Admissions scandal: Lori Loughlin sentenced to 2 months in prison; Giannulli gets 5 months
For fixing their daughters’ admission to USC with bribes and bogus athletic credentials, Lori Loughlin and J. Mossimo Giannulli, the best-known defendants in a college admissions scandal studded with marquee names, were sentenced Friday to two months and five months, respectively, in federal prison.
U.S. District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton ordered both Loughlin and Giannulli to report to prison by Nov. 19.
Before handing down her sentence, Gorton told Loughlin she had “a fairy tale life”: a career as “an admired, successful, professional actor,” two healthy children, a longstanding marriage and “more money than you could possibly need.”
“And yet you stand before me a convicted felon,” he said. “And for what? For the inexplicable desire to have even more?”
Where she once thought she was helping her daughters “out of love,” Loughlin told the judge she had since come to understand she broke the law and was complicit in widening inequalities, both in the country’s educational system and society as a whole.
“That realization weighs heavily on me,” she said, wiping tears from her face.
Gorton said he found Loughlin’s mea culpa genuine, and after ordering her incarcerated for two months, he wished her good luck. “We can only hope you will spend the rest of your charmed life, as you’ve said you will, making amends to the system you have harmed,” he said.
Gorton had sentenced Loughlin’s husband to prison earlier that day in a separate hearing; with the courts paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, both Loughlin and Giannulli appeared before the judge by videoconference. Giannulli’s lawyer, Sean Berkowitz, described his client as “a good man who made terrible mistakes” and urged Gorton to consider the context of his crimes.
“Moss’ top priority was, is and always will be his children,” he said.
In a brief statement to the judge, Giannulli said he took responsibility for his conduct and regretted the harm it had caused to his daughters, his wife and the public.
Noting he is more often tasked with imposing punishment on drug dealers and gun runners from troubled backgrounds, Gorton told Giannulli he found it hard to believe that a successful, savvy businessman whose upbringing was, in his own words, “fantastic” stood before him to be sentenced for a federal crime.
“You were not stealing bread to feed your family,” the judge said. “You had no excuse for your crime, and that makes it all the more blameworthy.”
The couple’s lawyers asked Gorton to recommend to the federal Bureau of Prisons that Loughlin serve her sentence at a prison camp in Victorville and Giannulli at a prison camp in Lompoc. Loughlin must also pay a $150,000 fine and perform 100 hours of community service after she is released from custody. Giannulli was ordered to pay $250,000 and complete 250 hours of community service.
The spectacle of the celebrity couple — one famous for her roles on television sitcoms and Hallmark dramas, the other a well-known fashion designer — being sentenced to prison brought to a close a 17-month saga that both captivated and repulsed much of America.
Loughlin was never the most prolific conspirator of the three dozen parents charged with working with William “Rick” Singer, a Newport Beach consultant who orchestrated a sprawling college admissions fraud; other parents paid Singer more money and used his scams to the benefit of more children.
Yet from the day she surrendered to the FBI in March 2019, the actress commanded an outsize share of media scrutiny and public scorn. The tabloids, always citing unnamed insiders, offered weekly “insights” into Loughlin’s shifting views of her legal predicament — confident one week, panicked or disconsolate the next.
The Giannulli family “has been the face of this crisis, of this scandal, in a way disproportionate to their role,” Berkowitz told the court. Their daughters have been “bullied” unlike any of their co-defendants’ children, he said, and Loughlin’s lawyer, William Trach, said the harassment reached such a pitch that their parents hired guards to protect them.
Loughlin and Giannulli each pleaded guilty in May to a single count of fraud conspiracy, a reversal from 14 months of insisting they’d done nothing wrong. The couple had mounted an aggressive defense that included accusing federal prosecutors in Boston of “extraordinary” misconduct.
Although both Giannulli and Loughlin acknowledged conspiring with Singer, prosecutors said Giannulli was more involved in the scheme than his wife and deserved a longer prison sentence.
Berkowitz said that Giannulli, who did not graduate from college and needed help guiding his children through the application process, sought out Singer in May 2015 at the recommendation of Mark Hauser, who chaired the board of their daughters’ private high school on Los Angeles’ Westside.
Hauser, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, was charged Friday afternoon with one count of fraud conspiracy and accused of paying Singer $40,000 to fix his daughter’s ACT entrance exams. The Los Angeles private equity executive has agreed to plead guilty, according to federal authorities in Boston.
Singer, a college counselor who catered to a wealthy clientele, “was not presented as a felon or a huckster or a fraud,” Berkowitz said. For about a year, he tutored the Giannullis’ daughters and offered genuine support and advice, the lawyer said, adding that the girls earned high marks and were admitted to several colleges through legitimate channels.
