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.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
1. Barring a miracle, the government will win.
2. The law on corporate criminal liability may be unfair, but it has been around since 1909.
3. The government has to prove that: a) at least one SAC employee committed securities/wire fraud (several have already pled guilty); b) the employee was acting within the actual or apparent scope of his/her authority/employment at the time; and c) the employee intended, even in part, to benefit the corporation.
4. If the government can prove the above elements it will win, even if the employees who engaged in securities fraud/insider trading violated SAC's insider trading compliance policies or Steven Cohen's direct orders.
5. Give credit where credit is due. This is a well-crafted speaking indictment. Preet Bharara alleged more than he will technically need to prove at trial. He charged that SAC created an atmosphere in which insider trading was bound to flourish. Why did he do this? First, to make his case in the court of public opinion. Second, to help prevent jury nullification. Third, to rebut a defense that the guilty employees were acting against the interests of the company. Here is the SAC Indictment.
6. The attempt to obtain all of SAC's profits through criminal forfeiture allegations is, to put it mildly, a stretch. Significantly, the government did not try to seize funds through civil forfeiture in conjunction with the indictment. This was only partly to protect innocent third parties. The government also did not want to see its resources diverted, give up unnecessary discovery, or embarrass itself.
7. Like John Dowd in the Rajaratnam case, Ted Wells is in the catbird seat. No one in the criminal defense bar expects him to win. If he loses it will in no way dim his reputation. If he wins, he achieves true legendary status. Conversely, no AUSA worth his/her salt can afford to lose this case.
8. How to defend this case? By arguing that all the employees who pled guilty were greedy sorts who were in it 100% for themselves. They could not have intended to benefit the company, because the company made it so clear, time and again, that insider trading actually was bad for the company. Hence the key importance of the indictment's allegations that SAC's compliance policy was essentially a sham.
9. Insider trading law may be stupid, but, contrary to popular myth, is not for the most part vague or confusing to the professionals who have spent their careers in the securities industry.
10. When an employee vocalizes his reluctance to say more over the telephone, concomitantly referencing his "compliance" training, it's a pretty safe bet he knows insider trading is illegal.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
Yet another story from NPR, with the obligatory quotes from Bill Black and Neil Barofsky, about DOJ's abject failure to properly investigate and prosecute high-ranking corporate insiders for fraud-related activity in connection with the financial crisis. This is the major criminal justice story, and scandal, of the Obama-Holder Administration. From the standpoint of elite corporate fraudsters, the Republicans could not have fashioned a better Dream Team at DOJ. The glaring exception here appears to be Preet Bharera. But it's easier to go after insider trading than control fraud.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Yesterday, in United States v. Goffer, an insider trading/securities fraud criminal appeal, the Second Circuit again refused to alter a standard conscious avoidance jury instruction to comport more fully with the Supreme Court's opinion in Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A., 131 S.Ct. 2060, 2068-72 (2011). According to Judge Wesley, Global-Tech was not "designed to alter the substantive law. Global-Tech simply describes existing case law." The instruction given by the trial court "properly imposed the two requirements imposed by the Global-Tech decision." Moreover, Appellant Kimelman's request "that the district court insert the word 'reckless' into a list of mental states that were insufficient" was unnecessary, because "Global-Tech makes clear that instructions (such as those in this case) that require a defendant to take 'deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of wrongdoing' are inherently inconsistent 'with a reckless defendant...who merely knows of a substantial and unjustified risk of such wrongdoing."
I don't know. Sounds a little circular to me. According to Global-Tech, willful blindness has "an appropriately limited scope that surpasses recklessness and negligence." Why not just say it squarely in a jury instruction? The problem here is that district courts are generally afraid to alter standard jury instructions in light of emerging case law. And appellate courts are generally reluctant to vacate major securities fraud convictions unless the jury instructions are blatantly improper. The Goffer opinion can be found here.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
The mark of the beast is fading a little, at least in the First Circuit. Amidst the hubbub of the Supreme Court's Wednesday rulings, the First Circuit quietly decided that 18 U.S.C. Section 666 can't be read to prohibit gratuities. This sets up a circuit split. The opinion in United States v. Fernandez & Maldanado is here.
Congratulations to Martin Weinberg, David Chesnoff, Kimberly Homan and Jose Pagan, who were on the brief for Appellant Bravo Fernandez. Congratulations to Abbe Lowell and Christopher Man, who were on the brief for Appellant Martinez Maldonado.
