Wednesday, October 7, 2015
The Yates Memo is all the rage. DOJ is saber-rattling at various CLE events and bloggers are holding forth on what it actually means. But wanting isn't getting. The question remaining is how to make sure that the company coughs up, or an investigation reveals, wrongdoing that occurred at the highest levels.
Here are two modest reform proposals I offer free of charge to the DOJ and FBI, based on my own experience defending individuals and. far less often, companies under investigation.
1. Modify Standard DOJ Proffer Letters. Mid-level corporate employees often possess very damaging information about those higher up the food chain. But these same mid-level employees can themselves be the subjects or targets of DOJ. At some point the employees are given the opportunity to proffer in front of the lead prosecutor. But the standard DOJ Proffer Agreement is riddled with loopholes. Assume that the proffer session does not result in a plea or immunity agreement and the employee is indicted. The primary loophole allows the government to use the proffered statement against the client at trial if the statement is in any way inconsistent with the defense presented. That's not much protection, which is why most seasoned white collar attorneys will not let a client with exposure proffer in front of DOJ. Thus, DOJ loses valuable information. DOJ should offer true non-Kastigar immunity for the information revealed in its proffer sessions. Nothing is lost by doing this, but much can be gained.
2. Demand Independent Internal Investigations. The first question every prosecutor should ask the corporation's outside attorney who is conducting an internal investigation or tendering an internal investigation report to DOJ is, "What is your reporting chain?" If outside counsel is not reporting to the Audit Committee or some other independent entity within the corporation there is absolutely no assurance that culpable upper management will be identified. Management can edit the final report and its conclusions to protect top executives and throw lower level employees to the DOJ wolves. Meanwhile, employees are less likely to truthfully cooperate with the internal investigation if they think the boss is reviewing interview reports every night after drinks. I am astounded at how often internal investigations are reported right up the chain of command at small and large publicly traded companies. DOJ prosecutors can make it clear that the procedural independence of the internal investigation will affect how the company is treated.
Monday, September 28, 2015
Just over a year ago, Stewart Parnell, the former CEO of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), was convicted by a jury in the Middle District of Georgia of charges related to a deadly nationwide salmonella outbreak. The matter came to the government’s attention in late 2008 when people began falling ill across the country. The illnesses were eventually linked back to PCA’s peanut processing plant in Georgia. As investigators continued to examine the salmonella outbreak, they discovered that the case involved potential criminal misconduct by Parnell and others who allegedly knew about the contamination, attempted to cover it up, and continued to ship contaminated and potentially contaminated product. In one now infamous email from 2007, after being informed that batch test results were not back from the lab, Parnell wrote, “Just ship it.” The outbreak killed nine people and injured thousands more. Eventually, Parnell and others were charged in a 76-count indictment that alleged mail and wire fraud, introducing adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. A jury found Parnell guilty of 67 of the 68 charges against him on September 19, 2014.
On Monday of last week, U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands sentenced Parnell to 28 years in federal prison. One interesting aspect of the sentencing is that because authorities charged this case as a “white collar” matter involving fraud, rather than a homicide case, the most significant factor driving the guideline sentencing range was not the deaths of nine people, but the loss of over $100 million by the various food companies that were forced to recall their products because of Parnell’s actions.
According to last week’s DOJ press release:
Judge Sands took into account the fraud loss of PCA’s corporate victims when imposing today’s sentence. The court found that Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson should be held accountable for more than $100 million but less than $200 million in losses, and Michael Parnell should be held accountable for more than $20 million but less than $50 million in losses. The court also found the government established evidence that Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson should be accountable for harming more than 250 victims, and Michael Parnell should be accountable under federal sentencing guidelines for harming more than 50 victims. The court additionally found that the Parnells should have known that their actions presented a reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury.
Looking at the applicable 2009 Federal Sentencing Guidelines (the Guidelines in place at the time of the offense conduct), one finds the following point allocations:
- Base Offense – 7 points
- Loss of more than $100 million – 26 points
- 250 or more victims – 6 points
- Risk of death – 2 points
- TOTAL: 41 points
While there were likely other applicable sentencing points, such as obstruction of justice and role in the offense, the above point allocations alone result in 41 total points. This translates into a guideline sentencing range of 324-405 months (27.00 – 33.75 years) for a defendant with no criminal history. Steward received 336 months (28 years).