In the government’s account — set out in four indictments and an FBI agent’s affidavit — Giannulli and Loughlin’s dealings with Singer turned criminal in April 2016. Giannulli emailed Singer to say he had “concerns” after sitting down that morning with his older daughter’s high school counselor. The designer wanted to come up with “a road map” to ensure she ended up somewhere other than Arizona State University.
Singer’s “road map” was this: misrepresenting their daughter as a promising coxswain — the member of a rowing team that guides the boat — and bribing an administrator at USC to vouch for the girl’s fabricated credentials. “Would probably help to get a picture with her on an [ergometer] in workout clothes like a real athlete,” Singer wrote to Giannulli.
It was at this moment, Berkowitz told the court, that Giannulli “ignored alarm bells, he ignored red flags.”
“Fantastic,” the designer wrote back. “Will get all.” He sent Singer a picture of his daughter posing on a rowing machine, copying her on the email, Justin D. O’Connell, an assistant U.S. attorney, wrote in a sentencing memo.
Even as Giannulli, Loughlin and Singer were pursuing their fraudulent scheme, USC fundraising officials were courting the couple, emails filed in court show. An employee in the school’s development office wrote to Giannulli and offered to “flag” his daughter’s application and set up “a 1:1 opportunity for her, customized tour of campus for the family, and/or classroom visit.”
“Thanks so much, I think we are squared away,” Giannulli wrote back. He forwarded the email thread to his wife that night, adding, “The nicest I’ve been at blowing off somebody.”
A month later, Donna Heinel, then USC’s third-ranking administrator in its athletics department, presented the Giannullis’ daughter to an admissions committee as a recruit for the rowing team, prosecutors allege.
Over decades of working as a college counselor, Singer had found a soft spot in the admissions process at USC, which was becoming one of the most prestigious — and selective — universities in California. Heinel was trusted with bringing lists of recruits compiled by USC coaches to a special committee that decided whether to admit them.
In the prosecution’s telling, Singer bribed Heinel to add the names of his clients’ children to these lists, essentially holding them to a far lower standard of admission than if they had applied through normal channels. Heinel, who was fired from USC after her arrest last March, has pleaded not guilty to conspiring to commit racketeering, fraud and bribery.
USC said in a statement on Thursday that an internal review found that “a small number of employees” in the school’s athletics department — separate from those indicted in Singer’s scheme — had falsely presented certain applicants to the committee as recruits, based on their families’ past donations or the prospect they could contribute in the future.
“USC would not have admitted these applicants had it known they were being falsely presented as recruited student-athletes,” the statement said. USC did not identify the implicated employees but said they had all been disciplined or no longer worked for the school. The misrepresentations they made were separate altogether from the fraud Singer perpetrated, the university said.
Once the Giannullis’ daughter was admitted as a rowing recruit, Singer told her father to write two checks, one sent to Heinel and payable to “USC Athletics” for $50,000, the other a $200,000 “donation” to Singer’s nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation.
Giannulli sent the invoice from Singer’s foundation to his financial advisor, writing, “Good news my [older] daughter is in [U]SC . . . bad [news] is I had to work the system.”
Later that year, he sent Singer an email with the subject line “Trojan happiness.” “Both Lori and I are very appreciative of your efforts and end result!” he wrote.
Singer asked whether there was “a similar need” for their younger daughter. There was. They pulled off a near-identical scam: Giannulli sent Singer a picture of his daughter posing on an ergometer, Singer created a bogus athletic résumé, and Heinel presented the girl to the admissions committee as a recruited rower, prosecutors say.
She was admitted in 2017, and her father sent Heinel a $50,000 check payable to USC’s Galen Center and “donated” $200,000 to Singer’s foundation. “Can’t I write this off?” Giannulli asked his financial advisor.
A prominent Napa Valley vintner worked feverishly last fall to secure his daughter’s admission to USC as a water polo recruit.
Loughlin and Giannulli cautioned their younger daughter about tipping off a counselor at her high school. Listing USC as her top choice school “might be a flag for the weasel to meddle,” Loughlin remarked, according to a sentencing memo filed by prosecutors. Giannulli called him a “nosy bastard.”
The counselor did, in fact, grow suspicious. Advised that the Giannullis’ daughter had been presented as an athlete, he told USC he doubted she was a competitive rower, given her busy schedule as a video blogger.
Giannulli confronted the counselor at his daughter’s school, insisting she was a bona fide coxswain and demanding to know “why I was trying to ruin or get in the way of their opportunities,” the counselor wrote in a memo that prosecutors filed in court.
That day, Heinel left Singer a voicemail. “I don’t want the — the parents getting angry and creating any type of disturbance at the school,” she said, according to a transcript filed in court. Parents couldn’t wander onto high school campuses, “yelling at counselors,” she told Singer. “That’ll shut everything — that’ll shut everything down.”
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