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
In Sekhar v. United States, the Supreme Court looked at the question of "whether attempting to compel a person to recommend that his employer approve an investment constitutes 'the obtaining of property from another' under 18 U.S.C. s 1951(b)(2)," the Hobbs Act. The Hobbs Act has been a statute of choice for federal prosecutors in many white collar cases. Its heavy penalty provisions offer increased sentence posibilities when the defendant knowingly and willfully induced someone to part with property by extorionate means and there has been interstate commerce.
In Sekhar, the issue arose from an alleged threat to disclose an alleged affair following a general counsel's written recommendation to a state comptroller not to invest in a fund. Although the jury form offered three options of the possible property of the attempted extortion, the jury selected only the third option - "the General Counsel's recommendation to approve the Commitment." The Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit finding that this was not extortion.
The Court issued an unanimous holding with three concurrences. Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, stated that:
"As far as is known, no case predating the Hobbs Act - English, federal, or state - ever identified conduct such as that charged here as extiotionate. Extortion required the obtaining of items of value, typically cash, from the victim."
The opinion provides a wonderful history of the Hobbs Act, and highlights how "extortion" requires "obtaining property from another." The Court holds that "[t]he property extorted must therefore be transferable - that is, capable of passing from one person to another." Finding that the alleged property fails here, the Court reverses the convictions. The Court also goes on to say that you need "something of value." The Court states:
"The principle announced there [referencing its prior opinion in Scheidler] - that a defendant must pursue something of value from the victim that can be exercised, transferred, or sold - applies with equal force here. Whether one considers the personal right at issue to be property in a broad sense or not, it certainly was not obtainable property under the Hobbs Act." (footnotes omitted).
Citing to the prior decision in Cleveland, the Court holds that "an employee's yet-to-be-issued recommendation" is not obtainable property. Intangible property is not enough, it must be "obtainable property."
The Court emphasizes that coercion is not extortion, and Congress has not criminalized coercion in the Hobbs Act.
The three-person concurrence (Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Sotomayor), focuses on property and tries to limit the decision by saying that this case is an "outlier and that the jury's verdict stretches the concept of property beyond the breaking point." They reference the rule of lenity and although this concurrence agrees that Congress did not "classify internal recommendations pertaining to government decisions as property," they leave open the possibility that the government could perhaps have prosecuted "under some other theory."
My Commentary -
Bottom line - the government stretched the statute and they were caught.
This decision offers defense counsel strong arguments and requests for instructions in Hobbs Act cases. Limiting the definition of property to "obtainable property" and requiring a clear definition of when "something is of value" are likely to be requests coming from defense counsel in the future.
My advice to the government - - there is real crime out there, please put our valuable resources into prosecuting it!
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
It's a relatively short opinion issued by the Second Circuit, and 24 of the 29 pages pertain to a summary of the holding, facts, and the wiretap order used in this case. For background on the issues raised, the briefs (including amici briefs), see here. Judge Cabranes wrote the majority opinion, joined by judges Hon. Sack and Hon. Carney. A summary of the holding states:
In affirming his judgment of conviction, we conclude that: (1) the District Court properly analyzed the alleged misstatements and omissions in the government’s wiretap application under the analytical framework prescribed by the Supreme Court in Franks; (2) the alleged misstatements and omissions in the wiretap application did not require suppression, both because, contrary to the District Court’s conclusion, the government did not omit information about the SEC investigation of Rajaratnam with "reckless disregard for the truth," and because, as the District Court correctly concluded, all of the alleged misstatements and omissions were not "material"; and (3) the jury instructions on the use of inside information satisfy the "knowing possession" standard that is the law of this Circuit.
Some highlights and commentary:
1. The Second Circuit goes further than the district court in supporting the government's actions with respect to the wiretap order.
2. The Second Circuit agrees with the lower court that a Franks hearing is the standard to be used with a wiretap order where there is a claim of misstatements and omissions in the government's wiretap application. The Second Circuit notes that the Supreme Court has "narrowed the circumstances in which ...[courts] apply the exclusionary rule." But the question here is whether the Supreme Court has really addressed the wiretap question in this context and whether a cert petition will be forthcoming with this issue.
