BOSTON — Attorneys for some parents charged in the college admissions scandal offered a possible preview of their defense strategy Monday, arguing that what the government calls bribes were simply straightforward charitable donations.
Prosecutors have accused 33 parents of funding a bribery scheme to help their children obtain fraudulent test scores and pose as recruited athletes to secure admission to competitive colleges.
Thirteen parents have pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Among them is actress Felicity Huffman. Another accused parent is expected to plead guilty soon.
The rest, including actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, have pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy.
Aaron Katz, an attorney for Elizabeth Henriquez, a mother who is fighting the charges, said here in U.S. District Court that there is evidence parents thought they were donating money to universities or athletic programs. They did not realize, Katz said, that the money would instead end up in the pockets of athletic coaches and the scheme’s mastermind, consultant William “Rick” Singer.
Martin G. Weinberg, an attorney who represents accused fathers Robert Zangrillo and David Sidoo, who also have pleaded not guilty, said outside the courtroom that a donation to a university or athletic program is “akin to an everyday event,” not a bribe.
But Eric Rosen, an assistant U.S. attorney, dismissed such distinctions. “It simply doesn’t matter whether the money went to a coach’s program or the coach directly,” Rosen told the court. “A bribe is simply a quid pro quo.”
Monday’s status conferences were brief, jammed with lawyers but no clients, and most of the activity was procedural. Rosen said he had delivered to defendants May 30 more than 3 million pages of documents related to the case, including transcripts from 4,500 phone calls, more than 1 million emails, dozens of search warrants, wiretap affidavits and a financial analysis table showing defendants’ bank records.
Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley said she wants to talk to a handful of defendants — including Sidoo, Zangrillo and former Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernst, who are represented by law firms retained by more than one defendant in the case. The judge said she wants to speak to those clients directly, even though they live out of state, to make sure they understand the implications of using lawyers with a potential conflict of interest.
Those hearings, expected to take place in July, will not be open to the public, Kelley said. Kelley scheduled the next status conference for Oct. 2.
Among schools targeted in the scam were Stanford, Georgetown and Yale universities, the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.
The ringleader, Singer, has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and other charges and has cooperated with investigators. A handful of former athletic coaches and others involved in the scam also have pleaded guilty. In addition, former USC soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin has filed notice he intends to plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy.
Former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, is scheduled to be sentenced June 12. His will be the first sentencing in the case.
Anderson reported from Washington.