Patterico's Pontifications


First Parent Sentenced in “Operation Varsity Blues” College Admissions Scandal

Filed under: General — Dana @ 1:04 pm

[guest post by Dana]

Actress Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiring to pay $15,000 to a fake charity that facilitated cheating when her daughter took the SATs, was sentenced today. She is the first parent to be sentenced in the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. While prosecutors had recommended one month in jail, she ended up with a lesser sentence:

Actress Felicity Huffman has been sentenced to 14 days in prison.

Huffman also received a $30,000 fine, 250 hours of community service and one year supervised release, federal court Judge Indira Talwani said today in Boston.

Before announcing the sentencing, Talwani said Huffman knew what she did was wrong, saying, “She knew it was a fraud it was not an impulsive act.”

“Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse this,” the judge said.

Huffman stood before the judge in Boston and at one point read from a paper, saying, “I am sorry to you.”

She went on to apologize to her daughters and her husband, actor William H. Macy.

“I am deeply ashamed of what I have done,” Huffman told the judge. “At the end of the day I had a choice to make. I could have said ‘no.’”

More parents are to be sentenced, as well:

Huffman is the first of 34 parents to be sentenced in the scheme. The dozens of parents charged in the case paid up to $500,000 to get their children into elite schools, according to authorities, in some cases by labeling them as recruited athletes for sports they had never even played. Fifteen parents have pleaded guilty, and another 19 are fighting the charges, according to the Associated Press.

(Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.)



More Embarrassing News for USC

Filed under: General — JVW @ 7:31 am

[guest post by JVW]

We’ve written on this blog about the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal which brought a great deal of controversy to several campuses, none more than the University of Southern California. The scandal showed that savvy operators had figured out ways to game the admissions system through fraudulent test scores and phony extracurricular activities, and that higher education institutions were often less than thorough in checking up on high-profile applicants. And though I laid out the novel legal theory that good-looking people should generally not be subject to prosecution on relatively minor offenses, to date about two-thirds of the parents accused in this scheme have copped pleas. Nineteen of the thirty-four parents accused have a connection to USC.

So it must have caused a great deal of angina among the Trojan community when the Los Angeles Times published an exposé this past Friday detailing the favorable conditions under which a Qatari prince matriculated to and graduated from the school in the mid-2010s. It’s a fascinating read, full of all sorts of diversions, guest stars, secondary characters, and side-stories, but it reinforces the notion that many of our most prestigious schools — and USC has long been notorious for this — are happy to admit and, after a few years of collegiate conviviality, hand out unearned degrees to wealthy and well-connected students. Do read the entire thing, but I’ll tease the article with some fascinating pulls:

He came from the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar on a private jet with a squad of servants, a bottomless natural gas fortune and the stated goal of a college education. He installed himself in the Beverly Wilshire, the hotel that “Pretty Woman” made famous, and embarked on a lifestyle that few undergraduates could imagine — luxury suites for Lakers games, lunch at the Ivy and regular excursions to gamble in Las Vegas.

He took the town with an entourage, a rotating collection of cousins and friends from back home, in a fleet of exotic sports cars, rubbing elbows with a flashy set that included Scott Disick of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and announcing his exuberance in custom trucker hats emblazoned with his initials: KHK.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the KHK of the story, is one of the eleven sons of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, who ruled Qatar at the Emir from 2005-13. Though his matriculation to USC has nothing to do with the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, the prominence of the tainted college admission stories in our nation’s media apparently led some whistle-blowers to contact reporters and editors at the Times with the suggestion that they look into the circumstances surrounding KHK’s enrollment, and the legitimacy of his reputed academic accomplishments at the university. It’s a pretty flabbergasting story:

From the moment Al Thani stepped off the plane, an entire economy quickly grew up around him to meet his wishes and whims: chauffeurs, a security detail, concierges, trainers, a nurse, an all-purpose fixer and even, according to several USC faculty members, a graduate student who served as his academic “sherpa.”

Before he started classes, a billionaire trustee arranged a private meeting between the university president and the prince’s mother, and once he arrived, the institution showered him with special treatment.

He was allowed to blow off class for dubious “security reasons” as an undergrad, then was handed a master’s degree for a period in which he took several vacations in Europe and never stepped foot on campus.

