American actress Felicity Huffman's agreement to plead guilty to a single fraud conspiracy charge in the college admissions bribery scandal came with a price: Prosecutors are recommending a sentence that would include months in prison.
But actress Lori Loughlin is contesting an allegation that she, too, participated in the scam. She and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, pleaded not guilty to two counts related to fraud and money laundering. Convictions could lead to years in prison.
These Los Angeles celebrities illustrate two camps among the 33 wealthy parents accused of seeking to help their children get into prominent universities through cheating on admission tests and fabrication of athletic credentials. Fourteen are moving toward guilty pleas, while 19 are fighting to clear their names.
A major question looming over the case in federal court in Boston is whether those convicted will spend time behind bars.
"I'd say it's certainly a possibility," said Daniel Richman, a Columbia University law professor and former federal prosecutor. Much depends, he said, on whether a case is tried. "Most people will tell you that trials do increase punishment," he said.
Defendants who plead guilty, bypassing a trial, can receive credit at sentencing for acknowledging responsibility for their crimes.
Another crucial variable is whether the judge follows sentencing guidelines and prosecutors' recommendations.
In plea deals made public in recent days, the office of US Attorney Andrew Lelling is recommending a variety of prison terms, depending in part on how much money parents paid through the alleged conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, which is a single crime.
The maximum prison sentence for the crime is 20 years, but it is rarely imposed.
Huffman, accused of paying US$15,000 to help her older daughter obtain a fraudulent SAT score, is scheduled to enter a guilty plea May 13.
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Prosecutors calculate that sentencing guidelines call for four to 10 months of incarceration for Huffman. They are seeking a prison term on the low end of that range, according to her plea deal, but Huffman reserved the right to argue that the offence corresponds to a guideline of no prison time to six months in prison.
In other plea deals, prosecutors are recommending prison terms of 12 months and a day, 15 months, 18 months or the low end of sentencing guidelines that correspond to a particular parent's offence.
Bruce and Davina Isackson, of Hillsborough, California, are scheduled to plead guilty Wednesday, according to the US attorney's office, to crimes stemming from efforts to help one daughter get into the University of California at Los Angeles as a purported soccer recruit and another daughter secure admission to the University of Southern California as a purported rower on the crew team.
Federal investigators say the Isacksons paid more than US$600,000 to fund the fraud. Davina Isackson plans to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, according to her plea deal, with prosecutors recommending a prison term on the low end of a guideline range of 27 to 33 months.
Her husband, a real estate developer, plans to plead guilty to that charge as well as to money laundering conspiracy and conspiracy to defraud the United States, according to his plea deal. Prosecutors are recommending that Bruce Isackson receive a prison term of slightly more than three years.
Court documents show that the Isacksons also have agreed to cooperate with the investigation, and prosecutors have offered to recommend more lenient sentences for them if they provide "substantial assistance."
All the plea deals with parents also show recommendations for fines, ranging from US$9500 to US$150,000.
Loughlin and Giannulli are accused in an indictment of paying a total of US$500,000 in 2016 and 2017 to facilitate admission of their two daughters to USC as purported crew recruits.
Attorneys for the Isacksons, Huffman, Loughlin, Giannulli and other accused parents declined to comment or did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment. Prosecutors are not giving interviews while the cases are pending, the US attorney's office said.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, has sparked national debate over the influence of money in the heated competition for admission to prominent universities. Prosecutors say unscrupulous parents paid admission consultant Rick Singer US$25 million over several years to fund a scam that delivered bribes to test administrators, athletic coaches and sports programs, seeking to compromise the admissions process of Georgetown, Yale, Stanford, USC and other major universities. Singer, the mastermind, has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges.
"These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege," Lelling said March 12 as he disclosed the investigation. "This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud.
"There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I'll add there will not be a separate criminal-justice system, either."
Skeptics say Lelling's team may be overreaching.
"Some of the parents are going to have a decent defence," said Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at George Washington University and frequently contributes opinions to The Washington Post.
He said parents might argue that they were unaware of alleged bribes. Eliason pointed to wiretapped conversations between Singer and certain parents in late 2018 and in 2019 in which the consultant - who was by that time cooperating with authorities - recapped key details of the scheme in what appeared to be an effort to get the parents to confirm their knowledge of illicit activity.
Excerpts from those transcripts, Eliason said, are "not always terribly incriminating".
For instance, Singer told a mother named Amy Colburn in October that he would not mention to federal authorities that someone had taken the SAT for her son. The transcript shows she replied: "Mm-hmm".
Colburn and her husband, physician Gregory Colburn, are accused of paying US$25,000 to help their son obtain a fraudulent SAT score. That score was 1190 out of a possible 1600, according to court documents, and it was sent to schools including the University of Oregon, the University of Arizona and Indiana University.
The Colburns are among 19 parents indicted on charges of fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. The couple from Palo Alto, California, deny wrongdoing and contend in a brief to the court that their case has been unfairly linked with others.
"While the Government's strategy of lumping together all of the parents into a single conspiracy has had the intended effect of creating widespread public outrage against all of the parents regardless of their actual conduct, there is no legal basis for including the Colburns in this single conspiracy under the allegations in the Indictment," their attorneys wrote in a motion to dismiss the indictment. The argument underscored that the facts of the case vary significantly among the defendants.
William Cowden, a former federal prosecutor who does not represent any of the parents, questioned the money-laundering conspiracy charge in the indictment because the money the parents paid as alleged bribes did not appear to be the proceeds of a crime. It appeared, rather, to be clean money when payments occurred. He called the charge "troubling".
But fighting that allegation and others at trial could increase the risk of prison if a jury returns a guilty verdict. "You should have a right to contest the charges," Cowden said. "But if you do that, the system, the way it's built, penalises you."