The college admissions scandal, a.k.a. Operation Varsity Blues, has been full of confusing and aggravating twists and turns. In the latest development in the case, former Full House star Lori Loughlin and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, have pled not guilty to charges of mail fraud and money laundering conspiracy, and have waived their right to appear before a judge in Boston for arraignment, according to court documents filed Monday.
Loughlin and Giannulli are accused of paying William “Rick” Singer, owner of the college admissions counseling company the Key and the alleged mastermind of the admissions scandal, $500,000 to get their two daughters admitted to the University of Southern California (USC) as athletic recruits for the crew team, despite the fact that neither of them rowed crew. They are among 33 parents who are accused of paying Singer to bribe proctors to alter their SAT exam answers or pay off athletics coaches to get them admitted to school. In all, 50 people have been charged.
Many of the parents, including Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman, have agreed to plead guilty to the charges against them in exchange for prosecutors recommending reduced jail time. Yet Loughlin and Giannulli, who were reportedly offered plea deals that would require them to serve about two years in prison, were slow to or refused to take the offer, leading to prosecutors hitting them with a superseding indictment including additional (and much more serious) money laundering conspiracy charges, which come with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison — a far cry from the four to six months of jail time Huffman is expected to serve as a result of her guilty plea. (As Rolling Stone previously reported, Loughlin has been accused of paying Singer much more money than Huffman was, and the dollar amount of the payments likely played a role in the fact that the two were offered different plea deals.)
On the surface, it’s somewhat surprising that Loughlin would choose to take her chances with a highly public and embarrassing trial, especially given her heretofore untarnished image as a squeaky-clean Nineties icon. According to Adam Citron, however, a former prosecutor and senior counsel at the firm Davidoff Hutcher and Citron LLP who has no connection to Loughlin or anyone involved with Operation Varsity Blues, this is not the case. “Once you have an indictment and you have an arraignment, you always plead not guilty. That’s common course, and that’s normal procedure,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It doesn’t mean that she’s fighting it and going to trial, and it doesn’t mean that the plea discussions are going to stop.” (Loughlin’s legal representation at Latham and Watkins did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Citron also adds that it’s not surprising that Loughlin and Giannulli were hit with additional money laundering charges last week, nor does it reflect the prosecution’s desire to penalize them for not taking an initial plea agreement. “In no way was it punitive in nature with respect to the prosecution. It’s not because they didn’t plead guilty,” he says, adding that it is fairly common for prosecutors to tack on additional charges after the initial felony complaint before bringing the case to a grand jury. “I’m sure [Loughlin’s] attorneys were well aware of the fact that she may be facing initial charges,” he said.
By all accounts, up to this point Loughlin has been in denial about the prospect of serving hard prison time. “[She] doesn’t believe she should have to spend any time in prison,” one anonymous source told US Weekly. “She’ll go to trial before being separated from her family, and take those odds rather than just go to prison as part of a deal.” It’s possible that this is why Loughlin turned down prosecutors’ initial plea offer, but her relentlessly, almost defiantly cheery demeanor in most of her public appearances, posing for photographs with fans and signing autographs, probably didn’t serve to help her cause with respect to the prosecution. “Prosecutors and judges want to see remorse, they want to see you understand culpability,” Citron said. “She showed none of that.”
Following this initial not-guilty plea, Citron thinks it’s unlikely that she will continue fighting the charges. “A trial would likely be a foolish move because it shows you’re dragging this on, you’re prolonging it, you’re causing the government to expend a lot of resources to try the case, all of which would not bode well in a sentencing hearing, post-conviction if she went trial,” says Citron. He thinks it’s more likely that negotiations with prosecutors will continue and she’ll enter a guilty plea later on down the road, as she comes to accept the reality of her circumstances. “Initially she clearly felt somewhat untouchable and that this was a big joke,” he says. “I believe at this juncture, she’s understanding just how serious the situation is.”