Lori Loughlin and Massimo Giannulli finally plead guilty in “Admissiongate”

May 21, 2020 • 12:00 pm

After insisting for months that they were not guilty of bribing their daughters’ way into the University of Southern California by presenting fake resumes as athletes, actor Lori Laughlin and her husband, fashion designer Massimo Giannulli, have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. The details are in the article below from CNN (click on screenshot). The upshot: both of the privileged and wealthy parents are going to jail, though not for that long.

An excerpt:

Loughlin, 55, and Giannulli, 56, had been accused of paying $500,000 to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California as fake crew team recruits. They had pleaded not guilty for more than a year and moved to dismiss charges as recently as two weeks ago.

As part of the plea agreement, Loughlin will be sentenced to two months in prison and Giannulli will be sentenced to five months in prison, subject to the court’s approval, according to authorities.

In addition, Loughlin faces a $150,000 fine, two years of supervised release and 100 hours of community service, and Giannulli faces a $250,000 fine, two years of supervised release and 250 hours of community service.

They are scheduled to plead guilty on Friday at 11:30 a.m., prosecutors said.

. . .Loughlin will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, and Giannulli will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and honest services wire and mail fraud. The actress, best known for her role as Aunt Becky on the sitcom “Full House,” and her husband had previously been charged with three counts of conspiracy.

“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,” said US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. “We will continue to pursue accountability for undermining the integrity of college admissions.”

They were facing up to 20 years in prison if they pleaded “not guilty” but were then convicted, though nobody thought they would serve that much time (some thought “several years”). Loughlin and Giannulli are the 23rd and 24th parents to plead guilty in this case; the most famous was actor Felicity Huffman, who also pleaded guilty from the outset and served 11 days.

I’ve followed this case more closely than usual for such a scandal, probably because it involves something that I consider unconscionable: forging one’s credentials to get into college. By so doing—and both daughters were accepted, though they are no longer students—you take the place of someone more deserving.

And USC is a good school, which somehow makes it seem worse. Thus I was hoping for a fairly stiff sentence, probably as a deterrent. Two to five months in stir seems pretty weak to me, though both parents will be convicted felons and their ability to make money will be reduced (their famous fashion-blogger daughter Olivia Jade has already had several of her contracts dropped, most probably on the grounds that they were probably complicit in this scam).

The couple always insisted that they were simply doing what is common practice: donating money to a school in return for favorable consideration for their daughters’ admission, and that it was not tit-for-tat bribery. But that doesn’t explain the phony applications listing their daughters as crew coxswains.

Why did they change their plea? The Los Angeles Times says this:

It’s unclear, and Loughlin’s attorney declined to comment Thursday, but the reversal followed a significant legal setback.

Earlier this month, a judge declined to dismiss the fraud, bribery and money laundering charges against Loughlin and her co-defendants, ruling that federal agents and prosecutors did not pressure Singer, their chief cooperator, to mislead his clients on recorded phone calls and draw out flawed evidence of criminal intent.

And, in a levying of the “not guilty plea tax”, prosecutors heaped additional bribery charges on the pair, raising the stakes—and potential jail time—considerably.

From what I’ve seen of the documents in the case, which includes the phony admissions forms, Loughlin and Giannulli seemed clearly guilty. Some of the people calling for their heads undoubtedly wanted some Schadenfreude, perhaps because of Loughlin’s squeaky-clean role as Aunt Becky in the t.v. show
“Full House”, but what I wanted was a sentence that would deter others from cheating.

Will it? Is two or five months in jail, along with fines and community service, fit punishment for these crimes?

You can weigh in in the poll below (please respond):


66 thoughts on “Lori Loughlin and Massimo Giannulli finally plead guilty in “Admissiongate”

  1. Their change of plea at this late stage and under heavy pressure indicates that they do not really feel remorse or repentance for what they have done, and minimal weight should have been ascribed to it – a punishment close to but just below the maximum permissible should have been imposed.

    1. Of course not. But the way plea bargaining works in the U.S. court system, you have to assume that prosecutors will use charges “tactically” to put pressure on a defendant to plead guilty, and that defendants will use plea negotiation tactically to minimize their likely sentence.

      It’s why I really don’t think any plea bargain should include an admission of guilt. You’re basically coercing the person to either claim guilt or play a high stakes, likely very expensive, game of legal crap shoot. Very reasonable, not-guilty people will lie and plead guilty under those circumstances.

