Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Unwarranted Sentencing Disparities Among Defendants With Similar Records Who Have Been Found Guilty Of Similar Conduct
Juan Prado was a mildly corrupt Chicago cop who pled guilty to taking bribes from tow truck operators in order to funnel business their way. At sentencing he argued for a downward variance based on several factors, including the downward variance received by James Wodnicki, an allegedly similarly situated Chicago cop who was sentenced in a related case. The sentencing court ruled, incorrectly, that Seventh Circuit precedent only allowed it to consider nationwide sentencing disparities under 18 U.S.C. Section 3553 (a)(6). It refused to consider any arguments, from either the prosecution or defense, based on Wodnicki's downward variance, and sentenced Prado to a within-Guidelines prison term of 42 months. Last week, in United States v. Prado, the Seventh Circuit reversed, since the sentencing court was unaware that it could consider Wodnicki's sentence in applying 3553 (a)(6), and since the Seventh Circuit thought this may have affected Prado's sentence. The opinion reaffirms two important points, to wit--that sentencing disparities can be considered on both individual and global levels, and that within-Guidelines sentences can be reversed when based on erroneous assumptions. Interestingly, Prado did not raise this specific ground of error until the case reached the appellate court, but the government failed to argue Prado's waiver on appeal. Ergo, the waived waiver doctrine applied.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
This isn't exactly a white collar case, but America is our beat. Few things are more frustrating to a competent criminal defense attorney than a judge who won't allow her to make an adequate record. This problem seems to be getting worse in the federal system. What a nice surprise then that the Fifth Circuit, through Judge Ed Prado, is not having any of it. In United States v. Salazar, the district court revoked defendant's supervised release, sentenced him to a prison term, and imposed an additional supervised release term with new conditions. The new supervised release conditions were not announced by the trial court until near the end of the sentencing hearing. When defense attorney Angela Saad tried to object, the judge (Alia Moses) cut her off three times. On appeal, Salazar challenged Supervised Release Condition 6. The government argued for plain error review because Saad's objections to the new conditions were global and not specific. Salazar urged that abuse of discretion was the appropriate standard, as the judge had cut off counsel's attempts to object in more detail. The Court sided with Salazar. "Salazar had no reason to object to the conditions prior to sentencing, as they were not announced until that time." Moreover, "[c]ounsel...initially objected broadly to the conditions on account of their overly burdensome nature, but before counsel had an opportunity to finish her sentence, the court overruled her objection three times. Salazar's counsel reasonably believed that the district court would not have welcomed or entertained any further discussion of the issue." The Court ultimately vacated Condition 6, because the trial court had not adequately explained why it was reasonably related to statutory supervised release factors. This is a good case for a criminal appellate attorney to keep in his back pocket. It is altogether fitting that Prado wrote it. He was an outstanding trial judge who was always respectful to attorneys on both sides, and let them try their cases.
Monday, February 24, 2014
In United States v. Rubin, appellant maintained that his conviction for conspiracy to violate the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 ("UIGEA") was invalid, despite his unconditional guilty plea, because the indictment against him alleged conduct exempt from prosecution under UIGEA, and therefore deprived the district court of subject matter jurisdiction. Defendants who voluntarily plead guilty generally waive all non-jurisdictional defects in prior proceedings. (Conditional guilty pleas require the agreement of the government and the trial court.) Applying the U.S. Supreme Court's unfortunate decision in United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625 (2002), the Second Circuit squarely rejected Rubin's contention. Could Rubin have successfully argued, for the first time on appeal, pursuant to Fed. R.Crim.P. 12 (b)(3)(B), that his unconditional guilty plea was invalid because the indictment simply failed to allege an offense, irrespective of any jurisdictional issues? We do not know. According to the Second Circuit, his attorney failed to raise that point.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
To the surprise of nobody I know, Mathew Martoma, the former SAC Capital portfolio manager, was convicted of insider trading last Thursday by a Southern District of New York jury. The evidence at trial was very strong. It demonstrated that Martoma had befriended two doctors advising two drug companies on the trial of an experimental drug, received confidential information from them about the disappointing result of the drug trial prior to the public announcement, and then had a 20-minute telephone conversation with Steven A. Cohen, the SAC chair, a day or so before Cohen ordered that SAC's positions in these companies be sold off. The purported monetary benefit to SAC, in gains and avoidance of loss, of the trades resulting from the inside information is about $275 million, suggesting that Martoma receive a sentence of over 15 years under the primarily amount-driven Sentencing Guidelines (although I expect the actual sentence will be considerably less).
