Friday, July 15, 2016
In 2014, prosecutors proceeded with a case against fed ex. Unlike many companies in a post-Arthur Andersen world, they would not be bullied into folding and taking a non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreement. Instead, they took the risk - and it is always a risk - of going to trial. What makes this case particularly puzzling is that the company had cooperated with the government. They hired a top-notch white collar attorney Cristina Arguedas and the government folded shortly after the trial began. Now, according to Dan Levine and David Ingram in their Reuter's story, U.S. Prosecutors Launch Review of Failed Fed Ex Drug Case, the DOJ is reviewing this matter. Some thoughts -
1. It is good to see DOJ re-examining this case. What happened here should not have happened, and learning from this case is important.
2. The review should not be limited to the fed ex case. There needs to be an examination, especially for the smaller companies that cannot afford to go to trial, of the government cooperation tactics.
3. If cooperation is going to work, then credit needs to rightfully be given.
4. The government's pitting employees (the corporate constituents) against the employers (company) needs to also be examined. This practice defeats the ability of corporations and individuals working together to root out corporate misconduct.
5. Criminal defense attorneys need to recognize that one can successfully take a corporation to trial against the government. The risk is enormous, but innocence needs to matter.
Thursday, July 7, 2016
I agree with guest bloggers Ziran Zhang and Eugene Gorokhov in their thoughtful blog post (here) that "[i]f Director Comey is right that individuals in similar circumstances in the past were only subjected to administrative sanctions, then its decision to recommend no prosecution in this case may be the right one."
I would, however, go a step further - a declination of prosecution was the right decision here even without the long precedent of not bringing these cases. After listening to FBI Director Comey's testimony in an over four hour hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the "Hillary Clinton Email Investigation" (see here) we find out that the 3 emails that were alleged to be classified were not in fact properly marked. And they looked at "tens of thousands of emails." Here there was no header on the documents or in the text. And FBI Director Comey stated that it would be a reasonable inference to think it was not classified when there was no header on the document.
Attorneys Zhang and Gorokhov reference the US Attorneys Manual, specifically the Principles of Prosecution in 9-27.000 and 9-27.220(A). But let me add to their discussion part of the Comment from that portion of the Manual -
Comment. USAM 9-27.220 expresses the principle that, ordinarily, the attorney for the government should initiate or recommend Federal prosecution if he/she believes that the person's conduct constitutes a Federal offense and that the admissible evidence probably will be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction. Evidence sufficient to sustain a conviction is required under Rule 29(a), Fed. R. Crim. P., to avoid a judgment of acquittal. Moreover, both as a matter of fundamental fairness and in the interest of the efficient administration of justice, no prosecution should be initiated against any person unless the government believes that the person probably will be found guilty by an unbiased trier of fact. (emphasis added)
Put the format of the emails together as testified to by Director Comey, with no intent, no evasiveness, and no false statements - Director Comey would be justified in believing that such a case would not return a conviction. Using the guidance of the US Attorney's Manual FBI Director Comey's recommendation to DOJ was justified.
But there is another fascinating aspect to this hearing. One of the key aspects of the Overcriminalization Movement (a bi-partisan coalition) is the need to include a mens rea in statutes. (see here). Yet in this hearing we see some members of Congress, albeit different ones from the committee looking at Overcriminalization, arguing that in this case a strong mens rea should not be needed for this criminal statute.
Recently, Professor Podgor wrote two informative posts covering FBI Director James Comey’s public statement about the FBI’s year-long investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of private e-mail servers, its recommendation that no criminal charges be filed (here), and AG Loretta Lynch’s acceptance of the FBI’s recommendation (here). Professor Podgor noted many unusual aspects about Director Comey’s statement, including the fact that the FBI does not usually publicize its recommendations. The short version of Director Comey’s speech is that the FBI did find “evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information,” but is recommending against criminal prosecution for a variety of reasons. This post examines two questions: (1) Is Director Comey right when he says that the evidence indicated potential violations of federal laws? (2) if so, why is the FBI recommending against prosecution?
