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.
Monday, March 7, 2016
Texas Disciplinary Rule of Professional Conduct 3.09(d) requires a prosecutor to:
make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense, and, in connection with sentencing, disclose to the defense and the tribunal all unprivileged mitigating information known to the prosecutor, except when the prosecutor is relieved of this responsibility by a protective order of the tribunal.
Rule 3.04(a) requires, among other things, that "a lawyer shall not obstruct another party's access to evidence."
In a highly significant ethics opinion, signed and delivered on December 17, 2015, the Texas Board of Disciplinary Appeals ("BODA") ruled that Rule 3.09(d) does not contain the Brady v. Maryland materiality element, or any de minimus exception to the prosecutor's duty to disclose exculpatory information in a timely manner. BODA also held that Rule 3.09(d) applies in the context of guilty pleas as well as trials. In other words, the prosecutor cannot negotiate a guilty plea without beforehand disclosing exculpatory information to the defense.
The case decided by BODA is Schultz v. Commission for Lawyer Discipline. William Schultz was the Assistant District Attorney in Denton County. He prosecuted Silvano Uriostegui for assaulting Maria Uriostegui, his estranged wife. Maria testified at a protective order hearing that Silvano was her attacker. Schultz never disclosed to the defense that Maria could only identify Silvano by his smell, boot impression, and stature "as seen in the shadow," as it was dark at the time and Maria could not see her attacker's face. Schultz learned this information from Maria one month prior to the trial date. Silvano entered a guilty plea. At the sentencing hearing, Maria testified "that she did not see her attacker's face and that she did not know whether her attacker was Silvano. Maria also testified that she had told the prosecutor earlier that she did not see who attacked her." (With respect to the protective order hearing, Maria "explained that she had testified...that Silvano was her attacker because she had assumed it was him from his smell and boot.")
The testimony at the sentencing hearing was the first time defense counsel Victor Amador learned of the exculpatory information, despite having filed broad pre-trial requests for exculpatory evidence. Amador moved for a mistrial which was granted by the trial court. Amador next filed an application for writ of habeas corpus. The trial court granted habeas relief, allowing Silvano to withdraw his guilty plea. The court also ruled that double jeopardy had attached.
Amador filed a grievance against Schultz with the State Bar, which was the basis of the disciplinary proceeding. Schultz contended that the information in question was neither exculpatory or material. The Commission for Lawyer Discipline disagreed, as did BODA. BODA based its holding primarily on the plain language of Rule 3.09(d) and on commentary to the Rule and to the ABA Model Rule on which Rule 3.09(d) is based. BODA also held that Schultz's failure to disclose the exculpatory information constituted obstruction of another party's access to evidence under Rule 3.04(a). Schultz received a six month fully probated suspension.
The only Texas attorney disciplinary authority higher than BODA is The Supreme Court of Texas. Schultz did not appeal BODA's decision to The Supreme Court of Texas. Thus BODA's decision in Schultz is now the governing ethical interpretation of Rule 3.09(d) in Texas. Ergo, under the McDade Act, it now appears that both state and federal prosecutors litigating in Texas are under an ethical duty to timely disclose to the defense all evidence or information "that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense," irrespective of its materiality. The disclosure must be made prior to any guilty plea.
The defense bar owes a great debt of gratitude to defense attorney Victor Amador, the Committee for Lawyer Discipline of the State Bar, and BODA. It should also be noted that many other jurisdictions have rules containing similar or identical wording to 3.09(d). There is much more work to be done. Hat Tip to Cynthia Orr of Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley for bringing this opinion to our attention.
Monday, November 2, 2015
Last Friday attorney Steven H. Levin posted a guest blog disagreeing with my view in a blog earlier that day that Dennis Hastert should not have been prosecuted. Hastert was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, structuring withdrawals from financial institutions of his own apparently legitimately derived funds, purportedly to conceal payoffs to an alleged extortionist whom he had purportedly sexually victimized over 30 years ago. Hastert, Mr. Levin said, "had to be prosecuted" because his prosecution had "potential deterrent effect" on "would-be structurers" and "would-be extortionists."
Even if the Hastert prosecution were to have a deterrent effect on such "would-be" criminals, I still believe, for the reasons I expressed, that this case was an appropriate one for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. I do recognize that deterrence is a commonly recognized goal of prosecution and sentencing, and accept that prosecutions do have a deterrent effect on some "would-be" white-collar criminals (but far less an effect on those who might commit crimes involving violence and narcotics). Nonetheless, I question whether this prosecution will cause a positive deterrent effect on those who are considering the commission of either structuring or extortion.
