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.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
18 U.S.C. § 1519, known as the “anti-shredding provision” of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, makes it a crime for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation (emphasis added). Congress passed this statute in the aftermath of the Enron debacle. But did they ever envision that a prosecutor would use this statute against a commercial fisherman for allegedly having undersized grouper fish that were thrown overboard following the issuing of a civil fishing citation from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission?
The government’s extension of this SOX statute is the subject of a Petition for Certiorari (Download Yates Pcert_Filed) before the Supreme Court. A key issue is whether “fish” are tangible objects for the purposes of this statute. And even more bizarre is that the fisherman allegedly started with 72 undersized red grouper and when he came to shore there were purportedly only 69 fish. Could this be a federal prosecution under SOX for 3 missing fish? And is this all happening during a time of sequestration with tight funding?
Perhaps the Supreme Court will agree that in the ocean of crime, this one is a bit fishy. Following the filing of the Petition for Certiorari and a distribution for conference, the Court requested a response from the government. Amici filed a couple of briefs and it was again distributed for conference. It is now set for distribution a third time, April 25, 2014 (see here). It's a wonderful case for the Court to examine principles of statutory interpretation and how far afield the government can go in using a statute written and intended to stop one form of criminal conduct but being used in an unintended manner. This case also provides the Court the chance to step to the plate and express a view on overcriminalization. (see NACDL amicus brief of William Shepherd here - Download NACDLYATESAMICUS). There are many other issues in the "fish case" that may also interest the Court, such as how a civil fishing citation became a criminal case with an indictment issued 985 days after the citation. (see Petitioner's Reply Brief - Download Yates Reply to Brief in Opposition). But the real question is whether the Court will order fish this coming Friday at their conference.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
I had the privilege of being at an NYU Conference titled, Deterring Corporate Crime: Effective Principles for Corporate Enforcement. Hats off to Professor Jennifer Arlen for bringing together folks with some different perspectives on corporate crime. Individuals presented data, and I heard different positions presented (corporate, government, industry, judicial) on a host of topics. The individual constituent (CEO, CFO, employee) within the corporation was not a key focus, unless it was a discussion of their wrongdoing or prosecution.
From this conversation it was clear that deterring corporate wrongdoing is not easy. Penalties have increased, yet we continute to see corporate criminality. So the question is, how do we encourage corporations not to engage in corporate wrongdoing?
This is my top ten list of what I think exists and what needs to be changed -
1. Most companies try to abide by the law.
2. Complying with the law is not always easy for corporations. In some instances the law and regulations are unclear, making it difficult to discern what is legal. The array of different laws and regulations (e.g., state, federal, and international), as well as their complexity makes corporate compliance problematic.
3. Companies resort to internal investigations to get information of wrongdoing within the company. In some instances companies will threaten individuals with the possible loss of their jobs if they fail to cooperate with a corporate internal investigation. Individuals who provide information to their employers sometimes do not realize that the company may provide that information to the government and the information may then be used against them.
4. If a company is criminally charged, it typically is financially beneficial for the company to fold, work with the government, and provide information to the government of alleged individual wrongdoing within the company.
5. DOJ's incentives to a corporation that causes it to fold and provide evidence to the government against alleged individual wrongdoers may be causing more harm because it pits corporations against its individual constituents.
6. We need a stronger regulatory system. Our system is broken and one just can't blame agencies like the SEC.
7. If we expect agencies like the SEC to work, Congress needs to provide them with more money to engage in real regulatory enforcement.
8. There are many good folks in DOJ, including AG Holder, who look longterm at stopping corporate wrongdoing. But there are also individuals in DOJ who fail to see the ramifications of what may seem like short-term benefits.
9. Corporate crime can be reduced if everyone - the corporation, government, and also the individual constituents would work together.
