Felicity Huffman’s sentencing gives prosecutors a crucial win as they seek prison sentences for other parents charged in the historic case.
What are Lori Loughlin, her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, and their defense team thinking today?
Now that former “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman has been sentenced to two weeks in a federal prison for her involvement in the college admissions cheating scandal, how does that affect Loughlin and Giannulli’s decisions to plead not guilty to similar charges in connection with the scandal?
“Felicity Huffman’s sentence means Lori Loughlin is facing much more time if she gets convicted,” says Vinnie Politan, lead anchor on recently relaunched Court TV. “The two questions in her case are whether a jury will believe USC is really a ‘victim’ in the case, and whether they will believe the government’s star witness, who was the ringleader of the whole scam (and has also pleaded guilty).”
On Twitter, some inquiring minds wondered how Loughlin was taking the news of Huffman’s sentence.
“Felicity Huffman got 14 days in jail. What is Lori Loughlin doing right now?,” wrote Michelle Collins.
But will Huffman’s fate necessarily affect Loughlin’s strategy?
“It could,” says San Diego criminal defense lawyer David P. Shapiro. “What the Huffman sentence does is confirm Lori Loughlin’s fears about being sentenced to custody if convicted of anything.”
As a result, she and her defense team could “dig in in further with their current position of fighting the case all the way to trial,” Shapiro said. “Or it could make her want to cut her losses and negotiate the best possible deal.”
Huffman’s sentence, handed down at a hearing in Boston last week, is way less than what federal prosecutors were threatening in March when she, former “Full House” star Loughlin and fashion designer Giannulli were among dozens of parents, college officials and college admission “consultants” arrested in a sweeping indictment that suggested more than a few rich and powerful families were getting their children into elite colleges and universities through bribery, cheating and lying.
Originally, all of those charged with mail fraud and honest services mail fraud were threatened by prosecutors with years in prison if they were convicted. Huffman pleaded guilty in a deal that called for prosecutors to recommend a sentence of four months in prison.
By the time she was sentenced, as the first parent in the scandal to learn her fate, prosecutors had dropped their recommendation to 30 days. Huffman and her attorneys wanted zero prison time.
In the end, the judge sentenced her to 14 days, a $30,000 fine, supervised release for one year and 250 hours of community service for paying $15,000 to have someone correct answers on the SAT exam of one of her daughters.
She is to report to prison by Oct. 25.
“The judge essentially split the baby in two,” says Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Silva Megerditchian of SLM Law. “With public anger over the allegations, the considerable amount of media attention and the fact that Ms. Huffman is the first high-profile parent to be sentenced, the judge attempted to satisfy all sides.
“Considering all the uncertainty for Ms. Huffman when charges were first brought, she should be able to sleep well tonight.”
Loughlin and Giannulli went in a different direction, as they say in Hollywood: They pleaded not guilty to charges they paid $500,000 in bribes to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California by falsely claiming they were athletes.
A status hearing in their case is scheduled for Oct. 2 in Boston; they are not expected to attend.
The couple could change their plea now if they wish, but there are no guarantees they’d get the same deal as others who pleaded guilty. For one thing, they also were charged with money laundering after they turned down prosecutors’ early offer of a plea deal. For another, the potential sentence if they are convicted is more severe because they allegedly paid more in bribes than Huffman.
Loughlin’s team could try to negotiate with prosecutors, “but I do not see a reason for the prosecutors to come off their previous position” of insisting on prison sentences for those convicted at trial, Shapiro says.
The couple are accused of being “involved with nearly 35 times the amount of alleged bribe money changing hands than Felicity Huffman,” Shapiro says.
Megerditchian says Loughlin may not want to change her plea because she’s actually innocent and could have “a real defense to the charges.”
“Second, her defense team may already be negotiating a plea deal and maybe the prosecutors want to give Lori a lot more than just two weeks,” she said. “And it is in Lori’s best interest not to take a deal and risk fighting the charges with trial or continued talks.”
Moreover, changing her plea might not look good if she hopes to repair her career, which has been in tatters since her arrest.
“From an optics perspective, switching her plea would make Lori look opportunistic,” says public relations expert Eden Gillott, president of Los Angeles- and New York-based Gillott Communications and author of “A Lawyer’s Guide to Crisis PR.”
“Her career is already badly marred since this has dragged out for so long,” Gillott says. If she does switch pleas, Gillott says, Loughlin might recover her reputation and career “barring no other PR boo-boos.”
Los Angeles employment attorney Angela Reddock-Wright, who has worked with entertainment clients over the years, says it helps career-repair efforts that both Huffman and Loughlin have sympathetic fans and supporters.
“Once this passes over, they still will be able to continue their careers in Hollywood,” Reddock-Wright says. “Hollywood loves a redemption story. Studios and producers may think twice about hiring them and building shows and films around them, but if they believe they still have an active fan base (that) supports them, I believe they will survive this substantial blemish on their lives.“
But all that might be harder and take longer if Loughlin and her husband go to trial and are convicted.
“I don’t see them getting 20 years, but I do see them receiving far more than 14 days if they are convicted,” Shapiro says.
Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who handles national security cases, was blunt on Twitter about Loughlin’s chances after the Huffman sentencing.
“#LoriLoughlin is definitely stressing out now,” he tweeted. “While 14 days in jail might not seem to be much, that sentence was for highly cooperating defendant who only paid $15,000 in “bribe”. #Loughlin is totally uncooperative, showing no regret & paid in excess of $500,000 in ‘bribes.’ “
Lara Yeretsian, a Los Angeles-area criminal defense attorney, says people should not jump to conclusions that what Loughlin is accused of doing is necessarily worse than what Huffman admitted to doing, at least as Loughlin perceived it.
“What Huffman did was blatantly illegal,” Yeretsian says. “Huffman paid someone to correct the test for her daughter, something that was obviously illegal and she knew it. Loughlin thought she was giving money to the school and (to what she thought was a) non-profit. It wasn’t at all obvious to her that what she was doing was illegal.”
For now, Loughlin and Giannulli are innocent until proven guilty, exercising their constitutional right to a trial, Shapiro says.
“They are doing so because they believe they are factually innocent of the charges or they don’t think the charges can be proven against them,” Shapiro says. “Their lawyers may not believe the sentence after trial if convicted will be much worse than the (prosecution’s) previous offer.”
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