The Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney prosecuting Full House actress Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli in the college admissions scandal also known as “Operation Varsity Blues” publicly commented about what their prison time might look like compared to Felicity Huffman.
During an interview with WCVB on Sunday, Boston-based U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling was asked about whether prosecutors were trying to “send a message” to defendants other than Huffman by recommending that she receive a light sentence. Prosecutors asked for a month and the Desperate Housewives actress ended up getting two weeks behind bars, which was surprising to no one following the case because of the amount of money involved in Huffman’s fraud, and because she took responsibility and expressed contrition early.
Lelling said that Huffman was “probably the least culpable of the defendants” his office charged. He then explained why.
“One of the things we look to was how much money was involved. She spent about $15,000 to have her daughter get a fake SAT score,” Lelling began. “There’s a few things working in her favor. She took responsibility almost immediately. She was contrite. Did not try to minimize her conduct. I think she handled it in a classy way. And so, at the end of the day, we thought the one-month was proportional.”
“I think the two weeks she got was reasonable,” he continued. “We were happy with that. I think it was thoughtful sentence.”
The federal prosecutor then noted it is “almost always the case” that defendants who do what Huffman did end up getting more lenient sentences.
“If people take responsibility for their conduct and take responsibility for their conduct early on, it will probably go better for them,” Lelling said. “What I value in the Felicity Huffman sentence is that I think it sent a clear message to the parents involved that are there is a good chance that if you’re convicted of the offense, you will go to prison for some period of time. The least culpable defendant, even she got prison.”
Legal experts said that Huffman’s sentence should scare Loughlin and Giannulli for exactly the reasons Lelling just gave.
Huffman, unlike Loughlin and Giannulli, moved quickly to plead guilty in this case. Huffman pleaded guilty in May, a month after being named in the same complaint as Loughlin and Giannulli. Huffman accepted responsibility and offered a public apology for her conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
“In my desperation to be a good mother, I talked myself into believing that all I was doing was giving my daughter a fair shot,” Huffman admitted. “I see the irony in that statement now because what I have done is the opposite of fair. I have broken the law, deceived the educational community, betrayed my daughter, and failed my family.”
Despite all of this and the government concluding that Huffman was “one of the two least culpable defendants” (the bribe was $15,000), she still didn’t escape without time behind bars.
Attorneys immediately took note of this and said it did not bode well for Loughlin and Giannulli. National security lawyer Bradley P. Moss said the news should “freak out” Loughlin. At the time, Moss also told Law&Crime why that was the case.
“Felicity Huffman arguably did everything possible from the outset to accept responsibility for her actions, agreeing to a plea deal, expressing remorse and admitting she had made mistakes,” he said. “Lori Loughlin, on the other hand, stood defiant and was rewarded with a superseding indictment with additional charges. If even Huffman is still going to face some jail time (miniscule at it is), Loughlin has to be increasingly worried she could face years in jail if she is convicted at trial.”
What Lelling said next in the interview supported this analysis of the situation.
“If [Loughlin] is convicted, I don’t think I’d be giving away any state secrets by saying we would probably ask for a higher sentence for her than we did for Felicity Huffman. I can’t tell you what that would be,” he continued. “The longer the case goes, let’s say she goes through to trial. If it is after trial, we would be asking for something substantially higher. If she resolved her case short of trial, something a little lower than that. But it’s tough to tell at this point.” By “resolving” it before trial, Lelling clearly means taking a plea deal, which the couple previously declined to do.
Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli allegedly created fake rowing profiles to get Isabella Giannulli and Olivia Jade Giannulli into USC, “agree[ing] to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the [University of Southern California (USC)] crew team–despite the fact that they did not participate in crew.”
For that, they were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. They were also hit with money laundering charges in a superseding indictment. On paper, those charges are punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
While the maximum prison sentence will not occur, Lelling just explained prosecutors’ thinking: they will seek a more severe penalty depending on how these defendants proceed from here on out. If there’s a plea deal before trial, that will work in the defendants’ favor; if they go through a trial and are convicted, the punishment sought will be more severe.
As of now, Loughlin and Giannulli plan on fighting the charges in court; the money allegedly involved — something Lelling said is “One of the things [prosecutors] look to” — is substantially more than what Huffman shelled out. This is why the stakes are high with a roll of the dice in court, even if there are legal arguments left for Loughlin and Giannulli to make.
[Image via Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images]