What laws did Hillary Clinton’s conduct potentially violate?
While the FBI’s investigation undoubtedly looked at many federal statutes, the one that Director Comey referenced in his statement appears to be 18 U.S.C. 793(f), which makes it a federal crime for anyone “through gross negligence" to permit classified information "to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed[.]”
In this case, classified information was undoubtedly removed from its proper place of custody. According to Director Comey, of the approximately 30,000 emails provided by Hillary Clinton, 110 contained classified information at the time they were sent or received. (Another 2,000 emails were later determined to contain classified information, although those were not formally classified at the time they were sent or received). A small number of emails also contained documents with markings that indicated the presence of classified information. Comey noted that “none of these e-mails [containing classified information] should have been on any kind of unclassified system,” let alone “unclassified personal servers not even supported by full-time security staff[.]”
Whether the act of communicating classified information through personal servers constitutes “gross negligence” is a more difficult question to answer. The Supreme Court has called “gross negligence” a “nebulous” term “lying somewhere between the poles of negligence at one end and purpose or knowledge at the other[.]” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 836 n.4 (1994).
Reported decisions of prosecutions under 18 U.S.C. § 793(f) are rare. In one case, a Marine Corps intelligence officer pled guilty to a violation of § 793(f) where he inadvertently packed classified documents into his gym bag along with his personal papers and took the classified documents home. United States v. Roller, 42 M.J. 264 (CAAF 1995). Former FBI Agent James J. Smith, who had an affair with suspected Chinese spy Katrina Leung, was also charged under this provision for taking classified documents to Leung’s home, resulting in Leung covertly copying the documents without Smith’s knowledge. Smith later pled guilty to a charge of false statements.
Director Comey opined that the use of a private server was “extremely careless” and that any “reasonable person” in Hillary Clinton’s position would know better than to use an unclassified system to discuss classified information. A jury looking at the full evidence, including the actual content of the emails and the context in which these events occurred, may have agreed with Comey, or may have decided that although negligent, Clinton’s conduct did not rise to gross negligence.
Why did the FBI recommend that no criminal charges be filed?
Director Comey’s primary reason for not recommending criminal charges in this case appears to be the lack of precedent for criminal charges in similar cases in the past. According to Director Comey, “[a]ll the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed…; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice.” Whereas “in similar circumstances,” “individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions”
While the decision to prosecute is ultimately up to the prosecutor, what some may not realize is that in federal cases, the prosecutor’s decision to bring criminal charges is governed by the United States Attorney’s Manual. USAM 9-27.000, titled “Principles of Federal Prosecution” contains the DOJ’s written guidance to prosecutors about decisions to initiate or decline prosecution. Specifically, 9-27.220(A) instructs prosecutors to file criminal charges in all cases where there is a violation of federal law and the evidence is sufficient to obtain a conviction, unless one of three grounds exist:
- Lack of a substantial federal interest;
- The defendant is subject to prosecution in another jurisdiction; or
- The existence of adequate non-criminal alternatives to prosecution.
In this case, both the first and third grounds are potential reasons that a federal prosecutor can rely on to justify not bringing any charges.
The first ground, “substantial federal interest,” is a composite factor that weighs a number of considerations including federal law enforcement priorities, the nature and seriousness of the offense, the deterrent effect of prosecution, the personal characteristics of the individual, and the probable sentence upon conviction. Nationally, the DOJ’s number one law enforcement priority is protecting U.S. citizens from national security threats. See Memorandum re: Federal Prosecution Priorities. However, a prosecutor can potentially justify declining prosecution based on Hillary Clinton’s personal characteristics and the nature and seriousness of the offense.
The third ground, the existence of adequate non-criminal alternatives, appears to have been the one that Director Comey relied upon. In this case, for example, Hillary Clinton could potentially face security and administrative sanctions such as revocation of her security clearance, and such a sanction may be “adequate” in light of past practice. (How such a sanction would work if Clinton is elected President, however, is a question we can’t answer).
