Meet Jake Lassiter: NOT the World’s Greatest Lawyer

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Here’s a reader’s recent email:  “I loved EARLY GRAVE but haven’t read the earlier books in the series. Could you give me a brief synopsis of Jake Lassiter’s background?”

Sure. Here’s an excerpt from FOOL ME TWICE where the linebacker-turned-lawyer reveals (not quite) all.

My name is Jake Lassiter.

I am broad-shouldered and sandy-haired, and my neck threatens to pop the top button on my shirt. I have a crooked nose – thanks to a forearm through my facemask – and I look more like a longshoreman than a lawyer.

I am not invited by Ivy League institutions to lecture on the rules of evidence or the fine art of oral advocacy. Downtown lawyers do not flock to the courthouse to see my closing arguments. I don’t know the secrets of winning cases, other than playing golf with the judges and contributing cash to their re-election campaigns. I don’t know what goes through jurors’ minds, even when I sidle up to their locked door and listen to the babble through the keyhole. Jake Lassiter in Fool Me Twice

In short, I am not the world’s greatest trial lawyer. Or even the best in the Miami office building where I hang my shingle, or would, if I knew what a shingle was. I graduated in the top quarter of the bottom third of my law school class…night division. My diploma is fastened by duct tape to the bathroom wall at home. It covers a crack in the plaster above the toilet and forces me to contemplate the sorry state of the justice system a few times each day.

I went to law school after a few undistinguished years as a bench-warming linebacker, earning slightly more than league minimum with the Miami Dolphins. In my first career, including my days as a semi-scholar athlete at Penn State, I had two knee operations, three shoulder separations, too many concussions to count, plus a broken nose and turf toe so bad my foot was the size and color of an eggplant.

In my second career, I’ve been ridiculed by Armani-suited lawyers, jailed for contempt by ornery judges, and occasionally paid for services rendered.

I never intended to be a hero, and I succeeded.

On this humid June morning, I sat at the defense table, gathering my thoughts, then disposing of most of them, while  my client, Louis (Blinky) Baroso, whispered unsolicited and irrelevant advice. Meanwhile, I stared at the sign above the judge’s bench: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only the Truth.” Sure, sure, and the check’s in the mail.

The Courtroom Sign is Fodder for Ridicule in Legal Thrillers

Philosophers and poets may be truth seekers. Lawyers only want to win. Judges want to clear their calendars. And jurors want to hit the road before rush hour on South Dixie Highway.

As for ethics. I’m not interested in the rules made up by Bar Association bigwigs with gold nugget cufflinks who gather in ritzy hotels to celebrate their own self-importance. Their rules are intended to protect clients and industries with the most money. It’s not unlike my old game where a hard tackle on a high-paid quarterback can be penalized as “unnecessary roughness” when the hit would be lawful on anyone else.

I have a few sayings I live by.

“Buckle your chinstrap. Law is a contact sport.”

“Rough justice is better than none.”

“If your cause is just, no case is impossible.”

“They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”

And finally this: “I prefer cases I believe in. Best is to have a client you like, a cause that’s just, and a check that doesn’t bounce. Two out of three, and you’re ahead of the game.”

I have my own code, and you won’t find it in any books. I won’t lie to a judge, bribe a cop, or steal from a client. Other than that, it’s pretty much anything goes. Still, I draw the line on whose colors I’ll wear. I won’t represent child molesters. Yeah, I know, everybody’s entitled to a defense, and the lawyer isn’t there to assert the client’s innocence, just to force the state to meet its burden of proof. Cross-examine, put on your case, and let the chips fall where they may.


“I’m a brew and burger guy in a paté and Chardonnay world.”

When I defend someone, I’m not just a hired gun. I lose a piece of myself and take on a piece of my client. That doesn’t mean I represent only innocent defendants. If I did, I would starve.

My first job after law school was in the Public Defender’s office, which hired me because I wasn’t afraid of walking through the county jail parking lot after midnight. My first customers, as I liked to call them, were folks too poor to hire lawyers with a little gray in their hair. I quickly learned that my clients’ poverty didn’t make them noble. I also got an education from my repeat customers, most of whom knew more criminal law than I did. Nearly all were guilty of something, though the state couldn’t necessarily prove it.

