Monday, April 25, 2016
The United States Supreme Court accepted cert this morning in Shaw v. United States here. In 2014 the Court had looked at section 1344(2) of the bank fraud statute. (Loughrin v. United States). In contrast to Loughrin, this new case examines subsection (1), specifically the "scheme to defraud a financial institution" and whether it requires proof of a specific intent not only to deceive. The case comes from the 9th Circuit where the court examined the question of "whether that means the government must prove the defendant intended the bank to be the principal financial victim of the fraud." The Ninth Circuit held that although there needs to be an intent to defraud the bank under section 1, there is no requirement that the bank "be the intended financial victim of the fraud." Other circuits, however, have "held that risk of financial loss to the bank is an element that must be proven under section 1344(1). Stay tuned...
Saturday, April 9, 2016
The New York Times reported on Tuesday, April 5 that Donald Trump, contrary to his asserted practice of refusing to settle civil cases against him, had settled a civil fraud suit brought by disgruntled purchasers of Trump SoHo (New York) condos setting forth fraud allegations that also were being investigated by the District Attorney of New York County ("Donald Trump Settled a Real Estate Lawsuit, and a Criminal Case Was Dismissed"). The suit alleged that Trump and two of his children had misrepresented the status of purchaser interest in the condos to make it appear that they were a good investment.
What made this case most interesting to me is language, no doubt inserted by Trump's lawyers, that required as a condition of settlement that the plaintiffs "who may have previously cooperated" with the District Attorney notify him that they no longer wished to "participate in any investigation or criminal prosecution" related to the subject of the lawsuit. The settlement papers did allow the plaintiffs to respond to a subpoena or court order (as they would be required by law), but required that if they did they notify the defendants.
These somewhat unusual and to an extent daring conditions were no doubt designed to impair the District Attorney's investigation and enhance the ability of the defendants to track and combat it, while skirting the New York State penal statutes relating to bribery of and tampering with a witness. The New York statute relating to bribery of a witness proscribes conferring, offering or agreeing to confer a benefit on a witness or prospective witness upon an agreement that the witness "will absent himself or otherwise avoid or seek to avoid appearing or testifying at [an] action or proceeding" (or an agreement to influence his testimony). Penal Law 215.11 (see also Penal Law 215.30, Tampering with a Witness). Denying a prosecutor the ability to speak with prospective victims outside a grand jury makes the prosecutor's job of gathering and understanding evidence difficult in any case. Here, where it is likely, primarily because of a 120-day maximum residency limit on condo purchasers, that many were foreigners or non-New York residents and thus not easily served with process, the non-cooperation clause may have impaired the investigation more than it would have in most cases.
A clause requiring a purchaser to declare a lack of desire to participate, of course, is not the same as an absolute requirement that the purchaser not participate. And, absent legal process compelling one's attendance, one has no legal duty to cooperate with a prosecutor. It is questionable that if, after one expressed a desire not to participate, his later decision to assist the prosecutor voluntarily would violate the contract (but many purchasers would not want to take a chance). The condition of the contract thus, in my view, did not violate the New York statutes, especially since the New York Court of Appeals has strictly construed their language. People v. Harper, 75 N.Y.2d 373 (1990)(paying victim to "drop" the case not violative of statute).
I have no idea whether the settlement payment to the plaintiffs would have been less without the condition they notify the District Attorney of their desire not to cooperate. And, although the non-cooperation of the alleged victims no doubt made the District Attorney's path to charges more difficult, the facts, as reported, do not seem to make out a sustainable criminal prosecution. Allegedly, the purchasers relied on deceptive statements, as quoted in newspaper articles, by Mr. Trump's daughter Ivanka and son Donald Jr. that purportedly overstated the number of apartments sold and by Mr. Trump that purportedly overstated the number of those who had applied for or expressed interest in the condos, each implying that the condos, whose sales had actually been slow, were highly sought. A threshold question for the prosecutors undoubtedly was whether the statements, if made and if inaccurate, had gone beyond acceptable (or at least non-criminal) puffing into unacceptable (and criminal) misrepresentations.
Lawyers settling civil cases where there are ongoing or potential parallel criminal investigations are concerned whether payments to alleged victims may be construed by aggressive prosecutors as bribes, and often shy away from inserting restrictions on the victims cooperating with prosecutors. On the other hand, those lawyers (and their clients) want some protection against a criminal prosecution based on the same allegations as the civil suit. Here, Trump's lawyers boldly inserted a clause that likely hampered the prosecutors' case and did so within the law. Nonetheless, lawyers seeking to emulate the Trump lawyers should be extremely cautious and be aware of the specific legal (and ethical) limits in their jurisdictions. For instance, I personally would be extremely hesitant to condition a settlement of a civil case on an alleged victim's notifying a federal prosecutor he does not want to participate in a parallel federal investigation. The federal statutes concerning obstruction of justice and witness tampering are broader and more liberally construed than the corresponding New York statutes.
