Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Playing the press has become an important component in handling a white collar case. In the past, one might remain silent and let the case be resolved prior to making any statements, especially press-related statements. With the speed of the internet, it often becomes necessary for attorneys to respond to allegations to provide a level playing field. It, therefore, was no surprise to see Michael Cohen's attorney, Stephen M. Ryan, issuing a press release. (see here). He calls the US Attorneys Office "completely inappropriate and unnecessary." He argues that his client "has cooperated completely with all government entities, including providing thousands of non-privileged documents to the Congress and sitting for depositions under oath."
It is interesting to see the use of a search here as opposed to a subpoena. The downside of the government using a search is that it is more expensive, not secret like the grand jury process, requires probable cause, and if the probable cause is later found lacking the entire search can be invalidated. The upsides of a search are surprise, getting the material immediately without having to wait for the grand jury, obtaining items that might be found in plain view, and also receiving possible incriminating statements from individuals while performing the search, this latter one mostly applicable in the corporate or business context. One can argue obstruction of justice either way. On one hand you get the items in question before there is any possibility of them being destroyed. On the other hand if documents were destroyed, prosecutors would have a "short-cut offense" to charge of obstruction of justice.
In my Article, White Collar Shortcuts, forthcoming in the Illinois Law Review, I note how prosecutors are using investigative and charging "short-cuts" more frequently in white collar cases. Whether the use of a search warrant was a "short-cut" here, remains to be seen.
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Monday night, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed his Response [Government's Response in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss] to Paul Manafort's Motion to Dismiss the Superseding Indictment. Manafort's Motion to Dismiss is bottomed on the alleged invalidity of Acting AG Rod Rosenstein's May 7 2017 Order Appointing Robert S. Mueller III as Special Counsel and defining Mueller's jurisdiction. As part of his Response, Mueller referenced and filed Attachment C, a redacted version of Rosenstein's August 2 2017 Letter Re The Scope of Investigation and Definition of Authority.
Before Monday night there was no public knowledge of this August 2 letter, which sets out in detail, among other things, the specific matters already under investigation before Mueller came on board. According to the August 2 letter, the May 7 Order had been "worded categorically in order to permit its public release without confirming specific investigations involving specific individuals." The private August 2 letter, in contrast, "provides a more specific description of your authority." Recall that the May 7 Appointment Order authorized Mueller to "conduct the investigation confirmed by then-FBI Director James B. Comey in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 20, 2017, including...(i) any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and (ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and (iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R § 600.4(a)." The August 2 letter unequivocally states that "[t]he following allegations were within the scope of the Investigation at the time of your appointment and are within the scope of the Order:
• Allegations that Paul Manafort:
º Committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government's efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States, in violation of United States law;
º Committed a crime or crimes arising out of payments he received from the Ukrainian government before and during the tenure of President Viktor Yanukovych;
In other words, FBI Director Comey was already investigating Manafort for possible criminal collusion with the Russians and for payments Manafort received from Yanukovych, before Mueller came into the picture. By including the Yanukovich payments in his probe of Trump, Comey displayed an aggressiveness sadly absent from the investigation of Ms. Clinton's email server.
What is odd is that Rosenstein's August 2 letter was sent almost three months after Mueller began his inquiry. You would think that such a specific private memo detailing the scope of Mueller's investigative authority would have been issued contemporaneously with the May 7 Order. That it wasn't suggests there were disagreements in defining the outer boundaries of Mueller's charter or that Mueller or Rosenstein began to perceive problems with the wording of the May 7 Order and foresaw the possibility of just the sort of Motion to Dismiss ultimately filed by Manafort.
Rachel Stockman at Law and Crime notes here that the more specific delineation of authority laid out in the August 2 letter came one week after the raid on Manafort's home. Mueller may have wanted written reassurance that the search and seizure were within his authority ab initio, or, as we say in Texas, from the get-go.
Thursday, March 22, 2018
Saturday, March 17, 2018
News is coming in fast and furious, since Friday night's firing of Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
First, there was McCabe's own defiant and somewhat poignant statement, seriously marred by his ludicrous suggestion that the career professionals at DOJ-OIG and FBI-OPR, appointed respectively by Obama and Mueller, were only doing Donald Trump's bidding.
Second, came President Trump's mean spirited tweet celebrating McCabe's firing.
Third out of the box? Trump Lawyer John Dowd's nutty call for Rod Rosenstein to shut down Mueller's probe. What else?
Brennan's tirade against Trump amid reports that McCabe has given notes of his conversations with Trump to Mueller. (Who hasn't done that?)
Jonathan Turley suggests here that McCabe's full statement poses potential problems for Comey, because McCabe claims that his conversation with the WSJ was authorized by Comey. This arguably contradicts Comey's sworn statement to Congress that he did not leak or authorize the leak of Clinton investigation details to the press. Turley also believes that McCabe's firing may embolden Trump to fire Mueller if McCabe, unlike Flynn, isn't prosecuted for lying to investigators. To top things off, there is the growing consensus that DOJ-FBI's original probe, taken over by Mueller after Comey's firing, was marred from its inception by the FISA affidavit's over-reliance on the Steele Dossier, made worse by the failure to disclose (to the FISA judges) that the dossier was bought and paid for by the DNC and Clinton's campaign.
Some things to keep in mind. The ends almost never justify the means. Whatever McCabe thought of Trump, he had no business leaking classified law enforcement information to a WSJ reporter in order to protect the Bureau's image surrounding its handling of the Clinton email and Clinton Foundation investigations. And of course McCabe had no right to lie about it to investigators, under oath or otherwise.
In the rush to hate Trump at all costs, care must be taken not to compromise the criminal law, investigative norms, or the Constitution. Trump may be unfit in many ways to serve as President of the United States. But he won the election. I see no substantive evidence on the public record now before us that he did so unlawfully. There is a difference between his repeated violations of decades-long institutional norms, regardless of how repulsive those violations may be, and impeachable or criminal offenses. Failure to recognize this difference, or bending the rules to get Trump, will have disastrous consequences in the long run.
Thursday, November 16, 2017
Here is a story from Max Greenwood of The Hill and another from Bill Wichert of Law 360. Make no mistake about it, this was a great and hard-fought victory for Menendez's lead defense attorneys Abbe Lowell and Raymond Brown and for the entire defense teams of Bob Menendez and Salomon Melgen. Despite all of the speculation concerning the impact of the Supreme Court's McDonnell decision, I doubt that it materially impacted the jury's work. It is obvious that Senator Menendez performed official acts on behalf of his co-defendant Salomon Melgen. It appears instead that some of the jurors bought the defense's theory that the Senator's actions were taken based on his close and long-time friendship with Melgen. This bodes well for Senators who accept expensive gifts and do political favors for old friends. The key here is to make friends with the right solons earlier in their careers. Then you can become an old friend.
