Tuesday, June 4, 2013
“Well, I would say this. With regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I have ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy.” Attorney General Eric Holder testifying under oath before the House Judiciary Committee on May 15, 2013.
"For the reasons set forth below, I believe there is probable cause to conclude that the contents of the wire and electronic communications pertaining to SUBJECT ACCOUNT, are evidence, fruits and instrumentalities of criminal violations of 18 U.S.C. [Section] 793 (Unauthorized Disclosure of National Defense Information), and that there is probable cause to believe that the Reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d), as an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator to which the materials relate." FBI Special Agent Reginald B. Reyes' May 28, 2010, Affidavit in Support of Search Warrant Application for Fox News Chief Washington Correspondent James Rosen's Google email account. The warrant was authorized by Attorney General Holder.
Note than in addition to identifying "the Reporter" as a probable aider, abettor and/or criminal co-conspirator, the affidavit explains that the Department of Justice is not bound by the Privacy Protection Act, otherwise prohibiting warrants for First Amendment work product, precisely because "the Reporter" was "suspected of committing the crime [18 U.S.C. Section 793(d)] under investigation."
There is no doubt that AG Holder gave false testimony to House Members under oath. He is an idiot if he did so intentionally, and he isn't an idiot. What should Holder have done to fix this mess? Corrected the record, of course. In the immortal words of Richard Nixon, "that would have been the easy thing to do."
Holder should have said: "Dear Representatives Goodlatte and Sensenbrenner. I screwed up. My testimony to you is now inoperative. I forgot that I authorized this affidavit, which clearly identifies a 'Reporter' as somebody under investigation for a crime. I did not intentionally try to deceive you. My statement was careless and overbroad. Please accept my apologies."
But the Attorney General apparently cannot not bring himself to do anything as straightforward as that. Instead he spends days sending out spinmeisters, most recently, and regrettably, Deputy Assistant AG Peter Kadzik, as reported here by Sari Horwitz in today's Washington Post.
How sad. Can you imagine anything like this happending under Attorney General Griffin Bell? Bell, a genuine protector of our civil liberties, most likely would have nixed the supboena in the first place. But if Bell had authorized it, he never would have shied away from the ensuing controversy or hidden behind his DOJ underlings.
Mr. Holder has received his fair share of undeserved, demagogic criticism from the kooky right. He deserves what he's getting now.
Here is a copy of the Reyes Affidavit.
Friday, May 24, 2013
Most witnesses with potential criminal exposure who are called to testify before Congressional hearings take the stand, with their lawyers behind them, and repeat the incantation "I respectfully decline to answer the question based on my Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination," or some variation. Occasionally, a witness insists on testifying in spite of a danger that his answers might incriminate him or, if in conflict with other witnesses' statements or other evidence, might lead to a perjury or obstruction prosecution. One notable example is Roger Clemens, who chose to testify and, although ultimately acquitted, was indicted and lost millions of dollars in legal fees and endorsements.
Lois Lerner, an embattled Internal Revenue Service official called to testify before a Congressional hearing earlier this week, tried to have her cake and eat it too. She made a brief opening statement declaring her innocence ("I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any I.R.S. rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other Congressional committee."). She then invoked her constitutional right not to testify. Committee Chair Daryl Issa (R-Calif.) and other Congressmen claimed that, by her opening declaration, she had waived her privilege and therefore was required to answer the Committee's questions.
Some lawyers have criticized Ms. Lerner's counsel, William Taylor III, one of the most highly-respected criminal defense lawyers in the nation, for allowing Ms. Lerner to make an opening statement, claiming that at the very least that she placed herself at risk of waiving her constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. See here. Although the area of waiver of privilege is indeed murky, with cases going in different directions, I believe Ms. Lerner did not waive her right to silence by her unspecific denials. As Miranda v. Arizona itself says, "If the individual indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease." 384 U.S. 436, 473-4, fn. 44.
Nonetheless, courts sometimes bend over backwards to "punish" what appears to them as gamesmanship. Many years ago, a New York City Congressman, Mario Biaggi, in response to a "leak" disclosing he had invoked his privilege in the grand jury and refused to answer questions, declared publicly that he had cooperated fully and answered all the jury's questions -- a statement which was far from true -- and that he had instructed his attorneys to seek release of his testimony to prove it. His attorneys moved for disclosure of testimony, no doubt expecting the motion to be denied. (The United States Attorney also so moved.) The district court, however, as later affirmed by the Court of Appeals, held that Biaggi had waived the privilege and ordered the release of his entire transcript. In re Biaggi, 478 F.2d 489 (2d Cir. 1973).
Even though I believe that ultimately it will not be determined (or probably even litigated) that Ms. Lerner waived her privilege against self-incrimination, I wonder whether her brief declaration of innocence -- by itself unlikely to persuade anyone -- was worth the risk, however slight. My guess -- pure guess -- is that the decision to allow her to make her brief opening statement was a compromise made between a careful lawyer and a client, like many I have represented, who adamantly desired to testify. Of course, professional discretion would prevent Mr. Taylor from shifting any blame.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Prosecutors who have committed Brady violations, even those which have been later demonstrated to have resulted in wrongful convictions and lengthy terms of imprisonment for persons later proven innocent, are rarely prosecuted. Courts tend to find Brady violations inconsequential, prosecutor's offices generally defend or at the least refuse to acknowledge them, disciplinary committees overlook them, and defense lawyers, out of timidity and self-interest, rarely press for sanctions. One notable exception to this general disregard by institutions and the bar is DOJ's commendable effort, at the moment thwarted by a questionable administrative law decision, to sanction prosecutors in the Senator Ted Stevens trial (see here and here).
