Monday, September 30, 2013

Does Government Have Cooperating Employee in J.P. Morgan Probe?

This story just in from the Wall Street Journal (subscription required).

(wisenberg)

September 30, 2013 in Investigations | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Beanie Babies - A New Issue?

Many years ago I authored an article titled, "Do We Need a 'Beanie Baby' Fraud Statute?"  The Article considered how specific a statute needs to be to provide proper due process to a criminal defendant.  It focused on the breadth of the mail fraud statute, while also recommending that criminal statutes cannot be created for every unique circumstance - like "Beanie Baby" fraud.  It was written at the height of the time when individuals were committing crimes of fraud with "Beanie Babies."  In some cases, the company producing this product was the victim of the fraud.

Another side of "Beanie Babies" is mentioned this past week - and it relates to the CEO of  Ty Warner, who was the creator of "Beanie Babies."  A DOJ Press Release tells that H.Ty Warner was charged with tax evasion for allegedly hiding funds in a secret Swiss offshore account. The press release states, "[t]hrough his attorney, Warner authorized the government to disclose that he is cooperating with the Internal Revenue Service and will plead guilty to the charge." According to the DOJ Press Release, "Warner is the second taxpayer charged in Federal Court in Chicago in connection with an ongoing investigation of U.S. taxpayer clients of Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) and other overseas banks that hid foreign accounts from the Internal Revenue Service."

(esp)

September 24, 2013 in Fraud, Prosecutions, Tax | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 23, 2013

In the News & Around the Blogosphere

Friday, September 20, 2013

ABA Proposal to Modify 2B1.1 - Fraud Guideline

The U.S. Sentencing Commission held a conference that examined 2B1.1 - the Fraud Guideline.  A proposal offered from the ABA Task Force on the Reform of Federal Sentencing for Economic Crimes was one topic of discussion. (See ABA Task Force Report Download USSC Presentation 9-17-13).   This proposal, presented by James E. Felman, came with several caveats, most importantly that the existing statutory structural framework would remain in effect, although their "Prinicples of Consensus" presented weaknesses to this framework.

The ABA Proposal focuses on three key specific offense characteristics - loss, culpability, and victim impact.  But unlike the existing 2B1.1 guideline, levels of culpability would play a significant role in determining the sentence. Although loss continued to remain a component in determining a sentence under this proposal, the sentence  would not be a function of a mathematical computation that was basically driven by the amount of loss.   The proposal appeared to be a framework for discussion, as opposed to an in-depth description as to exactly how it would operate.  And although it left open many questions, it offered a strong base for starting a conversation that would move the sentencing guidelines away from being predominantly loss-focused and also away from including "intended loss."  The proposal also appeared to provide the judiciary with more influence in the sentence received, something that might not be as appealing to the government.  

 (esp)

September 20, 2013 in Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Insufficient Evidence: Tom DeLay Convictions Reversed on Appeal

Political prisoner Tom DeLay had his money laundering convictions reversed today, based on insufficency of the evidence, by Texas' Third Court of Appeals sitting in Austin. The 2-1 majority opinion held that there was no underlying violation of the Texas Election Code, and hence no illegal proceeds to be laundered. Thus ends, for now, one of the most abusive and unfair political prosecutions in recent Texas history. The State can appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The majority opinion is here.  The opinion reveals that the jury twice asked, in essence, whether DeLay could be guilty of money laundering if the "proceeds" were not originally procured in violation of law. In each instance, the trial court refused, at the State's urging, to answer the jury's question. How pathetic.  Hat tip to Dave Westheimer for bringing the decision to my attention.

(wisenberg)

September 19, 2013 in Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Qualsiasi Mezzo: Danziger Bridge

Move over, Emmet Sullivan and Carmac Carney. Add Kurt D. Engelhardt to the Honor Roll roster of federal district judges willing to speak truth to the U.S. Department of Justice. Willing to speak truth and to do something about it. Here is Judge Engelhardt's  Danziger Bridge Mistrial Order, issued yesterday in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and dismissing without prejudice all guilty verdicts obtained by the government in United States v. Kenneth Bowen, et al. This was the federal civil rights prosecution of New Orleans police officers allegedly involved in a horrific shooting of civilians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The mistrial was granted primarily due to a secret campaign of prejudicial publicity carried out through social media by members of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans and a DOJ Civil Rights Division attorney in DC. But Judge Engelhardt's opinion raises several other troubling issues concerning the conduct of the trial, DOJ's post-trial investigation of what happened during the trial, and possible meddling by the Deputy AG's office in that investigation.

