Since celebrity scandals are a huge driver of traffic on the internet, it should surprise no one that we’ve all seen piece after piece about the college admissions scandal that focus on the celebrity parents’ alleged attempts to cheat the system. We’ve seen much less focus on the underlying legal issues-even though these could ultimately prove more interesting.

One exception was a March article in the Los Angeles Times that offered a take on the legal issues presented at the time. It reminded readers that legal cases aren’t about public opinion, but about building legal arguments.

A closer look at white collar criminal defense

As the Times reported, most of the players in the scandal-including all 33 of the high-profile parents-face charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. This means the government needs to prove both that there was specific intent to commit fraud and that someone was actually defrauded. There are challenges to both parts:

  • Prosecutors claim that the victims were the universities, arguing that the parents and their aides denied athletic appointments and college entries to other applicants. This argument appears to hold a great deal of sway with the outraged public, but does it hold water in a court?
  • Proving that defendants acted with “specific intent to defraud” can be tricky, and we may have already seen this intent considered two different ways by the two most famous actors involved.

Both defense strategies appear to hinge on the matter of intent:

  • One actress has pleaded guilty and offered a full apology. She has acknowledged her guilt-and her intent-and she has agreed to accept whatever consequences may follow. This could be part of a plea for a reduced sentence.
  • The other actress charged in the scandal and her husband have pleaded not guilty, claiming they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong. It’s now up to the prosecution to prove the couple acted with intent. But the prosecutors are also turning up the heat by introducing other charges. As a result, the news has often referred to this couple’s not guilty plea as a gamble.

Because the media are watching so closely-and because the two most notable figures have chosen to follow wildly different routes with their legal strategies-this college admissions scandal may offer the public a rare case study in white collar criminal defense.

The results may have consequences beyond Hollywood

It’s not certain the public will end up finding the legal consequences of this case as interesting as the prospect of celebrities getting in trouble, but anyone with an interest in white collar criminal defense will want to follow it closely. In the legal version of this scandal, the celebrities are only the players. The definitions of the crimes and the divergent defense strategies may be the bigger story!