The State of Texas, whose criminal justice system is often disparaged by commentators and defense lawyers, recently took a giant step in holding prosecutors sanctionable for egregious Brady violations. A Texas judge, acting as a court of inquiry, under Texas law, after a hearing ordered the arrest of a current Texas state court judge, Ken Anderson, for contempt and withholding evidence from the court and defense attorneys when Anderson was a District Attorney prosecuting Michael Morton, who was recently demonstrated to be actually innocent for the murder of his wife for which he served 25 years of a life sentence. See here.
The inquiry judge, District Judge Louis Sturns, found probable cause to believe that Anderson had concealed two crucial pieces of evidence: a statement by Morton's three-year old son that Morton was not home at the time of the crime and a police report which revealed that an unknown suspicious man had been seen on several occasions stalking the Morton house.
For denying to the trial judge that there was exculpatory evidence and for failing to provide a full copy of a police report demanded by the judge, Anderson was charged with tampering with evidence, tampering with a government document, and contempt. The most serious charge, evidence tampering, carries a maximum prison term of ten years, far short of the 25 years Morton served.
Criminal prosecution of prosecutors for Brady violations has been to my knowledge totally or almost totally nonexistent. Thirty-five years ago I drafted a proposed New York State statute criminalizing intentional and knowing Brady violations. As expected, the proposal went nowhere. The statute, as I wrote it, had such strict scienter requirements that the crime was virtually unprovable. It was written more to stress to prosecutors the seriousness of such misconduct than to lead to actual prosecutions. The Anderson prosecution, if it occurs, may fill that function.
Monday, April 22, 2013
The government decision to delay Miranda warnings, and also the first appearance before a judge and the assignment of counsel, for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving alleged Boston Marathon bomber, was a tactical one, no doubt based largely on an evaluation that any admission Tsarnaev makes is unnecessary to a government case (eyewitnesses, an admission, videotapes, possession of explosives, flight, etc.) which appears to be overwhelming.
The broad "public safety emergency exception" which the government asserts is a questionable Department of Justice attempt to expand the narrow exception announced in New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984). The government's aggressive stance is based in part on a belief that Miranda does not prescribe a procedural requirement for police questioning, but is only a prerequisite for the admissibility at trial of statements made by a defendant. Under such reasoning, government agents are free to violate the dictates of Miranda (and perhaps other constitutional rights) with no harm to their case except a return to the status quo ante.
Aggressive law enforcement tactics against criminal suspects accused of particular heinous crimes, such as terrorism, murder, kidnapping and large-scale drug dealing, gradually work their way into the general law enforcement toolbox. Tactics used against drug dealers and organized crime figures, such as extensive electronic surveillance, undercover agents, forfeiture of assets and disallowance of attorneys' fees, and exceedingly high bail requests, for instance, are no longer uncommon in white collar cases.
I wonder whether the "public safety emergency exception" is so far off. If it is acceptable under this exception to allow the government to disregard Miranda and Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 5(a)(1)(A) (requiring agents to bring one arrested before a court "without necessary delay") in order ostensibly to prevent future terrorist crimes, will it also become acceptable to detain for 48 hours and question without Miranda warnings, for instance, those who have provided inside information about unknown persons to whom they might have provided such information in order to deter imminent or future insider trading or those who have hacked computers about accomplices or others who might commit imminent or future computer crimes?
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday defended the Department of Justice's treatment of Aaron Swartz, the 26 year-old internet activist who committed suicide three months before his scheduled trial in federal court in Boston. Specifically, Holder, in response to questioning by Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, defended the prosecution by citing the plea offer, stating, "There was never an intention for him to go to jail for longer than a 3-, 4- potentially 5-month range . . . . Those, those offers were rejected."
Holder's response troubles me in at least two regards. First is his implicit belief that a five-month jail sentence for Swartz was lenient. Swartz' alleged crimes were clearly based on a heartfelt belief that the public was entitled to free access to knowledge, specifically to academic journals. He would receive no personal benefit for his actions. Perhaps in these days, where sentences of years in double digits are commonplace, a sentence of five months seems to Holder like a trip to Disneyland, but five months in jail for a fragile young man acting out of humanistic belief and causing only comparatively light physical damage does not seem lenient to me. Apparently, Swartz did not see it as light.
Second is Holder's further implicit assumption that government decency is satisfied by a reasonable plea offer and available only to those who plead guilty. Swartz was indicted originally for crimes theoretically punishable by up to 35 years in prison. Later, a superseding indictment which ratcheted the potential sentence up to 50 years was filed. Had Swartz exercised his constitutional right to go to trial and been convicted, I would have been shocked if the government would have sought a sentence of five months or less. Rather, it undoubtedly would have sought a long sentence, most likely in the sentencing guideline range of approximately seven years.
I do not condemn the government for prosecuting Swartz. Perhaps prosecuting him was cruel, but prosecutions are often cruel to defendants. Despite his noble intentions, Swartz arguably violated the law, and I do not believe a victim should control the decision to prosecute, one way or the other. I do not, however, believe that Swartz' purported crimes deserved the full-blown zealous prosecution they received. A prosecutor in the appropriate case should charge less than the most serious crimes available and not always exercise her power to the "full extent of the law." Prosecutorial decency, or prosecution discretion, should not be confined only to plea offers.