I do accept that the publicity attendant to the prosecution will to an extent increase public awareness of the existence of a crime called structuring whose broad expanse covers acts committed by otherwise law-abiding citizens to maintain their privacy and avoid disclosure of things they prefer be confidential, and therefore may have some deterrent effect on those persons. However, deterring people from committing essentially harmless acts even though criminalized by an overbroad statute does not appear to me to be much of a societal benefit. And, to the extent that the attendant publicity will educate money launderers of criminal proceeds and deter them from violating the structuring statute, of which sophisticated criminals are overwhelmingly aware in any case, the positive effect is also questionable since its potential effects will be further concealment and consequent limitations on governmental discovery of criminality.
Additionally, I doubt that many would-be extortionists would be deterred from acts of extortion by this prosecution, in which, it so far appears, the purported extortion victim has been prosecuted and the purported extortion perpetrator remains free and also has probably received millions of dollars in payments (and also perhaps achieved some measure of retribution by the exposure, so far limited, of Hassert's alleged misdeeds) . To the extent it has any effect on rational would-be extortionists who weigh the benefit/risk ratio, this prosecution encourages rather than deters them.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert yesterday pleaded guilty to money laundering in a Chicago federal court. Hastert admitted that he structured banking transactions by taking out amounts under $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements in order to conceal the reason he was using the money, which according to the plea agreement was "to compensate and keep confidential his prior misconduct." Although the facts were not revealed in court (but may later be in sentencing proceedings), sources reported that he was paying "hush money" to a former student he allegedly molested over 30 years ago when he taught high school and coached wrestling.
It thus appears that Hastert was an extortion victim, coerced into paying a former student millions of dollars to avoid public disclosure of his misdeeds and the destruction of his reputation. (I assume that the applicable Illinois statute of limitations had passed.)
I question whether Hastert should have been prosecuted. The money laundering statutes, although clearly an intrusion into privacy, serve a generally laudable purpose in making it difficult for criminals to accumulate and spend ill-gotten gains. Here, however, Hastert (although he may have done serious wrongs many years ago) was not a criminal, but a victim.
Congress has given the government broad power to prosecute violators of the money laundering laws well beyond those who derive funds from crime. I do not know what drove the decision to prosecute Hastert. Perhaps it was outrage over his long-ago sexual misconduct; perhaps it was to put forth a case which would derive considerable publicity, something to which prosecutors are not averse; perhaps it was just a rigid application of the law. Although Hastert's banking conduct does clearly fall within the statutory bounds, and there may be arguably legitimate reason to prosecute him, on balance I believe prosecutorial discretion should have been exercised and a case not brought. I wonder whether it would have been brought against an ordinary Joe Smith.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Three years ago, I wrote a lengthy blog piece about U.S. v. Daguerdas, a case in which a SDNY judge ordered a new trial for three of four defendants because of juror misconduct. ("Lying Juror Requires New Trial in Tax Fraud Case," July 12, 2012). The judge denied a new trial for the fourth defendant, Parse, because his lawyers, said the judge, knew or should have known of the juror's misconduct and chose not to report it to the court, and thus Parse waived the misconduct. On appeal to the Second Circuit, U.S. v. Parse (13-1388, June 8, 2015)), the Court, with Judge Amalya Kearse writing the majority opinion, reversed Parse's conviction and remanded for a new trial as to him also.
The Court spent a considerable time reviewing the record to conclude that the district court's factual findings (by Judge William Pauley) that prior to the verdict the lawyers knew about the misconduct or failed to exercise due diligence to determine whether it had occurred was "clearly erroneous" and "unsupported by the record." This ruling, with which Judge Chester Straub, while concurring in the reversal, disagreed, I am sure gave some measure of relief to the trial lawyers, from the firm of Brune and Richard, whom Judge Pauley had chastised. Those lawyers appeared to have been faced with the difficult dilemma of whether and when a lawyer is obliged to report suspected misconduct by a trial participant that is likely to be favorable to her client and to have chosen not to report something that would have diminished his (and their) chance of winning. (It is also possible that during the heat and travail of trial the lawyers never focused on the reporting issue.)
This ethical/practical dilemma arises, for instance, when an attorney suspects or believes - but lacks actual knowledge - about trial misconduct, whether minor misconduct such as a juror engaging a defendant in casual conversation outside a courtroom despite a court admonition, or major misconduct such as a witness or defendant perjuring himself. Reporting the misconduct would likely result in removing a potentially favorable juror in the first example and in striking favorable testimony and severely limiting the defense in the second, in both cases lessening the client's (and attorney's) chance of a favorable outcome.
The Court declined to adopt a general rule, as requested by the defendant and amicus New York Council of Defense Lawyers, that lawyers (including prosecutors presumably) need not bring juror misconduct to the attention of the court unless counsel actually knew that such misconduct had occurred. Nonetheless, I suspect lawyers will cite the case for that specific proposition and the broader proposition that lawyers need not report any trial misconduct unless they have actual knowledge.
