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California winemaker gets longest sentence yet in admissions cheating scheme

Agustin Francisco Huneeus had agreed to pay $300,000 to get his daughter into the University of Southern California, prosecutors said.
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A wealthy California vintner was sentenced Friday to five months in prison for paying tens of thousands of dollars to artificially boost his daughter’s SAT scores and to try to get her recruited as a water polo player at the University of Southern California, federal prosecutors said.

The sentence for Agustin Francisco Huneeus, 53, of San Francisco is the longest jail term yet for anyone in the massive college admissions cheating scandal. The scheme exposed how the rich and powerful tried to leverage their resources to fraudulently get their children into universities.

More than 50 people, including mastermind William "Rick" Singer, who pleaded guilty in March, have been charged.

Huneeus is the fifth parent to be sentenced in the cheating scheme. The former head of Huneeus vineyard in California's Napa Valley, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in May.

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Prosecutors sought a sentence of 15 months for Huneeus, but U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani in Boston sentenced him to five months, 500 hours of community service and two years of supervised release. He will also have to pay a $100,000 fine.

The alleged scam aimed to get students admitted to elite universities as recruited athletes, even if they didn't play sports, and help students cheat on or outsource their standardized college exams.

Prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum that Huneeus is the only person who has pleaded guilty so far who engaged in both aspects of the scam: Getting his child’s scores boosted and trying to get his daughter fraudulently recruited as an athlete. They said that Huneeus agreed to pay $300,000 in all.

"He was willing to commit as much fraud as was necessary to secure his daughter's admission to college," prosecutors wrote.

Huneeus said in a letter to the judge last month that his actions, rather than helping his daughter, actually harmed her and demonstrated that he did not believe in her. He said it put his daughter “through the most horrible public shaming and at such a critical time in her life.”

"I realize now that cheating on her behalf was not about helping her, it was about how it would make me feel," he wrote. "In the end my own ego brought me down."

Huneeus made a $50,000 donation to Singer’s sham charity to get her scores boosted, and he then engaged in a scheme to send USC a fabricated SAT score and a phony athletic profile with a photo to try and get her recruited as a water polo player. She played water polo, but not at a level warranting recruitment to a college team, prosecutors said.

Huneeus wrote a $50,000 check to then-USC senior athletic director Donna Heinel purportedly for the "USC Women’s Athletics Board" as part of the effort, prosecutors said. He was arrested before he could make the final $200,000 payment to Singer. Heinel was fired and is charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering.

Four other parents have previously been sentenced. Stephen Semprevivo and Devin Sloane received four months each. Actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced last month to 14 days in prison.

Another actress charged in the scheme, Lori Loughlin, best known for her role in 1980s-90s sitcom "Full House," has pleaded not guilty and is fighting the the charges.

Prosecutors say she and her husband, fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 to bolster their two daughters' chances of gaining admission to USC.

Singer pleaded guilty in March to racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. He cooperated with authorities and wore a wire for the FBI. Singer faces up to a maximum of 65 years in prison.