3. Although the Second Circuit uses the same basic test in reviewing the wiretap, it finds that "the District Court erred in applying the 'reckless disregard' standard because the court failed to consider the actual states of mind of the wiretap applicants." The Second Circuit then goes a step further and finds that omission of evidence does not mean that the wiretap applicant acted with "reckless disregard for the truth."
4. The court states that "the inference is particularly inappropriate where the government comes forward with evidence indicating that the omission resulted from nothing more than negligence, or that the omission was the result of considered and reasonable judgment that the information was not necessary to the wiretap application." - This dicta provides the government with strong language in future cases when they just happen to negligently leave something out of a wiretap application.
5. Does the CSX Transportation decision by the Supreme Court call into question Second Circuit precedent? The Second Circuit is holding firm with its prior decisions. But will the Supreme Court decide to take this on, and if so, will it take a different position.
Monday, June 24, 2013
In what should be a surprise to no one, the Wall Street Journal editorial page today launched an attack on James Comey, President Obama's nominee to be the next FBI Director. The primary offenses? Comey's objection to the Bush Administration's illegal warrantless wiretapping and Comey's appointment of Patrick Fitzgerald as Special Counsel to investigate the Valerie Plame leak. The editorial is here. More commentary on this in the next few days.
Coming soon: Professor Podgor's analysis of the Second Circuit's opinion afffirming Raj Rajaratnam's conviction for insider trading violations.
Friday, June 21, 2013
Judge Lake effectively ratified the deal struck months ago by federal prosecutors and the former Enron CEO. The agreement called for a sentence of from 14 to 17.5 years. Skilling agreed to stop fighting his conviction and to hand over restitution funds to the victims. He obviously gets credit for time already served. WSJ has the story here.
Despite all the promises and policy iterations we continue to see blatant DOJ Brady violations. These are violations that first year criminal procedure students would know not to commit. The latest to come to light is from the Eastern District of Tennessee.
Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed Abel Tavera's conviction for conspiracy to distribute meth and possession with intent to distribute meth. Tavera was the passenger in a truck involved in an undercover drug deal. He plausibly claimed no knowledge of the drug transaction, testifying that he thought he was heading to a roofing job. Some of the physical evidence tended to corroborate Tavera's story. The evidence against Tavera was almost entirely bottomed on the testimony of co-defendant Granado. Non-testifying co-defendant Mendoza debriefed. He first told the government that Tavera had no knowledge of the drug transaction. Later the same day Mendoza told the government that Tavera only gained knowledge of the drug transaction upon entering the truck on the day of the transaction. Mendoza also denied that Tavera came along to count money and provide security, and consistently stated that one of the purposes of the truck ride was to work on a roofing job. All of this was contradictory to Granado's ultimate testimony. Mendoza later pled guilty. Mendoza's written plea agreement stated: "Tavera knew that they were transporting methamphetamine from North Carolina to be delivered to another person in Tennessee and agreed to accompany [Mendoza]. Since they were transporting methamphetamine, Tavera told [Mendoza] that they needed to be careful." The prosecutor, AUSA Donald Taylor, failed to disclose Mendoza's earlier debriefing statements to the defense.
Judge Merritt, speaking for the majority, decided to send a message:
"This particular case is not close. Prosecutor Taylor's failure to disclose Mendoza's statements resulted in a due process violation. We therefore vacate Tavera's conviction and remand for a new trial. In addition, we recommend that the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of Tennessee conduct an investigation of why the prosecutorial error occurred and make sure that such Brady violations do not continue."
Tavera's attorney never tried to interview Mendoza. The government argued that no Brady violation occurred, under Sixth Circuit precedent. because Mendoza was equally available to both sides. The majority disagreed with this contention,and further found it foreclosed by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Banks v. Dretke, 540 U.S. 668 (2004). Judge Clay accepted the government's position regarding Sixth Circuit precedent and dissented.
The statements were plainly material and exculpatory. So the question remains, why is such conduct continuing to occur and what is the DOJ doing about it when it comes to light? Here, what one branch of the DOJ did was to argue that Brady wasn't violated.
These constitutional violations directly affect the fairness of federal criminal trials. They will never stop, absent legislation with teeth and/or a federal criminal defense bar willing to be fanatical in its intolerance of Brady violations.