To highlight the importance of the loss amount in the Guideline’s calculation, note that if this case had involved nine deaths, but no financial loss to food companies, the sentencing range under section 2B1.1 of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines would have dropped to 18-24 months in the above calculation. Obviously, this would have been a grossly unreasonable sentence given the devastating harm caused by Parnell.
I don’t know why this case was charged as a fraud and not a homicide. Perhaps it was to send a clearer message about national food safety by bringing federal charges, including charges directly related to the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce. One additional item to note, however, as we think about the way this case proceeded, is that federal white collar sentences in high loss cases can often dwarf sentences for other crimes, including homicide. Consider that involuntary manslaughter in Georgia carries a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. Georgia also has automatic parole eligibility for most inmates. By comparison, Parnell received 28 years in prison using federal fraud statutes and their applicable sentencing guidelines. Further, there is no parole in the federal system.
Federal fraud offenses are often attractive to prosecutors because they are broad enough to apply in all manner of situations and carry potentially significant sentences. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we continue to see these statutes used in many cases that do not fit neatly into our traditional definitions of “white collar crime.” For a further discussion of the way “white collar offenses” are used in a vast array of cases, many of which do not involve traditional white collar criminal activity, see “White Collar Crime”: Still Hazy After All These Years, 50 Georgia Law Review Issue 3 (Lead Article) (forthcoming).
Friday, September 18, 2015
Just days ago, DOJ came down with a new corporate directive (discussed here) describing a shift in investigation policy. The new focus would be on the prosecution of individuals within the entity. It states:
"2. Both criminal and civil corporate investigations should focus on individuals from the inception of the investigation.
Both criminal and civil attorneys should focus on individual wrongdoing from the very beginning of any investigation of corporate misconduct. By focusing on building cases against individual wrongdoers from the inception of an investigation, we accomplish multiple goals. . . . "
So much for this new policy, as the GM Deferred Prosecution Agreement comes before any individual prosecutions. (see Corporate Crime Reporter here). It has the company paying $900 million, accepting responsibility, agreeing to cooperate, and providing information to the government.
Both the old DOJ approach and this new one, that seems to exist only on paper and not in practice, have problems. Both have the company serving as "agents" of the government. Both have the company doing the investigative work for the DOJ. Both have the company "throwing employees under the bus." And both show a disrespect for individual attorney-client relations.
Corporate and individual criminal actions are a problem that needs to be corrected. But as previously said, pitting the entity against its constituents will not correct misconduct. And telling the public that you intend to take a different approach and just days after you do the opposite fosters a lack of trust. It also demonstrates the importance of Congressional action as opposed to reliance on DOJ internal guidelines.
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Monday, September 14, 2015
I have just released a new article discussing the sentencing of Jordan Belfort, better known as the "Wolf of Wall Street." I use this case as a mechanism for considering how white collar sentencing has evolved from the 1980s until today. In particular, the article examines the growth in uncertainty and inconsistency in sentences received by major white collar offenders over this period of time and considers some of the reasons for this trend. The article also examines the impact of recent amendments adopted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission on white collar sentences.
Lucian E. Dervan, Sentencing the Wolf of Wall Street: From Leniency to Uncertainty, 61 Wayne Law Review -- (2015).