      Not that I think these two are innocent. I think they’re guilty. But I also think the U.S. plea bargain system needs to be a bit more realistic about what it means to defendants, and have some sort of ‘third result’ such as “plead out” which neither admits guilt nor lets them claim exoneration. Because realistically, both innocent and guilty people will (and do) take that choice for pragmatic reasons.

      1. What you’ve described is essentially a nolo contendere (or “no contest”) plea. Such pleas are widely used for all but the most serious felonies in many state courts. They exist in theory in federal court (and Spiro Agnew famously entered such a plea to a federal income-tax fraud beef after resigning the vice-presidency), but they are virtually never used.

        Federal judges refuse to accept guilty pleas unless a defendant admits in open court to the accuracy of a factual proffer that would establish guilt if the case went to trial. And federal prosecutors maintain that they decline to seek indictments in cases that might be appropriate for a nolo plea.

        1. Much the way Michael Flynn pleaded guilty on three occasions in front of two different federal judges. Of course then Bill Barr said it really didn’t matter so let’s just forget it.

          1. The presiding federal district court judge in Flynn’s case, the Hon. Emmet G. Sullivan, has made plain that he will not go gentle into the good night of accepting the prosecution’s motion to dismiss the charges against Flynn.

            It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

        2. Federal judges refuse to accept guilty pleas unless a defendant admits in open court to the accuracy of a factual proffer that would establish guilt if the case went to trial.

          Yes, and I’m saying that prosecutors make the stakes of going to court so high that innocent people do exactly that.

          And federal prosecutors maintain that they decline to seek indictments in cases that might be appropriate for a nolo plea.

          Of course they do. A nolo plea doesn’t help their career anywhere near as much as a guilty plea. In fact, I’d bet in most cases their bosses would see the former as a loss and the latter as a win.

          1. Far be it from me to defend federal prosecutors as a group, since I’ve spent a career doing battle against them in court.

            But not all cases can or should go to trial. To do so would strain the system way, way past the breaking point. And often there are no issues to take to trial, since there are no reasonable doubts as to what occurred. In such cases there must be some incentive in terms of a reduced sentence to induce the defendant to plea.

            If you’re saying that the plea-bargaining process stacks the power too much in favor of the prosecution — well, I agree. And I’d be interested in hearing any constructive suggestions you might have for making the process more balanced.

            1. But not all cases can or should go to trial. To do so would strain the system way, way past the breaking point.

              I agree. But in my county the number of criminal (i.e. not counting traffic etc) cases that go to trial is somewhere between 2%-5%. The rest get pled.

              I think this is pretty good empirical evidence of exactly what you say – the process stacks the power too much in favor of the prosecution.

              As to how to fix, since my experience is vastly inferior to yours I expect my suggestions will all sound impractical and naive. But I already made one: require all pleas to result in a nolo finding as a matter of law. Don’t even give the option for a guilty plea. This gets away from the unrealistic notion that only guilty defendants plead guilty, and recognizes that the plea process is viewed as a pragmatic compromise by both sides. Second, I really don’t know how to fix the ‘charge proliferation’ issue, but IMO it does need to be addressed. When some burglar robs my house, it makes perfect sense to me to charge him for burglary. It makes no sense to me to charge him for burglary AND trespassing arguing the latter is a separate crime. It wasn’t separate – he entered my property as part of the burglary. You can’t burglarize someone without going on their property, so it makes no sense to call them separate acts. If crime A logically and necessarily entails crime B, maybe we only legally allow one charge (the worst). Now if he attacks me, that would legitimately be a different charge since stealing from me doesn’t logically require hitting me. But I hope you get my point.

              1. Thanks for your response, Eric.

                As a technical matter, I’d point out that, under US law, trespass is a lesser-included-offense of burglary; a defendant cannot be convicted or punished for both based on a single incident under the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy clause.

                Cases charging burglary are frequently pled down to trespass where the prosecution’s evidence regarding the additional element required to prove a burglary — that the defendant intended to commit a felony on the premises trespassed upon — is not particularly strong.

                For similar reasons, when a burglary case goes to trial, the jury is instructed that it may return a verdict of guilty on the lesser-included offense of trespass if it fails to find the additional element required of a burglary by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

              2. The burglary-trespass thing was intended as an example. I guess it was a poor one. The point I was hoping to make is that the ability of prosecutors to threaten to add many additional charges after the arrest – when those charges all seem to just be variants or subcomponents of the same single criminal act – if the accused doesn’t plea, IMO skews the judicial process. Instead of it being about guilt vs. innocence for a crime, it’s now how much risk the State can add to your defense calculation in order to get you to break.

