Parents Punch Back: College Admission Scandal Defendants Mount Aggressive Defense, Preparing For "War"

On the same day that it was reported that Lori Loughlin's daughter may be the first student facing criminal charges in the college admissions scandal, it's also looking increasingly like many parents involved are preparing to fight the charges against them vigorously, according to Bloomberg. Some of the parents, including former TPG executive Bill McGlashan, ex-Pimco chief Douglas Hodge and TV sitcom veteran Lori Loughlin are assembling aggressive defenses, while others have already punched back. Many of the parents have the money to put up a serious legal fight on multiple fronts, which could make the case more than an open-and-shut formality for the government. 

Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit said: “When you take on well-heeled clients, you’re inevitably inviting a battle. This is not going to be easy for the government.”

As a start, many of the defendants' lawyers have already complained that prosecutors had engaged in judge-shopping for the case. They also added that their clients should not be tried with others whom they have never met. 

Ilene Jaroslaw, former NY federal prosecutor, called the defense lawyers’ letter “a declaration of war.”

This past Monday, lawyers for Gregory and Amy Colburn of Palo Alto sought a dismissal of the two charges against them of a mail and wire fraud conspiracy and a money-laundering conspiracy. Among the couple's arguments was the notion that the government’s case is deficient.

They invoked a Supreme Court case from 1946 to argue their point. Kotteakos v. U.S. was a case where a broker was accused of conspiring with 32 loan applicants to defraud the government. The court reversed the convictions, ruling that the defendants had only the broker in common, not one another, and that there were more than eight separate conspiracies, instead of just one. 

Henning continued: “This is where conspiracy law gets nebulous. It’s not clear any of the other parents knew anyone else was doing it.”

The couple argued that the government failed to allege enough facts to prove their case because test scores aren't "property" covered by the governing statute. They also argued that the test proctors didn't have a fiduciary duty to the exam companies. They added that if the court finds that there's no "actionable fraud" that counts of money laundering should be dismissed, as well. 

Patric Hooper, of Hooper Lundy & Bookman PC, said: "The Colburns did not participate in the sprawling conspiracy alleged by the government, or any other conspiracy. They are putting their trust in the judicial system to clear their names.”

But not all criminal defense lawyers are as optimistic. “I expect a lot more guilty pleas,” Diane Ferrone, a criminal defense lawyer in New York who isn’t involved in the case, told Bloomberg

Another parent fighting the charges is Robert Zangrillo, accused of paying $250,000 to get his daughter into USC as an athletic recruit. His lawyer, Martin Weinberg, says that the allegations don't amount to a money laundering conspiracy case. 

Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at George Washington University’s law school commented: "The parents’ payments are not unlawful proceeds of criminal activity. The money doesn’t become ‘proceeds’ of a criminal activity, which is required for money laundering, until it is in the hands of the bribe recipients."

If the parents fail to win a dismissal, they will push for individual trials so that they're not lumped together in a way that could give a jury an appearance of a conspiracy. Experts say that if there are multiple trials, witnesses like Singer could have troubling keeping their story straight under repeated questioning. Defense lawyers are expected to hone in on Singer's credibility, using him as a scapegoat. 

Brad Bailey, a former federal prosecutor in Boston, asked: “Can somebody in Texas who might be accused of having someone sit for a test for their daughter be properly joined at trial with an individual in California who’s accused of paying more than $500,000 in bribes?”

He continued: "Defense lawyers will come hard after Mr. Singer. He has a reason to take down as many people as he can by lying.” 

Ferrone concluded: “It’s a defendant-specific thing. You have people who said initially, ‘I didn’t do anything illegal,’ but as they start reading emails and see the evidence and context, they may contemplate a conviction and have what we defense lawyers call the ‘come to Jesus’ moment and decide, ‘I don’t really want to risk going to trial or begging for mercy from the court.’”