The FBI’s investigation uncovered sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Hillary Clinton did violate the law. However, the federal government does not (and should not) bring criminal charges in every case. If Director Comey is right that individuals in similar circumstances in the past were only subjected to administrative sanctions, then its decision to recommend no prosecution in this case may be the right one.
(ZZ & EG)
The declination to prosecute Hilary Clinton and the public announcement of that decision by FBI Director Comey, were, in my opinion, wholly proper. When an investigation of a public figure receives widespread notice, it should be incumbent on the prosecuting agency to make public a decision not to prosecute.
However, the severe criticism of Ms. Clinton by Director Comey was inappropriate. I do not know enough to assess the accuracy or fairness of his report and do not challenge it. However, the FBI (either acting, as here, as the surrogate prosecutor, or otherwise) should not, in the absence of sufficient evidence to recommend charges, issue a public declaration of fault in any case, let alone one that affects a presidential election. By his pronouncement, Comey, obviously knowingly, did so. That he had no business doing.
The Department of Justice is also at fault. Attorney General Lynch should never have agreed to meet with Bill Clinton, the husband of the target of a criminal investigation under her supervision, even if he were a past President and even just to exchange pleasantries. I do understand how Attorney Lynch, a classy and courteous person, would have been reluctant to refuse to meet a past President, but propriety should have trumped gentility. Worse, she never should have abdicated the responsibility of the Department of Justice to determine whether to prosecute. If she felt she were or appeared to be personally tainted by the meeting, she should at most have recused herself and left the decision to her deputies, not have turned it over to an investigating agency.
The American system of justice essentially places the responsibility of investigation on the investigators and the decision to prosecute based on the results of that investigation to the prosecutors. Effective prosecution often involves an integration of and input from both agents and prosecutors, but the prosecutors still should be the sole and final deciders of whether to prosecute. There is an inherent bias on the part of investigators, wanting a positive and public result of their work, in favor of arrest and prosecution. The prosecutors, more knowledgeable about the law and the workings of the court system than the investigators, should act as a buffer and, giving regard to the investigators, make the determination whether to prosecute. That is an important check in the criminal justice system's checks and balances. I hope this unusual situation does not serve as a precedent.
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Attorney General Loretta Lynch issued a statement today regarding the DOJ's decision to close the investigation without charges. (see here). It's 3 1/2 lines shows the proper way to handle a declination of prosecution. It simply tells the individual and public that the investigation is over and that there will be no charges.
Unlike FBI Director Comey's comments it does not state opinions and hypotheticals. Further, it does not carelessly accuse a person of conduct that they did not and will not have an opportunity to refute in a legal forum. One also has to give AG Lynch credit for removing herself from the decision-making function and leaving this matter to career prosecutors.
From the perspective of process - Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch gets an "A" in my book.
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
An interesting case is pending in the 11th Circuit that considers whether a breach of a real estate contract can be the basis for a wire fraud conviction. The case involves a failure to disclosure a sinkhole when selling a residence. There is a huge federalism question here that is magnified by the fact that Alabama "employ[s] the cannon of caveat emptor in real estate transactions." But the most interesting aspect of the case is the government's taking a civil action and using the wire fraud statute to prosecute the conduct. I'll withhold further comment until after I have seen the government's brief - but I have to wonder if this is the case that the late-Justice Scalia was waiting for to limit the reach of the mail/wire fraud statutes.
Appellant's Brief - Download Defendant-Appellant's Initial Brief
Friday, July 1, 2016
Some folks have expressed critical views of the Supreme Court's opinion in the McDonnell case. But they are forgetting several important points:
- This was a unanimous decision by the Court. There were no dissents. There were no concurring opinions. It was clearcut!
- This decision does not put a stop to prosecutions for bribery and extortion. Cases in which there is a receipt of money for official acts can still be prosecuted. (Evans v. United States).