Monday, January 28, 2013
Casey Anthony, who was acquitted of murdering her daughter Caylee Marie in 2011, has filed for bankruptcy in federal bankruptcy court in Florida. She has listed approximate assets of $1,100 and debts of $800,000, including $500,000 due Jose Baez, one of her defense attorneys. See here. I was pleased to see no debt listed for my colleague and friend Cheney Mason, who as Baez' co-counsel, added gravitas, savvy and experience to Ms. Anthony's defense team.
It is not surprising for a criminal defense lawyer not to be paid a large part of the legal fees owed to her. I venture that the average criminal defense lawyer is "beat" for some 10-20% of her fees. And I do not know how much Baez actually did receive in fees, but I am sure nothing like the fees many white-collar lawyers and firms often receive for representation in criminal matters of institutions or individuals, even those who never get close to being indicted. Of course, the Anthony case did provide Baez considerable fame.
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
It is not often that I praise the Department of Justice ("DOJ"), especially for bringing a prosecution. However, I commend the decision to prosecute -- really prosecute, and not just indict and offer a deferred prosecution -- a UBS subsidiary for its role in manipulating the benchmark LIBOR interest rate. See here.
To be sure, UBS was allowed to offer as the defendant in this case a Japanese subsidiary (UBS Securities Japan Co. Ltd.), for which a conviction would bring considerably less collateral damage than it would upon the parent company. Substituting others for prosecution, whether corporations or individuals, of course, is not a common benefit offered to criminal targets. Nonetheless, for DOJ, bringing a prosecution against a major financial institution, even a subsidiary, is a considerable and commendable step.
Generally, I believe that prosecutions should not be brought against large institutions because of a few rogue employees, unless at least one is a director or "a high managerial agent acting within the scope of his employment and in behalf of the corporation." New York Penal Law Section 20.20(2)(b). See also Model Penal Code Section 2.07. UBS, however, is a serial offender with a history (not alone among Swiss and other banks) as an eager accomplice of money launderers and tax evaders throughout the world. Although UBS' belated and commendable efforts to clean up its act and cooperate deserve credit, in this case DOJ apparently felt it did not make up for its past conduct enough to deserve non-prosecution, and appropriately broke its usual pattern of allowing major financial institutions to avoid criminal convictions.
As a practical matter, one may ask what the difference is between an indictment/deferred prosecution (as occurred in the case of the parent, UBS AG of Zurich) and indictment/conviction if both ultimate results carry huge financial penalties and other requirements, such as monitoring. Aside from the collateral consequences -- which can, as in the obvious case of Arthur Andersen, be fatal to a major financial institution (although I agree to an extent with Gabriel Markoff (see here) that such a fear is exaggerated) -- the conviction here has importance as a symbol, and perhaps also a deterrent in both the specific and general aspects.
Although the huge UBS fines will be borne by current UBS shareholders (not necessarily the same stockholders who benefited from the LIBOR bid-rigging), one would hope that UBS makes an effort to recoup the substantial financial gains through bonuses and other compensation geared to profits that those in leadership and supervisory roles made as a result of UBS' now-admitted criminality even if those leaders were uninvolved or unaware of the wrongdoing. I suspect that there will be no such serious effort, or at least little or no success if there is one.
Monday, December 17, 2012
You can debate all day whether the government should allow any financial institution to get too big to fail. You can also debate whether such an institution, if it is too big to fail, should be too big to prosecute, even when it engages in blatantly criminal conduct over a lengthy period of time. However, you cannot seriously debate whether to prosecute senior bank officials of an international mega-bank who knowingly directed the criminal enterprise in question. Corporations only act through agents. Those agents are human beings.
We are not talking about technical matters here. This is not a question of whether each party to a complex transaction understood the fine print which revealed, or obscured, that an investment bank was betting against the deal it was pushing. According to the published reports and press statements, obvious narcotics-related money laundering was repeatedly facilitated by the bank, despite multiple regulatory warnings. The sources of funds connected to outlaw regimes were intentionally and repeatedly hidden. If this stuff happened, people did it. And they were no doubt high-ranking people.
No credible person will contend that the prosecution of corrupt bank officers can ever endanger the financial community. No matter how important the institution or high-ranking the officer, employees are fungible. The global financial impact of prosecuting these officers, no matter how important they think they are, will always be negligible.
Assistant AG Lanny Breuer said at his press conference that individual prosecutions were not being ruled out. (Similar statements were made at the time of the robo-signing settlement press conference, and we all know what an avalanche of individual DOJ prosecutions followed in the wake of that!) But other comments Breuer made, discussing how hard it supposedly is to prosecute the individuals involved, appear to be window-dressing rehearsals for future DOJ declinations.
Reporters should not let this issue slide into oblivion. The DOJ does not typically comment upon pending investigations of individuals. (Of course this does not stop some FBI and IRS agents from telling all of a target's friends that he is being criminally investigated, thereby ruining the target's life.) Here is an occasion where the policy should be ignored, particularly since the DOJ can comment on a pending investigation without revealing the names of the subjects and targets.
The question every self-respecting reporter should be asking AG Holder and Assistant AG Breuer is not whether individual indictments have been ruled in or out. The questions to be asked at every opportunity in the coming weeks and months are:
"What is the status of the investigation?"
"Is there really any investigation?"
"Are you treating this investigation like you treat the investigation of other individuals suspected of facilitating murder and drug crimes?"