10. It would be beneficial in reducing corporate crime if there was more transparency. We all need to hear what works - when there are declinations of prosecutions, or when an agency decides not to fine a company. We can learn from the good things companies do (anonymously) and when DOJ declines to proceed against the company.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
To the surprise of nobody I know, Mathew Martoma, the former SAC Capital portfolio manager, was convicted of insider trading last Thursday by a Southern District of New York jury. The evidence at trial was very strong. It demonstrated that Martoma had befriended two doctors advising two drug companies on the trial of an experimental drug, received confidential information from them about the disappointing result of the drug trial prior to the public announcement, and then had a 20-minute telephone conversation with Steven A. Cohen, the SAC chair, a day or so before Cohen ordered that SAC's positions in these companies be sold off. The purported monetary benefit to SAC, in gains and avoidance of loss, of the trades resulting from the inside information is about $275 million, suggesting that Martoma receive a sentence of over 15 years under the primarily amount-driven Sentencing Guidelines (although I expect the actual sentence will be considerably less).
Cohen is white-collar Public Enemy No. 1 to the Department of Justice, at least in its most productive white-collar office, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District. That office has already brought monumental parallel criminal and civil cases against SAC, receiving a settlement of $1.8 billion, about a fifth of Cohen's reported personal net worth, but it has apparently not garnered sufficient evidence against Cohen to give it confidence that an indictment will lead to his conviction. It had granted a total "walk" -- a non-prosecution agreement -- to the two doctors whose testimony it felt it needed to convict Martoma, unusually lenient concessions by an office that almost always requires substantial (and often insubstantial) white-collar wrongdoers seeking a cooperation deal to plead to a felony. As an FBI agent told one of the doctor/co-conspirators, the doctors and Martoma were "grains of sand;" the government was after Cohen.
In an article in the New York Times last Friday, James B. Stewart, an excellent writer whose analyses I almost always agree with, asked a question many lawyers, including myself, have asked: why didn't Martoma cooperate with the government and give up Cohen in exchange for leniency? Mr. Stewart's answer was essentially that Martoma was unmarketable to the government because he would have been destroyed on cross-examination by revelation of his years-ago doctoring his Harvard Law School grades to attempt to secure a federal judicial clerkship and covering up that falsification by other document tampering and lying. Mr. Stewart quotes one lawyer as saying Martoma would be made "mincemeat" after defense cross-examination, another as saying he would be "toast," and a third as saying that without solid corroborating evidence, "his testimony would be of little use." See here.
I strongly disagree with Mr. Stewart and his three sources. The prosecution, I believe, would have welcomed Mr. Martoma to the government team in a New York minute -- assuming Martoma would have been able to provide believable testimony that Mr. Cohen was made aware of the inside information in that 20-minute conversation. When one is really hungry -- and the Department of Justice is really hungry for Steven A. Cohen -- one will eat the only food available, even if it's "mincemeat" and "toast." And there is certainly no moral question here; the government gave Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, a multiple murderer, a virtual pass to induce him to testify against John Gotti. Given the seemingly irrefutable direct, circumstantial and background evidence (including, specifically, the phone call, the fact that Cohen ordered the trades and reaped the benefit, and generally, whatever evidence from the civil and criminal cases against SAC is admissible against Cohen), testimony by Martoma to the effect he told Cohen, even indirectly or unspecifically, about the information he received from the doctors would, I believe, have most likely led to Cohen's indictment.
I have no idea why Martoma did not choose to cooperate, if, as I believe, he had the opportunity. "Cooperation," as it is euphemistically called, would require from Martoma a plea of guilty and, very likely in view of the amount of money involved, a not insubstantial prison term (although many years less than he will likely receive after his conviction by trial). Perhaps Martoma, who put on a spirited if unconvincing defense after being caught altering his law school transcript, is just a fighter who does not easily surrender or, some would say, "face reality," even if the result of such surrender would be a comparatively short jail sentence. (In a way, that choice is refreshing, reminding me of the days defense lawyers defended more than pleaded and/or cooperated.) Perhaps Martoma felt cooperation, a condition of which is generally full admission of all prior crimes and bad acts, would reveal other wrongs and lead to financial losses by him and his family beyond those he faces in this case. Perhaps he felt loyalty -- which it has been demonstrated is a somewhat uncommon trait among those charged with insider trading -- to Cohen, who has reportedly paid his legal fees and treated him well financially (and perhaps Martoma hopes will continue to do so), or perhaps to others he would have to implicate.
