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Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman became the famous faces of the widespread scam involving wealthy parents, test administrators and college coaches, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues by federal prosecutors. It saw the children of the elite getting into prestigious schools through a so-called “side door,” basically with huge financial payouts to disgraced college admissions expert William “Rick” Singer, who acted as a fixer.
Loughlin and Huffman, who both spent decades as working actresses in Hollywood and had squeaky reputations (we’re talking “Aunt Becky” here), went on to handle their legal troubles in two very different ways. Huffman quickly admitted her guilt, apologized profusely, served prison time and put it behind her. Loughlin, who is fighting the charges, has done none of those things, and her life and career sit in a holding pattern as she appears to be headed toward a trial in the new year.
“It’s over for Felicity,” Howard Bragman, one of the best-known PR and crisis experts, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “The year is over, it’s over for her and she gets to move on.”
Meanwhile, for Loughlin, none of it has gone away, “and it’s hanging over her head,” Bragman, the author of the book Where's My Fifteen Minutes? adds. (Bragman is not representing either actress.)
Two women, two different paths — one with ‘bad optics’
From the moment the indictments were announced by the U.S Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts in March, things played out very differently for the women, who aren’t friends, despite their Hollywood ties. Huffman was arrested by FBI agents— guns drawn — at the L.A. mansion she shares with William H. Macy and their daughters. We saw her looking shellshocked after being pulled from bed and taken into custody, and those unforgettable sketches from her arraignment, which showed her makeup-free and looking weary as she slumped in her seat behind her fellow defendants.
By the next month, the Desperate Housewives star, who hired crisis PR experts at the TASC Group, had cooperated with prosecutors, agreeing to plead guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for paying Singer $15,000 to have someone change the SAT scores of her elder daughter, Sophia Macy, who Huffman said has a learning disability. The 57-year-old apologized, was sentenced and apologized again, paid her fine and completed an 11-day prison sentence. The Academy Award nominee has since been tackling her 250 hours of community service — pretty much the only place from which we’ve really seen her coming and going, save for hikes with her Shameless star husband — while under one year of supervised release.
“She took responsibility, apologized to the court, apologized to the public, did her time with what I think was no complaints and moved on successfully,” says Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Silva L. Megerditchian of SLM Law, who is also not representing either actress.
The attorney adds, “Another thing Huffman and her husband did perfectly: They really stay out of the limelight. We did not know exactly what they were doing or not doing. We know that the immediate reaction was privacy, apology and rehabilitation. And they got lots of letters saying: She is not a bad person. She did what she thought was better for her family and she apologized.” After all, Huffman said in a letter to court that she worked with Singer legitimately for nearly a year to improve Sophia’s odds of getting into an acting program before agreeing to Singer’s illegal cheating scheme.
On the other hand, Loughlin — who’s charged alongside her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, and maintains her innocence — has taken a different approach. The once beloved Full House star, who allegedly paid $500,000 to get both of her social media influencer daughters, Isabella and Olivia Jade, into the University of Southern California as crew recruits, despite neither participating in the sport, was able to turn herself in. At her arraignment, she was completely styled — and there was no meekness, with the courtroom sketch artist observing that she came off as defiant.
Loughlin didn’t make a deal — and didn’t impress the court of public opinion with her smiley appearance during her first big court date in Boston. She was then slapped with an additional charge (money laundering) and then another (conspiring "to commit federal program bribery). All told, she and her husband each face up to 50 years in prison, but secured high-profile attorney Sean M. Berkowitz, a former director of the Department of Justice’s Enron Task Force, now of Latham & Watkins, LLP, to represent them — and we’re just now seeing hints of their defense.
“From a PR point of view, I have not been impressed with the way it’s been handled by her team from the start,” says Bragman, whose clients have included Monica Lewinsky. “I was most offended when she went to court and kind of looked like she was enjoying herself: smiling, looked like she was dressed by a stylist and had a clown car full of attorneys. That was — right there, out of the box — just bad optics.”