Thursday, October 19, 2017
It's not every day that a federal district judge accuses the government of misleading the Court and demands corrective action. But it's happening in the Urbana Division of the Central District of Illinois. I posted here in March regarding the federal case against former Congressman Aaron Schock. Among other items of alleged government misconduct, the defense maintained that prosecutors improperly commented to grand jurors on Schock's failure to testify, in violation of his Fifth Amendment Privilege Against Self-Incrimination. The defense relied in part on an affidavit by a dismissed grand juror. After unequivocally denying the grand juror's allegation, the government clarified the record, more than six months later, admitting that government counsel "commented on or addressed Mr. Schock's testifying or decision not to testify before the grand jury" on eleven occasions. U.S. District Judge Colin Bruce was not amused, and ordered the government to review each of its previous filings "to ensure that no more false or misleading claims were made." Judge Bruce also gave the government 14 days to file a memo "detailing any further misrepresentations or misleading statements." Here is Judge Bruce's Order Requiring Government Memorandum re Misrepresentations. The government responded yesterday, denying that it had misrepresented anything to the Court, asking the Court to reconsider its finding regarding misrepresentation, and representing further that it had not intentionally made any materially misleading statements in its prior filings. Here is the Government's Compliance with the Court's October 3 Order and Motion to Reconsider. Schock, represented by George Terwillliger, Bob Bittman, Benjamin Hatch, Nicholas Lewis, and Christina Egan of McGuire Woods in DC and Chicago and by Jeffrey Lang of Lane & Waterman in Davenport, Iowa, wasted no time, not even a day, in firing back. Here is Schock's Motion to Strike or in the Alternative Leave to File a Response. Here as well is Schock's Proposed Response to Government's Compliance. In a future post, I will examine the nature of the government's comments to the grand jurors.
Monday, April 24, 2017
Attorney Preston Pugh joined Miller & Chevalier Chartered in the litigation Department. (see here). Preston "Pugh counsels and defends clients in complex civil and criminal litigation, internal investigations, and government investigations. His practice includes matters involving the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), the False Claims Act (FCA), government contracts, and corporate ethics and governance." He participated als0 has been an instructor in the NACDL White Collar Criminal Defense College at Stetson.
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
This is the first time the ABA White Collar Crime Conference had a panel focused on "Due Process on Today's Campus: Handling IX Abuse and Harassment Cases." Moderating this conference was Marcos Hasbun. Panelists were Carolina Meta, Thomas C. Shanahan, and Hon. Nancy Gertner. Many may think this is outside the scope of white collar criminal matters, but attorneys in the white collar area are often involved in the internal investigations for schools and criminal defense counsel can be called on in representation of clients - both individuals accused and victims.
Hon. Nancy Gertner noted that this was initially regulation guidance that was not issued with notice and comment. It has had earth shattering consequences, as described by Hon Nancy Gertner. The preponderance of the evidence standard being used was noted. But unlike ordinary civil cases, you don't have discovery. The panel discussed the "Dear Colleague" letter. She also noted the mandated procedures is how it has played out. Thomas Shanahan discussed the parallel proceedings that can occur with law enforcement and the university disciplinary proceeding.
It was noted that the university is under a mandate to move things along in 60 days. It was also noted that case lines are developing on two different tracks, including those arguing the denial of due process rights by the university.
Some argued that the process is focused on due process rights of the individuals making the accusation. But it was also noted that some states, like North Carolina, permits counsel during the proceedings for the respondent. It was noted it can be beneficial for counsel for the respondent to get the outside lawyer involved.
Monday, March 6, 2017
U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer Joins Holland & Knight as Head of Global Compliance and Investigations Team
Holland & Knight has announced that Wifredo A. Ferrer, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, will join the firm as a partner in its Miami office. Mr. Ferrer will lead the firm's Global Compliance and Investigations Team, which focuses on corporate compliance and government investigations within the firm's White Collar Defense Practice. Read more here.
Friday, December 2, 2016
Readers of this Blog are no doubt familiar with United States v. Reddy Annappareddy, the District of Maryland case in which a guilty verdict was overturned (and new trial granted) with the grudging, belated concurrence of government prosecutors, because the government presented false testimony to the jury. The indictment was then dismissed with prejudice, over government objection, due to the government's destruction of potentially relevant evidence and the trial court's finding of prosecutorial misconduct. All of this was the result of the tireless and brilliant work of Annappareddy's post-trial attorneys, Josh Greenberg and Mark Schamel of Womble Carlyle. See my prior posts here, here, here, here, and here. Since my last post, the government moved to withdraw its appeal, the Fourth Circuit granted the motion, and the mandate has issued.
Now, Josh Greenberg, who played a key role in devising and implementing the post-trial strategy, has decided to open his own shop, focusing on white collar criminal defense, civil litigation, and appeals. Congratulations to Josh. We wish him the best.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
At Counsel’s Table: A Conversation with Henry W. (“Hank”) Asbill of Jones Day
Hank Asbill is a partner at Jones Day and widely recognized as one of the country’s best white collar criminal defense attorneys. In 2015, he was awarded the prestigious White Collar Defense Lawyer of the Year Award by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Mr. Asbill’s most recent accomplishments include representing Virginia’s former governor Robert McDonnell in his battle against federal corruption charges. In Governor McDonnell’s case, Mr. Asbill and his team were able to devise and execute a winning strategy that ultimately resulted in the dismissal of all charges after the Supreme Court reversed Governor McDonnell’s convictions in an 8-0 opinion.
In this interview, we catch up with Mr. Asbill to talk about his career path, advice for young lawyers, and his thoughts on the McDonnell case.
Q: You have worked as a defense attorney for close to 40 years. What inspired you to work in criminal defense? And what other fields of law have you considered?
I am a child of the 60’s and have always questioned authority. Someone has to keep the government honest. And, I have always been interested in constitutional law. I also watched a lot of Perry Mason as a kid.
I never considered any other field of law. I knew I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer before law school, and that never changed.
Q: Do you feel that the practice of law has changed in the forty years since you began practicing? If so, how?
It has changed substantially, and in terms of criminal defense, I feel it has been primarily for the worse.
The biggest change has been the decline of jury trials, which keep the system honest. There are far fewer jury trials today because of the enactment of sentencing guidelines in both federal and state systems, as well as the draconian push for mandatory minimums and lengthy sentences for all crimes. These changes have spawned many more pleas because the sentencing risk of losing at trial is so great.