And perhaps -- perhaps -- the truth is that in his conversation with Cohen, he did not tell Cohen either because of caution while talking on a telephone, a deliberate effort to conceal from Cohen direct inside information, or another reason, and he is honest enough not to fudge the truth to please the eager prosecutors, as some cooperators do. In such a case his truthful testimony would have been unhelpful to prosecutors bent on charging Cohen. That neutral testimony or information, if proffered, which the skeptical prosecutors would find difficult to believe, would at best get him ice in this very cold wintertime. Lastly, however unlikely, perhaps Martoma believed or still believes he is, or conceivably actually is, innocent.
In any case, it is not necessarily too late for Martoma to change his mind and get a benefit from cooperation. The government would, I believe, be willing to alter favorably its sentencing recommendation if Martoma provides information or testimony leading to or supporting the prosecution of Cohen. Indeed, I believe the government would ordinarily jump at a trade of evidence against Cohen for a recommendation of leniency (or less harshness), even if Martoma is now even less attractive as a witness than before he was convicted (although far more attractive than if he had testified as to his innocence). However, the five-year statute of limitations for the July 2008 criminal activity in this matter has apparently run, and an indictment for substantive insider trading against Cohen for these trades is very probably time-barred.
To be sure, federal prosecutors have attempted -- not always successfully (see United States v. Grimm; see here) -- imaginative solutions to statute of limitations problems. And, if the government can prove that Cohen had committed even a minor insider trading conspiratorial act within the past five years (and there are other potential cooperators, like recently-convicted SAC manager Michael Steinberg, out there), the broad conspiracy statutes might well allow Martoma's potential testimony, however dated, to support a far-ranging conspiracy charge (since the statute of limitations for conspiracy is satisfied by a single overt act within the statutory period). In such a case, Martoma may yet get some considerable benefit from cooperating, however belatedly it came about.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
This interesting question is raised in a recent filing of a Petition for Cert in the U.S. Supreme Court - Stinn v. United States. The case emanates from the Second Circuit and presents a jurisdictional split on whether employee compensation should be allowed as "money or property." Petitioner raises the following two questions:
1. Whether there are any limits on the extent to which employee compensation satisfies the “money or property” element of the Title 18 fraud statutes and, if so, what factual determinations by the jury are necessary to implement those limits.
2. Whether the property-loss requirement of the Title 18 fraud statutes is satisfied with proof that shareholders were denied their “intangible right to information or control.”
One also has to wonder about the government's prosecution of cases related to employer-employee relations. Shouldn't these matters be civil actions? And with limited resources, wouldn't resources be better spent on identity theft and other serious crimes.
Friday, December 27, 2013
In the current New York Review of Books, Judge Jed Rakoff presents the most thoughtful, balanced analysis I have seen to date regarding DOJ's failure to prosecute high-level executives at elite financial institutions in connection with the recent financial crisis. Appropriately entitled, The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High Level Executives Been Prosecuted?, Judge Rakoff is careful not to point fingers, rush to judgment, or even allege that fraud has definitively been established. And that's a big part of the DOJ's problem. How can you establish fraud if the effort to investigate it has been haphazard and understaffed from the outset? Rakoff is someone worth listening to. An unusually thoughtful federal district judge, he has presided over many significant securities and bank fraud cases, served as chief of the Securities Fraud Unit in the SDNY U.S. Attorney's Office, and worked as a defense attorney. Oh yeah. He also hates the Sentencing Guidelines.
Among the many theories Rakoff posits for the failure to prosecute what, it bears repeating, only may have been fraud, are two that I take issue with. These investigations were apparently parceled out to to various OUSA districts, rather than being concentrated in the SDNY. Judge Rakoff believes that the SDNY would have been the more logical choice, as it has more experience in sophisticated fraud investigations. This may be true as a general proposition. But the most plausible historical fraud model for the mortgage meltdown-fueled financial crisis is the Savings & Loan Scandal of the late 1980s, so successfully prosecuted by DOJ into the mid-1990s. The SDNY had very little of that action.
