Parent Gets 4 Months in College Admissions Case

The New York Times 1 month ago

BOSTON — The ruse was flagrant: The father ordered water polo gear online and had his son pose in it for a photograph in the family’s swimming pool. He then hired a graphic designer to enhance the photo, another piece in a scheme to pass his son off as a water polo player and secure admission to the University of Southern California — for the price of $250,000, some of it paid as a bribe to a U.S.C. official.

Devin Sloane, a California father and businessman who carried out this hoax, was sentenced on Tuesday afternoon to four months in the federal prison system for his role in a sweeping college admissions scandal, in which prosecutors say close to three dozen parents conspired with coaches and others to give their children a fraudulent edge getting into college.

Mr. Sloane, a businessman who has worked on water systems, was the second parent to be sentenced in the case, and his sentence significantly exceeded the 14-day imprisonment that the same judge recently ordered the actress Felicity Huffman to serve. Like Ms. Huffman, Mr. Sloane pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, though the details of what they did were different. Ms. Huffman admitted to paying $15,000 to cheat on her daughter’s SAT.

In announcing a sentence for Mr. Sloane, the judge, Indira Talwani, began to suggest answers to questions that have loomed over the case for months: Which elements of the admissions scandal were more egregious than others, and what factors should matter most in punishing each parent?

Should the brazenness and intricacy of the deception matter? Is it worse if the parent drew his or her child into the trick, as Mr. Sloane did by having his son pose in the pool? Was one element of the scheme, paying to have children admitted as athletic recruits in sports they did not play, more troubling than another part, cheating on college admissions tests? Should the highest bribes bring the longest prison terms?

Fifteen parents have pleaded guilty in the case, while nineteen, including the actress Lori Loughlin, have pleaded not guilty and may go to trial.

Prosecutors had argued that Mr. Sloane should serve a year and a day in prison, far more than the one month they had sought in Ms. Huffman’s case. They described his participation in the scheme as “enthusiastic.” They said that he had expressed outrage when a counselor at his son’s school questioned why the boy was being recruited for water polo without playing the sport, and that he subsequently lied to administrators at the high school, saying his son played water polo during summers in Italy.

Mr. Sloane’s lawyers had asked for a punishment including 2,000 hours of community service for the Special Olympics and a fine but no prison time.

Mr. Sloane’s lawyer, Nathan J. Hochman, argued that Mr. Sloane was “a good man who made a mistake.” Mr. Hochman said that William Singer, a college consultant at the center of the scandal, was a skilled manipulator who won Mr. Sloane’s trust after doing legitimate college preparation work with his son and then used that trust to persuade Mr. Sloane to cross an ethical and legal line.

In a brief statement to the judge, Mr. Sloane said that “there are no words to justify my behavior,” but that, deep down, he had wanted what was best for his son.

Judge Talwani, who will sentence most of the rest of the parents who have pleaded guilty in the case, many of them in the coming weeks, clearly seemed to view the bribery and athletic recruitment scheme that Mr. Sloane had taken part in as worse than test cheating.

When Mr. Sloane’s lawyer, Nathan J. Hochman, raised Ms. Huffman’s sentence as a point of comparison, Judge Talwani appeared taken aback.

“Are you suggesting that the two defendants — that their culpability is similar?” she asked.

Judge Talwani also suggested that Mr. Sloane’s involvement of his son in the fraud led her to impose a longer sentence. At one point, she questioned Mr. Sloane’s assertion that he had been driven by wanting to do what was best for his child.

“It’s not something that I’m looking at in sentencing, perhaps, but it’s something parents should be thinking about,” the judge said, “which is, are they doing that for their children or they doing that for their own status — or for their other goals that don’t have anything to do with their child?”

Perhaps most of all, Judge Talwani questioned whether Mr. Sloane had fully accepted responsibility for his crime. In a searing back-and-forth with Mr. Hochman, she expressed skepticism that the lawyer — and his client — really understood the impact of what had occurred.

Mr. Hochman proposed a community service project as part of Mr. Sloane’s sentence that would be a collaboration between private schools and the Special Olympics, and referred to “the independent school children, who are the focus of this case,” apparently referring to private school students.

Judge Talwani interrupted him.

“I don’t think the ‘independent school children’ are the focus of this case,” she said. “That’s about as tone deaf as I’ve heard.”

Who, she asked, did he think the victims in the case were?

Mr. Hochman replied that U.S.C. was the victim.

What about other victims who had not come forward? the judge asked. What about real athletes or other students who had been denied spots because of the deceits of Mr. Sloane and other parents? “Are you essentially saying this is a victimless crime — that no student lost out here?” the judge asked Mr. Sloane’s lawyer. “Is that your position?”

In the end, Judge Talwani said she believed that Mr. Sloane still had work to do in accepting responsibility. In addition to his four-month sentence, Judge Talwani ordered Mr. Sloane to take part in 500 hours of community service. But those hours were not, she said, to be spent doing high-level organizational work for the Special Olympics. Instead he should work directly with disadvantaged parents and children, the judge said, adding, “I think that’s the best way to understand really what this crime is about.”

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