Then I moved up – from the gutter to the curb – and these days I represent a higher grade of dirtbag. My clients don’t pistol-whip liquor store clerks for a hundred bucks in the till. But they might sell paintings by a clever art student as undiscovered works of Salvador Dali, or ship vials of yogurt as prize bull semen, or hawk land on Machu Picchu as vacation property. All of which Blinky Baroso, a second-rate grifter and con man, did, at one time or another. Sometimes twice.

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“Twice as good as Grisham, and four times the fun.” – Armchair Detective

“Wildly entertaining blend of raucous humor and high adventure.” – St. Louis Post-Dispatch 

“Levine provides suspense, a little romance, some social commentary, and a huge helping of humor.  For sheer entertainment, the Lassiter series is as good as any.” – Booklist

FOOL ME TWICE is available in paperback, audio and ebook formats. Visit Paul Levine’s Amazon Author Page for more information about the “Jake Lassiter” and “Solomon vs. Lord” series.

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Today, I’m on the hot seat, answering questions about EARLY GRAVE posed by ace novelist Robert Rotstein  for “The Big Thrill,” the publication of International Thriller Writers.

The setup: When his godson suffers a catastrophic injury in a high school football game, lawyer Jake Lassiter sues to abolish the sport and becomes the most hated man in Miami. At the same time, the former NFL linebacker battles CTE, the fatal brain disease caused by repetitive head injuries. Complicating Lassiter’s lawsuit and his health, his personal life hits a rocky patch. He’s in couple’s therapy with fiancée Dr. Melissa Gold and vows to live long enough to fix his relationship and achieve justice for his godson.

Q: Which took shape first: plot, character, or setting?

A: Character and plot are intertwined for me. Writing a series character has the advantage/disadvantage of a fully formed protagonist. An often cynical lawyer, his personality traits govern how he will handle every situation. “In the practice of law, a sea inhabited by sharks and other carnivores, my ethics are simple. I won’t lie to a judge, steal from a client, or bribe a cop. Other than that, anything goes.”

Jake Lassiter is a lawyer who believes the justice system is flawed and that “rough justice is better than none.” This is where character and plot merge. “Justice requires lawyers who are prepared, witnesses who tell the truth, judges who know the law, and jurors who stay awake. Justice is the North Star, the burning bush, the holy virgin. It cannot be bought, sold or mass produced. If you are to spend your life in its pursuit, it is best to believe it exists and hope that you can attain it.”

Q: What was the biggest challenge this presented? What about the biggest opportunity?

A: EARLY GRAVE is the 15th and final novel in the series that began with TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, an international bestseller back in 1990. There’s a fine line to be walked in a long-running series. I don’t want to repeat myself, and I want my protagonist to grow and change with the years (as I hopefully have done). But I don’t want him to lose the core of his identity. Even as he faces life-threatening medical issues (C.T.E.) and relationship problems, he’s still the lawyer with a tough bark and gentle heart. It would be boring for the writer and the reader if the character never changed. But it would be jarring if he or she turned into someone new.

Q: No spoilers, but what can you tell us about EARLY GRAVE that we won’t find in the jacket copy or the PR material?

A: The basic issue in the last book of a long-running series is often whether the protagonist will live or die. I didn’t make that decision until the last chapter.

Q: What authors or books have influenced your career as a writer, and why?

A: John D. MacDonald demonstrated the strength of the first-person protagonist. I love his opening sentence of CINNAMON SKIN. “There are no one hundred percent heroes.” Carl Hiaasen influenced my ability to mix humor with suspense beginning with TOURIST SEASON. Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT is quite simply the best courtroom novel I’ve ever read. A complex, layered protagonist and a devilishly clever mystery.

Then, there’s that magical little voice inside that turns personal experiences and observations into a story. I’m not sure how that works, but I suppose that ‘s why it’s magical.

