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Felicity Huffman gets 14 days in prison in college cheating scandal

Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty in May to paying $15,000 to have her daughter's SAT scores boosted.
/ Source: NBC News

Actress Felicity Huffman, one of the biggest names caught up in a college-admissions scandal that rocked elite universities around the country, was sentenced to 14 days behind bars on Friday for her role in the sweeping scam.

"I am deeply sorry to the students, schools and universities that are impacted by my actions," Huffman said while choking up as she read a prepared statement.

The one-time Oscar nominee, who came to court holding hands with her actor husband, William H. Macy, will also have to pay a fine of $30,000 and perform 250 hours of community service under the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani.

The judge said this scandal showed a greater imbalance in America, with rich parents able to give their kids more advantages.

"This is a system which does not have a pure meritocracy and a person in position of wealth and position you are is in a much easier position in this meritocracy of college admissions," Talwani said.

“In a system of that sort, in that context, that you took the step of obtaining one more advantage to put your child over theirs.”

The judge said she didn't relish sending Huffman to prison, but believed it was the right call.

"I don't think anyone wants to be going to prison, I do think this is the right sentence here," she said. "You move forward and you can rebuild your life after this. You pay your dues."

The actress was ordered to report to prison by Oct. 25.

Image: Actress Felicity Huffman and husband William H. Macy arrive at the federal courthouse in Boston
Actress Felicity Huffman arrives at the federal courthouse with her husband, William H. Macy, before being sentenced in connection with a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme in Boston on Sept. 13, 2019. Katherine Taylor / Reuters

As the hearing wrapped up, Macy came up to his wife and put his hands on her shoulders. She grabbed Macy's hand, and the actress' eyes appeared puffy as though she'd been crying.

"Ms. Huffman, I wish you success moving forward," the judge said.

"Thank you," Huffman responded.

Huffman, 56, pleaded guilty to mail fraud and honest services fraud in May for paying $15,000 to college fixer Rick Singer to cheat on daughter Sophia Grace Macy's SAT in 2017.

"I am so sorry, Sophia," she said. "I was frightened. I was stupid and I was so wrong. I am deeply ashamed of what I have done."

Huffman paid for someone to proctor and correct Sophia’s test and correct it, which resulted in her score jumping 400 points above her PSAT performance to 1420 out of a possible 1600.

She was the first parent to be sentenced in the scheme.

Huffman told the judge she had second thoughts about the scheme as they drove to the testing center.

"I thought to myself, 'Turn around, turn the car around,'" she said. "I am so ashamed."

When the cheating scandal came to light, Huffman's said her daughter was in disbelief.

"My daughter said, 'I don't know who you are anymore,' " Huffman said. "I have inflicted more damage than I could have imagined."

Prosecutors had wanted Huffman to spend a month in prison, to go along with supervised release and a $20,000 fine.

"Most parents have the moral compass not to lie but the defendant did not," prosecutor Eric Rosen said to Talwani at Friday's sentencing. "This was not a blunder or a mistake. This was intentional criminal conduct that took place over 16 months."

"In prison, there is no paparazzi. Everyone is the same, everyone wears the same clothes," Rosen said while praising her skills as an actress and ability to find future work. "Prison is the ultimate leveler."

Defense lawyers insisted their client's crimes did not merit incarceration, and their argument appeared to get a boost this week when a U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services report found that there was "no victim" or any "actual or intended loss" in Huffman's SAT scam.

"She knew what she did was wrong and her moral compass allowed her to realize that," Huffman's lawyer, Martin Murphy, told the judge on Friday. He noted that Huffman's daughter is not going to any school next year.

Probation officials said the government was incorrect in setting Huffman’s sentencing range at four to nine months because the amount of money she paid should not be a factor in her sentencing. Huffman should instead be subject to the lowest sentencing guidelines of zero prison time to six months, according to the probation report.

The mere fact that prosecutors asked for such little prison time showed that Huffman appeared to be in good position to avoid time behind bars, NBC legal analyst Danny Cevallos said.

Huffman's sentence to prison time was also surprising, in comparison to Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer, who in the same court got only probation when he faced a sentencing-guidelines range of 33 to 41 months behind bars.

"Federal courts are under obligation to avoid `unwarranted sentencing disparities,'" Cevallos said. "A sentence of incarceration for Felicity Huffman sure seems like an unwarranted sentencing disparity."

Huffman, best known for the TV series "Desperate Housewives" and her Oscar-nominated work in "Transamerica," is the most famous of of 50 people charged in the sweeping college entrance cheating scheme.

The FBI probe, dubbed "Operation Varsity Blues" revealed how well-heeled parents paid Singer to get their children into elite universities by boosting their college board test scores or passing them off as top athletes worthy of special admission.

Actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, have also been charged.

Prominent U.S. universities involved in Singer's scheme included Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and the University of Southern California.

In a letter to the judge last week, Huffman admitted to making bad choices because she was worried that her daughter's learning disabilities would hamper the young lady's future.

Huffman's husband, Macy, was not charged in "Operation Varsity Blues."

Ezra Kaplan reported from Boston and David K. Li from New York.