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April 8, 2019

Big batch of federal plea deals (with relatively low sentencing ranges) in college admissions scandal

This press release from the US Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts, headlined "14 Defendants in College Admissions Scandal to Plead Guilty," reports on the latest developments in the highest profile college fraud case I can recall. Here are the basics:

Thirteen parents charged in the college admissions scandal will plead guilty to using bribery and other forms of fraud to facilitate their children’s admission to selective colleges and universities. One coach also agreed to plead guilty.

The defendants were arrested last month and charged with conspiring with William “Rick” Singer, 58, of Newport Beach, Calif., and others, to use bribery and other forms of fraud to secure the admission of students to colleges and universities. The conspiracy involved bribing SAT and ACT exam administrators to allow a test taker to secretly take college entrance exams in place of students, or to correct the students’ answers after they had taken the exam, and bribing university athletic coaches and administrators to facilitate the admission of students to elite universities as purported athletic recruits....

All of the defendants who improperly took tax deductions for the bribe payments have agreed to cooperate with the IRS to pay back taxes.

Plea hearings have not yet been scheduled by the Court. Case information, including the status of each defendant, charging documents and plea agreements are available here.

The charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000 or twice the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater. The charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering provides for a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved in the money laundering. The charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States provides for a maximum sentence of five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000. Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Though the recitation of statutory maximum sentence sounds really serious, clicking through to the plea agreements reveals that the relatively low dollar amounts in these frauds entails relatively low guideline sentencing ranges. Specifically, for Felicity Huffman the government calculates in the plea agreement a guideline range at offense level 9 to result in a sentence range of 4 to 10 months. Notably, Huffman disputes the amount of "loss or gain" in her offense and suggests her guideline sentencing range is only 0 to 6 months.  And, significantly, the government agrees to advocate for only the low end of its calculated range, so it will be seeking only a four month sentence for Huffman.

I have not yet had a chance to look though all the other plea agreements, but I would guess their terms are comparable.  And especially because all these defendants are already suffering (and will continue to suffer) all sorts of non-traditional punishments, I am not really bother at all that they are not looking at severe guideline ranges.  But perhaps others are, and I welcome their comments on whether and how they think justice is being served in these cases now that we are moving into the sentencing phase.

April 8, 2019 at 06:51 PM | Permalink


Sexist though it may be, beautiful women always get a discounted sentence.

Posted by: anon1 | Apr 8, 2019 9:58:21 PM

AS a matter of fact, I think it's mitigating factor no 132B in Levine's magnum opus.

Posted by: anon17 | Apr 8, 2019 10:46:25 PM

Everyone single one of them will go to prison - albeit for differing amounts of time. If you look at Huffman, she paid $15,000 to boast her daughter's SAT score. Loughlin and Giannulli on the other hand allegedly (not yet convicted or pled guilty) paid more than $500,000 and then involved fake rowing pictures etc. You have to compare not only the amount of money involved, but also the specific conduct perpetrated by the defendants. The Judge will want to send a message to all of the parents in the U.S., that this type of fraud will not be tolerated. The Judge will be looking at the 3553(a) factors and probably focusing on the nature and circumstances of the offense quite heavily in my opinion. The conduct is far beyond egregious. You have many victims - victims who don't even know they are victims because they did not get accepted to their college because of this blatant fraud. Any amount of prison time, whether it be 4 months or 24 months, will serve as a significant deterrent for other parents out there. I mean, is it really worth going to prison, just so your son or daughter can get into an elite college? In my opinion - no - but obviously, these parents above believe so.

Posted by: atomicfrog | Apr 9, 2019 9:26:42 AM

The low end of 4 months for Huffman that the government is obligated to recommend is actually probation with 4 months home confinement because she is in Zone B of the Guidelines.

Posted by: defendergirl | Apr 9, 2019 11:18:54 AM

Defender girl - that's not true. If you read the plea agreement, it says, 4. Sentence Recommendation The U.S. Attorney agrees to recommend the following sentence to the Court: a) incarceration at the low end of the Guidelines sentencing range as calculated by the U.S. Attorney in Paragraph 3 ( which is offense level 9 and Criminal history category I 4-10 months); (c) 12 months of supervised release... etc.

That's not probation and home detention - and as you probably know - home detention is not incarceration.

Posted by: atomicfrog | Apr 9, 2019 12:08:26 PM

Atomicfrog, yes I can read and understand what the plea agreement says. But the language of the agreement is in internal conflict. a range of 4 to 10 months is in Zone B of the guidelines, which calls for a probation sentence with 4 months of home confinement. Now the government can recommend 4 months imprisonment, and seems to suggest they will in the plea agreement, but that is not "the low end" as defined by the Guidelines. The rule of lenity states that, in an ambiguous agreement, the contract is construed in favor of the defendant, so I would not be surprised to see her argue that the government is bound to recommend the 4 months be served on home confinement.

Posted by: defendergirl | Apr 10, 2019 11:29:41 AM

defendergirl: what is the foundation for saying a Zone B range "calls for a probation sentence"? The guidelines state in 5C1.1 that:

"If the applicable guideline range is in Zone B of the Sentencing Table, the minimum term may be satisfied by—
"(1) a sentence of imprisonment; or
"(2) a sentence of imprisonment that includes a term of supervised release with a condition that substitutes community confinement or home detention according to the schedule in subsection (e), provided that at least one month is satisfied by imprisonment; or
"(3) a sentence of probation that includes a condition or combination of conditions that substitute intermittent confinement, community confinement, or home detention for imprisonment according to the schedule in subsection (e)."

It seems the Govt is going to recommend that the Zone B sentencing range of 4-10 months be satisfied by 4 months of imprisonment (option 1 above). And, as atomicfrog notes, the agreement seems plenty clear that the Govt plans to recommend "incarceration at the low end of the Guidelines sentencing range."

The agreement seems clear to allow Huffman to argue for option 3 above, satisfying the range with probation + (she alos will be arguing for a lower range based on loss issues). But I struggle to see just how this agreement can be read to say the Govt must advocate for option 3 above.

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 10, 2019 10:27:09 PM

Thank you Doug.

Posted by: atomicfrog | Apr 11, 2019 7:57:25 AM

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