Judge Rakoff also notes the government's role in creating the conditions that led to the current crisis as a potential prosecution pitfall. But this did not stop the S&L prosecutors from forging ahead in their cases. Back then, virtually every S&L criminal defendant claimed that the government had created that crisis by establishing, and then abandoning, Regulatory Accounting Principles, aka RAP. (One marked difference between the two scandals is that the S&L Scandal was immediately met with public outrage and a sustained Executive Branch commitment to investigate and prosecute where warranted. The sustained Executive Branch commitment has not happened this time around, for whatever reason.)
But these are minor quibbles and Judge Rakoff is spot on in most of his observations.
Judge Rakoff is right to reject the "revolving door" theory of non-prosecution. Any prosecutor worth his salt would love to make a name for himself, and would definitely enhance his private sector marketability, by winning one of these cases. Judge Rakoff also correctly notes that these cases are hard and time-consuming to investigate.
The judge's most salient point has nothing to do with the various theories for DOJ's failure to prosecute. Instead, it is his observation that there is no substitute for holding financial elites responsible for their major criminal misdeeds. The compliance and deferred prosecution agreements favored today are simply a cost of doing business for most big corporations. What's worse, in the current environment, DOJ is giving a walk to elite financial actors and simultaneously prosecuting middle-class pikers with a vengeance that is sickening to behold. The elite financial actors may not have committed criminal fraud, but many of them bear heavy responsibility for the ensuing mess. It is so much easier for DOJ to rack up the stats by picking the low hanging fruit.
The one thing Judge Rakoff cannot do, and does not try to do, is answer the question of whether criminal fraud occurred in the highest sectors of our financial world. The answer to that question can only be supplied, at least as an initial matter, by the AUSA in charge of each investigation. And if no prosecution occurs, you and I are unlikely to ever know the reason why.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Yesterday, in U.S. v. Under Seal (4th Cir. 2013), the Fourth Circuit, joining several other federal circuits, extended the Fifth Amendment's Required Records Exception to records of foreign bank accounts required to be maintained pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act ("BSA"). John and Jane Doe received a subpoena to turn over records of their Swiss bank accounts. They responded that complying with the subpoena compelled them to testify against themselves, as they were required to create and maintain such records pursuant to the BSA. They also argued that the long-standing, judicially-created, Required Records Exception did not apply in this case, because the BSA's record-keeping provisions are essentially criminal, rather than regulatory, in nature. The district court disagreed, the Does took civil contempt, and an appeal ensued. Unsurprisingly, the Fourth Circuit sided with the government, accepting its argument that the BSA's record-keeping provisions are essentially regulatory in nature. You are shocked? There's not exactly a strong constituency, public or judicial, for foreign bank account tax evasion.
Friday, November 1, 2013
Business Week has the story here. Former BDO Seidman CEO Denis Field, represented by Sharon McCarthy of Kostelanetz & Fink LLP, was acquitted on all seven counts he faced. Paul Daugerdas, former head of now-defunct Jenkens & Gilchrist's Chicago office, was convicted on seven of 16 counts. The original convictions against Daugerdas and Field were thrown out by SDNY Judge William Pauley after a juror's misconduct was brought to light.
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.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
USA Today has this story. Here is the interesting part, at least to federal sentencing aficionados. Renzi took the government to trial. Judge David Bury calculated Renzi's U.S. Sentencing Guidelines range at 97-121 months. (The government asked for a 9-12 year sentence.) Judge Bury downwardly varied to 36 months. This is striking, and yet another example of the Guidelines losing their luster in white collar cases. Under the law the Guidelines must be considered, but in an increasing number of cases they are being considered and ignored or discounted.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Many years ago I authored an article titled, "Do We Need a 'Beanie Baby' Fraud Statute?" The Article considered how specific a statute needs to be to provide proper due process to a criminal defendant. It focused on the breadth of the mail fraud statute, while also recommending that criminal statutes cannot be created for every unique circumstance - like "Beanie Baby" fraud. It was written at the height of the time when individuals were committing crimes of fraud with "Beanie Babies." In some cases, the company producing this product was the victim of the fraud.