I think the two biggest policy failures in the criminal justice system in my career have been the enactment of the sentencing guidelines and the “war on drugs.”
The alleged war has unfairly targeted the most vulnerable people in society, including minorities and the poor.
As for the Guidelines, I never thought that there was a serious sentencing disparity among judges that would justify the Guidelines in the first place. The Guidelines were promoted by the DOJ to give prosecutors much more control – to make sure that the only way out of a harsh sentence is a 5K1 motion by the government based on the defendant’s assistance in prosecuting others.
This 5K1 regime incentivizes lying by co-defendants and targets. The government does not give 5K1 credit for cooperation when it does not result in prosecution of others. On only one occasion have I had a client who gave honest answers that prevented the government from going down the wrong road and charging innocent people who still received 5K1 credit.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your career path and how you got to where you are now?
I started as law clerk on the D.C. Court of Appeals. After that I practiced with a large firm, doing civil securities and antitrust litigation, before going to D.C.’s Public Defender Service for four years. I then started a small trial firm with a PDS colleague. We later added a civil trial lawyer, and grew the firm until we were at 9 or 10 people. I worked there for 23 years until I transitioned to Big Law. At that time we had to decide whether to renew a 15-year lease. The management of a small firm was becoming cumbersome, and the desires of the founding partners were diverging.
I was taking on more complicated cases and needed specific subject matter expertise, and more staff to help on projects.
I ultimately ended up choosing Jones Day for many reasons: its culture is unique; it is extraordinarily well-managed; the lawyers genuinely like and respect each other; the Firm has tremendous subject matter expertise; it has a terrific appellate group with many former Supreme Court or Circuit Court clerks who want to work on trial matters; and, there are many talented young lawyers here who have the temperament, talent, passion, and zeal to become great trial lawyers whom I’ve greatly enjoyed working with and mentoring. Lastly, we are given great latitude in terms of pro bono work, both with respect to the type of cases and the amount of pro bono work we can do.
Q: In contrast to many other prominent white collar criminal defense attorneys, you have never worked as a prosecutor. Do you think this background offers any advantages, or drawbacks, in your practice?
I believe being a defense lawyer for my entire career has been a major advantage. I often represent individuals and companies that want to fight, and that’s what I’ve specialized in my entire career.
There is a myth that you need to work as a prosecutor to be able to know how they think. I have interacted with enough prosecutors and have been friends and partners with enough former prosecutors over the years, that I know how they think. Besides, I have never wanted to put people in jail.
Some former prosecutors are able to successfully transition to the defense side. Some are not, and end up exclusively doing internal investigations and turning the results over to the government. That is not the work I prefer to do.
Also, I believe criminal defense attorneys are generally much better cross-examiners than prosecutors, because defendants rarely testify, and often do not put on a direct defense case. In contrast, prosecutors will generally be more experienced in direct examinations. Although both skills are very important, for criminal defense attorneys, the ability to do a good cross-examination is the more important of the two.
The main disadvantage of having never been a prosecutor is that you do not have the network of former AUSAs to access for business development. The prosecutors’ network is often much more active and cohesive than the defenders’ network.
Q: Do you have any advice for younger attorneys who want to get into white collar criminal defense?
First get trial experience, whether with a public defender’s office or prosecutor’s office. That’s the easiest way to develop the essential skills. But it’s not the only way. I’ve got a young partner here whom I’ve mentored for a dozen years who has worked only in law firms. But, she connected with the trial lawyers in those firms and learned a lot by working with them as second chair and being advised by them on her own smaller cases. She has become an extraordinarily talented trial lawyer in her own right.
As for being a public defender, it’s important to try to work at an office that reasonably restricts the intake of new cases. If you look at, for example, the Public Defender Service in D.C., it is a low volume office that accepts mostly difficult cases and it has lots of resources for experts and investigators. You need to be able to expend the time necessary to thoroughly research and prepare a case and, that attention to factual detail and the nuances of the statutes, rules and procedures are very important in the more complex cases.
You can learn by doing but you can also learn by watching. Go see the best trial lawyers in action whenever you have the chance. You can also learn by doing some appellate work because it helps you figure out how to avoid mistakes at trial.
Q: To follow up on that, how can a younger attorney develop the trial experience needed to be an effective criminal defense attorney in today’s environment?
If you want to get trial experience, you need to look for it. Federal courts these days have very few trials. You need to be willing to take on pro bono or court-appointed cases, or smaller cases for lesser fees – often in state court. You need to take trial practice courses and attend CLE programs on trial skills. And, read biographies of great trial lawyers.
In a large firm, you need to figure out who is going to trial, and ask to be on those trial teams. You need to know more about the facts than anyone else working on the case. You need to prove yourself in depositions, or motions hearings, where you are examining witnesses and arguing your positions. You need to lobby and advocate for a chance to do that. The people who really want to be trial lawyers will go out of their way to look for opportunities that large firms do not gratuitously provide.
Q: Let’s talk about the McDonnell case. The trial in that case lasted almost six weeks. Do you have any special tips for handling very long trials that go on for months or longer?
Its not unusual for me to try cases that are several months long. I tried one case for 22 months. That was the longest federal criminal trial in history. It took us four months just to pick the jury.
Lengthy trials are certainly mentally and physically demanding and can take a toll on other aspects of your life. You are always focused on the trial, which means you ignore other things in your life – your practice, your friends, and your family. But minimizing outside distractions is important. If your family and client’s budget will permit, stay in a hotel very near the courthouse even if the trial is local.
Make sure you get some exercise, at least a modest amount everyday. Eat well. Try to get at least four or five hours of uninterrupted sleep. I have never gotten more than that amount a night since I was a teenager, but I have been fortunate to be able to thrive on it. I also try to catch up a bit on sleep on the weekends.
You need to be someone who thrives on stress, as opposed to being someone who is enervated by stress. Sometimes you have to play hurt. Your back may be killing you; you have a cold or a headache. You do your best to power through these minor injuries.
Q: What advice do you have for being a source of strength for clients, particularly during long trials?
I like to analogize it to a boxing match. I have never seen one where one guy lands all the blows. When a compelling witness for the government testifies on direct for three days, you can do nothing but sit and listen and grimace. But you will have your chance to fight back when it comes time for cross. There are peaks and valleys in long trials. You need to keep your eye on the end-game. Advise your client before the trial starts that there will be good and bad days. The issue is who is standing at the end. Convince your client that you have a plan to get through this, to be victorious at the conclusion.
You need to be able to adjust during the course of a trial. You need to have a plan that is comprehensive enough and flexible enough to be adaptable to new evidence or new developments.
