COMMENTARY: In the U.S. college scandal, an admission of guilt goes a long way towards redemption
Last Monday, actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The couple allegedly paid $500,000 to have their daughters enrolled at the University of Southern California as crew recruits, though neither of the girls actually played the sport. (All dollars U.S.)
Mail fraud and mail laundering charges come with punishments of up to 20 years in prison each, although if convicted, as first-time offenders the pair would likely get a fraction of the total 40 years.
Outrage of the outrage
Why the “not guilty” plea?
For starters, Loughlin actually doesn’t feel she’s done anything unlawful. “It’s just taking some time for it to sink in that what she was allegedly doing could be considered illegal,” a source close to Loughlin told People. “To her, it wasn’t egregious behaviour. Was it entitled and perhaps selfish? Perhaps. But she didn’t see it as being a legal violation.
“From the beginning, she didn’t want to take a deal, because she felt that she hadn’t done anything that any mom wouldn’t have done, if they had the means to do so,” the source continued. “So this wasn’t her being obstinate; this was her truly not understanding the seriousness of the allegations.”
And now that the severity is sinking in, the couple is supposedly “outraged [by] people who are saying that they are cheaters.”
Believe me, I know all too well that feeling of outrage. Like so many others, I was livid when news of this college scam broke. But this couple’s continued show of entitlement and lack of ethics has me feeling bad to worse about their behaviour.
Last time I checked, ignorance is not a defence. I can only imagine an attorney standing before the judge: “Your Honour, my client didn’t know murder was illegal.” If it sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. Blue collar crime would never slide with such an excuse, and nor should white collar — no matter how thick the criminal’s pocketbook is or how many autographs they sign on the way into the courtroom.
A Tale of Two Celebrities
In stark contrast, the other celebrity thrust in the limelight of this scandal is Felicity Huffman, who is handling her transgressions much differently — and gaining respect in doing so. Huffman was among 13 of the 33 parents charged with conspiracy to commit fraud who pleaded guilty last week. Specifically, Huffman pleaded guilty to paying $15,000 to facilitate cheating for her daughter on her SATs. Reportedly, prosecutors are seeking four to 10 months jail time in addition to a $20,000 fine for Huffman for the plea.
Beyond her admission of guilt in the courtroom, Huffman also issued a public apology in which she accepted full responsibility for her wrongful actions. “I am in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done … and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions.”
She added: “I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community. I want to apologize to them and, especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.”
She also said her daughter was unaware of her wrongful actions and apologized for betraying her. “This transgression toward her and the public I will carry for the rest of my life. My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty.”
WATCH: (April 8) Felicity Huffman pleads guilty in college admissions scandal
As a child of immigrant parents who did have to make tremendous sacrifices to support mine and my brother’s education and also as a parent myself now, with a child attending university next year, I understand the blood, sweat and tears that so many have to make to only see their children accepted into higher education, but then financially sustain, survive and thrive through those years.
I appreciated Huffman’s apology and took it to heart, as did others.
Because after all, where is our humanity if we can’t find forgiveness?
Huffman has also shown deep regret for the pain she caused others unintentionally, like her co-workers. Her Netflix film, Otherhood, set to stream on April 26, has been put on pause until August because of this scandal. Huffman has also expressed her remorse for upsetting and negatively impacting the lives of her fellow castmates and colleagues in such projects because of her personal misguided behaviour.
Truth be told, I was beyond enraged when I first learned about this scam, but Huffman’s guilty plea, seemingly genuine remorse and apologies have softened my feelings. And while I believe in forgiveness, I don’t think it can really happen until one takes accountability for their actions — which Huffman has begun to do.
I would find it very difficult to forgive without an apology or admission of guilt in this scenario. Much like the Jussie Smollett case, where the prosecution stated that he “was not exonerated” but they were simply not moving forward with the case, the public has had a difficult time reconciling their emotions. With Smollett maintaining that he has had no part in the hoax, it makes it very difficult for the public to move forward without conflicted feelings and trust in his character. And it has also affected his career, with reports this week that he has been ousted for the lead in the Broadway show Take Me Out as a result of his scandal.
WATCH: Cook County’s Kim Foxx speaks out over handling of Jussie Smollett case
The Art of the Scandal
Perhaps some celebrities are better at getting ahead of a scandal and managing the narrative that falls out of it. I often think of David Letterman and how his reputation and career could have been tainted so differently if he didn’t open his show monologue that one night and tell the camera — and the world — about his infidelities in his own candid words. In doing so, he got ahead of the scandal that was about to explode, he took full responsibility for his actions, showed remorse and regret. And in time, we forgave — even if we didn’t forget.
I don’t know what the outcome will be for the 33 parents involved in this college admissions scam. I sincerely hope justice prevails and regardless of their wealth, privilege or celebrity, all are held accountable to their actions — including those like Lori Loughlin, who don’t know or just don’t care about the law.