College Admissions Scandal: Palo Alto Parents Move To Dismiss Indictment

In the first defense mounted by any of the dozens of defendants ensnared in the college admissions scandal, two Bay Area parents Monday asked a judge to dismiss the indictment against them, claiming there was no conspiracy among the mothers and fathers accused of bribing coaches and test-takers.

Gregory and Amy Colburn, of Palo Alto, are among 19 parents from across the country indicted on conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and honest services fraud, along with conspiracy to commit money laundering. Their attorneys Monday filed a motion to dismiss their charges arguing that even if it were true that they paid $25,000 for a test proctor to correct their son’s SAT scores, as the government alleged, they acted separately from the other parents.

“While the Government’s strategy of lumping together all of the parents into a single conspiracy has had the intended effect of creating widespread public outrage against all of the parents regardless of their actual conduct, there is no legal basis for including the Colburns in this single conspiracy under the allegations in the indictment,” attorney David Schumacher wrote.

The motion coincided with a flurry of not-guilty pleadings, including from Hollywood actress Lori Loughlin. The Colburns, who had previously indicated they would plead not guilty, entered a defense for the first time.

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The ringleader of the alleged scam, William “Rick” Singer, already pleaded guilty, along with other participants, including a Stanford sailing coach. Other parents have indicated they will plead guilty for their roles as part of plea deals.

Prosecutors allege Singer operated a company that took money from wealthy parents, funneled it through a bogus charity and dished out bribes to coaches and test-takers to ace college entrance exams so students could get into elite universities.

The Colburns’ son allegedly used his fraudulent SAT score to apply to Texas Christian University, Indiana University, the University of Oregon and the University of Arizona.

The Colburns’ attorney argued that Singer was the hub of a bicycle wheel and the parents were the spokes. However, Schumacher said the wheel had no rim, meaning the parents had no conspiracy to cheat the college entrance system.

“The methods of the alleged scheme varied widely — from having a proctor secretly change answers on an exam to bribing a college coach to falsely designate a student as an athlete,” Schumacher argued. “There is simply no reasonable basis for a jury to conclude that the Colburns had any interest in whether other people’s kids got into college.”

East Bay defense attorney Dan Horowitz, who reviewed the motion to dismiss, said it’s a sound argument, but likely would lose because the burden is low for the government at this point. And, if the judge did dismiss the charges, he said, prosecutors could refile the case with slightly different charges that cure the conspiracy issues.

“If the crooks at the schools are the same in each conspiracy, their statements may be admissible under hearsay exceptions even if the statements were made in a separate ‘spoke,’” Horowitz said, referring to the Colburns’ wheel defense. “They may be right on this one but it can be refiled as a more simple conspiracy.”

The Colburns also argued that by lumping the parents together they could be prejudiced, seeing as they only are alleged to have paid $25,000 for a fake SAT, while other families paid up to $1.7 million for their children.

Finally, the Colburns argued that there were no “honest services fraud” because the prosecutors do not allege a “deprivation of any money or tangible property resulting from the alleged cheating scheme.”

And if there is no conspiracy to bribe among the parents, Shumacher argued, then the conspiracy to launder money also must fall.

Earlier this month, the Colburns’ attorneys denied the charges entirely.

“The Colburns’ son took his SAT test with no assistance, and the Colburns were unaware that his test was altered in any way,” attorneys Schumacher and Patric Hooper said in a joint statement then. “The Colburns’ lives have been turned upside down by these false accusations.”

Gregory Colburn, a radiation oncologist, has taken a leave of absence to devote his time to defending himself and his wife.

Matthias Gafni is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @mgafni

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