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"It gets worse if you don't plead": Experts sound off on latest in college admissions scandal

Stephanie Pagones

Lawyers and experts sounded off in the wake of news that some parents were hit with more charges in connection to the college admissions scandal that has so far sent business executives, a Hollywood star and a big-name lawyer packing for the slammer.

One day after federal prosecutors announced additional charges against 11 parents, including “Full House” star Lori Loughlin and her fashion-designer husband Mossimo Giannulli, attorneys unaffiliated with the case were unanimous in their beliefs that adding the allegations was a way to mount pressure, and in turn, convince the defendants to plead guilty.

This is "a very classic government prosecutor tactic,” Georgia-based trial attorney Mark Tate told FOX Business on Wednesday.

“Prosecutors want to over-indict and overcharge so that when the criminal lawyers who represent these people are evaluating risks and benefits of a guilty plea versus trial, they tell people: ‘If you go to trial and are convicted on these counts, you’re looking at …100 years, 50 years,'" he said.

The parents were charged for conspiracy to commit federal program bribery “by bribing employees of the University of Southern California to facilitate their children’s admission,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release.

If convicted, the charge adds a maximum sentence of five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a minimum fine of $250,000, which is combined with their previous sentencing guidelines for their other charges, officials said.

Tuesday’s press release mentioned no new evidence in the case and provided no indication that fresh information had come in, but a Department of Justice spokesperson said the investigation is still active.

“It’s simply an intimidating tactic to make people plead guilty," Tate added. "That’s all this is."

Julie Rendelman, a New York-based criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, noted that prosecutors might tack on charges that are easier to prove or impact the sentencing guidelines to put added pressure on the defendants.

“It also looks worse, quite frankly, when you’re charged with 15 things versus being charged with one thing,” Rendelman added.

She wasn’t surprised, she said, that those who have been sentenced so far have been ordered to serve time in jail, but “some jail time, not a lot of jail time.”

“I think this doesn't just speak to the people who plead guilty, but it speaks to those who did it,” Rendelman added. “I don't want to speak for the judge, but certainly the prosecutors and their viewpoint are letting [the defendants] know this is what's going to happen.”

“Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman was the first of many parents to learn their fate after pleading guilty.

Huffman was sentenced in September to two weeks in jail for paying $15,000 to have her daughter’s SAT scores fixed in 2017. She pleaded guilty in May and reported to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, on Oct. 15.

She is due to be released on Oct. 27, just shy of her 14-day sentence, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

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Besides Huffman, several other parents, who have pleaded guilty, have since been sentenced, including:

  • California winemaker Agustin Hunees Jr., who paid one of the highest sums out of parents sentenced so far, was sentenced to five months behind bars for spending $300,000 to get his daughter into University of Southen California.
  • Los Angeles real estate developer Robert Flaxman, 63, \was sentenced to one month in jail for paying $75,000 to fix on his daughter's college entrance exam. In May, he copped to one count of fraud and conspiracy.
  • Devin Sloane, the founder of a water treatment company who paid $250,000 to get his son into University of Southen California as a fake water polo player was sentenced to four months in jail and was ordered to perform 500 hours of community service and pay a fine of $95,000 for his role in the scandal. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Beverly Hills marketing executive Jane Buckingham, who was once known for her how-to books for young adults, was sentenced to three weeks behind bars. She previously admitted to paying $50,000 to enlist a proctor to take her son’s college entrance exam.  The CEO of the marketing firm Trendera later apologized and said she has "absolutely no excuse."

New-Jersey-based lawyer Brad Micklin said he interpreted the prosecution’s move to add charges as a way “to coerce plea deals” and “to show that they’re not being soft on those that are fighting.”

"They're just going to keep on leaning on them until some of them start to cave,” Micklin said. “Because, once they get one or two of these to cave, then the rest are going to start jumping ship, too.”

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Meanwhile, Fox News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano told FOX Business' Neil Cavuto: "What the government is doing is horrendous."

“The government is basically punishing these people for exercising their guaranteed constitutional right to plead not guilty,” Napolitano said. The added charge “constitutes a punishment for the fault of defending yourself."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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