Lori Loughlin's attorneys say new evidence proves innocence; trial set for October

Joey Garrison, USA TODAY

BOSTON — Attorneys for actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli said newly released evidence exonerates their clients and other parents still fighting charges in the nation's college admissions scandal.

But despite their objections to prosecutors' handling of that material, a federal judge Thursday set trial dates in the blockbuster case. A trial for Loughlin, Giannulli and six other parents accused of bribing officials at University of Southern California will begin Oct. 5, while seven other parents will go to trial Jan. 11, 2021.

In a court filing late Wednesday, lawyers of the celebrity couple highlighted written notes that Rick Singer, the mastermind of the nationwide admissions scheme, took on his iPhone following discussions with FBI investigators in 2018 about recorded phone calls they directed him to make to parents. 

In one of the notes, Singer wrote that FBI officials got "loud and abrasive" and "continue to ask me to tell a fib" about what he told clients before they paid into his scheme. He said the FBI wanted him not to restate what he actually told his clients — that they were making a payment to an athletic program, not a college coach.

"Essentially they are asking me to bend the truth," Singer wrote. 

More: Lori Loughlin told daughters they needed to do better in high school, new court doc alleges

Loughlin's attorneys said the notes, turned over Wednesday by prosecutors, prove their underlying argument — that parents thought they were making "legitimate donations" to a nonprofit operated by Singer that would help universities, not bribing college officials.

The defense asked U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton to delay setting the trial until a federal magistrate decides whether the government must release additional material. Parents' attorneys have said the government failed to turn over all exculpatory evidence; in particular, FBI "302 reports" that detail witness statements and interview notes taken during the investigation. 

More: College admissions scandal: Fight for FBI notes a new battlefront for accused parents

But at a status conference hearing in Boston federal court for attorneys of 15 parents fighting charges, Gorton said the the case "needs to be resolved expeditiously." Although he called the defense's allegations "very serious," he cited an interest in the case not only among defendants but the "general public."

Jury selection for the first trial of eight parents, including Loughlin and Giannulli, will begin Sept. 28. Gorton said the trial would take about four weeks. 

“Needless to say this is a high-profile case, but it is not going to be tried in the newspaper or the internet," Gorton warned, adding that "there will be consequences" if attorneys don't show constrain in that regard. 

More: Lori Loughlin's attorneys argue feds are concealing evidence in college admissions scandal

Loughlin and Giannulli are accused of paying Singer $500,000 to get their two daughters falsely tagged as crew recruits to get them admitted into USC. They've pleaded not guilty to multiple charges including bribery. 

Federal prosecutors claimed they took part in a sprawling, nationwide scheme in which wealthy parents made bribe payments to Singer, a college consultant, to either fix test scores on their children’s college entrance exams or get them falsely designated as athletic recruits to facilitate their admissions. 

Prosecutor, Loughlin's attorney argue  bribes versus donations

Prosecutors and one of Loughlin's attorneys, William Trach, took turns in court arguing about the significance of the notes record by Singer. 

At the direction of the FBI, Singer made wiretapped phone calls to past clients to try and get them to recite their crime. The full note that Singer wrote on Oct. 2, 2018 reads:

Loud and abrasive call with agents. They continue to ask me to tell a fib and not restate what I told my clients as to where there money was going - to the program not the coach and that it was a donation and they want it to be a payment. I asked for a script if they want me to ask questions and retrieve responses that are not accurate to the way I should be asking the questions.

Essentially they are asking me to bend the truth which is what they asked me not to do when working with the agents and Eric Rosen. Liz raised her voice to me like she did in the hotel room about agreeing with her that everyone Bribed the schools. This time about asking each person to agree to a lie I was telling them. 

U.S. Assistant Attorney Eric Rosen said prosecutors learned about the existence of Singer's notes during the "Varsity Blues" investigation in October 2018. But at the time they believed it to be privileged information that was not subject to review.

He said Singer's attorneys this week agreed to waive privilege rights of the notes. Rosen said the government will release the remaining content from Singer's iPhone shortly.

But Rosen downplayed the notes, arguing nothing in the parts highlighted by the defense changes what prosecutors have argued all along. He said prosecutors have always acknowledged that Singer told his clients their payments were donations – but it was a bribe because parents knew their children were admitted into schools as fake athletes.

"Your honor has been referring to this as a bribery case because that’s what it is: You pay the money; you get in as a fake athlete," Rosen said. “Calling something a donation does not make it legitimate and that certainly doesn’t make it a donation – regardless of what you call it."

But Trach said the notes proved the government was knowingly withholding evidence that undercut the argument that parents knowingly bribed college officials.

"They knew it was not true because Singer said that," Trach said. "And they did not share that with the court. And that’s a problem. It’s a serious problem.

“Were they making legitimate donations that would help their kids into school or were they lining officials' pockets with money?" Trach said. "That’s the whole case."

He said undisclosed material like these notes are precisely what attorneys of parents have sought. “The note itself refers to a loud and abrasive call. We haven't heard that call. If that call exists, we would like it," Trach said.

Singer, in the same notes, also wrote that FBI authorities "want to nail Gordon at all costs," referring to prominent New York attorney Gordon Caplan. Caplan pleaded guilty to paying $75,000 to have someone correct answers on his daughter's ACT test to inflate her score. He was sentenced in October to one month in prison.

More: NY attorney sentenced to 1 month in prison for paying $75K to have daughter's ACT answers fixed

Attorney Sean Berkowitz, in Wednesday's court filing, said material from Singer's iPhone should have been released no more than 30 days after parents were indicted. He called it "devastating to the government’s case," adding that it "demonstrates that the Government has been improperly withholding core exculpatory information, employing a 'win at all costs' effort rather than following their obligation to do justice."

He predicted it would set off a series of motions of defendants, including potential motions to dismiss the indictments.

Thirty-one of 53 defendants charged in the college admissions case have pleaded guilty while the others dig in for trial. Fourteen parents and two college coaches have been sentenced for their crimes, with sentences ranging from no prison to nine months behind bars.

The eight parents set to go on trial Oct 5 are: Loughlin, Giannulli, Gamal Abdelaziz, Diane and Todd Blake, John Wilson, Homayoun Zadeh and Robert Zangrillo.

The seven parents set to go on trial Jan. 11, 2021 are: David Sidoo, Amy and Gregory Colburn, I-Hsin “Joey” Chen, Elisabeth Kimmel, William McGlashan and Marci Palatella.

Reach Joey Garrison and on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lori Loughlin's attorney: New Rick Singer notes prove her innocence