Here is the decision in United States v. Tavera.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
FBI Special Agent Reginald Reyes' affidavit supporting DOJ's search warrant application for Fox News Reporter James Rosen's Google email account was ordered unsealed in November 2011. But it wasn't actually unsealed by the DC U.S. District Court's staff until late May of 2013. In other words, the affidavit was only unsealed several days after AG Holder testified that, "[w]ith regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I have ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy." Once the affidavit and search warrant application were unsealed, it became clear that Holder's testimony was inacurrate, as he had personally authorized the search warrant application. See here for yesterday's post on this issue.
DC Chief Judge Royce Lamberth is not happy about his staff's failure to unseal the affidavit and related documents. Here is Chief Judge Royce Lamberth's 5-23-2013 Order expressing his unhappiness.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
“Well, I would say this. With regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I have ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy.” Attorney General Eric Holder testifying under oath before the House Judiciary Committee on May 15, 2013.
"For the reasons set forth below, I believe there is probable cause to conclude that the contents of the wire and electronic communications pertaining to SUBJECT ACCOUNT, are evidence, fruits and instrumentalities of criminal violations of 18 U.S.C. [Section] 793 (Unauthorized Disclosure of National Defense Information), and that there is probable cause to believe that the Reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d), as an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator to which the materials relate." FBI Special Agent Reginald B. Reyes' May 28, 2010, Affidavit in Support of Search Warrant Application for Fox News Chief Washington Correspondent James Rosen's Google email account. The warrant was authorized by Attorney General Holder.
Note than in addition to identifying "the Reporter" as a probable aider, abettor and/or criminal co-conspirator, the affidavit explains that the Department of Justice is not bound by the Privacy Protection Act, otherwise prohibiting warrants for First Amendment work product, precisely because "the Reporter" was "suspected of committing the crime [18 U.S.C. Section 793(d)] under investigation."
There is no doubt that AG Holder gave false testimony to House Members under oath. He is an idiot if he did so intentionally, and he isn't an idiot. What should Holder have done to fix this mess? Corrected the record, of course. In the immortal words of Richard Nixon, "that would have been the easy thing to do."
Holder should have said: "Dear Representatives Goodlatte and Sensenbrenner. I screwed up. My testimony to you is now inoperative. I forgot that I authorized this affidavit, which clearly identifies a 'Reporter' as somebody under investigation for a crime. I did not intentionally try to deceive you. My statement was careless and overbroad. Please accept my apologies."
But the Attorney General apparently cannot not bring himself to do anything as straightforward as that. Instead he spends days sending out spinmeisters, most recently, and regrettably, Deputy Assistant AG Peter Kadzik, as reported here by Sari Horwitz in today's Washington Post.
How sad. Can you imagine anything like this happending under Attorney General Griffin Bell? Bell, a genuine protector of our civil liberties, most likely would have nixed the supboena in the first place. But if Bell had authorized it, he never would have shied away from the ensuing controversy or hidden behind his DOJ underlings.
Mr. Holder has received his fair share of undeserved, demagogic criticism from the kooky right. He deserves what he's getting now.
Here is a copy of the Reyes Affidavit.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday defended the Department of Justice's treatment of Aaron Swartz, the 26 year-old internet activist who committed suicide three months before his scheduled trial in federal court in Boston. Specifically, Holder, in response to questioning by Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, defended the prosecution by citing the plea offer, stating, "There was never an intention for him to go to jail for longer than a 3-, 4- potentially 5-month range . . . . Those, those offers were rejected."
Holder's response troubles me in at least two regards. First is his implicit belief that a five-month jail sentence for Swartz was lenient. Swartz' alleged crimes were clearly based on a heartfelt belief that the public was entitled to free access to knowledge, specifically to academic journals. He would receive no personal benefit for his actions. Perhaps in these days, where sentences of years in double digits are commonplace, a sentence of five months seems to Holder like a trip to Disneyland, but five months in jail for a fragile young man acting out of humanistic belief and causing only comparatively light physical damage does not seem lenient to me. Apparently, Swartz did not see it as light.
Second is Holder's further implicit assumption that government decency is satisfied by a reasonable plea offer and available only to those who plead guilty. Swartz was indicted originally for crimes theoretically punishable by up to 35 years in prison. Later, a superseding indictment which ratcheted the potential sentence up to 50 years was filed. Had Swartz exercised his constitutional right to go to trial and been convicted, I would have been shocked if the government would have sought a sentence of five months or less. Rather, it undoubtedly would have sought a long sentence, most likely in the sentencing guideline range of approximately seven years.