This Symposium Article, based on a presentation given by Professor Dervan at the 2014 Wayne Law Review Symposium entitled "Sentencing White Collar Defendants: How Much is Enough," examines the Jordan Belfort (“Wolf of Wall Street”) prosecution as a vehicle for analyzing sentencing in major white-collar criminal cases from the 1980s until today. In Part II, the Article examines the Belfort case and his relatively lenient prison sentence for engaging in a major fraud. This section goes on to examine additional cases from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s to consider the results of reforms aimed at “getting tough” on white-collar offenders. In concluding this initial examination, the Article discusses three observed trends. First, today, as might be expected, it appears there are much longer sentences for major white-collar offenders as compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Second, today, there also appears to be greater uncertainty and inconsistency regarding the sentences received by major white-collar offenders when compared with sentences from the 1980s and 1990s. Third, there appear to have been much smaller sentencing increases for less significant and more common white-collar offenders over this same period of time. In Part III, the Article examines some of the possible reasons for these observed trends, including amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, increased statutory maximums, and judicial discretion. In concluding, the Article offers some observations regarding what the perceived uncertainty and inconsistency in sentencing major white-collar offenders today might indicate about white-collar sentencing more broadly. In considering this issue, the Article also briefly examines recent amendments adopted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and proposed reforms to white-collar sentencing offered by the American Bar Association.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
The new DOJ Policy (see here for the NYTimes story that includes DOJ Policy) makes the current practice of corporations "throwing employees under the bus," official. It states, "[t]o be eligible of any cooperation credit, corporations must provide to the Department all relevant facts about the individuals involved in corporate misconduct." Corporations have received deferred and non-prosecution agreements (DPAs and NPAs) that often provide for the corporation cooperating with the government in the investigation of alleged criminally culpable individuals. Now it is clear that to obtain "any" cooperation credit it will be necessary to provide the evidence against these individuals.
Three concerns here:
1) what is meant by providing "all relevant facts"? Does this mean only information that is relevant to the government's case against the individuals? Will the government also be asking for Brady material that might be exculpatory for the individuals? Does this mean that the corporation now is officially a member of the government team?
2) what does this mean for the corporate culture? The concept of the individuals in the company working together, asking for legal advice from corporate counsel, and working to resolve problems in an open environment may now be officially over. This policy pits the corporation against the individual. Is this a wise approach to correcting business misconduct?
3) does this make it more important that there be fairness in internal investigations? See here for a discussion of the importance of fairness in internal investigations.
Interestingly, the new policy calls for starting with the individual and also calls for sharing information between civil and criminal attorneys. It also requires "a clear plan to resolve related individual cases before the statute of limitations expires and declinations as to individuals in such cases must be memorialized." This is a clear message that individual prosecutions are now a priority.
The message to white collar criminal defense attorneys - corporate prosecutions may no longer be the focus. Get ready for more prosecutions against individuals.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Ellen Podgor and I have just released a new article discussing the complexities of defining the term “white collar crime.” The ability to define and identify white collar offenses is vital, as it allows one to track, among other things, the number of these cases prosecuted each year, the frequency with which particular types of charges are brought in these matters, and the sentences imposed on those convicted. This new article begins with a brief historical overview of the term “white collar crime.” The piece then empirically examines several specific crimes to demonstrate that statutory approaches to defining and tracking white collar offenses are often ineffective and inaccurate. The article then concludes by recommending that the U.S. Sentencing Commission adopt a new multivariate definitional approach that recognizes the hybrid nature of many white collar offenses. The final version of the article will appear next year in Volume 50 of the Georgia Law Review.
Ellen S. Podgor and Lucian E. Dervan, “White Collar Crime”: Still Hazy After All These Years, 50 Georgia Law Review -- (forthcoming 2016).
With a seventy-five year history of sociological and later legal roots, the term “white collar crime” remains an ambiguous concept that academics, policy makers, law enforcement personnel and defense counsel are unable to adequately define. Yet the use of the term “white collar crime” skews statistical reporting and sentencing for this conduct. This Article provides a historical overview of its linear progression and then a methodology for a new architecture in examining this conduct. It separates statutes into clear-cut white collar offenses and hybrid statutory offenses, and then applies this approach with an empirical study that dissects cases prosecuted under hybrid white collar statutes of perjury, false statements, obstruction of justice, and RICO. The empirical analysis suggests the need for an individualized multivariate approach to categorizing white collar crime to guard against broad federal statutes providing either under-inclusive or over-inclusive examination of this form of criminality.