Interestingly, the extensive, case-specific factual analysis about the extent of the attorneys' knowledge of the juror's misconduct was unnecessary to the Court's decision, as both the two-judge majority and concurring opinions demonstrated. Even assuming the district court was correct in its negative evaluation of the attorneys' conduct, the Court found the denial to Parse of his basic Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury by the improper presence of the lying juror was so significant that it could not be, as the district court had found, "waived" by the lawyers' conduct, and warranted reversal.
Friday, May 29, 2015
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has been indicted for structuring and lying to the FBI, two crimes that many reasonable people, including me, are not certain should be crimes. Structuring involves, as alleged here, limiting deposits and other financial arrangements so as not to trigger a bank report to the IRS. Lying to the FBI includes a denial of wrongful activity, a natural human response by those confronted (although a mere "exculpatory no" without more is no longer generally prosecuted).
The indictment states that Hastert had paid off a fellow Yorkville, Illinois resident he had known most of that person's life $1.7 million, and promised a total of 3.5 million, "in order to compensate for and conceal...misconduct" committed "years earlier" against that person. The indictment mentions that Hastert was a teacher and wrestling coach at a local high school from 1965-1981.
Reading between the lines of this deliberately vague and unspecific indictment, my guess is that the alleged underlying misdeeds are sexual in nature. I also wonder whether the considerable payment mentioned in the indictment "to compensate for and conceal misconduct " resulted from extortion and, if so, whether as a matter of prosecutorial discretion and perhaps even as a matter of law Hastert should be prosecuted for such relatively minor crimes, and whether Hastert is really being punished for wrongs done decades ago (and probably beyond a statute of limitations). These thoughts, let me be clear, are based on speculation and surmise, with only preliminary knowledge of the facts.
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.
Friday, April 10, 2015
District of Columbia Court of Appeals Makes It Official: Prosecutor's Duty To Disclose Exculpatory Evidence Is Broader Than Brady
Kline was prosecuting Arnell Shelton for the shooting of Christopher Boyd. Shelton had filed an alibi notice and "the reliability of the government's identification witnesses" was the principal issue at the 2002 trial, according to the Report and Recommendation of Hearing Committee Number Nine ("Report and Recommendation").
Kline spoke with Metropolitan Police Department Officer Edward Woodward in preparation for trial. Kline took contemporaneous notes. Woodward was the first officer at the scene of the crime and spoke to victim Boyd at the hospital shortly after the shooting. According to the Report and Recommendation, Kline's notes of his conversation with Woodward were, in pertinent part, as follows: "Boyd told officer at hospital that he did not know who shot him–appeared maybe to not want to cooperate at the time. He was in pain and this officer had arrested him for possession of a machine gun."
At trial Boyd identified Shelton as the shooter. According to Bar Counsel, Kline never disclosed Boyd's hospital statement to the defense despite a specific Brady/Giglio request for impeachment material. The other identification witnesses were weak and/or impeachable. The case ended in a hung jury mistrial and the alleged Brady material (that is, Boyd's hospital statement to Woodward) was not revealed to the defense until literally the eve of the second trial, even though DC-OUSA prosecutors and supervisors had known about it for some time.
The court offered defense counsel a continuance, but she elected to go to trial as her client was then in jail. The second trial ended in Shelton's conviction. You can consult my earlier posts for a more detailed factual and case history background.
Rule 3.8(e) of the DC Rules of Professional Conduct states in pertinent part that: "The prosecutor in a criminal case shall not . . . intentionally fail to disclose to the defense, upon request and at a time when use by the defense is reasonably feasible, any evidence or information that the prosecutor knows or reasonably should know tends to negate the guilt of the accused...except when the prosecutor is relieved of this responsibility by protective order of the tribunal."
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the position of D.C. Bar Counsel and the Board that Rule 3.8(e) is not synonymous with Brady v. Maryland. The Court declined to import Brady's materiality test into Rule 3.8(e), making it clear that at the pre-trial and trial stages of a case, no prosecutor is fit to make a speculative materiality analysis. The rule is now clear. Any evidence that tends to negate the guilt of the defendant must be disclosed under the D.C. Rules of Professional Responsibility.
The Court overturned the Board's 30-day sanction imposed against Kline, given the confusion engendered by the Commentary to Rule 3.8(e). The Commentary states in part that: "The rule...is not intended either to restrict or to expand the obligations of prosecutors derived from the United States Constitution, federal or District of Columbia statutes, and court rules of procedure." Courts in other jurisdictions, as well as the ABA, have construed the D.C. Rule as including the Brady materiality standard, based on this Commentary. Additionally, at the time of Kline's actions, DC-USAO's training taught that Rule 3.8(e) was synonymous with Brady. The Court held that even if the Commentary was inconsistent with the Rule, the plain language of the Rule, and its legislative history, prevailed.