Another side of "Beanie Babies" is mentioned this past week - and it relates to the CEO of Ty Warner, who was the creator of "Beanie Babies." A DOJ Press Release tells that H.Ty Warner was charged with tax evasion for allegedly hiding funds in a secret Swiss offshore account. The press release states, "[t]hrough his attorney, Warner authorized the government to disclose that he is cooperating with the Internal Revenue Service and will plead guilty to the charge." According to the DOJ Press Release, "Warner is the second taxpayer charged in Federal Court in Chicago in connection with an ongoing investigation of U.S. taxpayer clients of Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) and other overseas banks that hid foreign accounts from the Internal Revenue Service."
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Political prisoner Tom DeLay had his money laundering convictions reversed today, based on insufficency of the evidence, by Texas' Third Court of Appeals sitting in Austin. The 2-1 majority opinion held that there was no underlying violation of the Texas Election Code, and hence no illegal proceeds to be laundered. Thus ends, for now, one of the most abusive and unfair political prosecutions in recent Texas history. The State can appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The majority opinion is here. The opinion reveals that the jury twice asked, in essence, whether DeLay could be guilty of money laundering if the "proceeds" were not originally procured in violation of law. In each instance, the trial court refused, at the State's urging, to answer the jury's question. How pathetic. Hat tip to Dave Westheimer for bringing the decision to my attention.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Move over, Emmet Sullivan and Carmac Carney. Add Kurt D. Engelhardt to the Honor Roll roster of federal district judges willing to speak truth to the U.S. Department of Justice. Willing to speak truth and to do something about it. Here is Judge Engelhardt's Danziger Bridge Mistrial Order, issued yesterday in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and dismissing without prejudice all guilty verdicts obtained by the government in United States v. Kenneth Bowen, et al. This was the federal civil rights prosecution of New Orleans police officers allegedly involved in a horrific shooting of civilians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The mistrial was granted primarily due to a secret campaign of prejudicial publicity carried out through social media by members of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans and a DOJ Civil Rights Division attorney in DC. But Judge Engelhardt's opinion raises several other troubling issues concerning the conduct of the trial, DOJ's post-trial investigation of what happened during the trial, and possible meddling by the Deputy AG's office in that investigation.
I will have more to say about these issues in the coming days. It is clear that Judge Engelhardt does not believe he has received anything like the full story from DOJ. It is clear that appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate the entire affair is in order. And it is clear, if history is any judge, that no such appointment will be forthcoming from this attorney general.
Judge Engelhardt's opinion is lengthy, but one that should be required reading for every criminal defense attorney who practices in federal court and every DOJ prosecutor throughout the land. For now, I leave you with Judge Engelhardt's stirring words, taken from some of the closing paragraphs:
On July 12, 2010, the indictment in this case was announced with much fanfare, a major press conference provided over by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and widespread media attention. On that occasion, a DOJ representative said that the indictments 'are a reminder that the Constitution and the rule of law do not take a holiday--even after a hurricane.' While quite true in every respect, the Court must remind the DOJ that the Code of Federal Regulations, and various Rules of Professional Responsibility, and ethics likewise do not take a holiday--even in a high-stakes criminal prosecution, and even in the anonymity of cyberspace. While fully appreciating the horrific events of September 4, 2005, and those who tragically suffered as a result, the Court simply cannot allow the integrity of the justice system to become a casualty in a mere prosecutorial game of qualsiasi mezzo.
Some may consider the undersigned's view of the cited rules and regulations as atavistic; but courts can ignore this online 'secret' social media misconduct at their own peril. Indeed the time may soon come when, some day, some court may overlook, minimize, accept, or deem such prosecutorial misconduct harmless 'fun.' Today is not that day, and Section N of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana is not that court.
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Yesterday the Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed and remanded (7-2) a Section 1014 (and Section 317) conviction connected to the mortgage meltdown crisis. Judge Posner wrote the majority opinion. Chief Judge Easterbrook (joined by Judge Bauer) dissented. The opinion is United States v. Lacey Phillips and Erin Hall.