Monday, June 8, 2015
"The highest ranking BP exec charged in the fatal 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster," was acquitted on Friday after two hours of jury deliberations. Initially charged with false statements and Obstruction of Congress, the court dismissed the obstruction charge, leaving the jury to consider the false statements charge. Interestingly the dismissal of the obstruction charge was "after three members of Congress and six staffers subpoenaed by" the accused "sought to be kept from having to testify, citing the speech and debate clause in the U.S. Constitution." (Steptoe & Johnson LLP here). The case was handled on the defense side by Brian Hererlig and Reid Weingarten.
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Yesterday I skimmed through the FIFA indictment referred to by my colleague Lucian Dervan on May 26, 2015 ("FIFA Officials Facing Corruption Charges"), primarily to determine how the government justified jurisdiction over alleged criminal activities that largely, seemingly almost entirely, occurred in other nations, a complaint made by none other than Vladimir Putin. Upon review, I believe the indictment, apparently drafted with that question in mind, facially makes a reasonably strong case for U.S. jurisdiction, based largely, although not entirely, on money transfers through U.S. financial institutions.
There remains, however, the question whether the U.S. Department of Justice should assume the role of prosecutor of the world and prosecute wrongs, however egregious, that were almost wholly committed by foreigners in foreign nations and affected residents of those foreign nations much more than residents of the United States. Our government's refusal to submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is arguably inconsistent with our demand here that citizens of other nations submit to our courts.
On another subject, what struck me as just wrong was a minor part of the indictment, the obstruction of justice charge against Aaron Davidson, one of the two United States citizens indicted (the other, a dual citizen, is charged with procuring U.S. citizenship fraudulently). While the obstruction of justice count itself (count 47) is a bare bones parsing of the statute, the lengthy 112-page preamble to the actual recitation of counts (to me in clear violation of Fed. R. Crim. P. 7(c), which says the indictment "must be a plain, concise and definite written statement")(emphasis added) describes Davidson's allegedly criminal conduct as follows: "Davidson alerted co-conspirators to the possibility that they would be recorded making admissions of their crimes."
Such advice is provided as a matter of course - absolutely properly and professionally, in my opinion - by virtually every white-collar or other criminal lawyer representing a target of a criminal investigation. Since lawyers are given no special treatment different from others, if these facts justify a criminal conviction, a lot of white-collar lawyers will be counting the days until the five-year statute of limitations has passed since their last pre-indictment stage client meeting.
The obstruction of justice statute is so vague that it gives the government the opportunity to charge virtually any effort by lawyers or others to advise persons under investigation to exert caution in talking with others. The applicable statute, the one used against Davidson, prescribes a 20-year felony for "whoever corruptly...obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so..." 18 U.S.C. 1512(c)(2). That catch-all statute, which follows one proscribing physical destruction of tangible evidence, to me is unconstitutionally vague, but courts have generally upheld it and left the determination of guilt to juries on the ground the word "corruptly," which itself is subject to many interpretations, narrows and particularizes it sufficiently. I hope that the presiding judge in this case, the experienced and respected Raymond Dearie, does not allow that count to get to the jury.
Friday, May 29, 2015
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has been indicted for structuring and lying to the FBI, two crimes that many reasonable people, including me, are not certain should be crimes. Structuring involves, as alleged here, limiting deposits and other financial arrangements so as not to trigger a bank report to the IRS. Lying to the FBI includes a denial of wrongful activity, a natural human response by those confronted (although a mere "exculpatory no" without more is no longer generally prosecuted).
The indictment states that Hastert had paid off a fellow Yorkville, Illinois resident he had known most of that person's life $1.7 million, and promised a total of 3.5 million, "in order to compensate for and conceal...misconduct" committed "years earlier" against that person. The indictment mentions that Hastert was a teacher and wrestling coach at a local high school from 1965-1981.
Reading between the lines of this deliberately vague and unspecific indictment, my guess is that the alleged underlying misdeeds are sexual in nature. I also wonder whether the considerable payment mentioned in the indictment "to compensate for and conceal misconduct " resulted from extortion and, if so, whether as a matter of prosecutorial discretion and perhaps even as a matter of law Hastert should be prosecuted for such relatively minor crimes, and whether Hastert is really being punished for wrongs done decades ago (and probably beyond a statute of limitations). These thoughts, let me be clear, are based on speculation and surmise, with only preliminary knowledge of the facts.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
An en banc decision of the Ninth Circuit, United States v. Bonds, reverses the obstruction of justice conviction against then professional baseball player Barry Bonds finding insufficient evidence of materiality under the statute, 18 U.S.C. s 1503. The decision is per curiam, with several concurring opinions, and one dissent.
