BOSTON — Attorneys for actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband Mossimo Giannulli say the Justice Department has refused to turn over critical evidence in the nation's college admissions case and have asked a judge to intervene to force federal prosecutors to hand it over.
The celebrity couple's attorneys filed a motion Friday seeking the government to produce the material, arguing it should be included as exculpatory evidence.
Both have pleaded not guilty to federal charges for paying $500,000 to Rick Singer, the mastermind of a sprawling college admissions cheating and bribery scheme, to get their daughters tagged as crew recruits to slip them into the University of Southern California. They're preparing for trial next year.
The couple's legal team asked for "all information" concerning Singer's representations to his clients regarding payments to USC as well as information about "USC's knowledge of Singer's operation." In particular, they singled out Federal Bureau of Investigation reports, known as "302 reports," that detail statements and interview notes taken during the college admissions investigation.
Attorneys, led by Sean Berkowitz, say the documents would prove the central argument of Loughlin, Giannulli and other parents charged in the "Varsity Blues" case who have maintained their innocence — that they made "legitimate donations" to a nonprofit led by Singer, not bribes.
"The Government’s theory in this case is that Giannulli and Loughlin knowingly bribed a rogue USC administrator in order to secure their daughters’ admission to the university," the new motion reads. "But the Government appears to be concealing exculpatory evidence that helps show that both Defendants believed all of the payments they made would go to USC itself — for legitimate, university-approved purposes — or to other legitimate charitable causes.
"The Government’s failure to disclose this information is unacceptable, and this Court should put a stop to it."
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment. A spokesperson from USC, Leigh Hopper, did not immediately comment on the filing. Attorneys for other parents in the admissions scandal have been denied similar requests for the same documents.
Loughlin and Giannulli are among 36 parents accused of paying into a vast criminal network led by Singer, a college admissions consultant from California, who took payments in exchange for either tagging their children as fake athletic recruits to get them admitted into elite colleges or fixing their college entrance exam scores. A newly charged parent agreed this week to plead guilty to paying Singer to have someone take online college courses for her son. Singer has pleaded guilty and cooperated with authorities.
Loughlin and Giannulli are charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, honest services fraud, money laundering and federal programs bribery, which was tacked on in October to parents who declined plea deals offered by prosecutors.
The couple's attorneys argue the Justice Department must prove Loughlin and Giannulli "intended" to defraud USC and that they "knew" their donations to Singer's nonprofit, the Key Worldwide Foundation, would be used to bribe a USC official, former senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel.
"At trial, Giannulli and Loughlin will help establish their innocence by showing that they understood both sets of payments to be legitimate donations and did not understand or intend that either set of payments would be used to directly or indirectly bribe Heinel," their motion reads.
The government has argued that payments from wealthy parents to Singer produced a classic quid pro quo, with the payments serving as bribes to get their children into elite universities.
To counter, the couple's attorneys say they need "any statements by Singer as to what he precisely told his clients" about the use of their funds. They also say they need statements detailing what USC knew of Singer's operation, arguing that if they did know about the operation but accepted money anyway then the university was not bribed or defrauded.
Attorneys for Robert Zangrillo, another parent accused of making bribes to USC, in September released emails from USC that showed the university maintained a spreadsheet that classified some applicants as "VIP" because their families made major donations to the school, were friends or had other connections.
Zangrillo’s defense team said it showed a "university-wide program at USC" where past and future donations affected a student’s admissions, meaning Zangrillo's payment of $50,000 to USC was a gift, not a bribe.
Prosecutors have turned over more than 3 million pages of emails, wiretaps and other evidence to defense attorneys in the admissions case. But at a court hearing in June, defense attorneys flagged how the government had not released FBI interviews with parents not charged in the case.
These uncharged parents told the FBI that Singer said their donations would go to athletic programs or schools, not bribes, the defense attorneys said.
Federal Magistrate Page Kelley denied the defense's request to certify the documents as exculpatory evidence.
Loughlin and Giannulli's new court filing includes letters this past summer between their attorneys, continuing to press for the documents, and U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling. He wrote to them that their request for information detailing how Singer represented himself to clients was a "fishing expedition" for evidence that was immaterial.
"To the extent that Singer made representations to actual or potential clients who are not defendants in this case, such representations are, on their face, irrelevant," Lelling wrote in an Oct. 31 letter.
Loughlin and Giannulli's attorney argue the government's "fundamental misunderstanding of its obligations" to turn over all evidence raises concerns about their ability to do so and suggests there could be other relevant information they're withholding.
"The Government’s failures directly threaten Giannulli and Loughlin’s constitutional rights to a fair trial and due process of law," the attorneys say in the motion.
Fifty-three people, including 36 parents as well as college coaches, have been charged in the college admissions case. Thirty have either pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty later while the remaining 23 prepare for trial.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lori Loughlin lawyer: Feds hiding evidence in college admissions case