- This decision does not create any new limit to the bribery/extortion statute. It has always existed. (see United States v. Birdsall - a 1914 decision).
So what happened here? The government tried to push the envelope further than permitted and they were caught. This is no different than back in the 1980s when they tried to bring mail fraud cases based on intangible rights as opposed to property, a requirement of the statute. The Supreme Court in 1987 issued the McNally decision to place the government on notice that developing a new theory that exceeded the language of the statute would not be permitted.
Bottom line - Congress writes the laws and government prosecutors need to stay within the language provided to them.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
I received the McDonnell decision with mixed feelings. Initially, I was happy for my colleague Hank Asbill, one of the nation's top criminal defense attorneys, for a great victory. Asbill and his co-counsel litigated this case the "old-fashioned way" - they fought it, and fought it, and then fought it. Their tenacity, dedication and skill make me proud to be a defense lawyer.
Not having read the briefs of the parties, or of the amici, or heard the oral arguments, I am hesitant to criticize the opinion, especially an opinion by a brilliant chief justice for a unanimous court (I suspect due to a compromise by potential dissenters, possibly to avoid an outright dismissal). Indeed, the opinion makes a strong case that the decision was required by precedent. However, I do question several aspects of the opinion. First, I find questionable Justice Roberts' Talmudic crucial narrowing of the definition of "official act" by virtually eliminating the broad catch-all words "action" and "matter," largely by resort to the Latin word jurisprudence that is often an indication that the interpretation is on shaky ground.
Second, while I am less troubled than the Court about the federal assumption of power to monitor the conduct of state officials for purportedly violating their offices, there is something bothersome about federal officials by criminal prosecutions in effect setting ethical standards for state officials. However, as a practical matter it appears that with rare exceptions local prosecutors lack the will and/or the resources to prosecute high state officials. In New York City, for instance, U. S. Attorney Preet Bharara has in recent years prosecuted about ten state legislators on corruption charges, while New York's five district attorneys combined have not prosecuted any.
Third and most importantly, I am concerned by the decision's enablement of business-as-usual pay-to-play practices. By narrowing the definition of "official act, the Court has legalized (at least federally) the practice of paying a government executive to set up a meeting with a responsible official. By doing so, the Court has given such "soft" corruption a green light. Under the opinion, a businessperson does not violate federal bribery law by paying a governor, mayor - or even the President - tens of thousands of dollars to make a phone call to a purchasing official asking or directing her to meet with the businessperson. And that call, however innocuous that actual conversation may sound, will have real consequences - otherwise, why would the businessperson pay for it? Even absent a verbal suggestion that the executive wants the official to do business with the caller, the official cannot but think that the executive would like that she do business with that person. I imagine a New Yorker cartoon with a governor sitting at a phone booth with a sign saying, "Phone calls, official meetings. $10,000 each."
To be sure, the law concerning bribery - not alone among federal statutes - vests too much power in the government. At argument government counsel conceded (candidly but harmfully) that a campaign contribution or lunch to an official could constitute the quid in a quid pro quo. That is frightening, but the problem is in the quid, not in the quo - about which this case is concerned. (I applaud Chief Justice Roberts statement in response to the standard "Trust me, I'm the government" argument that "We cannot condone a criminal statute on the assumption the government will use it responsibly.") And, certainly, if this case were to apply to campaign contributions - and not, as in this case personal receipt of money and goods-in the words of the amicus brief of former White House counsel - it would be "a breathtaking expansion of public corruption law." Indeed, a distinction should be made between personal and campaign contributions. But this case applied to the quo - what the governor did in exchange for $175,000 worth of goods and money. And, in my view he took "action" as the governor on a "matter" by "official acts" - hosting an event at the official mansion, making calls and arranging meetings.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Elkan Abramowitz, one of the best and most-respected white collar crime defense practitioners in the nation, last week received the Robert Louis Cohen Award for Professional Excellence from the New York Criminal Bar Association. At the dinner at which he received the award, Mr. Abramowitz spoke thoughtfully about the pernicious effect of prosecutions of corporations, particularly on the rights corporate employees.
