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.
Friday, October 30, 2015
Guest Blogger - Steven H. Levin
White-collar laws are written broadly in order to permit federal prosecutors to combat the increasingly creative, technologically complex efforts of enterprising criminals. Most, but certainly not all, prosecutors make rational decisions based upon the best possible expenditure of resources, the assessment of the jury appeal of a particular case, and the desire to maintain a good reputation with the bench, if not the bar. In bringing a case, prosecutors also must consider the deterrent effect of a particular prosecution.
In the case involving Dennis Hastert, it has been reported that he was paying “hush money” to cover up alleged misconduct that occurred several decades ago. Mr. Hastert’s structuring fell squarely within the broadly worded federal statute. In his piece (“Should Hastert Have Been Prosecuted?”) Lawrence Goldman is correct to question the purpose such a prosecution serves. The answer is found in the concept of deterrence. Mr. Hastert’s prosecution has potential deterrent effect, both in terms of deterring those engaged in structuring (to cover up crimes) and those engaged in blackmail (threatening to expose crimes).
Once the investigation became known, the public learned that Mr. Hastert had been accused of taking money out of a bank account in order to pay an extortionist. Both would-be structurers and would-be extortionists were put on notice by the federal government: blackmailing may not be successful in the future, because the victim of the extortion may be better off going to law enforcement rather than a bank. Further, it might deter an individual from engaging in the initial misconduct in the first place, knowing that such actions may ultimately see the light of day, even decades later.
Still, as Mr. Goldman writes, Mr. Hastert is, at least in part, a victim. And the decision to prosecute is different than a demand for jail time, which, under the plea agreement, is what prosecutors may seek. Mr. Hastert’s conduct does not warrant jail time, as the collateral consequences of the prosecution itself are significant enough to deter at least some future would-be extortionists from engaging in blackmail and their victims from submitting to it. This fact is all-too-often overlooked by prosecutors.
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.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Credit Suisse Conviction Does Not Demonstrate Substantial Change In Department Of Justice Enforcement
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Attorney General Eric Holder were strutting last week over the criminal conviction by plea of guilty of Credit Suisse, a major financial institution. "This case shows that no financial institution, no matter its size or global reach, is above the law," declared the Attorney General. Recent prosecutions of major financial institutions had resulted in lesser results, "deferred prosecutions," a somewhat deceptive term for "delayed dismissals," or a guilty plea by a minor affiliate.
The Credit Suisse guilty plea does not represent a sea change in the attitude of DOJ toward major financial institutions; rather, it appears to be a small ratcheting-up of the baseline penalty for serious criminal financial acts by such institutions. Credit Suisse, despite paying a hefty $2.6 billion fine, will not suffer the severe collateral consequences that ordinary individual defendants do upon a criminal conviction. (See here, NACDL's report "Collateral Damage: America's Failure to Forgive or Forget in the War on Crime -- A Roadmap to Restore Rights and Status After Arrest or Conviction," released today, Thursday, May 29, 2014.) It will still be able to act as an investment advisor, due to waivers agreed to by federal and New York State governmental agencies. Thus, its conviction, according to its chief executive Brady Dougan, will not have "any material impact on our operational or business capabilities." In other words, for Credit Suisse, it will be business as usual.
I hold no sympathy for Credit Suisse. Its crimes, continuous and notorious, have enabled American citizens and citizens of other countries to launder and evade tax payments on billions of dollars. In effect, Credit Suisse (not alone among Swiss banks) (see here) was a criminal enterprise, for many years making huge profits from extraordinary fees for its knowing and willful provision of a presumably safe haven for untaxed income, ill-gotten or otherwise. Mr. Dougan had stated to a Senate hearing in February that the tax evasion scheme was the work of a small group of private bankers that was hidden from senior management. That hard-to-believe claim was challenged in a statement by Schweitzerisher Bankpersonalverband, the organization representing the bank's employees: "It was common knowledge that tax evasion was the strategy, a business model pursued by many banks for a long time." See here.
To be sure, Credit Suisse's crimes did not cause the vast hardship to tens of millions of Americans that the wrongs -- criminal or not -- of other major financial institutions did in the last several years. And, further, its acts -- while subject to the long-arm jurisdiction of American courts -- were apparently legal under Swiss law, and seemingly condoned by the Swiss government.
Some commentators have suggested that there is considerable unfairness in prosecuting corporations for acts of low- or mid-level employees without knowledge of corporate leaders (see here), a position with which I generally agree. The demi-prosecution of Credit Suisse, however, does not appear to fit within that category, despite Mr. Dougan's claim. I see no unfairness in the government's requiring Credit Suisse to plead guilty.
