Marc S. Harris, lawyer for actress Lori Loughlin talks to the media outside the federal courthouse for Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Los Angeles. Fifty people, including actress Loughlin, were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation’s most elite schools. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Marc S. Harris, lawyer for actress Lori Loughlin talks to the media outside the federal courthouse for Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in Los Angeles. Fifty people, including actress Loughlin, were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation’s most elite schools. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

‘Full House’ to big house in college scheme? Experts differ

Attorneys for at least some of the parents are likely already negotiating deals with prosecutors

Could Aunt Becky be headed to prison? It could go either way, experts say.

Some of the wealthy parents accused of paying bribes to get their kids into top universities may get short stints behind bars, if convicted, to send a message that the privileged are not above the law, some lawyers say. But others predict that most, if not all, will end up with probation and a fine, particularly if they quickly agree to accept responsibility and co-operate, which observers anticipate many will do.

“If the parents are well represented, it is reasonable to expect that possibly none will go to jail,” said former federal prosecutor Jacob Frenkel. “These are not the type of offences for which judges exercising their discretion would normally put people in jail,” he said.

The parents ensnared in what prosecutors have called the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department include Hollywood stars Lori Loughlin, who played Aunt Becky on the sitcom “Full House,” and Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives.” Other parents are prominent figures in law, finance, fashion, the food and beverage industry, and other fields.

Prosecutors have said, though, that they believe other parents were involved and that the investigation — dubbed Operation Varsity Blues — continues.

The parents are charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, a count that carries up to 20 years in prison, although defendants, especially first-time offenders, typically get far less than that.

Attorneys for at least some of the parents are likely already negotiating deals with prosecutors, experts say. And authorities have lots of leverage to push parents to plead guilty by promising to bring more charges, like tax evasion or money laundering, if they don’t.

Frenkel, now a white-collar defence attorney at Dickinson Wright in Washington, said he suspects many parents could wind up pleading guilty to a tax charge, for deducting the bribes from their income taxes, and get probation.

Most parents could get merely a fine and community service, agreed Jeffrey Cramer, who was an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.

But those who went to great lengths to participate in the scam or enlisted their children help them carry it out may spend a few months behind bars, because judges may not see a financial penalty as sufficient punishment, he said.

“If you told (the parents) at the beginning of this that in addition to the bribe, you’d have to pay a $200,000 penalty and have to work at the Beverly Hills food bank, they’d probably take that deal,” said Cramer, now managing director of Berkeley Research Group consulting firm.

“You cannot have a criminal justice system where at the end of the day,” he said, “the crime was worth doing.”

The parents are accused of paying admissions consultant Rick Singer to rig standardized test scores and bribe college coaches and other insiders to get their children into selective schools. Coaches at schools including Yale University and the University of Southern California are also charged with accepting bribes.

Singer secretly recorded his conversations with the parents after agreeing to work with investigators in the hopes of getting a lesser sentence. He pleaded guilty last week to racketeering conspiracy and other charges.

Loughlin’s lawyers declined on Wednesday to comment. An email was sent to a communications firm hired by Huffman.

If any parents decide to fight the charges, they could argue they believed the services they were paying for were legitimate and didn’t realize what Singer was doing, lawyers say. They could also try to paint Singer as a liar who is trying to take them down in order to save himself, experts say.

“A high-on-the-food-chain co-operator is now reaching down below, and that gives an opportunity for the defence to exploit that the co-operator is facing a lot of time and therefore he is fabricating things,” said Boston criminal defence attorney Brad Bailey.

But the mountain of evidence against them, which includes recorded phone calls, emails, bank records and flight records, will be difficult to overcome, attorneys say.

“The defences are about as viable as each of the benefiting kids making the varsity sports team,” Frenkel said.

READ MORE: A Canadian is the alleged informant in the US college bribery scandal

READ MORE: Students sue colleges in admissions bribery scandal

The parents will likely try to stay out of prison by arguing they believed they were doing what was best for their children and have already been punished enough by being publicly humiliated and losing jobs, attorneys say.

But some experts say they doubt such a strategy would be successful.

