Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Yesterday I skimmed through the FIFA indictment referred to by my colleague Lucian Dervan on May 26, 2015 ("FIFA Officials Facing Corruption Charges"), primarily to determine how the government justified jurisdiction over alleged criminal activities that largely, seemingly almost entirely, occurred in other nations, a complaint made by none other than Vladimir Putin. Upon review, I believe the indictment, apparently drafted with that question in mind, facially makes a reasonably strong case for U.S. jurisdiction, based largely, although not entirely, on money transfers through U.S. financial institutions.
There remains, however, the question whether the U.S. Department of Justice should assume the role of prosecutor of the world and prosecute wrongs, however egregious, that were almost wholly committed by foreigners in foreign nations and affected residents of those foreign nations much more than residents of the United States. Our government's refusal to submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is arguably inconsistent with our demand here that citizens of other nations submit to our courts.
On another subject, what struck me as just wrong was a minor part of the indictment, the obstruction of justice charge against Aaron Davidson, one of the two United States citizens indicted (the other, a dual citizen, is charged with procuring U.S. citizenship fraudulently). While the obstruction of justice count itself (count 47) is a bare bones parsing of the statute, the lengthy 112-page preamble to the actual recitation of counts (to me in clear violation of Fed. R. Crim. P. 7(c), which says the indictment "must be a plain, concise and definite written statement")(emphasis added) describes Davidson's allegedly criminal conduct as follows: "Davidson alerted co-conspirators to the possibility that they would be recorded making admissions of their crimes."
Such advice is provided as a matter of course - absolutely properly and professionally, in my opinion - by virtually every white-collar or other criminal lawyer representing a target of a criminal investigation. Since lawyers are given no special treatment different from others, if these facts justify a criminal conviction, a lot of white-collar lawyers will be counting the days until the five-year statute of limitations has passed since their last pre-indictment stage client meeting.
The obstruction of justice statute is so vague that it gives the government the opportunity to charge virtually any effort by lawyers or others to advise persons under investigation to exert caution in talking with others. The applicable statute, the one used against Davidson, prescribes a 20-year felony for "whoever corruptly...obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so..." 18 U.S.C. 1512(c)(2). That catch-all statute, which follows one proscribing physical destruction of tangible evidence, to me is unconstitutionally vague, but courts have generally upheld it and left the determination of guilt to juries on the ground the word "corruptly," which itself is subject to many interpretations, narrows and particularizes it sufficiently. I hope that the presiding judge in this case, the experienced and respected Raymond Dearie, does not allow that count to get to the jury.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
According to CNN, the U.S. Department of Justice is preparing to bring corruption charges against up to 14 senior officials at FIFA, the world's soccer governing body. The reports from CNN come from "law enforcement officials." According to the New York Times, several FIFA officials have already been arrested in Switzerland in a "extraordinary early-morning operation."
FIFA has been under investigation for some time, including with regards to the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which will occur in Russia and Qatar. FIFA conducted an internal investigation of the selection process for each event. The investigation was led by Michael Garcia of Kirkland & Ellis. Garcia submitted his report to FIFA in September 2014. FIFA then released a "summary" of the report's findings, which summary Garcia alleged was "erroneous." Garcia resigned as independent chair of the FIFA Ethics Committee's Investigatory Chamber in December 2014.
One issue that will be interesting to watch in this case is the manner by which the U.S. alleges jurisdiction over the senior FIFA officials despite the fact that alleged corruption occurred overseas and FIFA is an association governed by Swiss law. According to CNN, the U.S. will allege jurisdiction exists because of the breadth of U.S. tax and banking regulations. Further, the government will reportedly rely in part on the fact that significant revenue is generated by the U.S. television market. This is certainly a case we will be hearing a lot about in the coming months.
Thursday, April 30, 2015
False Accusation of Rolling Stone Article Suggests prior Notification of Targets in White-collar Cases
In November Rolling Stone published a blockbuster article about a student's account of being gang-raped at a University of Virginia frat house. Within days others, primarily the Washington Post, sharply questioned the truthfulness of the student's claim. Rolling Stone then commissioned an independent investigation by Steve Coll, the respected Dean of Columbia Journalism School, to review the magazine's reporting, editing and fact-checking. That report, written by Coll and two colleagues, came out a few weeks ago. See here. Rolling Stone also "withdrew" the article.
The report (Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll, Derek Kravitz, "An Anatomy of a Journalistic Failure") is "intended as a work of journalism about a failure of journalism." It is thorough and comprehensive and, as expected, clear and thoughtful. Although the purpose of the report was to investigate the conduct of Rolling Stone and not the conduct of the student, it treats the student who made the false accusation and continued it over months of questioning by the reporter much too gently and itself is affected by the implicit bias that it suggests motivated the writer. For instance, it takes pains to state that the student who made the indisputably false accusation may well have in fact been a victim of some predatory sexual act(s), and does not even speculate that she might have made up the incident out of whole cloth. It expresses its regret that the the widely-disseminated revelation of the false accusation might cast doubt on other campus sex accusations (accepting the questionable estimates that false charges make up less than 8% of rape allegations) and fails even to consider the possibility that the false claim here might not be such an aberration , and perhaps will serve a salutary purpose by increasing public (and governmental and institutional) awareness that false accusations are not so infrequent.
To be sure, campus sexual abuse by male students against women is a serious problem and deserves vigorous, but measured and fair, action by universities and, when appropriate, law enforcement, and aggressive reporting on that subject is important to increase public knowledge. School officials, and magazine and newspaper writers (and also law enforcement officers) should be mindful, however, that this is an area where accusations are often inaccurate, exaggerated, and sometimes downright false, and that there are sometimes unjust findings and convictions, by courts and schools, that wrongly destroy the lives of those accused. Indeed, in my opinion, rape is the area of criminal law in which there are the most intentionally false (as opposed to mistaken) accusations by civilian complainants.
The report demonstrates convincingly that there were a series of errors in the investigation, review, fact-checking and editing of the story before it appeared. Among those errors was the failure to give the person accused an opportunity to refute the accusations. "Journalistic practice - and basic fairness - require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person's side of the story."