Q. What’s next for Paul Levine?

It seems Jake Lassiter has written his autobiography. He’s a lousy typist and can’t spell any word longer than two syllables, but he says he’ll break both my thumbs if I change a noun or consonant.  So…we’ll see.

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“Levine scores with ‘Early Grave,’ a complex and witty legal thriller. This winner works even for those new to the series.” – Publishers Weekly (★starred review★)



“Early Grave” – Lassiter’s Last Case

Today, I’m turning over the blog to The Florida Bar News where Senior Editor Jim Nash has written an expansive piece on the checkered past of Jake Lassiter just as he makes his final appearance in “Early Grave.”

I know what you’re thinking: Why is The Florida Bar publicizing a lawyer – fictional or not – who’s been flirting with disbarment for decades? A lawyer who’s said: “I’m not one of those lonely warriors of the courtroom, righting wrongs wherever I find them. I’m just an ex-jock wading through the muck of the so-called justice system. I don’t even mind getting dirty as long as the stains come out.” Read on to find out:


“I violated the number one rule: don’t give up your day job. But that’s what I did, I gave up a partnership in a national law firm to become a freelance writer.” – Paul Levine

By Jim Nash
The Florida Bar News

Jake Lassiter, the fictional Miami Dolphins linebacker turned two-fisted attorney, has committed his final caper.

Paying the price for too much helmet-to-helmet contact, Lassiter is diagnosed with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and responds to a godson’s catastrophic injury by suing to halt football. That civil action turns Lassiter into “the most hated man in Miami.”

For veteran Florida Bar member turned best-selling author Paul Levine, letting Lassiter go after 33 years — “Early Grave” is the 15th and final book — was like shedding a part of himself.

kindle unlimited lassiter early grave kindlebooks
“Early Grave,” the newest Lassiter legal thriller, is the last of the series.

“To a certain extent, my protagonist is my alter ego, a sort of fanciful version of myself, somebody who is braver, and stronger, and who won’t take any bullshit,” Levine says. “So, yes, it’s hard to leave that behind.”

It reminds Levine of the sad day in 1998 when the Miami Herald folded “Tropic.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday magazine helped launch Levine’s career, and those of fellow authors Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, and Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten.

Or the 2008 demolition of the Orange Bowl, the stadium that hosted the Dolphins’ 1972 undefeated season, an NFL record that no other team has matched.

Levine became part of it all in 1969, when he landed a reporting job with the Miami Herald fresh out of Penn State. When the National Enquirer poached the Herald’s court reporter, Levine took the beat.

Those were the days when Richard “Dick” Gerstein, a legendary South Florida pol, was state attorney and Circuit Judge Ellen “Maximum” Morphonios was presiding over the public exposure trial of Doors lead singer Jim Morrison.

For a 21-year-old cub reporter, it was heaven, Levine says.

“I had free reign through the state attorney’s office, and the public defender’s office, and I was just a kid,” he said.

Levine became interested in the law at Gerstein’s urging.

“Gerstein was always trying to plant favorable stories, which is fine, that’s what they do,” Levine said. “One day he said, ‘if you ever want to go to law school, I’ll give you a recommendation.’”

Levine took the bait. After graduating University of Miami Law School in 1973, he joined the Miami office of a Philadelphia-based firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

“It was a giant firm, where, when I became a partner, I didn’t know the names of a third of my fellow partners,” he said.

Levine was a civil litigator for 17 years, until he couldn’t do it anymore.

Inspired by lawyer turned author Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent,” and Hiaasen’s darkly comic “Tourist Season,” Levine was desperate to write full time.

Scott Turow Presumed Innocent
Levine cites the “tarnished hero” of Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” as an influence in creating Jake Lassiter. Pictured: the authors at a book event.
Carl Hiaasen 2015
Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen’s wry and sometimes dark humor influenced Levine’s writing.

“I thought I would never write a book as long as I’m a partner in the law firm,” Levine said. “They gave me what they thought was a promotion, sending me around the country defending the asbestos industry, the world’s worst cases, and I was miserable.”