Here is an account by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi of his appearance on Eliot Spitzer's Viewpoint program discussing the HSBC settlement. Taibbi's account contains a link to the Spitzer interview. Hat tip to Jack Darby of Austin's Krimelabb. com for alerting me to this posting. Taibbi also has an interesting opinion piece about the HSBC settlement on his Rolling Stone TAIBBLOG.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
My learned and astute co-editor, Solomon Wisenberg, bridled at the thought of a criminal investigation of the Libor bank scandal (see here), which he believes will be a waste of time, and of the JP Morgan Chase trading loss (see here), which he believes lacks evidence of criminality. While I do not know enough about these matters to dispute his reasons, I nonetheless strongly believe a criminal investigation is warranted in both instances.
Financial manipulations which cost shareholders and customers of large institutions millions (or billions) of dollars require criminal investigation, and, if identifiable provable criminal wrongdoing is found, criminal prosecution. It has become clear that those institutions and their employees are incapable or unwilling to police themselves, and, as Mr. Wisenberg points out, the responsible regulatory agencies have often been asleep at the switch or even compliant.
That is not to say that every massive financial loss involves criminality or that weak or questionable criminal prosecutions should be brought to soothe the popular thirst for criminal punishment. It is not to say that genuine defenses, such as estoppel due to government approval or acquiescence, should not prevent prosecution. But for the huge financial institutions, even a penalty of almost a half billion dollars, as in the Barclays Bank "deferred prosecution" deal (effectively a "non-prosecution" deal), is merely a cost of doing business passed on to shareholders. And for many of the traders and manipulators, who always weigh risk but rarely morality, only the risk of a criminal prosecution (which for them involves potential prison sentences) will have any serious deterrent effect.
To be sure, criminal investigations, even without prosecutions, may deter innovation and creativity in financial vehicles and dealings (although I am not so sure that is a bad thing). Additionally, investigations themselves cause mental distress, potential loss of reputation, and considerable legal fees. Criminal investigations, therefore, should not be started without careful consideration by law enforcement or prosecutorial agencies. But massive losses of other people's money should almost always require an examination beyond a regulatory or civil one by our historically inept financial regulatory agencies.
Every death by other than natural causes, every fire of any proportion, and every serious automobile accident is reviewed by authorities for possible criminal prosecution. Is there any reason an unusual massive financial loss of other people's money should be exempt from scrutiny for possible criminality? I think not.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Joe Paterno was buried a second time last week -- partly by a report of former judge and FBI Director Louis Freeh and partly by accounts like that of the New York Times, which in a four-column lead story headlined "Abuse Scandal Inquiry Damns Paterno and Penn State," wrote "Mr. Freeh's investigation makes clear that it was Mr. Paterno . . . who persuaded the university president and others not to report Mr. Sandusky to the authorities . . . ." (emphasis added). See here. A reading of the report, however, shows that its conclusions as to Paterno are based on hearsay, innuendo and surmise. While a report such as the Freeh Report certainly need not be based on court-admissible testimony, if indeed the evidence referred to in the report constituted the sole basis for a criminal and/or civil charge against Paterno, the case undoubtedly would be thrown out and would not reach a jury.
The relevant evidence involving Paterno is as follows:
- In May 1998, with respect to an allegation that Sandusky had showered with an eleven year-old on the Penn State campus, Tim Curley, the Penn athletic director, notified his superiors that he had "touched base" with Paterno about the incident and days later sent to them an email "Anything new in this department? Coach [Paterno] is anxious to know where it stands."
- In February 2001, after he observed Sandusky sexually molesting a youth in a Penn State shower room, Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant, reported the incident to Paterno, who told him, "You did what you had to do. It is my job now to figure out what we want to do." The following day, a Sunday, Paterno reported the incident to Curley and Gary Schultz, a Penn State vice-president. Paterno waited a day or so not to "interfere with their weekend."
- Later in the month, Graham Spanier, the Penn State president, Schultz and Curley devised an action plan which included reporting the incident to the state welfare agency. A day or so later, Curley emailed Schultz and Spanier and said that he had changed his mind about the plan "after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe [Paterno] yesterday," and now felt that they should instead tell Sandusky to seek professional help and not report him to the welfare authorities unless he did not cooperate.
The first item, the 1998 Curley email, merely demonstrates that Paterno showed an interest in what was happening with reference to the 1998 incident, which ultimately was reported to both the welfare department and the local prosecutor and resulted in no findings or charges. Paterno reportedly in 2011, after the incident involving Sandusky's 2001 conduct and the failure to report it to authorities raised public attention, denied that he was aware of the 1998 incident. In fact, Paterno's testimony in the grand jury in which he purportedly denied any such knowledge was in response to an imprecise, general and unfocused question, and his answer was accordingly unclear. Additionally, the reported statement denying any prior knowledge was by his "family" and not by him.
In any case, while a denial, if made directly by Paterno or even an authorized agent, might arguably be admissible in court as evidence of consciousness of guilt, such evidence is weak proof of guilt since even wholly blameless people often make false statements distancing themselves from wrongdoing.
The second item, Paterno's response to McQueary is by itself of little moment and says no more than that Paterno, having been apprised of the incident, would now have to figure out what he and the others will do. Of course, one can read into that facially bland statement a more sinister meaning -- that Paterno intended to tell McQueary to remain silent. Such a meaning, however, is supported only by surmise and suspicion. The report also states that Paterno waited a day before reporting the information to Curley and Schultz so as not to "interfere with their weekends." This one-day delay is not meaningful.