Hon. Kozinski, joined by Judges O'Scannlain, Graber, Callahan, and Nguyen commence with a single question - "Can a single non-responsive answer by a grand jury witness support a conviction for obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. s 1503? In answering this question, they speak about how "[s]tretched to its limits, section 1503 poses a significant hazard for everyone involved in our system of justice, because so much of what the adversary process calls for could be construed as obstruction." They continue to state that "[b]ecause the statute sweeps so broadly, due process calls for prudential limitations on the government's power to prosecute under it." The limitation they place is a requirement of materiality. They find materiality lacking here.
The next concurring opinion also speaks to a requirement of materiality, finding that "a single truthful but evasive or misleading statement can never be material." Hon. Reinhardt's concurring opinion simply says that a single non-responsive answer by a grand jury witness cannot support a 1503 conviction.
And although Hon. Fletcher disagrees with the rationale, focusing on the word corruptly in the statute finds it insufficient here.
Only Hon. Rawlinson does not want to second guess the jury decision and doesn't want to rely on perjury law as some of the concurrences did. The jury was instructed on materiality and that should be sufficient.
What fascinates me about this case is whether everyone is in the same ballpark. For all the reasons provided by everyone other than the dissent, one should not have an obstruction conviction based on this limited statement. But most imply that materiality is an element of obstruction. I have argued in a past Article that it should be - here. And it is wonderful to see so many on this court adhering to that position and taking this point as a given. But the statute may not be as clear and the law as consistent as it should be. This case is important for taking this important step and demonstrating the absurdity of a conviction that fails to have materiality as a key component.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Earlier this month, the Second Circuit, as expected (at least by me), denied Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's request for reargument and reconsideration of its December 2014 ruling in United States v Newman which narrowed, at least in the Second Circuit, the scope of insider trading prosecutions. I would not be surprised if the government seeks certiorari, and, I would not be all that surprised it cert were granted.
In Newman, the defendants, Newman and Chiasson, were two hedge fund portfolio managers who were at the end of a chain of recipients of inside information originally provided by employees of publicly-traded technology funds. The defendants traded on the information and realized profits of $4 million and $68 million respectively. There was, however, scant, if any, evidence that the defendants were aware whether the original tippors had received any personal benefit for their disclosures.
The Second Circuit reversed the trial convictions based on an improper charge to the jury and the insufficiency of the evidence. Specifically, the court ruled that:
1) the trial judge erred in failing to instruct the jury that in order to convict it had to find that the defendants knew that the corporate employee tippors had received a personal benefit for divulging the information; and
2) the government had indeed failed to prove that the tippors had in fact received a personal benefit.
Thus, at least in the Second Circuit, it appears that the casual passing on of inside information without receiving compensation by a friend or relative or golf partner does not violate the security laws. "For purposes of insider trading liability, the insider's disclosure of confidential information, standing alone, is not a breach," said the court. Nor, therefore, does trading on such information incur insider trading liability because the liability of a recipient, if any, must derive from the liability of the tippor. To analogize to non-white collar law, one cannot be convicted of possessing stolen property unless the property had been stolen (and the possessor knew it). Those cases of casual passing on of information, which sometimes ensnared ordinary citizens with big mouths and a bit of greed, are thus apparently off-limits to Second Circuit prosecutors. To be sure, the vast majority of the recent spate of Southern District prosecutions of insider trading cases have involved individuals who have sold and bought information and their knowing accomplices. Although Southern District prosecutors will sometimes now face higher hurdles to prove an ultimate tippee/trader's knowledge, I doubt that the ruling will affect a huge number of prosecutions.