Bragman continues, “Here’s the thing: You’ve got to interact the legal strategies and the public strategies — the court of public opinion and the court of law. As soon as you decide you’re going to fight this in the court of law, you have a very different road to hoe in the court of public opinion. A lot of stuff that has come out [about Loughlin in the press has] sounded silly and you never know if it’s really something that came from her and her people because there’s not a cohesive strategy.”
The offspring optics: A ‘cringe’-worthy return to YouTube
The Giannulli girls — particularly YouTube star Olivia Jade, who recently resumed her online makeup tutorial biz — certainly haven’t helped their parents problems.
“I don’t think the girls did their parents any favors after the story broke,” Megerditchian says of the girls, who, according to federal prosecutors, posed on rowing equipment for photos that could be used in fake athletic profiles to get them into USC. (They are no longer enrolled at at the school, but they weren’t expelled. )
“We all remember the photo of [Olivia Jade] on the yacht,” she continued, referring to the 20-year-old being on a spring break trip aboard a USC official’s luxury boat when the scandal broke. Also cited were Olivia’s past comments about going to college to party not study, the Instagram photo giving the finger to the press and the sisters on Beverly Hills shopping sprees.
While Bragman doesn’t think it’s a huge deal that Olivia Jade — who frequently hit the red carpet with her mom pre-scandal — recently resumed her YouTube career (“I don’t think that’s the biggest problem” Loughlin has, he says), Megerditchian said she “cringed” because everything the family is doing is being analyzed not just by the public but by prosecutors.
“Honestly, how does it help their case?” asks Megerditchian. “Didn’t they think about that? I think every single thing that they do in public has to come from: Will this help me in some capacity? And I don’t see how it helps.”
Meanwhile, the Huffman girls — who made rare public appearances with their famous parents pre-scandal — have been much more low-key like their mom. They have remained on social media, it just hasn’t really made headlines, and the rare paparazzi sighting is usually younger daughter Georgia, 17, volunteering with her mom.
Prosecutors said Sophia, 19, was unaware her mom paid Singer to boost her SAT score to 1420 — 400 points higher than her PSAT. The teen found out when her mom was arrested, leading to a college she hoped to attend rescinding an invitation to audition, which she found out about en route to the school. Macy wrote about that incident (“She called us from the airport in hysterics”) in a letter to his wife’s judge prior to sentencing. He also detailed how the family is going to therapy to repair “the hurt and anger” Huffman caused her children, adding that it “will take years to work through.”
Sophia, who graduated from high school in June, ultimately took a gap year amid the scandal. Georgia — who Huffman considered running the scheme for as well, but changed her mind — graduates in June and recently shared in her Instagram bio that she’s headed to Vassar next fall.
What 2020 will bring: A potential comeback for Huffman, but not ‘nuclear’ Loughlin
Amid the scandal, there’s definitely been less sympathy for Loughlin — in our Yahoo universe and beyond.
Bragman thinks it’s “because she had so far to fall. Schadenfreude. The fact that she was Aunt Becky and she was the good girl, which are all the things that are going to make it that much harder for her to come back. Huffman is going to have an easier time on so many levels — not just because of the way she played it.”
So what should Huffman’s next move be? No big sit-down interviews — just putting it behind her and getting back to work.
“I think she should go back to acting,” the PR pro says. “Here’s the thing: She owned it, she did her amends, she kinda did everything right. I mean, nobody’s going to forget that she did it. [But] enough time passes and you move on.”
And Bragman is very confident Huffman will reclaim her career.
“Oh, I know she will,” he says. “I know producers who adore her who want to hire her and who are looking for the right role for her. I’ve talked to them. One hundred percent.” (Huffman’s crisis PR team hasn’t responded to Yahoo Entertainment’s request for comment about what’s ahead for her next year.)
However, when it comes to Loughlin, 55, reclaiming her career, “She’s still nuclear,” he says.
For now, he thinks Loughlin should “get on with her life,” but at the same time don’t “look like she’s enjoying this in any way.”
And despite her inappropriately timed smiles on the way into court, Bragman says she’s likely not enjoying this. It’s cost her a lot in many different ways.