Friday, March 18, 2016
We note two recent victories in federal white collar jury trials, one by a seasoned hand and another by an up and coming star. In U.S. v. Kallini, Dr. Adel Kallini, a former anesthesiologist and now pain management physician practicing in Broward County, Florida, was indicted in the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division. Dr. Kallini was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud, as well as one count of falsification of records in a federal investigation. The Government also sought forfeiture of over $1MM.
Our sole defense at trial was good faith reliance upon the advice of counsel. In June, 2013, Dr. Kallini’s tax attorney presented him with a business “deal”, proposed to the attorney by two people who claimed to be legitimately involved in the health care field. (Unbeknownst to Dr. Kallini and his lawyer, the two were involved in health care fraud for the past three years which included, but was not limited to, paying kickbacks to patients and doctors in South Florida). The “deal” presented to Dr. Kallini, through his lawyer, essentially required Dr. Kallini to “rent” out his Medicare provider number for (what he was told) the billing of legitimate services provided to patients by other physicians who, for one reason or another, could not bill Medicare for the services provided. From the payments, Dr. Kallini was to receive 25%, his lawyer 10%, and the two others 65%. Dr. Kallini’s lawyer prepared a written agreement/contract reflecting the above.
Dr. Kallini has been practicing medicine since 1971 and had a Medicare provider number since 1973. Having never previously done anything of this nature, he asked his lawyer point blank: “Is this legal?” His lawyer told him it was. Dr. Kallini signed the agreement/contract.
On cross examination, the Government’s expert witness was forced to concede the critical differences between intentional fraud and unintentional "abuse" of the Medicare payment system. The expert also acknowledged that if the defense's factual theory of the case was correct, Dr. Kallini's conduct could fall into the non-criminal category. Bieber's cross examination of the expert on this point was greatly aided by Strassman's discovery on the internet of a six year old Power Point presentation prepared by the expert in which he taught a group of Government investigators the differences between the intentional defrauding of Medicare and the “unintentional abuse” of the payment system. Dr. Kallini was the sole defense witness.
In U.S. v. Upchurch, et al., in the EDVA (Alexandria Division), Eugene Gorokhov of Washington DC's Burnham & Gorokhov, assisted by Ziran Zhang, represented defendant Matthew Jones. According to Gorokhov:
A group of young adults, to include my client, went to a Six Flags amusement park on a Saturday in the Summer of 2015. On the day they were there, numerous people at Six Flags had their belongings stolen, to include bags containing wallets and credit cards. Later surveillance videos showed that several individuals in my client’s group used the stolen credit cards at nearby stores on the same days. My client, however, was not in any of the videos.
Despite the apparent lack of evidence against my client, the Government still charged him, along with the others, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and access device fraud. As to my client, the only evidence of his involvement was: (1) the appearance of his home address on a fraudulent credit card application, made in the name of a victim who had her belongings stolen from the park; (2) the use of the fraudulently obtained card to pay a phone bill under his name. Multiple people lived at my client’s home address. After indictment, phone records showed that his phone account had two phone numbers, and other evidence the investigator had showed that one of these numbers was used by another resident of his house, giving that person incentive to pay the phone.
The Government investigator, during the course of his investigation: (1) did not interview any of the other residents living at my client’s home address, despite knowing that more than one person lived at my client’s address; (2) overlooked the fact that the fraudulent credit card application listed an email address associated with one of the other residents at my client’s address (and admitted that he overlooked it at trial); (3) did not subpoena any of ATM surveillance videos associated with several fraudulent ATM transactions on the credit card, and those videos were ultimately erased in accordance with the bank's retention policy; and (4) did not obtain recorded phone calls between the credit card company and the individual who made the fraudulent card application, even though there were about a dozen such calls. Those calls surfaced 24 hours before trial and were, for unknown reasons, not previously produced by the bank. Those calls showed that it was someone else, and not my client, attempting to activate the fraudulent card.
During deliberations, the jurors came back with a question that asked, in essence, whether they could find a defendant guilty based only on his knowledge of a crime, and his presence at the scene. The defense asked Judge Brinkema for a "mere presence" instruction, which she gave. Thirty minutes later, the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty with respect to Eugene's client.
Congratulations to Bieber and Gorokhov and their respective teams. And if you have a federal white collar jury trial victory to report do not hesitate to let me know. We'll do our best to publish it and discuss its significance here.
Monday, March 14, 2016
In November 2014, the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Task Force on the Reform of Federal Sentencing for Economic Crimes published its final report. The report recommended major changes to the structure of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for economic crimes. In particular, the report sought to reduce the current Guideline's dominant focus on loss in favor of a more balanced approach that weighed loss, culpability, and victim impact. I discussed these proposed amendments more fully here. Though the ABA CJS Task Force recommendations were not adopted by the Federal Sentencing Commission (see here and here), some courts have begun to use the ABA "Shadow Guidelines" when varying in economic crimes cases.