"However, while clear and convincing evidence has been presented that Kline violated Rule 3.8 when he failed to turn over the Boyd Hospital Statement to the defense prior to trial, we are mindful of the fact that our comment to Rule 3.8 (e) has created a great deal of confusion when it comes to a prosecutor’s disclosure obligations under Rule 3.8. Thus, Kline's understanding of his ethical obligations, while erroneous, does not warrant an ethical sanction."
The Board originally found that the suppressed exculpatory statement was material, even though a subsequent jury in possession of the material convicted the defendant. I don't know if that finding was ever revisited. I mention it because the Court's opinion nowhere discusses this point and seems to assume that the withheld statement was immaterial.
The opinion by Chief Judge Washington is extremely well-crafted and enormously significant.
Hat Tip to Charles Burnham of Burnham & Gorokhov for informing me of this ruling and sending a copy.
Monday, October 6, 2014
Rob Cary's book, "Not Guilty: The Unlawful Prosecution of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens" is a wonderful read and reminder of what needs to be corrected in our criminal justice system. Discovery in a criminal case is incredibly important, and this book emphasizes its importance in the criminal justice system and to society. In white collar document driven cases, the amount of paperwork can be overwhelming. It becomes important to not merely provide discovery to defense counsel, but also that it be given in an organized manner. Dumping documents on defense counsel is not enough. And failing to provide crucial documents, witnesses, and evidence is even more problematic. More needs to be done to correct discovery injustices in society and hopefully this book can serve as the momentum and real-life story to make it happen.
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.
Monday, June 2, 2014
Second Circuit Reverses Convictions Due to Prosecutorial Misconduct and Exclusion of Good-Faith Evidence
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which issues complete reversals in only about five percent of the criminal cases it hears, last week in an opinion by Judge Jed S. Rakoff (sitting by designation) reversed the trial conviction of two individuals and a corporation for environmental crimes involving asbestos removal, and ordered a new trial. United States v. Certified Environmental Services, Inc., et al. (see here). The reversal was based on the denial of a fair trial due cumulatively to the exclusion of evidence of good faith to demonstrate the defendants' lack of intent (an issue not discussed here) and prosecutorial misconduct in improper "bolstering" during the opening and closing arguments. The Court denied that part of the defendants' appeal based on Brady v. Maryland.
The decision does not concern any novel legal grounds. Perhaps most significant in the white-collar area is its detailed discussion of the proper and improper use by prosecutors of the cooperation agreements their witnesses commonly enter into with the government. Since many, probably most, white-collar cases involve cooperating government witnesses, prosecutorial introduction of and comments on cooperation agreements frequently occur in white-collar trials. Here, the prosecutor improperly bolstered the witnesses' testimony on numerous occasions, both in the opening and closing arguments, by referring directly and indirectly to the self-serving language that prosecutors routinely place in the cooperation agreements they draft to the effect that the witnesses are obligated to tell the truth. Prosecutors and defense attorneys would do well to review the opinion to determine when and how the government may disclose and use the truth-telling requirement language of cooperation agreements during testimony and in argument.
The opinion also excuses, but does not condone, the improper failure of the government to turn over handwritten notes by a testifying agent which were discovered in the later examination of another agent and belatedly revealed to the defense. The notes should have been revealed earlier, says the Court, not only since they included evidence favorable to the defense, but also pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. Pro. 16(a)(1)(B)(ii), a discovery rule, and 18 U.S.C. 3500, the Jencks Act. However, since the notes were, however belatedly, turned over and the defense had an opportunity to review them, examine the later-testifying agent about their content, and recall the earlier witness if it chose, and since their timely disclosure would not have changed the verdict, in any case there was no Brady violation. The opinion thus demonstrates that late provision of Brady (or Rule 16 or Jencks) by the government during trial will virtually never be grounds for reversal, at least not in the Second Circuit.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Two New York State legislators have proposed the creation of a state commission on prosecutorial misconduct to review and investigate complaints of prosecutorial misconduct and to discipline prosecutors who have been found to have acted improperly. See here.
The proposed commission would, it is said, be the first in the nation of its kind. It will be modeled upon New York's Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigates allegations of misconduct by judges and, if misconduct is found, may discipline a judge by public admonition, censure or removal from the bench.
