The Justice Department suffered a setback in June when the first defendant sentenced in the nation’s college admissions scandal, a former Stanford University sailing coach, avoided any prison time.
The prosecution has an opportunity to rebound as the historic “Varsity Blues” case enters a critical new phase.
Parents who pleaded guilty to paying Rick Singer, the mastermind of a nationwide college admissions cheating and bribery scheme, are set to be sentenced, beginning next week. Fifteen parents, three college coaches and two other co-conspirators of Singer are to be sentenced this fall.
First up is one of the two celebrities charged in the sweeping case: actress Felicity Huffman, whose sentencing is set for Sept. 13. In a deal with prosecutors, Huffman pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for paying Singer $15,000 to have someone correct her daughter’s SAT answers.
At the time of her plea, prosecutors recommended four months in prison for the “Desperate Housewives” actress, substantially lower than the maximum 20 years the charges could carry. They recommended 12 months of supervised release, a $20,000 fine and other undetermined amounts of restitution and forfeiture.
A ‘unique opportunity’ to hold the wealthy accountable for cheating
A stiff sentence that includes prison time – particularly for one of the highest-profile defendants in the case – could send the message prosecutors had hoped for in the sentencing of former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer.
Looking to “set the tone” out of the gate, prosecutors sought 13 months in prison for Vandemoer. He admitted taking $610,000 in payments from Singer in exchange for designating applicants as sailing recruits to get them into the prestigious university. He was sentenced to two years’ supervised release and a $10,000 fine.
If Huffman and the parents who follow her in court also avoid prison time, some criminal justice advocates said, it would signal to the public that the rich and connected can get away with cheating the system.
“The criminal scheme carried out in this case shocks the conscience and underscores the way in which wealthy people can exploit their privileged status to their benefit and to the detriment of others,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “These federal crimes must not be treated lightly in order to send a strong message that no one is above the law and that wealthy people will be held accountable.”
Clarke said the crimes committed by parents in the case “undermine public confidence” in the college admissions process and show universities must “redouble their efforts” to ensure diversity on campuses. She noted most of the wealthy parents who participated in the scheme are white.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Joey Garrison