              3. I agree. And so does the United States Sentencing Commission. That’s why it opted for a “conduct-based” system under the federal sentencing guidelines, in which all related offenses are consolidated for punishment purposes, rather than a “charge-based” system in which punishment depends on the number of offenses set out in the indictment.

                That’s not to say it does away entirely with the prosecution’s ability to wield the charging power as a negotiating weapon, since it usually has some discretion over the most serious offense to charge. But it does tend to mitigate its use for that purpose, since it makes meaningless (for punishment purposes) a prosecutor’s loading an indictment with related charges.

                There are, nevertheless, state systems where that still occurs.

  2. They were so evidently guilty from the start that they should have paid a heavier price for wasting prosecutorial resources.

    1. That factor is already taken into account by the federal sentencing guidelines. In imposing sentences, federal trial court judges begin by calculating an offender’s sentencing range according to this grid.

      Defendants who plead guilty rather than going to trial get two levels off on the grid’s vertical “Offense Level” axis. If a defendant agrees to plead guilty early enough in the proceedings to save the government the necessity of preparing for trial, the defendant gets an additional (third) level off.

      I suspect that this is what accounts for the difference in the sentences imposed on Laughlin and Giannulli, on the one hand, and Felicity Huffman (who agreed to plead guilty much earlier), on the other.

  3. I read this whole mess as rich parents with spoiled, and not-too-bright kids who couldn’t possibly have gotten into college any other way.

    Assuming the kids ARE bright, don’t they feel embarrassed that their parents think they are stupid, and showed the world?

    1. That was my thought too. I sure wouldn’t want the world to think my parents thought me too stupid to get myself into college if I wanted.

      1. Whether bright or not the two girls evidently were not going to get into USC based on their HS grades and test scores. And Jade, at least, seemed to be uninterested in college, USC or elsewhere.

        Still I can’t summon much outrage, since the parents probably could have obtained admission with the right donations.

        Their offense seems to be trying to get special treatment on the cheap.

    2. One of the reasons I think this story has struck a nerve with many Americans is that these rich kids had every opportunity and never lacked for educational resources — and their parents still cheated!

      It is not a question of whether or not the kids were smart enough. It is a question about having everything handed to you and you still rather game the system than put in the hard work necessary for success.

      I taught for many years at a Community College in the gritty Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. I loved it — those students, mostly poor and immigrant, actually appreciated the opportunity they had. They worked at improving themselves educationally. It was a joy to teach them.

    3. According to reports, at least one of the kids (Olivia Jade) never wanted to go to college, let alone a prestigeous one with high requirements.
      As a teacher at a medical school, I see all the time students who don’t really want to become doctors/dentists but have been pushed into that career by their parents. To me, forcing an unwanted career onto a child is severe abuse.

  4. I will suggest it was a fair sentence, and with the public attention and scorn + now the likelihood that admissions officers will look for this sort of thing, we have an effective deterrent to the majority of the well- heeled.
    Of course one can rightly say that poorer people, especially minorities, get harsher sentences for lower value non-violent crimes. To that i would agree and say their sentencing should be less for them as well, coupled to effective job training and counseling.

    1. I’m okay with the light jail sentence. Heck I’d be fine with Massimo getting a lighter sentence, as neither of these folks are a danger to society (but maybe not Huffman’s 11 day sentence).

      I think the fine should’ve been higher, given that it was less than what they spent to get their kid into college in the first place! For deterrent value, it should be 2x or 3x what they spent.

        1. “I do wish they had a lot of community service put on them too. Picking up trash on the highways would be nice.”

          Right, especially to the extent that, as white-collar types, they have not previously, sufficiently, had the “privilege” of earning their daily bread by the manual labor sweat of their brow.

  5. I voted “about right” although I’d rather see a much heftier fine rather than incarceration. They pose no threat to society so taking their money is better than the cost to taxpayers of incarceration.

  6. Will they see even a day in an actual jail with the pandemic strictures? Or just a house arrest sort of thing?

  7. As an aside to this story, I would just like to ask all of you to consider whether you would plead guilty in exchange for a 2 month sentence when the alternative was facing a good chance of getting as much as twenty years in prison. I submit that most of you would, even if you knew you were not guilty…unless you have an entirely unwarranted faith in the criminal justice system.