I do, however, wonder about the effectiveness of the insistence on a guilty plea if the collateral consequences are waived. The conviction of a major financial institution with a considerable financial penalty but a waiver of regulatory bars is to me little different from a civil finding of wrongdoing with such a penalty. Other than its current status as a convicted felon, Credit Suisse today is essentially in the same position it was two weeks ago.
Given the legitimate (but probably exaggerated) fear that a felony conviction of a major financial institution without regulatory waivers will have on its existence and thus on the economy and societal well-being, it may well be that guilty pleas (and trial convictions too) of such corporations should be accompanied by limited collateral consequences. Such prosecutions, however, will then serve little more than a symbolic purpose (which I accept as a legitimate purpose). Overall, DOJ's prosecution to conviction of Credit Suisse is a positive step, albeit a small one.
The resolution here suggests again that the criminal process is inadequate to prosecute large financial institutions. Society looks to the criminal law to solve far more problems than the criminal law is capable of solving. Meaningful reform of a flawed financial system will not come from criminal prosecutions of corporations, but, if at all, from strong, substantial regulatory rulemaking and non-criminal legislation.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
In United States v. Miller, the Sixth Circuit today reversed three of four counts of conviction in a mortgage fraud prosecution. The court held that appellant Miller did not unlawfully "use" a means of identification within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. Section 1028A, the Aggravated Identity Theft statute, when he falsely stated that two named individuals had given him authority to act on behalf of an LLC. Since Miller did not steal their identity, pass himself off as them, or purport to be acting on their behalf as individuals, he is not guilty of violating the statute. The government had argued for a broader construction, but the Sixth Circuit applied the rule of lenity.
The court also reversed a Section 1014 count, because it was bottomed on Miller's signing of a loan renewal and modification agreement. Since the modification and renewal agreement did not repeat the false statement contained in the original loan papers, Miller could not be guilty under Section 1014. The court indicated that Miller had engaged in fraud and false pretenses during the loan modification process. But this was not enough to support a Section 1014 conviction, which requires a knowingly false statement.
Monday, December 17, 2012
You can debate all day whether the government should allow any financial institution to get too big to fail. You can also debate whether such an institution, if it is too big to fail, should be too big to prosecute, even when it engages in blatantly criminal conduct over a lengthy period of time. However, you cannot seriously debate whether to prosecute senior bank officials of an international mega-bank who knowingly directed the criminal enterprise in question. Corporations only act through agents. Those agents are human beings.
We are not talking about technical matters here. This is not a question of whether each party to a complex transaction understood the fine print which revealed, or obscured, that an investment bank was betting against the deal it was pushing. According to the published reports and press statements, obvious narcotics-related money laundering was repeatedly facilitated by the bank, despite multiple regulatory warnings. The sources of funds connected to outlaw regimes were intentionally and repeatedly hidden. If this stuff happened, people did it. And they were no doubt high-ranking people.
No credible person will contend that the prosecution of corrupt bank officers can ever endanger the financial community. No matter how important the institution or high-ranking the officer, employees are fungible. The global financial impact of prosecuting these officers, no matter how important they think they are, will always be negligible.
Assistant AG Lanny Breuer said at his press conference that individual prosecutions were not being ruled out. (Similar statements were made at the time of the robo-signing settlement press conference, and we all know what an avalanche of individual DOJ prosecutions followed in the wake of that!) But other comments Breuer made, discussing how hard it supposedly is to prosecute the individuals involved, appear to be window-dressing rehearsals for future DOJ declinations.
Reporters should not let this issue slide into oblivion. The DOJ does not typically comment upon pending investigations of individuals. (Of course this does not stop some FBI and IRS agents from telling all of a target's friends that he is being criminally investigated, thereby ruining the target's life.) Here is an occasion where the policy should be ignored, particularly since the DOJ can comment on a pending investigation without revealing the names of the subjects and targets.
The question every self-respecting reporter should be asking AG Holder and Assistant AG Breuer is not whether individual indictments have been ruled in or out. The questions to be asked at every opportunity in the coming weeks and months are:
"What is the status of the investigation?"
"Is there really any investigation?"
"Are you treating this investigation like you treat the investigation of other individuals suspected of facilitating murder and drug crimes?"
