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Charitable Gift or Bribe? Lori Loughlin’s Legal Case Rests on Dubious Claim

September 04, 2019

USC_gateLast week, Lori Loughlin, the actress, and her husband, the designer Mossimo Giannulli, may have provided a glimpse of their defense strategy when they appear in court in October in connection with payments they made, say prosecutors, to help their daughters gain entrance to the University of Southern California. Their likely argument: the money wasn't a bribe; it was an act of altruism.

Loughlin's case is part of a larger — and by now, infamous — scandal involving thirty-four parents who were charged last March with paying money to a third party to "facilitate" their kids' admission to elite universities. Fifteen of those parents have pleaded guilty to fraud. One of them, actress Felicity Huffman, has pleaded guilty to paying $15,000 to have her daughter's SAT exam score artificially inflated and is scheduled to be sentenced on September 13. Unlike Huffman, Loughlin and Giannulli, who parted with $500,000, are planning to fight it out in court.

Loughlin's attorney, William Trach of Latham & Watkins, contends the money the government calls a bribe was really a charitable donation. "Checks were made out to USC Athletics and to a fund at USC," he says. "Those checks were cashed by USC." Trach’s logic, apparently: the money was sent to a tax-exempt charitable organization, and the organization put the money into its bank account; therefore, it was a charitable contribution. (Yes, the University of Southern California, with its $5.5 billion endowment, is a tax-exempt charitable organization.)

Money also traveled through another charity, Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), which was established by William "Rick" Singer, the man behind the admissions scheme. Singer has pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and is now cooperating with prosecutors. We will likely hear more about KWF during the trial, but one question the prosecution should ask is how much Loughlin and her husband donated to entities not caught up in the scandal. Since their lawyer contends that their donations — that's plural — were in support of opportunities for underprivileged students, it might be helpful to know if the couple supported other, similar causes. In fact, it would provide context for their claim of generosity to know how charitable in general the couple has been over the years.

Clearly, a pure heart isn't the only thing driving many charitable contributions. Buildings and programs, for example, are often named for donors, a public recognition of their generosity. And there's no problem with that — not from the perspective of the IRS or the public. But where do we draw the line between a public accolade and a more tangible quid pro quo — a favor or advantage granted or expected in return for something. If the defense goes down the road of altruism, it will have to explain both the timing of the payment — at this point it's difficult to call it a gift — and the quo relative to the quid.

And what of Key Worldwide Foundation? Its mission statement is almost laughable in the context of the scandal: its website says the organization "endeavors to provide education that would normally be unattainable to underprivileged students, not only attainable but realistic. With programs that are designed to assist young people in everyday situations, and educational situations, we hope to open new avenues of educational access to students that would normally have no access to these programs." One might wonder how wealthy celebrities come to see their children as underprivileged. If Laughlin and Giannulli's response is that payments to KWF were meant to help others, that would mean it was mere coincidence that their daughters were accepted to USC. (And bear in mind they were accepted as recruits to one of the top Division 1 women's crew teams in the United States — even though they had no rowing experience.)

Then there's this: in addition to the colleges and universities involved in the scandal, the recipients listed on KWF’s 2015 and 2016 IRS information returns include a nonprofit called Friends of Cambodia (FoC). On those forms, KWF claimed it donated $19,200 in 2015 and $18,550 in 2016 to FoC. But NBC’s Bay Area affiliate KNTV spoke to Elia and Halimah Van Tuyl, the couple who founded FoC, who told the station they were "stunned" to learn their organization is listed on KWF's tax returns; the VanTuyls further claimed they had never heard of KWF or received any money from it. "There’s no record of any of these donations," Halimah Van Tuyl said. "I would have noticed — we’re not that big," added Elia Van Tuyl.

At this moment, it appears that in the gift vs. bribe argument, the evidence in support of the latter is stronger. And for reasons beyond bringing a group of parents trying to game the system to justice, it's important to know the difference. Philanthropy has entered an era of unprecedented scrutiny at the same time that nonprofits increasingly are being asked to demonstrate their impact. Our sector must be vigilant; we cannot afford to let charlatans, without charitable motive, falsely define the narrative of what doing good really means.  

Doug-White-headshot_optDoug White is an advisor to nonprofit organizations and philanthropists and an author and a teacher. His most recent book, to be published in October, is Wounded Charity: Lessons Learned from the Wounded Warrior Project Crisis.

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