Published 6:02 PM EDT Oct 9, 2019
BOSTON – As U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani prepared to sentence a Los Angeles business executive in the nation’s college admissions scandal last month, she first had something to say about the motives of parents like him.
The father and businessman, Devin Sloane, told the judge he “wanted what was best for my son.” That’s why he paid $250,000 to Rick Singer, the mastermind of a nationwide admissions scheme, to get him into the University of Southern California posing as a water polo recruit.
But was Sloane really trying to help his child, the judge asked, or to make himself look good?
“I find that’s at issue in all of these cases,” Talwani said from the dais in the packed courtroom. “It’s not basic caretaking for your child. It’s not getting your child food or clothing. It’s not even getting your child an education. It’s getting your child into a college that you call ‘exclusive.’
“Are they doing this for their children or their own status?”
Talwani, 59, a President Barack Obama appointee to the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, has handed down each of the seven sentences so far to parents charged in the “Varsity Blues” scandal. Each has gotten some amount of prison time. Sloane, founder and CEO of waterTALENT, received four months.
Four more parents who have pleaded guilty are set to be sentenced by Talwani this month. Talwani on Tuesday sentenced the case’s first couple, Gregory and Marcia Abbott, to one month in prison each. The Abbotts, who reside in New York and Aspen, Colorado, paid a total of $125,000 to have their daughter’s college entrance exams answers fixed to get her into Duke University, her mother’s alma mater.
The judge isn’t just doling out prison terms. In holding parents accountable, Talwani has embraced the admission scam’s societal significance, openly addressing the public outrage that surrounds it and offering a blunt critique of the wealthy elite who used cash to cheat an admissions system some say already is stacked to their advantage.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said the case and Talwani’s remarks “reflect what people are thinking in the broader society.”
“People are thinking about it,” he said. “It’s raising lots of questions for people.”
Related: LA exec gets 4 months in prison for paying $400K to get son into Georgetown as a fake tennis recruit
When parents such as Stephen Semprevivo said they paid into Singer’s scheme out of fear during the college admissions process, Talwani pushed back. The former Cydcor executive paid $400,000 to get his son into Georgetown University as a fake tennis recruit.
“Think about how terrifying that process is for the applicant whose parents didn’t go to college,” Talwani said at his sentencing hearing. She singled out inner-city and rural children who lacked resources but made it to college anyway. “Their legitimacy is challenged every day that somehow they were the ones who got a break to get there.”
Semprevivo’s attorney argued his client was a victim of Singer’s manipulation, but the judge returned the discussion to the father’s privilege.
“I don’t criticize you for being taken into a crime by someone with skills of masterful deception. That’s how crimes happen all the time,” Talwani said. “I think the question that people need to ask is, what makes your children entitled to a side door (into college)?”
The judge sentenced Semprevivo to four months in prison.
On Tuesday, the Abbotts delivered passionate statements to the judge, recounting how they took part in Singer’s scheme only to help a daughter whose battle with Lyme disease had forced her out of the classroom. It came as their son was dealing with addiction and their 31-year marriage was falling apart, they said.
“I’m not and never will be a schemer, but was acting out of love for my daughter,” Gregory Abbott said.
But before sentencing the couple, Talwani discussed the need to send a message to wealthy parents who weren’t dissuaded by the steep price tag of Singer’s cheating scheme.
“That is the piece I am struggling with,” Talwani said. “When you are confronted with this option, the question isn’t whether I have the money to pay for this, the question is whether I should do this or don’t do this?”
The judge said she doesn’t blame parents who use their financial resources to secure advantages such as extra time on the ACT or SAT. But she noted studies have shown extended testing time — which Singer had his clients obtain to facilitate the cheating — is more prevalent in wealthy areas.
“It does raise the question about the fairness of these exams,” Talwani said, suggesting the tests may need to be reexamined.
Each of the parents to go before Talwani pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in a deal with prosecutors. They admitted to taking part in one of two schemes with Singer – either paying to have someone cheat on the SAT or ACT for their children or to tag them as athletic recruits to slide them into a university. Singer called the latter scenario entry through the “side door.”
Talwani has given harsher sentences to parents who took part in the admissions plot, noting that it took a college seat away from a deserving student.
“As I consider the culpability of those two different schemes – they’re both broad, they’re both illegal, they both violate the same statute – but there is something that is an order of magnitude different about buying an actual spot at a university,” Talwani said during Semprevivo’s hearing.
Talwani set her tone at the Sept. 13 sentencing of actress Felicity Huffman, the first and one of the highest-profile of the parents to be sentenced. Prosecutors argued colleges were victims in the scandal, but Talwani said the outrage was not about the harm inflicted on colleges but about an admissions system “already so distorted.”
Huffman told the judge her decision to pay Singer $15,000 to correct her daughter’s SAT answers was rooted in concern as a mother for a child with learning disabilities.
The judge rebuked her: “Trying to be a good mother doesn’t excuse us.”
In sentencing Huffman to 14 days in prison Talwani added: “I don’t think anyone wants to go to prison. I think without this sentence you would be looking at a future with a community around you asking how you got away with this.”
College scam: NY attorney sentenced to 1 month in prison for paying $75K to have daughter’s ACT answers fixed
In all, 52 defendants are charged in the college admissions scandal, including 35 parents. Twenty-four overall defendants, including 15 parents, have pleaded guilty while the remaining, including actress Lori Loughlin, prepare for trial.
Incarceration, the judge has said, is a way to deter others from committing similar crimes.
“In a sense, what the government has exposed is the tip of the iceberg,” Talwani said before sentencing New York attorney Gordon Caplan to a month in prison for paying $75,000 to have his daughter’s ACT answers corrected.
More college admissions scheme: Napa Valley vineyard owner gets 5 months in prison
Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University School of Law, said Talwani, with her statements, could be “sending a broader message to the community about privilege and how people shouldn’t capitalize on their privilege in ways that are illegal and immoral.”
“Maybe she feels a moral obligation. Maybe she feels sort of a practical obligation as a lawyer to justify her sentences,” he said. “There’s probably multiple motives. It’s helpful to be transparent. It’s helpful that all of us are getting an understanding at what’s driving her sentencing.”
Reach Joey Garrison and on Twitter @joeygarrison.