I do not condemn the government for prosecuting Swartz. Perhaps prosecuting him was cruel, but prosecutions are often cruel to defendants. Despite his noble intentions, Swartz arguably violated the law, and I do not believe a victim should control the decision to prosecute, one way or the other. I do not, however, believe that Swartz' purported crimes deserved the full-blown zealous prosecution they received. A prosecutor in the appropriate case should charge less than the most serious crimes available and not always exercise her power to the "full extent of the law." Prosecutorial decency, or prosecution discretion, should not be confined only to plea offers.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
One of the several troubling aspects of the continuing overcriminalization of federal law is the frequent elevation of a violation of civil regulation to a crime. In United States v. Izurieta, 11th Cir., 11-13585 (February 22, 2013), the Eleventh Circuit addressed this issue.
The defendants in Izurieta were convicted after trial by jury of violating the general smuggling statute, 18 U.S.C. 545, importing goods "contrary to law," by violating a customs regulation, 19 C.F.R. 142.113(c), in failing to redeliver to Customs for exportation or destruction goods purportedly contaminated with E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and/or Salmonella which had been conditionally released.
The defendants appealed on various grounds -- significantly not including whether the indictment sufficiently charged a crime by relying on the Customs regulation. At oral argument, however, the Court raised this issue sua sponte and ordered supplemental briefing.
Section 545, as pertinent here, reads:
Whoever fraudulently or knowingly imports or brings into the United States, any merchandise contrary to law, or in any manner facilitates the transportation, concealment, or sale of such merchandise after importation, knowing the same to have been imported or brought into the United States contrary to law . . . shall be fined . . . or imprisoned . . . .
The regulation or "law" upon the charges here were based covered the "failure to deliver, export, and destroy with FDA supervision" certain foods found to be adulterated. 19 C.F.R. 141.113(c).
The Court in its opinion recognized a split among circuits on when a regulation constitutes the "law" upon which a Section 545 indictment may be based. The Ninth Circuit in United States v. Alghazouli, 517 F.3d 1179, 1187 (9th Cir. 2008) took what the opinion called "a relatively narrow interpretation" of Section 545 that regulations are included in "law" only when "there is a statute (a 'law') that specifies that violation of that regulation is a crime." The Fourth Circuit in United States v. Mitchell, 39 F.3d 465, 470 (4th Cir. 1994), to the contrary, took what the opinion called a "more expansive" view, deciding that Section 545 criminalizes violations of any regulation "having the force and effect of law" based on a three-prong test.
The Court, while claiming its binding authority, Bobb v. United States, 252 F.2d 702, 707 (5th Cir. 1958) was consistent with the Fourth Circuit's "expansive" approach in Mitchell, applied the rule of lenity and held that the regulation in question did not qualify as a "law" for purposes of Section 545 liability. It found that the regulation in question was primarily to reflect contractual requirements between Customs and the importer and thus was "civil only."
The rule of lenity was premised, it said, on two ideas: first, that "a fair warning should be given . . . of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed" and, second, that "legislators and not courts should define criminal activity."
This apparent case-by-case approach, of course, does not establish a "bright line" as to when violations of an administrative regulation become a crime. Citizens and attorneys will often have to guess whether a violation of a regulation is a crime; that is, "what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed." The case may, however, curb the government's increasing efforts to convert violations of ostensible civil regulations into crimes.
This case should remind lawyers that the uncertainties in this area require that they pay attention at both the trial and appellate levels to the issue of whether a violation of an administrative regulation is a crime.
(A hat tip to Paul Kish and the Federal Criminal Lawyer Blog)
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
It is not often that I praise the Department of Justice ("DOJ"), especially for bringing a prosecution. However, I commend the decision to prosecute -- really prosecute, and not just indict and offer a deferred prosecution -- a UBS subsidiary for its role in manipulating the benchmark LIBOR interest rate. See here.
To be sure, UBS was allowed to offer as the defendant in this case a Japanese subsidiary (UBS Securities Japan Co. Ltd.), for which a conviction would bring considerably less collateral damage than it would upon the parent company. Substituting others for prosecution, whether corporations or individuals, of course, is not a common benefit offered to criminal targets. Nonetheless, for DOJ, bringing a prosecution against a major financial institution, even a subsidiary, is a considerable and commendable step.