I will have more to say about these issues in the coming days. It is clear that Judge Engelhardt does not believe he has received anything like the full story from DOJ. It is clear that appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate the entire affair is in order. And it is clear, if history is any judge, that no such appointment will be forthcoming from this attorney general.

Judge Engelhardt's opinion is lengthy, but one that should be required reading for every criminal defense attorney who practices in federal court and every DOJ prosecutor throughout the land. For now, I leave you with Judge Engelhardt's stirring words, taken from some of the closing paragraphs:

    On July 12, 2010, the indictment in this case was announced with much fanfare, a major press conference provided over by  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and widespread media attention. On that occasion, a DOJ representative said that the indictments 'are a reminder that the Constitution and the rule of law do not take a holiday--even after a hurricane.' While quite true in every respect, the Court must remind the DOJ that the Code of Federal Regulations, and various Rules of Professional Responsibility, and ethics likewise do not take a holiday--even in a high-stakes criminal prosecution, and even in the anonymity of cyberspace. While fully appreciating the horrific events of September 4, 2005, and those who tragically suffered as a result, the Court simply cannot allow the integrity of the justice system to become a casualty in a mere prosecutorial game of qualsiasi mezzo.

    Some may consider the undersigned's view of the cited rules and regulations as atavistic; but courts can ignore this online 'secret' social media misconduct at their own peril. Indeed the time may soon come when, some day, some court may overlook, minimize, accept, or deem such prosecutorial misconduct harmless 'fun.' Today is not that day, and Section N of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana is not that court.

    (wisenberg)

September 18, 2013 in Obstruction, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dickstein Lawyer Sends "Disturbing" Email Asking Client Not Be Questioned

 A so-far publicly unidentified attorney in the lobbying group at Dickstein Shapiro reportedly sent emails to members of the House Committee on Government Reform asking them not to question Jonathan Silver, a government employee and prospective witness and Dickstein client.  Specifically, the attorney requested, "If possible, please do not direct questions to Jonathan Silver.  He's a client of my firm," adding a smiley face emoticon symbol.  See here, here and here.  The emails were sharply criticized by committee chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who, displaying a copy but charitably blacking out the sender's name, demanded an explanation from Silver's counsel why "we shouldn't refer this to the American Bar Association."  (The ABA, of course, does not hear ethics complaints against individual lawyers.)  The committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, joined in expressing his dismay, saying the requests seemed "clearly out of bounds."

Although the attorney (I suspect someone known to the Congresspersons, perhaps a former House staffer) appears to have demonstrated extraordinarily bad judgment, I question whether her conduct was unethical.  Lobbyists are allowed to privately ask Representatives to vote on matters of crucial importance, far more important often than whether a government employee will be asked questions by a committee.  I do not find an ex parte attempt to influence questioning at a hearing worse than a similar attempt to influence a vote.  Such conduct would ordinarily be unethical, however, if directed toward a judge or prosecutor or if it violated a rule governing House committee conduct.

When I last appeared with a client before a House committee hearing, the chair threatened him with contempt for having, quite appropriately, asserted his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions.  That threat, more shockingly to me, was repeated in private by Congressional staff lawyers, including the then chief counsel for the House of Representatives.  I, therefore, am somewhat amused by the self-righteousness of the Congressmen here.

(goldman)

September 11, 2013 in Congress, Legal Ethics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

18 U.S.C. Section 1014: Dick and Frank (Posner and Easterbrook to you) Duke it Out.

Yesterday the Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed and remanded (7-2) a Section 1014 (and Section 317) conviction connected to the mortgage meltdown crisis. Judge Posner wrote the majority opinion. Chief Judge Easterbrook (joined by Judge Bauer) dissented. The opinion is United States v. Lacey Phillips and Erin Hall.