If the client knows you are working hard, that you are totally prepared, that you have good defense themes and legal theories, it is much easier to distinguish between battles and the war. If I can’t win every battle, I can still win the war. If the client thinks you know what you are doing, and you are it doing well, they will share your confidence and, at a minimum, believe that you have done everything for them you possibly could have.
I always believe I can and will win no matter what the odds are, no matter what unexpected problems may arise. That inspires my clients. The client made a decision to not plead, and understands there’s risk involved. Clients will accept outcomes if they see sustained effort by competent people. At the end of the day, I don’t control what the judge or jury does, and I don’t create the facts. Clients recognize that there can be mistakes, screw-ups, missed opportunities in trial. It’s a dynamic arena. But if you work hard enough, think hard enough, fully accept the responsibility of defending someone’s freedom, reputation and fortune – you can overcome those problems.
Q: In working on the McDonnell case, your strategy involved preserving and seeking Supreme Court review on the official acts issue from the very beginning. Can you tell us what were some of the alternative plans you had for the case?
Before the trial started, we filed a motion to dismiss based on the official acts issue. We also tried to get the judge to give us the legal instructions the prosecutors gave the grand jury, because we thought they misunderstood the law. Both motions were denied. So, I did not go into trial assuming that we would be getting the final instructions we wanted.
We had other defenses besides the correct definition of “official act,” including reasonable doubt, good faith and good character.
I was optimistic. I went into closing arguments thinking we were going to win no matter how bad the instructions were because our client had no criminal intent. I tried to argue as closely as I could to the instructions I wanted. I had a plan, but it was multifaceted.
I knew if we ended up losing the case at trial, we had a fantastic appellate issue that likely would be cert-worthy. I thought if we did get to Supreme Court, we would win, 9-0. If Justice Scalia had been on the bench, the Court might have even invalidated the bribery statutes on vagueness grounds. Several jurors even told the press after the trial that they believed my client’s trial testimony. The jury convicted the Governor because they were directed to do so by the flawed instructions.
Q: Did the location of the McDonnell trial in Richmond, Virginia figure into your preparation for trial at all, and if so, how?
To prepare for any trial, you need to know that court. You need to understand who the players are. You need to know their personalities, likes, dislikes. The trial in this case was held in the Richmond Division of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. It is a small court, with only four judges and two magistrates. It is a tight community of prosecutors and judges who work together all the time.
The Richmond Division is also notorious for being fast and formal. You don’t have conference calls with the judge to resolve discovery disputes. You need to file a motion, in the right format, at the right time, with the right page limits. Before the trial started, we belatedly received about 5 million pages of discovery documents. That was sometime in late March. And we had to go to trial at the beginning of August. That was as far out on the calendar as the judge was going to let it go. He wanted to get it over with before his clerks rotated out on Labor Day.
You have to be ready going into that jurisdiction, knowing that you will be on a very fast track. Substantial advance preparation is key. You need the resources to deal with that pace of litigation. You’re filing motions all the time and arguing constantly. You typically won’t get all of the discovery you need until close to the trial date. You need to be prepared for all of that. You need to consult with local lawyers who regularly practice there and make sure you know what problems might arise and how best to avoid or solve them.
In any major case, you need to know the personalities of the players: what annoys them, what makes them happy. The clerks, judges, opposing counsel. The local quirks. For example, in Richmond, if you run out of defense witnesses early on a particular day, maybe because the prosecution didn’t spend long cross-examining your witnesses, your case is over, even if you have more witnesses lined up for tomorrow. You can beg the judge to adjourn early that day, but you don’t want to count on getting that slack.
Also, the Richmond division, like the rest of EDVA, does not allow electronics in the courthouse without the judge’s permission. If you don’t have electronics, it is hard to communicate with people in your firm or witnesses. In Alexandria, you need to line up to use the few available payphones. These are the types of restrictions you need to know about and plan for before a trial. You have to be prepared to inconvenience witnesses by making them show up early. You need to have law clerks or paralegals who are keeping the witnesses happy and on the reservation while waiting.
Q: Governor McDonnell was himself a former prosecutor, and an accomplished attorney. Did this background make any difference for you in terms of your representation?
The Governor’s background created both opportunities and challenges. He was a politician, a lawyer, and the CEO of a state with 100 billion dollar biennial budget and 100,000 employees.
I’ve represented many lawyers and business executives. One common thread is that they are particularly difficult to train as witnesses. Many do not think that anyone on the jury is their peer. They have a hard time trusting the jury. Based on decades of experience, I generally trust jurors, as long as I get a reasonable voir dire. You have to convince your client that this group is a jury of your peers. Even if individually they may not be your peers, collectively they are as smart as you are. You have to convince your client to trust in the system, and the magic number of 12 jurors who must be unanimous. You have to convince your client to believe in a system which has historically proven reliable, even if not unerring.
Lawyer clients, in particular, often second guess you on legal issues and trial strategy. They can’t help themselves. They act like lawyers even though they are the client. They want to expand and explain, question and challenge. CEO’s don't like being told what to do. Politicians want to manipulate the press. You have to convince these clients that you, not they, deserve to be in control.
Q: People have praised you for your cross-examination of the FBI agents in the Governor McDonnell case. Do you have any general philosophy or approach for cross-examining law enforcement agents?
My first rule is that you cannot be the least bit intimidated or afraid to take on an agent on cross-examination, even though they are usually the most well-trained and experienced witnesses in the case.
Secondly, my experience has been that law enforcement witnesses often act like expert witnesses, even if not qualified as such. They are primed to give opinions at the slightest opportunity. You have to approach them as you would approach an expert witness. This means learning how they think, how they work, how they operate, how they do their job. What rules and practices govern their conduct and influence their thinking. What their biases, motivations are. What their weaknesses and strengths are. Then you exploit these things on cross-examination.
You must remain in control of these witnesses, while giving them enough rope to make mistakes.
I like cross-examining experts and law enforcement agents. I know how agents think, talk and how they collaborate. And what corners they may cut. Whether or not they think the ends justify the means. Then I devise a strategy for cross-examining them that is effective in making the point I want to make.
Q: You have obviously achieved an incredible outcome in the McDonnell case. With that said, we know that no case is ever perfect. Do you believe that there was anything in the case you would have done differently?
To begin with, it was a team effort. It takes a village to win these types of cases. As for doing things differently, I don’t mean to be flip, but I would have preferred to try the case in October or April rather than August. A better month of the year with better weather in Richmond. Fewer potential jurors with substantial business expertise out on vacation.
