Parents in college cheating scandal say money was for charity, not a bribe

Several lawyers told NBC News that a trial was “inevitable” at this point, suggesting that plea deals are no longer being considered for many of the defendants.

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By Ezra Kaplan

BOSTON — Lawyers for parents indicted in the college admissions scandal, including actress Lori Loughlin, revealed a core part of their defense strategy Monday by suggesting that their money was in fact intended as charity, not a bribe.

“If the money went to a school, it’s not a bribe,” said Martin Weinberg, who represents Canadian businessman David Sidoo, who is accused of paying $200,000 for someone else to take his sons’ college entrance exams. After court, Weinberg added, “Many of the clients would contend that if payments were made to a charity or sports organization, that it is not a bribe.”

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The statement came during a status conference in a crowded, small courtroom in Boston Federal Court where the remaining parents who have not pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy gathered. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

In March, prosecutors charged 50 people in connection with the alleged scam to help rich parents get their children admitted to prominent universities by cheating on standardized tests and bribing coaches to designate the kids fraudulently as athletic recruits. Of the 33 parents charged, 13 have pleaded guilty, including actress Felicity Huffman, and will be sentenced in the coming months.

Huffman, and others, allegedly paid the money to a fund controlled by William Rick Singer, who ran a lucrative business getting the children of his clients into prestigious universities.

“It’s a question of whether Singer told the parents that the money was going to athletic programs rather than the pockets of the coaches. If other parents were told that, then it is part of our argument that the parents did not know that it was a bribe,” said Aaron Katz, who represents Elizabeth Henriquez, accused of paying more than $400,000 to have her daughter fraudulently admitted as a tennis recruit at Georgetown University. Katz said that he spoke for “many, if not all the defendants.”

The court hearing was an initial status conference and was an opportunity for both sides to discuss procedural issues in front of a judge. It is one of many steps as the remaining defendants make their way to trial. Several lawyers told NBC News that a trial was “inevitable” at this point, suggesting that plea deals are no longer being considered for many of the defendants.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen pushed back against the defense’s argument. “It doesn’t matter if the money went to the coach's program or the coach directly. A bribe is simply a quid pro quo, it doesn’t matter where the money went,” he said as he stood in front of Judge Paige Kelly.

In the indictment filed by Rosen, the defendants are accused of making payments that were funneled through a nonprofit foundation run by Singer, but that ultimately were paid to coaches and others allegedly involved in the admissions cheating scheme. Sometimes the payments were made to accounts that were part of a university, but prosecutors allege that those accounts were controlled exclusively by the coach involved in the scheme.