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“You read the complaint and they look like criminal masterminds,” the source tells PEOPLE. “But they really didn’t know the legalities of what was going on. They’re not lawyers and they’re not experts. They were parents who simply wanted to make sure that their daughters got into a good school.”
The source tells PEOPLE that Loughlin and Giannulli truly believed that their actions were comparable to those of other parents who take extraordinary steps to help their their children get into upper-tier colleges.
“Calling in favors, donating money to the alumni association, hiring consultants. Those are all things that parents do,” says the source. “And so they gave money to this consultant, not entirely knowing everything that was going to be done. When it all fell apart, nobody was as surprised as they were that they were in trouble.”
The source continues, “She never intended to break any laws, and if she did, it was inadvertent.”
On March 12, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts announced it had charged 50 people, including Loughlin and Giannulli, in the cheating scandal. The actress, along with coaches, admissions counselors and parents were accused of such alleged crimes as falsifying SAT scores and lying about the athletic skills of their children.
Loughlin allegedly wanted her daughters to get into the University of Southern California so badly that she and Giannulli allegedly paid approximately $500,000 in bribes to falsely designate their daughters as recruits to the USC crew team — despite the fact that they did not participate in crew.
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The criminal complaint against them alleged the couple devised a plan to “present their younger daughter, falsely, as a crew coxswain for the L.A. Marina Club team, and requested that the Giannullis’s send an ‘Action Picture,’ asking a few days later for a picture on the ‘erg’ — or rowing machine, which Giannulli did a few days later.”
“I get how it looks on paper,” says the source, “And they’ve been embarrassed and horrified to see what people are saying about them. Although they dispute certain parts of the complaint, they acknowledge that they were naive about what the laws were in this case.”
Earlier this month, both Loughlin, 54, and Giannulli, 55, pleaded not guilty to the charges they face: mail fraud and money laundering conspiracy. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison for each charge.
According to the source, the couple didn’t intend to do anything illegal. “When they fight this, they’re going to give a lot more nuance and mitigating circumstances that will help put their alleged actions into context,” the source says. “The bottom line is that they just didn’t realize that what they were doing was illegal.”
Reps for Loughlin and Giannulli have not returned PEOPLE’s calls for comment.