We probably should not have had so many defense lawyers in the courtroom on a daily basis. It can look odd to a jury. We could have been better at tasking folks in the courtroom to be specifically responsible for keeping track of all the various courtroom dynamics. We could have done a better job of not annoying the judge.
But, you need to try to find ways to give young lawyers on the team opportunities to do something substantive in court.
There was also a benefit to having a large team in trial. If a juror does not like me, maybe she will like the personality of another lawyer on the team. Same with witnesses. Some lawyers draw the judge’s fire more than others.
In hindsight, I would have also tried hard to move the case out of Richmond. The problem was that I did not get the kind of voir dire I expected on pre-trial publicity. Going into the trial, I knew the demographics of the Richmond jury pool. I knew the political polling. I knew what the press coverage was going to be like after the investigation was made public. Knowing all that, I was still convinced that if I got reasonable voir dire, I could get a good jury.
Things did not work out that way. The voir dire was severely restricted. For example: both sides agreed that the Court should ask the following question: “based on your exposure to the media, have you formed any opinions about guilt or innocence of either defendant?” The Court would not ask that question. Instead, the judge asked the entire jury pool of 143 to stand up if they had heard about the case and to keep standing if they could not be fair. Naturally, all sat down. I was not amused.
In terms of other issues, there are things I wished would have come out differently, but not that I would have done differently. For example, I would have liked the two defendants to be severed, but the judge did not allow it. We filed many other motions. The judge ruled against us on nearly all, except 17(c) subpoenas and pro hac vices. I did not expect to win many other motions, but there are strategic reasons for filing them anyway. For example, you get to learn more about the government’s case because they have to respond. You also build up chits, so you can tactfully say: “how about ruling for me once in a while, judge?”
Another issue from the case that I still think about is the problem of dealing with leaks during the grand jury phase. To give some background, during the investigation of Governor McDonnell, many leaks appeared in the press that were attributed to law enforcement sources. However, we were not able to slow the flow of leaks, or figure out a good way to stop them.
Trying to run down grand jury leaks can be a real diversion of resources and time when you are on the fast track to trial. While most prosecutors are ethical and would not leak grand jury info, there are many sources other than prosecutors who can leak information about a grand jury investigation.
The only way to find out is through litigating the issue. Then you would be fighting Williams & Connelly or Cahill Gordon on these First Amendment side issues if you tried to subpoena reporters, while you are also fighting the prosecution on the main front. You may stop the leak and punish the person responsible, but you can’t repair the damage done in terms of influencing public opinion.
One other thing that bothered me during the trial, and which I still don’t have a good answer for, is the problem in a high profile case, of dealing with the constant negative press, before, during and after the trial. Various major publications were obviously out to do Governor McDonnell in, and there was a constant torrent of false narratives being spread in the major news outlets as well as the blogging sphere. The problem only got worse when we were in trial. Reporters were all over the courthouse. There would be twenty or thirty reporters in my hotel whom I couldn’t recognize. Every time I sat with a colleague for breakfast or dinner, I had to worry about whether there were reporters listening to our conversations.
I was never able to figure out an effective way, consistent with the free press-fair trial restrictions, to deal with the negative publicity in the McDonnell case. The best solution I could come up with was to file motions articulating something that I’d like the press to pick up on, and hope that they print it, and if a reporter called me and said he was going to print something which I knew was false and defamatory, I threatened to sue.
Of course, the client is always free to speak to the press because he has First Amendment rights. In Governor McDonnell’s case, the day after the indictment was returned, he, with his wife and his children beside him, gave a short press conference in the lobby of a law firm in Richmond. The magistrate judge at the subsequent bond hearing was upset by this. He quoted me the local free press-fair trial rule, and noted that my client is also a lawyer. Of course, the magistrate was wrong about the rule’s application, because it clearly only applied to attorneys representing a client, and my client was not representing himself. Later at the arraignment, the district court judge said to both sides: “the game playing with the press is over.” From that point forward we were never quoted in the press again until the trial was over.
In sum, I felt that the negative and false press coverage during the trial really hurt us, and I’d like to think if I did the trial again, I’d figure out a better, ethical way of controlling or balancing that narrative.
Q: A final question: sometimes our most memorable cases may not be the most high-profile cases. Do you have any little-talked about cases that are especially memorable to you?
I’ve always liked all of my clients over the years, and found something to admire in each one of them, no matter what types of crimes they were charged with. One especially memorable one was a young man, who was a juvenile at the time I represented him in the Public Defender Service. I won his trial, and he was very grateful.
Later on when he was an adult, he got himself in trouble on major federal offenses I did not know about, and he ended up with a life sentence on cocaine trafficking and firearms related charges. Four or five years ago, while still in prison, he wrote to me and asked for Jones Day’s help with a habeas petition. We ended up getting his life sentence substantially reduced. He is now out of prison, married, working several jobs and doing extremely well.
When he wrote that letter to me asking for help with his habeas petition, he included the pleadings that he had filed pro se up to that point to resurrect some of his legal issues and get his foot in the door. He had turned into quite the jailhouse lawyer. What struck me most, though, were the footnotes at the bottom of the first page of all his motions, expressing gratitude to me personally as his mentor for teaching him everything about the law.
[This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.]
(EG & ZZ)
Thursday, September 29, 2016
In white collar cases, prosecutors often stress the signs or "indicia" of fraud inherent in a given defendant's conduct. In the FBI/DOJ investigation of Secretary Clinton we have several signs of incompetence and/or highly irregular conduct on the part of those in charge. The one that stands out most clearly to anyone who practices white collar criminal defense was the decision to allow Cheryl Mills to attend Secretary Clinton's FBI interview. Competent prosecutors do not allow a key witness to participate as an attorney in an FBI interview of the main subject. It just isn't done. It isn't a close question. It is Baby Prosecution 101. Director Comey's attempt to justify this decision during yesterday's House Judiciary Committee Oversight Hearing was disingenuous and disgraceful. According to Comey, the FBI has no power to control which attorney the subject of an investigation chooses to represent her during an interview. This is literally true, but irrelevant and misleading. Prosecutors, not FBI agents, run investigations. Any competent prosecutor faced with the prospect of Ms. Mills's attendance at Secretary Clinton's interview would have informed Clinton's attorneys that this was obviously unacceptable and that, if Clinton insisted on Mills's attendance, the interview would be conducted under the auspices of the federal grand jury. At the grand jury, Secretary Clinton would not have enjoyed the right to her attorney's presence in the grand jury room during questioning. In the event Clinton brought Ms. Mills along to stand outside the grand jury room for purposes of consultation, competent prosecutors would have gone to the federal judge supervising the grand jury and attempted to disqualify Ms. Mills. In all likelihood, such an attempt would have been successful. But of course, it never would have gotten that far, because Secretary Clinton will do anything to avoid a grand jury appearance. So, Director Comey's response was a classic dodge, one of several that he perpetrated during yesterday's hearing. As noted above, the decision to allow Ms. Mills to attend Secretary Clinton's FBI interview was only the clearest example to date of irregular procedures sanctioned by the prosecutors in charge of the Clinton email investigation. More to come on that in a subsequent post.