The clearly-written opinion, by Judge Barrington Parker, did leave open, or at least indefinite, the critical question of what constitutes a "personal benefit" to a provider of inside information (an issue that also might impact corruption cases). The court stated that the "personal benefit" had to be something "of consequence." In some instances, the government had argued that a tippee's benefit was an intangible like the good graces of the tippor, and jurors had generally accepted such a claim, likely believing the tippor would expect some personal benefit, present or future, for disclosing confidential information. In Newman, the government similarly argued that the defendants had to have known the tippors had to have received some benefit.
Insider trading is an amorphous crime developed by prosecutors and courts - not Congress - from a general fraud statute (like mail and wire fraud) whose breadth is determined by the aggressiveness and imagination of prosecutors and how much deference courts give their determinations. In this area, the highly competent and intelligent prosecutors of the Southern District have pushed the envelope, perhaps enabled to some extent by noncombative defense lawyers who had their clients cooperate and plead guilty despite what, at least with hindsight, seems to have been a serious question of legal sufficiency. See Dirks v. S.E.C., 463 U.S. 646, 103 S.Ct. 3255 (1983)(test for determining insider liability is whether "insider personally will benefit, directly or indirectly"). As the Newman court refreshingly said, in language that should be heeded by prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers, "[N]ot every instance of financial unfairness constitutes fraudulent activity under [SEC Rule] 10(b)."
As I said, I would not be shocked (although I would be surprised) if Congress were to enact a law that goes beyond effectively overruling Newman and imposes insider trading liability on any person trading based on what she knew was non-public confidential information whether or not the person who had disclosed the information had received a personal benefit. Such a law, while it would to my regret cover the casual offenders I have discussed, would on balance be a positive one in that it would limit the unequal information accessible to certain traders and provide a more level playing field.
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Thursday, January 22, 2015
The New York Times has the story, with a link to the criminal complaint, here. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara followed his longstanding tradition of holding a press conference in order to make inflammatory, prejudicial, and improper public comments about the case.
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
As we start off the year, I thought I would mention an issue that will likely be widely discussed in 2015 – collateral consequences.
As I mentioned in this 2014 post, I moderated a panel discussion regarding collateral consequences at the 2014 ABA CJS White Collar Crime Institute in London last October. That discussion raised a number of interesting issues and made clear that this is a topic that is growing in prominence internationally. As we move into 2015, the ABA continues to work on the ABA National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction, a database with which every attorney should be familiar. Later this year, the ABA will also convene a National Summit on Collateral Consequences, which will bring together a host of experts from around the country to discuss important issues related to this topic.
The NACDL has also been working hard on the issue of collateral consequences. According to the organization, over 70 million Americans have some form of criminal record and there are over 50,000 known collateral consequences of conviction. In May of last year, the NACDL launched a major new report entitled Collateral Damage: America’s Failure to Forgive or Forget in the War on Crime – A Roadmap to Restore Rights and Status After Arrest and Conviction. According to the NACDL website, “The report is a comprehensive exploration of the stigma and policies relegating tens of millions of people in America to second-class status because of an arrest or conviction. In addition, the report lays out ten recommendations to ensure that the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are within reach of all, regardless of past mistakes.” It is certainly worth a read.
As 2015 gets underway, this is one topic to keep an eye on, and the above resources from the ABA and NACDL are a great way to get up to speed.
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Monday, January 5, 2015
Many are focused on what sentence former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell will receive from the judge today. After all, he was convicted, and now is the time for him to be punished. But there is a second question, and an important one in this particular case, that also warrants consideration: Whether the former governor should be allowed to remain on bond pending his appeal. It should be an easy answer - he needs to remain free.
McDonnell’s case screams, ‘let’s wait before we put him behind bars.’ That’s because this is really a case about whether prosecutors stretched the law too far.
Creative federal prosecutions are not new and higher courts have been quick to strike prosecutions that exceed the boundaries of the law. Sometimes our courts have to remind prosecutors of John Adams words that we are “a government of laws, and not of men.”
We recently saw the Supreme Court strike down a prosecution that used the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act to prosecute a woman for an attempted simple assault. And the Supreme Court is currently reviewing the government’s use of the Sarbanes Oxley Act to prosecute a fisherman for throwing fish overboard that a state official had asked him to bring to shore.