I could not help but thinking that the defective oversight of the Rolling Stone journalists and their seemingly limited concern for the reputations of the institutions accused were nonetheless far greater and far more likely to uncover false accusations than the minimal or nonexistent review by law enforcement that typically occurs in a criminal case prior to an arrest (and sometimes even after). Once law enforcement officers decide to make an arrest, why should the accused not be allowed to present beforehand his "side of the story?" Obviously, in many cases, such as where there is a need for immediate apprehension by a police officer, no pre-arrest review or notification is possible. Further, in many other cases, for instance where the identity of the alleged perpetrator is unknown, or where there is a reasonable fear that if not arrested he will flee and not be available to face charges, an immediate unannounced arrest is called for.
However, in many, probably most, white-collar cases, there is no such need. In those cases, as a general rule a prosecutor should notify a target that he is under investigation and seek his "side of the story." Nonetheless, many prosecutors proceed the "old-fashioned" way by ordering an arrest first without giving the defendant an opportunity to hire a lawyer and present, should he choose to, his side of the story.
Notifying a prospective defendant that he is likely to be arrested and may choose to present his case beforehand has advantages for prosecutors in many situations. The defendant and his lawyer might provide evidence or legal arguments that will persuade the prosecutor to seek lesser charges or not to go forward at all. Sometimes a plea agreement might be reached with the defendant which will eliminate the need for a time-consuming grand jury presentation. And, should the defendant decide to cooperate, he may be able to do so proactively and generally more effectively since an indictment often tips off others to steer clear of him.
There are, arguably, certain benefits to law enforcement in making surprise arrests. There is a possibility that an upset, unprepared and uncounseled defendant will make incriminating statements. And, a defendant may have on his person or in proximity evidentiary items which will be found by a search. Those advantages, however, are less likely to occur in white-collar case, where defendants are less likely to make statements without lawyers or carry contraband or evidence. Another potential benefit to prosecutors is that at bail hearings a defendant's attorney may not be able to argue that the defendant did not flee after becoming aware of the charges. Such an argument, I have found, does not carry as much weight as it should. In any case, prosecutors are unlikely to provide prior notification of their intent to arrest to any who are conceivable flight risks.
For these reasons, the most successful and sophisticated prosecutors in white collar cases, such as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, generally notify white-collar targets of their investigations and give them or their attorneys an opportunity to dissuade, minimize or deal. Less sophisticated prosecutors of white-collar crimes, often state prosecutors, are more likely to make summary arrests. These cases, generally not well vetted since there was no input from the accused or his counsel, more often lead to dismissals, acquittals or cheap pleas.
Not only is pre-arrest notification to a prospective defendant more fair to him in that it gives him an opportunity to defend, explain, negotiate or prepare psychologically, it will benefit judicial and prosecutorial economy of resources by allowing for some matters to be settled with less or no litigation and court involvement. And, as discussed above, it helps law enforcement. It should be the default position in white-collar (and many other) cases, and deviated from only when there are genuine countervailing reasons.
Thursday, April 2, 2015
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Any internal white collar invesitgation is limited by the nature and scope of the investigation and the power of the entity conducting it. And those are just the tangible, objective limiting factors. Are you reporting to the Audit Committee or directly to the Board? Does your law firm (or audit firm or private investigation firm) have other business, or seek further business, with the company or governmental unit that has ordered the investigation? Are subtle signals being sent your way?
Last week the University of Texas System released the Kroll Final Report on Admissions Practices and Allegations of Undue Influence at University of Texas at Austin. The Kroll Report was commissioned by the Chancellor and Vice Chanchellor of the U.T. System after a former U.T.-Austin Admissions Office official came forward alleging that the office of U.T.-Austin President William Powers had "at times exerted pressure on the [Admissions Office] to admit some applicants of lesser qualifications in response to external influences." This official came forward after an earlier, strictly internal, investigation was completed, with its attendant report released to the public. The earlier investigation included interviews of Powers and his top assistant.
As I wrote here last June, this is all part of a long-running battle between former U.T. System Regent Wallace Hall (plus some of his colleagues) and President Powers. Hall started snooping around, which is actually his duty as a Regent, and found several things that troubled him, including:
Admission of students to the University of Texas School of Law who had LSAT scores below the average for entering U.T. Freshlaws. Some of the admitted students were related or connected to powerful state legislators with key roles in funding the university and law school.
That last revelation was apparently too much for the legislature (or "the leg" as we called it in my day) and impeachment hearings were commenced by the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations ("Transparency Committee").
As I said, the controversy has had its comic moments. The Transparency Committee voted to recommend impeachment of Hall before deigning to draft any Articles of Impeachment. And Transparency Committee Co-Chair Dan Flynn wrote a public letter stating that: 1) there were insufficient grounds to impeach Hall; 2) Hall should resign anyway; and 3) Hall should be impeached if he did not resign. When Hall refused to resign, Flynn voted to impeach him. (The Texas Tribune has a good story here on Flynn's remarkable letter and the response he received from Representative Eric Johnson. Both letters are attached to the story in PDF format.)
The fight between Hall and the legislature is apparently part of a larger years-long battle between th Board of Regents and UT President Bill Powers. The Regents have Governor Perry and company on their side and Powers has legislative allies on his. I'm not concerned about that. I have reviewed Hall's purportedly impeachable offenses and find the allegations against him unpersuasive, but I would not be writing about these things on a white collar blog if impeachment hearings were the only thing going on. Unfortunately, there's more.
The Transparency Committee's Co-Chairs also referred Hall to the Travis County District Attorney's Public Integrity Unit, which has opened an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing by Hall. This is the same office that brought dubious charges against former U.S. House Speaker Tom DeLay and has a long history of questionable public corruption prosecutions. The Public Integrity Unit is an odd creature of Texas law, housed in the Travis County DA's Office with statewide jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute state officials. The old Travis County DA was Ronnie Earle. The current Travis County DA is Rosemary Lehmberg, an Earle disciple, who refused to resign from office after pleading guilty to Driving While Intoxicated.
The Kroll Report found no violation of law, but did not, and apparently was not asked to, consider any state or federal criminal laws.
The Kroll Report found no proof of a quid pro quo, but did not directly investigate, and with few exceptions did not question, individuals who did not work within the university system.
The Kroll Report found no lies by President Powers when he was questioned as part of the earlier inquiry, noting that he "answered specific questions with technical precision." But Kroll also found that Powers, through material omissions, apparently misled that inquiry, and that Powers "failed to speak with the candor and forthrightness" expected of someone in his position "of trust and leadership."
