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.

COLLEGE SCANDAL: WHO’S REALLY ON TRIAL?
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.

lori
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.

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

LASSITER’S TAKE

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?”

“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.”

MY SUGGESTION FOR REFORM

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.

###

“BUM DEAL” – Levine vs. Lassiter – Not the Final Chapter

Bum Deal

By Paul Levine and Jake Lassiter

Author’s Note: This is the last time I sit down with that belligerent, ungrateful wretch Jake Lassiter who owes his very existence to me. He first appeared To Speak for the Dead in 1990, and now thankfully a dozen books later, I’m bidding him goodbye in Bum Deal, in which he switches sides and prosecutes a murder trial while fighting off symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease that afflicts former football players. So, no more banging heads in the courtroom. No more trading punches and badgering me with complaints. Sayonara, pal.

UPDATE, May 11, 2020: Whoops! Lassiter takes on a new case, tackling the college admissions scandal in Cheater’s Game. I told him he wasn’t physically up to it, but did he listen?

Paul: Sit down, Jake, and take a load off.

Jake: You busting my chops about my weight, noodle neck?

Paul: What are you these days, two-fifty, two-fifty-five?

Jake: You’re the one who writes the descriptions, scribbler. I remember in MORTAL SIN, you said I looked like a young Harrison Ford.

Paul: These days, it’s more like an old Ford pickup. I shouldn’t have fed you so many burgers, poured you so many beers.

Jake: I’m as health conscious as the next guy, as long as the next guy is sitting on a bar stool. (“I’m a brew and burger guy in a paté and Chardonnay world.”)

Paul: Maybe if you’d evolved into a modern man, you’d have a longer run.

Jake: Sorry that you can’t find my mug on Instagram. And that I don’t have a life coach, an aroma therapist, or a manicurist. And I sure as hell don’t do Pilates.

Paul: Forget all that. Let’s talk about BUM DEAL.

Jake: I’ve seen the promos. What’s this, “Jake Lassiter: The Final Chapter?”

Paul: BUM DEAL is the last of the series. That’s all. (Yeah, that’s what I thought at the time! Jake didn’t ask my permission before getting involved in CHEATER’S GAME.)

Jake: That’s all! I got no life outside those pages.

Paul: Time to hang up the briefcase, just like you hung up your cleats.

Jake: I didn’t retire. The Dolphins cut me, and I went to night law school.

Paul: Same deal here. You’ve lost a step in the courtroom. Face it, you’re getting along in years.

Jake: Look who’s talking! When are you moving into the Old Writers’ Home?

Paul: Deal with it, Jake. You’ve got brain damage from all those concussions playing football. Maybe you shouldn’t have run full speed into the goalposts. Or all those helmet-to-helmet tackles back in the day.

Jake: You made me do that, you pulp fiction masochist.

Paul: You lose your train of thought. You’re more ornery than usual.

Jake: Look who’s talking, or did I already say that? So what do you expect, people are gonna buy the first twelve books just to find out what happens to me in the thirteenth? bum rap bum luck bum deal

Paul: Every book in the Lassiter series stands alone. They can be read any order.

Jake: That’s right, the LASSITER SERIES! Not the Levine series. No one gives two hoots about you. It’s me, the hard-charging defense lawyer who’s the star.

Paul: In BUM DEAL, you switch sides and prosecute.

Jake: The hell you say! I’d never do that.

Paul: See, the ink is barely dry, and you’ve already forgotten. You’re appointed to prosecute a surgeon accused of killing his wife. Only one problem, or maybe three. No witness, no evidence, and no body.

Jake: That is a bum deal! You’re setting me up to lose.

Paul: Aren’t you the guy who says, “If your cause is just, no case is impossible.” It applies to the state, too.

Jake: That’s your wordsmithery. I just say the lines you feed me.

Paul: Oh, one more thing. Your pals Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord defend the case.

Jake: Who?

Paul: The lead characters in Solomon vs. Lord. Your best pals. See what I mean about your thought processes.

Jake: I’m just messing with you, word boy. But, please not Solomon and Lord. I taught those two kids all my tricks.

Paul: Sorry, Jake. You’ll just have to dig deep and try something new. How about sticking to the rules, standing by the facts, and living with the outcome?

Jake: Why do writers always say things in series of three?

Paul: Probably because it’s pleasing to the ear, easy on the brain, and part of hard-wiring.

Jake: Hilarious, pencil pusher. Say, why would I want to prosecute, anyway? My heart is with the little guy, not the behemoth of the state.

Paul: You’re burned out. Too many guilty clients over too many years.

Jake: There’s truth in that. I lose a lot. Or plead my guy guilty. It’s a dirty little secret, but that’s the deal with most criminal defense lawyers. If anyone knew our real winning percentage, they’d cop a quick plea or jump bail.

Paul: You’ve said that before, Jake. In BUM RAP. Remember?

Jake: Not my fault you’ve got so little imagination that I repeat myself, carbon copy boy. BUM RAP. BUM LUCK. BUM DEAL. What’s the next one, BUM BOOK? bum deal turow quote

Paul: You forget already? No next book. This is it. The end. The final chapter. Finis. No más.

Jake: Jeez, you’re depressing me.

Paul: Maybe this will cheer you up. Dr. Melissa Gold, an esteemed neuropathologist, takes an interest in you, during and after office hours.

Jake: So just as I’m losing my marbles, you’re giving me a lady that lasts? Is that fair?

Paul: That’s life, pal.

Jake: I hope you get carpal tunnel in both arms, smart guy. You got any other happy news?

Paul: Bum Deal opened as the number one bestselling new legal thriller on Amazon with 98% four and five star reviews.

Jake: Sometimes, 2% of the people are right. Tell me, this, you grim storytelling reaper. Is the last scene in the book my funeral?

Paul: Would I do that to you, Jake? Really. Would I?

###