The third item, Curley's change of mind after "talking it over with Joe," might, not unreasonably, albeit with a considerable leap, be construed to indicate that Paterno suggested not reporting the incident to the authorities. However, it might also be that Curley changed his mind on his own after airing his thoughts with Paterno and deciding that the earlier plan was not preferable. It is, of course, also possible that whatever Curley wrote, his mention of discussions with Paterno (without any direct or indirect report of Paterno's own views) was an attempt by Curley to minimize or shift personal responsibility from himself. In any case, any probative value this email has as to Paterno's intent is also based on speculation.
Freeh himself seems to recognize that his conclusions are far from "clear." He mentions that Curley and Schultz contended that they acted "humanely" and sought "the best way to handle vague and troubling allegations," that Paterno had told a reporter he had "backed away and turned it over to . . . people I thought would have a little more expertise," and that Spanier had denied knowledge "Sandusky was engaged in any sexual abuse of children."
He then rejects these explanations and concludes, "Taking into account the available witness statements and evidence, the Special Investigative Counsel finds that is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the University -- Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley -- repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from the authorities, the University's Board of Trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large" (emphasis added). During a press conference specifically focusing on Paterno's culpability, Freeh, seemingly inconsistently with the qualified "available witness statements and evidence" language of the report, appeared to exaggerate, "There's a whole bunch of evidence here." He continued, "And we're saying that the reasonable conclusion from that evidence is that [Paterno] was an integral part of this active decision to conceal" (emphasis added).
I tend to agree that Freeh's conclusion is the "more reasonable" hypothesis, but I do so based more on a visceral feeling and some understanding of Paterno's power and status at the university than an evidentiary basis. The "facts" demonstrating Paterno's "active" role in the cover-up are insubstantial and equivocal. The case against Paterno is, as a Scotch jury might say, "not proven." Perhaps we should require more substantial proof before we topple Paterno's statue -- figuratively and actually.
As I mentioned here last Wednesday:
"By ignoring material financial falsehoods, the regulators and examiners allow frauds to continue and decrease the likelihood of future accountability through the criminal process."
The New York Fed's Friday data dump reveals beyond question that some of its officials, including Timothy Geithner, were aware of intentionally misreported Libors by 2008 at the latest. Today's Wall Street Journal editorial lays out the damning transcripts.
What does this mean? For openers it means that DOJ's announcement of a criminal investigation is a joke. Regulators and government officials at the highest levels knew of the misrepresentation. By not immediately raising bloody hell and putting a stop to it they either sanctioned the conduct, rendering it non-criminal, or themselves became co-conspirators.
Do you really think DOJ is about to investigate Geithner or drag him into somebody else's criminal defense? Get real. These people can't even prosecute robo-signers.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
The news that Barclays officials told the New York Fed in 2007 about potential problems with Libor highlights key differences between the regulatory mind and the prosecutorial mind. It also shows the difficulty in successfully prosecuting white collar fraud in the wake of regulatory incompetence.
When the typical federal prosecutor learns that a financial institution or corporation has lied, his instinct is to prove and charge a crime against the individuals responsible for the falsehood. Virtually any material lie in the context of publicly traded or federally insured entities constitutes a federal crime.
When a regulator learns that he has been lied to, the response is not necessarily the same. A famous example of this occurred during one of the SEC’s many examinations of Bernie Madoff’s shop. Madoff was caught flat out lying to SEC examiners. Did the scope of the examination expand? No. Were prosecutors immediately informed? No. Madoff was given a slap on the wrist. His massive Ponzi scheme continued for several years, claiming thousands of new victims.
While prosecuting S&L fraud twenty years ago, I was appalled to discover repeated instances in which the very fraud I was investigating had been contemporaneously revealed in some format to federal banking regulators and/or examiners who had often done nothing in response. This put putative defendants in the position of arguing that their frauds really weren’t frauds at all, because they had not deceived anyone. They argued that the regulators knew all about their conduct and failed to act, so: 1) it wasn’t deceptive conduct; and 2) they thought they had a green light going forward. Sometimes our targets and subjects were right. Sometimes they had only disclosed the tip of the iceberg.
By ignoring material financial falsehoods, the regulators and examiners allow frauds to continue and decrease the likelihood of future accountability through the criminal process.
But sophisticated fraudsters often reveal their conduct to regulators through a glass darkly. They are hoping that overworked regulators, with whom they are friendly, will miss, or misunderstand, the half-assed disclosures being made. The trick is to disclose just enough, but not too much. The typical regulator, unlike the typical prosecutor, does not distrust mankind or see a fraudster around every corner. The typical regulator has known the institution and executives he is currently monitoring for years. Often his ass has been kissed during that period in perfectly appropriate ways. He has been respected and deferred to. These intangibles, and his workload, may prevent him from noticing or following up on potential red flags.
We don’t have the full story yet on what the New York Fed knew about Barclay’s Libor problems, but the alacrity of the New York Fed’s acknowledgement that it knew something is striking. Timothy Geithner ran the New York Fed at the time, and we know that he has never met a wrist that couldn’t be slapped or a falsehood that couldn’t be excused.
The question remains—how can we bridge the regulatory/prosecutorial mental divide in order to punish real corporate fraud? Here is one answer—by training regulators and examiners to have zero tolerance for misleading or obstructionist behavior. The discovery of any lie or intentionally misleading conduct by a publicly traded or federally insured institution in any context should result in immediate fast-tracking to appropriate civil and/or criminal enforcement officials and/or federal prosecutorial authorities. This does not mean that prosecution should automatically or even usually ensue. It does mean that individuals who actually know something about fraud can take a critical and timely look at red flag behavior.
