Since it broke in 2019, the ongoing college admissions scandal has captivated the public’s attention thanks in large part to one of the most high profile people swept up in it, Lori Loughlin.
Unlike her celebrity counterpart who was also charged in the scandal, Felicity Huffman, Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli initially contested their charges in court. The decision holds potentially dire consequences for the couple and has already led to a prolonged court battle.
For a year, the plot seemed to thicken as the famous power couple built their defense before ultimately agreeing to plead guilty. As a result, some of the finer details about Loughlin’s involvement in the college admissions scandal may have been lost in the shuffle. Below is a rundown of everything to know about the case before the couple is sentenced on Friday.
How it started
The scam saw mastermind William “Rick” Singer use various means to orchestrate it so that the children of wealthy, elite parents were able to get their kids admitted to the high-profile college of their choice. Singer and the parents allegedly paid bribes to university officials and had student’s scores on tests, like the SAT, doctored.
In March of 2019, Loughlin, along with many other people, were arrested for their alleged involvement in the scandal. She was later released on a $1 million bond. Giannulli was released for the same price.
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The couple is accused of agreeing to pay roughly $500,000 in bribes to have their two daughters designated as recruits for the University of Southern California crew team despite the fact that neither of them ever participated in the sport. Their daughters, Isabella and famous YouTube star Olivia Jade, no longer attend USC.
It didn’t take long for the scandal to make national headlines, prompting Loughlin to be let go from the final season of “Fuller House” on Netflix as well as her Hallmark Channel series, “When Calls the Heart.” Olivia Jade also stopped posting regular videos to YouTube and essentially disappeared from social media for the better part of a year. She returned to YouTube in December, posting two videos, but hasn’t shared any new content since.
Fighting the charges
Despite the massive impact the scandal coming to light had on Loughlin and her family, she showed every sign that she wanted to fight the charges against her.
The couple rejected a plea agreement that Huffman took shortly after their respective involvement was made public. They, instead, entered a plea of not guilty to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
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The Justice Department made it clear in October 2019 that it wanted to put pressure on Loughlin to change her mind about the not guilty plea. She and Giannulli were hit with additional charges of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery. Undeterred, Loughlin pleaded not guilty to the expanded bribery charges as well.
Building their defense
At this point, the stakes couldn’t have been higher for Loughlin and Giannulli as they prepared their defense for a case that could end with them doing some prison time.
As a result, they spent several months preparing their defense. In an interesting turn of events, both Loughlin and Giannulli waived their right to separate representation in the case. As a result, they presented a united defense and use the same lawyers to do so.
“Giannulli and Loughlin are innocent of the charges brought against them and are eager to clear their names,” the couple’s attorneys wrote in a filing in July 2019. “And they believe their interests will be advanced most effectively by presenting a united front against the Government’s baseless accusations.”
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Based on court filings that have come out since the couple’s joint defense was approved, a lot of their argument seemed to be based on convincing a jury that they were unaware that the $500,000 they were dolling out to scam mastermind Singer would go to bribing individual people at USC rather than official donations to the university.
In December, things started to come together for the famous couple’s defense when they filed court documents in Massachusetts U.S. District Court asking the FBI for interview statements from its discussions with Singer. The hope was that something in his comments would help them prove that the scam mastermind never explicitly told them where the money was going.
In January, the couple’s case got a further boost thanks to newly released emails between Giannulli and USC that appear to demonstrate a culture of mixing admissions conversations with fundraising conversations.
“It’s been a while and fall has now arrived so I just wanted to check in and see if your daughter is continuing with the admissions process at USC,” an email to Giannulli from an unnamed USC official reads. “Please let me know if I can be at all helpful in setting up a 1:1 opportunity for her, customized tour of campus for the family, and/or classroom visit? I’d also be happy to flag her application.”
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A follow-up email from the official added: “On another note, would you be interested in connecting to discuss your own involvement with USC? So much has changed since you were a student. I’d love to be able to update you on the amazing stuff that’s happening. How about meeting in your area on Oct 3rd, 4th or 5th?”
Giannulli rebuffed the offers via email, and their legal team is arguing that the emails demonstrate that he simply thought he was making donations to a university that had no qualms about accepting cash in exchange for admission. USC, however, notes that the emails don’t show anything that isn’t offered to a myriad of potential students.
Eventually, Singer’s notes were obtained by Loughlin’s legal team and they revealed shocking evidence that he believed the FBI had told him to lie about where he told his “clients” the money they were paying was going.
“They continue to ask me to tell a fib and not restate what I told my clients as to where there [sic] money was going — to the program not the coach and that it was a donation and they want it to be a payment,” Singer wrote, according to the filing.
If true, this would mean that Loughlin could reasonably make the argument that she did not know where the money was going, let alone that it was used for bribery.
The couple’s attorney called the information not only “exculpatory, but exonerating for the defendants the government has charged with bribery.”
Their defense unravels
While it seemed like the famous couple had their smoking gun thanks to Singer’s notes. They tried to make the case that they were essentially entrapped into committing a crime by the FBI as they spurred Singer on. Their lawyers even accused prosecutors of withholding the evidence. However, Variety reported that a new court filing from the prosecution denied both that it acted in bad faith and that the evidence is at all exonerating.
“In a sprawling, fast-moving prosecution, the failure to produce the notes earlier was simply a mistake,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven E. Frank in the new filing. “The defendants have suffered no prejudice, and their suggestion that the notes somehow ‘exonerate’ them, or reveal that the evidence against them was fabricated, is demonstrably false.”
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The prosecution argued that Singer had not yet taken responsibility for his crimes when he wrote what he did. It also argued that, regardless of whether the money was called a “donation” or a “bribe,” a crime still took place.
“Just because neither Singer nor the defendants actually used the word ‘bribe’ to describe the purported donations doesn’t mean that they were legitimate,” Frank wrote. “They were bribes, regardless of what Singer and the defendants called them, because, as the defendants knew, the corrupt insiders were soliciting the money in exchange for recruiting unqualified students, in violation of their duty of honest services to their employer.”
Unfortunately for them, Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton agreed with the prosecution. In a three-page memorandum obtained by Fox News, he said the prosecution’s mistake was unacceptable but did not merit the extraordinary action of dismissing the case.
Changing their plea
In a sudden and shocking move, the couple reversed the stance that they’d held for more than a year. In May, the Massachusetts District Attorney’s Office announced that the couple would plead guilty. The duo struck a plea deal that would have them both serve time behind bars that is well below the maximum they likely would have received after a losing court battle.
Loughlin agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, and Giannulli will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and to honest services wire and mail fraud.
How much jail time is she facing?
The charge of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery carries a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. The couple’s previous charges of money laundering and conspiracy could have resulted in 40 years.
However, according to the terms of the recent plea agreement, Loughlin would serve two months and pay a $150,000 fine along with two years of supervised release and 100 hours of community service. Giannulli, meanwhile, would serve five months in prison, pay a $250,000 fine with two years of supervised release and 250 hours of community service.
“Under the plea agreements filed today, these defendants will serve prison terms reflecting their respective roles in a conspiracy to corrupt the college admissions process and which are consistent with prior sentences in this case,” United States Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in a statement at the time. “We will continue to pursue accountability for undermining the integrity of college admissions.”
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Although the couple officially pleaded guilty, the judge neither rejected nor accepted the terms of their plea agreement, saying he’ll issue an official ruling after reviewing pre-sentencing reports. The couple is scheduled for official sentencing on Aug. 21 at 2:30 p.m. for Loughlin and 11:00 a.m. for Giannulli.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.