Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin face potential prison time after being among 50 people charged by the Justice Department on Tuesday in a college admission cheating scheme to get their children into top universities.
NBC legal analyst Ari Melber weighed in on TODAY Wednesday about the possible repercussions for Loughlin and Huffman, who have been charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services fraud.
"They face real prison time for a felony, although you could imagine if they cooperate this not being the kind of thing where the feds want to jail a bunch of parents,'' Melber told Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie. "They clearly are sending a message. We've never seen a racketeering case like this."
Huffman was released on $250,000 bail by a judge on Tuesday with her travel restricted to the continental U.S., while Loughlin is expected to appear in court on Wednesday.
"As far as the Hollywood folks that we've been talking about...the chances that they actually see jail time is low,'' NBC News investigative reporter Tom Winter said on TODAY Wednesday. "There's no violent crime associated with it, there's no other broader crime that they committed beyond this.
"The judges have wide discretion here, so I think it's unlikely that they'll actually see time inside of a prison. Maybe a supervised release, probation, those type of things just because there's not other crimes associated with it."
Court papers reveal that authorities have emails and recorded phone calls demonstrating that Huffman and Loughlin knowingly paid a third party to get their children admitted to elite universities through cheating on standardized tests and using fake athletic credentials to be considered recruited athletes and improve their chances of getting into top schools.
The 10-month investigation alleges that "Full House" star Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to fake that their daughters were recruited athletes to the University of Southern California crew team to improve their chances of being accepted to USC, where they are both currently students.
Huffman, best known for starring in the ABC hit "Desperate Housewives," has been accused of paying $15,000 to arrange for a third party to "purport to proctor their daughter's SAT and secretly correct her answers."
The allegations center around William "Rick" Singer, an admissions consultant who pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to conspiracy charges of racketeering, money laundering, defrauding the United States and obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors claim Singer operated a fake college admissions consulting group that accepted payments from parents marked as charitable contributions. Those payments were instead used to arrange cheating on SATs, paying off college coaches, and creating fake athletic credentials for students to boost their chances of admission.
Melber was asked if there's a chance the parents didn't know about the scheme and Singer simply went rogue after taking their money.
"That's always a possible defense and everyone is presumed innocent in our system, but what we have is overwhelming evidence, documentary and otherwise, and the person at the center of the racketeering charges flipped, so this looks a lot like a Mafia case where you have evidence from people on the inside, which is always the worst thing,'' Melber said.
"You have the recordings, you have the evidence that really shows the confidence of mind. It doesn't seem like they lumped in parents who didn't know what was going on."
While Singer has already pleaded guilty to perpetrating the fraud, prosecuting the clients of his services remains a focus of the Justice Department.
"In this case his clients, if you want to call them that, were in a sense bigger fish,'' Melber said. "They had so much money and power and fame and influence, and they were still trying to use that to cheat the system. So in a sense, his clients were, at least in the eyes of the government, bigger than him."
Prosecutors also indicated they most likely would not be charging the children of the clients, many of whom are currently still in college.
"It's very clear that they've drawn a line here and not tried to go after these teenagers who were effectively in a situation where their parents and in some cases their school faculty and staff were pushing them along or doing this, so they're not the most blameworthy,'' Melber said. "But they're clearly in violation of honor codes at their own schools and colleges they were seeking. They have other problems probably out of the courtroom."
However, Winter added that there is the chance some students who knew about the scheme could face legal repercussions.
"The U.S. attorney has left the door open to potentially charging some of the students that were involved in this and did have knowledge,'' Winter said.