Levine finally told Philadelphia he wanted out.

“I did not do it the right way, I violated the number one rule, don’t give up your day job,” he said. “But that’s what I did, I gave up a partnership in a national law firm to become a freelance writer.”

Levine wrote his first book on “spec” while winding down his practice. To facilitate the change in careers, he was given free office space and a secretary by his law school buddy, famed Miami trial lawyer Stuart Grossman. “My own private grant from the Grossman Roth Endowment for the Arts,” Levine said, smiling. He figured that his existing cases could support him for a year, maybe two, if he was careful.

One year later, Levine mailed manuscripts to agents he found in a writer’s digest. One day the phone rang, and a stranger expressed interest.

“He said, I like this guy Lassiter, why don’t you make a mystery out of him?” Levine said. “I said, well, I thought I had. He said no, it’s not really a mystery, why don’t you try doing first person?”

Levine took the advice, even after learning that the caller wasn’t an agent, but an agent’s assistant.

“He represented me for my first three books,” Levine said. “When I wrote ‘To Speak to the Dead,’ he sent it out, and he had three offers in the first 48 hours.”

The first Lassiter legal thriller mystery courtroom drama kindle unlimited
“To Speak for the Dead,” the first Lassiter novel, was an international bestseller.

The first Lassiter book became an international best seller.

Lassiter is based on Levine’s legal experience and the real-life Nick Bouniconti, a former Miami Dolphins linebacker and leader of the “No Name” defense during the perfect season.

Before he came to Miami in 1969, Bouniconti earned a J.D. at night school while playing for the Boston Patriots. The parallels with Lassiter don’t end there.

In 1995, Bouniconti’s son, Marc, was rendered a quadriplegic while making a tackle for the Citadel. The senior Bouniconti raised millions for spinal cord research through the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

Nick Bouniconti died of pneumonia in 2019, while suffering serious neurological deficiencies. Before he died, he donated his brain to CTE research.

Lassiter, the fictional character, doesn’t believe the justice system always works, so he believes rough justice is better than no justice at all, Levine says.

But Lassiter has a code.

“Well, Lassiter says, ‘I won’t lie to a judge, bribe a cop, or sleep with my client,’” Levine says. “Other than that, anything goes.”

Lassiter uses his fists and bends the rules. At one point, he sneaks into a graveyard with a retired medical examiner and mentor, to conduct an unauthorized autopsy. In “Cheater’s Game,” Lassiter tackles the true-to-life college admissions scandal. Author Michael Connelly had this to say: “Clever, funny and seriously on point when it comes to the inequities of society and the justice system.”

Jake Lassiter, kindle unlimited, kindlebooks, amazon kindle
“Jake Lassiter is my kind of lawyer.” – Michael Connelly

In another case, Lassiter agrees to investigate a lawyer whose incompetence financially devastates a client. Lassiter recruits a former teammate to serve as extra muscle, and instead of an office, orders the suspect lawyer to meet him in a dingy bar.

“Jake’s having a ‘hearing’ over Australian beers,” Levine quips. “He looks down at the lawyer’s watch, and says, ‘Is that a Piaget? Take it off!’”

Levine has won numerous writing awards, and his novels have been published in 23 languages. Another series, “Solomon vs. Lord,” remains active and has been optioned for TV, Levine says.

No stranger to screenwriting, Levine wrote 17 episodes of the hit CBS series, “JAG.” He later partnered with “JAG” creator Don Bellisario to co-produce another legal drama, “First Monday,” starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. It lasted a single season.

“My TV mini-career wasn’t all that spectacular,” Levine quips.

Levine isn’t sure why he’s ending the Lassiter series, other than it feels right. Lassiter doesn’t age every year, like his creator, but he is getting up there, Levine says.

“I guess I just don’t want to repeat myself,” Levine says.

A 74-year-old Santa Barbara resident who hasn’t practiced law in decades, Levine is also unsure why he keeps his Florida Bar membership active.

“That’s a really good question,” he said. “Why do I still buy season football tickets for Penn State football?”