A Wall Street Journal editorial on the Kroll Report characterizes it as a vindication of Wallace Hall and calls for an "end to the campaign to punish Mr. Hall." But the Journal speaks only of Hall's censure by the legislature and the effort to impeach him, never mentioning the still active criminal investigation hanging over Hall's head.
Holding a press conference after the Kroll Report was issued, Powers called the Report "thorough, accurate and fair" and said that he thinks it clears him. Powers, however, denied being evasive in his answers to the earlier inquiry, noting that the lawyers conducting that inquiry had stressed its limited nature. Powers, after initially refusing to discuss individual regents or donors, also claimed that Hall himself "has exerted influence over the admissions process." But Powers declined to comment on whether the Report exonerated Hall, noting that "there is an investigation going on about his conduct." I find Powers' statement quite chilling. It serves as a reminder that this is Texas and Hall is not out of the woods.
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.
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.
Friday, October 31, 2014
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of once again attending the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s annual International White Collar Crime Institute in London. This year’s event included a host of excellent speakers from around the world addressing some of the most pressing issues in the field. I thought I would take just a few moments to share some of the insights and themes from the conference.
First, there was much discussion about deferred prosecution agreements in the UK. Though a very common means of resolving a criminal investigation in the US, DPAs only became possible in the UK earlier this year. Thus far, no DPAs have been announced in the UK. That might be about to change, however, as several speakers informed the audience that there are rumors in London that the first such DPA may be entered into towards the end of this year. We’ll be keeping an eye out for this significant development.
Second, many speakers pointed out important differences that exist globally when discussing white collar crime and enforcement. For example, in the UK, the SFO prefers that corporations not interview employees during an internal investigation. Once the US DOJ becomes involved, however, the DOJ tends to insist on interviews, thus creating a conflict of approaches. As another examples, the trend of requiring monitors as part of settlements is beginning to lose favor in the US. By comparison, the UK is currently moving towards monitorships. As a final example, the role of whistleblowers remains drastically different around the globe. In the US, whistleblowers and whistleblower incentive programs like the FCA and Dodd-Frank are generally considered important tools for discovering misconduct. In France, by comparison, whistleblowing is discouraged. In fact, according to our speakers, in France it would be illegal for an employer to require employees to engage in any form of whistleblowing. These are just a handful of examples of the significant differences that exist around the world and that create complex issues for resolution in cross-border criminal investigations and prosecutions.
Finally, I’ll briefly mention the panel I moderated. The panel examined collateral consequences of conviction around the world. Collateral consequences are an issue that is garnering much attention in the United States today. This is partly because of the ABA’s collateral consequences website, which is an excellent tool for researching the collateral consequences that might be applicable in a particular case. The website also gives some incredible insights into the breadth and scope of these collateral consequences. In Illinois, for examples, there are 2,266 statues, rules, and regulations imposing various collateral consequences. These include things like losing the right to vote, the right to drive, and the right to hold public office. One might lose a public pension, a business license, or even parental rights. One might lose access to public housing and food stamps. The list is voluminous. One of the most unusual collateral consequences in Illinois makes it a felony for a felon to “knowingly own, possess, have custody, or reside in residence with… an unspayed or unneutered dog or puppy older than 12 weeks of age…." Our conversation in London revealed that the trend of expanding collateral consequences is not limited to the United States. In the UK, prosecutors are now more likely to put forward collateral consequences during a prosecution and the courts are becoming more likely to impose them on individual defendants.
While there are many other fascinating issues that were covered during the conference, including discussion of virtual currencies, anti-bribery initiatives, whistleblowing generally, financial regulations, anti-trust prosecutions, and cyber security, I’ll stop here. But I hope this gives some insight into the complexities of international white collar crime in a global environment where significant differences abound.
Monday, October 27, 2014
Imagine being so angry at prosecutorial shenanigans in one of your cases that you decide to write a book. A book that names names and settles scores. A book that details the Brady violations you believe occurred in your client's trial. A book that compares those purported violations to the undeniable Brady errors judicially noticed in the Ted Stevens prosecution. A book that identifies the DOJ officials connected to both your case and the Ted Stevens case and traces the rise, high within the ranks of DOJ and the White House, of the prosecutors you loathe. A book with a forward by none other than Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. Imagine this and you have imagined Sidney Powell's Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice.
This book is a terrific read, particularly for anyone making a living in the world of federal white collar investigations and trials. Both the federal white collar specialist and the intelligent lay reader should find it engrossing. I particularly enjoyed the "you are there" descriptions of defense strategy sessions and courtroom hearings.
Powell played a minor role on the Arthur Andersen appellate team and the lead role in the post-trial defense of Enron Barge defendant, and former Merrill Lynch executive, Jim Brown. She covers most or all of the Enron Task Force sins that have long been the subject of controversy in the white collar defense bar, including the practices of: providing mere summaries, rather than full interview reports, of exculpatory materials to the defense; withholding certain exculpatory information altogether; withholding agent notes of witness interviews; creating composite 302s that fail to reveal changing witness statements over time; designating potential defense witnesses as targets, in effect threatening them with prosecution if they testify; convincing compliant trial judges to approve clearly faulty jury instructions.
Powell reminds us as well that every Enron-related conviction that went up on appeal resulted in a partial or complete reversal. And although she had no involvement in the Ted Stevens case, Powell does an excellent job of summarizing, based on two publicly released investigations, the multiple material Brady/Giglio violations that occurred in that prosecution.
And yet this book, as informative and fun to read as it is, has some problems.
For openers, Powell sees the world in black and white terms. You are with her or against her on this ride, and God help you if get on Sidney's bad side. You tend to get painted in black and white terms. Ergo:
Enron Task Force Chief Andrew Weissman is "a narrow faced man with a beak of a nose."
DOJ Criminal Division Chief Michael Chertoff is "sharp-featured."
DOJ's Rita Glavin has "long black hair, sharp features, an easy smirk, and an affinity for androgynous attire."
Original Enron Task Froce Chief Leslie Caldwell is "a short no-nonsense looking woman with closely cropped hair."
FBI Special Agent Raju Bhatia is "smarmy."
Enron Barge Case prosecutor Kathryn Ruemmler, who later served President Obama as White House Counsel, has "a well known passion for expensive Chrisitan Louboutin red-soled stiletto heels." Those heels show up in more than one description of Ruemmler.
