College admissions scandal: Lori Loughlin's latest indictment likely a strategy to induce plea talks

Analysis: By now, the parents and defendants who initially planned to go to trial may be rethinking their decisions as the potential sentences increase.

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By Danny Cevallos

A grand jury in federal court in Massachusetts has returned new charges against 11 of the 15 parents still facing charges in the college admissions case, including actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion magnate Mossimo Giannulli.

The new charges in this third indictment allege that the 11 defendants conspired to commit a crime called “federal program bribery,” by bribing employees of the University of Southern California to help with their children’s admissions. The employees of the university allegedly placed the children in favored admissions categories, such as athletic recruits — irrespective of their athletic abilities.

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As the charges add up, so do the potential sentences. The statutory maximum for conspiracy to commit federal program bribery is five years. These defendants would not get anywhere close to the maximum under the current federal sentencing scheme. Still, any additional convictions can add time on to a sentence.

This new indictment is likely a strategy to raise the stakes for the remaining defendants and induce more guilty pleas and cooperation. By now, the parents and defendants who initially planned to go to trial may be rethinking their decisions as the potential sentences increase, and their bank accounts decrease. Statistically, most federal defendants end up pleading guilty instead of going to trial. Unfortunately, for most federal defendants, the numbers are against them.

The latest charge against the defendants is conspiracy to commit federal program bribery.

Federal law criminalizes conspiracies "to defraud the United States, or any agency…in any manner or for any purpose." A conspiracy consists of (1) an agreement, (2) the unlawful objective of the agreement, and (3) an overt act in furtherance of the agreement. The objective of the agreement is unlawful if its purpose is to impair or obstruct the function of any government department.

Even though the defendants are not actually charged with the underlying crime, it is important to understand what they are alleged to have conspired to do. Federal program bribery punishes anyone who "corruptly gives…anything of value to any person, with intent to influence… an agent of an organization…in connection with any…transaction…involving anything of value of $5,000 or more."

Congress enacted this statute under its Spending Power to safeguard the integrity of the vast sums of money distributed through federal programs to state and local governments, from theft, fraud and undue influence by bribery. The law doesn’t just target the bribed; it also targets the bribers, by imposing liability on those (allegedly the parents) who solicit corruption from the agents of the organization.