The recent focus on perceived corporate wrongdoing, he said, "has seriously impeded the rights of individual employees caught up in the web of ... corporate investigations." He pointed out that the "simple threat"of a corporate investigation has forced corporations "to conduct internal investigations upon any suspicion of wrongdoing" and, because corporations rarely, if ever, can risk going to trial, they will end up disclosing alleged criminality to the prosecutors to work out the best deal they can. The results as to the corporations themselves are non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreements "which typically give the prosecutors much more power over the corporation than [they] would have if the corporation were actually convicted of a crime in court." The results as to corporate employees are at the insistence of prosecutors as a condition for a deal with the corporation that "the heads of individual employees be handed to them on a silver platter."
Mr. Abramowitz made a distinction between investigations by prosecutors who "hopefully most of the time" investigate without bias toward a particular result and corporations which in an internal investigation "are incentivized to find out and expose criminality." Thus, corporate employees are explicitly made to understand that if they refuse to testify they will be terminated and often told that their legal fees will not be paid if they chose to defend themselves." And, since these individuals accordingly sometimes choose not to hire counsel and to talk to internal investigators, the information presented to prosecutors by corporations often provides "more ammunition" than an investigation conducted by the FBI, police or another federal agency.
The results are, Mr. Abramowitz said, cases against individuals "that might never have been brought without the corporation's coercion." Thus, he believes, "Whatever social utility is believed to be served by this system,..this outsourcing of a purely governmental function is extremely dangerous and [causes] great injustices to individuals working in companies under investigation."
Mr. Abramowitz's observations of the systemic changes, most obviously the role of corporations and their special prosecutors (who, interestingly, he did not mention specifically) as quasi-prosecutors, are right on the mark. And, he is quite correct that the prosecution of individuals coerced into giving up their rights to silence and to counsel in response to their employer's demands "flies in the face of the restraining values of our society as expressed in the Bill of Rights." However, I suspect that most prosecutors and many others (including those liberals and others who like Bernie Sanders are still complaining that no individuals from the big institutions involved in the 2008 financial crisis were jailed) would not say that on balance the addition of corporations to those ferreting out financial crime is a negative one. After all, that addition presumably has or will result in more indictments, convictions, and jail sentences of individuals who have committed financial crimes. While I too bemoan the incursion into fundamental individual rights as a result of corporate prosecutions, I suspect Mr. Abramowitz and I are in the minority.
Monday, June 13, 2016
A few weeks ago, in United States v Nesbeth (15 CR-18, EDNY, May 24, 2016) Judge Frederic Block wrote an important opinion on the effect of post-conviction collateral consequences on one convicted of a felony, and as a result of such consequences imposed a one-year probation sentence on a woman convicted of importing cocaine. He wrote that "sufficient attention has not been paid at sentencing by me and lawyers - both prosecutors and defense counsel - as well as by the Probation Department to the collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant." He went on to a history of collateral consequences, efforts at reform, and the breadth of post-conviction statutory and regulatory collateral consequences. He noted the "broad range of collateral consequences that serve no useful purpose other than to punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences."
The opinion is a call for reform, for mitigation of sentences because of such additional punishment, and for increased awareness of collateral consequences by all participants in the sentencing process. Judge Block specifically called for probation officers "to assess and apprise the court, prior to sentencing, of the likely collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant."
Judge Block recognized an apparent Circuit split as to whether collateral consequences may be a mitigating factor in sentencing. The Sixth, Seventh, Tenth and Eleventh Circuit seemingly have found that collateral consequences may not be considered, while the Second and Fourth Circuits appear to have found that they may. I believe that under 18 USC 3553(a) they may, especially when atypical, be considered.