Last week, a federal judge in New York used the ABA "Shadow Guidelines" in sentencing Mair Faibish, former CEO of Synergy Brands, Inc. Faibish was accused of kiting checks worth in excess of $1 billion. According to the DOJ press release in the case:
Synergy was a publicly-held food products company that traded on the NASDAQ and Over-the-Counter exchanges and manufactured and distributed various food products. As proven at trial, Faibish and his co-conspirators, on behalf of Synergy, funneled approximately $1.3 billion in checks that were not backed by sufficient funds through Signature Bank, Capital One Bank, and various Canadian bank accounts of associated food manufacturers and distributors in Canada. The Canadian companies then sent checks in corresponding amounts, which were also not backed by sufficient funds, back to Faibish-controlled shell companies. Because the banks made deposited funds immediately available for withdrawal, the scheme artificially inflated the companies’ account balances. Faibish and his co-conspirators used Synergy’s inflated bank account balances to book millions of dollars in fictitious accounts receivable and revenue.
As a result of this fraud, FDIC-insured Signature Bank lost approximately $26 million that Faibish and his co-conspirators had withdrawn before the bank uncovered the scheme. Following the scheme’s collapse, Synergy was taken into bankruptcy, and its publicly traded stock became essentially worthless, causing millions of dollars in investor losses. On November 4, 2014, the Court ordered Faibish to pay $51,166,000 in forfeiture.
The trial evidence also established that Faibish falsely inflated the values of Synergy’s sales, cost of goods sold, and pre-paid expenses in filings with the SEC for the quarter ending June 30, 2008. These material misrepresentations were breaches of the defendant’s fiduciary duties to investors.
The Federal Sentencing Guideline range in the case was life in prison, though the maximum available sentence was actually less due to applicable statutory maximums. Despite the Federal Sentencing Guideline range and the government's request for decades in prison for Faibish, the Court rejected these arguments and sentenced him to 63 months in prison (see here and here). According to LAW360, the judge stated at sentencing that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for economic crimes are "almost useless" because of their reliance and focus on loss in calculating the applicable sentencing range. Instead, the judge used the ABA "Shadow Guidelines" to determine what he considered to be a more appropriate sentence.
This seems to be yet another indication of the growing dissatisfaction among judges with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for economic offenses (see here and here) and should serve as yet another call for the Federal Sentencing Commission to consider more significant reforms in the future.
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Congratulations to the defense team members and their client in U.S. v. Bajoghli. After a 16 day trial, the dermatologist defendant was acquitted on all counts--over 40. Dr. Bajoghli was represented by Peter White and Nicholas Dingeldein of Schulte Roth & Zabel and Kirk Ogrosky and Murad Hussain from Arnold & Porter. The jury was out a day and a half.
There was some interesting motion work during the pre-trial phase, for those of us interested in government efforts to affect witness testimony. Six weeks before the original trial date, the government sent "victim impact notification" letters to several of Dr. Bajoghli's patients. Dr. Bajoghli complained that the patients, many of whom were scheduled to be defense witnesses, were not victims and that the letter was intended to prejudice the patients against him. Judge Gerald Lee granted the motion and issued a corrective letter. Here are the relevant papers: Bajoghli Motion in Limine Seeking Corrective Witness Instructions, Exhibit A Ogrosky Letter to DOJ, Exhibit B to Bajoghli Motion, Order Granting Motion for Corrective Witness Instruction, Court's Corrective Witness Letter.
Friday, October 30, 2015
Guest Blogger - Steven H. Levin
White-collar laws are written broadly in order to permit federal prosecutors to combat the increasingly creative, technologically complex efforts of enterprising criminals. Most, but certainly not all, prosecutors make rational decisions based upon the best possible expenditure of resources, the assessment of the jury appeal of a particular case, and the desire to maintain a good reputation with the bench, if not the bar. In bringing a case, prosecutors also must consider the deterrent effect of a particular prosecution.
In the case involving Dennis Hastert, it has been reported that he was paying “hush money” to cover up alleged misconduct that occurred several decades ago. Mr. Hastert’s structuring fell squarely within the broadly worded federal statute. In his piece (“Should Hastert Have Been Prosecuted?”) Lawrence Goldman is correct to question the purpose such a prosecution serves. The answer is found in the concept of deterrence. Mr. Hastert’s prosecution has potential deterrent effect, both in terms of deterring those engaged in structuring (to cover up crimes) and those engaged in blackmail (threatening to expose crimes).
Once the investigation became known, the public learned that Mr. Hastert had been accused of taking money out of a bank account in order to pay an extortionist. Both would-be structurers and would-be extortionists were put on notice by the federal government: blackmailing may not be successful in the future, because the victim of the extortion may be better off going to law enforcement rather than a bank. Further, it might deter an individual from engaging in the initial misconduct in the first place, knowing that such actions may ultimately see the light of day, even decades later.
