Is it fundamentally wrong to threaten Americans with longer prison sentences if they choose to exercise their Constitutional right to a fair trial rather than plea bargain with prosecutors?
Many certainly think so.
The question is gaining attention once again with the high-profile admissions scandal known as “Operation Varsity Blues” involving some well-known personalities.
On Sunday, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, who is prosecuting actress Lori Loughlin in her case, appeared on Boston’s “On the Record” (OTR) and said: “If [Loughlin] is convicted, I don’t think I’d be giving away any state secrets by saying we would probably ask for a higher sentence for her than we did for Felicity Huffman. I can’t tell you what that would be. The longer the case goes, let’s say she goes through to trial. If it is after trial, we would be asking for something substantially higher. If she resolved her case short of trial, something a little lower than that. But it’s tough to tell at this point.”
Resolving her case before trial means taking a plea deal, which Loughlin and her husband have refused to do.
At least 51 people have been charged in the criminal conspiracy to defraud or influence college admissions decisions at several major U.S. universities. Of that number, thirty-three parents of college applicants are alleged to have paid more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to William Rick Singer, organizer of the scheme. Singer, in turn, used part of the money to fraudulently inflate entrance exam test scores and bribe college officials.
The OTR hosts asked Lelling if prosecutors were attempting to “send a message” to defendants when they recommended a light sentence for actress Felicity Huffman, who will serve only 14 days in jail, as well as pay a $30,000 fine and perform 250 hours of community service. The prosecution asked for a lenient one-month jail term, while the judge pared that down even further.
Huffman pleaded guilty in May and accepted responsibility for her actions. Meanwhile, Loughlin is fighting the charges against her and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, which Lelling noted may not work out to her advantage.
“It just happened to be that Ms. Huffman was probably the least culpable of the defendants who we’ve charged in that case,” said Lelling. “One of the things we look to was how much money was involved. She spent about $15,000 to have her daughter get a fake SAT score.
“There’s a few things working in her favor,” he continued. “She took responsibility almost immediately. She was contrite, did not try to minimize her conduct. I think she handled it in a classy way. And so, at the end of the day, we thought the one-month was proportional.”
“I think the two weeks she got was reasonable,” he continued. “We were happy with that. I think it was a thoughtful sentence.”
“If people take responsibility for their conduct and take responsibility for their conduct early on, it will probably go better for them,” Lelling said. “What I value in the Felicity Huffman sentence is that I think it sent a clear message to the parents involved that there is a good chance that if you’re convicted of the offense, you will go to prison for some period of time. The least culpable defendant, even she got prison.”
Legal observers took note of that fact–that even the least culpable defendant got time behind bars.
In September, national security lawyer Bradley Moss told Law & Crime that “Felicity Huffman arguably did everything possible from the outset to accept responsibility for her actions, agreeing to a plea deal, expressing remorse and admitting she had made mistakes,” he said. “Lori Loughlin, on the other hand, stood defiant and was rewarded with a superseding indictment with additional charges. If even Huffman is still going to face some jail time, Loughlin has to be increasingly worried she could face years in jail if she is convicted at trial.”
Law & Crime reported:
Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli allegedly created fake rowing profiles to get Isabella Giannulli and Olivia Jade Giannulli into USC, “agree[ing] to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the [University of Southern California (USC)] crew team–despite the fact that they did not participate in crew.”
For that, they were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. They were also hit with money laundering charges in a superseding indictment. On paper, those charges are punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
As Loughlin and Giannulli continue to fight the charges against them, Lelling made the case for how prosecutors are looking at it. A more severe penalty will be sought following a guilty verdict, based on how the defendants proceed going forward. If there’s a plea deal before trial, that would help to reduce their sentences.
Video by WCVB
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