Sunday, February 18, 2018
The speaking indictments of this past week provide a clear trail to Russian individuals and entities allegedly interfering in the 2016 Presidential election. The choice of charges, which include conspiracy to defraud, are no surprise. An indictment under section 371 can take one of two avenues: conspiracy to commit a specific offense or conspiracy to defraud the government. This is a classic case for the defraud statute to be used, as it is the U.S. election process that is alleged to be compromised here. Several questions to consider here:
- Why has it taken so long for this indictment? Answer - it hasn't. Actually Mueller's team is moving faster than we often see in white collar cases where the investigation can take many years. In less than a year, the Special Counsel's Office has accumulated several cases (see here). Computer related cases can take even longer as tracking items on the web are not easy, especially when a perpetrator tries to mask its origin.
- Can the U.S. prosecute extraterritorial conduct? Answer - Yes and No. You will notice that the alleged conduct in this indictment either took place inside the U.S. or had an "affect" here in the U.S. Under principles of "objective territoriality," the U.S. has, in many instances, prosecuted conduct occurring outside the U.S. that has an effect in this country. As one who has been somewhat critical of objective territoriality, I have been a strong advocate for using what I term "defensive territoriality." Interfering in a U.S. election would most definitely fit the bill of conduct that the U.S. needs to defend against. Over the past few years, the Supreme Court has wrestled with the issue of the application of different U.S. statutes for conduct occurring outside this country. A three-fold response here: 1) this is not extraterritorial conduct, 2) even if it is extraterritorial, there are enough acts in this country to allow for jurisdiction here, and 3) the U.S. needs to defend its election process.
- Can the government bring the charged Russians to the U.S.? Answer - It may be difficult here. Do we think that the Russian government will be turning over these individuals for a U.S. prosecution? Without a U.S.-Russian extradition treaty the chances of this happening are diminished. Perhaps one of them will travel to a country where the U.S. does have an extradition treaty (see here). Other methods exist, such as luring (see here), but the international community frowns on its use. Prosecuting these individuals/entities are less important than letting the public know that our election process has allegedly been the subject of attacks from Russia. Mueller's team definitely accomplishes this here.
The more interesting Information and Statement of the Offense relates to Richard Pinedo, a cooperating witness who has a plea agreement for a violation of section 1028. Although the Information has section 1028 on it, it also is termed identity fraud and speaks to an alleged violation of the wire fraud statute found in section 1343. The Information only speaks about a Count One. Whether there is another document with other counts is unknown. We saw this previously with the Informations of Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, so it is doubtful that the use of "1" without a "2" is significant. The special counsel's website has "et al" after Pinedo's name, but no other names listed. Other Indictments and Informations on the Special Counsel's website do not have "et al." (See Flynn, Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulos). The Pinedo Information says it was filed on February 7, 2018, as "sealed." The header on the understanding for the plea is also marked sealed, but dated February 12, 2018. All of this may be nothing, but it is interesting to note. Finally, kudos to the special counsel's team for writing a plea that does not include offensive language such as a waiver of any possible claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. These documents go a step further to allow for such claims to be brought by the accused even though they are pleading guilty. Ethically, this is the way a plea should be written, but some past documents in some US Attorneys' Offices have not always done this. The Florida Ethics Board went so far as to issue an ethics opinion prohibiting waivers of ineffective assistance of counsel (see here). So Mueller's team taking the high road on the wording of its pleas, is nice to see.
What happens next? The Mueller team may know, but we don't. So stay tuned.