    I’m not suggesting that these people didn’t do anything wrong, or that they don’t merit punishment, but the plea bargain system is extortionate, and it disproportionately affects those in lower socioeconomic classes by a large margin, (though not exclusively).

    1. I agree; the U.S. plea bargain system has some “perverse incentives” built into it. Prosecutors are incentivized to multiply charges and get a plea (it counts as a win for them); innocent defendants are incentivized to lie. The state is incentivized to accept a plea at face value with little thought to it’s actual justice, since that saves the state lots of time and money.

    2. Even if these defendants had been convicted after trial, I doubt they would have faced much more than a year, maybe two, of incarceration under the federal sentencing guidelines.

      I strongly suspect that the main factor informing their decision to plead guilty was their abject inability to mount anything approaching a plausible theory of defense had the case gone to trial, given the overwhelming weight of evidence against them.

      1. You are undoubtedly right. But no matter how you slice it, irrespective of what sentence they might have gotten, they were given an offer they could not refuse without risking many years in prison. There is a legal term for the act of using the threat of great harm to force someone to do something against their will. It is an act which is only legal when the government does it, I guess.

        1. Yep. Coercion is the major tool of government, and it alone can do it legally. How else to raise taxes and enforce regulations? Another tool is bribery, aka subsidies.

          1. “Yep. Coercion is the major tool of government, and it alone can do it legally.’

            Of course one should always be wary of government.

            That said, would you say that corporations’ insistence on including in various contracts arbitration (arbitrators selected by the corporation), and not the courts, as the only means by which legal disputes may be settled, can be reasonably construed as coercion?

            Same with corporations requiring exit interviews as a condition for employees to receive severance pay, at which interviews corporations require those employees to sign a contract – also as a condition for receiving severance pay – whereby employees agree not to speak ill of the corporation. (I wonder if such contracts no less constrain the corporation from speaking ill of the employees.)

            “Government is the shadow cast by Business.”

            – John Dewey

            1. Strictly speaking no, because one is free to reject a contract or employment making such demands. As a practical matter, though, people with few alternatives may not have that luxury.

              1. “Strictly speaking no, because one is free to reject a contract or employment making such demands. As a practical matter, though, people with few alternatives may not have that luxury.”

                I contemplate why legislative bodies create law which allows corporations to operate in this way. “Rule of Law” indeed.

  8. What I don’t understand is why they had to take these measures to get their daughters into USC. The University of Spoiled Children exists for kids like theirs.

    1. “What I don’t understand is why they had to take these measures to get their daughters into USC. The University of Spoiled Children exists for kids like theirs.”


      Speaking of spoiled children, I wonder if that noble soul Donald Trump has, or will have, held forth on record about this matter.

    2. I know USC to be in better standing than when I went to school, but surely it wasn’t hard to get into before, and with money?? I am confused why they went through all the extra effort.

    3. I suspect, however, that there are too many children who are spoiled in the sense of being given too many things and too much money, but otherwise are more intelligent and/or diligent in their studies and would outcompete Olivia Jade.

  9. I once had a freshman advise whose SAT scores were very low even though he had gone to the prep school that was the setting for “Dead Poets Society.” While he was my advisee I received two calls from Development, the fund raising people, asking how he was doing. I then understood how this not very well qualified student had been admitted. This was about 20 years ago: I recently saw his house in Architectural Digest so he must be doing well.

  10. I’m not sure that this is a good enough deterrent for this behavior. I’d go for a longer jail sentence and/or a much heftier fine.

    I don’t expect the elite and the wealthy to have much of a moral code or anything that resembles scruples, but they will modify their behavior if the penalty is severe enough.

  11. I don’t know what the proper length of time was but the fact that the prosecutor threatened 240 months but accepted 2 months shows the absurdity of the plea bargaining system. It’s clearly extortion but because it’s done by a prosecutor, it’s legal.

    You should not risk 120 times more severe sentence in order to a fair trial.

    1. Twenty years is the maximum sentence authorized under the charged statute. There is no scenario in which these defendants would have faced such a sentence after trial — and, thus, no way the prosecutor could have plausibly threatened such a sentence to coerce them into a plea.

      These defendants undoubtedly saved themselves a chunk of time by pleading guilty rather than going to trial, but that time can be measured in months rather than decades.

      1. The prosecutor chose the crime to threaten them with. Since you are not in the prosecutors office, you do not know have a clue what sentence the prosecutor would have asked for. The maximum sentence is a possibility that every defendant must consider.