Here is an account by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi of his appearance on Eliot Spitzer's Viewpoint program discussing the HSBC settlement. Taibbi's account contains a link to the Spitzer interview. Hat tip to Jack Darby of Austin's Krimelabb. com for alerting me to this posting. Taibbi also has an interesting opinion piece about the HSBC settlement on his Rolling Stone TAIBBLOG.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
A 5th Circuit panel (including Chief Judge Edith Jones!) unanimously reversed two Section 1956 money laundering convictions based on insufficient evidence. The case is U.S. v. Harris (5th Cir. 2012) (Section 1956 money laundering evidence insufficient). The reasoning? The government conflated the underlying crime with the separate crime of money laundering. The proven transactions were not proceeds of specified unlawful activity. The evidence only showed "payment of the purchase price for drugs. Money does not become proceeds of illegal activity until the unlawful activity is complete. The crime of money laundering is targeted at the activities that generally follow the unlawful activity in time."
Friday, June 17, 2011
NACDL's 1st Annual West Coast White Collar Conference, “Turning The Tables On The Government” – Keynote Address: Benedict P. Kuehne, Friday, June 17, 2011
Guest Blogger: Darin Thompson, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Office of the Federal Public Defender (Cleveland,OH)
The Keynote Presentation, "Standing Tall: Criminal Defense Lawyers as Constitutional First Responder s in Today’s War on Crime," was given by Benedict P. Kuehne.
Benedict Kuehne spoke regarding the important role that criminal defense attorneys play in America. He noted that criminal defense lawyers often put at risk not only their fee, but their own liberty. Because the role of criminal defense lawyers is to safeguard our constitutional rights, that role itself is threatened. Mr. Kuehne used his personal story to examine these principles. In 2004, his office was searched pursuant to a federal warrant. He was the subject of a grand jury investigation into conspiracy and money laundering. His alleged crime related to legal advice he provided another criminal defense lawyer regarding the source of his fee.
This prosecution was part of an overall trend towards the broadening of the scope of money laundering prosecutions, Mr. Kuehne suggested, noting that money laundering has replaced conspiracy as the prosecution’s weapon of choice.
Mr. Kuehne noted that this prosecution theory threatened to chill the assertion of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the willingness of counsel to provide legal representation to individuals facing prosecution.
Mr. Kuehne then explored the history of litigation surrounding the specific statutory exemption for criminal defense fees. For 20 years, the government persisted in attempts to convince courts that the exemption did not mean what it said. These efforts, combined with the ability to seek forfeiture of fees, had a chilling effect on that Sixth Amendment right.
His case resulted in the decision U.S. v. Velez, vindicating the criminal defense fees exemption in money laundering cases. Mr. Kuehne's story is an inspiring one that clearly demonstrates the importance of the work that we defense lawyers do everyday.
Monday, May 23, 2011
It is good to see that President Obama is using his pardon powers, granting eight pardons this past week. (See Press Release here) Clearly more pardons would have been better as there are many suffering from the collateral consequences of a conviction that should not have happened. Likewise, there are many that have significantly reformed their lives and are deserving of a second chance. Some observations about these pardons:
- Four of the eight included a conspiracy count.
- Three of the eight had a drug related charge.
- The largest sentence that had been given in any of these offenses was five years.
- Four had a sentence of no prison time.
- The most recent sentencing from these cases was 2001.
- Seven of the eight cases were prior to 2000.
- Only two cases were from the same state, that being Indiana.
An important question to ask is whether any of these cases should have been criminal activity in the first place. Did we really need to send someone to prison for "the possession and sale of illegal American alligator hides" in violation of the Lacey Act? Would a civil fine have been sufficient?
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
In a case pending and set for trial in March in the Central District of California, with allegations of FCPA and money laundering violations, DOJ prosecutors are seeking to start another grand jury investigation of the defendants. Lawyers for the defendants cried foul and moved to quash five subpoenas calling for testimony today. As a result, the federal judge presiding over the case imposed stringent conditions on any use of the grand jury by DOJ prosecutors.
A grand jury is not to be used for "strengthening [a] case on a pending indictment or as a substitute for discovery." (Beasley, Simels, Arthur Andersen). Prosecutors claimed that their purpose in questioning these witnesses, all current employees of the company under indictment, was for a "new" investigation. Interestingly, the filings show that this "new" grand jury investigation came immediately after DOJ prosecutors were denied access to the employees for pre-trial, witness preparation interviews.
Defense lawyers Jan Handzlik and Janet Levine also argued that the DOJ prosecutors were "manufacturing" a new investigation to create reasons to postpone the trial, set for March 29th. They suspected the government would seek a superseding indictment leading to a trial continuance. Prosecutors disagreed and filed an under seal, in camera declaration to justify the new investigation.
US District Judge Howard Matz denied the defense motion to quash the grand jury subpoenas, but issued an order that handed the DOJ prosecutors what some of us consider to be a stinging defeat. He placed conditions on what the government could do if it chose to proceed with its "new" investigation, stating in part:
(1) At the upcoming trial, the Government may not proffer or refer to any newly obtained evidence derived from the testimony of any witness before any grand jury session conducted after the return of the First Superseding Indictment on October 21, 2010. . . .
