McGurn on Operation Varsity Blues

In the Broadway musical Destry, based on the 1939 movie Destry Rides Again, as Gyp Watson prepares to be hanged, there’s a song, “Are You Ready, Gyp Watson?”, a showstopper. One of the passages in the song (sung as a sort of descant) is

Oh he may have been willful
Yes, he may have been wild
But one look will convince you
He’s as innocent as a newborn child
He’s just friendly and playful
What a lovable lad
And his friends will all tell you
He ain’t got the brains to be bad

My wife and I are convinced that’s the rationale for Lori Laughlin and her husband’s “Not Guilty” plea in the widely published college admissions cheating scandal for which they are standing trial. We call it the “Gyp Watson Defense”. Based on what has happened so far they may well be able to convince a jury that they “ain’t got the brains to be bad”.

In his Wall Street Journal column William McGurn is oddly sympathetic with Ms. Loughlin:

If convicted of all the charges federal prosecutors have piled up against them, Ms. Loughlin and her husband could be sentenced to as much as 45 years in prison.

This is nuts.

The same operation that caught Ms. Loughlin also snared dozens of other high-powered people, including CEOs, lawyers and venture capitalists. They too are accused of paying fixer William “Rick” Singer either to cheat on their kids’ college entrance exams, to present them fraudulently for college admission as athletes, or both. But Ms. Loughlin’s celebrity status has ensured that she and fellow actress Felicity Huffman remain the face of the scandal for most Americans.

With this difference: While Ms. Huffman pleaded guilty, apologized profusely and served out her sentence (14 days, but released after 12 because it was a weekend) at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., Ms. Loughlin and Mr. Giannulli are insisting, perhaps unwisely, on taking their case to a jury. Meanwhile, in the same way the sans-culottes jeered Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, today’s equivalent— Twitter mobs and gossip sheets—are thirsting to see this icon of Tinseltown wealth and privilege cut down to size by a stint in federal prison.

Now, it may well be standard procedure for prosecutors to add new charges when their targets refuse to plead. But does anyone else think it a stretch to argue that two California residents bribing their children’s way into a private California university are committing a crime against the federal government? Or that the statutes she’s accused of violating, such as bribery or money laundering in connection with a program that receives federal funding, were really intended to go after people such as Ms. Loughlin?

He does bring up a good point: why are they, literally, making a federal case of this? I genuinely don’t know. Is it because the prosecutors just stumbled across this and smell blood? That’s largely what’s been said.

Or does it strike a chord with people who are highly committed to the idea of a college degree-based technocracy? If that college degree doesn’t mean what they claim it means, where does that leave them?

4 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Mostly the former. I am sure the latter is why people (some) are enjoying the spectacle, but I think the prosectors realize this is a step up on the ladder for them, if they are upward bound.


  • PD Shaw Link

    I think the investigation must be have been built up from a parent in Massachusetts that paid Key Worldwide Foundation, a California-based not-for-profit, that purports to help disadvantaged students get into college. While there are more California defendants, it involved parents and colleges from multiple states. They are all joined in the complaint as participants in a fraud conspiracy.

    And what that means may not be obvious, because we probably think of this as an arm-length transaction in which people like Loughlin made an illegal transaction with Key. Loughlin paid large sums to Key, but then at Key’s directions paid bribes to the college coach. The most recent indictment emphasizes that she and others facilitated Key’s 501(c)(3) tax exempt status by having it issue letters that no goods or services were received for this contribution. So there is the federal tax issue there as well.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Oops, the most recent indictment was for bribing a school official, which is a federal crime if it involves an organization that receives more than $10,000 in federal funds, and the defendant receives something of value more than $5,0000. So what that law says, is that if the federal government gives an organization a substantial amount of money, we don’t want criminals expropriating that money illegally.

  • PD Shaw Link

    On sentencing, it looks like the important thing is that Huffman only paid $15k to boost her daughter’s ACT, and that puts her sentencing offense near the bottom of federal sentencing guidelines. She was eligible for probation and/or home confinement (which she presumably asked for), but the US Atty reserved the right to ask for the bottom of the incarceration range (4 to 10 months) and at some point lowered the argument to 30 days.

    That the judge gave 14 days signaled to all of the other defendants that the judge was going to give everyone at least some jail time. The longest sentence so far appears to be 5 months in jail, for someone who both cheated on an exam ($50k) and bribed a college for admission ($50k), and may have intended to pay $200k more.

    Loughlin and her husband paid $500k for two children. Their sentences were more likely to be on the high side before the added count. I found a MA lawyer that told a celebirty rag: “plea would result in a tip[ical] sentence of 21-27 months, whereas a conviction after trial could be between 30 and 37 months.”

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