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College Admissions Scandal

And what this means for anyone facing federal charges

The recent college admissions scandal resulting in federal charges against celebrities Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman, along with several prominent businesspeople and college personnel, shines a light on the federal judicial system.

Most of the people, in this case, were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. In this post, we explain what these charges mean, how they differ from state law and their severity at sentencing.

Conspiracy charges are based on what is known as RICO, the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations conspiracy. It is one of the most commonly used charges in a federal case and was orginally enacted to enable prosecution for organized crime bosses who directed others to act on their behalf in directing business dealings, including harming others.

What has happened and why RICO conspiracy has expanded to almost any federal case today is because it’s easier to prove than normal conspiracy statutes. It also carries the same penalty whether or not the crime was completed. In other words, just a discussion or awareness of a federal crime, including the caveat that a reasonable person should have known something was a crime, means a person charged under this statute is facing the same consequences as if they themselves committed the crime.

This is very different from state law and the principle of Mens rea, which is the mental element that a person had an intention or understanding of committing a crime. Federal law does not recognize this. Another difference of state law from federal conspiracy law is that the evidence a person knew or should have known about a crime comes from the testimony of others involved. At the state level, this would be hearsay, but at the federal level, it is enough to be convicted under the RICO statute.

Fraud refers to a person trying to cheat another person out of money or property. But sometimes, you’re not trying to cheat someone out of money and in this case they weren’t necessarily cheating the university out of money, (the accused) were getting kickbacks for these kids to get admitted. What’s important here is it now can be categorized as conspiracy for a bribery-kickback scheme.

For mail fraud, which means using physical mail, email, texting, direct message, etc., you can get a penalty of up to 20 years. For just conspiracy to commit mail fraud, there would be a lower penalty. When the conspiracy is related to RICO charges, the government doesn’t have to actually prove the person committed the offense. They only need to prove (generally through testimony from others) that the accused conspired or basically knew about the offense, which now ups your penalty to that 20-year maximum. So, the government has to prove far less to still get the same penalty.

Something that bears further observation in these cases is the liability of the children who attended the schools. Under state law, they would not have criminal liability, but in a federal case, the fact that they either know or should have known it was a crime, means they too could be charged although that is unlikely unless a parent refuses to cooperate with the prosecution.

At Pro to Con, LLC, we help educate those facing federal charges about how federal law differs from state and how that understanding can help you in your case and sentencing.

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