(2) The Government may not, and shall not, question any witness about any business and financial relationship that the [defendant ] Company had with [other individuals and entities named in the pending indictment]
(3) The Government may not, and shall not, question any witness about any of the other events that directly form the basis for the charges contained in the first superseding indictment.
(4) The Government shall file under seal a transcript or transcripts of the grand jury testimony it obtains from the aforementioned witnesses, and it shall do so by not later than one week before the start of trial, and
(5) The Government may not point to or rely on whatever evidence it obtains at the upcoming grand jury sessions to seek or obtain a continuance of the trial date.
See Court's Order - Download Matz min order re GJ
See also Richard Cassin, FCPA Blog, Sparks Fly Before LA Trial
Saturday, January 15, 2011
In commenting here Wednesday about former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's shameful money laundering prosecution of Tom DeLay, I noted that:
"The election code conspiracy charge [against DeLay] was almost immediately thrown out because there was no such crime in existence in Texas, as Earle should have known, and as the state’s highest criminal court later confirmed."
R. K. Weaver sent in a comment disagreeing with my analysis. According to Weaver:
"While it is true that there is no express 'conspiracy' provision in the Election Code, there is a general 'conspiracy' provision in the Penal Code which, on its face, and historically was considered to apply to all crimes in Texas. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, an elected body that is entirely occupied by Republicans, held for the first time in the history of Texas law, and contrary to abundant precedent, that this provision was limited to Penal Code crimes and was not applicable to the thousands of crimes that exist outside the Penal Code. That decision is generally considered by Texas lawyers to be absurd on its face and blatantly political. Unfortunately, it is also not terribly uncommon. There is a good reason that this court is referred to as 'the clowns on the Colorado.'" [emphasis added].
"When Earle indicted DeLay for conspiracy to violate the criminal provisions of the Election Code he was acting on established and well known Texas legal principals. DeLay's victory before the Court of Criminal Appeals was more about the political landscape in Texas than about the state of the law. I anticipate that when the current case gets before that court they will once again carve a 'DeLay exception 'to the law." [emphasis added].
Weaver is mistaken.
Title 4, Section 15.02 of the Texas Penal Code is the general criminal conspiracy statute. In 1977, long before Tom DeLay's rise to prominence, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court in Texas authorized to rule on criminal cases, held in Baker v. State, 547 S.W.2d 627 (Tex.Cr.App.1977), that Section 15.02 (the general conspiracy statute) could not be applied to a criminal offense defined by another law (that is, defined by a law located outside of the Penal Code) unless the other law explicitly referenced the Penal Code. The non-Penal Code offense at issue in Baker was the Texas Controlled Substances Act. Baker followed a similar holding in Moore v. State, 540 S.W.2d 140 (Tex.Cr.App. 1977), which had found Section 15.01 of the Penal Code, the general attempt statute, inapplicable to the Controlled Substances Act. Both rulings were based on a strict reading of Penal Code Section 1.03(b) which stated in part that “[t]he provisions of Titles 1, 2 and 3 of this code apply to offenses defined by other laws, unless the statute defining the offense provides otherwise.” Since the conspiracy and attempt statutes were contained in Title 4, they could not apply to the Controlled Substances Act, the Court of Criminal Appeals reasoned, unless the Controlled Substances Act provided otherwise. The Controlled Substances Act did not provide otherwise, and did not contain its own attempt or conspiracy provisions. (The Texas Legislature later amended the Controlled Substances Act and it now expressly references Title 4 Penal Code offenses.) Both Baker and Moore were written by Tom G. Davis, a widely respected mainstream jurist. Judge Davis was a Democrat, as were all of the judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals at the time. In reversing Baker’s conviction and ordering the prosecution dismissed, Davis ruled that “[t]he complaint and information in the instant case do not allege an offense against the laws of this state."
Baker was still the law in Texas in 2005, when Earle brought his indictment against DeLay, and had been the law for 28 years. The pertinent portions of the conspiracy statute (Section 15.02) and of Section 1.03(b) remained the same. Earle’s original indictment of Tom DeLay charged that DeLay conspired in October of 2002 to violate the Texas Election Code. The Election Code is not a part of the Penal Code. In 2002, the Election Code did not contain a conspiracy provision or reference or incorporate Section 15.02. In other words, under authority of Baker and Moore, one could not conspire to violate the Election Code. The Election Code was amended, effective September 1, 2003, to permit application of Title 4 offenses, including the Section 15.02 conspiracy statute. But the amended version could not be applied to DeLay’s alleged conduct without violating Ex Post Facto principles. Ergo, Earle’s original indictment of DeLay did not, in the words of Tom G. Davis, “allege an offense against the laws of this state.”