Still, as Mr. Goldman writes, Mr. Hastert is, at least in part, a victim. And the decision to prosecute is different than a demand for jail time, which, under the plea agreement, is what prosecutors may seek. Mr. Hastert’s conduct does not warrant jail time, as the collateral consequences of the prosecution itself are significant enough to deter at least some future would-be extortionists from engaging in blackmail and their victims from submitting to it. This fact is all-too-often overlooked by prosecutors.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
The Yates Memo is all the rage. DOJ is saber-rattling at various CLE events and bloggers are holding forth on what it actually means. But wanting isn't getting. The question remaining is how to make sure that the company coughs up, or an investigation reveals, wrongdoing that occurred at the highest levels.
Here are two modest reform proposals I offer free of charge to the DOJ and FBI, based on my own experience defending individuals and. far less often, companies under investigation.
1. Modify Standard DOJ Proffer Letters. Mid-level corporate employees often possess very damaging information about those higher up the food chain. But these same mid-level employees can themselves be the subjects or targets of DOJ. At some point the employees are given the opportunity to proffer in front of the lead prosecutor. But the standard DOJ Proffer Agreement is riddled with loopholes. Assume that the proffer session does not result in a plea or immunity agreement and the employee is indicted. The primary loophole allows the government to use the proffered statement against the client at trial if the statement is in any way inconsistent with the defense presented. That's not much protection, which is why most seasoned white collar attorneys will not let a client with exposure proffer in front of DOJ. Thus, DOJ loses valuable information. DOJ should offer true non-Kastigar immunity for the information revealed in its proffer sessions. Nothing is lost by doing this, but much can be gained.
2. Demand Independent Internal Investigations. The first question every prosecutor should ask the corporation's outside attorney who is conducting an internal investigation or tendering an internal investigation report to DOJ is, "What is your reporting chain?" If outside counsel is not reporting to the Audit Committee or some other independent entity within the corporation there is absolutely no assurance that culpable upper management will be identified. Management can edit the final report and its conclusions to protect top executives and throw lower level employees to the DOJ wolves. Meanwhile, employees are less likely to truthfully cooperate with the internal investigation if they think the boss is reviewing interview reports every night after drinks. I am astounded at how often internal investigations are reported right up the chain of command at small and large publicly traded companies. DOJ prosecutors can make it clear that the procedural independence of the internal investigation will affect how the company is treated.
Monday, September 28, 2015
Just over a year ago, Stewart Parnell, the former CEO of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), was convicted by a jury in the Middle District of Georgia of charges related to a deadly nationwide salmonella outbreak. The matter came to the government’s attention in late 2008 when people began falling ill across the country. The illnesses were eventually linked back to PCA’s peanut processing plant in Georgia. As investigators continued to examine the salmonella outbreak, they discovered that the case involved potential criminal misconduct by Parnell and others who allegedly knew about the contamination, attempted to cover it up, and continued to ship contaminated and potentially contaminated product. In one now infamous email from 2007, after being informed that batch test results were not back from the lab, Parnell wrote, “Just ship it.” The outbreak killed nine people and injured thousands more. Eventually, Parnell and others were charged in a 76-count indictment that alleged mail and wire fraud, introducing adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. A jury found Parnell guilty of 67 of the 68 charges against him on September 19, 2014.
On Monday of last week, U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands sentenced Parnell to 28 years in federal prison. One interesting aspect of the sentencing is that because authorities charged this case as a “white collar” matter involving fraud, rather than a homicide case, the most significant factor driving the guideline sentencing range was not the deaths of nine people, but the loss of over $100 million by the various food companies that were forced to recall their products because of Parnell’s actions.
According to last week’s DOJ press release:
Judge Sands took into account the fraud loss of PCA’s corporate victims when imposing today’s sentence. The court found that Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson should be held accountable for more than $100 million but less than $200 million in losses, and Michael Parnell should be held accountable for more than $20 million but less than $50 million in losses. The court also found the government established evidence that Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson should be accountable for harming more than 250 victims, and Michael Parnell should be accountable under federal sentencing guidelines for harming more than 50 victims. The court additionally found that the Parnells should have known that their actions presented a reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury.
Looking at the applicable 2009 Federal Sentencing Guidelines (the Guidelines in place at the time of the offense conduct), one finds the following point allocations:
- Base Offense – 7 points
- Loss of more than $100 million – 26 points
- 250 or more victims – 6 points
- Risk of death – 2 points
- TOTAL: 41 points
While there were likely other applicable sentencing points, such as obstruction of justice and role in the offense, the above point allocations alone result in 41 total points. This translates into a guideline sentencing range of 324-405 months (27.00 – 33.75 years) for a defendant with no criminal history. Steward received 336 months (28 years).
To highlight the importance of the loss amount in the Guideline’s calculation, note that if this case had involved nine deaths, but no financial loss to food companies, the sentencing range under section 2B1.1 of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines would have dropped to 18-24 months in the above calculation. Obviously, this would have been a grossly unreasonable sentence given the devastating harm caused by Parnell.
