The first guilty plea by a parent in the U.S. college admissions scandal is imminent, and two other parents said they were in talks with prosecutors.
A dozen others appeared in federal court in Boston on April 3, where the 100-seat courtroom was standing room only. Among the parents were actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and attorney Gordon Caplan, the former co-chairman of Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
Moments earlier, Peter Jan Sartorio, a 53-year-old packaged-food entrepreneur from Menlo Park, Calif., filed notice of his intended guilty plea. Sartorio is accused of paying $15,000 to have a person pretending to proctor the ACT college entrance exam for his daughter correct her answers.
It’s unclear when he will enter the plea or what he will plead guilty to. The terms of his deal may offer a clue to what prosecutors are seeking from defendants, who are looking to avoid prison terms, and may set the tone for the bargaining in other cases.
Prosecutors are taking a hard line with the 33 parents swept up in the scandal after charging them last month with a conspiracy to commit both mail fraud and honest-services mail fraud. Those who don’t enter into a deal risk an additional charge such as money laundering, which was brought against oncologist Gregory Colburn and his wife, Amy -- two of only three parents to be indicted so far -- after they balked at a plea. In court April 3, the Colburns denied wrongdoing.
The two parents in plea talks with the government are water treatment executive Devin Sloane and marketing expert Jane Buckingham. They were scheduled to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley to have bail set but, like Sartorio, won a delay of their proceedings.
Buckingham, founder of the marketing firm Trendera, is in discussions over “a resolution to this matter that would not require a hearing before the court,” her attorney Joseph Savage said in a letter April 1 seeking to defer her appearance. John Pappalardo, a lawyer for AquaTecture founder Sloane, filed a similar motion April 2, saying his client and the U.S. are also talking. Their lawyers didn’t return calls.
The U.S. accuses the parents of conspiring with college admissions strategist and confessed ringleader William Rick Singer to shower $25 million in bribes on entrance exam administrators, a surrogate test taker and corrupt university sports coaches in order to get their children into Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and other exclusive schools.
The government’s 204-page affidavit details an array of alleged misdeeds. Buckingham is accused of paying Singer $50,000 to get her son into the University of Southern California by having an impostor take his entrance exam.
“I need you to get him into USC,” she said in a call that Singer helped the government record, according to court papers, going on to joke that “then I need you to cure cancer” and make peace in the Middle East.
Buckingham is the author of a series of “Modern Girl’s Guide” books, including “The Modern Girl’s Guide to Sticky Situations,” in which she writes, “Most hideous predicaments are not the end of the world.” The guide wasn’t “meant to replace responsible behavior,” she writes, but “to be a stack of get-out-of-jail-free cards for the deserving gal with the best intentions and a moment of bad luck.”
Outside the courthouse April 3, a handful of fans shouted, “We love you, Lori!” as Loughlin arrived. But another young woman called out, “Pay for my tuition, Lori!”
Loughlin and her husband allegedly paid $500,000 in bribes to get both daughters into USC as recruited coxswains on the school’s rowing team. Huffman is accused of funneling $15,000 through Singer’s charity in exchange for getting her daughter’s SAT answers corrected. Their lawyers didn’t return calls.
Inside the courtroom, Loughlin flashed a megawatt smile as she reached out to shake hands with the three prosecutors in her case before taking her seat in front of the judge.
As the bail hearings progressed, the judge said she would lift a ban she’d imposed on the defendants and their families on discussing the case with their others, including their spouses and children.
“I don’t think it’s outlandish. I do think it’s unmanageable,” Kelley said, adding: “I would admonish everyone to talk to their lawyers about obstruction of justice because I don’t want you to get into trouble.”
Art and Law
The parents’ alleged actions continue to attract attention. Robert Farrell, chief clerk of the court, who has handled the Boston Marathon bombing case and that of local crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, said he and his staff were so inundated with media requests for the pretrial hearings that they created a web portal along the lines of Open Table to allot seats to the press.
The parents’ afternoon appearance before Kelley took place in the John Joseph Moakley courthouse, which features an 88-foot-high circular glass wall that faces Boston Harbor and represents “the transparency of the justice system,” said Johnny Sadoff, who runs an educational program at the courthouse and gives tours. The courthouse also has 21 large panels by Ellsworth Kelly, each a single block of color.
“They wanted something abstract so as not to distract the public,” Sadoff said. “The idea was that when you enter the courthouse, you’re not biased, and open to multiple perspectives.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission