The college admissions scam involving Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman shows how some rich families use a “side door” to game an already unfair education system.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
BOSTON — One couple, Gregory and Marcia Abbott, told the judge they paid $125,000 to have someone fix their daughter’s college entrance exams because she was suffering from chronic Lyme disease and needed a boost.
Attorneys for a father, Robert Flaxman, said he was desperate to help a troubled daughter remain in recovery — so he paid to cheat in hopes of getting her into a college where she would be safe.
Lawyers for another parent, Marjorie Klapper, said she was trying to help her epileptic son who’d suffered a brutal physical assault feel like a “regular” student.
The wealthy parents are among 10 sentenced in the last two months in the nation’s college admissions scandal. Each insisted they didn’t cheat for the status symbol of their child getting into an elite college or university. Instead they were driven by a feeling people endure regardless of economic class — desperation.
They were families in crisis, the parents said, and the scheme’s mastermind, the manipulative college consultant Rick Singer, found them at their most vulnerable and seized upon their weakness.
But their stories, each deeply personal with some details sealed from public court documents, have done little to sway the sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani. Attorneys for the Abbotts, Flaxman and Klapper each asked for no incarceration but got prison anyway. Only one of the 10 sentenced parents has avoided prison altogether.
“Just because you’re a good person in tough circumstances doesn’t mean you can disregard what you know is right,” Talwani said last week to Flaxman, a real estate developer from Laguna Beach, California, who specializes in luxury resorts. “Even good people who are doing things for people they love can’t be breaking the law.”
Flaxman, who sobbed in court as he apologized to students who “work hard and don’t cheat no matter what,” received one month in prison for paying $75,000 to Singer to have someone change answers on his daughter’s ACT exam to improve her score.
The ongoing round of parent sentencing continues today with Jane Buckingham, of Los Angeles, the founder of a marketing firm and author of a self-help book series called, “The Modern Girl’s Guide to Life.” She’s admitted to paying Singer $50,000 to have someone take the ACT exam for her son.
Two more parents will be sentenced in the coming weeks by other Boston federal judges. Four additional parents pleaded guilty in court Monday, bringing the total to 19 parents out of 35 charged who have pleaded guilty in the case. The latest four won’t be sentenced until 2020.
Parents sentenced to date pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud charges. Those citing personal crises tend to have paid into the test-cheating plot and are not part of the group who paid Singer significantly more to have their children tagged as college recruits to facilitate their admissions. Talwani, during a hearing last week, said a level of “elitism” was at play with the latter.
‘Under a perfect storm, I buckled’
Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University School of Law, said a fallback defense strategy in any case is to develop “mitigation evidence” — often hardships — to demonstrate extenuating circumstances.
“With clients from impoverished or challenging backgrounds, the argument is to often cite those backgrounds — that this person never had a chance, they grew up without a roof,” Medwed said. “But when your defendants are white privileged folks you can’t make a classic hardship argument. So you have to come up with a different hardship.”
Some of their arguments might not resonate with judge, he said, because it’s difficult to “connect the dots between the hardships and the behavior.”
The Abbotts each received one month in prison for paying Singer $50,000 to have someone correct answers on their daughter’s ACT exam and $75,000 to do the same for SAT II subject tests. They said they met Singer in 2018 for legitimate counseling for their daughter, who was battling Lyme disease, which forced her out of the classroom and into online homeschooling.
In emotional remarks to the judge, the Abbotts described their daughter’s pain, which included a loss of hair and stamina. It came as their son was dealing with addiction and their 31-year marriage was falling apart, they said. The couple was split between New York and Aspen, Colorado. Amid the turmoil, they gave in when Singer proposed a way to guarantee a test score.
“Under this perfect storm, I buckled and I accept full responsibility,” Gregory Abbott said. “I’m not and never will be a schemer, but was acting out of love for my daughter.”
His attorney, Daniel Stein, told Talwani his client acted “not out of greed, narcissism or a sense of entitlement” but rather “a sense of desperation.”
When it came time for sentencing, Talwani said she was “quite cognizant” of the family’s difficulties. But as the judge has done repeatedly throughout the case, she pointed to imprisonment as a way to deter the public from trying similar illegal schemes.
Judge: ‘A serious offense despite good intentions’
Klapper, a jewelry entrepreneur from from Menlo Park, California, was sentenced last week to three weeks in prison for paying Singer $15,000 in 2017 to have someone correct answers on the ACT exam of her younger son. His application also claimed he was African-American and of Latino origin and his parents did not attend college, falsehoods Singer was responsible for, Klapper’s defense team said.
Her attorney, Jonathan McDougall, argued for probation instead of incarceration. As mitigating factors, he cited a recent tragic loss in the Klapper family and the assault of her son from multiple assailants after a serious epileptic seizure. They called her motives “maternal but her execution misguided and illegal.”
“I deeply regret this path,” Klapper told Talwani, apologizing to families who need special accommodations like her son but can’t afford them. “I feel like it was at the end of a very long struggle. And for that, I am very sorry.”
Before sentencing her, Talwani remarked on the larger admissions scandal: “In each of the cases in front of me, I think parents walk into these thinking the ends justify the means. Certainly everyone’s care for their own child is a factor that moves people to all kinds of ends and struggles and efforts for their children.”
But, she added, Klapper’s offense “remains a serious offense despite good intentions.”
Prosecutors say hardships not unlike those millions face
Through the orchestration of Singer, the daughter of Flaxman took the ACT exam at a testing center in Houston in 2016 alongside the daughter of Manuel and Elizabeth Henriquez, who pleaded guilty in court Monday and faces sentencing in January. Mark Riddell, a private high school counselor paid by Singer, helped them answer questions as a group, prosecutors said, to boost their scores.
William Weinreb, Flaxman’s attorney, argued that unlike other parents in the case, Flaxman simply wanted to get into his daughter into college for her own safety. Details of his daughter’s issues are redacted in court records, but Weinberg told the judge her treatment team was excited about the idea of a four-year college where she could be looked after.
His daughter had missed an entire semester of high school, Weinreb said, and had a checkered disciplinary record and modest grades. He said Singer told Flaxman it was unlikely she would get into any college unless she raised her ACT score of 20.
“He was desperate,” Weinreb said. “This was an act of fear.”
Prosecutors argued, however, the hardships faced by parents charged in the college admissions case are not unlike those that confront law-abiding parents.
“We don’t contest that those aren’t very serious challenges,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin O’Connell told the judge. “But they are challenges that millions of people suffer. … They don’t warrant a different outcome from other defendants who face these same hurdles.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
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