Once this process is in place, it may create a business climate in which elite corporate and financial institutions, and their officers, directors, and employees, will know that lying in any form will not be tolerated. The success of such a structure depends on the DOJ green-lighting prosecutors fearless enough to investigate and charge the flesh and blood financial elites who commit fraud. Almost every indication to date (outside of the insider trading context) is that current DOJ leadership is not up to the task.
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Today's New York Times was a virtual treasure trove of white collar crime stories. Among them were the following:
"South Carolina House Panel to Hear Ethics Complaints Against Governor" (see here) - South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is facing a legislative hearing on whether she acted unethically during her term in the legislature when she was paid $110,000 annually as a fundraiser for a hospital whose legislative goals she advocated. Knowing nothing about South Carolina legislative ethics rules or criminal law, I do not venture to opine whether the Governor did anything improper. However, the broad facts here are strikingly close to a series of cases in New York in which a hospital CEO, a state senator and a state assemblyman all were convicted and went to prison. See here. It seems to me there should be a restriction against a legislator working for an entity, at least in a loosely-defined job such as consultant or fundraiser, and advocating or supporting favorable legislation for that entity.
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"Madoff's Brother Sets Plea Deal in Ponzi Case" (see here) - Peter B. Madoff, the brother of Bernard Madoff and the No. 2 man at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, will reportedly plead guilty tomorrow to falsifying documents, lying to regulators and filing false tax returns. Peter Madoff reportedly served as the nominal compliance officer of his brother's wholly-owned securities firm and apparently exercised little or no oversight of the firm's operations, thereby providing his brother the freedom to steal billions.
Placing an investment firm's proprietor's brother as compliance officer is akin to asking the fox to guard the henhouse. It seems there should be, if there is not, a law, rule or regulation prohibiting a close relative, like a spouse, parent, child or sibling, from being the responsible compliance officer in a substantial investment firm owned entirely (as here) or largely by one's relative.
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"JP Morgan Trading Loss May Reach $9 Billion" (see here) - The amount of JP Morgan's trading losses from its London office could be as much as $9 billion -- four and one-half times as much as the company announced originally. While JP Morgan has in view of its considerable profits downplayed the magnitude of the loss, which its chief executive officer Jamie Dimon estimated in May could possibly be as much as $4 billion, obviously a $9 billion loss takes a much greater bite out of the firm's profitability, and conceivably may even raise some questions as to the firm's viability.
We now know, in the wake of bailouts and government support, that the federal government is both the de facto and de jure insurer of major banking institutions. One might ask whether a government insurer, like a private insurance company, should not be able to set specific rules to curb risky activities which might trigger the insurer's support. To update Congressman Barney Frank, there are now nine billion more reasons for increased governmental regulation.
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Like many other white collar defense lawyers, I am strongly against overcriminalization. On the other hand, I am equally strongly against underregulation. One of the principal reasons I favor greater and clearer rules and regulations is to give potential white-collar offenders reasonable notice of what is criminal and what is not, and not leave that decision, as frequently happens now, to a federal prosecutor's interpretation of the amorphous fraud laws.
A significant portion of the white-collar defendants I have represented in the last forty years, including many of those who were convicted, have actually believed that their actions were not criminal. In some cases, this was simply because they lacked a moral compass. In the financial world, where the primary, and often sole, goal is to take other people's money away from them, many people do not consider whether what they do is morally right or wrong, or are so amoral that they are incapable of making that distinction. Tighter regulation will at least tell them what is prohibited and what is not.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Here is the Houston Chronicle's take on today's proceedings in U.S. v. William Roger Clemens. Brian McNamee was allowed to testify on re-direct that he injected three other players with HGH. Judge Walton gave the jury a limiting instruction that the testimony could only be used to bolster McNamee's credibility--not to infer Clemens' guilt. Still, this was a significant break for the government.
I am now batting 0 for 2 in my most recent predictions. I predicted that Judge Walton would strike some of Andy Pettitte's testimony and that the judge would not let McNamee talk about injecting other players. So take this next observation wiht a grain of salt. To me, the jurors' questions at the end of each day show their skepticism regarding the government's case and the credibility of key government witnesses.
Sunday, May 20, 2012
The name says it all. On Friday the Clemens prosecutors filed the Government's Motion to Admit Evidence of Brian McNamee's HGH-Based Interactions With Other Players and His Cooperation Relating to the Same to Rehabilitate the Witness. Call it anything you want, it is nothing more than an attempt to convict Clemens through guilt by association. As Judge Walton said before the first trial, in keeping this evidence out:
"I’m just still having some real problems with this because I can see how even with a cautionary instruction, assuming I could craft one that would be intelligible to the jury, I could see how they could still potentially misuse that evidence. I mean, I don’t know. I mean, I use to get cortisone shots when I was playing football in college. And I had to rely upon what the trainer was giving me. And I would not want to be held responsible for having done something inappropriate based upon what that trainer was giving to other people. And that’s the concern that I have.”
“I fully appreciate that the jury is going to have to assess Mr. McNamee’s credibility, and that his credibility is going to be seriously attacked by the defense. But I don’t think, at least at this point, that the mere fact that they are going to seriously attack his credibility necessarily opens the door to bring in evidence regarding Mr. McNamee’s dealing with other players. Because as I say, my main concern is that if Mr. Clemens’ position, and I understand it is at least in part his position that he did not know what he was receiving, it seems to me that there’s a real danger, that the jury may say, well, if they all knew, and that’s especially I guess true in reference to players who are also on the same team, that why wouldn’t Mr. Clemens know? And I think that would be a problem, for them to in some way use the evidence regarding what he was doing with these other players to impute knowledge on the part [of] Mr. Clemens."