Monday, September 12, 2016
I agree with my colleague Prof. Podgor that DOJ made the "right decision" to drop the prosecution of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell. Under the narrow definition of "official act" given by the Supreme Court a re-prosecution was doomed. I further agree with Prof. Podgor that McDonnell's legal team, led by Hank Asbill and Noel Francisco, deserves plaudits for its determined and outstanding lawyering.
I do not, however, criticize DOJ for bringing this case. McDonnell's acts - accepting $175,000 in money and gifts in exchange for favorable treatment for the donor - although ultimately determined not to be "official acts" and thus not criminal, were unseemly and corrupt. That the Commonwealth of Virginia, in its wisdom or lack of it, chose not to criminalize such activity to me was a reason for federal prosecution, not for abstention. To be sure, the government should have been aware that there was Supreme Court case law arguably undermining its position. On balance, the egregiousness of McDonnell's conduct, I believe, justified a prosecution, even if it "pushed the envelope."
The McDonnell decision will allow federal prosecutions of politicians accepting things of value for favorable votes or actions on legislation or favorable decisions awarding governmental appointments, contracts and benefits, the areas within which most corruption cases fall. It will, however, eliminate or preclude almost any prosecution for payments to officials for access, referrals and introductions, allowing donors an advantage over non-payers. "Pay-for-play" systems do not guarantee winning a contract, but do allow one to be among those considered - a giant and necessary step. Thus, the decision will, like Citizens United, most benefit the rich, powerful and politically-connected.
I, like many others, was surprised by the unanimity of the court. Although I am no expert on Supreme Court internal politicking, I suspect some justices might have gone along with the decision to prevent a broader decision which would have greatly limited, or even eliminated, federal prosecutions of state and local corruption, either by finding the term "official acts" constitutionally void for vagueness, or on federalism grounds. In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts mentioned, but did not rule on, both considerations.
I cannot dismiss an undiscussed "elephant in the room," alluded to by Prof. Podgor. The American election system commonly allows campaign contributions to be rewarded by at the least access to elected and appointed officials. It is extremely doubtful whether McDonnell would have been prosecuted for accepting campaign contributions and rewarding the donor with access to state officials. It seems to me extremely difficult to make a lawful/unlawful distinction between situations involving gifts to politicians for their personal use, as in McDonnell, and those involving gifts to politicians for campaign purposes. Absent such a distinction, an affirmance of McDonnell might have led to cases concerning campaign contributions, which might have led to an upheaval in campaign financing practices generally accepted in America. Thus, it is not surprising that a host of former Counsels to the President and Attorneys General submitted amicus briefs in support of McDonnell, a fact noted with apparent respect in the opinion.
Lastly, I wonder whether the Court was wary of allowing federal prosecutors expansive power to prosecute political officeholders. There is always a danger - at least theoretical - that a prosecutor will misuse her power to indict political opponents, as is not infrequently done in foreign nations, and perhaps occasionally done in the United States. It may well be that the case should be considered primarily as a limitation of prosecutorial and executive branch power.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Finally, as promised, here is the U.S. v. Reddy Annappareddy 9-1-16 Motion to Dismiss Hearing Transcript. At the conclusion of that hearing Judge George Levi Russell dismissed the Indictment with prejudice. Judge Russell's rationale for his ruling can be found at pages 49-62 of the transcript. This was a health care fraud case and a core government theory was that Mr. Annappareddy received Medicaid reimbursement for pills that were never given to patients. The government sought to prove its theory by showing that Mr. Annappareddy's pharmacies billed for more pills than they received. The most significant evidence that the prosecutors offered in support of this allegation was a calculation of the purported “loss” from the alleged fraud. The following factors were key to the Court's finding that the government committed due process violations that shocked the conscience and rendered it impossible to put Mr. Annappareddy back on an even footing with the government: 1) the government violated Brady by failing to disclose loss calculations from its initial auditing team that were significantly smaller (in total and with respect to two key pharmacies) than the calculations of a subsequent government auditor who testified at trial; 2) the government violated Brady by failing to disclose the risk of double-counting errors in the loss calculations; 3) the government presented false testimony regarding the loss calculations due to double counting errors; 4) the government presented false testimony by a government agent, based on her examination of the wrong set of phone records, that Mr. Annappareddy had NOT made any calls to a key individual in response to a material email from that individual, when in fact Annappareddy had several phone contacts with the individual within minutes of the material email; and 5) the government destroyed potentially key exculpatory evidence without a court order or the defense's permission. The Court also sent a not so subtle warning to the government: "In the event that my record is not clear or exercise of my discretion too broad, this Court will conduct an extensive time-consuming and costly hearing as to these matters and the other grounds supporting the motion to dismiss and other motions which have already been filed. To that end, the balance of all other motions in this case are denied as moot." Translation: If you appeal this ruling and I am reversed, we will delve in detail into the other grounds of error raised by the defense. And it will not be a pleasant process. Hat Tip to David Debold of Gibson Dunn for sending along the transcript.
Thursday, September 1, 2016
The case against Reddy Annappareddy is over. The Government's case has been dismissed with prejudice by U.S. District Court Judge George Russell because of a pattern of government misconduct that shocks the conscience. As soon as I obtain a copy of today's hearing transcript we will post it. Congratulations are in order for Mr. Annappareddy and his Womble Carlyle defense team of Mark Schamel and Josh Greenberg. Greenberg's relentless motions work over the past 11 months has been particularly brilliant. Anybody who does white collar work in the federal courts knows how difficult it is to obtain a result like this, post-trial. This is a magnificent victory.
As we write this post U.S. District Court Judge George Russell is holding a hearing on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss with prejudice. I have previously discussed this case here and here. The motion is bottomed on various alleged prosecutorial errors and misdeeds. In a bad omen for the Government, Judge Russell only set arguments on the Motion to Dismiss (despite the pendency of other motions) and summarily denied the Government's motion to delay the hearing. The Government wanted a delay in the wake of an onslaught of defense motions, authored by Womble Carlyle's Josh Greenberg, alleging additional Government misbehavior, including destruction of potentially exculpatory evidence at a time when the Defendant's Motion for New Trial was filed and awaiting a decision. The Government later joined in the Motion for New Trial after admitting that it presented false material testimony to the jury. Meanwhile, in a filing that can only be described as stunning, the Government yesterday attempted to defend its admitted document destruction. Here lies the Government's Response Re Document Destruction.
