Apologising publicly for the first time for crimes their lawyers insisted for months they didn’t commit, Full House star Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, were sentenced to prison Friday (Aug 21) for using their wealth and privilege to cheat their daughters' way into the college of their choice.
The two-month prison sentence for Loughlin and five-month term for Giannulli bring to a close the legal saga for the highest-profile parents ensnared in the college admissions bribery scheme – a scandal that rocked the US educational system and laid bare the lengths some wealthy parents will go to get their kids into elite universities.
Fighting back tears, Loughlin told the judge her actions “helped exacerbate existing inequalities in society" and pledged to do everything in her power to use her experience as a “catalyst to do good”. Her lawyer said she began volunteering with special needs students at an elementary school.
“I made an awful decision. I went along with a plan to give my daughters an unfair advantage in the college admissions process and in doing so, I ignored my intuition and allowed myself to be swayed from my moral compass,” Loughlin, 56, said during the hearing held via video conference because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hours before in a separate hearing, Giannulli, whose Mossimo clothing had long been a Target brand until recently, told the judge he “deeply” regrets the harm to his daughters, wife and others.
“I take full responsibility for my conduct. I am ready to accept the consequences and move forward, with the lessons I’ve learned from this experience,” Giannulli, 57, said in a stoic statement.
In her lawyer's own words, Loughlin became the “undisputed face of the national scandal" thanks to her fame. Her arrest shattered her clean image and destroyed her acting career.
“Lori lost the acting career she spent 40 years building,” attorney BJ Trach said. “She has become intertwined with the college admissions scandal.”
Attorneys for the couple described them as devoted parents motivated by a love for their children. Trach alluded to bullying endured by their daughters, including Olivia Jade Giannulli – a social media star who has a popular YouTube channel – since the charges were made public. The bullying forced the family to hire security for their daughters, Trach said.
US District Judge Nathaniel Gorton expressed outrage at the couple’s greed, calling Loughlin's life “charmed” and a “fairytale”, with success and plentiful wealth.
“Yet, you stand before me a convicted felon and for what? For the inexplicable desire to grasp even more,” Gorton said.
Both Loughlin and Giannulli were ordered to surrender Nov 19.
Under the plea deals with prosecutors – unusual because the proposed terms were binding once accepted, instead of granting the judge sentencing discretion – Giannulli will also pay a US$250,000 (S$342,900) fine and perform 250 hours of community service. Loughlin will pay a US$150,000 fine and perform 100 hours of community service.
Loughlin, who gained fame for her role as the wholesome Aunt Becky in the sitcom Full House that ran from the late 1980s to mid-1990s, and Giannulli were among 50 people charged last year in the case federal prosecutors dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, which uncovered hefty bribes to get undeserving kids into college with rigged test scores or fake athletic credentials. Nearly 30 parents have pleaded guilty while 10 are headed to trial.
Unlike other prominent parents charged in the case who quickly admitted to the charges – including Desperate Housewives actor Felicity Huffman – Loughlin and Giannulli fiercely fought the allegations for more than a year, with their lawyers accusing prosecutors of withholding evidence that would exonerate the couple.
The duo made no public comments about the allegations in the months after their arrest and guilty plea and – unlike other parents in the case – did not submit letters expressing regret or notes of support from family and friends to the judge in the days leading up to their sentencing, although Gorton said the defense provided two letters in support of Loughlin on Friday.
Prosecutors described Giannulli as “the more active participant in the scheme”, though they said Loughlin “was nonetheless fully complicit”.
Assistant US Attorney Kristen Kearney said Giannulli displayed “a complete disregard for right and wrong," which “deserves a meaningful sentence of imprisonment”.
The couple worked with the admissions consultant at the centre of the scheme – Rick Singer – to pay half a million dollars in bribes to get their daughters into USC as crew recruits. Singer, who has also pleaded guilty, was expected to testify against them had they gone to trial.
Investigators recorded phone calls and emails showing the couple worked with Singer to secure admission with fake athletic profiles depicting their children as star rowers.
Prosecutors said the couple allowed the girls “to become complicit in crime”, instructing them to pose on rowing machines for photos – Singer told them he needed a picture of their older daughter looking “like a real athlete” – and warning their younger daughter not to say too much to her high school counsellor. Giannulli angrily confronted the counsellor for questioning their crew credentials, according to court documents.
Loughlin's lawyer said she had little direct communication with Singer and never saw the fraudulent athletic profiles made for the teens.
"Of all the parents charged, not a single one had less active participation in the scheme than Lori," Trach said.
Giannulli's and Loughlin’s prison terms are in line with the sentences other parents have gotten so far. The harshest punishment has gone to Douglas Hodge, a former CEO of a top investment company, who got nine months for paying bribes totalling US$850,000 to get four of his children into the University of Southern California and Georgetown University as athletic recruits.
Huffman served nearly two weeks behind bars last year after admitting to paying US$15,000 to have someone correct her daughter’s entrance exam answers.
Also Friday, prosecutors announced charges against another parent, who authorities said has also agreed to plead guilty. Mark Hauser, a California insurance and private equity executive, agreed to pay US$40,000, to rig his daughter’s ACT exam, prosecutors said. An attorney for Hauser declined to comment.