Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Plea Agreements

Thursday's Wall Street Journal has a fascinating piece here by Steve Eder, Michael Rothfeld, and Jenny Strasburg on the friendship, between Donald Longueuil and Noah Freeman, that was shattered by the SDNY's insider trading probe. As the white collar world now knows, Freeman secretly recorded Longueuil. Longueuil's damaging admissions were captured, quoted in the criminal complaint against Longueuil and Samir Barai, and splashed across the headlines. Freeman has pled guilty and his plea agreement is publicly available.

I thought it might be interesting to compare Freeman's plea agreement to that of Danielle Chiesi, who recently pled guilty in the Raj Rajaratnam case. Chiesi has not agreed to cooperate against Rajaratnam as part of her deal, but Freeman has agreed to cooperate with the government against Longueuil. The Noah Freeman Plea Agreement is a classic, bare bones, SDNY white collar plea deal. Unlike the vast majority of federal criminal plea agreements in other jurisdictions, the Freeman agreement contains no Sentencing Guidelines calculations or stipulations. Freeman agrees to plead to two felony counts--securities fraud and conspiracy to commit wire and securities fraud. The maximum statutory term for those two counts combined is 25 years. Freeman agrees to pay restitution and to forfeit proceeds traceable to the charged offenses. The government agrees not to prosecute him further, except for tax crimes, and to recommend a Section 5K1.1 downward departure if he continues to truthfully cooperate. And that's about it.  

Why is the agreement structured this way? Because SDNY prosecutors do not want want to put anything into the agreement which would indicate to a jury what actual sentence Freeman might get. If hard Guidelines numbers were put into the agreement, even as non-binding stipulations, Longueuil's attorney could compare those numbers, during Freeman's cross-examination, to the stratospherically higher Guidelines sentence Freeman would have received sans cooperation. Now, when Freeman takes the stand against his former friend, he can truthfully tell the jury that he has no idea what sentence he will ultimately receive. Sure, he wants a light sentence or probation, but all he knows is that he is looking at a statutory max of 25 years and some kind of 5K1.1 motion if he tells the truth.

And what is Freeman's attorney told by the prosecutors, or what does the attorney already know without being told if he or she has practiced long enough in the SDNY? "Trust us. We are not going to promise your guy anything other than a 5K1.1, but if you look at what past white collar targets have received when they came in early and cooperated, you will see that we treated them fairly. Many of them received probation or light sentences. By the way--if you come in on the eve of trial, don't expect to be treated as well." The defense attorney relays this information in some form or another to the client and tells the client that there is no guarantee. He also tells the client that the people who came in early and cut plea deals in the World Com case got probation or light sentences. That fellow who came in right before trial got five years. The guy who went to trial and lost got hit with 25. The client ususally takes the deal. (Who wants to roll the dice with those odds?) It all makes for a much cleaner trial and cross-examination in the government's view.

Contrast this with Chiesi whom the government does not need and who litigated her case like crazy almost until the eve of trial. The Danielle Chiesi Plea Agreement is highly structured and much more like those you will see in other parts of the country. Chiesi pled to three conspiracy counts, each carrying a five year max. The government and Chiesi stipulated as to the appropriate version of the Guidelines, the Guidelines section applicable to her conduct, the base offense level, the adjusted offense level based on an agreed-upon amount of gain, and Chiesi's acceptance of responsibility. The parties stipulated that Chiesi's Guidelines offense level is 21, her criminal history category is I, and her Guidelines sentencing range is 37-46 months. Either side is free to argue for a Booker downward variance, but neither side can argue for an upward or downward Guidelines departure or adjustment unless it is specifically called for in the agreement. Because the prosecutors do not particularly need Chiesi, they are not worried about how her 37-46 month range compares to what her range would have been sans cooperation.

In one of those delightful traditions peculiar to the SDNY, neither of these plea agreements has been publicly filed with the appropriate district court, although neither agreement is under seal. This is insane. Jason Pflaum's plea agreement is virtually identical to Freeman's. Pflaum consensually monitored the conversations/messages of Sam Barai and is expected to testify against Barai and others.

(wisenberg)

 

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Fraud, Insider Trading, Prosecutions, Securities | Permalink

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