        You are talking out of your hat when you claim knowledge and expertise that you do not have.

        1. I think, after 30 years of federal criminal practice, I have some hat to speak out of.

          I can tell you that the federal sentencing guidelines provide the primary basis federal court judges consider in imposing sentence. And those guidelines would not have provided for more than a year or two of incarceration (if that) in a case such as this.

          Accordingly, a federal prosecutor would have had no good-faith basis at all for seeking the maximum sentence (after trial or under any other circumstances), and I am confident that there is not a single federal district court judge in the land that would have imposed the statutory maximum sentence in a case of this nature.

          Certainly the defendants had experienced counsel who was well aware of this, and would have so advised the clients before they entered their guilty pleas.

          1. My apologies. I did not realize that you had federal criminal experience.

            I know that if you are facing a sentence of 20 years, it is not very reassuring to be told that the prosecutor won’t ask for a maximum sentence especially in such a public case. Some prosecutors like to make their name in such cases and do things that are out of the ordinary.

            1. No prob. I agree that the maximum statutory penalties for federal criminal offenses are generally too severe. But you have to realize that those statutes are written to cover everything from a guy who gets in a financial pinch and hunches a bit on the funds from a federal program to a Bernie Madoff.

              1. I am a cynic and I believe the maximum sentences are there to (legally) extort guilty pleas from people like Loughlin to prevent them from receiving a fair trial which might expose wrong doings on the part of the “justice” system.

  12. I wonder what kind of legal fees they racked up? They also paid a price in terms of their reputation. Everyone will know that they were guilty. Although I voted for more time, I’m ok with the outcome.

  13. What is more corrupt, the people or the system of justice? The fact that the penalty for such a crime is from nothing to several years just makes the system corrupt before you even start. And wherever you find money, you will find corruption. Just spend five minutes with Donald Trump or 10 minutes in congress if you think otherwise. Nothing is changed and nothing is fixed. Rich people will continue to fill the schools with their kids and you can take that to the bank.

  14. The sentences seem about right to me for first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent offenses that were not part of a pattern of overall criminality. I suspect the sentences conform to the range set by the federal sentencing guidelines. Certainly the sentences imposed on the parents in this case shouldn’t exceed whatever punishment was imposed on the scam’s ringleader, Rick Singer, after he snitched off all his co-conspirators.

    As for “deterrence,” hardcore offenders given to serious criminal conduct may need to face much longer sentences in order to deter them from engaging in such conduct. But what has the greatest deterrent effect — especially upon “square-johns” like the parents in this case, who may be contemplating cutting legal corners but do not make their living from criminal activity — is knowing that there are effective law-enforcement investigation mechanisms likely to lead to their being caught, as well as the prospect of facing some punishment if they are.

    For such people, it is generally sufficient to deter criminal conduct to know that, as the saying goes, even if they beat the rap, they won’t beat the ride.

    1. Notice the reference article is actually a commercial from a legal firm. That is then, also part of the answer to the question, how much time am I going to get. If you have the money for a good lawyer, such as this one, the time you do will probably be much less than the person who has no money for the lawyer.

    2. New York state has been a hotbed of unjust sentencing disparity in drug cases since enactment of the so-called “Rockefeller Laws” in the 1970s. The federal government unfortunately followed a similarly misguided path by enacting a series of minimum-mandatory sentencing laws applicable to drug offenses during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s.

      The appropriate remedy for this disparity would be to eliminate mandatory sentences and to lower the penalties applicable to drug offenses — or, better yet, to decriminalize drug possession completely — rather than to increase the penalties for non-drug crimes.

  15. It seems odd to me that the combined fine is less than the amount they were willing to pay out to fraudulently buy their kids places at college, which on the basis of zero legal knowledge strikes me as the obvious comparator. The jail sentences seem light, too – I guess that’s “white collar crime” for you.

    1. ‘I guess that’s “white collar crime” for you.’

      Right. Whatever sweating these two have endured is not due to their manual labor.

      1. I wonder if the not so wealthy would have got off so lightly. Not saying lightly in terms of embarassing media coverage, but wonder if they would be given such tiny sentences.

  16. It is very likely neither one of these fine people will do a day in prison. Due to the virus they will skate on by. Just more exceptionalism in America.

  17. They will most likely be exposed to the coronavirus while they’re in detention. That’s a scary prospect, which would serve as a deterrent for me. (But I wouldn’t have put myself in this position in the first place.)

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