Judge Walton's original ruling, which shocked the government, was provisional:
"I’ll reserve a final ruling until I see what transpires during the trial. And if somehow I feel that the door has been opened, I may be inclined to change my position. But my tentative position is that the evidence is not going to come in.”
Now the government is making its move. Of course the prosecutors would have filed this motion irrespective of how McNamee's cross-examination actually went. They immediately violated the Court's order during opening statement of the first trial by mentioning other Yankee players who received illegal substances.
I'm betting that Judge Walton keeps the evidence out.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Judge Walton says that the jury is bored at the Clemens trial, and of course he blames the lawyers. Maybe he should look in the mirror. The proceedings would have moved much faster had the Court put a stop to the government's pettifogging objections to cross-examination questions that allegedly strayed beyond the scope of direct.
The judge has also, according to the latest press reports, characterized Rusty Hardin's lengthy cross-examination of Brian McNamee as confusing.
I stopped in on the trial yesterday morning during Hardin's cross-examination of McNamee. Although there was no smoking gun moment, it was an accomplished cross that ably exposed McNamee's shifty, evasive personality. Near the end, Hardin asked a perfectly acceptable question, the point of which was to stress that McNamee would have been valuable to Clemens as a private trainer irrespective of McNamee's ability to provide illegal drugs. The prosecution objected. Rather than simply ruling on the objection, Walton engaged in an unnecessarily lengthy exchange with the attorneys on the finer points of evidentiary law. You would have thought they were discussing the Ex Post Facto Clause or the Magna Carta.
The trial judge has great discretion to move a case along--even a big case. This doesn't mean that the Court should prevent either side from putting on its evidence or vigorously questioning witnesses. The Clemens case would benefit from quicker bench rulings on objections, particularly objections that only serve to break the other side's pace and stride. The government objections that I witnessed on Wednesday did not merit the lengthy treatment they were given by the Court.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Some years ago, I represented a landlord who was indicted and convicted for offering a bounty to a thug if he beat up the leader of the tenants' committee, which was opposing a rent increase. This behavior does not seem all that much different from what the National Football League has alleged New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma did. Vilma, four other players, and his coach Sean Payton and others, have been disciplined by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for allegedly conspiring to offer rewards to teammates to maim opposing players, particularly star quarterbacks.
News about this alleged conspiracy has been widely publicized, but I have yet to read of any current or impending federal or state criminal or legislative inquiry. While certain violence in football is accepted, deliberate maiming goes beyond any acceptable norms. Nonetheless, it would not surprise me that neither federal nor state prosecutors, especially in the New Orleans area, where Vilma and his alleged player co-conspirators played, view such an investigation as crowd-pleasing. Realistically, it is quite possible that a New Orleans jury would nullify and acquit Vilma even if there were convincing evidence against him.
In virtually every other area of business activity where there is a tenable allegation that a person had conspired to maim a competitor or opponent, there would be a serious prosecutorial investigation. In sports, what is ordinarily considered criminality, at least physical criminality, is often given a bye.
One might think that Congress has a legitimate reason and special responsibility to investigate alleged orchestrated maiming in professional football, a national sport/business. The National Football League, as it is now, exists due to Congressional largess. Congress has given the NFL a special exemption to antitrust rules which allows it to function as a lucrative monopoly with an all-powerful commissioner. Professional football (which to my wife's chagrin I watch virtually every fall Sunday), if fairly and properly played, is a dangerous game, as reflected by the frequent injuries and limited career span of its players, and the reported unusual rates of early brain damage, suicides and deaths among its retirees. When improperly played -- played with a purpose of injuring others -- it is even more brutal.
Of course, just as an indictment might not be popular with local fans, a Congressional investigation into football brutality would probably not be favorably received by the voters back home, who like their contact sports (at least professional sports) such as football and hockey to be rough. Congress appears to be more interested in whether baseball players engage in taking illegal drugs, which, if it harms anyone, hurts only themselves or perhaps also competing players who perform at a comparative disadvantage without such presumed aids. Such an investigation also continues to feed the anti-drug attitude Congress has fostered and to justify the harsh drug laws Congress has enacted. Of course, Congress might also be gunshy in view of the embarrassment that the baseball steroid investigation and resulting Roger Clemens trial became.
This is not to say that I presume Vilma is guilty. I have not seen or heard any concrete evidence that he in fact did orchestrate a bounty program. The NFL investigation was conducted in secret and with only a sparse controlled public report by the NFL of its findings. Vilma's attorney, in a letter roughly equivalent to a motion for discovery in a criminal case, has asked for 17 points of information. The NFL's response is essentially that its special counsel, Mary Jo White, a respected and liked, and generally prosecution-minded, former United States Attorney, has reviewed the secret evidence and has found it sufficient. The NFL also claims that it had shared some of the evidence with the alleged offenders and the NFL Players Association. The association, while supporting the players' right to arbitration, presumably represents both Vilma and the alleged offenders, and is barely a substitute for a single-minded advocate on Vilma's behalf.
Thus, Vilma, subject to possible reversal by arbitration or court action, will be punished with a suspension of one year (a significant time in a football player's limited career span), and the loss of millions of dollars without even rudimentary due process. And, unlike many persons suspended or fired from jobs, Vilma is practically unable to ply his trade anywhere else besides the monopolistic NFL.