Levine acknowledges that he enjoys the CLEs because they help him keep his legal mystery writing current.

Legal training has come in handy while negotiating contracts, Levine said. And other than the “drudgery of preparation and research,” there are certain elements of practicing law that Levine misses.

“There are times when you’re in a firm, you sit down with two or three of your colleagues to try and solve a thorny legal problem, and you bounce ideas off another person,” he said. “If law is about solving problems, then yes, I miss that.”

Character is Destiny…In and Out of Court

“There are no one hundred percent heroes.”
– Travis McGee in Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald

“I never intended to become a hero, and I succeeded.”
– Jake Lassiter in Bum Rap

Roughly 2,500 years before Travis McGee mixed the first martini aboard his houseboat and Jake Lassiter cracked wise in a Miami courtroom, Heraclitus wrote, “Character is destiny.” The old Greek philosopher meant that we are not controlled by a predetermined fate. Hero? Villain? Combination of the two? We choose our own path in life.

In crime fiction, I’d add this note: Character determines plot. In my “Jake Lassiter” legal thrillers, readers learn the protagonist’s backstory – a prime building block of character – from what he says and does…and thinks. Here’s Jake’s internal dialogue early in To Speak for the Dead, the first book of the series:

The first Lassiter legal thriller mystery courtroom drama kindle unlimited“There I stood, 230 pounds of ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things, leaning against the rail of the witness stand, home to a million sweaty palms.”

We get it. Lassiter is not an Ivy League brainiac. He’s a tough guy in a suit who proudly graduated “in the top half of the bottom third of my night law school class.” And that night school diploma? It hangs over a crack in the plaster above his toilet.

The linebacker-turned-lawyer has developed a healthy cynicism of the justice system. He ponders the sign that hangs over the bench in Miami courtrooms: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only the Truth.” Lassiter thinks there ought to be a footnote: “Subject to the truth being ignored by lying witnesses, obfuscated by sleazy lawyers, excluded by inept judged, and overlooked by sleeping jurors.”

He routinely carries a toothbrush to court in case he’s held in contempt. Witness this exchange:

“Mr. Lassiter, if you persist in this line of questioning, I’ll send you to a place you’ve never been.”

“Already been to jail, Your Honor.”

“Not talking about jail. I’m sending you to law school!”

With those character notes, we can expect his actions – and the books’ plots – to be unconventional. A few examples:

*Talk about conflicts of interest. Lassiter is sleeping with Gina Florio and defending her mob-connected husband in court. Then the husband gets homicidal. – Mortal Sin

Mortal Sin by Paul Levine*Lassiter is charged with killing his girlfriend and banker who was about to report him to the authorities for allegedly stealing from clients. – State vs. Lassiter

* Plagued with guilt, Jake retraces the steps of a model who went missing 18 years earlier…after their one-night stand. – Lassiter

* “Thirty seconds after the jury announced its verdict, I decided to kill my client.” Why? After clearing a guilty client, Lassiter becomes unhinged. Did he suffer one too many concussions playing football? – Bum Luck

* Defending his savant nephew who’s part of a bribery scheme to get lackadaisical students admitted to prestigious universities, Lassiter offers a unique defense. Cheating your way into college may be immoral but isn’t a crime. Cross-examining an admissions officer, Lassiter asks what’s the difference between bribing the university with a huge donation for a building or bribing a coach? The prosecutor objects: “The admissions system isn’t on trial here.” And Lassiter shoots back: “Sure it is. That’s exactly what’s on trial.” – Cheater’s Game

Cheater's GameMaking a nearly identical argument, legendary Miami trial lawyer Roy Black later won an acquittal for a father who had paid Georgetown University’s tennis coach $180,000 to secure admission for his daughter. “Georgetown considers not only academics and athletic ability,” Black argued to the jury, “but also whether the applicant is the child of a wealthy or prominent family that has the potential to donate to the school.”

