Hollywood star Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband will plead guilty Friday to conspiracy charges for paying bribes totaling $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California as phony crew recruits, legal filings show, capping one of the most closely watched cases in the nationwide “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal.
According to plea deals filed in US District Court in Boston in the case against Loughlin, 55, whose role as Aunt Becky on the sitcom “Full House” endeared her to millions, and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, 56, prosecutors have agreed to recommend prison terms of two months for the actress and five months for her husband.
They’re slated to plead guilty via video-conference Friday at 11:30 a.m. The plea deals are subject to approval by US District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton.
The couple’s high-powered legal team declined to comment Thursday, but US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in a statement that the proposed prison terms are fair.
“Under the plea agreements filed today, these defendants will serve prison terms reflecting their respective roles in a conspiracy to corrupt the college admissions process and which are consistent with prior sentences in this case,” Lelling said. "We will continue to pursue accountability for undermining the integrity of college admissions.”
Court records show Loughlin will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud to obtain property - namely, admissions slots at USC for her daughters - a crime that carries a maximum prison term of 20 years. Prosecutors will also recommend she pay a fine of $150,000, spend two years on supervised release, and perform 100 hours of community service.
Giannulli will plead guilty to a sole count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and honest services wire and mail fraud, his plea deal said, which also carries up to 20 years behind bars. In addition to the five-month prison term, prosecutors will recommend he pay a $250,000 fine, serve two years of supervised release and perform 250 hours of community service, according to court records.
The couple’s decision to plead guilty was an abrupt shift from their earlier, more combative posture, when they and several other parents filed a motion to dismiss the charges, asserting prosecutors withheld evidence showing William “Rick” Singer, the scheme’s admitted ringleader, told parents their payments were legitimate donations to the schools rather than bribes.
"It’s not surprising that Loughlin and Giannulli pled guilty after their sham defense that the payments were ‘legitimate donations’ was exposed earlier this month and Judge Gorton denied their motion,” said Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor who also served as enforcement director of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, via e-mail. “A jury would have done the same ... and [rejected] this very weak argument if they actually took the case to trial.”
Rahmani called the plea deals “a huge victory” for prosecutors who “kept the pressure on Loughlin and Giannulli until they relented, notwithstanding the couple’s public proclamations of innocence,” adding that the government “established that no one is above the law, no matter how rich or famous.”
Loughlin and Giannulli are among the more than 50 people charged in connection with the case, in which wealthy parents cut large checks to Singer to get their children falsely classified as athletic recruits at selective schools, or to facilitate cheating on the kids’ SAT and ACT exams.
The couple’s guilty pleas bring the total number of parents who’ve admitted wrongdoing to 24, according to Lelling’s office. Additional parents who’ve pleaded guilty include actress Felicity Huffman, former PIMCO boss Douglas Hodge, and Hot Pockets heiress Michelle Janavs.
Singer has admitted to his lead role in the scam and will be sentenced at a later date.
In return for their guilty pleas, prosecutors have agreed to drop additional charges against Loughlin and Giannulli including conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery and money laundering conspiracy, legal filings show.
The couple signed their plea agreements Wednesday, records show, with Loughlin acknowledging she “received no prior written offers to resolve this case. ... I am entering into this Plea Agreement freely, voluntarily and knowingly because I am guilty of the offense to which I am pleading guilty and I believe this Plea Agreement is in my best interest.”
In August 2016, prosecutors have said, Singer told Loughlin and Giannulli he would “create a coxswain profile” for their older daughter and that “[i]t would probably help to get a picture with her on an ERG [indoor rowing machine] in workout clothes like a real athlete too.”
Giannulli responded via email, "Fantastic. Will get all,” even though neither daughter rowed competitively. Following the older daughter’s provisional admission to USC as a bogus recruit, prosecutors said, Singer directed Giannulli via email to send a $50,000 check to a former school athletics official, now charged in connection with the case, with the check made out to USC Athletics.
When Giannulli asked if he should categorize the check as a donation for accounting purposes, Singer replied, “Yes,” prosecutors wrote. The couple later made additional payments totaling $400,000 to Singer’s sham charity as purported donations after the daughters were formally accepted to USC, prosecutors allege.
The school confirmed last fall that the daughters were no longer enrolled.
In late 2018, when Singer was cooperating with the FBI, he had a secretly recorded phone conversation with Loughlin in which he told her the IRS was auditing his charity, but “nothing has been said about the girls, your donations helping the girls get into USC to do crew even though they didn’t do crew,” prosecutors wrote.
Loughlin, prosecutors said, replied, "So we just — so we just have to say we made a donation to your foundation and that’s it, end of story?” Singer said, "That is correct,” prosecutors wrote.
The government last month released photos of the couple’s daughters posing as rowers on ERG machines, pictures prosecutors said were part of the daughters’ fraudulent applications to USC.
Lara Yeretsian, a California-based criminal defense lawyer who’s worked on celebrity cases involving Michael Jackson and other showbiz luminaries, said Thursday that Loughlin’s guilty plea is a boon for the government, which had been forced play defense following the late disclosure of Singer’s notes, known in legal parlance as Brady material, to defense counsel.
“This is a huge win for the prosecution and a superb opportunity to save face after the debacle of withholding Brady material,” Yeretsian said. "The college admissions saga is finally winding down with its most interesting figures finally caving.”
Meanwhile a number of elite colleges and universities have started to tighten up their vetting of sports recruits and applicants’ credentials, according to Jeff Selingo, a prominent higher education journalist whose new book, “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” is due out in September.
At the same time, he said, the scandal’s unlikely to cause parents to rethink their approach to the ultra-competitive admissions process.
“The message that this scandal, I believe, has sent to students and parents who are willing to do everything they can to get into highly selective universities is, ‘wow, if these people were willing to go to jail for it, it must be worth it,’” Selingo said. ”Unfortunately, I think that’s the message that the public, or part of the public, got. ... It just validated what they were already thinking, which is ‘we should try to pull out all the stops, at least legally,’ to” gain admission.
Globe Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press also was used.