Virtually every state (but not the federal government) has a commission on judicial conduct and these commissions, it is generally agreed, have had a positive effect in limiting judicial misconduct, removing unfit judges who had committed serious misconduct and increasing public confidence in and awareness of the workings of the court system. (I note that I am a past chair of New York's Commission.) There is, I believe, no good reason that there should not be an analogous agency to review instances of alleged prosecutorial misconduct, sanction offending prosecutors, and remove the most serious offenders from their positions. Indeed, there are stronger reasons for a commission concerning prosecutorial misconduct than for one concerning judicial misconduct. Much of the most serious prosecutorial misconduct, such as concealing exculpatory material and suborning perjury, occurs in the investigative and preparatory stages of a case and is hidden from the view of judges, defense attorneys, and the public and thus not detectable and reviewable by a court. Almost all judicial misconduct, on the other hand, occurs on the bench in public view, is recorded and observed by lawyers and the public, and is readily reviewable by appellate courts.
With rare exception, see here, prosecutorial misconduct has gone unpunished by prosecutorial offices, bar disciplinary committees and judicial authorities. Although grievance committees have authority over the improprieties of prosecutors as much as other lawyers, they have historically shown little interest in sanctioning prosecutorial misconduct. See, e.g., Gershman, Reflections on Brady v. Maryland, 47 S. Tex. L. Rev. 685 (2006); Yaroshefsky, Wrongful Convictions: It is Time to Take Prosecution Discipline Seriously, 8 D.C. L. Rev. 275 (2004). Similarly, judges, even when they reverse a conviction due to egregious prosecutorial misconduct, almost always conceal the prosecutor's identity and rarely refer the prosecutor for professional discipline. And, prosecutorial offices themselves often defend on appeal and thus ratify even serious misconduct of line prosecutors, and fail to sanction even those prosecutors whose serious misconduct they concede. See, Rudin, The Supreme Court Assumes Errant Prosecutors Will Be Disciplined By Their Offices or the Bar: Three Case Studies That Prove That Assumption Wrong, 80 Fordham L. Rev. 537 (2011).
Further, potentially criminal misconduct by judges may be investigated and prosecuted by the District Attorney, an agency wholly independent from the judiciary. However, except in the extremely rare instances where a special prosecutor is appointed, potentially criminal misconduct by prosecutors generally may only be investigated or prosecuted by the very same prosecutorial office that committed that misconduct, which in almost all instances will be hesitant to prosecute one of its own and embarrass the office.
Additionally, there is a stark imbalance in the adversarial criminal justice system where one adversary -- the prosecutor -- may criminally charge the other adversary -- the defense attorney -- when he tampered with evidence or suborned perjury, but where the defense attorney who believes the prosecutor committed such criminal acts may only make a shout in the wilderness by a futile complaint to an overprotective disciplinary agency with no criminal prosecution power. A commission on prosecutorial conduct will not wholly right this imbalance, but will tilt it in the right direction.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
A so-far publicly unidentified attorney in the lobbying group at Dickstein Shapiro reportedly sent emails to members of the House Committee on Government Reform asking them not to question Jonathan Silver, a government employee and prospective witness and Dickstein client. Specifically, the attorney requested, "If possible, please do not direct questions to Jonathan Silver. He's a client of my firm," adding a smiley face emoticon symbol. See here, here and here. The emails were sharply criticized by committee chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who, displaying a copy but charitably blacking out the sender's name, demanded an explanation from Silver's counsel why "we shouldn't refer this to the American Bar Association." (The ABA, of course, does not hear ethics complaints against individual lawyers.) The committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, joined in expressing his dismay, saying the requests seemed "clearly out of bounds."
Although the attorney (I suspect someone known to the Congresspersons, perhaps a former House staffer) appears to have demonstrated extraordinarily bad judgment, I question whether her conduct was unethical. Lobbyists are allowed to privately ask Representatives to vote on matters of crucial importance, far more important often than whether a government employee will be asked questions by a committee. I do not find an ex parte attempt to influence questioning at a hearing worse than a similar attempt to influence a vote. Such conduct would ordinarily be unethical, however, if directed toward a judge or prosecutor or if it violated a rule governing House committee conduct.
When I last appeared with a client before a House committee hearing, the chair threatened him with contempt for having, quite appropriately, asserted his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions. That threat, more shockingly to me, was repeated in private by Congressional staff lawyers, including the then chief counsel for the House of Representatives. I, therefore, am somewhat amused by the self-righteousness of the Congressmen here.
Monday, June 24, 2013
In what should be a surprise to no one, the Wall Street Journal editorial page today launched an attack on James Comey, President Obama's nominee to be the next FBI Director. The primary offenses? Comey's objection to the Bush Administration's illegal warrantless wiretapping and Comey's appointment of Patrick Fitzgerald as Special Counsel to investigate the Valerie Plame leak. The editorial is here. More commentary on this in the next few days.