Monday, August 29, 2016
Things are getting personal in U.S. v. Annappareddy. I posted here last week about this District of Maryland case in which the Government ultimately admitted to having presented false evidence to the trial jury, and grudgingly joined Defendant's new trial motion--granted the next day by Judge George Russell. Now the Government has admitted to "disposal" of certain documents while defendant's New Trial Motion was pending in March 2015. Annappareddy's current trial team was not notified of the disposal until August 19, 2016, and claims, in Defendant's Motion for Extension of Time to File Motions In Limine, that some of the destroyed documents were exculpatory in nature. No court order authorized the destruction at the time it was accomplished.
The DOD/OIG Evidence Review Disposal Sheet from March 11, 2015 states that AUSA Sandy Wilkinson determined that the items in question "were not used as exhibits in trial and would not be used in future proceedings against Annaparreddy." In other words, Wilkinson acted unilaterally, apparently consulting no one on the defense team before making her decision. The Government's response to the allegation is a footnote stating in part that "in early March 2015, after the trial, the government began to clean up papers and documents not used from the Washington Blvd collection and store the trial exhibits post- trial. The government began purging the contents of several unused boxes. These were items Defendant and his own attorneys had reviewed at length and were never marked as exhibits or used in any way by them at trial. Yet they couch their complaint again in the most accusatory of tones. "
Well, yes. Destruction of potential evidence prior to final judgment on appeal is quite rare, if not unheard of, in federal criminal practice. That an AUSA would do it on her own is remarkable. The Government's Response to Annappareddy's Motions to Limit Government Evidence complains further that Annappareddy's new lawyers don't play nice in the sandbox, unlike the original trial lawyers--you know, the ones who lost after the Government presented false testimony. That's right, Ms. Wilkinson. Lawyers tend to get angry when false testimony is put in front of the jury and potentially exculpatory evidence is destroyed.
The case is far more involved, and the issues more complex, than I can do justice to here. Annappareddy has moved to dismiss with prejudice and a hearing on that motion is set for September 1. Failing that, the defense wants to limit the Government's evidence at a new trial to the evidence presented at the first trial. One thing absent from the Government's papers that I have had an opportunity to review is any recognition of the emotional, financial, and strategic harm suffered by defendants when the Government screws up, forcing a new trial. It's as if Ms. Wilkinson wants a cookie and a pat on the back for deigning to agree that Reddy Annappareddy gets to go through the whole damn thing again.
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Criminal defense lawyers in federal courts in this nation on an average plead 35 defendants guilty for every one they take to trial. Accordingly, many criminal defense lawyers are not much more "trial lawyers" than the many big firm "litigators" who have never selected a jury or cross-examined a trial witness. However, one area in which federal defense lawyers have plenty of experience is crafting the expressions of remorse made at sentencing by virtually every criminal defendant (save those who were convicted after trial and intend to appeal and do not wish to make any sort of admission because it might later be used against them). The expression of remorse, a near uniform ritual in every federal sentencing proceeding, is made in order to ensure that the court grant a reduction in the Sentencing Guidelines level of two or three levels for "acceptance of responsibility" (USSG Sec. 3E1.1) and to demonstrate that the defendant is truly sorry and contrite for having committed criminal acts, a factor many judges consider in the sentencing determination.
To be sure, the incantation of remorse is often less than fully sincere, and the defendant is actually only sorry that he was caught and is now facing punishment. An astute defense lawyer will counsel her client that the expression of remorse should reflect his realization of and sorrow for the wrong he has done and harm he has caused to his victims and to society in general, and not only to his family and friends, and not to excuse or justify his acts, or minimize the damage. She will counsel her client not to use weak words like "regret" or stiff ones like "remorseful." Thus, it is difficult for a judge to distinguish the absolutely genuine shame and sorrow some defendants feel from the false impression of remorse others present.
Some judges do suspect or realize that the expression of remorse is not genuinely sincere, but feel that the mere expression of remorse is itself a step forward. Others, while perhaps doubtful of the defendant's sincerity, accept the expression of remorse without comment or much consideration. Some judges accept the apology at face value and credit it. Some few listen carefully and skeptically, and, if they detect a false note, sometimes comment on the defendant's lack of genuine remorse to justify, in part, a severe sentence (which they had probably decided beforehand to impose in any case). I have not heard of a judge who denied an acceptance of responsibility reduction solely because of the defendant's presumed insincerity. (I wonder whether such a determination would be upheld on appeal; I suspect, depending on the facts, that it might.)
Last week, two notable men, presidential candidate Donald Trump and Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte (neither of course criminal defendants) made widely-publicized "apologies" of sorts. Both "apologies" would trouble a judge considering whether to credit the speakers for "acceptance of responsibility" or genuine remorse.
Mr. Trump. who in the course of his campaign has insulted the parents of a heroic soldier who died in action, a woman Fox television commentator, a federal judge of Mexican ancestry, a U.S. Senator who was a prisoner of war for five years, a disabled reporter, and, generically, Mexicans and Muslims, chose to use the word "regret" rather than "sorry" or "apologize." And his "regret" was for an inadvertent slip of the tongue, rather than a deliberate slur, and without any specificity of what statements he regretted or whom he may have harmed and no direct admission that they did harm anyone. He said, "Sometimes in the heat of debate, and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don't choose the right words or say the right thing. I have done that, and, believe it or not, I regret it, I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain."
Mr. Lochte, in a television interview and at least one social media post, presented a fictitious account of robbers in police uniforms pulling over a taxi he and fellow swimmers were in and robbing them at gunpoint. This account received widespread publicity (perhaps to Mr. Lochte's surprise)and was a great international embarrassment for Brazil, a country which with its many troubles appeared to have demonstrated competence and provided adequate safety for the Olympics. In fact, as Mr. Lochte's swim team colleagues later admitted, they were drunk, urinated on a wall, and vandalized the gas station, and that the guns were drawn by security guards who demanded they pay compensation for the damage before they left. Faced with the contradictory statements by his colleagues, Mr. Lochte then said, "I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend - for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning." He went on to excuse himself even for that minor transgression by seemingly claiming he was victimized: "It's traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country - with a language barrier - and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave." While Mr. Lochte did use the word "apologize," his apology minimized his misbehavior by describing it as lack of carefulness and candor rather than lying, and omitted any mention of the intoxication, urination and vandalism.
