Loughlin defense: We really thought the $500K was a donation, not a bribe

What could Lori Loughlin and Massimo Giannulli been thinking when they refused to plea out of the college-admissions bribery scandal? Both AP and I asked the question yesterday, and Entertainment Tonight believes they have an answer. Their defense will paint them as victims of a scam, according to their sources, arguing that the pair intended the money as a donation rather than a bribe:

“[Lori and her husband] claim they were under the impression they might be breaking rules, but not laws,” the source says. “They feel they were manipulated by those involved and are planning that as part of their defense.”

“They realize how serious the charges are, but feel that once the judge hears their story he will see they had no bad intentions,” the source adds. …

“They in no way felt they were money laundering,” the source says. “They thought the money would be used for a donation and to benefit the school. Even so, this has been one of the toughest decisions of Lori‘s life.”

To the extent that prosecutors have to prove an intent to commit a crime, this might have some promise. If Loughlin and Giannulli were led to believe that the money they shelled out was going to benefit the school or the program, then they were duped by Rick Singer rather than being participants in the conspiracy. That’s not the same thing as “entrapment,” as that relates to government actions rather than actions by defendants. In essence, they’re going to claim — assuming ET’s sources are correct — that they were victims of the fraud, not perpetrators of it.

That defense could raise questions about the motives of the prosecutors. The intent from the moment that Operation Varsity Blues went public clearly aimed at punishing the wealthy parents who participated in Singer’s schemes. The Department of Justice cut deals with Singer and some of the coaches up front, those who derived the monetary benefits of the conspiracy, a decision which did pique some curiosity at the time. Those priorities might look a bit backward to juries, especially those who are asked to determine whether Aunt Becky is a cynical corrupt aristocrat or an overanxious wealthy parent victimized by con men. Who’s more responsible for the fraud — those who hung out the For Sale sign, or those who flocked to them in response to it?

That’s a cute question, but both are legally responsible regardless of who might win the prize for highest culpability. And it’s not like either Loughlin or Giannulli are naïfs. Loughlin has managed a successful Hollywood career over decades, an impressive feat in a famously fickle environment. Giannulli runs a fashion empire. If they wanted to benefit USC or its sports programs, prosecutors will argue, they would have known damned well how to do so directly. The intent in this case should not be tough to divine, prosecutors will argue, as it wasn’t just Singer and the coaches who got the benefit. So did the kids, and in terms of status, so did the parents. And if they though they were just breaking rules and not laws, the former should have been enough for them to take a closer look at it — and they certainly have the resources to have gotten advice from an attorney or two first.

Also, I wonder how much mens rea plays into establishing a case of money laundering anyway. If prosecutors establish that the couple passed the $500K illegitimately through a phony non-profit organization for the purpose of their “donation,” is that enough to get a conviction regardless of professed motive? Maybe we can hear from some attorneys with experience on that point. We’re asking for, er … a favorite aunt.

Cosmo’s Shannon Barbour pulls out a Southern colloquialism for the idea:

Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, are still fighting all those charges brought against them in the massive college admissions scandal, and Lori reportedly doesn’t believe she’ll actually be thrown in prison because of it. Bless her heart.

At least the scales have fallen from their eyes, ET reports:

“Lori still believed in the end she would just get a slap on the wrist,” the source claimed. “At this point she is getting complete clarity and she’s scared and in terrible shape.”

“The reality of this situation has finally hit her like a ton of bricks,” the source added. “It wasn’t until she was faced with [the] additional [charge] that she saw the true ramifications.”

So far, it hasn’t changed the trajectory of their strategy, though. They still seem ready to roll the dice on some sort of defense against the charges, and the one described by ET might be the best left available to them. That’s not saying much, though.