US college scam heats up as 13 parents to plead guilty

Actress Felicity Huffman exits the federal court in Boston, Massachusetts. (Bloomberg pic)

MANHATTAN: Actor Felicity Huffman is among more than a dozen people who will plead guilty in the US college admissions scandal as prosecutors aggressively wrest admissions from wealthy parents looking for deals to reduce their punishment.

The US announced the agreements on Monday, identifying 13 parents and a University of Texas men’s tennis coach who have negotiated plea bargains in the largest college admissions scandal the US has ever prosecuted.

Many are making plea agreements that carry at least minimal prison time, although their lawyers will seek none.

Prosecutors have said the investigation continues and have indicated they will file further charges against others.

In addition, a revised criminal complaint against two of the parents suggests a new avenue of investigation for the government – tax and financial advisers who may have helped conceal bribes as charitable donations.

Huffman, 56, will plead guilty to a felony, prosecutors said. She’s accused of paying the scam’s ringleader, William Rick Singer, at least US$15,000 to cheat on a standardised admissions test for her oldest daughter.

Her husband, actor William H. Macy, isn’t accused of wrongdoing, but prosecutors said in a complaint that “Huffman and her spouse” made a payment to Singer’s foundation “to participate in the college entrance exam cheating scheme” under the guise of a donation “to provide educational and self-enrichment programs to disadvantaged youth.”

“With deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions,” Huffman said in a statement. “My daughter knew absolutely nothing about my actions, and in my misguided and profoundly wrong way, I have betrayed her.”

Prosecutors are taking a hard line with the 33 parents swept up in the scandal after charging them last month with a conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud.

Those who don’t enter into a deal risk an additional charge such as money laundering.

That charge was brought earlier against oncologist Gregory Colburn and his wife, Amy – two of only three parents to be indicted so far – after they balked at a plea.

The Colburns have denied wrongdoing and vowed to clear their name in court.

Now Bruce Isackson, one of the 13 parents who said they’d plead guilty, faces the charge.

He and his wife, Davina Isackson – the first parents the US has identified as cooperating in the investigation – are accused of paying US$600,000 to participate in the exam-cheating plot for their younger daughter and a college recruitment scheme for both of their daughters.

In the recruitment plot, they are alleged to have funneled bribes to coaches to win the girls’ admission as recruited athletes.

Under the terms of his plea, Bruce Isackson faces between 37 and 46 months behind bars under federal sentencing guidelines, although his cooperation may win him significant leniency.

It isn’t clear what new evidence the Isacksons can give federal investigators, but the revised complaint against them suggests prosecutors may now look to tax and financial advisers.

The government added a tax conspiracy charge against Bruce Isackson, saying he and “others known and unknown to the United States Attorney” helped prepare fraudulent returns.

Lawyers for the couple confirmed their cooperation and their planned guilty pleas.

The US accuses the 33 parents of conspiring with Singer to shower US$25 million in bribes on entrance exam administrators, a surrogate test taker and corrupt university sports coaches in order to get their children into Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other exclusive schools.

On Friday, Gordon Caplan, the former co-chair of Willkie Farr & Gallagher and one of the highest-profile parents charged, said he would admit guilt after being accused of paying US$75,000 to participate in the exam scheme for his daughter.

His statement followed a notice by Peter Jan Sartorio, a 53-year-old packaged-food entrepreneur from Menlo Park, California, that he’d also plead guilty.

Under the guidelines, court papers indicate, most of the parents could face some prison time.

For example, the guidelines recommend a range of zero to six months for Sartorio, eight to 14 months for Caplan and 21 to 27 months for Agustin Huneeus, who is accused of conspiring to bribe the former water polo coach at the University of Southern California to get his daughter in as a recruit.

But defence attorneys may dispute the proposed ranges. The ranges themselves depend on many factors, including the amount of money involved in the crime, the nature of the conduct, the parents’ charitable and other good works, and their willingness to acknowledge guilt – as all will do in their pleas.

The judge is allowed to impose a lesser term than is recommended by the guidelines.

Huffman faces four to 10 months under the guidelines. Prosecutors say they’ll recommend a sentence at the low end of that range. Her lawyers say they’ll seek as little as no jail time at all.

“No words can express how profoundly sorry we are for what we have done,” the Isacksons said in a statement on Monday. “Our duty as parents was to set a good example for our children and instead we have harmed and embarrassed them.” They added that they have also let down their “entire community” and said they have cooperated with prosecutors and would continue to do so.

Morris Fodeman, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, said parents probably want to quickly cut a deal to get credit for accepting responsibility from a sentencing judge. “In a case with overwhelming evidence of guilt and no viable defence, there is often no reason to delay the inevitable,” said Fodeman, a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC, who isn’t involved in the case.

“Pleading guilty as soon as possible, saving judicial resources,” can show the defendant “is remorseful and fully accepts responsibility, all potential grounds for leniency at the time of sentencing,” he said.

The others who will plead guilty are Gregory and Marcia Abbott, Jane Buckingham, Robert Flaxman, Marjorie Klapper, Stephen Semprevivo and Devin Sloane.

A 14th parent, Toby MacFarlane, filed papers on Monday asking that his case be delayed, saying he and the government “are engaged in plea discussions and believe that the defendant will most likely plead guilty pre-indictment.”

MacFarlane, a title insurance executive in Del Mar, California, is accused of planning to pay bribes to get his daughter into USC as a soccer player and, later, his son as a basketball player.

Michael Center, who coached tennis at the University of Texas, will also plead guilty, prosecutors said, joining two other ex-coaches – Rudy Meredith of Yale and John Vandemoer of Stanford – who have also acknowledged their guilt.