53, a Los Angeles-based water-services executive, pleaded guilty. Five parents have now entered guilty pleas in the biggest college admissions scam the U.S. has ever prosecuted.

“Do you understand, then, that I may impose a sentence more severe than you anticipated?” Talwani told Huffman and Sloane in turn.

“Yes, your honor,” both responded.

Criminal Bookends

Like all 14 parents who have agreed to plead guilty, Huffman and Sloane are charged with a single count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud. The charge carries a maximum term of 20 years in prison, though federal sentencing guidelines can bring that number down significantly for parents who acknowledge their crime, have a clean record and meet other criteria. At least eight other parents are scheduled to plead guilty next week.

Huffman, who became famous starring in the eight-season ABC series “Desperate Housewives,” and Sloane make an odd pair of criminal bookends.

The star, with her A-list actor husband, William H. Macy of the Showtime series “Shameless,” allegedly paid ringleader William “Rick” Singer one of the smallest sums in the $25 million admissions-cheating ring. Sloane, the founder of the drinking- and waste-water company AquaTecture LLC, was accused of paying Singer $250,000 to get his son into the University of Southern California as an international water polo player, when his school didn’t even have a team.

The evidence against Sloane includes what may be one of the most remarkable of the email conversations Singer had with clients, or the telephone calls he secretly recorded for the FBI before agreeing to plead guilty in return for leniency.

‘It’s Outrageous!’

When a guidance counselor at the high school Sloane’s son attended asked how the boy had been accepted as a water polo player, Sloane grew indignant at the question, according to an April 2018 email he sent Singer.

“The more I think about this, it is outrageous!” he wrote Singer. “They have no business or legal right considering all the students privacy issues to be calling and challenging/question [my son’s] application.”

A false athletic biography for Sloane’s son, allegedly drafted by a USC staffer, boasted he spent summers playing for the “Italian Junior National Team” and played in tournaments in Greece, Serbia and Portugal.

“He is small but he has a long torso but short strong legs plus he is fast which helps him win the draws to start play after goals are scored,” it read, according to court documents.

The endorsement was written by Donna Heinel, USC’s former senior associate athletic director, according to court documents. In exchange, Sloane wrote a $50,000 check to USC Women’s Athletics, prosecutors say.

Plea Deals

When a USC official asked Sloane why he’d made the donation, Sloane bragged to Singer, he claimed it was to honor his late mother, an Olympic athlete he said had inspired his son’s interest in women’s athletics, according to a transcript.

Heinel has pleaded not guilty.

Huffman arrived at court without Macy, who isn’t accused of wrongdoing -- although prosecutors said in a criminal complaint that the couple participated in the scheme together, making the payment in the guise of a donation “to provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth.”

In a plea deal worked out just weeks after she was charged in March, prosecutors said they’re recommending Huffman serve four to 10 months in prison. Her lawyers said they’ll argue she should serve as little as no time at all and at most six months, since her payments didn’t exceed $15,000. Under Sloane’s plea deal, the government agreed to recommend 12 months.

Huffman is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 13. Sloane will face the judge on Sept. 10.

A 1420

By pleading guilty, Huffman and Sloane avoid any additional charges, such as money laundering and violation of tax laws, Rosen told the court.

“It’s a significant concession,” he said.

Huffman admitted she worked with Singer from the summer of 2017 until early 2018. The plan was to have a surrogate, Mark Riddell, correct her daughter’s answers. The result was a 1420 out of 1600 on the SAT, an improvement of about 400 points over the preliminary SAT she took on her own a year earlier.

Around the same time, Sloane was making payments to Singer and Heinel.

Asked by Talwani about the role Heinel played in the scheme, Rosen said she was “on a sort of a bribery retainer,” receiving illicit payoffs from Singer in increments of $20,000. While Sloane sent the $50,000 to a USC athletics account Heinel controlled, Rosen said, the government wasn’t aware of any direct connection between Sloane and Heinel, telling the judge, “It was all through Rick Singer.”

As part of the scam, Sloane even hired a graphic designer and bought water polo gear on Amazon.com to stage photos for his son’s USC application as a recruited athlete, prosecutors said. Laura Janke, a former USC assistant women’s soccer coach, who has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the government, helped create the phony sports profile for the applicant, they said.

The case is U.S. v. Abbott, 19-CR-10116, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).

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