Section 1014 prohibits making any false statement or report for the purpose of influencing in any way a federally insured bank. Longstanding case law requires the government to prove that the defendant knew the statement was false at the time it was made. Phillips and Hall were an unmarried couple who applied for a home loan and were rejected. Hall then contacted his friend Bowling, a mortgage broker, who began advising Hall and Phillips and ultimately led them to a different bank, Fremont Investment & Loan, which granted a home loan to Phillips. Hall was not listed as a borrower. This was a stated income loan, also known in the industry as a liar's loan.
Phillips and Hall could not keep up with the payments and lost their home. A prosecution ensued. There were several false statements on the loan application, but Phillips and Hall testified that they only were aware of one of the statements, which was as follows. Under the Borrower's Income line, Phillips put down the couple's combined income.
Phillips and Hall wanted to testify that Bowling told them: 1) Phillips should be the only applicant for the stated-income loan, because her credit history was good while Hall's was bad because of the recent bankruptcy; 2) Hall's income should be added to Phillips' on the line that asked for borrower's gross monthly income; and 3) adding the incomes together was proper in the case of a stated income loan, because the bank was actually asking for the total income from which the loan would be repaid, rather than just the borrower's income.
The government wanted to keep this testimony from the jury and U.S. District Court Barbara Crabb (I kid you not) agreed. The Seventh Circuit, per Posner, reversed, in an unnecessarily complicated opinion, but one that is nevertheless fun and instructive to read.
I see it this way. According to Phillips and Hall, Bowling told them that, to Fremont Investment & Loan, Borrower's Income meant the total income from which the loan would be repaid. They were in essence informed that Borrower's Income was a term of art for Fremont. If Phillips and Hall believed that Borrower's Income meant (to Fremont) Combined Income of the People Repaying the Loan, then Phillips and Hall were not making a statement to Fremont that they knew was false. Their state of mind on this point was directly at issue. Theirs may have been be an implausible story, but the jury was allowed to hear it. Judge Posner's opinion has some important things to say about terms of art and interpretation of seemingly simple terms.
This case reminds me of a home loan I took out while I was an AUSA. The bulk of the down payment was being paid through my Thrift Savings Plan. That is, I was loaning myself money out of my government retirement fund. At the time, all of the standard loan applications required the borrower to state that no part of the down payment was coming from a loan. I asked my real estate agent and the mortgage broker whether that language applied to a Thrift Savings Plan Loan. They assured me that it did not. So, when I wrote down on the application that no part of my down payment came from a loan, I knew that in one sense this might be considered false, but to the bank, and presumably to any bank, it would be considered true, because the bank did not consider a Thrift Savings Plan Loan to be a loan. Had I defaulted and been prosecuted, I would have liked to present this as a defense, and it is hard to believe that any competent judge would have prevented me from doing so. But Judge Crabb did not allow this kind of evidence in, and Judge Easterbrook cheers her on.
Judge Easterbrook points out that the jury, in finding Phillips and Hall guilty, already determined that the couple knew several statements on the loan application were false. This is back-asswards and misses the point. This is not a sufficiency of the evidence case. If the jurors had heard the excluded testimony, they may well have been more likely to believe Phillips' and Halls' testimony that the rest of the false statements were made and submitted by Bowling without their knowledge. According to Posner, there was evidence to the effect that Phillips and Hall were naive, while Bowling (who pled guilty and cooperated) and Fremont (a bank that Posner deems disreputable) were sophisticated.
Of course, it is appalling and embarrassing that any self-respecting U.S. Attorney's Office would prosecute a case like this, but it is all part of DOJ's Piker Mortgage Fraud Initiative. Even more embarrassing was the government's contention on appeal that the excluded statements were hearsay. Posner called this a "surprising mistake for a Justice Department lawyer." I'm not so sure. Maybe it wasn't a mistake.
Monday, September 2, 2013
In United States v. Vilar, the Second Circuit examined a post-Morrison decision with an issue of whether Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 applies to extraterritorial criminal conduct. The government had argued that the Supreme Court's decision in Bowman allowed for an extraterritorial application and that civil and criminal conduct should be treated differently and thus Morrison should not apply. The Second Circuit disagreed with the government saying that the Bowman decision was limited to conduct that was "aimed at protecting 'the right of the government to defend itself.'" In contrast, statutes such as 10(b) have as its "purpose [ ] to prohibit 'crimes against private individuals or their property,'" and therefore "the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to criminal statutes, and Section 10(b) is no exception."