Section 1014 prohibits making any false statement or report for the purpose of influencing in any way a federally insured bank. Longstanding case law requires the government to prove that the defendant knew the statement was false at the time it was made. Phillips and Hall were an unmarried couple who applied for a home loan and were rejected. Hall then contacted his friend Bowling, a mortgage broker, who began advising Hall and Phillips and ultimately led them to a different bank, Fremont Investment & Loan, which granted a home loan to Phillips. Hall was not listed as a borrower. This was a stated income loan, also known in the industry as a liar's loan.

Phillips and Hall could not keep up with the payments and lost their home. A prosecution ensued. There were several false statements on the loan application, but Phillips and Hall testified that they only were aware of one of the statements, which was as follows. Under the Borrower's Income line, Phillips put down the couple's combined income.

Phillips and Hall wanted to testify that Bowling told them: 1) Phillips should be the only applicant for the stated-income loan, because her credit history was good while Hall's was bad because of the recent bankruptcy; 2) Hall's income should be added to Phillips' on the line that asked for borrower's gross monthly income; and 3) adding the incomes together was proper in the case of a stated income loan, because the bank was actually asking for the total income from which the loan would be repaid, rather than just the borrower's income.

The government wanted to keep this testimony from the jury and U.S. District Court Barbara Crabb (I kid you not) agreed. The Seventh Circuit, per Posner, reversed, in an unnecessarily complicated opinion, but one that is nevertheless fun and instructive to read.

I see it this way. According to Phillips and Hall, Bowling told them that, to Fremont Investment & Loan, Borrower's Income meant the total income from which the loan would be repaid. They were in essence informed that Borrower's Income was a term of art for Fremont. If Phillips and Hall believed that Borrower's Income meant (to Fremont) Combined Income of the People Repaying the Loan, then Phillips and Hall were not making a statement to Fremont that they knew was false. Their state of mind on this point was directly at issue. Theirs may have been be an implausible story, but the jury was allowed to hear it. Judge Posner's opinion has some important things to say about terms of art and interpretation of seemingly simple terms.

 This case reminds me of a home loan I took out while I was an AUSA. The bulk of the down payment was being paid through my Thrift Savings Plan. That is, I was loaning myself money out of my government retirement fund. At the time, all of the standard loan applications required the borrower to state that no part of the down payment was coming from a loan. I asked my real estate agent and the mortgage broker whether that language applied to a Thrift Savings Plan Loan. They assured me that it did not. So, when I wrote down on the application that no part of my down payment came from a loan, I knew that in one sense this might be considered false, but to the bank, and presumably to any bank, it would be considered true, because the bank did not consider a Thrift Savings Plan Loan to be a loan. Had I defaulted and been prosecuted, I would have liked to present this as a defense, and it is hard to believe that any competent judge would have prevented me from doing so. But Judge Crabb did not allow this kind of evidence in, and Judge Easterbrook cheers her on.

Judge Easterbrook points out that the jury, in finding Phillips and Hall guilty, already determined that the couple knew several statements on the loan application were false. This is back-asswards and misses the point. This is not a sufficiency of the evidence case. If the jurors had heard the excluded testimony, they may well have been more likely to believe Phillips' and Halls' testimony that the rest of the false statements were made and submitted by Bowling without their knowledge. According to Posner, there was evidence to the effect that Phillips and Hall were naive, while Bowling (who pled guilty and cooperated) and Fremont (a bank that Posner deems disreputable) were sophisticated.

Of course, it is appalling and embarrassing that any self-respecting U.S. Attorney's Office would prosecute a case like this, but it is all part of DOJ's Piker Mortgage Fraud Initiative. Even more embarrassing was the government's contention on appeal that the excluded statements were hearsay. Posner called this a "surprising mistake for a Justice Department lawyer." I'm not so sure. Maybe it wasn't a mistake.