Matthew Friedrich, later Acting Assistant AG in charge of the Criminal Division, has "a boyish face that easily appeared smug."
You get the picture. But if you are lucky enough to be on Sidney's side. Well:
Ike Sorkin is "a handsome man with thick gray hair."
Richard Schaeffer is "a tall handsome impeccably dressed New York lawyer."
And so on.
Fifth Circuit Judges who might rule against Powell are suspected of being politically biased or intellectually corrupt. Thus, in describing the panel she drew for her Fifth Circuit argument that Jim Brown deserved a new trial (based on multiple Brady violations), Powell wonders "if [Judge] Graves...might have some connection with Ruemmler. She, logically, would have been the person to advise the president on Graves' nomination and assist Graves in the confirmation process." Powell also wonders "if Friedrich had been part of the confirmation process with [Judge] Southwick. Friedrich's meteoric rise within the department placed him as chief of staff to Attorney General Gonzalez when Southwick was nominated and confirmed." After the panel ruled unanimously against her, in an opinion authored by Judge Jerry Smith, Powell "struggled to grasp how a court that I had respected so much for so long could issue an opinion as result-driven, tortured, and just plain bad as this one was."
Second, Powell posits a past DOJ Golden Age, when prosecutors were fair and committed to doing justice, and contrasts it unfavorably with our present era of so-called corruption. Here's a news flash for Ms. Powell. There was never a Golden Age of prosecutorial fairness in the DOJ. There have always been good prosecutors and bad prosecutors, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys have long played a prosecutorial game quite legally and openly rigged in favor of the house.
Last, but by no means least, Powell refuses to deal seriously, or to deal very much at all, with Judge Jerry Smith's Fifth Circuit panel opinion denying Jim Brown a new trial. Powell passionately argues throughout the book that the government hid Brady material from Brown's trial defense team in a grave miscarriage of justice. Virtually every argument she makes, in front of every federal tribunal, is meticulously rendered in 400 plus pages. But her discussion of Judge Smith's opinion is curiously brief, covering two pages, and fails to address Smith's main points.
The Enron Barge case concerned an allegedly sham transaction between Enron and Merrill Lynch to purchase Enron barges. The government maintained that the deal was a sham, and not a real purchase, because Enron orally promised/guaranteed to take Merrill out of the transaction, by buying back the barges, or finding a third party buyer, within six months. Although Jim Brown and the other Enron Barge defendants saw their fraud convictions overturned by the Fifth Circuit, Brown had also been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for grand jury testimony regarding his understanding of the transaction.
Prosecutors refused to disclose the FBI's raw notes of Andrew Fastow's interviews to Brown's trial team, instead providing summaries. The raw notes, unlike the summaries, quoted Fastow as saying that he "never used the word promise" in conversations about a buy-back with Merrill executives. Judge Smith pointed out, however, that "any potential exculpatory value of the passages from the Fastow notes that were not disclosed to the defense is eliminated when we read them in context rather than looking just to the portions of the sentences that Brown cherry-picks."
Smith pointed to other portions of the raw notes and explained that:
The notes say, to give only a few examples, (1) “It was [Enron’s] obligation to use ‘best efforts’ to find 3rd party takeout + went on to say there would be 3rd party b/c AF is manager of third party,” (emphasis added); (2) “LJM was 3rd party + was already found;” (3) “[Fastow] told [Merrill Lynch] that [Enron] would get [Merrill Lynch] out, would get [illegible] or LJM to buy out;” and (4) “Come June 2000, if [Enron] did not have a buyer then LJM would step in to buy out.”
In other words, Fastow controlled a captive third party, LJM, and could effectively guarantee that if a buyer could not be found, LJM would take Merrilll out of the transaction in six months. Judge Smith noted that:
[T]he sentences that Brown cites from the Fastow notes do not say that the agreement as a whole was a “best efforts” agreement, pace Brown’s testimony; they say only that Enron would use its “best efforts” to find a buyer but that Fastow guaranteed that LJM2, which he controlled, would be that buyer if no one else was found. Indeed, Fastow admitted that, “[i]f call was transcribed—it should have blown the accounting.”
Now I'm perfectly willing to believe, and in fact I assume, that the Enron Barge defendants, including Jim Brown, got a really raw deal and should never have been indicted. And I'm also willing to hear a good argument that Judge Smith got his Brady analysis backasswards. But in a book devoted to exposing Brady error, written by one of the country's foremost appellate lawyers, I expect more than two pages of cursory, conclusory attacks on a key federal appellate decision. Powell fails to fairly present, much less refute, Judge Smith's specific points (incorrectly referring to his careful 19 page opinion as a "meager" nine pages). I call this a material omission.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
The New York Times had an interesting article this week by Steven Davidoff Solomon entitled “Keeping Corporate Lawyers Silent Can Shelter Wrongdoing.” The piece centers on the recent decision out of the Delaware Supreme Court in the case of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Indiana Electrical Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW,Del. Supr., No. 614, 2013 (July 23, 2014), and notes that the attorney-client privilege can be used to “shelter potential wrongdoing, perhaps to the detriment of many people, including shareholders.” As discussed at length in the article, the IBEW case permits stockholders to unilaterally breach the attorney-client privilege when there is suspected wrongdoing at a corporation.
The IBEW case is one many have followed in recent years. The controversy began after the New York Times broke the story of potential Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations by Mar-Mart in April 2012. In response to that initial article, the IBEW, a Wal-Mart stockholder, sent a letter to the company demanding inspection of a number of documents related to the potential FCPA matter, including documents regarding the corporation’s initial internal review of the situation. Wal-Mart declined to provide certain of the documents and, with regard to some of those materials, claimed they were protected by the attorney-client privilege. The issue of whether Wal-Mart could properly withhold these materials from shareholders was litigated at length and finally made its way to the Delaware Supreme Court. In the ruling from last month, the Delaware Supreme Court sided with the IBEW and ordered Wal-Mart to produce the materials. Referring to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals case of Garner v. Wolfinbarger (1970), which recognized a fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege, the court in IBEW said:
With regard to the other Garner good cause factors, the record reflects that disclosure of the material would not risk the revelation of trade secrets (at least it has not been argued by Wal-Mart); the allegations at issue implicate criminal conduct under the FCPA; and IBEW is a legitimate stockholder as a pension fund. Accordingly, the record supports the Court of Chancery's conclusion that the documentary information sought in the Demand should be produced by Wal-Mart pursuant to the Garner fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege.
