- A number of wealthy, high-profile parents were arrested this week in a sweeping college admissions scandal that stoked outrage across the country.
- Celebrities and finance executives were accused of paying bribes to secure spots for their children in top colleges, either by cheating on tests or falsely passing them off as athletic recruits.
- But legal experts say it’s unlikely any of the parents will serve time in prison – or if they do, it will be minimal.
- Fines and community service is far more likely, and justice might be more effective if it comes from outside the criminal justice system, one federal prosecutor told INSIDER.
- For example, revoking the acceptances of any students who were admitted under false pretenses could be a start.
A number of celebrities and executives have begun making court appearances in the sweeping bribery scandal that netted dozens of rich parents this week and sparked a roiling national debate about the role of wealth in college admissions.
Federal prosecutors on Tuesday charged some 50 people in a $25 million scheme to secure spots in competitive schools for the children of wealthy parents – in some cases by cheating on standardized tests, and in other cases by bribing coaches and administrators to admit the children as athletic recruits, according to the indictments.
The condemnation has been nearly universal, with a number of schools launching internal investigations, children facing online backlash, accused parents facing professional repercussions, and everyone from top White House staff to 2020 presidential candidates publicly declaring their disgust with the alleged racket.
The mastermind of the scheme, William Singer, pleaded guilty on Tuesday and told a judge that all of the allegations against him were true.
But for the parents who prosecutors accused of bribing their children’s way into top schools across the country, legal experts say it’s unclear what consequences they’ll face – or whether any will do prison time.
‘A touch of jail’
By far the most likely punishment for the parents – which include such high-profile figures as actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin – is a hefty fine and community service, according to Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department.
Federal guidelines will likely recommend sentences anywhere from zero to six months in prison, Cramer said. But he added that reasonable minds can differ on whether prison time should be considered, particularly since these parents wealthy enough to afford fines, and likely won’t view community service hours as much of a deterrent.
“Is that really a penalty for these parents? No,” he told INSIDER. “If you told them from the beginning that this was how it’s going to play: ‘You’re going to pay $400,000 and you’re going to do some community service, would you still do it?’ Some of them would. There’s no doubt about that, because their impetus was to get their kid into Stanford.”
Another potential factor that could sway the sentencing is whether any of the parents sought tax benefits for their alleged bribes, according to Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Loyola Law School. Prosecutors accused some parents of paying bribes in the form of donations to Singer’s phony nonprofit, Key Worldwide Foundation.
But if the parents end up convicted, Levenson said, the judge will likely be juggling a variety of factors in considering their sentences. For instance, some of the parents may try to negotiate deals to cooperate with prosecutors as witnesses, as Singer did.
Beyond that, many of the parents otherwise have no criminal record, which weighs in their favor, Levenson said.
“There may be, as we call it, a touch of jail – a taste of incarceration. Or a split sentence, so they they can impress on how serious it is. Or it can be straight probation,” Levenson told INSIDER. “But no, I don’t see them going to a high-security federal prison as a result of the conviction.”
‘A Manafort-type punishment’
- Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images
As for Singer and the coaches who were accused of profiting off the scheme, Levenson said it’s impossible to tell what deals they may have negotiated with prosecutors. But she said they’re unlikely to receive the maximum 20-year sentence permitted by the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act that conspirators are charged under.
In fact, she said it may be more likely they receive sentences akin to the 47-month and 43-month sentences recently handed down to Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman.
“Some of these guys have deals, and they may have already a maximum sentence listed. But any type of sentence depends on how much they cooperated and how effective that cooperation is,” Levenson said. “So, could it be a Manafort-type punishment? Yeah. That’s what white-collar criminals tend to get.”
But justice in a situation like this may extend far beyond what the criminal-justice system can reasonably achieve.
Cramer said the students who were accepted under false pretenses took the places of children who would otherwise have been accepted – and perhaps the only just solution is to revoke the acceptances of any students who are still enrolled in the schools.
“The definition of justice is you need to put people in the position they would have been if they didn’t commit the crime,” Cramer said. “If the children are allowed to stay in these schools, under false pretenses … and they’re allowed to graduate with that degree, then the crime was worth it. And if the crime was worth it, that cuts against the concept of the criminal justice system.”
- Read more:
- The FBI busted rich parents for allegedly bribing their kids into elite schools. Here’s the not-so-secret way the superrich game college admissions.
- Lori Loughlin gushed about sending her daughter off to USC 2 years before being indicted as part of a $25 million admissions scandal
- The man who helped wealthy students cheat on college entrance exams was a Harvard grad who was able to ace the tests because ‘he was just a really smart guy’, prosecutors say
- Meet the accused ringleader of the massive college-admissions scandal, William ‘Rick’ Singer