Cohen is white-collar Public Enemy No. 1 to the Department of Justice, at least in its most productive white-collar office, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District. That office has already brought monumental parallel criminal and civil cases against SAC, receiving a settlement of $1.8 billion, about a fifth of Cohen's reported personal net worth, but it has apparently not garnered sufficient evidence against Cohen to give it confidence that an indictment will lead to his conviction. It had granted a total "walk" -- a non-prosecution agreement -- to the two doctors whose testimony it felt it needed to convict Martoma, unusually lenient concessions by an office that almost always requires substantial (and often insubstantial) white-collar wrongdoers seeking a cooperation deal to plead to a felony. As an FBI agent told one of the doctor/co-conspirators, the doctors and Martoma were "grains of sand;" the government was after Cohen.
In an article in the New York Times last Friday, James B. Stewart, an excellent writer whose analyses I almost always agree with, asked a question many lawyers, including myself, have asked: why didn't Martoma cooperate with the government and give up Cohen in exchange for leniency? Mr. Stewart's answer was essentially that Martoma was unmarketable to the government because he would have been destroyed on cross-examination by revelation of his years-ago doctoring his Harvard Law School grades to attempt to secure a federal judicial clerkship and covering up that falsification by other document tampering and lying. Mr. Stewart quotes one lawyer as saying Martoma would be made "mincemeat" after defense cross-examination, another as saying he would be "toast," and a third as saying that without solid corroborating evidence, "his testimony would be of little use." See here.
I strongly disagree with Mr. Stewart and his three sources. The prosecution, I believe, would have welcomed Mr. Martoma to the government team in a New York minute -- assuming Martoma would have been able to provide believable testimony that Mr. Cohen was made aware of the inside information in that 20-minute conversation. When one is really hungry -- and the Department of Justice is really hungry for Steven A. Cohen -- one will eat the only food available, even if it's "mincemeat" and "toast." And there is certainly no moral question here; the government gave Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, a multiple murderer, a virtual pass to induce him to testify against John Gotti. Given the seemingly irrefutable direct, circumstantial and background evidence (including, specifically, the phone call, the fact that Cohen ordered the trades and reaped the benefit, and generally, whatever evidence from the civil and criminal cases against SAC is admissible against Cohen), testimony by Martoma to the effect he told Cohen, even indirectly or unspecifically, about the information he received from the doctors would, I believe, have most likely led to Cohen's indictment.
I have no idea why Martoma did not choose to cooperate, if, as I believe, he had the opportunity. "Cooperation," as it is euphemistically called, would require from Martoma a plea of guilty and, very likely in view of the amount of money involved, a not insubstantial prison term (although many years less than he will likely receive after his conviction by trial). Perhaps Martoma, who put on a spirited if unconvincing defense after being caught altering his law school transcript, is just a fighter who does not easily surrender or, some would say, "face reality," even if the result of such surrender would be a comparatively short jail sentence. (In a way, that choice is refreshing, reminding me of the days defense lawyers defended more than pleaded and/or cooperated.) Perhaps Martoma felt cooperation, a condition of which is generally full admission of all prior crimes and bad acts, would reveal other wrongs and lead to financial losses by him and his family beyond those he faces in this case. Perhaps he felt loyalty -- which it has been demonstrated is a somewhat uncommon trait among those charged with insider trading -- to Cohen, who has reportedly paid his legal fees and treated him well financially (and perhaps Martoma hopes will continue to do so), or perhaps to others he would have to implicate.
And perhaps -- perhaps -- the truth is that in his conversation with Cohen, he did not tell Cohen either because of caution while talking on a telephone, a deliberate effort to conceal from Cohen direct inside information, or another reason, and he is honest enough not to fudge the truth to please the eager prosecutors, as some cooperators do. In such a case his truthful testimony would have been unhelpful to prosecutors bent on charging Cohen. That neutral testimony or information, if proffered, which the skeptical prosecutors would find difficult to believe, would at best get him ice in this very cold wintertime. Lastly, however unlikely, perhaps Martoma believed or still believes he is, or conceivably actually is, innocent.
In any case, it is not necessarily too late for Martoma to change his mind and get a benefit from cooperation. The government would, I believe, be willing to alter favorably its sentencing recommendation if Martoma provides information or testimony leading to or supporting the prosecution of Cohen. Indeed, I believe the government would ordinarily jump at a trade of evidence against Cohen for a recommendation of leniency (or less harshness), even if Martoma is now even less attractive as a witness than before he was convicted (although far more attractive than if he had testified as to his innocence). However, the five-year statute of limitations for the July 2008 criminal activity in this matter has apparently run, and an indictment for substantive insider trading against Cohen for these trades is very probably time-barred.
To be sure, federal prosecutors have attempted -- not always successfully (see United States v. Grimm; see here) -- imaginative solutions to statute of limitations problems. And, if the government can prove that Cohen had committed even a minor insider trading conspiratorial act within the past five years (and there are other potential cooperators, like recently-convicted SAC manager Michael Steinberg, out there), the broad conspiracy statutes might well allow Martoma's potential testimony, however dated, to support a far-ranging conspiracy charge (since the statute of limitations for conspiracy is satisfied by a single overt act within the statutory period). In such a case, Martoma may yet get some considerable benefit from cooperating, however belatedly it came about.