Lori Loughlin’s attorneys may declare that new evidence produced this week exonerates her in the college admissions scandal.
But a former federal prosecutor said that she and her husband Mossimmo Giannulli will still need to explain to a jury why they allegedly helped produce fake crew team photos for their daughters and stopped a high school counselor from raising concerns about misleading information in the daughters’ University of Southern Caifornia applications.
Los Angeles-based attorney Neama Rahmani agrees that attorneys for Loughlin, Giannulli and other wealthy parents charged in the bribery scandal raised an “important” point about whether prosecutors failed to produce this new evidence quickly enough.
But in the end, Rahmani said, the new evidence “doesn’t really exonerate” the former “Full House” actress, her fashion designer husband and other parents.
“I don’t think it moves the needle that much,” added Rahmani, who prosecuted drug and human-trafficking cases in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego.
The new evidence has to do with notes written by bribery scheme mastermind William Rick Singer, as he was cooperating with the FBI in their Operation Varsity Blues investigation in the fall of 2018. Defense attorneys argue that Singer led parents to believe that the money they paid to him were legitimate donations to university programs — not bribes. In his notes, Singer said agents asked him to “fib” and “bend the truth” when talking to his clients about their payments to him.
The dispute over Singer’s notes comes as a judge Thursday set an Oct. 5 trial date for Loughlin, Giannulli and six other parents charged in the scandal, including two from the Bay Area. Loughlin and Giannulli have pleaded not guilty to charges that they paid Singer a total of $500,000 to get daughters Olivia Jade and Isabella admitted to USC as crew team athletes, even though they never participated in the sport.
San Francisco parents Diane and Todd Blake will be tried with Loughlin and Giannulli in federal court in Boston. The investor and a merchandising executive allegedly paid Singer $250,000 in 2017 to have their daughter admitted to USC as a purported volleyball recruit.
Judge Nathanial Gorton also set a Jan. 11, 2021 court date for seven other parents, including Bill McGlashan of Mill Valley, Marci Palatella, of Hillsborough and Healdsburg, and Gregory and Amy Colburn, of Palo Alto.
The court dates come even as attorneys for several defendants filed motions blasting prosecutors for not turning over SInger’s notes much sooner.
“This belated discovery … is devastating to the government’s case and demonstrates that the government has been improperly withholding core exculpatory information, employing a ‘win at all costs’ effort rather than following their obligation to do justice,” wrote Sean Berkowitz, who represents Loughlin and Giannulli.
Singer cooperated with the Operation Varsity Blues probe by sharing his emails and allowing investigtors to record his phone calls with clients.
Prosecutors say Singer pitched his scheme to wealthy parents as a “side door” way of getting their children into top colleges. It was easier, he said, than the “front door,” which involves children getting good grades and high test scores. He explained that the “side door” approach also was cheaper than the “back door,” which has wealthy parents donating millions to universities to fund new buildings or programs.
Rahmani said he understands why defense attorneys are attacking prosecutors on discovery issues. They are employing a common strategy used to seek a public relations and legal advantage.
“Sometimes the best defense is a strong offense,” said Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers. “By being super-aggressive in filing motions, that’s one way that you can bring the government to its heels.”
But Rahmani questions whether SInger’s notes are as “patently material and exculpatory” as Berkowitz and other attorneys have claimed.
Motions filed by defense attorneys complain that FBI agents told Singer to lie to clients in order to induce them to make incriminating statements. But Rahmani said it’s legal for police or federal investigators to lie to suspects or to say misleading things if the purpose is to get them to say things that can be used at trial.
In two separate recorded phone calls with Loughlin and Giannulli in October and November 2018, Singer told them that his nonprofit Key World Widewide Foundation was being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. Prosecutors contend that Loughlin, Giannulli and other parents hid their bribes by donating to SInger’s foundation.
Singer told both Loughlin and Giannulli to say that the $400,000 they sent to the foundation was a donation to help underserved children. A jury could decide how to interpret such conversations, according to Rahmani. One interpretation is that Singer was re-stating what he previously told them about their money going to charity — and not to him personally. But another interpretation is that Singer was going over the cover story he and the couple had previously agreed upon.
At one point, in his November 2018 call with Loughlin, Singer said, “If they happened to call you … nothing has been said about the girls, (about) your donations helping the girls get into USC to do crew even though they didn’t do crew.”
Loughlin replied “Okay.” She also said, “So we just have to say we made a donation to your foundation and that’s it, end of story.”
Rahmani said another issue with defense attorneys relying on Singer’s notes or his testimony at trial is that he is limited in what he can say. Singer can’t testify about what he thinks Loughlin, Giannulli and other clients may have understood about whether their payments were bribes or meant for charity.
“He can’t testify as to their state of mind,” Rahmani said.
Rahmani said there is other strong circumstantial evidence that the couple knew they were participating in fraudulent activity. He said that the couple had both their daughters pose on rowing machines for photos, which were sent to Singer. Prosecutors say Singer and his alleged accomplices at USC used the photos to craft fake athletic profiles that helped convince USC admissions officials that both sisters were talented athletes.
In addition, Rahmani said that Loughlin and Giannulli acted at Singer’s behest to stop at counselor at Isabella and Olivia Jade’s high school from raising concerns about the sisters being accepted to USC as crew recruits.
Singer told Giannulli that the counselor “could mess things up,” and he asked the father to speak to him, according to court records. Giannulli subsequently did, and he received an assurance from the counselor that he would not tell USC that his daughters were “bad candidates” for the school.