Similar "apologies" by criminal defendants would both cause scrutiny and little impress federal sentencing judges. Mr. Trump's was limited by the use of the wishy-washy word "regret." Both Mr. Trump's and Mr. Lochte's played down their own seeming misbehavior. And, both contained defenses or excuses to justify or mitigate the limited degree of impropriety they admitted. Defense lawyers should keep copies of these "apologies" to show their clients how not to do it.
Were Mr. Trump or Mr. Lochte criminal defendants who had offered "apologies," a federal judge might have some difficulty finding, even if they had pleaded guilty, that they had "clearly demonstrate[d] acceptance of responsibility for the offense." USSG Sec. 3E1.1(a).
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
In June 2016, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland (Judge George Levi Russell III, presiding) granted Reddy Annappareddy a new trial on the grounds that the prosecutors presented false evidence to the jury at his first trial and that the outcome might have been different without the false evidence. This ruling is part of a remarkable turnaround for Mr. Annappareddy, whose case appeared to be over after the first trial ended in December 2014.
The case is captioned as United States v. Annappareddy, No.1:13-cr-00374 (D. Md.). The prosecutors’ main allegation during the first trial was that Mr. Annappareddy’s chain of pharmacies, known as Pharmacare, committed health care fraud by billing government insurance programs for prescriptions that were never picked up or delivered. The most significant evidence that the prosecutors offered in support of this allegation was a calculation of the purported “loss” from the alleged fraud. Mr. Annappareddy’s current counsel, Mark Schamel and Josh Greenberg of Womble Carlyle, began working on the case in the spring of 2015. In September 2015, they filed a Supplement to the one-and-a-half-page Motion for New Trial filed by Annappareddy's original trial counsel. The Supplement and a Reply in support of it argued, among other things, that the prosecutors presented materially false evidence to the jury on a number of important subjects in violation of the Due Process Clause.
After many months, during which the parties took depositions of trial counsel and Greenberg and Schamel filed extensive additional briefs raising troubling issues, the Court scheduled a hearing for June 3 on Annappareddy's Motion for New Trial. On the afternoon of June 2, the prosecutors filed a letter with the Court conceding that the "inventory analysis" it presented to the jury, in an effort to prove purportedly enormous losses caused by Annappareddy, was in "substantial error", rendering its own evidence "wrong", and violative of Due Process. The Government effectively joined Annappareddy's Motion for New Trial, which was granted the next day by Judge Russell during a status conference.
Judge Russell scheduled a second trial – to last eight weeks, three weeks longer than the first trial – to begin on September 19. Last month, the Court entered an Order denying the Government's motion to delay the second trial. The Order emphasizes that the Court granted a new trial because the prosecutors presented “significant material and false testimony” at the first trial and that the delay they sought “would be fundamentally unfair” to Mr. Annappareddy.
While government admissions of error are always welcome, one of the striking things about this case has been the prosecution's reluctance to admit that the evidence it presented to the jury was not just wrong or in error--it was false.
The defense recently filed a motion calling for dismissal with prejudice. Check this space for further details. The multiple briefs filed by Greenberg and Schamel since they entered their appearances represent outstanding work.
Here are some relevant documents pertaining to the case: a partial transcript from the U.S. v. Annappareddy 6-3-16 Status Conference; Judge Russell's 7-6-16 Order Denying Gov't's Motion for Modification of Trial Schedule; and the Government's Letter to Court Conceding that New Trial is Warranted.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
I received the McDonnell decision with mixed feelings. Initially, I was happy for my colleague Hank Asbill, one of the nation's top criminal defense attorneys, for a great victory. Asbill and his co-counsel litigated this case the "old-fashioned way" - they fought it, and fought it, and then fought it. Their tenacity, dedication and skill make me proud to be a defense lawyer.
Not having read the briefs of the parties, or of the amici, or heard the oral arguments, I am hesitant to criticize the opinion, especially an opinion by a brilliant chief justice for a unanimous court (I suspect due to a compromise by potential dissenters, possibly to avoid an outright dismissal). Indeed, the opinion makes a strong case that the decision was required by precedent. However, I do question several aspects of the opinion. First, I find questionable Justice Roberts' Talmudic crucial narrowing of the definition of "official act" by virtually eliminating the broad catch-all words "action" and "matter," largely by resort to the Latin word jurisprudence that is often an indication that the interpretation is on shaky ground.
Second, while I am less troubled than the Court about the federal assumption of power to monitor the conduct of state officials for purportedly violating their offices, there is something bothersome about federal officials by criminal prosecutions in effect setting ethical standards for state officials. However, as a practical matter it appears that with rare exceptions local prosecutors lack the will and/or the resources to prosecute high state officials. In New York City, for instance, U. S. Attorney Preet Bharara has in recent years prosecuted about ten state legislators on corruption charges, while New York's five district attorneys combined have not prosecuted any.
Third and most importantly, I am concerned by the decision's enablement of business-as-usual pay-to-play practices. By narrowing the definition of "official act, the Court has legalized (at least federally) the practice of paying a government executive to set up a meeting with a responsible official. By doing so, the Court has given such "soft" corruption a green light. Under the opinion, a businessperson does not violate federal bribery law by paying a governor, mayor - or even the President - tens of thousands of dollars to make a phone call to a purchasing official asking or directing her to meet with the businessperson. And that call, however innocuous that actual conversation may sound, will have real consequences - otherwise, why would the businessperson pay for it? Even absent a verbal suggestion that the executive wants the official to do business with the caller, the official cannot but think that the executive would like that she do business with that person. I imagine a New Yorker cartoon with a governor sitting at a phone booth with a sign saying, "Phone calls, official meetings. $10,000 each."
To be sure, the law concerning bribery - not alone among federal statutes - vests too much power in the government. At argument government counsel conceded (candidly but harmfully) that a campaign contribution or lunch to an official could constitute the quid in a quid pro quo. That is frightening, but the problem is in the quid, not in the quo - about which this case is concerned. (I applaud Chief Justice Roberts statement in response to the standard "Trust me, I'm the government" argument that "We cannot condone a criminal statute on the assumption the government will use it responsibly.") And, certainly, if this case were to apply to campaign contributions - and not, as in this case personal receipt of money and goods-in the words of the amicus brief of former White House counsel - it would be "a breathtaking expansion of public corruption law." Indeed, a distinction should be made between personal and campaign contributions. But this case applied to the quo - what the governor did in exchange for $175,000 worth of goods and money. And, in my view he took "action" as the governor on a "matter" by "official acts" - hosting an event at the official mansion, making calls and arranging meetings.