McDonnell prosecutors used a novel approach in bringing this case. They attempted to prosecute conduct that folks may find offensive. But merely being offensive is not enough for making something a crime. It has to be criminal under existing laws, as opposed to a new interpretation created by the government in order to bring their case to court.
This case wasn’t the typical bribery case of someone handing a person money and that individual doing a specific official act in return. When an appellate court finally gets its hands on this case, it may all come down to whether McDonnell corruptly performed or promised to perform an “official act.” But what constitutes an “official act” is not so easy to explain. Will it include any act that happens to be done by a government official? Will it make a difference in a federal prosecution that the government official happens to be elected to a state position? Will it make a difference that state ethics rules exist to oversee what may or may not be considered corrupt conduct?
So now an appellate court will need to decide whether McDonnell’s conduct fits within the language of the statute. And that is a substantial question of law, the test the court looks at in determining whether to grant bond pending appeal. Pending that decision, it seems that he should remain free.
Many convicted defendants before McDonnell have been allowed to stay out on bond pending their appeal. There’s Martha Stewart, who eventually decided to go ahead and serve her sentence; Bernie Ebbers who received a 25 year sentence; John and Timothy Rigas, who received 15 and 20 years, respectively, and actor Wesley Snipes, who was convicted in a tax case. All went to trial and were convicted. And all were offered the chance to remain free pending their appeal. One even finds former governors and congressman on the list of those who have been given an appellate bond – former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was the recipient of one and so was former representative William Jefferson.
In many instances, the trial judge is the one who grants the bond pending appeal. But in some cases, it has required a higher, appellate court to step in to order the release of the accused pending his or her appeal. That happened to former Alabama Gov. Donald Siegelman, who was initially granted bail.
The bottom line in most white collar cases comes down to whether the accused has a significant issue being raised on appeal that it is better to have resolved prior to the start of the sentence. After all, once the individual is incarcerated, you can’t take back the time they have served.
Creative federal prosecutions have cost prosecutors much time and money, with few rewards. And in some cases it takes appellate courts to step in and act – and until they do, McDonnell should remain free.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Here are two (ahem) differing views on yesterday's Second Circuit insider trading decision in United States v. Newman. The Wall Street Journal editorial writers are understandably happy at the ruling and contemptuous of Preet Bharara, dubbing him an Outside the Law Prosecutor. The Journal exaggerates the extent to which the case was an outlier under Second Circuit precedent and incorrectly states that "the prosecution is unlikely to be able to retry the case." The prosecution cannot retry the case, unless the full Second Circuit reverses the panel or the U.S. Supreme Court takes the case and overturns the Second Circuit.
Over at New Economic Perspectives, Professor Bill Black insists that the Second Circuit Makes Insider Trading the Perfect Crime. Black thinks Wall Street financial firms will enact sophisticated cut-out schemes in the wake of the opinion to give inside traders plausible deniability. He compares the fate of Newman and his co-defendant to that of Eric Garner and calls for a broken windows policing policy for Wall Street. Black's piece is outstanding, but in my view he underestimates the extent to which the Newman court was influenced by Supreme Court precedent and ignores the opinion's signals that the government needed to do a much better job of proving that the defendants knew about the tipper's fiduciary breach. As a matter of fact, in the typical insider trading case it is relatively easy to show such knowledge. That's what expert testimony and willful blindness instructions are for.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
The Second Circuit's decision in United States v. Newman is out. The jury instructions were erroneous and the evidence insufficient. The convictions of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasso are reversed and their cases have been remanded with instructions to dismiss the indictment with prejudice. Here is the holding in a nutshell:
We agree that the jury instruction was erroneous because we conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit. Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons. First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive. Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Special Prosecutor Mike McCrum has survived an attempt to quash the Rick Perry indictment based on alleged procedural irregularities connected to McCrum's appointment. Courthouse News has the story here. The Order Relating to Authority of Attorney Pro Tem, written by Assigned Judge Bert Richardson, appears to be carefully and thoughtfully crafted. We can expect a similar approach to the more substantive constitutional issues awaiting Judge Richardson's pen.