“This is not the most sympathetic case, and I don’t know how many judges want to bend over backward for any of these individuals,” said Ilene Jaroslaw, a former federal prosecutor who is now a white-collar defence attorney at Phillips Nizer in New York.

“I expect that you’re going to see a number of these people spend some time in jail to send a message,” she said.

Lawyers who have seen less affluent clients go to prison for crimes seemingly less egregious say it would only be fair.

“You’ve already got a case that really illustrates the power of the privileged in the first place,” said New York criminal defence lawyer Matthew Galluzzo. “If you don’t send them to jail then you’re going to be proving the point — which is that you can get away with anything if you have money.”

___

Alanna Durkin Richer, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
81 new cases of COVID-19 detected in Interior Health Friday

One additional staff member at Kelowna long-term care home tests positive, no new deaths

Interior Health says Salmo’s COVID-19 cases have been contained. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Interior Health: Salmo’s COVID-19 cases are contained

Every person who tested positive has recovered

The Village of Salmo has told Cody Puckett and Ashley Nelson that clearing land at this property doesn’t constitute building a property according to a bylaw. Photo: Submitted
Work in progress? Salmo family, village at odds over property construction

Cody Puckett says he’s being evicted from his own land, which the village disputes

Interior Health has set up a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Castlegar. Photo: Betsy Kline
Castlegar doctors and mayor urge residents to take COVID-19 seriously as cases are confirmed in the city

“Your doctors would like you to understand we do now have Covid cases here”

Finn Lydon. Photo: Submitted
UPDATE: Winlaw boy reported missing has been found

Finn Lydon was was located last evening

Pickleball game in Vancouver on Sunday, November 8, 2020. B.C.’s public health restrictions for COVID-19 have been extended to adult team sports, indoors and outside. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
711 more COVID-19 cases detected in B.C. Friday

‘Virus is not letting up and neither can we’

Demonstrators, organized by the Public Fishery Alliance, outside the downtown Vancouver offices of Fisheries and Oceans Canada July 6 demand the marking of all hatchery chinook to allow for a sustainable public fishery while wild stocks recover. (Public Fishery Alliance Facebook photo)
Angry B.C. anglers see petition tabled in House of Commons

Salmon fishers demand better access to the healthy stocks in the public fishery

(Hotel Zed/Flytographer)
B.C. hotel grants couple 18 years of free stays after making baby on Valentines Day

Hotel Zed has announced a Kelowna couple has received free Valentines Day stays for next 18 years

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Farmers raise slogans during a protest on a highway at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the diplomatic scolding Canada’s envoy to India received on Friday for his recent comments in support of protesting Indian farmers. Tens of thousands of farmers have descended upon the borders of New Delhi to protest new farming laws that they say will open them to corporate exploitation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Trudeau brushes off India’s criticism for standing with farmers in anti-Modi protests

The High Commission of India in Ottawa had no comment when contacted Friday

Nurse Kath Olmstead prepares a shot as the world’s biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway Monday, July 27, 2020, in Binghamton, N.Y. U.S. biotech firm Moderna says its vaccine is showing signs of producing lasting immunity to COVID-19, and that it will have as many as many as 125 million doses available by the end of March. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hans Pennink
Canada orders more COVID vaccines, refines advice on first doses as cases reach 400K

Canada recorded its 300,000th case of COVID-19 on Nov. 16

Apartments are seen lit up in downtown Vancouver as people are encouraged to stay home during the global COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer says provincewide data show the most important area B.C. must tackle in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is health inequity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
Age, income among top factors affecting well-being during pandemic, B.C. survey shows

Among respondents earning $20,000 a year or less, more than 41 per cent reported concern about food insecurity

Victoria-based driving instructors are concerned for their own and the community’s safety with the continued number of residents from COVID hotspots in the Lower Mainland coming to the city to take their driving road tests. (Black Press Media file photo)
Students from COVID hotspots travel to Vancouver Island for driving tests

Union leader calls on government to institute stronger travel ban

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix wears a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19, during an announcement about a new regional cancer centre, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, August 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
PHSA bought faulty respirators; spent money on catering, renovations: Dix

Such spending included ‘unnecessary, unbudgeted renovations’ to the authority’s headquarters in Vancouver

Most Read