BOSTON—When Felicity Huffman finally received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012, she and husband William H. Macy were bookended by their grinning blonde daughters, Sophia and Georgia.
Seven years later Huffman’s star came crashing down when she was caught trying to cheat Sophia’s way into college as part of the nation’s largest ever higher education bribery scheme, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by the FBI. The resulting scandal froze Huffman’s award-winning career and left her relationship with her teenage daughters in tatters.
On Friday, a federal judge sentenced Huffman to 14 days in prison after she pleaded guilty in May to a charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
“Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse this,” Judge Indira Talwani said before handing down the sentence, which included a $30,000 fine, 250 hours of community service, and supervised release for one year.
“I can only say that I am so sorry, Sophia,” Huffman, 56, said minutes earlier, her voice cracking through tears. “I was frightened. I was stupid and I was so wrong.”
After the judge left, Macy got up from a front row seat in a dark gray suit and rubbed Huffman’s shoulders and kissed the top of her head as she continued to cry. She must report to prison within six weeks.
Huffman admitted to paying a Harvard graduate $15,000 to correct Sophia’s answers on the SAT, securing her a 400-point boost on the college entrance exam. Prosecutors had asked that Huffman serve one month in prison, plus fines and community service.
Talwani said the sentence was based on the fact that the testing services involved in the SAT score-rigging suffered no “measurable loss” or “pecuniary harm,” Huffman had no previous criminal history, and that she accepted responsibility and admitted guilt.
“This is a starting point for me, but it’s a starting point I’m expected to get correct,” Talwani said.
Prominent college coaches, business executives, and Hollywood stars such as Huffman and Full House actress Lori Loughlin, were arrested in March over their alleged plans to pay their children’s way into schools like Yale, Stanford, and the University of Southern California. FBI agents surrounded Huffman’s Los Angeles home, with guns drawn, and arrested the star in the nationwide bust that snared more than 50 people.
Huffman is the first of 34 parents to be sentenced in the scheme. The dozens of parents charged in the case paid up to $500,000 to get their children into elite schools, according to authorities, in some cases by labeling them as recruited athletes for sports they had never even played. Fifteen parents have pleaded guilty and another 19 are fighting the charges, according to the Associated Press.
Huffman, the most famous person charged, is best known for her role on ABC’s Desperate Housewives, for which she won an Emmy Award in 2005. The following year Huffman was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for her role in the film Transamerica. She appeared in two Netflix specials this year, including Ava DuVernay’s critically praised series about the 1989 Central Park jogger case, When They See Us.
The illicit payment, which Huffman admitted she also considered for her younger daughter Georgia, was at the time described as a charitable contribution to Rick Singer, now known as the ringleader of the sprawling college admissions scheme. Singer, a private college-admissions consultant, convinced many parents to take advantage of what he called a “side door” into elite colleges by paying for rigged SAT scores or donating to the schools themselves. He has pleaded guilty to racketeering, fraud, money laundering, and obstruction.
Last week, Huffman wrote in a letter to the court that she initially hired Singer and that when Sophia’s math scores on the practice SATs were concerningly low, he suggested hiring a proctor to alter her SAT results. Huffman said she was “shocked” by the proposed scheme. But after six weeks of contemplating it, Huffman said she “honestly began to feel that maybe I would be a bad mother if I didn’t do what Mr. Singer was suggesting.”
U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen, the top federal prosecutor on the case, responded in court Friday unsparingly.
“With all due respect to the defendant, welcome to parenthood. There’s no instruction manual,” he said.
Mark Riddell, the 36-year-old Harvard graduate who corrected the SAT for Sophia and dozens of other students, has pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
Huffman’s relationship with her teenage daughters “exploded” after her arrest, Macy wrote in a letter to the court last week.
Sophia, 19, who was allegedly unaware of the scheme to rig her SAT scores, still “has nightmares from the FBI agents waking her that morning with guns drawn,” wrote Macy, and Sophia’s unnamed dream college rescinded its invitation to audition for its theater program, after she had already flown out for the meeting.
“She called us from the airport in hysterics, begging us to, ‘Do something, please, do something,’” he wrote.
In May, after Sophia’s dreams were dashed, Macy was photographed solemnly carrying balloons that read “You did it!” and “Congratulations, Grad!” to celebrate her graduation from high school.
The actress’s own letter to the judge asking for leniency described a scene in their home when Sophia looked at her, tears streaming down her face, and begged: “Why didn’t you believe in me? Why didn’t you think I could do it on my own?”
“I had no adequate answer for her,” Huffman wrote. “In my blind panic, I have done the exact thing that I was desperate to avoid. I have compromised my daughter’s future, the wholeness of my family, and my own integrity.”
“I unequivocally take complete responsibility for my actions and will respectfully accept whatever punishment the court deems appropriate,” she continued. “I have broken the law, deceived the educational community, betrayed my daughter, and failed my family.”
For his part, Macy wrote that job offers and auditions have stopped rolling in for his wife, who until recently was “one of the hardest working actors in the business.”
“Felicity’s only interest now is figuring out how to make amends and help her daughters heal and move on,” he said.
“She hurt her daughters,” Macy wrote of his wife. “It was the one thing she swore never to do, and she did it.”
“She has kept all of us talking and when one of her daughters needs to scream at her, she takes it in and makes no excuses,” he said. “She only loves them back.”
Macy’s letter said that Sophia will take a gap year before giving college “another shot.” Meanwhile, he said, 17-year-old Georgia is still in high school and busy with “attendant proms, boys, and college applications.”
“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,” Huffman wrote.
“I see the irony in that statement now.”