BOSTON – Fifteen parents fighting charges in the national college admissions scandal, including actress Lori Loughlin, will probably be divided into smaller groups for separate trials this year.
Federal Magistrate Judge Page Kelley announced a proposal for "staggered" group trials at a hearing Friday in federal court. She said it's the preference of U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton, who will preside over the parents' trials in the blockbuster "Varsity Blues" case.
“I think three groupings, depending on how many parents the government thinks will make it that far, could be a good resolution," Kelley said. The "sorting of defendants" would still be subject to change before trials begin, she said.
She compared the grouping arrangement to a federal MS-13 gang case in 2018, also tried in Boston, that featured multiple defendants facing racketeering charges.
Trial dates are not set for the parents, but Gorton made clear he wants the case tried this year. It's unclear which defendants would be grouped together. Whether additional parents choose to plead guilty, rather than face trial, could affect the number of groups.
Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, a fashion designer, pleaded not guilty to federal fraud, bribery and money laundering conspiracy charges for allegedly paying $500,000 to the scheme's mastermind, Rick Singer, and a University of Southern California athletic department official to get their two daughters, Isabella Rose and Olivia Jade, tagged as crew recruits to slip them into USC. Neither played the sport.
They are two of 36 parents accused of paying Singer to have their children tagged as fake athletic recruits to get them into elite universities or to have someone fix their college entrance exam scores. Nineteen parents pleaded guilty in deals with prosecutors. That includes four parents in October who caved to prosecutors rather than facing an additional bribery charge.
An additional parent, Xiaoning Sui, a Chinese national from Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, is in custody in Spain and has not been arraigned in the USA.
At Friday's hearing, Kelley approved dates for pretrial motion filings, which will stretch through the spring, and set the next status conference hearing for May 5.
For weeks, attorneys for accused parents and federal prosecutors have fought over discovery evidence in pretrial filings.
Prosecutors said defense attorneys have not turned over evidence known as discovery. . Parents' attorneys said they're waiting for the government to hand over all exculpatory evidence, pointing specifically to FBI interviews that the government has not disclosed. Kelley did not take up the matter, which won't be addressed until next month.
Attorneys for Loughlin and Giannulli did not speak at the hearing. None of the defendants was present.
Defense attorney Martin Weinberg, who represents parents David Sidoo and Robert Zangrillo, asked the judge to require that prosecutors provide an exhibit list of the discovery evidence turned over in the case.
Weinberg said the high volume of email, phone logs and other documents turned over the case is "almost unquantifiable," making it "impossible" to thoroughly comb through.
“We simply need to know what the government is choosing (from this discovery) so we can target our defense better," Weinberg said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen said the government would be willing to oblige the request but not within 90 to 120 days of the trial as proposed by Weinberg. "We're open to a resolution," Rosen said.
Fifty-three people people overall — parents, college coaches and Singer associates — are charged in the admissions case. Thirty have either pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty later while the remaining 23 prepare for trial.
A separate hearing took place Friday for former coaches and other Singer associates who have pleaded not guilty to charges.
Similar to the parents' lawyers, attorney Nina Marino, who is representing Donna Heinel, former senior associate athletic director at the University of Southern California, said more time is needed to review the mountain of discovery evidence.
Marino said her staff had only reviewed 77,277 documents of the more than 1.5 million pages of emails, 500,000 other documents, 4,000 intercepted calls and text messages and 2,000 legal documents.
“This case, your honor, is very, very much still in a discovery phase," she said.
Thirteen parents, including actress Felicity Huffman, as well as one coach have been sentenced for their crimes. Only one parent avoided prison. Huffman served 11 days of a two-week prison sentence in October after she completed her time early.
Reach Joey Garrison and on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lori Loughlin, husband Mossimo Giannulli could be tried in group