In September of 2019, actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison, 12 months of probation, 250 hours of community service, and ordered to pay a $40,000 fine. She was one of several parents, coaches, and admissions counselors charged in a college admissions scandal that received much media attention.
The Desperate Housewives star was alleged to have paid William “Rick” Singer $15,000 to help improve her daughter’s SAT scores. Singer then paid a proctor to change the girl’s answers after she submitted the test.
Huffman, who accepted full responsibility for her part in the case and expressed regret for her actions, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit mail fraud and honest services fraud.
But what exactly are these two offenses?
A person commits mail fraud when they use the U.S. Postal Service or other interstate delivery system to defraud a person or company. If they send something through the mail that contains omissions or misinformation for the purposes of obtaining something of value or provide a counterfeit item, they could be accused of committing this offense.
The alleged perpetrator isn’t specifically defrauding the mail services. What they are doing is participating in a fraud scheme and using the post to deliver items related to that plot.
In the college admissions scandal, the scheme was to get students into elite universities by skirting or falsifying entrance exam and admissions requirements. Doing something like mailing a check to the organizer of the plan could be considered mail fraud.
Honest Services Fraud
Under 18 U.S.C. § 1346, this offense occurs when someone participates in a scheme that deprives another person of their intangible right to honest services. What that means is if someone owes and individual or company a fiduciary duty – a legal or ethical relationship of trust – and they breach that responsibility by making a deal to further a fraud scheme, they could be accused of committing this crime.
In the college admissions scandal, the coaches and counselors owed the schools they worked for a duty to find students who met specific entrance or athletic criteria. By accepting offers from Singer to falsify information about potential students, they violated their responsibilities to the universities.
Potential Conviction Penalties
A conviction for either mail fraud or honest services fraud could result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years. The judge has the discretion to determine what amount of time a person serves. They will consider various factors, such as whether or not this was the person’s first offense, when deciding how to sentence an individual charged with the crime.
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If you were charged with a white-collar crime such as fraud, our attorneys are here to provide the legal representation you need. We have experience as former prosecutors and know how the other side develops cases. With this unique insight, we can build a defense strategy for you that effectively challenges the charges and evidence against you.