The court also noted that "[a] statute either applies extraterritorially or it does not, and once it is determined that a statute does not apply extraterritorially, the only question we must answer in the individual case is whether the relevant conduct occurred in the territory of a foreign sovereign." Despite this legal analysis and ruling, the court found that there was no plain error with respect to territoriality on the counts here and thus no need to reverse on this issue.
Other issues raised by the defendants, such as those relating to a search warrant, jury instructions, and the admission of statements were found not to be in error. The court did, however, remand the sentence.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
United States v. Orthofix, Inc was an important decision for several reasons. First, the Memorandum Opinion issued by Judge Young (D. Mass), on July 26, 2013, takes a turn in what typically happens when there is a corporate plea arrangement. Second, the judge explains at length policy considerations for sentencing corporations. The case also raises questions for the future of corporate plea agreements.
This decision involves two cases involving corporate pleas where the court rejected the pleas. The court notes the importance of considering the "public interest" in accepting pleas. Hon. Young states:
"Just as the Court must take account of the public interest when it exercises its discretion to fashion its own sentence, so too the Court must take account of the public interest when called upon to review a sentencing recommendation attached to a plea bargain."
The court considers the history behind plea bargains and contract law and notes the problem of considering it as a prosecution-defense relationship as opposed to a triadic relationship. Hon. Young states, that "this Court makes no attempt to question the policy choices of executive administrative agencies; it merely seeks to ensure that the sentence imposed upon Orthofix fosters (1) the protection of the public, (2) specific and general deterence, and (3) respect for the law."
The court states that "[o]rganizational criminals pose greater concerns than natural persons for two important reasons." One of the concerns raised in the case of Orthofix, by the court, was that the plea of five years failed to impose the Corporate Integrity Agreement as part of the probation.
This Memorandum decision raises other interesting questions that were not discussed here, and perhaps not relevant to these matters. But one has to wonder whether courts should also be examining plea agreements that place undue pressure on corporations and individuals to plea because the risk of going to trial is too severe? In a post-Arthur Andersen world do corporations have the choice of risking a trial or is the necessity of entering a plea too great to avoid the repercussions of an indictment and possible conviction? Should oversight of pleas go beyond the sentencing aspect to also scrutinze the bargaining position of the parties and the fairness of the general bargain?
See also Doug Berman's Sentencing Law & Policy Blog here, Jef Feeley & Janelle Lawrence, Bloomberg's, Orthofix’s Settlement of Medicare Probe Rejected by Judge
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
The Fourth Circuit has issued a rare and stern rebuke to the Eastern District of North Carolina U.S. Attorney's Office, for what the panel describes as repeated failures to disclose exculpatory evidence on the part of some of the office's prosecutors. Judge Floyd also directed that the opinion be sent to AG Holder and DOJ's OPR. This is remarkable. EDVA District Court Judge Henry Hudson was on the panel, sitting by designation, and concurred in the opinion. The Raleigh News & Observor has the story here. The opinion, U.S. v. Bartko, is here. The pertinent pages are 24-30.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Financial Meltdown Prosecutions Against Elite Actors? File Them Under "I'll Believe It When I See It."