According to a story in the Washington Post, Earle did not learn that there might be a problem with the original charge until his assistants told him about it, shortly after the indictment was returned. How sad. The Penal Code went into effect in 1973. The Election Code was enacted in 1975. Earle was elected Travis County District Attorney in 1976. Baker was decided in 1977. DeLay was indicted in 2005. When Earle found out about his mistake, he did not drop the Election Code conspiracy charge, which would have been the right thing to do. He re-indicted DeLay, using a new grand jury under dubious circumstances, but kept the Election Code conspiracy charge in the indictment. The trial court properly threw it out. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed in a 5-4 opinion.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
The Washington Post reports here on the three year prison sentence handed down Monday to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay by Texas state judge Pat Priest. DeLay was found guilty last November by an Austin jury of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering under Texas criminal statutes.
The prosecution of DeLay by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and his successor has been nothing less than a travesty of justice. This is really not about Tom Delay. You can love him or you can hate him. It is instead about our collective glee whenever a person of an opposing ideology gets indicted.
Earle originally indicted DeLay for conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to violate the state election code. The election code conspiracy charge was almost immediately thrown out because there was no such crime in existence in Texas, as Earle should have known, and as the state’s highest criminal court later confirmed. The money laundering charge, and the conspiracy charge on which it is bottomed, should have never been brought either. Here’s why.
Delay's alleged laundering activity was accomplished through the writing of checks. DeLay was accused and convicted of knowingly conducting, supervising, and facilitating a transaction involving the "proceeds" of criminal activity in violation of the state money laundering statute, Texas Penal Code Section 34.02. In 2002, the year of the alleged offense, Section 34.01 of the Penal Code provided that "‘Proceeds’ meant "funds acquired or derived directly or indirectly from, produced through, or realized through an act." Section 34.01 defined "funds" as follows.
(A) coin or paper money of the United States or any other country that is designated as legal tender and that circulates and is customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in the country of issue;
(B) United States silver certificates, United States Treasury notes, and Federal Reserve System notes; and
(C) official foreign bank notes that are customarily used and accepted as a medium of exchange in a foreign country and foreign bank drafts."
So, in 2002 the "proceeds" of criminal activity meant "funds" acquired, derived, produced or realized through an act. "Funds" in turn included: coin or paper money designated as legal tender, circulating, and used as a medium of exchange; United States silver certificates, United States Treasury notes, and Federal Reserve System notes; and, official foreign bank notes used and accepted as a medium of exchange in a foreign country, and foreign bank drafts. Most conspicuously, "funds" did not include checks. This was no accident. The final version of the 1993 money laundering statute was far narrower than the draft first introduced in the Texas House of Representatives. The initial draft prohibited the knowing facilitation of a transaction involving "property" that was the "proceeds" of criminal activity. Property was defined broadly to cover tangible or intangible personal property as well as "a document, including money, that represents or embodies anything of value."
I am aware of no reported cases under the original Texas money laundering statute, prior to DeLay’s indictment, in which the proceeds of criminal activity were identified as checks. In the vast majority of the cases, the laundered proceeds consisted of currency. There were no reported cases even discussing whether a check could constitute laundered funds. The reason for this is obvious. Virtually no prosecutor in Texas thought that checks were "funds" under the old money laundering statute.
In 2005, the Texas Legislature amended the money laundering statute and broadened the definition of "funds" to include "currency or its equivalent including an electronic fund, personal check, bank check, traveler’s check, money order, bearer negotiable instrument, bearer investment security, bearer security, or certificate of stock in a form that allows title to pass on delivery." The House Research Organization’s analysis of the amendment stated that it would "broaden the definition of ‘funds’ to include money other than cash." The analysis also notes, in the "Supporters Say" section, that "[u]nder current law, prosecutors may not prosecute offenders for money-laundering if the offender received a form of money other than cash, such as checks or money orders. This is inadequate as it prevents prosecution under this statute in an array of cases." The new bill "would fix this problem by covering money received in a variety of forms other than cash." It gets even worse. Members of Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s own staff helped in the drafting of the 2005 amendment!
Of course DeLay could not be prosecuted under the 2005 version of the statute, for conduct that allegedly occurred in 2002, without violating the Constitution’s ex post facto clause. But that sort of problem did not bother Earle. He simply used the 2002 version, even though nobody thought back then that "laundering" via checks constituted laundering under Section 34.02.
