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.

Just Posted

Lacombe County celebrates official opening of the Kuhnen Natural Area

Long-time residents Frank and Rosalie Kuhnen generously donated this land to Lacombe County

Lacombe Birthplace Forest grows by 5 in 2019

Urban forest recognizes newborns in the community

ATCO gas line work in Lacombe

Lane Closures at the Highway 12/50 Avenue & 58 Street intersection

WATCH: Blackfalds Days Parade takes over community

Floats from all over central Alberta wows crowd

PHOTO: Petvalu donates to Paws and Claws Animal Rescue

$10,782 donated to help animals in central Alberta

WATCH: Blackfalds Days Parade takes over community

Floats from all over central Alberta wows crowd

Horgan says he’ll still defend B.C. coast after second Trans Mountain approval

Meanwhile, one B.C. First Nation has announced plans for a legal challenge

Demonstrators on either side of Trans Mountain debate clash in Vancouver

Crowd heard from member of Indigenous-led coalition that hopes to buy 51% of expansion project

High Level on alert, as wildfires put more people on the run in northern Alberta

Thousands in High Level were just allowed back home, and now must get ready to leave again

VIDEO: Toronto Raptors announcer credited with calming crowds after shooting

Matt Devlin, the Raptors’ play-by-play announcer since 2008, was praised for preventing panic from spreading

Two people arrested after Wetaskiwin vehicle theft

Wetaskiwin RCMP respond to theft of motor vehicle

Deadline for cabinet to decide future of Trans Mountain expansion is today

International Trade Minister Jim Carr described the decision as ‘very significant’

UPDATE: Two shot, two arrested at Toronto Raptors victory rally

The team and several dignitaries, including Justin Trudeau, remained on stage

Oil and gas sector cautious as deadline on Trans Mountain decision nears

Trudeau government expected to announce whether it will approve pipeline for second time on Tuesday

Most Read