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Path to Redemption? Perhaps not.

August 27, 2020

Uncategorized

Michael Geiger

Path to Redemption?  Perhaps Not.

After a year of denying and fighting the charges, actor Lori Loughlin and her husband, Massimo Giannulli, finally plead guilty to conspiracy charges in the college admissions scandal.  In accepting the plea deal offered by both the prosecution and defense, the judge noted: “There is no mystery about the outcome” of the case.  Indeed.

To anyone who followed the college admissions scandal from the very beginning, the evidence was stacked against the wealthy parents who so willingly paid Rick Singer and his organizations for assistance to get their children admitted to targeted, elite universities.  As soon as arrests were made and charges brought, prosecutors acknowledged that Singer had been cooperating with authorities for months.  Singer detailed the scam, turned over documents and even recorded conversations with complicit clients.

In accordance with the plea deal, the judge sentenced Loughlin to two months in prison, two years of supervised release, 100 hours of community service, and a fine of $150,000.  The judge sentenced Giannulli to five months in prison, two years of supervised release, 250 hours of community service, and a fine of $250,000.

Rick Singer’s scheme played on the fears, egos and greed of the famous and wealthy.  For a hefty fee, Singer promised assistance which he referred to as “coaching” to secure desired college admission for prospective students.  Singer had two paths: academic achievement and athletic achievement.  This scam succeeded with prospective students themselves demonstrating no academic or athletic prowess.  Like most everything else in their privileged lives, others did the work for these teens.

On the academic track, Singer would counsel parents in how to secure extra time for their children to take the SATs or ACTs by fabricating medical conditions.  Singer then arranged for his team members to serve as the moderators overseeing these smaller groups of test takers.  The moderator would then review and correct the exam answers on behalf of the subject student before submitting the test.  Alternatively, a professional test taker would simply take the SAT or ACT on behalf of the student to secure the desired score.

For athletics, Singer bribed a number of college coaches, sometimes with seven figure payments.  The coaches would then push through the applications of the necessary student-athlete for that particular sport.  However, these students had never participated in the underlying sports, including track and field, tennis, and rowing, among other sports.  Once admitted, the “student-athlete” never participated in any aspect of the sport.

For a more detailed account of Singer’s operations, the blind willingness of the wealthy to participate, and the unrestrained greed to have bribery payments flow through Singer’s “charity” so as to qualify as charitable tax deductions, see my prior blog article at: https://geigerattorney.com/no-limit-wealth-power-college-admissions-scandal/

Lori Loughlin and her husband opted for the athletic option to get their daughters into USC.  As the rowing coach was already on Singer’s payroll, Laughlin’s daughters needed to pose as rowing athletes.  In addition to doctored resumes, the daughters posed for photographs on rowing machines at a gym.  Singer took these photos and transferred the daughters’ images to competitive rowing events.  Admissions and even scholarships fell into place.  Singer’s fee to Loughlin:  $500,000.

Side Note 1:  Lori Laughlin’s daughters dropped out of USC even before the college admissions scandal broke.  One daughter famously bragged on social media prior to attending USC that she was looking forward to college for the tailgating party experience.  Maybe Singer could have offered different “coaching” in this instance.

You may recall that another high profile actor had also been charged in Operation Varsity Blues (FBI’s name for the scandal) — Felicity Huffman.  In contrast to Loughlin, Huffman immediately acknowledged her own wrongdoing, issued public apologies to her daughter, her family, educational institutions, and other parents and prospective college students she may have harmed by using her privilege to advance her daughter at their expense.  Huffman paid Singer $15,000 for a proctor to correct her daughter’s SAT responses before submission.  Huffman received a prison sentence of 14 days and was released after 10 days for good behavior.

Side Note 2:  Huffman’s daughter retook the SATs, absent assistance, and now attends Carnegie Mellon University drama school.

In the prior referenced blog article, I tried to address the question why Loughlin would choose to contest the charges in light of the mountain of evidence and witnesses lined up against her.  Even at the early stages, she had already lost her prestigious and lucrative contracts with the Hallmark channel.  Her reputation as the beloved Aunt Becky from Full House had already taken a major hit.  I predicted then that the legal woes would only get worse for Loughlin and she could permanently ruin her acting career.  Even at that time, Laughlin’s decisions and actions provided a lesson for my mediation practice: know when to settle and bring finality to your exposures.  If your case stinks, admit it and find a way to end it.  Continued pushing on a string will only get you more knotted up.

While final judgment remains to be cast in the court of public opinion for Loughlin, a comparison of Loughlin and Huffman remains a useful exercise.  Huffman promptly admitted her deception and wrongdoing.  She genuinely apologized.  Her apologies extended to to those denied admission to college because Huffman’s daughter wrongly remained in their stead.  In explaining her zeal to assist her child, Huffman did not use it as an excuse for her own conduct.

Where is Huffman now?  Huffman has three additional acting credits in movies and on television since the scandal broke in 2019.  Her daughter is on her own academic journey on her own merits.  As for the college admissions scandal?  It has become much more associated with Lori Loughlin than Felicity Huffman.