Coming soon: Professor Podgor's analysis of the Second Circuit's opinion afffirming Raj Rajaratnam's conviction for insider trading violations.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
FBI Special Agent Reginald Reyes' affidavit supporting DOJ's search warrant application for Fox News Reporter James Rosen's Google email account was ordered unsealed in November 2011. But it wasn't actually unsealed by the DC U.S. District Court's staff until late May of 2013. In other words, the affidavit was only unsealed several days after AG Holder testified that, "[w]ith regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I have ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy." Once the affidavit and search warrant application were unsealed, it became clear that Holder's testimony was inacurrate, as he had personally authorized the search warrant application. See here for yesterday's post on this issue.
DC Chief Judge Royce Lamberth is not happy about his staff's failure to unseal the affidavit and related documents. Here is Chief Judge Royce Lamberth's 5-23-2013 Order expressing his unhappiness.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
“Well, I would say this. With regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I have ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy.” Attorney General Eric Holder testifying under oath before the House Judiciary Committee on May 15, 2013.
"For the reasons set forth below, I believe there is probable cause to conclude that the contents of the wire and electronic communications pertaining to SUBJECT ACCOUNT, are evidence, fruits and instrumentalities of criminal violations of 18 U.S.C. [Section] 793 (Unauthorized Disclosure of National Defense Information), and that there is probable cause to believe that the Reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d), as an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator to which the materials relate." FBI Special Agent Reginald B. Reyes' May 28, 2010, Affidavit in Support of Search Warrant Application for Fox News Chief Washington Correspondent James Rosen's Google email account. The warrant was authorized by Attorney General Holder.
Note than in addition to identifying "the Reporter" as a probable aider, abettor and/or criminal co-conspirator, the affidavit explains that the Department of Justice is not bound by the Privacy Protection Act, otherwise prohibiting warrants for First Amendment work product, precisely because "the Reporter" was "suspected of committing the crime [18 U.S.C. Section 793(d)] under investigation."
There is no doubt that AG Holder gave false testimony to House Members under oath. He is an idiot if he did so intentionally, and he isn't an idiot. What should Holder have done to fix this mess? Corrected the record, of course. In the immortal words of Richard Nixon, "that would have been the easy thing to do."
Holder should have said: "Dear Representatives Goodlatte and Sensenbrenner. I screwed up. My testimony to you is now inoperative. I forgot that I authorized this affidavit, which clearly identifies a 'Reporter' as somebody under investigation for a crime. I did not intentionally try to deceive you. My statement was careless and overbroad. Please accept my apologies."
But the Attorney General apparently cannot not bring himself to do anything as straightforward as that. Instead he spends days sending out spinmeisters, most recently, and regrettably, Deputy Assistant AG Peter Kadzik, as reported here by Sari Horwitz in today's Washington Post.
How sad. Can you imagine anything like this happending under Attorney General Griffin Bell? Bell, a genuine protector of our civil liberties, most likely would have nixed the supboena in the first place. But if Bell had authorized it, he never would have shied away from the ensuing controversy or hidden behind his DOJ underlings.
Mr. Holder has received his fair share of undeserved, demagogic criticism from the kooky right. He deserves what he's getting now.
Here is a copy of the Reyes Affidavit.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
An administrative judge for the Merit Systems Protection Board has overturned the DOJ internal decision finding reckless misconduct for violating Brady obligations by two prosecutors of Senator Ted Stevens, Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, and ordering their suspensions. See here.
The administrative judge ruled that DOJ had violated its own disciplinary procedures which require a rank-and-file DOJ attorney in the Professional Misconduct Review Unit to review OPR findings and determine whether misconduct had occurred. The career attorney who reviewed the OPR findings, Terrence Berg (now a federal district judge in Michigan), decided in favor of the prosecutors, but his ruling was reviewed and reversed by his superiors, who found that misconduct had occurred and suspensions were appropriate. Review and reversal by the superiors, said the administrative judge, was improper procedurally, and the rank-and file attorney's decision was non-reviewable and final.
I lack sufficient familiarity with administrative law to opine whether this decision is wrong (although Prof. Bennett L. Gershman has made a strong case that it is). See here. I recognize that prosecutors, like those they prosecute, are entitled to due process. However, procedural infirmities aside, the actions of the prosecutors were clear enough and serious enough to warrant on the merits a finding of misconduct and a suspension. See here.
I find it ironic that DOJ's finding of misconduct was (according to the administrative judge) based on DOJ's own procedural misconduct. More seriously, however, I find extremely troubling the notion that a DOJ prosecutor's misconduct should be finally determined by a fellow career DOJ prosecutor. Defense lawyers, for instance, are not entitled to have their alleged misconduct weighed by a fellow defense lawyer.