The young sheikh enjoyed hanging out in trendy restaurants and cafes, skiing and beach trips taken during the school week, driving at high-speed late at night on Los Angeles freeways in one of the dozens of luxury cars he owned, and numerous trips to Las Vegas to gamble at the casino tables, a practice strictly proscribed by his Muslim faith. He was given a pass from attending lectures due to security concerns, though a former dean acknowledges that he is unaware of any actual threats made against the prince and that any arrangement made to excuse him from attending class did not come through usual university channels and must have been an executive decision from the president’s office. His Qatari entourage enlisted a graduate student teaching assistant to serve as the prince’s liaison to his professors, and it is strongly suggested that the grad student — now an assistant professor at Occidental College — did at least a part of the academic work for his employer, who appeared on the dean’s list three times in his undergraduate years.

Why Khalifa bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani would choose USC is fairly obvious. The young sheikh is said to have been a huge fan of Los Angeles, which has a fairly large expat Middle Eastern population. It’s certainly a city with a great number of attractions for a handsome young man who is also phenomenally wealthy. After making overtures to a UCLA dean and being told that the decision rested entirely with the admissions office, emissaries of KHK approached USC and found a far more receptive audience. What about KHK appealed to the stately 140-year-old university located just south of downtown? More likely than not it was this:

Under the leadership of the prince’s mother, Qatar has given more than $1 billion to American universities, making it the largest foreign funder of U.S. higher education.

[. . .]

The Al Thanis knew several USC trustees, including Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a wealthy L.A. investor and founder of Colony Capital Inc. who oversaw construction of the family’s Bel-Air compound. The fall after UCLA rejected the Qatari overtures, Al Thani’s mother, Sheikha Moza, came to L.A. and Barrack arranged a visit with USC’s president.

C.L. Max Nikias was then in the middle of a $6-billion fundraising campaign, one of the most ambitious capital drives ever in higher education, and both people in the room that day knew Qatar was in a position to give generously to USC.

Four months after the meeting ended, the prince started at USC as a transfer student. His cousin and close friend Nasser [Al Thani] enrolled alongside him. Around the same time, USC began pursuing a significant grant from the Qatar Foundation for the university’s marine research center on Catalina Island.

Did USC reap the benefits of prostituting themselves to a family of the sleazy Qatari government, a government under intense pressure for its lack of basic freedoms and its treatment of guest workers who are helping the small Gulf country prepare to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup? The answer is apparently no:

The four years Al Thani spent in L.A. were a payday for many. But not USC. Nikias traveled to Doha and visited the Qatar Foundation, the deep-pocketed nonprofit run by the prince’s mother, Sheikha Moza. He came away empty-handed, university officials said.

The grant that USC sought for the Catalina Island marine center never materialized.

Still, Sheikha Moza and her husband, the now-former emir, were expected to honor the campus with their presence at their son’s 2015 commencement, according to faculty members and employees of the prince.

A section of Shrine Auditorium had been reserved for the royals, and a golf cart designated to squire them across campus.

None of the Al Thanis showed, not even the prince. The professors on the Shrine stage were left staring out at empty seats.

Do read the whole thing. It’s another nail in the coffin of the reputation of “elite” higher education institutions. And though we are justifiably critical of them much of the time, here’s one of those instances in which the Los Angeles Times does informative and valuable journalism. Cheers to them.



Gorgeous Actress and Husband Throw in the Towel

Filed under: General — JVW @ 7:56 pm

[guest post by JVW]

Lori Loughlin, who first captured my aching teenage heart in the 1985 comedy Secret Admirer (with C. Thomas Howell and Kelly Preston, the future Mrs. John Travolta), has ended her battle against the Justice Department:

Lori Loughlin and [husband] Mossimo Giannulli have agreed to plead guilty in the college admissions scandal case and to each serve time behind bars after more than a year of maintaining their innocence.

The Massachusetts District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday that the couple will plead guilty at a yet-to-be-determined court date. Loughlin will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, while Giannulli will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and to honest services wire and mail fraud.

If the judge accepts the terms of their plea agreement, both will do time in prison. Loughlin would serve two months and pay a $150,000 fine along with two years of supervised release and 100 hours of community service. Giannulli, meanwhile, would serve five months in prison, pay a $250,000 fine with two years of supervised release and 250 hours of community service.

This is of course an outgrowth of the “Varsity Blues” scandal in which wealthy and connected parents undertook a variety of underhanded methods to land their children spots in selective universities. Both Patterico and Dana have covered the story since it first broke last spring. The Loughlin/Giannulli duo will be the twenty-third and twenty-fourth defendants to plead guilty in this matter. They had intended to argue that they were assured the money they had paid counted as legitimate donations to charitable causes. But two weeks ago the judge rejected a pre-trial motion seeking to suppress evidence based upon alleged government misconduct, and Ms. Loughlin and Mr. Giannulli thus faced an uphill battle to win acquittal in the jury trial that was scheduled to begin this coming fall.

