SAN JOSE, Calif. — In November 2017, Lori Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli received the kind of news that any college-bound high school senior dreams of: A letter from the admissions dean at a top college saying: “I am pleased to inform you … ”
The letter was from the University of Southern California. But something in the letter should have stood out to Olivia Jade Giannulli, as well as to her TV actress mother and father, Mossimo Giannulli.
This “something” has certainly stood out to federal prosecutors, according to newly released documents in federal court. To them, it is yet more evidence that the former “Full House” actress and her fashion designer husband were “knowing” participants in a scheme to falsify their daughter’s credentials to get her into the top Los Angeles college.
The letter praised Olivia Jade for her potential to make “significant contributions to the intercollegiate athletic program.” But federal prosecutors allege that Olivia Jade never participated in crew; reports indicate she was academically indifferent and spent her high school years building her career as a blogger and Instagram influencer.
Prosecutors allege Olivia Jade was only admitted to USC because her parents conspired with college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer to falsely present her to USC as a talented crew athlete who would row for the school’s women’s team.
Loughlin, Giannulli and Singer had successfully used the fake-athlete approach the year before to help Isabella, Olivia Jade’s older sister, get into USC, documents show.
Prosecutors say that the couple were so wedded to this approach that they rejected a more “legitimate” offer of help from a USC development officer, who said he could “flag” Isabella’s application and host the family for a special tour of the campus.
The documents, including emails and transcripts, were released by federal prosecutors this week to hit back at key defense arguments made by Loughlin, Giannulli and other wealthy parents, including several from the Bay Area, who face trial in the nationwide college admissions scandal. Prosecutors also rejected defense attorneys’ claims that they haven’t been forthcoming with evidence.
The defendants’ argument is that they were “unsuspecting participants” in schemes concocted by Singer, the conspiracy mastermind who pleaded guilty and cooperated with investigators.
According to this argument, Singer led these parents to believe that the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars they paid to his Key Worldwide Foundation or to his alleged accomplices at different universities were “legitimate” donations. The parents claim they thought their money would help disadvantaged students or university athletic programs — not benefit Singer or his alleged accomplices individually.
These parents back their argument by saying they did what they could to gain an advantage in an already problematic college admissions system — one that expects the wealthy to make hefty donations to top schools in order to advance their children’s chances of acceptance.
But prosecutors say this “sanitized rendition of facts” ignores, among other things, the defendants’ “knowing fabrication of their children’s credentials.” Documents show that some of the accused paid Singer to cheat their children’s way into getting better scores on their college entrance exams.
Loughlin, Giannulli and other parents also allegedly went along with Singer’s “side-door” approach, which involved creating the fake athletic profiles and paying off corrupt university employees, “including through contributions to funds over which employees exercised discretion, or which otherwise benefited them professionally,” prosecutors said.
With regard to Laughlin and Giannulli, prosecutors contend they had no interest in pursuing “the legitimate” approach to getting their daughters’ admitted to USC. Instead they opted to pay Singer and his alleged accomplices a total of $500,000 to create the fake athletic profiles. The couple, who are charged with wire fraud, bribery and other charges, face up to 45 years in prison.
Loughlin and Giannulli began working with Singer in the summer of 2015 to devise “a game plan” to secure Isabella Giannulli’s admission to USC.
In August 2016, Singer told the couple that he would “create a coxswain profile” for Isabella, with the help of Donna Heinel, then-USC’s senior women’s associate athletic director, who has been charged with racketeering, and Laura Janke, the former assistant women’s soccer coach, who pleaded guilty to racketeering.
Singer asked the couple to take a photo of Isabella on a rowing machine that could be used in her profile. In an email, Giannulli happily said, “Fantastic. Will get all,” and later emailed a photo of Isabella on an ergometer. He repeated the process a year later for Olivia Jade, according to documents.
Among the newly released documents is Isabella’s October 2016 athletic profile from the USC Department of Athletics. It presents her as a walk-on coxswain and lists her as a “finalist” and a “gold medal” winner in different competitions around the country.
The profile also said she has “skills, size, energy and drive that we are looking for in a coxswain.” It furthermore notes her “strong desire” to be on the USC rowing team, along with the family’s ability to pay her cost of attendance.
“It is essential that we have athletes like (Isaballa) join our team to give us more depth in the coxswain department without costing us a scholarship at the time,” the profile said.
But around the time that Giannulli and Loughlin were allegedly working with Singer on Isabella’s fake profile, they received an email from an official in USC’s development office. According to the September 2016 email, released with the other documents, the official offered to set up a customized campus tour for her and the family.
Giannulli emailed back, saying “Thanks so much, I think we are squared away.” That night, he forwarded the email to Loughlin and wrote, “The nicest I’ve been at blowing off somebody.”
After Isabella received her conditional acceptance letter, Singer told Giannulli to send Heinel a check for $50,000 payable to “USC Athletics.”
That same day, documents show, Giannulli told Singer that he was going to play golf with then-USC Athletics Director Pat Haden. He also told Singer he planned to say “nothing” about Isabella’s admission to USC.
Singer replied, “Best to keep Pat out of it.” Then he jokingly told Giannulli, “When I met with him a year ago about (your older daughter) he felt you were good for a million plus.”
Giannulli responded, “Hah!”
But amid all the Giannulli family’s success with USC admissions, a counselor at Marymount High School, Isabella and Olivia Jade’s elite prep school in Los Angeles, twice raised concerns about the sisters’ lack of crew experience, including to an admissions officer at USC in March 2017, court documents showed.
Philip Petrone, the co-director of college admissions at Marymount, also raised those concerns in later 2017, saying he was worried that both sisters’ applications contained misleading information.
But Petrone described how he was shut down by Giannulli, who confronted him at the high school and asked if he was going to tell USC that his daughters were “bad candidates.”
Petrone said Giannulli insisted that Olivia Jade indeed was a coxswain for the rowing team of a private club. Petrone assured the worried father that he would convey that information to USC.
USC also received complaints from three high school students in March 2018, who were puzzled about students, including Isabella Giannulli, being admitted as recruited athletes, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing other new emails released this week.
After learning that a Marymount High School counselor had earlier told USC that he had no knowledge of her participating in crew, USC put Heinel, of all people, in charge of investigating the complaints, the Los Angeles Times reported. Heinel reported back that Isabella Giannulli had rowed for a “competitive club” in high school and that USC’s coach “think she has talent.”
©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)