A prosecutor's alleged misconduct ideally should be determined by the appropriate state bar disciplinary committee, not a fellow prosecutor (or fellow prosecutors). Of course, bar disciplinary committees, as several commentators have pointed out, have been extraordinarily hesitant to discipline prosecutors, especially with respect to Brady violations.
DOJ has the right to appeal to the three-judge Merit Systems Protection Board. It will be interesting to see if it does.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
In Caldwell v. Cablevision, 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 00783, the New York Court of Appeals two weeks ago unanimously affirmed a trip-and-fall civil defendant's verdict in which an emergency room physician subpoenaed by the defense as a fact witness was paid $10,000 for one hour of testimony to verify an entry he made in the "history" section of the hospital records. That note read that the plaintiff had "tripped over [her] dog while walking in the rain," seemingly contradicting the plaintiff's claim that she tripped because of an unfilled trench dug by the defendant.
The court was "troubled" by what was clearly an exorbitant fee paid to a witness for minimal testimony. The relevant statute provided that a witness was entitled to a fee of $15 per day and $.23 per mile travel, but the court wrote it was not improper to pay a witness "reasonable" compensation beyond those amounts for attending, testifying and preparing. The court noted that a witness, however, could not be paid based on the outcome of the litigation.
The court, disturbed by what it called a "disproportionate fee for a short amount of time" and realizing that an excessive payment tended to influence witnesses to testify favorably for the party that paid them, also stated "[a] line must be drawn." However, it not only failed to draw that line, but did not set forth any criteria for when a payment to a witness becomes a bribe. It did hold that the trial court should have tailored a specific jury instruction for the situation, but found the failure to do so was harmless error.
Initially, I thought the court's opinion might provide some limited protection to a New York criminal defense lawyer to offer a witness in a state case a substantial payment to overcome the typical witness reluctance to testify against the prosecution. After a moment's reflection, however, I concluded that such protection was illusory. A criminal defense lawyer who pays a fact witness $10,000 for an hour of testimony is likely to face indictment for bribery. What is acceptable in civil cases is often not acceptable in criminal cases, especially if one's adversary has the power to prosecute. Further, what is acceptable conduct by a prosecutor in criminal cases is often not acceptable if done by a defense lawyer.
Prosecutors routinely induce testimony from witnesses by offering "something of value" greater than money -- a witness' freedom from incarceration, something a defense lawyer obviously cannot offer. While one federal appellate court shook the foundations of federal prosecution offices by holding that the government could not induce testimony by offering such leniency to a witness, United States v. Singleton, 144 F.3d 1343 (10th Cir. 1998), that case was swiftly and soundly overruled en banc, 165 F.3d 1302 (10th Cir. 1999).
In white collar and other cases, the defense often is hampered by its inability to induce a witness to testify by offering something of value for fear that the defendant or her attorney will be prosecuted for bribing a witness. While the defendant has a Sixth Amendment right to subpoena and call fact witnesses (and to pay witness fees and the "reasonable value of lost time"), that right is considerably limited by the witness' Fifth Amendment right to assert his privilege against self-incrimination and decline to testify. Further, defense attorneys lack a mechanism (such as a grand jury) to test what an unamenable witness will state under oath.
One instance where witnesses are often necessary for a viable defense in white-collar cases is where the defendant claims she acted with a lack of criminal intent, often evidenced by a direction or assurance by superiors of the propriety of her conduct or her openness and expressions to her co-workers. Witnesses who might substantiate the defendant's good faith who were somewhat involved in, or just near, the questioned activity, generally at the direction of prudent counsel will often refuse to testify for fear they will be prosecuted. This foreclosure of potentially favorable testimony is sometimes reinforced by prosecution sabre-rattling, often disingenuous, that the witness himself is a potential defendant. Such a declaration almost always will frighten the witness from testifying and deter a judge from granting the witness immunity over prosecutorial objection. But see here.
Allowing white-collar defendants to "buy" (honest) testimony from a reluctant witness -- that is, to pay the witness to give up his constitutional right not to testify -- conceivably theoretically acceptable under the Caldwell case -- might somewhat level the playing field in which the prosecutor to a considerable extent controls who will testify for either side. However, until a court or legislature "draws a line" that clearly allows it, such a payment is fraught with danger to the defendant and the defense lawyer.
Thursday, January 24, 2013
It is hard to argue against the idea of criminal forfeiture; fairness demands that one convicted of a crime give up his ill-gotten gains. A recent article in the New York Times seemed to give its full unstinting approval to federal asset forfeiture (see here).
