Why One Federal Judge’s Recent Decision Is Great News for Lori Loughlin

A recent decision by one of the judges overseeing the college admissions scandal could signal good news on the horizon for Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli.

These potentially positive tidings are given additional weight by who they’re upsetting: federal prosecutors hoping for steep sentences.

Much to the chagrin of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani doesn’t seem to believe the amount of money paid by wealthy parents to get their children into college should factor much–if at all–into how or how long those parents are ultimately punished.

A prior decision–by Judge Talwani–and the immediately preceding discussion–between Talwani and lead “Varsity Blues” prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen–are instructive here.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Rosen and Talwani sparred over how the judge should determine prison sentences for parents who had entered guilty pleas. Rosen said that each of the plea agreement-bound parents agreed to let the government use the amount of money they spent as the basis for calculating their eventual time behind bars. According to Rosen, this was a just way of considering each parent’s criminal culpability because it would otherwise be “impossible” to quantify the harm and/or loss each parent caused any given school or testing agency by their efforts to game the system.

So, Rosen used Felicity Huffman‘s admitted $15,000 cash infusion to William “Rick” Singer to call for a one-month prison sentence. Whereas Rosen cited defendant-father Stephen Semprevivo‘s admission that he spent $400,000 to get his son into Georgetown as the basis for 15 months in a federal penitentiary.

That may sound reasonable but it’s not quite how the federal sentencing system works. And that tradition is what federal judges actually tend to care about when making sentencing determinations–not simply the deals negotiated between the government and their typically less-powerful criminal defendants. In other words, a judge isn’t always bound by the exact contours of a plea agreement.

The Times piece sums up the disconnect [emphasis ours]:

The federal probation office, which typically recommends sentences to judges, concluded that the universities and test companies suffered no financial loss, according to a memo Rosen filed in court last week. As a result, Rosen wrote, probation officials have recommended to Talwani that all the parents be given a range of prison sentences of zero to six months, regardless of how much they paid.

And Talwani took the federal probation office’s argument to heart.

“Defendants before the court did not ‘gain’ these amounts, but instead paid them to a co-conspirator,” the judge noted in an order rejecting Rosen’s request for progressively increasing punishments based on dollar amounts under federal bribery statutes.

“Nor did the conspiracy as a whole gain these moneys,” Talwani continued. “Instead, the amounts were passed between the co-conspirators, and cannot stand in as an alternative measure for any loss incurred by the universities or testing companies.”

The federal government’s prevailing theory of punishment was shot right through and thrown into the wood chipper.

Under that order, all of the guilty pleading defendants are eligible for sentences ranging from zero days to six months. No more.

Rosen’s new operating theory is that, instead of dollar amounts, Judge Talwani should consider the level of sophistication each defendant used to defraud testing centers and universities–as well as any additional steps taken to cover their tracks after the fact. But there’s no guarantee the government’s plea for a harsher approach will have any effect on Talwani’s previous order whatsoever.

So, what does this all mean for Loughlin and Giannulli?

It’s a bit more complicated because they rejected a plea deal and are currently under the watch of Magistrate Judge Mary Page Kelley–not Judge Talwani; they also face additional money laundering charges. But their cases originated out of the same legal controversy, similar sets of facts and the same U.S. Attorney’s office–not to mention the same potential Court of Appeals. The amount of money allegedly involved was $500,000.

If Loughlin and Giannulli do read Talwani’s tea leaves, however, and decide to try their luck with a guilty plea, there would be some awfully persuasive precedent for similarly lenient sentencing.

[Image via Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images]

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