Generally, I believe that prosecutions should not be brought against large institutions because of a few rogue employees, unless at least one is a director or "a high managerial agent acting within the scope of his employment and in behalf of the corporation." New York Penal Law Section 20.20(2)(b). See also Model Penal Code Section 2.07. UBS, however, is a serial offender with a history (not alone among Swiss and other banks) as an eager accomplice of money launderers and tax evaders throughout the world. Although UBS' belated and commendable efforts to clean up its act and cooperate deserve credit, in this case DOJ apparently felt it did not make up for its past conduct enough to deserve non-prosecution, and appropriately broke its usual pattern of allowing major financial institutions to avoid criminal convictions.
As a practical matter, one may ask what the difference is between an indictment/deferred prosecution (as occurred in the case of the parent, UBS AG of Zurich) and indictment/conviction if both ultimate results carry huge financial penalties and other requirements, such as monitoring. Aside from the collateral consequences -- which can, as in the obvious case of Arthur Andersen, be fatal to a major financial institution (although I agree to an extent with Gabriel Markoff (see here) that such a fear is exaggerated) -- the conviction here has importance as a symbol, and perhaps also a deterrent in both the specific and general aspects.
Although the huge UBS fines will be borne by current UBS shareholders (not necessarily the same stockholders who benefited from the LIBOR bid-rigging), one would hope that UBS makes an effort to recoup the substantial financial gains through bonuses and other compensation geared to profits that those in leadership and supervisory roles made as a result of UBS' now-admitted criminality even if those leaders were uninvolved or unaware of the wrongdoing. I suspect that there will be no such serious effort, or at least little or no success if there is one.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
On November 29, a divided panel of the Second Circuit vacated two out of four convictions obtained at trial by the government in the massive Ernst & Young (E&Y) tax shelter case, due to insufficient evidence. The opinion, United States v. Coplan et al, 10-583-cr(L), is available here.
In Coplan, four defendants were convicted after a 10-week trial on a variety of criminal tax charges arising out of their alleged involvement in the development and defense of five complicated tax shelters that were sold or implemented by E&Y to wealthy clients. Two defendants, Nissenbaum and Shapiro, had been tax attorneys at E&Y who were each convicted of conspiracy to defraud the United States and to commit tax evasion (18 U.S.C. §371) and two substantive counts of tax evasion (26 U.S.C. §7201). Nissenbaum also was convicted of one count of obstructing the IRS, in violation of 26 U.S.C. §7212(a), on the basis of allegedly causing false statements to be submitted to the IRS in response to an Information Document Request (IDR) submitted when the IRS was examining one of the tax shelters at issue.
The opinion is lengthy and complex, and resists easy summarization. It is well worth reading because it discusses in detail a kaleidoscope of issues relevant to any "white collar" criminal trial, from evidentiary rulings to jury instructions to sentencing. This commentary is limited to the sufficiency of evidence claims, and some of their implications for lawyers as potential defendants.
The panel in Coplan displayed a remarkable willingness to comb through an extremely complicated trial record and test every nuanced inference that the government urged could be drawn from the evidence in support of the verdicts. The bottom-line holding of the panel was that, after making all inferences in favor of the government, the convictions had to be vacated because the evidence of guilt was at best in equipose.
Although this general principle can be stated easily, its practical application in Coplan involved the panel conducting a particularized review of the evidence that appellate courts often forego. For example, one important fact for Shapiro was that a tax opinion letter provided to shelter clients stated that, for the purposes of the "economic substance" test governing tax-related transactions, the clients had a "substantial nontax business purpose" (OK, per the Coplan panel), rather than stating, as it had before Shapiro’s revisions, that the clients had a "principle" investment purpose. Likewise, although Shapiro had reviewed letters and attended phone conferences deemed incriminating by the government, his involvement in such conduct was not "habitual" or otherwise substantial. As for Nissenbaum’s Section 7212(a) conviction, his response to the IDR that the government characterized as obstructive – a partial explanation of the clients’ subjective business reasons for participating in the tax shelters – could not sustain the conviction because the IDR drafted by the IRS had sought all reasons held by the clients, rather than their primary reason. If this sounds somewhat murky and convoluted, it is. The point is that multiple convictions for very significant offenses were vacated after much effort at extremely fine line-drawing.