The case is now headed for the higher courts. Here’s hoping that one of them does the right thing.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
An Overlooked Key to Combating Overcriminalization: Reflecting on a Decade of Supreme Court Decisions Disfavoring Overly-Expansive Interpretations of Criminal Statutes
Federal courts often make an understandable mistake when faced with issues of statutory interpretation in criminal cases, focusing only on precedent that is directly on point. As a result, courts sometimes miss important trends that are broader than a specific statute or case. The fight against overcriminalization—which in part stems from overly-expansive readings of criminal statutes—is one such trend. By reflecting on a decade of Supreme Court decisions invalidating overly-expansive readings of criminal statutes, lower courts might notice the trend and avoid repeating previous mistakes that led to overcriminalization.
Since 1999, and in the midst of stiff opposition from prosecutors and lower courts, the Supreme Court has spend much of its effort curtailing the seemingly-limitless reach of various federal criminal statutes.
- Mail and Wire Fraud: In Neder, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the federal fraud statutes contain no “materiality” requirement in relation to misrepresentations or omissions. In Cleveland, the Court rejected the position that a State’s “right” to truthful information in a license application is “property” protected by the fraud statutes. And most recently, in Skilling, the Court limited the honest-services fraud statute to “bribe and kickback” schemes, rejecting a more expansive interpretation extending the statute to undisclosed “conflicts of interest” and “self dealing.”
- Money Laundering: In Cuellar, the Supreme Court disagreed that the federal money laundering statutes criminalize the act of concealing money merely to transport it, rather than transporting money to conceal it. And in Santos, the Court held that the term “proceeds”—at least when applied to illegal gambling—means “profits,” not “gross receipts.”
- Bribery: In Sun-Diamond Growers of California, the Supreme Court determined that, contrary to the government’s position, bribery under 18 U.S.C. § 201 requires a quid pro quo—i.e., a link between a “thing of value” and a specific “official act.”
Read in isolation, each decision addresses a specific statute and utilizes—in addition to common canons of statutory interpretation—specific principles to narrow the statute (e.g., fair notice or federalism). But when courts read these cases in isolation, they inevitably end up watering down their true meaning and intended effect. For example, after Neder, courts so broadly interpreted the “materiality” element that misrepresentations and omissions rarely are deemed immaterial; after Santos, lower courts overwhelmingly refused to apply the decision’s definition of “proceeds” outside the gambling context (and Congress later amended the definition to expressly include “gross receipts” in all cases); after Sun Diamond, most courts have refused to require a specific quid pro quo under bribery statutes similar to section 201, such as section 666; and after Skilling, at least one court (the Northern District of New York, in a case called Queri) has allowed the government to repackage invalidated honest-services theories as “intangible property” theories.
If the Supreme Court cases are read together, on the other hand, they show a decade-long trend disfavoring overly-expansive readings of criminal statutes, which contribute to overcriminalization. Equally important, when read together the cases provide all the tools needed to avoid expansive interpretations and overcriminalization, rather than one tool discussed in one case addressing one statute. Lower court’s should keep this Supreme Court trend in mind in future cases.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Sara Sun Beale, (forthcoming Ohio St J of Criminal Law), An Honest Services Debate
Alexander Bunin (Federal Public Defender Northern District of NY), Federal Convictions Reversed (a wonderful compilation of federal cases from the United States Courts of Appeal and the United States Supreme Court. The opinions contain at least one point favorable to criminal defendants), Download Federal Convictions Reversed 08.2010
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Two former officers and directors of the National Century Financial Enterprises had been convicted on multiple counts. The Sixth Circuit reversed the money laundering counts.
In the first case, United States v. Ayers, the court examined a conviction of conspiracy to commit money laundering and held that based upon Cuellar v. United States, 128 S.Ct. 1994 (2008), the conviction could not be upheld. The court stated:
"The government is correct that the Receivables Purchase Reports involved concealment: They falsely represented that investors’ funds were being legitimately used, and thereby induced the Trustees to wire the funds to providers. But that explains only how, and not why, the money was moved. The proposition that Ayers authorized the advances for the purpose of submitting phony Reports is simply implausible on this record. The government proved only that the Reports facilitated the advances; it did not prove that the Reports, or concealment generally, were the transactions’ purpose."
In Faulkenberry v. United States, the court stated in part:
"All of this reasoning, in our view, applies to the meaning of "designed" as used in § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i). To prove a violation of that subsection, therefore, it is not enough for the government to prove merely that a transaction had a concealing effect. Nor is it enough that the transaction was structured to conceal the nature of illicit funds. Concealment—even deliberate concealment—as mere facilitation of some other purpose, is not enough to convict. . . What is required, rather, is that concealment be an animating purpose of the transaction." (citations omitted)
"Money in motion does not necessarily equal money laundering."