I do not know enough about the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, which apparently allows the Commissioner to be both prosecutor and judge, or about labor law to know whether Vilma has been treated properly. I do, however, have a visceral feeling that he deserves more rights than a secret investigation and a conclusory decree by a commissioner with dictatorial power.
Few things are more exhilarating to a criminal defense attorney than turning the government's witness into your own. This is exactly what Rusty Hardin did with Yankees GM and Senior VP Brian Cashman to close out last week's testimony in the Roger Clemens trial. It's not as if Cashman provided that much to the government in the first place. He testified on direct that the Yankees acquired Clemens from Toronto after the 1998 season. Clemens contemporaneously asked the Yankees to hire Toronto strength coach Brian McNamee. Cashman declined. There is no evidence that Clemens pressed the matter further at the time. Clemens was injury plagued in 1999, and had his worst ERA ever. After getting shelled in a 1999 playoff game at Fenway Park, Clemens asked Cashman to hire McNamee for the 2000 season. Cashman obliged. In 2000 Clemens rebounded with a great year.
On cross Hardin established that Clemens had experienced a very poor season with the Red Sox ten years previously, yet similarly rebounded the next season with a banner year. Hardin also had Cashman confirm that Clemens never complained when the Yankees ultimately fired McNamee. And Cashman smeared McNamee's character in response to Hardin's questions concerning the circumstances of McNamee's firing. Sprinkled throughout Cashman's responses to Hardin were glowing testaments to Clemens' work ethic, competitive spirit, decency, and sportsmanship.
At the end of the day, the Court accepted proposed questions for Cashman from the jury. One of them was as follows:
"Over the years that you've known Roger Clemens, is it fair to say you admire him as a great player and a leader?"
Judge Walton, who has been needlessly Talmudic in his approach to cross-examination questions veering "beyond the scope" of direct, nevertheless allowed the question, transposing it slightly. He asked Cashman:
"[O]ne of the jurors wants to know what your feelings are about Roger Clemens as a player and as a leader."
Here was Cashman's out of the ballpark response:
"One of the greatest players that I've ever seen, one of the best people, which goes to his leadership abilities. He, you know, he worked harder than everybody. He led by example. So a lot of times, you know, someone like Roger Clemens was given a great deal of ability. But not everybody honors that ability with the work ethic they put behind it. Roger did that.
And Roger at the same time was inclusive. You know despite his, you know, extreme accomplishments and his abilities and therefore celebrity that came from that, you know, his leadership is also shown in the fact that he, you know, treated the 25th man the same way he'd treat maybe the second best player on the team as well as the support staff. So, you know, there's a lot of aspects of being a leader. It's, you know, a true leader leads everybody, you know, the good ones and the bad ones. Roger led them all. So, he was a great player, a hard worker. His work ethic as well as his leadership ability was unquestionable."
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
I mentioned in a recent post that Reggie Walton is a fair judge. That fairness was on display again yesterday in the Roger Clemens trial, when Walton prohibited federal prosecutors from introducing testimony and documents pertaining to Clemens' fat salary as a pitcher. Walton correctly concluded that the prejudicial effect of this evidence outweighed its supposed probative value. It is a very rare federal judge who will bar this kind of "lavish lifestyle" evidence. The government always wants it in, ostensibly to show that a defendant's alleged criminal conduct was part of an effort to maintain a lavish lifestyle. In reality, prosecutors simply want to prejudice the defendant in the eyes of jurors by showing them how rich he is, how "high-on-the-hog" he lives, and how different he is from you and me.
Monday, May 7, 2012
I'd say you had a pretty good week if you got a key government witness to agree there is a 50-50 chance he misheard or misunderstood a purportedly damning admission by your client. That's what happened last week (week one) in the Roger Clemens re-trial, through Mike Attanasio's cross of Andy Pettitte. This morning, team Clemens filed Defendant's Motion to Strike Portions of the Trial Testimony of Government Witness Andy Pettitte. The Motion is an excellent piece of work. The argument?
1. The threshold for establishing admissibility of a preliminary fact question under Federal Rule of Evidence 104 is preponderance of the evidence. Fifty-fifty doesn't cut it.
2. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 401, relevant evidence "means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Fifty-fifty doesn't cut it.
3. Even if relevant, the testimony's probative value is substantially outweighed, under Federal Rule of Evidence 403, by the "danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury." This is particularly true in light of the Government's statement to the jury, during its opening, that Clemens told Pettitte "he had used human growth hormone and that it helped him with recovery." The real-life fifty-fifty version on the stand didn't cut it.
4. Judge Walton specifically warned the parties before trial about making promises they couldn't keep in opening statements. He said that if it occurred here he would "not hesitate to tell this jury that they must totally disregard any such statements of that nature. I'll specifically identify what those statements were and tell them there was no evidence to that effect, and therefore, they cannot consider that in deciding this case." Judge Walton should make good on his promise, because fifty-fifty doesn't cut it.
Team Clemens also noted that the government could have revisited the conversation during re-direct, but deliberately skirted the issue.
My prediction is that this motion will be granted in some form. It certainly doesn't mean that Clemens is out of the woods. Ted Stevens' outstanding trial team won several motions during trial and Judge Sullivan gave Stevens some very scathing anti-government jury instructions--to no avail. (Of course, in the Stevens case, the government was deliberately hiding important exculpatory material.) But such an instruction will undoubtedly greatly benefit Clemens. It will essentially knock-out a key portion of the government's case.
Kudos to the defense team for an outstanding cross and an excellent motion. One of the nice things about this trial is that co-counsel Attanasio is finally getting some of the national media attention he has long deserved.