I don’t know why this case was charged as a fraud and not a homicide. Perhaps it was to send a clearer message about national food safety by bringing federal charges, including charges directly related to the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce. One additional item to note, however, as we think about the way this case proceeded, is that federal white collar sentences in high loss cases can often dwarf sentences for other crimes, including homicide. Consider that involuntary manslaughter in Georgia carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. Georgia also has automatic parole eligibility for most inmates. By comparison, Parnell received 28 years in prison using federal fraud statutes and their applicable sentencing guidelines. Further, there is no parole in the federal system.
Federal fraud offenses are often attractive to prosecutors because they are broad enough to apply in all manner of situations and carry potentially significant sentences. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we continue to see these statutes used in many cases that do not fit neatly into our traditional definitions of “white collar crime.” For a further discussion of the way “white collar offenses” are used in a vast array of cases, many of which do not involve traditional white collar criminal activity, see “White Collar Crime”: Still Hazy After All These Years, 50 Georgia Law Review Issue 3 (Lead Article) (forthcoming).
Monday, September 14, 2015
I have just released a new article discussing the sentencing of Jordan Belfort, better known as the "Wolf of Wall Street." I use this case as a mechanism for considering how white collar sentencing has evolved from the 1980s until today. In particular, the article examines the growth in uncertainty and inconsistency in sentences received by major white collar offenders over this period of time and considers some of the reasons for this trend. The article also examines the impact of recent amendments adopted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission on white collar sentences.
Lucian E. Dervan, Sentencing the Wolf of Wall Street: From Leniency to Uncertainty, 61 Wayne Law Review -- (2015).
This Symposium Article, based on a presentation given by Professor Dervan at the 2014 Wayne Law Review Symposium entitled "Sentencing White Collar Defendants: How Much is Enough," examines the Jordan Belfort (“Wolf of Wall Street”) prosecution as a vehicle for analyzing sentencing in major white-collar criminal cases from the 1980s until today. In Part II, the Article examines the Belfort case and his relatively lenient prison sentence for engaging in a major fraud. This section goes on to examine additional cases from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s to consider the results of reforms aimed at “getting tough” on white-collar offenders. In concluding this initial examination, the Article discusses three observed trends. First, today, as might be expected, it appears there are much longer sentences for major white-collar offenders as compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Second, today, there also appears to be greater uncertainty and inconsistency regarding the sentences received by major white-collar offenders when compared with sentences from the 1980s and 1990s. Third, there appear to have been much smaller sentencing increases for less significant and more common white-collar offenders over this same period of time. In Part III, the Article examines some of the possible reasons for these observed trends, including amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, increased statutory maximums, and judicial discretion. In concluding, the Article offers some observations regarding what the perceived uncertainty and inconsistency in sentencing major white-collar offenders today might indicate about white-collar sentencing more broadly. In considering this issue, the Article also briefly examines recent amendments adopted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and proposed reforms to white-collar sentencing offered by the American Bar Association.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Ellen Podgor and I have just released a new article discussing the complexities of defining the term “white collar crime.” The ability to define and identify white collar offenses is vital, as it allows one to track, among other things, the number of these cases prosecuted each year, the frequency with which particular types of charges are brought in these matters, and the sentences imposed on those convicted. This new article begins with a brief historical overview of the term “white collar crime.” The piece then empirically examines several specific crimes to demonstrate that statutory approaches to defining and tracking white collar offenses are often ineffective and inaccurate. The article then concludes by recommending that the U.S. Sentencing Commission adopt a new multivariate definitional approach that recognizes the hybrid nature of many white collar offenses. The final version of the article will appear next year in Volume 50 of the Georgia Law Review.
Ellen S. Podgor and Lucian E. Dervan, “White Collar Crime”: Still Hazy After All These Years, 50 Georgia Law Review -- (forthcoming 2016).
With a seventy-five year history of sociological and later legal roots, the term “white collar crime” remains an ambiguous concept that academics, policy makers, law enforcement personnel and defense counsel are unable to adequately define. Yet the use of the term “white collar crime” skews statistical reporting and sentencing for this conduct. This Article provides a historical overview of its linear progression and then a methodology for a new architecture in examining this conduct. It separates statutes into clear-cut white collar offenses and hybrid statutory offenses, and then applies this approach with an empirical study that dissects cases prosecuted under hybrid white collar statutes of perjury, false statements, obstruction of justice, and RICO. The empirical analysis suggests the need for an individualized multivariate approach to categorizing white collar crime to guard against broad federal statutes providing either under-inclusive or over-inclusive examination of this form of criminality.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Earlier this month, the Second Circuit, as expected (at least by me), denied Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's request for reargument and reconsideration of its December 2014 ruling in United States v Newman which narrowed, at least in the Second Circuit, the scope of insider trading prosecutions. I would not be surprised if the government seeks certiorari, and, I would not be all that surprised it cert were granted.
In Newman, the defendants, Newman and Chiasson, were two hedge fund portfolio managers who were at the end of a chain of recipients of inside information originally provided by employees of publicly-traded technology funds. The defendants traded on the information and realized profits of $4 million and $68 million respectively. There was, however, scant, if any, evidence that the defendants were aware whether the original tippors had received any personal benefit for their disclosures.
