Actress Felicity Huffman’s sentence of 14 days in prison, a $30,000 fine, one year probation, and 250 hours of community service, has been largely condemned as too light, as another example of unequal justice for the rich and famous. It’s hard to argue against that belief.
News outlets and Facebook have juxtaposed Huffman and the conviction and sentencing of Kelley Williams-Bolar, a black single mother in Ohio who fraudulently used another address to get her child into a substantially better public school in a different district. Williams-Bolar was sentenced to five years imprisonment with ten days to serve. She served nine. Then Governor John Kasich later reduced the felonies to misdemeanors in a grant of clemency.
In an Atlantic magazine story about these two cases, the writer eloquently pointed out the similarities and differences between the two cases. “One is a story of a family having everything and wanting more, exemplifying the opportunity-hoarding of America’s often-unaccountable 1 percenters. The other is a story of a family working with what they had, seeking opportunity amid the deep forces of segregation, wealth inequality, and public underinvestment.”
William Rick Singer was the organizer of the scheme to help wealthy parents get their otherwise unqualified children into prestigious colleges and universities. It included paying for fake athletic scholarships, changing answers on entrance exams, bribing administrators, getting medical professionals to sign false statements so as to allow a child more time to take an exam, and other artifices. All told, Singer raked in $25 million between 2011-2018 from thirty-three parents.
Gordon Caplan was a prominent New York attorney with a silk stocking law firm. His daughter did not perform well on a practice exam, so Caplan arranged for her to fake a disability in front of a doctor to double the time to complete the exam, and for other conspirators to change his daughter’s answers to elevate her score. Caplan paid a $75,000 tax deductible donation to a fraudulent foundation Singer had set up in which to launder the bribe money. In a recorded conversation with Singer, Caplan said, “"To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here". Caplan has pleaded guilty and will probably get a sentence of approximately one year and a $40,000 fine. He will automatically be disbarred.
Caplan’s statement is probably symbolic of most of the defendants in this case. About half of the defendants, as of now, plan to go to trial and contest the charges. If they are convicted of crimes such as mail and wire fraud, and money laundering, they will be looking at sentences in terms of years. And considering the high powered lawyers they have retained, their legal fees are certainly staggering.
As a parent and grandparent, I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to our children we all want the best. For most that could mean any number of sacrifices ranging from a higher mortgage and property taxes to live in a better school district, paying for tutors and a variety of extracurricular activities, time commitments, etc., all to help the future college applicant to prepare and become competitive to get into a good college or university. But there are no guarantees, and a child’s best efforts may max out short of being a realistic applicant for an Ivy League or other top rated school. That’s life.
I’d also bet that the child who is dedicated to his/her education will get a good education somewhere else and have a fulfilling career. Not all our doctors, dentists, lawyers, CPAs, and other professionals graduate from marquee schools. Having a diploma from a prestigious institution is a door-opener for the first job. After that most employers look at what you did in that first job, what you accomplished, and give much less attention to your alma mata.
This college scandal is actually just another manifestation of social injustice. Jared Kushner, despite attending a very prestigious private school, struggled to get into Harvard. Reportedly, his father made a $5 million donation that helped to persuade the admissions committee to accept him. And this is just one of many such stories, all legal, because like major political contributions that get you access and special attention, if there is no quid pro quo, there is probably no crime. But we all know how it works.
Some critics have suggested that schools try to identify students who weren’t admitted but for the scandal and provide some sort of compensation. I have no idea how this could be done. During Vietnam it was common for the wealthy and well-connected to avoid the draft, which was a factor in going to an all-volunteer military. Donald Trump reportedly got out of serving because of questionable bone spurs diagnosed by a doctor friend of Trump’s father. We’ll never know who might have been drafted and possibly killed in that war who went in Trump’s place.
Despite Huffman’s lenient sentence, she has to live with the consequences of being a felon and having a felony conviction, which include in many states being barred from things like getting a license to cut hair. Caplan, after prison, will have to find work that won’t include practicing law and making a seven figure salary. Singer, an opportunist who turned on all of those he “helped”, will likely get a much reduced but still harsh sentence. All as it should be.