Ayers -Download Ayers Opinion
Faulkenberry -Download Faulkenberry 1
(esp)(w/ a hat tip to Regina Ashmon and Monica Smith)
Friday, November 13, 2009
Guest Blogger: Tiffany M. Joslyn, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL)
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III has sentenced ex-congressman William Jefferson to 13 years in prison for his conviction on 11 counts of public corruption. See breaking news coverage below:
Friday, October 2, 2009
NACDL's 5th Annual Defending the White Collar Case Seminar - "Getting Paid, Not Charged--Avoiding Indictment by Collecting Fees Ethically," Friday, October 2, 2009
Guest Blogger: Jon May, Chair, White Collar Crime Section, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Over the last ten years, and particularly as a result of the indictment of prominent Miami Attorney Ben Kuehne, criminal defense counsel have had cause to be concerned that they could be the subject of prosecution solely for taking a legitimate legal fee. In this morning’s presentation by Jane Moscowitz and Martine Pinales, lawyers found reasons to be hopeful that such fears may be overblown, at least as to potential prosecution. Forfeiture of fees, on the other hand, remain a significant concern.
The Kuehne prosecution is an instance of ideology trumping common sense. Benedict P. Kuehne is the most unlikely of government targets. As Jane Moscowitz, who is one of his attorneys observed, Ben is the best of all of us. He is not just a leader of the bar—having been the President of the Miami-Dade County Bar Association and a member of the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar—he has devoted countless hours to pro bono activities on behalf of organizations representing the interests of African-Americans, Hispanics, Gays and others. He was also one of Al Gore’s principal attorneys during the Florida recount. Not surprisingly, he was Roy Black’s choice for counsel when Roy Black needed an attorney to vet the legal fees he was to be paid to represent notorious Colombian cartel leader Fabio Ochoa.
Roy Black was ultimately paid $5 million for his representation of Ochoa. Ben Kuehne earned approximately $175,000 for vetting this fee. Ben was indicted for conspiracy to launder, what the government recognized, and the indictment stated, was a bona fide legal fee. This is despite the fact that the money laundering statute 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1957 contains a specific exemption for the receipt of funds necessary to preserve the Sixth Amendment. It was the government’s position before the District Court and just recently before the Eleventh Circuit in their appeal from the dismissal of this count, that the decision of the Supreme Court in Caplin and Drysdale nullified this exemption. The district court, however, was persuaded that it was the intent of Congress to protect counsel from prosecution, even if attorney’s fees could be forfeited. It appears from the tenor of the oral argument, which I was present to see, that the government’s theory is being met with the same level of skepticism that it received by Judge Cooke.
Martin Pinales discussed his experience dealing with government efforts to seize legal fees. Even in instances where the AUSA states that she has no intent to seize fees, counsel can be faced with a post trial effort by the government’s money laundering/forfeiture counsel to claw back those fees. Strategies were discussed for dealing with that problem. One way is to be paid by a third party from monies totally unconnected to any alleged criminal activity. Where money is obtained from the defendant, it is important to insure that the money did not come from any source named in a forfeiture count. And counsel should do due diligence even as to assets that could be later characterized as a substitute asset. It was also important to have your retainer agreement tie fees received to services provided. Where the funds are clearly substitute assets, counsel who takes these steps will have a better chance of demonstrating that they are bona fide purchasers for value in later forfeiture proceedings.
During the seminar, other important issues were raised. In many districts, counsel do not have to worry about their fees if their clients cooperate. Doesn’t that create a conflict of interest? You can charge a flat fee so long as you can demonstrate that it was earned. But don’t call it non-refundable (unless you practice in Florida, but it still has to be reasonable). The final irony, and outrage, discussed was the fact that the indictment against Ben also includes forfeiture count. The government is seeking to forfeit from Ben, the $5 million that Roy Black received.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
NYTimes (AP), 2 Mayors Arrested in Broad N.J. Corruption Sweep
In this same US Attorney's Office, just a couple of days ago, an assemblyman and former mayor had a new charge added to his Indictment alleging that "he participated in a scheme with his former key political advisor to circumvent the contribution limitation and reporting requirements of the Federal Election Campaign Act." (see here).