I still think that the government wasted resources and time chasing these parents and threatening them with jail time, especially in light of the fact that we are currently emptying our cells due to social justice concerns, budgetary reasons, and the COVID-19 virus. The fact that the Loughlin/Giannulli duo will serve their sentences at worst in tennis prison or, more likely, in home confinement doesn’t change my mind. I’ve been consistent in my belief that private universities should only be accountable to their faculty, students, and alumnae/i with respect to the composition of each freshman class, and if they choose to fill it with legacy admits, athletes & artists, or the children of the well-connected then that is entirely their business. If a student lies and/or cheats to gain admission, that is between the student and the institution and not a matter of concern for the federal government. Turning this into a matter of wire and mail fraud strikes me as overreach, though I concede that I have lost the battle where this case is concerned.

But at least I’ve established that I will never turn my back on my teenage crushes. [Video mostly safe for work, in a PG-13 sort of way.]



Weekend Open Thread

Filed under: General — Dana @ 7:00 am

[guest post by Dana]

Feel free to talk about anything you think is newsworthy or might interest readers.

I’ll start.

First news item:

Harry Reid meh about a brokered convention:

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday said it was possible the crowded Democratic primary race was headed toward a contentious convention fight and downplayed the political dangers of a scenario many party leaders are dreading.

“I don’t think we’ll have one, but we could have one,” Reid told The Associated Press in an interview days before the Democratic caucuses in his home state of Nevada. “We’ve had brokered conventions before, and we’ve always come up with good candidates. It’s not the end of the world. It just slows the process down.”

More here, including thoughts on Bernie Sanders:

“Let’s say that he has 35 percent. Well, 65 percent he doesn’t have, or that person doesn’t have. I think that we have to let the system work its way out. I do not believe anyone should get the nomination unless they have 50-[percent]-plus-one… A lot people in the race still, but they’ll be dropping off quick, because the money is running out. So I think you’re going to have the field winnowing fairly quickly. And you have most of the people who are not Bernie Sanders, are people who are moderates, and maybe they’ll work something out to get together and try to find that one person who can come up with the number of delegates… I just don’t think you can give the nomination to somebody who has 65 percent of the people that made a different decision.”

Second news item:

No wonder a woman can’t get elected to the presidency: Elizabeth Warren, who has railed against Big Money in politics, now blames men for accepting Big Money donations to her campaign. :

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) changed her tune on the nefarious influence of super PACs just days after receiving the backing of a newly formed PAC, telling reporters on Thursday that because “all of the men” in the race refused to rely entirely on individual donors, she shouldn’t be expected to either.

“It can’t be the case that a bunch of people keep them and only one or two don’t,” she said.

Warren, speaking to reporters in Nevada, tried to square her past disavowals of super PAC funding with her refusal to disavow a new PAC that made a $1 million television ad buy on her behalf this week. She argued that because she failed to convince other candidates to commit to her proposal of no PAC funding, she was forced to accept PAC support.

“The first day I got in this race, over a year ago, I said ‘I hope every presidential candidate who comes in will agree — no Super PACs for any of us,” Warren explained. “I renewed that call dozens of times, and I couldn’t get a single Democrat to go along with me.

Third news item:

An indictment against public education? An endorsement of Sporcle?

Fourth news item:

USC begins to waive tuition costs for some students:

USC announced Thursday that it will be waiving all tuition fees for any student who comes from a family that makes less than $80,000.

Starting with students entering their first year this fall, not only will students from households with an annual income below $80,000 be able to attend tuition-free but also owning a home will not be counted when determining a student’s financial need.

“We’re opening the door wider to make a USC education possible for talented students from all walks of life,” University President Carol Folt said in a statement. Folt was brought in in March on the heels of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, where dozens of wealthy parents were charged with illegally influencing undergraduate admissions decisions at top American universities including, most famously, at the University of Southern California.

Fifth news item:

No brainer:

Spurred by a police chief, Minnesota lawmakers launched a drive Thursday to remove from the state constitution a clause allowing slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crimes.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, who had been bothered by the language for some time, made it his new year’s resolution to get it deleted. He found a sympathetic ear in St. Paul Democratic Rep. John Lesch, who will get a hearing Tuesday on his proposal asking voters in November to remove the offending language from the constitution.