White-collar defendants obviously face not only the usual collateral consequences applicable to all convicted felons, but often also special ones such as loss of licenses or other professional bars. I personally have had limited success in appealing to judges to mitigate sentences against white-collar defendants because of collateral consequences. Many judges feel that that to consider those factors would favor the rich and well-educated over the poor and less-educated. To be sure, as Judge Block's opinion demonstrates, the poor and less-educated too suffer from such collateral consequences.
Defense lawyers should, as Judge Block writes, be aware of such consequences in order to set them forth as mitigating factors at sentencing. Such knowledge is also necessary to inform defendants of these consequences so that they may make an educated decision whether to plead guilty. As indicated by the flurry of defendants who have claimed they were unaware that their guilty pleas would subject them to deportation, lawyers historically may not have focused on collateral consequences.
Saturday, April 9, 2016
The New York Times reported on Tuesday, April 5 that Donald Trump, contrary to his asserted practice of refusing to settle civil cases against him, had settled a civil fraud suit brought by disgruntled purchasers of Trump SoHo (New York) condos setting forth fraud allegations that also were being investigated by the District Attorney of New York County ("Donald Trump Settled a Real Estate Lawsuit, and a Criminal Case Was Dismissed"). The suit alleged that Trump and two of his children had misrepresented the status of purchaser interest in the condos to make it appear that they were a good investment.
What made this case most interesting to me is language, no doubt inserted by Trump's lawyers, that required as a condition of settlement that the plaintiffs "who may have previously cooperated" with the District Attorney notify him that they no longer wished to "participate in any investigation or criminal prosecution" related to the subject of the lawsuit. The settlement papers did allow the plaintiffs to respond to a subpoena or court order (as they would be required by law), but required that if they did they notify the defendants.
These somewhat unusual and to an extent daring conditions were no doubt designed to impair the District Attorney's investigation and enhance the ability of the defendants to track and combat it, while skirting the New York State penal statutes relating to bribery of and tampering with a witness. The New York statute relating to bribery of a witness proscribes conferring, offering or agreeing to confer a benefit on a witness or prospective witness upon an agreement that the witness "will absent himself or otherwise avoid or seek to avoid appearing or testifying at [an] action or proceeding" (or an agreement to influence his testimony). Penal Law 215.11 (see also Penal Law 215.30, Tampering with a Witness). Denying a prosecutor the ability to speak with prospective victims outside a grand jury makes the prosecutor's job of gathering and understanding evidence difficult in any case. Here, where it is likely, primarily because of a 120-day maximum residency limit on condo purchasers, that many were foreigners or non-New York residents and thus not easily served with process, the non-cooperation clause may have impaired the investigation more than it would have in most cases.
A clause requiring a purchaser to declare a lack of desire to participate, of course, is not the same as an absolute requirement that the purchaser not participate. And, absent legal process compelling one's attendance, one has no legal duty to cooperate with a prosecutor. It is questionable that if, after one expressed a desire not to participate, his later decision to assist the prosecutor voluntarily would violate the contract (but many purchasers would not want to take a chance). The condition of the contract thus, in my view, did not violate the New York statutes, especially since the New York Court of Appeals has strictly construed their language. People v. Harper, 75 N.Y.2d 373 (1990)(paying victim to "drop" the case not violative of statute).
I have no idea whether the settlement payment to the plaintiffs would have been less without the condition they notify the District Attorney of their desire not to cooperate. And, although the non-cooperation of the alleged victims no doubt made the District Attorney's path to charges more difficult, the facts, as reported, do not seem to make out a sustainable criminal prosecution. Allegedly, the purchasers relied on deceptive statements, as quoted in newspaper articles, by Mr. Trump's daughter Ivanka and son Donald Jr. that purportedly overstated the number of apartments sold and by Mr. Trump that purportedly overstated the number of those who had applied for or expressed interest in the condos, each implying that the condos, whose sales had actually been slow, were highly sought. A threshold question for the prosecutors undoubtedly was whether the statements, if made and if inaccurate, had gone beyond acceptable (or at least non-criminal) puffing into unacceptable (and criminal) misrepresentations.
