Judge sentences Lori Loughlin and husband Mossimo Giannulli to prison for college bribery scheme

Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, right, leave the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on Aug. 27, 2019. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Breaking their silence for the first time since their arrest, “Full House” star Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli apologized Friday for using their wealth and privilege to bribe their daughters’ way into the University of Southern California as crew recruits.

Accepting plea deals struck in May after the pair admitted paying $500,000, a judge sentenced Loughlin to serve two months behind bars while Giannulli was sentenced to five months.

Fighting back tears, Loughlin told the judge her actions “helped exacerbate existing inequalities in society" and pledged to do everything in her power to use her experience as a “catalyst to do good.” Her lawyer said she had begun volunteering with special needs students at an elementary school.

“I made an awful decision. I went along with a plan to give my daughters an unfair advantage in the college admissions process and in doing so I ignored my intuition and allowed myself to be swayed from my moral compass,” Loughlin said during the hearing held via videoconference because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In an earlier hearing, Giannulli told the judge earlier Friday that he “deeply” regrets the harm to his daughters, wife and others.

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“I take full responsibility for my conduct. I am ready to accept the consequences and move forward, with the lessons I’ve learned from this experience,” Giannulli, 57, said in a stoic statement.

The couple’s sentencing comes three months after they reversed course and admitted to participating in the college admissions cheating scheme that has laid bare the lengths to which some wealthy parents will go to get their kids into elite universities.

They are among nearly 30 prominent parents to plead guilty in what federal prosecutors dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” in which authorities uncovered hefty bribes to get undeserving kids into college with rigged test scores or fake athletic credentials. “Desperate Housewives” actress Felicity Huffman served nearly two weeks behind bars last year after admitting to paying $15,000 to have someone correct her daughter’s entrance exam answers.

Both Loughlin and Giannulli were ordered to surrender Nov. 19. U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton said the prison terms stipulated by the plea deals are “sufficient but not greater than necessary punishment under the circumstances.”

Gorton expressed outrage at the couple’s greed, telling Loughlin she had a “charmed” and “fairytale life.”

“Yet you stand before me a convicted felon and for what? For the inexplicable desire to grasp even more, to have whatever prestige and instant gratification that comes from being able to show off the admission of your daughter to a preferred university,” Gorton said.

Under the plea deals — unusual because the proposed terms were binding once accepted, instead of granting Gorton sentencing discretion — Giannulli will also pay a $250,000 fine and perform 250 hours of community service. Loughlin will pay a $150,000 fine and perform 100 hours of community service.

They had insisted for more than a year that they believed their payments were “legitimate donations.”

The couple funneled money through a sham charity operated by Rick Singer to get their two daughters into USC as crew recruits, even though neither was a rower, authorities said. Singer, who has also pleaded guilty, was expected to testify against them had they gone to trial.

The couple accused prosecutors of hiding crucial evidence that could prove the couple’s innocence. Their about-face came shortly after the judge rejected their bid to dismiss the case over allegations of federal agents' misconduct.

The case shattered the clean image of Loughlin, 56, who gained fame for her role as the wholesome Aunt Becky in the sitcom “Full House” and later became queen of the Hallmark channel with her holiday movies and the series “When Calls the Heart.”

“Lori lost the acting career she spent 40 years building,” her attorney BJ Trach said, describing the “devastating” impact on Loughlin's family life and career.

Defense attorneys said they were devoted parents motivated by love for their children, and alluded to bullying their daughters faced after the charges were made public. Trach said the family was forced to hire security for their daughters.

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Unlike every other parent sentenced so far in the case, they did not submit letters expressing regret or notes of support from family and friends to the judge by the deadline, although Gorton said he received two letters in support of Loughlin the day of the sentencing.

Others sentenced to prison in the case urged the judge to allow them to serve their terms in home confinement because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Gorton, known for handing out tough sentences, has denied such requests.

Prosecutors said Giannulli deserves a tougher sentence because he was “the more active participant in the scheme,” though Loughlin “was nonetheless fully complicit.”

Investigators recorded phone calls and emails showing the couple worked with Singer to secure admission with fake athletic profiles depicting their children as star rowers.

Prosecutors said the couple allowed the girls “to become complicit in crime,” instructing them to pose on rowing machines for photos — Singer told them he needed a picture of their older daughter looking “like a real athlete” — and warning their younger daughter not to say too much to her high school counselor.

Giannulli angrily confronted the counselor for questioning their crew credentials, the counselor wrote in notes detailed in court documents.

Singer forwarded them a letter saying their younger daughter was let in because of her “potential to make a significant contribution to the intercollegiate athletic program,” prosecutors wrote.

According to court filings, Loughlin responded: “This is wonderful news! (high-five emoji)."