The implicit theme running throughout the discussion of the evidence was that it was not sufficiently clear that these lawyers had crossed the line while attempting to assist their clients, to whom they owed a duty. The competing tensions that lawyers can face was encapsulated in a jury instruction discussed later in the opinion. Although the trial court instructed the jury as requested by the defense that "[i]t is not illegal simply to make the IRS’s job harder[,]" it declined to instruct the jury on the larger defense point that "[t]his is particularly true for the defendants, whose professional obligations as attorneys or certified public accountants required them to represent the interests of their clients vigorously in their dealings with adversaries, such as the IRS."
The Coplan case echoes partially the case of Lauren Stevens, the former in-house counsel for GlaxoSmithKline who was indicted and tried in 2011 by the government for allegedly obstructing a U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation of alleged off-label practices by the company. The district court dismissed all charges against Ms. Stevens at the end of the government’s proofs for insufficient evidence. The ruling was a tremendous defense victory and underscored, like the Coplan case, the difficulties that the government can face when it targets a lawyer on the basis of alleged conduct undertaken on behalf of a client. Nonetheless, these cases still stand as cautionary tales to practitioners. Although there are important differences between Coplan and Ms. Stevens' case, both cases remind us of the pitfalls that can await advocates who stumble into the cross-hairs of the government. Ms. Stevens – like Shapiro and Nissenbaum – was fortunate enough to have an extremely conscientious court willing to parse through the nuances of the evidence, a great defense team, and the resources for extended litigation. It is no slight to these clients or their lawyers to recognize that, in many ways, sheer luck played a role in their ultimate outcomes. Although acquittals can provide vindication, such finales may provide limited comfort to the client after the excruciating process of being investigated, charged and tried. That such a process might turn eventually on the precise phrasing of a document, or how a conference call might be handled, is sobering.
Friday, November 16, 2012
In 2004, the then-US Attorney for the District of Maryland famously wrote in a leaked email that he wanted three front-page indictments by November of that year. Though open to interpretation, the impression left by the poorly-drafted missive is that prosecutors should seek headlines rather than justice. Let’s give credit to the prosecutors involved in the Petraeus/ Broadwell affair, er, matter for their
exercise of sound discretion.
Assuming the accuracy of the news reports, it is possible that overzealous prosecutors might have tried to apply one of several cybercrime statutes in a prosecution against Broadwell just to make headlines.
In his paper entitled Computer and Internet Crime, G. Patrick Black, a federal defender in Texas, analyzes a number of cyberstalking statutes. As Black writes: “Under 18 U.S.C. 875(c), it is a federal crime to transmit any communication in interstate or foreign commerce containing a threat to injure the person of another. Section 875(c) applies to any communication actually transmitted in interstate or foreign commerce – thus it includes threats transmitted in interstate or foreign commerce via the telephone, e-mail, beepers, or the Internet.” This is seemingly inapplicable to the alleged Broadwell conduct because there appears to be no evidence of actual threats.
Likewise, there is 47 U.S.C. 223, a misdemeanor that might have been considered for this alleged conduct. Black writes that “47 U.S.C. 223,” makes it unlawful to “use a telephone or telecommunications device to annoy, abuse, harass, or threaten any person at the called number. The statute also requires that the perpetrator not reveal his or her name.”
Finally, there is 18 U.S.C. 2261A, also known as the Interstate Stalking Act. The ISA makes it unlawful for any person to travel across state lines with the intent to injure or harass another person and, in the course thereof, places that person or a member of that person’s family in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury causes substantial emotional distress to that person or a member of their family.
Prosecutorial discretion depends on decisions made by individual prosecutors. And there are marked differences in individual prosecutors. A busy federal prosecutor in a major city may be less inclined to take a marginal case than a federal prosecutor in a slower jurisdiction. A new federal prosecutor trying to make a name for him/herself might be more inclined to investigate a high-profile target aggressively than a seasoned veteran who has already seen his or her share of big cases.
Admittedly, white collar laws have to be drawn broadly in order to permit federal prosecutors to combat the increasingly creative, technologically complex efforts of enterprising criminals. At least one downside of such broadness is that a large number of people may find themselves under federal investigation for conduct that can better be addressed in a different forum, or no forum at all. Most prosecutors, do, in fact, 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 and the bar. However, prosecutors and investigators too often fail to recognize that they may view a case against a high-profile target differently than a case against an average citizen and should consider, in making charging decisions, whether the identity of the target is a valid consideration or not. The decision not to pursue criminal charges against Broadwell for any alleged possible conduct is perhaps a signal that discretion might be working after all.