Lawyers settling civil cases where there are ongoing or potential parallel criminal investigations are concerned whether payments to alleged victims may be construed by aggressive prosecutors as bribes, and often shy away from inserting restrictions on the victims cooperating with prosecutors. On the other hand, those lawyers (and their clients) want some protection against a criminal prosecution based on the same allegations as the civil suit. Here, Trump's lawyers boldly inserted a clause that likely hampered the prosecutors' case and did so within the law. Nonetheless, lawyers seeking to emulate the Trump lawyers should be extremely cautious and be aware of the specific legal (and ethical) limits in their jurisdictions. For instance, I personally would be extremely hesitant to condition a settlement of a civil case on an alleged victim's notifying a federal prosecutor he does not want to participate in a parallel federal investigation. The federal statutes concerning obstruction of justice and witness tampering are broader and more liberally construed than the corresponding New York statutes.
Monday, March 7, 2016
What do Bill Cosby and Whitey Bulger have in common? Both have lost challenges to criminal accusations based on the claim that their prosecutions were barred because they received oral, informal grants of immunity from prosecutors.
Last week, the First Circuit denied the appeal of Joseph (Whitey) Bulger, the notorious Boston mobster who was on the lam for 17 years until his 2011 arrest in California. Bulger was convicted after trial in 2013 for racketeering for participating in eleven murders and other crimes, and was sentenced to two life sentences plus five years. He is now 86.
Bulger's primary claim on appeal was that he was denied his constitutional rights to testify and to present an effective defense by the refusal of the trial judge to allow him to testify before the jury that he was granted immunity for both past and future crimes by a now-deceased high-ranking DOJ prosecutor. Interestingly, Bulger claimed that that the purported immunity grant was not in exchange, as one might suppose, for his providing information to or testifying for the prosecutor, but for his protecting the prosecutor's life. He insisted, contrary to widely-accepted reports, that he was not an informant.
The Court of Appeals upheld the district court's rulings that whether the prosecution was barred because of immunity was to be determined prior to trial by the judge, and not by the jury, and thus Burger could not present to the jury testimony about the purported immunity promise . Although the appeals court ruled that Burger had waived consideration of the issue on the merits by his failure to present the trial judge with any evidence, but only with a "broad, bald assertion from defense counsel lacking any particularized details," it reviewed the judge's merits determination on a "plain error" standard, and found that the judge was not "clearly wrong" in deciding that Bulger had failed to demonstrate either that the promise had been made, or, that if it had been made, that the promising prosecutor had authority to make it..
The government described Bulger's claim that the prosecutor promised him immunity "frivolous and absurd." What did give Bulger's contention an infinitesimally slight possibility of credibility, however, was that there was a demonstrated history (although not presented at the trial) that the Boston FBI had for years ignored Bulger's criminal acts when he served as an informant for them.
To be sure, the similarities between the Cosby and Bulger situations are limited. In the Cosby case the then District Attorney, the prosecutor who, if anyone, had authority to grant immunity, testified that he did promise not to prosecute Cosby. Here, there was no corroboration whatsoever of the purported promise by a now-dead prosecutor, and the Department of Justice strongly contended that even had such a promise been made, the prosecutor had no authority to make it. However, the decision, made by a respected appellate court (although under a different set of procedural rules and no binding or other authority over a Pennsylvania state trial court) does squarely hold that whether a prosecutor has granted immunity is not a jury question. And, should Cosby try to re-litigate the immunity issue before his jury, the decision will likely be cited by the District Attorney.
Texas Disciplinary Rule of Professional Conduct 3.09(d) requires a prosecutor to:
make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense, and, in connection with sentencing, disclose to the defense and the tribunal all unprivileged mitigating information known to the prosecutor, except when the prosecutor is relieved of this responsibility by a protective order of the tribunal.
Rule 3.04(a) requires, among other things, that "a lawyer shall not obstruct another party's access to evidence."