It is important to note, of course, that the shareholders are meant to keep the information they receive confidential and use it only to decide whether to file a claim against Wal-Mart directors related to the FCPA matter.
In reading the most recent New York Times article, I kept coming back to Upjohn v. United States and the ever present debate regarding the proper role of privilege in the world of internal investigations and potential corporate wrongdoing. In particular, I was drawn to the important language in Upjohn regarding the reasons for applying the privilege: “The privilege recognizes that sound legal advice or advocacy serves public ends and that such advice or advocacy depends upon the lawyers being fully informed by the client.” As the New York Times states in its piece from this week, “the attorney-client privilege for companies is increasingly under attack.” I wonder now what impact the IBEW decision and related issues regarding lawyer whistleblowers, such as in the ongoing Vanguard case, will have on the future of internal investigation strategy and, in particular, the role of internal counsel in such situations.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Article About Former Penn State President Raises Issues Concerning Independent Investigative Reports and Role of Corporate Counsel
The New York Times Magazine several weeks ago published a lengthy, largely sympathetic article about Graham Spanier, the former Penn State president (Sokolove, "The Shadow of the Valley"), see here, who is awaiting trial on charges of perjury and other crimes in connection with the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation of his alleged complicity or nonfeasance concerning the actions of now-convicted (and affirmed on appeal) former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
The article rather gently criticized the Freeh report, commissioned by the university, as I too did (see here), and asserts that it "probably led to [Spanier's] indictment." Commissioning an independent investigative report -- generally either by a former prosecutor or judge, or a large law firm -- is the de rigueur response of institutions or corporations accused of wrongdoing. An independent investigative report, especially by a respected authority, has the weight of apparent impartiality and fairness and thus the appearance of accuracy. However, the investigative report -- frequently done with no input from the accused or presumed wrongdoers (since, fearful of prosecution, they choose not to be interviewed) -- is often based on an incomplete investigation. Further, since the investigator is expected to reach conclusions and not leave unanswered questions, but unlike a prosecutor may not be required to have those conclusions tested by an adversary in an open forum, such investigations, like the Freeh investigation, are often based on probability, and sometimes even speculation, more than hard evidence. Lastly, the "independent" report, like the report concerning Gov. Christopher Christie's alleged involvement in Bridgegate, may be less than independent.
* * *
The article also discusses an interesting pretrial motion in Spanier's case concerning a question that had puzzled me since the Penn State indictments were announced over two years ago -- what was Penn State's counsel doing in the grand jury? Sub judice for six months is a motion for dismissal of the indictment and other relief related to the role of the Penn State general counsel ("GC") who appeared in the grand jury with Spanier, and also earlier with two other officials who were indicted, Tim Curley, the former athletic director, and Gary Schultz, a vice president.
According to the submitted motions (see here , here and here ), largely supported by transcripts and affidavits, the GC appeared before the grand jury with Spanier (and also separately with Curley and Schultz) and Spanier referred to her as his counsel (as also did Curley and Schultz). According to what has been stated, neither she, who had previously told the supervising judge -- in the presence of the prosecutor but not Spanier -- that she represented only Penn State, nor the prosecutor corrected Spanier. Nor did the judge who advised Spanier of his right to confer with counsel advise Spanier that the GC was actually not representing him or had a potential conflict.
Later, after Spanier's grand jury testimony, according to the defense motion, the GC -- represented by Penn State outside counsel -- was called to testify before the grand jury. Curley and Schultz -- both of whom had by then been charged -- objected in writing to the GC's revealing what they asserted were her privileged attorney-client communications with them. Spanier apparently was not notified of the GC's grand jury appearance and therefore submitted no objection.
Prior to the GC's testimony, Penn State's outside counsel asked the court essentially to rule on those objections and determine whether the GC was deemed to have had an attorney-client relationship with the individuals, as they claimed, before Penn State decided whether to waive its privilege (if any) as to the confidentiality of the conversations. Upon the prosecutor's representation "that he would put the matter of her representation on hold" and not "address . . . conversations she had with Schultz and Curley about [their] testimony," the judge chose not to rule at that time on the issue of representation, which he noted "perhaps" also concerned Spanier, and allowed her to testify, as limited by the prosecutor's carve-out.
Nonetheless, despite the specific carve-out to conversations with Schultz and Curley analogous to those she had with Spanier and the judge's mention that the issue might also apply to Spanier, the prosecutor questioned the GC about her conversations with Spanier in preparation for his testimony. Her testimony was reportedly harmful to Spanier (see here). At no time did the GC raise the issue of whether her communications with Spanier were privileged.
Whether the motion will lead to dismissal, suppression of Spanier's testimony or preclusion or limitation of the GC's testimony, or none of the above, will be determined, presumably soon, by the judge. Whatever the court's ruling(s), I have little hesitation in saying that is not how things should be done by corporate or institutional counsel. At the least, even if the GC were, as she no doubt believed, representing the university and not the individuals, in my opinion, the GC (and also the prosecutor and the judge) had an obligation to make clear to Spanier (and Schultz and Curley) that the GC was not their counsel. Additionally, the GC had, in my view, an obligation to make clear to Spanier that the confidentiality of his communications with her could be waived by the university if it (and not he) later chose to do so. Further, the GC, once she was called to testify before the grand jury, had in my opinion an obligation to notify Spanier that she might be questioned as to her conversations with him in order to give him the opportunity to argue that they were privileged. And, lastly, the GC had, I believe, an obligation to ask for a judicial ruling when the prosecutor went beyond at least the spirit of the limit set by the judge and sought from her testimony about her communications with Spanier.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
As I mentioned in my post last week, I moderated a roundtable discussion at this year's ABA annual meeting entitled Navigating the White Collar Crime Landscape in China. While the discussion included many unique and interesting insights into current trends and challenges in the field of white collar crime in China, I thought I might share just a few of the themes we heard from participants.
