The wealthy parents charged in the college admissions scandal are accused of gaming the system by allegedly using bribes to help their children get into highly selective schools.
Now, federal prosecutors say, some of the parents are trying to bend the judicial system to their advantage, too, in a bid to get a more sympathetic judge assigned to their case.
In an unusual legal maneuver, 26 attorneys representing a dozen parents fired off a letter to the chief judge of the US District Court of Massachusetts on Tuesday, urging her to take the case away from US District Judge Nathaniel Gorton and randomly assign it to another judge.
The lawyers accused prosecutors of “judge shopping” when they added 16 parents — including celebrities, financiers, a former media mogul, and the heiress to the Hot Pockets fortune — to an existing wire fraud indictment against a Canadian parent accused in the cheating scandal. That case was randomly assigned to Gorton, a longtime federal judge with a reputation for tough sentences, meaning he will preside over the entire case.
“Prosecutors who seek to evade the District’s [Court] assignment system by joining more than a dozen new defendants into a previously returned indictment that happened to be assigned to a district judge that the prosectors prefer should not be rewarded,” the attorneys wrote.
That drew a cutting response from US Attorney Andrew Lelling, who called the defense overture to Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, who is not presiding over any of the cases involving the college admissions scandal, a “Hail Mary” and disingenuous.
“Counsel wrote the letter because they do not want Judge Gorton to preside over these cases, so they have asked the Court to manipulate the judicial draw under the guise of protesting manipulation of the judicial draw,” Lelling wrote. “What counsel fail to say — but of course mean — is that they want a different judge because they perceive Judge Gorton as imposing longer sentences in criminal cases than other judges in this district.”
Lelling urged Saris not to take the “unprecedented step” of removing a case from the judge who was assigned it “simply because, in defense counsel’s view, another draw would benefit their clients.”
As of late Wednesday, Saris had not made a decision on the request.
Hollywood actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, were among the parents indicted Tuesday on money laundering and wire fraud charges for allegedly paying bribes to get their children into top colleges, but their attorneys were not among those who signed the letter to Saris.
They were among 50 people charged last month in the college admissions cheating scandal, including another Hollywood actress, Felicity Huffman. Earlier this week, Huffman and a dozen other parents announced they will plead guilty.
The parents are accused of paying bribes ranging from $15,000 to $1.2 million to have their children falsely designated as athletic recruits to get admitted to elite colleges or have someone else take or correct SAT and ACT exams to boost the scores.
In Tuesday’s letter, the attorneys said they expected their clients, who are fighting the charges, to be indicted
later that day, which they were.
The superseding indictment added 16 parents to an indictment initially handed down against a single parent, Vancouver businessman David Sidoo, and later expanded to include two more. All 19 are charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering for allegedly funneling bribes through a purported charity and for-profit company created by college consultant William “Rick” Singer, the admitted ringleader of the scheme who is now cooperating with authorities.
They are also charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
If convicted, some of the parents could face several years in prison.
Singer, who is charged in a separate case, pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering, and other charges last month and faces sentencing in June.
In Tuesday’s letter, the parents’ attorneys said none of them had any connection to Sidoo, who is also accused of paying bribes to Singer.
“Simply put, the prosecutors’ plan to join our clients into the indictment against Mr. Sidoo is a clear form of judge shopping,” they wrote.
The lawyers added that they “deeply respect Judge Gorton.”
“Several of us have represented criminal defendants before Judge Gorton, including at trials where our clients have been acquitted,” they wrote. “Our positive experiences with Judge Gorton, however, are beside the point.”
In his response, Lelling said the government has asserted “a straightforward conspiracy” among Singer, his associates, college coaches, and parents, and that it’s routine to seek superseding indictments to add coconspirators.
“I take seriously this office’s ethical obligations and the obligation to be fair in both appearance and substance,” Lelling wrote. “That is how we have proceeded in this case.”
The attorneys who sent the letter represent Sidoo; John B. Wilson, a 59-year-old investor with homes in Hyannis Port and Lynnfield; Gamal Abdelaziz, 62, of Las Vegas, a former president and chief operating officer of Wynn Resorts Development; Elisabeth Kimmel, 59, of Las Vegas and La Jolla, Calif., a former media executive who sold TV and radio stations in San Diego for $325 million last year; Michelle Janavs, the 48-year-old heiress to the Hot Pockets fortune; Douglas Hodge, 61, of Laguna Beach, former CEO of Pacific Investment Management Co.; Todd Blake, 53, a California entrepreneur and investor, and his wife, Diane, 55; Robert Zangrillo, 52, founder of a Miami-based private investment firm; I-Hsin Chen, 64, of Newport Beach, Calif., who provides services to the shipping industry; Manuel Henriquez, 55, a Silicon Valley hedge fund leader, and his wife, Elizabeth, 56.