Why Are Allegations Against Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin Crimes? A Legal Expert Explains
Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among dozens of people named in a shocking new FBI complaint alleging their involvement in a college admissions cheating scandal at some of the most competitive colleges in the country.
In a press conference, Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, stated that the primary defendant in the case, William “Rick” Singer, allegedly ran a charitable organization that was actually a front doling out bribes to college coaches and administrators. Parents paid Singer a total of approximately $25 million to help their children gain admission to various schools.
According to MassLive, Singer has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges. “I am responsible. I put all the people in place,” Singer told the court on Tuesday, according to MassLive.
Huffman was arrested at home on Tuesday morning, according to multiple reports, and is expected to appear in court later today.
According to the FBI affidavit outlining the charges, Huffman and Loughlin are among 50 defendants charged with a slew of alleged crimes to gain entrance for their children to universities like Yale, Stanford, the University of Southern California and Georgetown. These schools are among the most prestigious in the country, with USC only admitting around 17 percent of its applicants and Stanford only admitting about 5 percent.
As specified in the affidavit, some of the alleged crimes include attempting to bribe college entrance administrators to help applicants cheat on college entrance exams; bribing varsity coaches and other administrators to “designate certain applicants as recruited athletes” (even if the applicants had no legitimate athletic background to speak of); using the “facade of a charitable organization” to hide monetary bribes, and more.
Huffman allegedly paid thousands of dollars to have a proctor secretly alter her daughter’s SAT scores.
Loughlin allegedly paid $500,000 in a scam to have her daughters pose as crew team recruits, despite the fact that neither of them rowed.
Though the charges are sensational, especially given the high profile of some defendants, the idea of hyper-wealthy people buying their way into schools, jobs and other opportunities is nothing new. But what makes the sorts of activities outlined in today’s affidavit, well, illegal?
“The short answer is that it’s super-complicated and there’s no bright-line rule,” Cooper Knowlton, a Manhattan-based lawyer who specializes in small business law, civil litigation, and intellectual property matters with Bergstein Flynn & Knowlton PLLC, explains to PEOPLE.
Knowlton compares it to the gray areas that can surround political contributions, saying, “Gifts to politicians can look like a bribe, but be completely legal as long as they are upfront, disclosed and there is no blatant quid pro quo.”
In the case of Huffman, Loughlin, et al, he says, “The [alleged] bribery here involved state actors and coaches, which is why this was an issue.”
When wealthy donors do things like donate a wing of a building or offer large gifts to a university, it’s usually legal, Knowlton says. “As long as everything is reported and there is no direct record that says ‘I’m giving you this for this purpose,’ it’s OK, even if everyone knows [something] is implied.”
But one of the more disturbing elements of the scandal — dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by federal investigators — is that the schools named are so selective in their admissions, meaning that other qualified candidates might have been shut out by the alleged cheating.
“When people commit fraud in this way, it prohibits access from people with less advantage,” Damali Peterman, a Manhattan media lawyer, tells PEOPLE. “All the schools were very elite.”
Reps for Huffman and Loughlin did not immediately return PEOPLE’s request for comment.