(wisenberg)

September 5, 2013 in Fraud, Judicial Opinions, Mortgage Fraud, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Quality Control in the First Circuit: A Question of Materiality

In United States v. Russell, the First Circuit pays lip service to the materiality requirement in 18 U.S.C. Section 1035 (a) (2), prohibiting false statements in connection with the payment of health care benefits, but in reality reads this element out of the statute. After losing his job, appellant applied for and received health care benefits under a state-subsidized health care program in Maine. He was charged with making false statements/omissions to Dirigo Health Care Agency in order to obtain these benefits, by omitting the extra cash income he earned through work he performed at a friend's business. Appellant argued, to the jury and on appeal, that the government failed to prove the materiality of his statements/omissions, since he would have qualified for the subsidy even if he had accurately reported his income. In rejecting appellant's argument, the First Circuit correctly stated the standard materiality definition. But in describing the evidence presented by the government as to materiality, the Court stated the following:

"At trial, the jury heard testimony from Dirigo's director that there was a limit on the income an applicant could earn in 2008 and 2009 to be eligible for an 80% health care subsidy like the one Russell was awarded. The jury learned that Dirigo does not employ investigators to verify statements made by applicants on subsidy applications and that the agency therefore has to rely on applicants' statements in determining eligibility. The agency requires the applicant to sign a certification to help it ensure that all the representations made by the applicant are true. Russell was awarded a $7,500 subsidy in 2008, and a $4,100 subsidy in October 2009, based on his representation in his application that he was neither employed nor receiving income. He signed the accompanying certifications attesting to the truthfulness of his statements in those applications."

None of this establishes that the amount of unreported income omitted by Russell could have affected the subsidy he received. The trial judge, though rejecting appellant's Rule 29 argument, assessed zero amount of loss and refused to order restitution, because appellant's unreported cash earnings could not be determined and there was no evidence that he earned enough to be disqualified from the subsidy program. As the trial judge put it, "if he had told the truth, the result would have been the same." 

The First Circuit analyzed the issue this way:

"Whether Russell's statements were material was ultimately a question for the jury. But the record clearly supports a finding that Russell received income in the amount he reported, plus some additional sums that he did not disclose. Had he forthrightly stated on his application that he had unspecified amounts of undocumented cash income above the precise amounts he reported, it is reasonable to believe that Dirigo might well have determined that he failed to meet his burden of proving eligibility. As we said, the government need only prove that the false statement had a 'natural tendency to influence, or [is] capable of influencing, the decision.' Neder, 527 U.S. at 16 (quoting Gaudin, 515 U.S. at 509) (alteration in original). Given the evidence presented at trial, we believe that a rational fact finder could conclude that they were material."

The Court's analysis seems to shift the burden of proof. The evidence, at least as specifically described in the Court's own opinion, fails to show what the unreported income was and whether it could have affected the subsidy amount. This is the government's burden to prove, not Russell's. If the unreported income did not reach a certain threshold, it simply was not capable of influencing the decision to grant Russell a subsidy. Russell is under no legal burden to prove the precise amount of unreported income he earned. If the evidence was there, the First Circuit should have clearly set it out in its opinion. The materiality element is easy enough to prove as it is. There is no reason to read it out of the statute entirely.

(wisenberg)

September 4, 2013 in Fraud, Judicial Opinions | Permalink

Monday, September 2, 2013

Second Circuit Rules 10(b) Does Not Apply Extraterritorially

In United States v. Vilar, the Second Circuit examined a post-Morrison decision with an issue of whether Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 applies to extraterritorial criminal conduct.  The government had argued that the Supreme Court's decision in Bowman allowed for an extraterritorial application and that civil and criminal conduct should be treated differently and thus Morrison should not apply. The Second Circuit  disagreed with the government saying that the Bowman decision was limited to conduct that was "aimed at protecting 'the right of the government to defend itself.'" In contrast, statutes such as 10(b) have as its "purpose [  ] to prohibit 'crimes against private individuals or their property,'"  and therefore "the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to criminal statutes, and Section 10(b) is no exception."

The court also noted that "[a] statute either applies extraterritorially or it does not, and once it is determined that a statute does not apply extraterritorially, the only question we must answer in the individual case is whether the relevant conduct occurred in the territory of a foreign sovereign." Despite this legal analysis and ruling, the court found that there was no plain error with respect to territoriality on the counts here and thus no need to reverse on this issue.

Other issues raised by the defendants, such as those relating to a search warrant, jury instructions, and the admission of statements were found not to be in error.  The court did, however, remand the sentence.

(esp) 

September 2, 2013 in International, Judicial Opinions, Prosecutions, SEC | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)