The college admissions scandal has in some ways been the tale of two actresses. Like all good tales, it has a hero and a villain. The hero, Felicity Huffman, has been honest and contrite. She tearfully plead guilty to the charges, admitted that there was no excuse for her behavior, threw herself on the mercy of the court, and ended up serving only eleven days in prison before she got out on early release.
The villain, of course, is Lori Loughlin. She has fought the charges tooth and nail and has portrayed herself as a victim rather than a perpetrator. Her public image certainly wasn’t helped by her daughter’s video bragging that she only came to the University of Southern California for the sports and parties. But what if the reason for Loughlin’s lack of contrition is that she is actually innocent?
Loughlin is accused of paying Rick Singer $500,000 to get her daughter into USC as a recruited crew athlete even though the daughter was no such thing. A major piece of evidence against Loughlin is a wiretapped phone call between Singer and Loughlin. According to the federal indictment: “Singer called LOUGHLIN from Boston, Massachusetts. During the call, Singer said, in sum and substance, that [Singer’s organization] was being audited by the IRS, which was asking about the two payments of $200,000 by the GIANNULLIS. Singer added: ‘So I just want to make sure that you know that, one, that you’re probably going to get a call and that I have not told them anything about the girls going through the side door, through crew, ever though they didn’t do crew to get into USC. So I—that is—all I told them was that you guys made a donation to our foundation to help underserved kids.’ LOUGHLIN replied, ‘Umhmm.’”
Loughlin’s defense is that she really did believe that she was making a charitable donation. According to a new filing by Loughlin’s attorneys, an important new piece of evidence has been produced by the prosecutor’s office. It turns out that Singer kept notes of his conversations with the prosecutors. The part of it released by her attorneys seems to bolster her argument. It reads: “They continue to ask me to tell a fib and not restate what I told my clients as to where there money was going — to the program not the coach and that it was a donation and they want it to be a payment.”
Loughlin’s attorneys are naturally making the most of this, proclaiming that the evidence is not only “exculpatory, but exonerating for the defendants the government has charged with bribery.” Her attorney, Sam Berkowitz, writes: “”This belated discovery … is devastating to the government’s case and demonstrates that the government has been improperly withholding core exculpatory information, employing a `win at all costs’ effort rather than following their obligation to do justice.”
That is certainly an overstatement. The court will have to look at the overall context of Singer’s statement, not just the part highlighted by Loughlin’s attorneys. And there is a great deal of other evidence to consider. To call the new evidence exonerating is a lawyer’s bombast.
Nevertheless, Singer’s statements that the government has been pressuring him to lie in a way that incriminates his clients is an important reminder that Loughlin, and the other defendants fighting the charges, are innocent until proven guilty. In high profile cases, where careers and reputations can be made, there is always a danger that prosecutors will be overly aggressive. And they certainly have been aggressive in this case. After Loughlin declined to plea bargain, the prosecutors turned up the heat on her when they added a second indictment last April, with the threat of serious additional prison time. They charged her with of conspiracy to commit money laundering which comes with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and three years of supervised release. This is in addition to the penalties for the other crimes. That’s a lot of jail time, even assuming she’s guilty. Clearly, the goal was to pressure her into a guilty plea.
Also, it’s important to remember that even if Loughlin is guilty, she may not be guilty of everything she is accused of. Even Harvey Weinstein, whose predations set off the “metoo” movement, was found not guilty on the three of the five charges brought against him. The jury in that case was a model of careful deliberation. They deliberated for five days, went back the judge for further clarifications, and eventually convicted Weinstein on the third degree rape charge, and another lesser charge, while rejecting the charges of first degree rape and predatory sexual assault for which the evidence was less compelling. The jury appeared to be able to look past the publicity and drama of the case and deliver a measured verdict based on thorough deliberation of the evidence.
It seems unlikely that Loughlin is the completely innocent victim she claims to be. But the prosecution is being very aggressive in this case. The Singer notes indicating that he has been pressured by the government to lie about his clients deserves to be taken seriously. Both Loughlin and the prosecutors seem determined to take this to trial. Hopefully the jury will look past Loughlin’s celebrity status and mountains of publicity in this case and perform their duty with the same care that the Weinstein jury did.