From Full House to the big house, to … the really big house? That’s the scenario that has Lori Loughlin hitting “rock bottom,” according to CNN. Because Loughlin and her fashion-designer husband Mossimo Gianulli insist on pleading not guilty, federal prosecutors stacked up more charges against them and ten other parents last week, adding bribery and money-laundering counts to their indictments. Laughlin has now realized just how long she’ll spend in prison if she can’t beat the rap, and that she has hit “rock bottom”:
“She’s at rock bottom, devastated,” the source tells CNN. “She knows she could go away for a long time and it’s terrifying for her.”
The new charge accuses Loughlin and Giannulli of bribing University of Southern California employees to get their daughters admitted to the school. In exchange for the bribes, USC coaches and athletics officials allegedly designated the children as recruited athletes, easing their admission, regardless of their athletic ability, prosecutors said.
The charge of federal programs bribery is defined as a bribe of anything valued of at least $5,000 at an organization that receives more than $10,000 from the federal government, which would include USC and other universities implicated in the alleged scam.
Loughlin and her husband previously pleaded not guilty in April to charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Prosecutors say she and Giannulli paid $500,000 to a fake charity to get their two daughters accepted into the University of Southern California, falsely designating them as crew recruits. They face a maximum of up to 45 years in prison for the charges.
No one has much sympathy for Loughlin and Giannulli these days, nor should they. The Full House actress and her fashion-designer husband got caught participating in a scheme to corrupt the college-admissions process to put their already-overwhelmingly-advantaged progeny into high-status universities. Unlike some other participants in the scheme, as well as its architects, Loughlin and Giannulli continue to insist that they did nothing wrong except go overboard for their children.
However, two aspects of this case should trouble the rest of us. First, the Department of Justice appears to have taken the approach from the beginning of this case that the parents were the big fish in this scheme rather than its architect and the people being bribed. They cut deals with the latter to go after the very famous in the former group, and they got their headlines because of that. If they had gone in the other direction by cutting deals with Loughlin and Felicity Huffman to go after Rick Singer and the college personnel who actually received the cash from this corrupt scheme, would it have generated the same number of headlines? Doubtful, even though Singer and the college officials were the ones doing the actual corrupting.
The sudden appearance of new charges is also troubling. Nothing in this case has changed so significantly that it required a new indictment except that Loughlin et al wouldn’t plead guilty or cut a deal on the fed’s terms. The new indictment is a punitive measure, Scott Shackford wrote at Reason last week, part of an abuse of prosecutorial power that has been evident since the beginning of the Operation Varsity Blues case:
Prosecutors are only now insisting on holding the defendants “fully accountable” because these parents are insisting on exercising their constitutional right to a fair trial. Loughlin and the other defendants would not have received these additional charges if they’d accepted plea deals. One of the parents told the judge Monday that the Justice Department told them it would not seek any further punishment if the parent accepted the deal. …
This behavior by federal prosecutors is both common and a frustrating subversion of the criminal justice process. Despite our constitutional right to a trial, a full 97 percent of all criminal cases are resolved with plea deals, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).
And when you look at what’s happening with Loughlin, it’s easy to see why. Actor Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to mail fraud and was sentenced to 14 days in prison, a year of supervised release, 250 hours of community service, and a $30,000 fine. By adding charges against Loughlin (and other parents) of conspiracy to commit bribery and money laundering, prosecutors are adding months and even years of additional prison time in the event the parents are convicted.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts boasts that these new charges carry prison sentences of up to 25 years. There is absolutely no way any of these people will receive sentences that harsh, but it’s abundantly clear that the prosecutors want to punish them not just for the offenses they are alleged to have committed, but also for insisting on going to trial. What’s more, the new indictments include asset forfeiture requests should the defendants be convicted.
It’s easy to hate Loughlin and Giannulli for their wealth, Shackford allows, but notes that this happens all the time to poorer defendants as well. After providing some statistical detail, Shackford warns that karma’s not a good reason for letting it slide in this instance:
What’s happening to Loughlin and these other parents happens to hundreds of poorer, less connected defendants every day across the country. But we should be careful not to see it as karmic “balance” that a small group of wealthy, privileged parents is now getting railroaded by the system. It’s not more “fair” when prosecutorial overreach affects rich people.
It’s more entertaining, however, which is apparently what the DoJ wanted all along. Maybe in this case it will backfire by drawing attention to the practice of charge-stacking to punish people who won’t cut plea deals. And maybe it should, even if the defendants in this case are not terribly sympathetic to us, because the next time it might be us.