Hey, Lori Loughlin: This Is How to Buy Your Way Into USC — and Get Away With It

Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund manager who inspired 'Billions,' showed how it's done when he spent $5 million in 2014, apparently to help secure his twin daughters' film school admission.
Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Steven A. Cohen

Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, arguably ended up indicted on Mar. 12 in the nation's largest college admissions scandal because they went about their alleged bribing like amateurs. The wise move isn't to straight-up pay off a school official. As the feds have it, the couple handed over $500,000 to a corrupt front foundation and USC's senior women's associate athletic director so that their daughters could pretend they were members of the crew team.

A proper inducement is what disgraced hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen quietly pulled off alongside his wife, Alexandra, in 2014. A chief inspiration for the scheming Billions protagonist Bobby Axelrod played by Damian Lewis, Cohen sought to ensure that both of his twin daughters, Isabella and Olivia, secured two of only a handful of screenwriting spots available at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, perennially ranked No. 1 on The Hollywood Reporter's Top 25 American Film Schools list. Like Charles Kushner before him, who made a $2.5 million tax-deductible donation prior to his son Jared's Harvard acceptance, Cohen anted up the same amount per child.

But unlike Loughlin and Giannulli, the Cohens prudently transformed their intentions into philanthropy by transferring it through their eponymous foundation, and they've reaped ancillary benefits. The $5 million payoff was called a "gift" by the university in an announcement posted on its website shortly after the twins enrolled. (No mention was made of the kids' arrival in the press release.) The purpose of the conveniently timed donation was, according to the School of Cinematic Arts, "need-based scholarships to qualified undergraduate students with significant financial struggles."

For years now, the so-called Cohen Scholars, including plenty of the daughters' classmates, have — as part of the initiative — written annual letters of gratitude to the financial titan, who was forced to shutter his firm, S.A.C. Capital, in 2012, when he was implicated in an alleged insider trading scandal. (He escaped criminal indictment.)

"Steve and Alex have been generous philanthropists to a broad range of educational and cultural institutions," a spokesperson for the Cohens wrote to The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday. "Their children earned admission to USC on their merits and any suggestion otherwise is false." The university echoed the language in its own statement, noting the children had been admitted "on their own merits."

With the Mossimo brand's IPO in 1996 as well as a major multi-product licensing agreement with Target in 2008 and the acquisition by Iconix in 2006, one might wonder whether Giannulli, a USC alum himself, would've experienced smoother sailing had he and Loughlin opted for a richer approach. The same goes for fellow accused criminal Felicity Huffman and her unindicted husband, William H. Macy — who, for all of those seasons on Desperate Housewives and Shameless, funneled a mere $15,000 to the purported SAT-cheating operation. Perhaps a few more zeroes in the correct coffer would've saved them a lot of trouble.

Doling out for campus buildings is the classic tactic to grease the way for fortunate offspring, like the son of former Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who entered Princeton after the Frist family reportedly expended tens of millions of dollars on a new student center there. Blank checks, like the $25 million oil magnate and Yale man Robert Bass gave Stanford before his daughter arrived on campus, are also preferred.

As wealth inequality expert Anand Giridharadas put it in reaction to the admissions scandal, "The illegal $1 million check to get your kid into college is inextricably tied to the legal $100 million donation to start a center based on your whims. The common thread is giving that enables taking. Taking opportunities from other people; taking power."

Nothing is quite so canny as helping yourself under the guise of helping others. "The importance of Steve and Alex's generous gift cannot be overstated, given our objective to make a cinematic arts education possible for every deserving student who has the creative vision and voice to become an innovative mediamaker," SCA dean Elizabeth M. Daley announced that September. "We are tremendously grateful for their support."

At the time, Cohen remained silent. But his wife chimed in: "We are excited to help the School of Cinematic Arts provide greater opportunities to students in need."