* If you think that Lassiter walks so close to the ethical boundary that his shadow falls into the gray area, consider this: “I won’t represent a man accused of violence against women or children because my Granny taught me that such scum do not deserve my time and effort.” – False Dawn

* Money doesn’t motivate him. On turning down a case: “I could have used the work, but I prefer cases I believe in. Best is to have a client you like, a cause that’s just and a check that doesn’t bounce. Two out of three and you’re ahead of the game.” – Flesh and Bones

*This passage from Bum Rap is a rare example of Lassiter waxing poetic over the law and his place in it: “Justice is the North Star, the burning bush, the holy virgin. It cannot be bought, sold, or mass produced. It is invisible and ineffable, but if you are to spend your life in its pursuit, you had better believe that it exists.”

In many ways, Lassiter is a throwback: “I don’t drink fizzy water from France or booze in fluorescent colors. I don’t have a life coach or an aroma therapist, and I’m not into tweeting, texting, sexting, or spinning. I still help little old ladies cross the street, and sometimes, tall young ones, too. In short, I’m a carnivore among vegans, a brew and burger guy in a paté and Chardonnay world.” – Lassiter

* An aging Lassiter sues to abolish high school football as a dangerous “public nuisance” and becomes the most hated man in Miami. “When your cause is just, he says, no case is impossible.” With his personal life hitting a rocky patch, he reluctantly begins couples therapy with fiancée Dr. Melissa Gold. – Early Grave

kindle unlimited lassiter early grave kindlebooksAdd all of that together – hard-as-hell cases,  a personal code, a philosophical bent, a healthy dose of cynicism, a fearless courtroom approach, and old-time values – and you have blazed the trail of Jake Lassiter’s destiny.

All of the Jake Lassiter series of legal thrillers are available in ebook, audiobook, and paperback, and all are Kindle Unlimited titles. KU is the Amazon program that allows readers to borrow 20 books at a time for a total fee of $9.99 per month. An earlier version of this story appeared in Mystery Readers Journal.

Paul Levine Plays the Cheater’s Game — Mystery Scene

I recently wrote a short piece – “College Scandal: Who’s Really on Trial?” – for Mystery Scene, explaining the backstory behind my new novel, “Cheater’s Game,” recently named “one of the best legal thrillers of 2020” by Best Thrillers. Though it features Jake Lassiter, the novel is a stand-alone. The introduction to the Mystery Scene article is by Oline H. Cogdill, dean of the nation’s crime fiction reviewers and winner of the Raven Award presented by Mystery Writers of America.

By Oline H. Cogdill

Paul Levine is among the authors who can be credited with launching the current wave of Florida mysteries, beginning with “To Speak for the Dead,” which introduced linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter.

Hard to believe that “To Speak for the Dead” celebrates its 30th anniversary during 2020.

to speak
“To Speak for the Dead” introduced the linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter in the first of fourteen novels.

Seems like yesterday I reviewed that novel, captivated by how well Levine captured the nuances of Florida. And this was long before the public discovered that unique and not to bright species called Florida Man (and Woman).

Levine, the author of 22 novels, won the John D. MacDonald Fiction Award and has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, Shamus, and James Thurber prizes.

A former trial lawyer, he wrote 20 episodes of the CBS military drama JAG and co-created the Supreme Court drama First Monday starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed “Solomon vs. Lord” legal capers. He divides his time between Santa Barbara and Miami.

Levine’s latest book is “Cheater’s Game,” which digs deep into the college admissions scandal.

Cheater's Game
Jake Lassiter tackles the college admissions scandal in “Cheater’s Game” (2020)

In “Cheater’s Game,” Lassiter returns to the Miami courtroom when his nephew Kip needs his help. Kip has been working with millionaire Max Ringle in a shady scheme to help wealthy kids gain admission to elite universities. The mastermind of the fraud, Ringle cops a plea to save his own hide and shifts the blame to Kip who’s charged with multiple federal crimes.

In this essay for Mystery Scene, Levine takes a look at the college scandal and its influence on his novel.

By Paul Levine

“Have those parents lost their minds?”