However, asset forfeiture, aside from its several unfair procedural aspects, has its downsides. It has to an extent diverted prosecutorial resources from investigation and prosecution of more serious cases to "sitting duck" targets involved in lucrative but arguably harmless violations of law, such as offshore gambling enterprises.
And, primarily because of pre-trial restraints, it has, with the 5-4 imprimatur of the Supreme Court in Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989), and United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600 (1989), turned the presumption of innocence on its head and allowed pre-trial restraint of funds to leave many defendants without sufficient funds to hire experienced, able (and often expensive) counsel of choice. While court-appointed counsel assigned to represent those now-indigent defendants are generally competent or better than competent, they often lack the experience, resources, aggressiveness and time to provide a first-rate defense. Thus, asset forfeiture often tilts the board in the prosecutor's favor.
Prosecutors are obviously aware that broad pretrial restraint of assets may skew the results of a litigation by preventing the defendant from hiring top-notch counsel. While I do not believe that prosecutors often seek pre-trial restraint for that reason, eliminating experienced and able counsel is an obvious byproduct of many such restraints.
Even in New York State, where the Legislature has, alone among the 50 states, specifically provided for expenditures of seized funds to pay reasonable legal fees, some prosecutors, notably the New York County District Attorney, have taken a strong position, "play[ing] hardball" in the words of a senior forfeiture prosecutor, against release of seized funds for legal fees to private counsel. In New York County, a defendant seeking release of restrained funds for private counsel must initially fill out a sworn 40-page detailed financial questionnaire to demonstrate her lack of access to funds for legal fees. On the other hand, a defendant in New York County who seeks assigned counsel paid for by public funds needs only to say he cannot afford counsel, and such a statement is rarely questioned.
The District Attorney in New York and many places elsewhere receives a portion of forfeited funds; thus, he has an extra incentive to fight the release of funds for private counsel, as well as to prosecute those with substantial assets. An objective observer might question whether the crucial decision whether to prosecute should be made by one with a financial interest in the proceeds of the prosecution. Compare Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927) (conviction at trial by magistrate/mayor where municipality retains part of fine proceeds violates due process).
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
In an editorial published July 16, 2012 entitled "Trial Judge To Appeals Court: Review Me" (see here), the New York Times, in the wake of Judge John Kane's opinion discussed here last week (see here), rightly criticized standard plea waivers in federal court, especially those that preclude appeals based on attorney ineffectiveness or prosecutorial misconduct. The editorial, however, in alleging that in order to induce pleas "[p]rosecutors regularly overcharge defendants with a more serious crime than what actually occurred" was largely off-the-mark, as Paul J. Fishman, the respected United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, claimed in a letter to the Times published on July 26, 2012 (see here).
Federal prosecutors do not, in my view, "regularly" overcharge defendants "with a more serious crime than what actually occurred," at least in white-collar cases (although they often pile on unnecessary if legally justifiable multiple charges). As Mr. Fishman noted, DOJ has directed prosecutors to charge only provable crimes, and in my experience that directive is generally followed. In many districts, notably with respect to white collar cases the Southern District of New York, guilty pleas are to the indicted charges or top count, and rarely only to less serious counts. Since defendants are unlikely to plead guilty to unprovable charges, that practice indicates that the charging decisions are consistent with the law and the facts.
Indeed, there is little incentive for prosecutors to overcharge in order to induce pleas since defense lawyers are aware that the Sentencing Guidelines suggest that the sentencing judge should in any case consider all relevant conduct committed by the defendant, no matter to what crime the defendant has pleaded, and prevailing statutes (and often a conviction of multiple charges) virtually always provide the courts more than ample sentencing leeway. Unlike many state statutory schemes, most federal statutes in the white collar area -- mail and wire fraud, for instance -- are generic and not scaled by degrees according to the amounts of money involved, such as state statutes concerning grand larceny in different degrees. The Sentencing Guidelines levels, but not the statutory crimes, are determined primarily by the dollar loss figure.
This is not to say that most defendants do not face considerable institutional pressure to plead guilty (and, if possible, "cooperate" with the prosecution). Defendants, depending on from which direction one looks, are either "punished" for going to trial or "rewarded" for pleading guilty by the Guidelines provisions for a near-automatic two or three level decrease for pleading (acceptance of responsibility, U.S.S.G. 3E1.1) and a near-automatic two level increase for a convicted defendant who has testified in her defense (obstruction of justice, U.S.S.G. 3C1.1). Additionally, a defendant who pleads guilty usually receives a more generous interpretation of the Guidelines by the prosecutor, probation officer and the court, and a lessened fervor from the prosecution and more lenient attitude by the judge. And, of course, the sweet carrot of a U.S.S.G. 5K1.1 letter for those who cooperate with the government is often, perhaps too often, the difference between a severe sentence and a lenient one.