The popping flash bulbs, scrum of reporters and gawking onlookers that greeted actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin Wednesday had the makings of a red carpet appearance.
But the path that police and Homeland Security agents cleared for the women led not to an awards show, but the federal courthouse in Boston, where they and other parents charged in the college admissions scandal appeared before a judge.
Three at a time, parents were brought before U.S. District Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley in assembly-line fashion. As in all criminal cases, Kelley questioned each of them on whether they understood the charge against them and the possible penalties it carries.
The 10 mothers and fathers who appeared in the packed courtroom are among a group of 33 parents charged last month in what prosecutors allege was a vast conspiracy to sneak the children of wealthy and powerful families into elite universities with bribes and rigged test scores.
Three parents who had been slated to be in court Wednesday were allowed to miss the hearing after their attorneys said they were close to striking plea deals with prosecutors or had already reached an agreement.
An attorney for Peter Jan Sartorio, one of those parents, wrote in a court filing that the Bay Area founder of a prepared food company intends to plead guilty in the case. While parents have been quietly negotiating with prosecutors for weeks, Sartorio is the first to announce a guilty plea.
Sartorio’s filing did not specify the terms of an agreement or whether it requires him to plead guilty to a charge different than the one prosecutors initially filed against him. The government is expected to file new papers in his case by the end of the month, his attorney wrote.
Loughlin and her husband, the fashion designer J. Mossimo Giannulli, appeared relaxed in court. At one point in the proceedings, Loughlin rose from her seat and walked over to prosecutors who are tasked with winning a felony conviction against her. Smiling, she greeted them and shook their hands.
Huffman, whose husband — actor William H. Macy — has not been charged in the case despite court records that show he was involved in the plan to cheat on their daughter’s college entrance exam, was more subdued. She showed little expression as she answered Kelley’s questions.
Although most of the defendants live in California, they were charged by the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office, which was tipped off to the college admissions scheme while investigating an unrelated securities fraud that had targeted Massachusetts investors.
Of the total 50 people charged or indicted last month, three have pleaded guilty: William “Rick” Singer, a Newport Beach college admissions consultant and the scheme’s admitted mastermind; Rudy Meredith, a longtime women’s soccer coach at Yale who admitted to pocketing $860,000 in bribes to recruit the children of Singer’s clients; and John Vandemoer, Stanford’s former sailing coach, who pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge.
Huffman is accused of paying $15,000 for Singer’s alleged accomplice — a 36-year-old Harvard graduate named Mark Riddell — to correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT. Loughlin and Giannulli are charged with paying Singer $400,000 to have their two daughters admitted to USC in a bogus recruiting scam.
The parents charged in the scheme are under pressure to strike plea deals with federal prosecutors. If parents refuse to plead guilty, prosecutors could opt to bring additional charges against them.
That is what happened to Amy and Gregory Colburn, a husband and wife charged in the case. When plea agreement talks between their attorneys and prosecutors fell apart, the pair were saddled with a money laundering charge in addition to the fraud conspiracy allegation.
Over the objections of the lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Atty. Eric Rosen, Kelley gave the parents permission to discuss their cases with their children — the ones who allegedly benefited from the bribes and faked tested scores their parents are accused of arranging.
Saying it was not realistic to bar family discussions, Kelley dismissed Rosen’s concern that such talk could lead to parents “shaping testimony” of their kids.
None of the children involved in the case have been charged, but could be called as witnesses if any of the parents opt to take their case to trial.
The children, Rosen said, “all had various levels of knowledge” of their parents’ involvement in Singer’s scheme.
Kelley advised the parents to consult with their attorneys to make sure they steered clear of violating witness tampering laws.
The magistrate also instructed the parents to get any guns they owned out of their houses until their cases were resolved. It was a mandate that impacted only venture capital executive Manuel Henriquez and his wife Elizabeth, who are accused of paying $425,000 to buy their daughter a seat at Georgetown University. The couple have 10 weapons in their home, a court official told Kelley Wednesday.
The hearing was watched by reporters and onlookers who packed the courtroom galleries and an overflow room.
Much of the attention was on Huffman and Loughlin and their star wattage.
“They look like ordinary people,” said Ruth Fisher, 74. “I expected them to look like movie stars, but they looked much smaller in person.”