First, according to our participants, we should expect to see a continued focus on anti-corruption enforcement actions by both the United States and China. Second, it is important to note that China has begun focusing on the prosecution of high-level corporate employees, not just low-level employees and the corporation. Third, we should anticipate that China will continue to expand its anti-corruption mission, including directing more attention towards U.S. entities. In this regarding, it was also predicted that China may soon explore the adoption of an anti-corruption statute with extraterritorial jurisdiction to assist it in undertaking a broader anti-corruption mission similar to the U.S. This might mean we will soon see a Chinese version of the FCPA. Finally, several of our panelists noted that China is increasing its focus on data privacy and state secrets laws, including enforcing such laws against foreigners more vigorously.
Regarding this last theme from the discussion, I'll note that on the morning of our program two corporate investigators in China, one from the UK and the other from the U.S., were found guilty of purchasing private information regarding Chinese citizens. The pair, who are married, were well known in the internal investigation community in China and regularly performed work for large U.S. corporations, including GlaxoSmithKline. According to the charges, the pair violated Chinese law by illegally acquiring personal information on Chinese citizens and then selling that information to their clients. The first defendant, Peter Humphrey, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. The second defendant, Yu Yingzeng, was sentenced to two years in prison. Those who perform due diligence and internal investigation work in China are keeping a close eye on this and related matters. You can read more about the prosecution in The Wall Street Journal.
Friday, July 25, 2014
In re Kellogg Brown & Root – Privilege, Internal Investigations, and International White Collar Crime – Part II of II
In last week’s post, I discussed the recent case of In re Kellogg Brown & Root (“KBR”) from the perspective of privilege issues and internal investigations generally. Today, I would like to focus our consideration of the KBR case on international investigations and privilege issues.
In the KBR matter, a whistleblower alleged that the defense contractor defrauded the government by “inflating costs and accepting kickbacks while administering military contract in wartime Iraq.” During the whistleblower’s case, he sought discovery of materials from an internal investigation of the matter previously conducted by KBR. As discussed last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that the whistleblower was not entitled to the materials, stating that the “same considerations that led the Court in Upjohn to uphold the corporation’s privilege claims apply here.”
In rendering its opinion, the DC Circuit offered several important clarifications regarding the applicability of the attorney-client privilege to internal investigations. One of those was to note that Upjohn v. US (1981) does not require the involvement of outside counsel for the privilege to apply.
From In re KBR:
First, the District Court stated that in Upjohn the internal investigation began after in-house counsel conferred with outside counsel, whereas here the investigation was conducted in-house without consultation with outside lawyers. But Upjohn does not hold or imply that the involvement of outside counsel is a necessary predicate for the privilege to apply. On the contrary, the general rule, which this Court has adopted, is that a lawyer’s status as in-house counsel “does not dilute the privilege.” In re Sealed Case, 737 F.2d at 99. As the Restatement’s commentary points out, “Inside legal counsel to a corporation or similar organization . . . is fully empowered to engage in privileged communications.” 1 RESTATEMENT § 72, cmt. c, at 551.
While this is accurate with regard to domestic internal investigations, one must be cognizant of the fact that various jurisdictions around the globe interpret the privilege differently. When an internal investigation crosses borders, a failure to examine the breadth and scope of attorney-client privilege protections in the relevant jurisdictions could unexpectedly expose vast quantities of materials to production or seizure.
Take for example, the case of Akzo Nobel Chemicals Ltd. v. European Commission (European Court of Justice 2010). The case involved an antitrust investigation during which a dawn raid was carried out on Akzo’s Manchester, England, offices. During the raid, two emails were seized. The emails were an exchange regarding relevant antitrust issues between a general manager and the company’s in-house counsel. Despite the fact that such communications would almost certainly be privileged under U.S. standards and the ruling in In re KBR, the European Court of Justice rejected Akzo’s position that the emails were protected under the EU rules of privilege. Relying on an earlier ruling, the European Court of Justice reiterated that in EU investigations the attorney-client privilege only applies where (1) the communication is given for purposes of the client’s defense and, (2) the communication is with an independent lawyer, which does not including in-house counsel. See AM&S v. Commission (European Court of Justice 1982). The Akzo court went on to state, “It follows, both from the in-house lawyer’s economic dependence and the close ties with his employer, that he does not enjoy a level of professional independence comparable to that of an external lawyer.”
While such a limited application of the attorney-client privilege will not be present in every jurisdiction encountered during an international internal investigation, it is an important issue to consider both when structuring and conducting such inquiries in a cross-border setting.
For more on the dynamics of international internal investigations, see my recent article entitled International White Collar Crime and the Globalization of Internal Investigations (Fordham Urban Law Journal), available for free download here.
Friday, July 18, 2014
In re Kellogg Brown & Root – Privilege, Internal Investigations, and International White Collar Crime – Part I of II
I am honored to join Ellen Podgor, Lawrence Goldman, and Solomon Wisenberg as a blogger on the White Collar Crime Prof Blog. My focus on the blog will be matters related to internal investigations and international white collar crime.
To get us started, let’s take a quick look at a new case that relates to both of these topics – In re: Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., et al.
As readers of this blog will no doubt recall, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1981 that attorney-client privilege protections may apply to internal corporation investigations. See Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383 (1981). The Court stated:
The attorney-client privilege is the oldest of the privileges for confidential communications known to the common law. Its purpose is to encourage full and frank communication between attorneys and their clients, and thereby promote broader public interests in the observance of law and administration of justice. The privilege recognizes that sound legal advice or advocacy serves public ends and that such advice or advocacy depends upon the lawyers being fully informed by the client.
Despite the strong language in the Upjohn case, a U.S. District Court in Washington, DC ruled that a whistleblower at Kellogg Brown & Root (“KBR”), a defense contractor, was entitled to production of documents related to an internal investigation. The lower court concluded that the internal investigation was “undertaken pursuant to regulatory law and corporate policy rather than for the purpose of obtaining legal advice.”
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overruled that lower court decision in the case of In re: Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., et al. (Decided June 27, 2014). The court concluded that the “same considerations that led the Court in Upjohn to uphold the corporation’s privilege claims apply here.”
In overruling the lower court’s decision, the DC Circuit offered several important clarifications regarding the applicability of the attorney-client privilege to internal investigations. First, the court clarified that Upjohn does not require the involvement of outside counsel for the privilege to apply. Second, the court noted that the privilege may apply even when many of the employee interviews are conducted by non-attorneys, as long as those interviewers are serving as the agents of attorneys. Third, the court explained that even though the employees in the KBR case were not explicitly informed that the purpose of the interviews were to assist the company in obtaining legal advice, Upjohn does not require any “magic words” for the privilege to apply. Further, the court noted that the employees in the KBR case knew that the company’s legal department was conducting an investigation and that the investigation was highly confidential.
Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, the court rejected the lower court’s argument that the attorney-client privilege did not apply in this investigation because KBR was acting to comply with Department of Defense regulatory requirements, not to obtain legal advice. In ruling on the matter, the appeals court stated, “So long as obtaining or providing legal advice was one of the significant purposes of the internal investigation, the attorney-client privilege applies, even if there were also other purposes for the investigation and even if the investigation was mandated by regulation rather than simply an exercise of company discretion.” This is important language from the court, particularly given the increasing regulatory compliance obligations imposed on corporations and the fact that many internal investigations today are instigated at the behest of the government. See e.g. Computer Associates – discussed here and here.
In my next post, we’ll consider how the In re: KBR case fits into the larger legal framework of international internal investigations. In particular, we’ll examine whether attorney-client privilege extends to internal investigations undertaken solely by internal counsel when the investigation extends outside the United States.
Friday, June 27, 2014
This past Wednesday's Supreme Court decision in Riley v. California stressed the importance of law enforcement needing to obtain a warrant if they sought to search digital information contained on a cell phone that had been seized from the individual. From this decision we can see that the Fourth Amendment is alive and well in the Supreme Court.
But is that the case in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office? Larry Goldman notes here on the White Collar Crime Prof Blog that the District Attorney's Office recent prosecution in a computer related case had 4th Amendment problems. And this morning's New York Times article by Vindu Goel and James McKinley, Jr., Facebook Bid to Shield Data From the Law Fails, So Far shows how the Manhattan district attorney's office has been obtaining Facebook information using demands for documents from Facebook without notification to the individuals who posted the information on Facebook, and precluding Facebook from notifying them. Admittedly in this instance the Manhattan DAs Office did obtain a warrant, but Facebook and individuals who had items being obtained from Facebook were precluded from fighting the warrant. According to this article, Facebook has continued to fight these warrants and hopefully a court will see the importance of having oversight when it comes to overbroad computer related searches.
One of the possible ramifications of what the Manhattan D.A. is doing it that when cases eventually come to court, the overbreadth of these searches will be raised. And hopefully attorneys handling these cases will have been alerted by this posting, the New York Times article, and other media sources who may be reporting on these events. But it is hard to believe that all the information received by the Manhattan DA will be used for a prosecution, and many of these individuals will never know that their privacy had been compromised. As we move further into a digitial age, the principles of the Fourth Amendment need to be maintained. Judges reviewing these search warrants need to provide clearer oversight when granting a warrant, especially when terrorism is not the focus of the search.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
According to a May 12, 2014 article in the National Law Journal (Tony Mauro, "DOJ's Quiet Concession: U.S. gives up a widely decried charging theory."), the Department of Justice has quietly narrowed the scope of 18 U.S.C. 1001, the statute that makes lying to an FBI or other government agent a five-year felony. The statute -- perhaps most notably used to send Martha Stewart to jail when the government couldn't make out an insider trading case against her -- makes it a crime to "knowingly and willfully" make materially false statements in any matter under federal jurisdiction, including lying to an FBI agent. The government now has conceded that, in order to prove that a defendant accused of a Section 1001 violation acted "willfully," it must show that she knew that her action making or providing a false statement was unlawful.
The change in government attitude was mentioned in low-profile submissions to the Supreme Court containing confessions of error. The Supreme Court has already returned at least two cases to lower courts for further consideration in light of the concessions.
The most questionable use of the statute, in my opinion, has occurred when agents without prior notice confronted an individual about a purported crime she committed and elicited a knee-jerk exculpatory false denial (although such denials are now to my knowledge infrequently prosecuted). Prosecutors and agents may now have to forego prosecutions where targets or witnesses lie to them (in the field or their offices) or alternatively give those targets and witnesses a warning that a false response to the government questions is unlawful., which, of course, may discourage them from talking.
(Hat Tip to Monroe Freedman and Steve Lacheen.)
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Last week, as reported in the New York Times (see here), the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to hold in contempt Lois Lerner, the Internal Revenue Service official who after making a brief statement declaring her innocence invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege and refused to answer questions from the Committee members. The Committee action will be referred to the entire House of Representatives for its consideration. If the House votes to hold Ms. Lerner in contempt, it would refer the matter to the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald C. Machen, Jr., a Democrat who in my view is unlikely to pursue this politically-charged case.
The Committee vote was based on party lines, with the Republican majority voting against Ms. Lerner. A vote of the entire Congress, if it occurs, will most likely similarly be so based. Indeed, Representatives on the Committee took exaggerated and hyperbolic positions. Republican John J. Duncan claimed if Ms. Lerner's position were accepted, "every defendant . . . would testify and plead the Fifth so they couldn't be cross-examined . . . ." Democrat Elijah Cummings said if he were to vote to hold Ms. Lerner in contempt, it would "place him on the same page of the history books as Senator Joseph McCarthy."
As I said before (see here), I believe that Ms. Lerner's general declaration of innocence, before she invoked the Fifth, does not constitute a waiver, but I do not believe the issue is crystal-clear. Lawyers who represent witnesses before legislative committees (or in other matters) should be cautious about taking such positions.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
One of the increasing incursions into constitutional rights in the white-collar area is the expansion of the "required records" exception to the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. In general, that doctrine provides that an individual or entity required by law to maintain for regulatory purposes certain records has no Fifth Amendment right to refuse to produce them to the government.
The Second Circuit last month, in affirming a contempt finding against an individual for failing to produce to a grand jury records of foreign bank accounts mandated to be kept by regulations promulgated pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act, 31 CFR 1012.420 ("BSA"), held, in accord with prior rulings by other circuits, that the "required records" exception to the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination pertains to the production of such records. In Re Grand Jury Subpoena Dated February 2, 2012, (13-403-CV, Dec. 19, 2013).
The individual contended that he had a Fifth Amendment right to refuse to comply with a grand jury subpoena for foreign bank records. He claimed that the subpoena put him in a Catch-22 position: produce documents that might incriminate him or confirm that he failed to maintain records of his foreign bank accounts, which also might incriminate him. The court essentially said "tough," and affirmed the contempt order.