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, reported here, Attorney General Holder promises that "he plans to announce new cases stemming from the economic meltdown in the coming months." Some media outlets have interpreted this as a harbinger of criminal prosecutions, but Holder did not indicate whether the cases would be civil or criminal. Any civil case against the likes of a major bank or investment house can be filed under "Costs of Doing Business." In addition to the civil-criminal wiggle room Holder allowed himself, the definition of "cases stemming from the economic meltdown" is broad enough to cover a multitude of alleged malfeasance. Is DOJ going to prosecute people who purportedly contributed to the meltdown through fraudulent omissions and commissions? Or will it bring desultory civil cases based on conduct that occurred in the wake of the meltdown? According to the article, Professor John Coffee "expected the five-year statute of limitations on many white-collar crimes may bar a successful prosecution of a number of pre-crash abuses." But virtually any federal criminal financial institution fraud case can be brought within 10 years, thanks to FIRREA. Criminally fraudulent activity involving a financial institution that occurred in May 2006 could be charged as late as 2016.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Well, DOJ didn't admit it in those exact words. The tone and content were more Ziegleresque: "[T]he announcement overstated the number of defendants that should have been included as part of the Distressed Homeowner Initiative, as well as the corresponding estimated loss amount and number of victims." The original press release and press conference in October 2012 touted "the results of the Distressed Homeowner Initiative, the first-ever nationwide effort to target fraud schemes that prey upon suffering homeowners. The yearlong initiative, launched by the FBI, a co-chair of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force’s Mortgage Fraud Working Group, resulted in 107 criminal defendants charged in U.S. District Courts across the country. These cases involved more than 17,185 homeowner victims and total losses by those victims estimated by law enforcement at more than $95 million." It turns out the numbers given for people arrested, victims affected, and losses incurred were grossly inflated. Jonathan Weil's blistering Bloomberg.com column discussing the rigged numbers is here. The original press release and Newspeak retraction are here. No doubt DOJ is working up a Section 1001 case right now against the folks who gave out these numbers. I don't usually quote socialists, but I.F. Stone's favorite saying now comes to mind: "All governments are run by liars." Hat Tip to Professor William Black for bringing this story to my attention.
Monday, August 12, 2013
I posted here last October on Guts and the DC Bar Counsel: The Case of Andrew J. Klineand asked:
"What is the solution to the persistent blight of jaw-droppingly obvious Brady/Giglio violations? One solution is to bring ethical complaints against purportedly miscreant prosecutors in appropriate instances. Which brings us to the case of former DC AUSA Andrew J. Kline, currently making its way through the bar disciplinary process . . . DC Bar Counsel wants Kline censured for an alleged Brady/Giglio violation that also runs afoul, according to Bar Counsel, of the arguably broader Rule 3.8(e) of the DC Rules of Professional Conduct . Rule 3.8(e) 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 . . . .'
The defense bar often talks about using various state versions of Rule 3.8(e) in tandem with Brady/Giglio, in part to get around the Brady/Giglio materiality problem. Here is a Bar Counsel actually doing something about it. Kline vigorously denies that the withheld information was material or that he intentionally engaged in any wrongdoing.
What information did Kline actually withhold? He 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. When the trial court found out about the hospital statement and that it had not been disclosed before the first trial because Kline did not consider it exculpatory, the court was thunderstruck: 'I don’t see how any prosecutor could take that position. . . I don’t see how any prosecutor anywhere in any state in the country, could say I don’t have to turn that over because I think I know why he said that.' See DC Bar Counsel's corrected Brief at 8.
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.
Kline's position now is that the hospital statement was not material, hence not Brady, because Boyd was in pain and being treated for a gunshot wound at the time and because Shelton was ultimately convicted upon retrial.
Bar Counsel's position is that the withheld hospital statement was material and exculpatory and therefore Brady material, but that even if it was not Brady material, the failure to turn it over violated Rule 3.8(e). Bar Counsel seeks a public censure of Mr. Kline."
That was back in October 2012. At the time of the original post, Kline was in the process of contesting Hearing Committee Number Nine's Report and Recommendation to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals Board on Professional Responsibility (Board). The Board issued its own Report and Recommendation on July 31, 2013, upholding the Hearing Committee, but changing the recommended sanction from public censure to 30 days suspension.
The Board accepted the Hearing Committee's factual and legal conclusions and found that: 1) the withheld statement was material; and 2) even if it had not been material, Rule 3.8(e) required its disclosure, because Rule 3.8(e) does not contain a materiality element. The Board also agreed that: 1) Kline knew or should have known that the information tended to negate the guilt of the accused; 2) the defense requested the exculpatory information at a time when its use was reasonably feasible; and 3) the failure to turn over the statement was intentional.
The DOJ, which says it cares so much about respecting the constitutional rule announced 50 years ago in Brady v. Maryland, came in with an amicus brief arguing that the withheld statement was not material. How appalling.