“It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of time. It’s a lot of pain,” he says, adding, “There is something in the court of public opinion, particularly if you want a career when this is over, to taking responsibility. [It] helps you move on quicker and there is a value in that and I think Felicity is going to see that and Lori is not.”
Loughlin’s defense: ‘Mislead by this bad actor’
While Loughlin and Giannulli’s case trudges along — they have a status conference Jan. 17, but are not required to attend — we are starting to see the first glimpse of their defense.
On Dec. 13, their legal team filed a motion claiming the Justice Department refused to turn over critical evidence and asked the judge to intervene. In particular, they sought FBI reports, known as "302 reports," that detail statements and interview notes taken during the investigation.The defense claimed the government appeared to be “concealing exculpatory evidence” that showed that Loughlin and Giannulli “believed all of the payments they made would go to USC itself — for legitimate, university-approved purposes — or to other legitimate charitable causes.”
Amid that filing, a document from prosecutors summarizing what Singer and the other witnesses told the FBI about Loughlin and Giannulli was made public. It claimed Singer said "Loughlin was in charge” of the scam, which she used for both girls, and told her “daughters they needed to do better in high school,” so their admission to USC wasn’t questioned. Singer said he warned Giannulli that a college counselor at the girls’ high school "could mess things up" because they questioned why Olivia was applying to USC as a crew recruit when she did not play the sport. Giannulli then told the counselor, after being questioned about the misleading information on Olivia’s application, that she was a coxswain — a non-rowing position — for a rowing team of a private club. The head of the school ultimately told Giannulli they would not interfere with Olivia’s application.
While the public wonders, “Why doesn’t Loughlin just accept responsibility?” Megerditchian says, “We just can’t forget that It’s a very real possibility that the couple has a defense in this case.” And it could be that they were innocent, and Singer — the ringleader of the scheme who’s cooperating with prosecutors — manipulated them.
“Their defense, it looks like, is that Loughlin and her husband went to Singer and Singer was a true manipulator,” Megerditchian theorizes. “Not that these two went knowingly bribing, but that they were misled by this bad actor... In other words, I think what the defense team is trying to say: This dude is a bad guy. He already pled to these charges,“ including racketeering conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing. “He obviously sold this couple out for his own gain because he knows the more he speaks the less his sentence will be.”
And there is a question about what USC knew of Singer’s operation.
That said, Megerditchian wonders how the couple will defend the fact that their daughters weren’t on a row team and yet had fake profiles — and photos — claiming they were.
“Again, you have the nagging allegation of: If you thought Singer was legitimate, and you thought maybe this could have been a charitable donation, where he manipulated the thought process, then why go the extra step and lie about the girls athleticism?” she asks.
With Loughlin’s defense team coming out swinging for the first time, we also wondered if it is possible they could get off.
“Anything, anything is possible‚ and I’ve seen everything when it comes to criminal cases,” Megerditchian says. “Look at the Jussie Smollett case. Would anyone have believed in a million years that he would have walked without any issue? Anything is possible. And I will say that a very smart defense team will hold their defense very close to them. It could very well be that they have a huge defense in this case... When you have the legal team like this — a former federal prosecutor as the head of the defense team — I don’t think they would make moves frivolously.”
Parting words from the PR pro: ‘Not a Hollywood scandal’
Both Bragman and Megerditchian pointed out that while we’ve been talking endlessly about Loughlin and Huffman amid the scandal this year, there were 53 people, including 36 parents as well as college coaches, charged in the college admissions case.
“There is one thing I want to note in all this,” Bragman says. “These two were truly the face of this, but this was not a Hollywood scandal. This was a rich people scandal. And yet the Hollywood people, because of their visibility, ended up taking the brunt of it, so I feel a little bad in that sense for them.”
He continues, “And they didn’t set out to break the law. The got coerced into it. It doesn’t overlook their bad behavior — they had plenty of bad behavior, OK? — but they didn’t go out trying to rob a bank, if you will. It happened and they didn’t say no at the right time, or this smells fishy, or this is immoral or dishonorable and I don’t want to go there.”
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