That was my first thought when a few dozen well-educated, well-respected, well-off parents were handcuffed, perp-walked and booked for their roles in the college admissions scandal. Then this question. How many other privileged families might be bribing their kids into elite universities with fabricated resumes and rigged test scores?

When the news broke, how many cinnamon lattes were spilled by nervous parents in Beverly Hills, Napa, and Miami?

Call me naive, but I was astonished that parents could be so morally bankrupt as to willingly – and sometimes gleefully, if you listen to wiretaps—cheat, bribe, and lie their children into the University of Southern California rather than, say, Southern Methodist University.
What messages were they sending? That money and connections are the keys to success? That faking it is making it and cheaters win?

Public outrage has been fast and furious with a hefty dose of schadenfreude that rich folks are getting their comeuppance. The news media have covered the cases breathlessly, doubtless because celebrities are involved. A non-fiction book with a weighty title, “Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal,” by two Wall Street Journal reporters, is due out in July.

A limited series on television is in the works, though I doubt that Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who have both pleaded guilty, will play themselves.

Actress Lori Loughlin proclaimed her innocence for a year before pleading guilty.

My just-published fictional take on the scandal, “Cheater’s Game,” brings aging lawyer Jake Lassiter into the fray.

But now I wonder…were any crimes committed? Could the parents’ conduct—clearly immoral and unethical—not necessarily be illegal?

Sure, many parents have already pleaded guilty to fraud. Facing a federal judge in Boston, they expressed remorse in scripted speeches that might be summarized this way: I just loved my child so much, I lost my moral compass. And yes, we all scoffed. The parents’ regretted getting caught, that’s all.

Now, with several cases poised for trial later this year, I wonder if there are shades of gray where I initially saw only black and white. Are the universities themselves at least partly to blame? Did their admissions practices invite this type of fraud?

Defense lawyers claim that both UCLA and the University of Southern California basically sell admissions slots to children of wealthy donors. One case involves Miami investor Robert Zangrillo, charged with using bribery and fraud to ease his daughter’s admission into USC. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the “defense hinges on the theory that USC routinely shunts the children of donors and prospective donors into a VIP pool of applicants.”

Meanwhile, across town, lawyers for the former UCLA soccer coach accused of taking $200,000 in bribes, have fired this broadside: “UCLA’s own internal documents reveal that, for many years, its Athletic Department has facilitated the admission of unqualified applicants through the student-athlete admissions process in exchange for huge ‘donations’ by the students’ wealthy parents.”

Why put the word “donations” in quotation marks?

Simple. The lawyers claim those aren’t donations at all. They’re the ticket prices for admitting unqualified students to UCLA.

How does any of this affect the fate of the parents who paid bribes and the coaches who accepted them? For any of the defendants to be guilty of fraud, there has to be a victim.

The universities cannot be considered victims, the defense lawyers claim, because they routinely sell admissions slots to donors. The universities actually received some of the bribe money paid by the parents.

My dog, Bojangles, gets a laugh from Lassiter’s cross-examination.


It’s a fascinating argument. In fact, it’s the one defense lawyer Jake Lassiter makes in “Cheater’s Game.”

Here he is, cross-examining a university admissions director:

“This so-called fraud didn’t cost the university any money, correct?”


“Isn’t it true the university actually made money? Millions of dollars funneled to the athletic department.”

“We received money, that’s true.”

“So there’s no real difference in gaining admission through bribery and the university selling admissions slots to the children of high-rolling donors, is there?”

“We don’t sell slots.”

“Then, what’s the difference between bribing the university directly or bribing a coach?”

“Objection! Irrelevant.” The prosecutor was on her feet, ready for battle. “The admissions system isn’t on trial here.”

“Sure it is,” Lassiter said. “That’s exactly what’s on trial.”


With jury trials expected in coming months, we’ll know soon enough what’s on trial.

Whether the defendants are convicted or acquitted, the universities’ reputations will surely suffer.

Perhaps it is time to erect a wall between applicants and donors, between admissions departments and the euphemistically named “development” offices. Let the applicants stand on their own and the donors contribute without a quid pro quo.

In short, let’s make higher education a meritocracy.