The Second Circuit reversed the trial convictions based on an improper charge to the jury and the insufficiency of the evidence. Specifically, the court ruled that:
1) the trial judge erred in failing to instruct the jury that in order to convict it had to find that the defendants knew that the corporate employee tippors had received a personal benefit for divulging the information; and
2) the government had indeed failed to prove that the tippors had in fact received a personal benefit.
Thus, at least in the Second Circuit, it appears that the casual passing on of inside information without receiving compensation by a friend or relative or golf partner does not violate the security laws. "For purposes of insider trading liability, the insider's disclosure of confidential information, standing alone, is not a breach," said the court. Nor, therefore, does trading on such information incur insider trading liability because the liability of a recipient, if any, must derive from the liability of the tippor. To analogize to non-white collar law, one cannot be convicted of possessing stolen property unless the property had been stolen (and the possessor knew it). Those cases of casual passing on of information, which sometimes ensnared ordinary citizens with big mouths and a bit of greed, are thus apparently off-limits to Second Circuit prosecutors. To be sure, the vast majority of the recent spate of Southern District prosecutions of insider trading cases have involved individuals who have sold and bought information and their knowing accomplices. Although Southern District prosecutors will sometimes now face higher hurdles to prove an ultimate tippee/trader's knowledge, I doubt that the ruling will affect a huge number of prosecutions.
The clearly-written opinion, by Judge Barrington Parker, did leave open, or at least indefinite, the critical question of what constitutes a "personal benefit" to a provider of inside information (an issue that also might impact corruption cases). The court stated that the "personal benefit" had to be something "of consequence." In some instances, the government had argued that a tippee's benefit was an intangible like the good graces of the tippor, and jurors had generally accepted such a claim, likely believing the tippor would expect some personal benefit, present or future, for disclosing confidential information. In Newman, the government similarly argued that the defendants had to have known the tippors had to have received some benefit.
Insider trading is an amorphous crime developed by prosecutors and courts - not Congress - from a general fraud statute (like mail and wire fraud) whose breadth is determined by the aggressiveness and imagination of prosecutors and how much deference courts give their determinations. In this area, the highly competent and intelligent prosecutors of the Southern District have pushed the envelope, perhaps enabled to some extent by noncombative defense lawyers who had their clients cooperate and plead guilty despite what, at least with hindsight, seems to have been a serious question of legal sufficiency. See Dirks v. S.E.C., 463 U.S. 646, 103 S.Ct. 3255 (1983)(test for determining insider liability is whether "insider personally will benefit, directly or indirectly"). As the Newman court refreshingly said, in language that should be heeded by prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers, "[N]ot every instance of financial unfairness constitutes fraudulent activity under [SEC Rule] 10(b)."
As I said, I would not be shocked (although I would be surprised) if Congress were to enact a law that goes beyond effectively overruling Newman and imposes insider trading liability on any person trading based on what she knew was non-public confidential information whether or not the person who had disclosed the information had received a personal benefit. Such a law, while it would to my regret cover the casual offenders I have discussed, would on balance be a positive one in that it would limit the unequal information accessible to certain traders and provide a more level playing field.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
There has been much talk recently regarding Section 2B1.1 of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, commonly referred to as the Fraud Guidelines. Earlier this year, I noted in a post that the American Bar Association had issued a report calling on the Sentencing Commission to revise Section 2B1.1. Specifically, this report contained a number of suggestions regarding loss calculations and the impact of the current loss table. Earlier this month, Ellen Podgor posted regarding the release of the Proposed Amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines (Preliminary), which included proposed amendments to Section 2B1.1.
As readers begin to digest the proposed amendments from the Sentencing Commission and the Commission’s determination that they “have not seen a basis for finding the guideline to be broken for most forms of fraud…,” I wanted to provide a link to some additional information. The first is a video presentation by Commission staff regarding a detailed examination of economic crime data. The presentation was given at a January 9, 2015 public meeting and offers some extremely interesting analysis of data collected regarding sentencing under Section 2B1.1. The second is a copy of the PowerPoint presentation from the January 9, 2015 presentation. In particular, I direct readers to Figure 1, showing the growth in below range sentences since 2003, and Figure 5, showing the number of cases within range decreasing sharply as the loss figure in the case grows. For those who enjoy statistics, there is a wealth of information for consideration in these materials.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
The New York Times has the story, with a link to the criminal complaint, here. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara followed his longstanding tradition of holding a press conference in order to make inflammatory, prejudicial, and improper public comments about the case.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
For more than a year now, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission has been investigating a number of large Australian banks regarding allegations of collusion in the setting of the Bank Bill Swap Rate (BBSR). The BBSR is an interest rate benchmark that is used when banks lend to one another. This rate also impacts business and home loan rates. As details regarding the investigation begin to trickle out, one Australian commentator in the Sydney Morning Herald has said that this “could well prove to be the largest corporate scandal of 2015.” According to the commentator’s article, one bank, ANZ, has suspended seven BBSR traders, including the suspension of the head of the bank’s balance sheet trading earlier this month (see here). The article further states that ANZ has launched an internal investigation into the matter. While the article notes that other Australian banks may have also launched internal investigations, the banks have made no public statements regarding any such inquiries.