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
In recent years, some white collar cases have had money laundering charges included in the Indictment. Some may believe that the addition of money laundering counts is used as leverage to secure a plea from the accused. The Fraud Enforcement Recovery Act of 2009 includes changes to both sections 1956 and 1957 of title 18, the money laundering statutes. The changes are as follows:
SPECIFIED UNLAWFUL ACTIVITY.—
(1) MONEY LAUNDERING.—Section 1956(c) of title 18, United States Code, is amended—
(A) in paragraph (8), by striking the period and inserting ‘‘; and’’; and
(B) by inserting at the end the following:
‘‘(9) the term ‘proceeds’ means any property derived from or obtained or retained, directly or indirectly, through some form of unlawful activity, including the gross receipts of such activity.’’.
(2) MONETARY TRANSACTIONS.—Section 1957(f) of title 18, United States Code, is amended by striking paragraph (3) and inserting the following:
‘‘(3) the terms ‘specified unlawful activity’ and ‘proceeds’ shall have the meaning given those terms in section 1956 of this title.’’
It is obvious in reading the language that Congress was reacting to the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Santos, where a plurality (Scalia, Souter, Ginsberg, and Thomas) found that the rule of lenity applied because of a failure to define the term "proceeds" in the statute. Justice Stevens went with these four justices, but limited his decision, saying he would not have ruled this way if the case involved contraband or organized crime. The Court, therefore, held that "proceeds referred to "profits" and not "receipts." A four person dissent (Breyer, Alito, Roberts, and Kennedy) believed that proceeds should include the total amount brought in. This Congressional amendment to the statute endorses the position taken by the dissent and provides a definition of what is meant by the term "proceeds."
But there are several points to note here. Even though the new legislation clarifies the statute, thus voiding any need to resort to the Rule of Lenity in defining "proceeds" and also resolves future cases on which crimes are covered by the Santos decision (an issue that several district and circuit courts have had to contend with), it may still allow defense counsel to make merger arguments. As stated by Justice Stevens in his concurring opinion in Santos
"Allowing the Government to treat the mere payment of the expense of operating an illegal gambling business as a separate offense is in practical effect tantamount to double jeopardy, which is particularly unfair in this case because the penalties for money laundering are substantially more sever than those for the underlying offense of operating a gambling business."
It also leaves open the issue of how this statute applies to mail fraud when the crime is not complete and whether a sentence can be enhanced when the predicate offense and the money laundering merge. Congress was clearly concerned about the merger issue as the amendment includes a specific statement "Sense of the Congress and Report Concerning Required Approval for Merger Cases" that states:
(1) Sense of Congress - It is the sense of the Congress that no prosecution of an offense under section 1956 or 1957 of title 18, United States Code, should be undertaken in combination with the prosecution of any other offense, without prior approval of the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division, or the relevant United States Attorney, if the conduct to be charged as ‘‘specified unlawful activity’’ in connection with the offense under section 1956 or 1957 is so closely connected with the conduct to be charged as the other offense that there is no clear delineation between the two offenses.
(2) REPORT.—One year after the date of the enactment of this Act, and at the end of each of the four succeeding one-year periods, the Attorney General shall report to the House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary on efforts undertaken by the Department of Justice to ensure that the review and approval described in paragraph (1) takes place in all appropriate cases. The report shall include the following:
(A) The number of prosecutions described in paragraph (1) that were undertaken during the previous one-year period after prior approval by an official described in paragraph (1), classified by type of offense and by the approving official.
(B) The number of prosecutions described in paragraph (1) that were undertaken during the previous one-year period without such prior approval, classified by type of offense, and the reasons why such prior approval was not obtained.
(C) The number of times during the previous year in which an approval described in paragraph (1) was denied.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in U.S. v. Lazarenko tells the story of an international money laundering, wire and mail fraud, and transportation of stolen property case that is much reduced from the original charges/convictions brought by the government. It started as a 53-count indictment, but after the government dismissal of some, and the court dismissal of others, what remained was 14 counts. This decision brings it even lower.
The facts of this case present a unique international flavor, in that Ukrainian law is the specified unlawful activity for the money laundering charges. The breadth of the money laundering statute is clearly reaching international levels when a US jury is being asked to determine whether there has been a violation of another countries laws. Although the Ninth Circuit upholds the money laundering convictions, the court does reverse the interstate transportation of stolen property count.
But the more fascinating part of this decision relates to the wire fraud counts. In reversing the convictions here, the court focuses on the "in furtherance" element of wire fraud. The court states:
"If the government's theory were correct, then it would be possible for an ordinary fraud to be converted into wire fraud simply by the perpetrator picking up the telephone three years later and asking a friend if he can store some fraudulently obtained property in his garage before the police execute a search warrant or later taking the proceeds of fraud and transferring them to another bank. The government's theory extends an already broad statute too far."
It is good to see a court requiring strict adherence to the "in furtherance" element.
(esp) (w/ a hat tip to Evan Jenness)