Lori Loughlin, Other Parents Who Plead Not Guilty in College Scandal Taking Big Risk: Experts

The parents who pleaded not guilty in the college admissions scandal are taking a big risk, legal analysts said.

Thirty-three parents were indicted on March 12 in the nationwide scheme. “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman and 12 other parents agreed on April 8 to plead guilty to one count of mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.

But “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin, her husband Mossimo Giannulli, and some other parents charged in the scheme declined to take the plea deal, prompting prosecutors to hit them with an additional charge. On April 15, Loughlin and Giannulli pleaded not guilty.

There’s a big risk in pleading not guilty in the case since the defendants are now facing up to 40 years in prison, legal analysts said.

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Actress Lori Loughlin departs federal court in Boston after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal on April 3, 2019. (Charles Krupa/AP Photo)

“If they have real physical evidence against Lori Loughlin, she and her husband are going to be in for a quick guilty verdict and a big punishment,” CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman said.

While the parents could change their minds at a later date and shift to a guilty plea, they may have to settle for a harsher agreement than ones given to Huffman and the dozen others who took the deal already.

“If at some point, they should change their mind, the question is how much aggravation have they caused the government so far as well as looking at how they have finally come to grips with taking responsibility,” Klieman said.

“She is presumed innocent and has a right to make the government prove their case against her at trial. With that said, the facts that have come out thus far, if true, do not appear favorable to her and in federal court, sometimes a delay in taking responsibility can be viewed unfavorably by the presiding judge,” Julie Rendelman, a former prosecutor and currently a defense attorney working in New York City, told the Law & Crime website.

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Clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli (L), Lori Loughlin’s husband, departs federal court in Boston after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal on April 3, 2019. (Charles Krupa/AP Photo)

Joseph Simons, a Boston criminal defense attorney, told Hollywood Life that Loughlin likely won’t be able to avoid prison.

“Unlike state cases, in federal cases, the best deals are often the first ones offered. In this case, it appears that her decision to plead not guilty has already backfired. She is now facing additional charges that may significantly increase the likelihood—and length—of a prison term if she is convicted,” Simons said.

“It seems unlikely at this point that Ms. Loughlin can avoid federal prison. That said, perhaps her attorneys can be creative with suggestions for huge fines, community service, strict probation and/or home confinement.”

Another analyst, Robert Bianchi, a former prosecutor, was even lower on Loughlin’s fate.

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Actress Felicity Huffman arrives holding hands with her brother, Moore Huffman Jr. (L), at federal court in Boston on April 3, 2019. (Charles Krupa/Photo via AP)

“I think Ms. Loughlin and her husband are playing with fire. From what we know, the facts underlying these charges is rather strong, and include audiotaped conversations that are damming to the defendants,” Bianchi told Law & Crime.

He said the contrast between Huffman’s taking responsibility for what she did and Loughlin claiming innocence, in addition to Huffman paying only $15,000 for a falsified SAT exam for her daughter while Loughlin and Giannulli allegedly paid $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California, will likely lead to trouble for Loughlin.

“Unlike Ms. Huffman, Ms. Loughlin by not accepting responsibility early, is ratcheting up her prison exposure. Under recent DOJ guideline changes, a defendant is now required to plead guilty to the ‘highest, most readily provable offense,’” Bianchi said. “The more the government secures additional serious charges in the grand jury, the more serious her exposure is. So, if she wants to later work the case out by way of plea, this alone will make that plea far more harsh than if she had accepted responsibility earlier.”