As readers of this blog will recall, in 2012 an investigation began into allegations that several large banks had been manipulating the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor). The scandal received significant international attention. Eventually, the US, UK, and EU fined the banks involved more than $6 billion. Further, several traders were prosecuted for their roles in the manipulation. For more on the Libor Scandal, see the Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder available here.
Based on recent reports from Australia, it sounds like the Australian BBSR investigation might be the next big international white collar case to watch in 2015.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Here are two (ahem) differing views on yesterday's Second Circuit insider trading decision in United States v. Newman. The Wall Street Journal editorial writers are understandably happy at the ruling and contemptuous of Preet Bharara, dubbing him an Outside the Law Prosecutor. The Journal exaggerates the extent to which the case was an outlier under Second Circuit precedent and incorrectly states that "the prosecution is unlikely to be able to retry the case." The prosecution cannot retry the case, unless the full Second Circuit reverses the panel or the U.S. Supreme Court takes the case and overturns the Second Circuit.
Over at New Economic Perspectives, Professor Bill Black insists that the Second Circuit Makes Insider Trading the Perfect Crime. Black thinks Wall Street financial firms will enact sophisticated cut-out schemes in the wake of the opinion to give inside traders plausible deniability. He compares the fate of Newman and his co-defendant to that of Eric Garner and calls for a broken windows policing policy for Wall Street. Black's piece is outstanding, but in my view he underestimates the extent to which the Newman court was influenced by Supreme Court precedent and ignores the opinion's signals that the government needed to do a much better job of proving that the defendants knew about the tipper's fiduciary breach. As a matter of fact, in the typical insider trading case it is relatively easy to show such knowledge. That's what expert testimony and willful blindness instructions are for.
Monday, November 17, 2014
The American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Task Force on the Reform of Federal Sentencing for Economic Crimes has released its final report. The report contains significant proposed amendments to the existing federal sentencing guidelines for economic offenses. As to the general structure, the proposed guidelines fit on a single page and contain only three sections for specific offense characteristics, compared with the nineteen sections currently contained in USSG section 2B1.1. The three sections in the proposal are “loss,” “culpability,” and “victim impact.”
The loss section contains only six levels of loss, from more than $20,000 to more than $50,000,000. As currently drafted, a loss of more than $50,000,000 would result in a 14 point increase in the defendant’s offense level. This is a significant amendment from USSG section 2B1.1, which contain 16 levels of loss, the most significant of which increases a defendant’s base offense level by 30 points. It is important to note, however, that the Task Force makes clear in its commentary that it is most focused on the proposed structure of the economic crimes guidelines. The report states, “First, we feel more strongly about the structure of the proposal than we do the specific offense levels we have assigned. We assigned offense levels in the draft because we think it is helpful in understanding the structure, but the levels have been placed in brackets to indicate their tentative nature.”
The remaining two specific offense characteristics – Culpability and Victim Impact – are presented in a manner that allows for consideration of various factors before determining where a defendant falls on a range from low to high. For example, culpability is either “Lowest Culpability,” “Low Culpability,” “Moderate Culpability,” “High Culpability,” or “Highest Culpability.” According to the commentary, a defendant’s culpability level will depend on an “array of factors,” including the correlation between loss and gain. In many ways, this portion of the proposal looks similar to the recently adopted Sentencing Council for England and Wales “Fraud, Bribery and Money Laundering Offences – Definitive Guidelines.” As described in my previous post, these guidelines for England and Wales utilized a “High Culpability,” “Medium Culpability,” and “Low Culpability” model.
Finally, the proposal contains an interesting offense cap for non-serious first time offenders. The proposed guidelines state, “If the defendant has zero criminal history points under Chapter 4 and the offense was not ‘otherwise serious’ within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. section 994(j), the offense level shall be no greater than 10 and a sentence other than imprisonment is generally appropriate.” According to the commentary, in making such a decision, the court should consider (1) the offense as a whole, and (2) the defendant’s individual contribution to the offense.
As the U.S. Sentencing Commission has stated, addressing federal sentences for economic crimes is one of the Commission’s policy priorities for the 2014-2015 guidelines amendment cycle. It will be interesting to watch the Commission’s response to the ABA CJS Task Force proposal.
Friday, October 3, 2014
In May, the Sentencing Council for England and Wales issued their "Fraud, Bribery and Money Laundering Offences - Definitive Guidelines." The Guidelines apply to "all individual offenders aged 18 and older and to organisations who are sentenced on or after 1 October 2014, regardless of the date of the offence."
Bret Campbell, Adam Lurie, Joseph Monreno, and Karen Woody of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft have a nice piece examining the new Guidelines in the Westlaw Journal of White-Collar Crime entitled UK Issues Sentencing Guideline for Individuals Convicted of White-Collar Offenses (28 No. 11, Westlaw Journal White-Collar Crime 1 (July 25, 2014)).
