190416 Lori Loughlin
Lori Loughlin Image Credit: AFP

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer J Mossimo Giannulli, pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges against them in a sweeping college admissions scandal that’s ensnared dozens of wealthy parents.

The couple did not appear in federal court in Boston on Monday, but instead waived their right to appear before a judge for an arraignment and entered their pleas through documents filed by their attorneys.

Last week, the couple and 14 other parents were indicted on charges of money laundering and fraud conspiracy. The day before the indictments were announced, 13 parents — including actress Felicity Huffman — and one coach agreed to plead guilty for their roles in the scheme.

The couple have not spoken publicly about the charges. As other parents have opted to cut deals in a bid for leniency, Loughlin and Giannulli appear to be gearing up for more of a legal fight.

The pair are accused of paying $500,000 (Dh1.8 million) to have their two daughters admitted to University of Southern California (USC) as crew recruits. Though neither is a rower, the parents saw being a coxswain as their daughters’ tickets into the private college, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. USC’s admissions rate is 13 per cent.

They began discussing the plot with William ‘Rick’ Singer in April 2016 after they met with the college counsellor of their older daughter, Isabella, according to the affidavit.

“I’d like to maybe sit with you after your session with the girls as I have some concerns and want to fully understand the game plan and make sure we have a roadmap for success as it relates to [our daughter] and getting her into a school other than ASU [Arizona State University]!” Giannulli allegedly wrote to Singer.

Singer told the couple that Isabella’s academic qualifications were “at or just below the low end of USC’s admission,” according to the affidavit.

Authorities allege the couple agreed to take advantage of what Singer called his “side door” into the university by bribing USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel to designate their daughter as an athletic recruit on the crew team. Heinel is also charged in the scheme and has pleaded not guilty.

The money that authorities say eventually made its way to college coaches involved in the scam was funnelled through Singer’s charity, whose stated mission was to help “underprivileged students.” This allowed some of the parents to write off the bribes as donations on their taxes, authorities said.

After their older daughter’s admission was secured, they repeated the scam in 2017 with their younger daughter, Olivia Jade, authorities allege. Singer allegedly told the couple he would present their daughter as a crew coxswain for the LA Marina Club team and requested they send an “action picture.” The couple sent him a photo of Olivia Jade rowing on a machine, according to the affidavit.

The 33 parents named in the case have been shuffled into two basic camps: those who jumped quickly at the chance to admit their guilt in the hope of a more lenient sentence, and those who have been unwilling or unable to do so. Nearly all the mothers and fathers yet to strike deals with prosecutors face considerably higher stakes than many of those who have admitted to breaking the law.

According to several sources familiar with negotiations, the first group of parents to plead guilty — including Huffman — did so after seeing no real chance of avoiding conviction given the prosecution’s audio and written evidence. Huffman chose to plead guilty in an effort to avoid prison time and limit exposure for her husband, William H Macy, whom investigators also recorded discussing the cheating scheme with Singer but was never charged, sources said.

Shapiro said Huffman’s decision to plead guilty also could stem from her desire to remove herself from the public eye and end the bad publicity surrounding the case.

Prosecutors said Huffman paid $15,000 for a 36-year-old Harvard graduate to correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT, giving the girl a 400-point boost over a previous score. Huffman later discussed pursuing a similar scheme for her younger daughter but decided not to follow through with it, according to court records.

In announcing she would plead guilty, Huffman expressed deep remorse.

“I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions. I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community,” she said in a statement.

Huffman will be sentenced in the coming weeks. Manny Medrano, a defence attorney and former federal prosecutor, said that based on 2019 federal sentencing guidelines, Huffman probably will face four to 10 months in prison as part of her plea.

Her sentencing recommendation is low because she has no criminal history and because the amount of money involved is relatively small, Medrano said.