Lori Loughlin spent over a year denying any involvement in the scam.  In response to a motion filed by Laughlin’s defense team, the prosecutors filed the damming gym photographs illustrating Laughlin’s more direct involvement (and perhaps complicity of the daughters).  Each step by the legal defense team appeared another uncertain step in a minefield and met with further embarrassment for Loughlin and her husband, or worse, additional criminal charges.

In waving the white flag at her sentencing hearing, Loughlin apologized as follows:

“I want to express how sorry I am.  I made an awful decision.  I went along with a plan to give my daughters unfair advantage in the college admissions process.  Though acting out of love for my children, in reality I only diminished my daughters’ abilities and accomplishments and exacerbated inequities in education and in society in general.”

Laughlin’s statement is striking in the, at best, passing reference to harm caused to others beyond her children.  Loughlin noted merely that her actions “exacerbated inequities in education and in society in general.”  Huh?  Compare that statement to Huffman’s apology on the same point.  Huffman stated: “. . . especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”  Put bluntly, Loughlin remains self-unaware.

I offer another prediction:  absent dramatic change by Loughlin, her acting career is done and society will not forgive and forget.  Loughlin is at tremendous risk of being thrown on the pile with Bill Cosby, Pete Rose, Paula Deen and even OJ Simpson.

This cast of characters and Loughlin share commonalities.  They each have adamantly denied any wrongdoing.  When ultimately confronted with consequences for their own actions, each either refused to admit mistakes or offered qualified or tepid apologies.  

This group fails to grasp the capacity and even desire of American people to forgive and move on.  The key components, however, appear to be acknowledging one’s mistakes and shortcomings as well as promising to try to do better.  I fear that Loughlin does not understand.  She states that she “went along with a plan” by others resulting in advantages for her daughters.  Loughlin needs to admit to herself and others that she was an integral part of the plan and not suggest she was some by-stander merely caught up in an unfortunate situation.

In contrast, Huffman appears to have joined the ranks of Martha Stewart, Hugh Grant, Rob Lowe and Alex Karas.  Remember that Martha Stewart spent six months in jail for perjury?  She admitted to her transgressions, used her time in prison to teach other inmates how to read (and how to make doilies), and today remains in charge of the storied brand she created.  

Recall that actor Hugh Grant, less than a year removed from his breakthrough performance in Four Weddings and a Funeral, plead guilty to soliciting sex from a  prostitute.  Grant confronted the issues head on when interviewed by Jay Leno.  Leno asked Grant: “What the hell were you thinking?”  Grant responded: “I think you know in life what’s a good thing to do, and what’s a bad thing, and I did a bad thing.”  Contrite and humble, Grant’s acting career never faltered thereafter.

Self-deprecating humor can also work well to acknowledge fault.  Few recall that the star NFL linebacker, Alex Karas, was banned from the 1963 season after he admitted to betting on football games.  Upon his return, during a coin toss at the start of a game, Karas refused to call heads or tails.  When questioned by the referee, Karas responded: “I’m sorry, sir.  I am not permitted to gamble.”

Similarly, in the late 1980s, Rob Lowe’s star was already shining brightly in Hollywood having starred in a number of Bratpack films.  In 1988, a sex tape surfaced of Lowe having sex with a 16 year old girl at an event in Georgia.  While the age of consent in Georgia at that time was 14 (Yikes!), the damage to Lowe’s reputation was immediate.  Lowe acknowledged his mistakes and appeared on Saturday Night Live where he served as the punching bag of comedy skit after comedy skit.  Apparently with penance served, Rob Lowe has gone on to major acting successes over the next 30 years.  

While these famous people owned their mistakes and moved on, the infrequently employed Paula Deen insists she is not a racist; Pete Rose tries to sell unsanctioned baseball merchandise while refusing to admit he gambled on baseball games; and OJ Simpson apparently remains on his self-imposed mission to search for the killer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.  Lori Loughlin take note.

Lori Laughlin’s failed strategy to tackle her criminal charges provides yet another lesson for mediation participants.  Trials are morality plays.  The jury will assign parties as the “good guy” or the “bad guy” and then view evidence and testimony through that prism.  Loughlin never had a hope of being the “good guy”.  Loughlin would begin the trial portrayed as a wealthy, famous actor with so much money she could easily spend $500,000 on Rick Singer’s magical college admissions fixes.  Her pre-trial statements that she only did what any parent would do for their children would serve as canon fodder for the prosecution to add “only if you are insanely rich and entirely devoid of morals!”  It took more than a year, but someone on the defense team finally got this message through to Loughlin and her husband.

Loughlin, just as with any party in mediation, must grasp how juries operate and candidly determine whether they may be portrayed as the “bad guy”.  As difficult as her current circumstances appear to her, Loughlin made the correct call to resolve these charges and avoid a trial where she could only play the Wicked Witch and never Dorothy.  Those in mediation must think hard about their presentations and appearances before juries in the event mediation fails to succeed.  Someone will be the “bad guy” and the adversary believes it is only you.

Why Lori Loughlin did not follow Felicity Huffman’’s lead with quick resolution and sincere acknowledgement of wrongful conduct, we will never know.  We nonetheless do know that given her strategic choices and less than complete apology, Loughlin my be destined to join the rogue’s gallery of Pete Rose, Paula Deen, Bill Coby and OJ.  Pride goeth before a fall.  Good luck Aunt Becky.

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