Jen Shah maintained her innocence up until … she didn’t. The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star claimed she didn’t know about any of the alleged illegal activity related to her business after being very publicly arrested last March, but on July 11, Shah suddenly pleaded guilty in a Manhattan courtroom. Shah’s change of heart wasn’t all that surprising considering that the same day the 48-year-old reality star was arrested while filming her Bravo show and about to embark on a girls’ trip with the other Housewives to Vail, news broke that her longtime “first” assistant Stuart Smith, 43, had also been arrested. The close friends were both charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. Initially, Smith pleaded not guilty, but that changed in November when he came clean and admitted his part in a “wide-ranging telemarketing scheme” that defrauded hundreds of victims, many of them elderly — clearly a devastating blow to Shah’s case. Smith was one of the 11 additional defendants who had already pleaded guilty for their part in the conspiracy. Faced with the prospect of a drawn-out trial, the potential of a stiffer sentence, and the fact that it appeared Smith would testify against her, Shah changed her tune at the last minute. Below, everything we know about her plea, her sentencing, and her fate on Bravo.
What exactly did Jen Shah plead guilty to?
Shah was facing two serious federal crimes — conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The U.S Attorney’s office maintained that while Shah portrayed herself on the show as a “wealthy and successful businessperson,” she was actually participating in a fraudulent telemarketing scheme that generated lead lists of innocent people, many of them elderly, for other members of the conspiracy to contact and scam.
“Jennifer Shah was a key participant in a nationwide scheme that targeted elderly, vulnerable victims,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement. “These victims were sold false promises of financial security but instead Shah and her co-conspirators defrauded them out of their savings and left them with nothing to show for it.”
The telemarketing scam worked by convincing victims to purchase “so-called business services,” lying to the victims about how the services would help them generate an income and then continuing to pressure victims to purchase additional “so-called business services,” leaving many victims in debt.
As part of her plea deal, Shah pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and agreed to forfeit $6.5 million of proceeds traceable to the conspiracy and pay up to $9.5 million in restitution. She is also facing up to 30 years in federal prison. The charge of money laundering was dropped.
“I knew this was wrong. I knew people were harmed,” Shah said in court at her July 11 hearing. “I am so sorry.”
Did Jen Shah plead guilty because Stuart Smith was set to testify against her?
It’s hard to say, but considering how close of a relationship the two had based on the show and things Shah has said about Smith, he knew a lot about her and the business they ran alongside each other.
“As a cooperating witness you are required, as part of any plea agreement with the federal government, to tell them everything that you know,” Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Troy Slaten said. “You cooperate with them in order to get the best sentencing. So he made a decision with his attorneys that the best way he was going to get out was to cooperate with the government, which means that he’s gonna be a witness against Shah.”
Legal commentator Emily D. Baker, a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney, said she expected Smith, who was facing a maximum of 30 years in jail, to take the stand and testify against his former boss.
“Going into trial, it put her in a difficult position because they could bring in all the other defendants to testify against her,” Baker said.
According to Shah, she worked with Smith for more than ten years. He was frequently called on the show Shah’s “first assistant,” but at times Shah referred to him as her business partner. They were filmed together on the show discussing their business and about it making money for them.
“He’s been around me for ten years and I’m going to take care of people that are around me, so as I expand my businesses, I brought him into that,” Shah said of Smith during the reunion taping.
Later in the reunion, she tried to distance herself from him during the taping of the show’s reunion special, saying he wasn’t her partner, and after their respective indictments, Shah and Smith stopped communicating due to their legal cases. “To have someone close to you and then to be told one day that you can’t talk to him anymore, that’s hard,” Shah said.
During the reunion special, Bravo host Andy Cohen brought up the fact that people regarded Smith’s guilty plea as being “very bad” for Shah’s case. Shah declined to comment.
“I wish I could respond to that or answer it, but I can’t because it has to do obviously with the legal case,” Shah said.
Is it surprising that Jen Shah changed her plea last-minute?
It depends whom you ask. Slaten wasn’t surprised that Shah ultimately decided to change her plea, considering the charges of conspiracy to wire fraud and money laundering merely required the government to prove that Shah agreed to do something illegal as part of the conspiracy. The government didn’t need to prove that Shah knew about everything that was being done in the nationwide telemarketing-fraud scam, he explained.
“All that they have to prove is that they had an agreement and that she took some sort of act in furtherance of the agreement,” Slaten said. “Funding the scheme is enough.”
Baker, though, said she was shocked that Shah changed her plea at the last minute. “Shah has maintained her innocence and said she was looking forward to proving her innocence; a guilty plea is a shock,” Baker said.
But the pressure from the Feds leading up to trial can be intense. “It’s not unusual for the government and defendants to continue negotiating up to the start of trial and sometimes even after a trial has begun and witnesses have testified,” Slaten said. “Usually prosecutors will make a last best final offer and give a preview of what the offer will be if they have to start trial.”
The “trial tax,” as it’s referred to in defense circles of taking a case to trial, can mean a stiffer sentence for a defendant post-verdict rather than entering a guilty plea at the start.
What are some of the reasons Shah would change her plea?
Shah was also able to avoid facing the humiliation of possibly having victims testify against her and making herself a public spectacle — the part of the trial Bravo fans were likely the most excited about.
“She avoids the public spectacle and also avoids the cost of a trial, very expensive for defendants who aren’t using a public defender,” Slaten said.
Shah’s attorney Priya Chaudhry said her client is sorry for her actions.
“Ms. Shah is a good woman who crossed a line,” Chaudhry said. “She accepts full responsibility for her actions and deeply apologizes to all who have been harmed. Ms. Shah is also sorry for disappointing her husband, children, family, friends, and supporters. Jen pled guilty because she wants to pay her debt to society and put this ordeal behind her and her family.”
What has Jen Shah said about her innocence up until now?
As recently as March, Shah continued to maintain her innocence during the RHOSLC reunion specials on Bravo. “I’m fighting this,” said Shah on the show while crying. “I’m innocent. I will fight this for every person out there that can’t fight for themselves because they don’t have the resources or the means, so they don’t fight. I will fight because number one, I’m innocent, and number two, I’m going to fucking represent every other person out there that can’t fight and hasn’t been able to.” “Not Guity” and #FreeJenShah shirts even started to pop up on social media and websites.
When host Cohen informed her that the success rate of the New York State Attorney General’s office was 95 percent, Shah told him that was only because people take plea deals. Shah’s husband also maintained his wife’s innocence on the show. “This cloud will not go away until my wife is vindicated through this trial,” Sharrieff Shah said during the taping of the reunion special.
Are the other Housewives sticking with her?
It’s been radio silence on social media from Shah’s co-stars Mary Cosby, Whitney Rose, Heather Gay, Lisa Barlow, and Meredith Marks since Shah’s guilty plea deal was announced. But during the reunion special, which aired in March, Barlow and Gay said they were sticking with Shah.
“Jen told me she was innocent and I believe her,” Barlow said.
“I love Jen,” Gay said during the taping. “I don’t care if she is guilty or not.”
Marks, though, reserved judgment.
“I’m not the judge and jury,” Marks said at the time. Right before the trial’s planned date and Shah’s plea change, Marks shared an Instagram Story that read: “For those of you who may not know this: I live in the United States of America. In the US, one has a right to trial and is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
When will Jen Shah be sentenced?
Shah will go before U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein to be sentenced on November 28.
Is Bravo filming this whole mess?
We will be seeing Jen Shah on season three of RHOSLC, Vulture can confirm. Filming for the new season began in March, but it is unclear how much of the show will focus on the trial and her plea.