Federal prosecutors are using new charges in the sprawling college admissions cheating case as a way to encourage 11 defendants, including Hollywood star Lori Loughlin, to reach plea deals, legal experts said Tuesday.
The new charges in the third superseding indictment allege that 11 defendants conspired to commit federal program bribery through bribing employees at the University of Southern California to facilitate their children’s admission, authorities say.
The defendants were arrested in March and had previously been charged with conspiring in a test-cheating scheme that involved bribing SAT and ACT exam administrators, prosecutors said.
Federal authorities dubbed the investigation “Operation Varsity Blues.”
David Siegel, a professor who teaches criminal law, procedure, and evidence at New England Law Boston, said the additional charges mark “a way to increase pressure on defendants.”
“I think most significantly it provides more things to negotiate about,” he said.
Prosecutors, Siegel said, routinely continue their investigations after they initially bring charges, and sometimes the continuing probes result in additional charges.
“It’s not unconstitutional even if the prosecutors knew the factual basis for them at the time of the initial charges,” he said.
Siegel said it is conceivable that the defendants could claim that the new charges are a form of retaliation for their refusal to plead guilty.
“But the standard to prove a vindictive prosecution is very high,” he said.
Robert Bloom, a law professor at Boston College, said it appears that the US attorney “is throwing the kitchen sink at these people so as to encourage them to plea, that’s what it seems to me.”
“This is what plea bargaining is all about,” Bloom said. “The prosecutor sometimes overcharges so as to encourage guilty pleas and will drop charges in exchange for guilty pleas.”
Frank Perrone, a former prosecutor who is now a partner at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP in New York, noted that the new charges “aren’t based on any new information or any new criminal behavior.”
“The question really becomes, ‘Why are you bringing these charges at this point?’ ” he said. “There is an argument that the new charges are intended to put some pressure on defendants who still haven’t [pleaded] guilty and are maintaining their innocence.”
Perrone said defendants such as Loughlin may be asking themselves if they’re able to negotiate a plea “where you get 14 days like Felicity Huffman, then why would you run the risk of a trial?”
“Why continue it?” he asked.
In the case, federal prosecutors created a window of opportunity for the defendants to reach a plea deal, said Rosanna Cavallaro, a Suffolk University law professor who teaches criminal law and evidence. Some of the defendants in the case took that option, but others, such as Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, did not.
“The government has another tool in its toolbox, which is they’re going to crank up the heat,” Cavallaro said.
Cavallaro said if she were representing any of the 11 defendants who are now facing new charges in the college admissions scandal, she would tell them, “We need to look hard at this.”
“It’s not obvious what their defense is going to be at trial,” she said.
Daniel Medwed, a law professor at Northeastern University, said the additional charges will probably result in the remaining defendants trying to reach a plea deal in order to avoid a severe punishment after trial.
“To the extent that any of the parents are thinking about going to trial or withdrawing guilty pleas, this will probably give them pause,” he said.