LOS ANGELES (TCA/DPA) - Sherry Guo came to California five years ago, a teenager from China with dreams of attending an elite university.
Her attorney does not dispute she got into Yale through the machinations of William "Rick" Singer, a Newport Beach consultant who defrauded the Ivy League school and similarly selective universities with bribes, rigged tests and bogus accolades.
Singer fashioned a fake application for Ms Guo that described her as a top-notch soccer player, which was submitted to Yale by a soccer coach who took a US$400,000 (S$550,000) bribe.
Once she was admitted, Ms Guo's family paid US$1.2 million (S$1.6 million) to Singer and a charity he used to launder the bribes and other illicit funds.
But unlike dozens of parents swept up in the college admissions scandal, federal prosecutors have not alleged that Ms Guo or her parents committed a crime in paying Singer - the scheme's confessed mastermind - the seven-figure sum.
Ms Guo's Los Angeles attorney, Mr James Spertus, has offered a novel explanation for why they have not been charged. He says Ms Guo's parents forked out the US$1.2 million without a trace of unlawful intent, duped by a "bad actor" who exploited language barriers and an unfamiliarity with the United States higher education system to lure them into his con unwittingly.
Mr Spertus said "cultural issues did not raise red flags" when Singer asked Ms Guo's parents for the payment. Her parents do not speak English, and "100 per cent believed the payment was a charitable donation", the attorney said.
Ms Guo is referenced, but not named, in court papers as a student whose family paid Singer US$1.2 million after she was admitted to Yale in late 2017. Prosecutors have not said why Ms Guo's parents haven't been charged.
The Times reported earlier this week that another Chinese family paid Singer US$6.5 million to help secure their daughter a spot at Stanford University. Prosecutors have not charged relatives of that young woman either, identified as Yusi Zhao by people familiar with the matter.
So far, 33 parents have been charged with fraud, conspiracy and money laundering offences. Some have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty, while 19 parents have entered not guilty pleas, vowing to clear their names in court.
To charge someone with fraud, prosecutors must believe they can prove a specific intent to defraud someone else - in Ms Guo's case, Yale, or students who applied to the school on their own merits, said Mr Michael Magner, a former federal prosecutor in New Orleans.
If prosecutors have no evidence Ms Guo's family intended to defraud Yale or other applicants when they paid Singer the money, then the argument they were drawn into the scheme unknowingly "could very well be a valid defence", said Mr Magner, now a defence attorney for the Jones Walker law firm.