The court first considered whether the "act of production" doctrine (see United States v. Hubbell, 500 U.S. 27 (2000)) applied to "required records." Under that doctrine, generally a person could on Fifth Amendment grounds resist a subpoena for the production of records unless the government could demonstrate it was a "foregone conclusion" that the person actually possessed such records. Although the contents of the records, as in the case of "required records," might not be privileged, by producing them the individual essentially incriminated herself by its production by admitting, among other things, that she possessed such records. The court held that the Fifth Amendment did not apply to required records, either as to the content of or production of such records, and thus the "act of production" privilege, a form of Fifth Amendment protection, did not apply.
The court then applied the three-prong test of Grosso v. United States, 390 U.S. 62 (1968), to determine whether the required records doctrine applied to the BSA regulation. That test provides, first, that the purpose of the legal requirement must be "essentially regulatory;" second, that the information sought must be of a type "customarily kept;" and third, that the records must have "public aspects" which make them at least analogous to public documents. The court then held that the regulation, although it was designed in part to facilitate criminal prosecutions, was "essentially regulatory" in that it did not target only those suspected of criminal activity since possession of foreign bank accounts by itself was not unlawful. Second, it held that the records were "customarily kept" since holders of bank accounts are likely to be aware of or have records of the details of their accounts. Third, the court held that "records lawfully required to be kept" for purposes of constitutional analysis by definition have "public aspects." Practically, such a finding eliminated this third prong as an independent prerequisite for application of the exception.
In sum, the court essentially ruled that any records ordinarily kept by individuals that are required to be made available to governmental authorities pursuant to a law not primarily designed to detect criminal activity lack Fifth Amendment protection.
Thus, the decision essentially gives federal prosecutors the ability to subpoena any person and demand that she produce any foreign bank records she possesses, even absent any knowledge or suspicion that she has such an account. To be sure, in this case, and virtually all other reported cases involving subpoenas of foreign bank accounts, the government appears to have had a considerable basis to believe the person subpoenaed does have a foreign bank account. The Second Circuit's ruling, however, at least implicitly, does not require that such governmental knowledge be a prerequisite for an enforceable subpoena for foreign accounts. "Fishing expeditions" for foreign bank account information appear to be allowed.
I would not be surprised, therefore, to see a considerable increase in the number of governmental subpoenas for records of foreign bank accounts, and perhaps the addition of a boilerplate request for foreign bank records in other subpoenas for financial records. As they say, there's no harm in asking.
Monday, January 13, 2014
I have no particular sympathy for Governor Chris Christie in his current political travails. But the notion that he or his aides committed a federal crime is ludicrous, and the New Jersey U.S. Attorney's rash public announcement of a criminal investigation is a shameful example of DOJ's continuing politicization. Oh, I know, everyone commits a federal crime every single day. It's what makes America great. But I'm talking about a real crime, that a real prosecutor would seriously tackle. Contrast Paul Fishman's aggressive stance with DOJ's spectacular non-reaction to the fraud-induced 2008 financial crisis. How pathetic.
Friday, December 27, 2013
In the current New York Review of Books, Judge Jed Rakoff presents the most thoughtful, balanced analysis I have seen to date regarding DOJ's failure to prosecute high-level executives at elite financial institutions in connection with the recent financial crisis. Appropriately entitled, The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High Level Executives Been Prosecuted?, Judge Rakoff is careful not to point fingers, rush to judgment, or even allege that fraud has definitively been established. And that's a big part of the DOJ's problem. How can you establish fraud if the effort to investigate it has been haphazard and understaffed from the outset? Rakoff is someone worth listening to. An unusually thoughtful federal district judge, he has presided over many significant securities and bank fraud cases, served as chief of the Securities Fraud Unit in the SDNY U.S. Attorney's Office, and worked as a defense attorney. Oh yeah. He also hates the Sentencing Guidelines.
Among the many theories Rakoff posits for the failure to prosecute what, it bears repeating, only may have been fraud, are two that I take issue with. These investigations were apparently parceled out to to various OUSA districts, rather than being concentrated in the SDNY. Judge Rakoff believes that the SDNY would have been the more logical choice, as it has more experience in sophisticated fraud investigations. This may be true as a general proposition. But the most plausible historical fraud model for the mortgage meltdown-fueled financial crisis is the Savings & Loan Scandal of the late 1980s, so successfully prosecuted by DOJ into the mid-1990s. The SDNY had very little of that action.
Judge Rakoff also notes the government's role in creating the conditions that led to the current crisis as a potential prosecution pitfall. But this did not stop the S&L prosecutors from forging ahead in their cases. Back then, virtually every S&L criminal defendant claimed that the government had created that crisis by establishing, and then abandoning, Regulatory Accounting Principles, aka RAP. (One marked difference between the two scandals is that the S&L Scandal was immediately met with public outrage and a sustained Executive Branch commitment to investigate and prosecute where warranted. The sustained Executive Branch commitment has not happened this time around, for whatever reason.)
But these are minor quibbles and Judge Rakoff is spot on in most of his observations.
Judge Rakoff is right to reject the "revolving door" theory of non-prosecution. Any prosecutor worth his salt would love to make a name for himself, and would definitely enhance his private sector marketability, by winning one of these cases. Judge Rakoff also correctly notes that these cases are hard and time-consuming to investigate.
The judge's most salient point has nothing to do with the various theories for DOJ's failure to prosecute. Instead, it is his observation that there is no substitute for holding financial elites responsible for their major criminal misdeeds. The compliance and deferred prosecution agreements favored today are simply a cost of doing business for most big corporations. What's worse, in the current environment, DOJ is giving a walk to elite financial actors and simultaneously prosecuting middle-class pikers with a vengeance that is sickening to behold. The elite financial actors may not have committed criminal fraud, but many of them bear heavy responsibility for the ensuing mess. It is so much easier for DOJ to rack up the stats by picking the low hanging fruit.
The one thing Judge Rakoff cannot do, and does not try to do, is answer the question of whether criminal fraud occurred in the highest sectors of our financial world. The answer to that question can only be supplied, at least as an initial matter, by the AUSA in charge of each investigation. And if no prosecution occurs, you and I are unlikely to ever know the reason why.