Springfield Business Journal Articles

Sarah Delano Pavlik

College Admissions Scandal

Recently, there has been a great deal of coverage about parents paying large sums of money to professional test takers and athletic coaches to get their children admitted into elite universities across the country.  While the parents were presumably trying to give their children the best chance to succeed in life, their conduct could result in jail time.

In their wildest dreams, the parents who were recently indicted in the college admissions scandal probably didn’t think that giving their kids an academic boost would inevitably lead to federal conspiracy charges filed against them.  Chances are that Felicity Huffman did not consider that her parenting efforts would take her from a TV desperate housewife to a real world desperate housewife looking at a $250,000 bail bond.

Most of us understand that if a wealthy alum has been making generous donations to her former school over the years, the alum can tug on a few strings to help coax her descendants' admission into her alma mater when the time comes around. That's just a fact of life.  So, why is that sort of thing OK in the eyes of the law, but Huffman's conduct considered criminal?  It all comes down to how the student's college admission was secured.  Some students' admissions are gained by increasing a school's assets by a rich relative, but the university arguably rationalizes this by pointing out that it's doing more good than harm by giving other students access to resources they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.  However, it becomes illegal when collegiate spots are secured by defrauding the school itself.
In the recent college admissions scandal, the fifty-or-so individuals who have been caught are facing federal charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.  These charges might seem confusing because, after all, the issue is about cheating the college admissions process.

The United States Code (federal statutes) provides that it is a federal crime for a person to conspire with another to use the U.S. Postal Service to commit a deceptive act.  If an individual is found guilty of this offense, she can face a hefty fine and/or penalty of up to 20 years in prison.  Similarly, the U.S. Code provides that it is a federal crime for a person to conspire with another over the telephone or internet to perform a deceptive act.  This, too, can result in a large fine of and/or penalty of up to 20 years in prison.  The reason these are federal crimes (as opposed to state crimes) mostly has to do with the fact that the lines of communication – the U.S. Postal Service, telephone lines and the internet – involve crossing state lines.

When at least two parties have a conversation about committing fraud over the phone or internet, or do anything over the phone or internet to promote any fraudulent activities, they could be facing federal charges.  This is because of how federal law enforcement charges conspiracy as a crime.

A review of the actual indictment filed by the FBI in the admissions scandal shows that many of the charges stem from recorded phone calls, email correspondence and text messages between parents and informants.  This is why the criminal charges in the scandal are conspiracy to commit fraud via communications rather than something more specific about defrauding the college admissions process.  As far as the prosecution goes, all that will need to be shown by the federal government is that these individuals coordinated with at least one other conspirator over the phone and/or internet to perpetrate a fraudulent act – namely to provide false information on university applications.

So, how can federal prosecutors charge a group of strangers across the country with the same conspiracy even when the conspirators don’t all know each other, and didn’t all speak to one another?  As Illinois' own Seventh Circuit of Appeals has explained:

    While the parties to an agreement must know of each other's existence, they need not know each other's identity nor need there be direct contact.  The agreement may continue for a long period of time and include the performance of many transactions.  New parties may join the agreement at any time while others may terminate their relationship.  The parties are not always identical, but this does not mean that there are separate conspiracies.

This means that not all parties to a conspiracy need to know one another, or even continue their participation in an ongoing conspiracy, to be guilty in the same conspiracy.  The only thing that matters is that they are part of a collective group that has the same common goal of committing the same crime.

When it comes to the college admissions scandal, since both Lori Laughlin and Felicity were each in contact with the same federal informant, and the informant relayed to each that other parents had used/were using the informant to give their children an academic leg-up, each has found themselves answering to law enforcement for the same conspiracy.

Although less important to the facts of the admissions scandal, but an equally important facet of criminal conspiracy, is the idea that even the lowest members of a conspiracy can be charged with the biggest crimes associated with the conspiracy.  In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling in a case known as Pinkerton v. United States that has proved to be a very useful tool for law enforcement seeking to take down large criminal enterprises.  In essence, Pinkerton stands for the notion that if a conspiracy exists between at least two people, each individual conspirator will be held liable not only for his own crimes, but for any other foreseeable offenses committed by any of his co-conspirators committed in furtherance of the conspiracy.  

Currently, the indicted parents in the college admissions scandal are looking at accusations of using the U.S. Postal Service, the internet, and telephone communications to conspire to: (1) bribe college entrance exam administrators to facilitate cheating on college entrance exams; (2) bribe university coaches and administrators to designate certain applicants as recruited athletes or as other favored candidates; and (3) use a facade of a charitable organization to conceal the nature and source of the bribe payments.  It is because of Pinkerton that even though not all of the conspiring parents may have participated in all of these illegal activities, the federal prosecutor has the ability to charge all of the crimes against all of the parents.

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