In reviewing the new Guidelines, it is fascinating to see the difference in approach when compared to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. To take just one example, the fraud guidelines for England and Wales focus on "culpability" and "harm." For culpability, the guidelines consider a number of factors indicating whether the person had "High Culpability," "Medium Culpability," or "Low Culpability." The factors include entries such as the role in group activities, the sophistication of the offense, and the motivation behind the actions. In examining harm, there are just five categories of loss, the highest of which is £500,000 or more. Finally, when determining the sentence, there are a limited number of categories and the highest range is 5-8 years in custody.
For anyone who works with the U.S. guidelines, the guidelines for England and Wales are a fascinating read for comparison, and I highly recommend you give them a look.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Last month Prof. Douglas Berman reported in his indispensable Sentencing Law and Policy blog about a ten-year prison sentence imposed by SDNY judge Richard Berman upon defendant Rudy Kurniawan, who had sold counterfeit wine to the very rich, including billionaire William Koch (one of the less political Koch brothers), and allegedly profited by over $28 million (see here by scrolling down to August 10, "Can wine fraudster reasonably whine that his sentence was not reduced given wealth of victims?" See also here). Some of the ersatz wine sold for as much as $30,000 per bottle.
Having a somewhat perverse sense of humor, I found it somewhat amusing that the 1% paid astronomical sums for and presumably sometimes drank the same wine that the other 99% of us drink. However, neither the judge nor the prosecutor (nor certainly the defendant and his lawyer) viewed the sentencing proceeding as a laughing matter.
To be sure, a $28 million fraud is a serious matter deserving serious punishment. Additionally, the judge seemed to view the crime in part as a public safety violation, declaring "The public at large needs to know our food and drinks are safe, -- and not some potentially unsafe homemade witch's brew," even though this was hardly a contaminated baby food case.
At the sentencing hearing, Kurniawan's attorney argued, reasonably I believe, that his client should be treated somewhat less severely since the victims were exceedingly wealthy. That argument provoked the prosecutor to the Captain Renault-like response that it was "quite shocking" for a lawyer to argue for a different standard for theft from the rich than from the poor.
That retort reminded me of Anatole France's immortal line (although not directly on point), "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal bread." In my view, a sentencing judge should certainly consider in sentencing the extent of damage to the victim(s). A fraudster who steals a million dollars from a billionaire, notwithstanding the Sentencing Guidelines' overemphasis on absolute figures, should (all things being equal) not deserve as harsh a sentence as one who steals the same amount if it were the entire life savings of a senior citizen.
Prosecutors, when fraud victims are pensioners and widows, argue, I believe reasonably, that the judge should consider the degree of suffering of the victims. Indeed, every seasoned white-collar trial lawyer knows that in a multi-victim fraud case the government is likely to call as "representative" witnesses those most sympathetic victims for whom the monetary loss was most damaging.
I assume that the prosecutor will get over his "shock" when he prosecutes a fraud case where a less than affluent victim's life savings are stolen. I further assume he will not argue that the judge should impose the same sentence she would if the victim were a billionaire for whom the loss figure might be pocket change.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
I enjoy studying upward variance opinions, as they usually contain language and rules that can be used by the defense to support downward variances in other cases. This is true because, whatever specific factors are discussed, federal appeals courts typically speak of what justifies such variances in general terms, not distinguishing between upward and downward excursions. United States v. Ransom, decided earlier this month by the D.C. Circuit in an opinion by Judge David Sentelle, is no exception. Chester Ransom and Bryan Talbott each pled guilty to a fraud scheme and stipulated to a non-binding Guideline range of 46-57 months. The sentencing court calculated Ransom's range at 46-57 months but upwardly varied to a 72 month sentence. The court calculated Talbott's range at 63-78 months but upwardly varied to a 120 month sentence.
The Court initially held that Ransom's upward variance for lack of remorse was not inconsistent with the three point downward adjustment he received for acceptance of responsibility under Section 3E1.1(a) and (b). The Court in essence stated that one can plead guilty early and cooperate with the government without showing any remorse.
Next the Court rejected appellants' argument that the sentencing court improperly relied on factors in varying upward that the Guidelines had already accounted for. Joining some sister circuits the Court held (internal quotes and citations omitted) that:
It is not error for a district court to enter sentencing variances based on factors already taken into account by the Advisory Guidelines, in a case in which the Guidelines do not fully account for those factors or when a district court applies broader [Section] 3553(a) considerations in granting the variance.
As anyone who does federal sentencing work knows, those broader 3553(a) factors are often the key to obtaining a downward variance if the court is otherwise inclined to do so. To take one example, in the Mandatory Guidelines era it was almost impossible to obtain a downward departure based on family circumstances, but they can, and must, at least be "considered" by the sentencing court under the current regime. Believe it or not, not every district judge comprehends this simple rule. Ergo, it is nice to have additional case law on one's side.