The bill of rights in the 1857 Minnesota Constitution says “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state otherwise than as punishment for a crime of which the party has been convicted.” The amendment would strike the punishment exception, leaving a total ban in place.

“It’s inappropriate that language mentioning slavery still exists in our constitution, even if’s narrowly constructed and, some would say, obsolete,” Lesch said at a news conference…

What, was there no Republican “sympathetic ear” to be found? Oh, wait, let’s read the last two paragraphs:

The proposal seems likely to win support in the Democratic-controlled House. It’s being sponsored in the Republican-controlled Senate by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, an African American from Minneapolis, who is hopeful he can persuade Senate leaders to take it up. No organized opposition has emerged.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said at a separate news conference Thursday that he’s “certainly willing to take a look at it.”

Have a great weekend.



Feds Recommend One Month Jail Time For Felicity Huffman In College Admissions Case

Filed under: General — Dana @ 11:40 am

[guest post by Dana]

In a court filing by federal prosecutors yesterday, it was recommended that Hollywood actress Felicity Huffman, who was caught up in what has been dubbed the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal, should serve one month in jail and pay a $20,000 fine. This in spite of the fact that under federal sentencing guidelines, prosecutors could have asked for anywhere up to six months of jail time for Huffman:

In the filing, the prosecutors wrote to the judge in the case that Huffman’s conduct was “deliberate and manifestly criminal.”

They recommended that, after spending a month in jail, she should also have a year of supervised release.

“In the context of this case, neither probation nor home confinement (in a large home in the Hollywood Hills with an infinity pool) would constitute meaningful punishment or deter others from committing similar crimes,” the prosecutors wrote.

They added that Huffman’s “efforts weren’t driven by need or desperation, but by a sense of entitlement, or at least moral cluelessness, facilitated by wealth and insularity.”

“Millions of parents send their kids to college every year. But they don’t buy fake SAT scores and joke about it (“Ruh Ro!”) along the way,” they added, referring to an email Huffman wrote in 2017.

Huffman’s attorney’s countered:

…Huffman’s attorneys requested the judge sentence her to a one-year term of probation and 250 hours of community service. She would also pay the $20,000 fine called for in her guilty plea, they said.

Huffman wrote a letter of remorse to the judge, and attempted to explain what motivated her bad decision-making, culminating with this:

“In my desperation to be a good mother I talked myself into believing that all I was doing was giving my daughter a fair shot. I see the irony in that statement now because what I have done is the opposite of fair. I have broken the law, deceived the educational community, betrayed my daughter, and failed my family.”

She also described how her daughter, who is alleged to have not known about her mother’s actions, reacted when she found out about it:

“When my daughter looked at me and asked me with tears streaming down her face, ‘Why didn’t you believe in me? Why didn’t you think I could do it on my own?’ I had no adequate answer for her. I could only saw, ‘I am sorry. I was frightened and I was stupid.’ In my blind panic, I have done the exact thing that I was desperate to avoid. I have compromised my daughter’s future, the wholeness of my family and my own integrity.”

Taking her letter at face-value, she is remorseful and repentant, and fully owns her bad decision. She is the face of contrition, which is the most that anyone can hope for. While her decision can’t be undone, her moral character can recover. While it is true that parents will go to extraordinary lengths to help their children and protect them from all sorts of things, Huffman’s daughter was not facing any threat or duress from which she needed protecting. This was an effort to get her daughter into college. Huffman claimed that she agonized over her decision for six months, and yet during those six months, she chose to stay the course. Huffman’s actions reflected that she was willing to forsake moral character because she overvalued a college education. Huffman discusses in her letter that her daughter was “diagnosed with learning disabilities,” and that this was a way to get her into one of the colleges she was interested in. However, rather than having her daughter’s best interests at heart and realistically encouraging her to attend a community college and take the necessary remedial courses to improve her test scores, or explaining to her that sometimes life doesn’t go the way we want, and that perhaps her dream of being a theater major at a particular college just wasn’t in the cards for her, she used her money and influence to buy the easy way out – for both of them. Parenting, good parenting is the hardest thing in the world to do. Ironically, it relies wholly upon the moral character and integrity of people who are highly fallible and fallen from grace, and who will inevitably make decisions that do not reflect the highest of virtues. None of us are exempt. At the end of the day, Huffman’s saga not only demonstrates a parent doing that which is not in the best interest of one’s child, but it is also a cautionary tale that everything done in the dark will eventually be exposed to the light, and with that exposure comes devastation and the potential for irreparable harm to the very people whose best interests we thought we were acting upon.

The sentencing hearing will take place on September 13.

(Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.)


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