In a highly significant ethics opinion, signed and delivered on December 17, 2015, the Texas Board of Disciplinary Appeals ("BODA") ruled that Rule 3.09(d) does not contain the Brady v. Maryland materiality element, or any de minimus exception to the prosecutor's duty to disclose exculpatory information in a timely manner. BODA also held that Rule 3.09(d) applies in the context of guilty pleas as well as trials. In other words, the prosecutor cannot negotiate a guilty plea without beforehand disclosing exculpatory information to the defense.
The case decided by BODA is Schultz v. Commission for Lawyer Discipline. William Schultz was the Assistant District Attorney in Denton County. He prosecuted Silvano Uriostegui for assaulting Maria Uriostegui, his estranged wife. Maria testified at a protective order hearing that Silvano was her attacker. Schultz never disclosed to the defense that Maria could only identify Silvano by his smell, boot impression, and stature "as seen in the shadow," as it was dark at the time and Maria could not see her attacker's face. Schultz learned this information from Maria one month prior to the trial date. Silvano entered a guilty plea. At the sentencing hearing, Maria testified "that she did not see her attacker's face and that she did not know whether her attacker was Silvano. Maria also testified that she had told the prosecutor earlier that she did not see who attacked her." (With respect to the protective order hearing, Maria "explained that she had testified...that Silvano was her attacker because she had assumed it was him from his smell and boot.")
The testimony at the sentencing hearing was the first time defense counsel Victor Amador learned of the exculpatory information, despite having filed broad pre-trial requests for exculpatory evidence. Amador moved for a mistrial which was granted by the trial court. Amador next filed an application for writ of habeas corpus. The trial court granted habeas relief, allowing Silvano to withdraw his guilty plea. The court also ruled that double jeopardy had attached.
Amador filed a grievance against Schultz with the State Bar, which was the basis of the disciplinary proceeding. Schultz contended that the information in question was neither exculpatory or material. The Commission for Lawyer Discipline disagreed, as did BODA. BODA based its holding primarily on the plain language of Rule 3.09(d) and on commentary to the Rule and to the ABA Model Rule on which Rule 3.09(d) is based. BODA also held that Schultz's failure to disclose the exculpatory information constituted obstruction of another party's access to evidence under Rule 3.04(a). Schultz received a six month fully probated suspension.
The only Texas attorney disciplinary authority higher than BODA is The Supreme Court of Texas. Schultz did not appeal BODA's decision to The Supreme Court of Texas. Thus BODA's decision in Schultz is now the governing ethical interpretation of Rule 3.09(d) in Texas. Ergo, under the McDade Act, it now appears that both state and federal prosecutors litigating in Texas are under an ethical duty to timely disclose to the defense all evidence or information "that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense," irrespective of its materiality. The disclosure must be made prior to any guilty plea.
The defense bar owes a great debt of gratitude to defense attorney Victor Amador, the Committee for Lawyer Discipline of the State Bar, and BODA. It should also be noted that many other jurisdictions have rules containing similar or identical wording to 3.09(d). There is much more work to be done. Hat Tip to Cynthia Orr of Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley for bringing this opinion to our attention.
Friday, March 4, 2016
New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady did not get the reception he wanted at the oral argument of the appeal of the National Football League (NFL) of a district court decision overturning his four-game suspension in the so-called Deflategate case. Brady has been accused of conspiring with Patriot employees to deflate footballs so that they were easier for him to throw in a game in cold weather. The appellate court spent a considerable amount of time questioning Brady's counsel about Brady's destruction of his cellphone shortly before he was to appear before NFL investigator Ted Wells.
In my view the evidence concerning whether the footballs were deflated was equivocal and, even if they were deflated, the evidence that Brady was knowingly involved was largely speculative, and in total, absent an inference of wrongdoing from the unjustified destruction of evidence, probably not sufficient to meet even the minimal 51-49 "more probable than not" standard used in the NFL and most other arbitrations. Evidence of the suspiciously timed destruction of the cellphone, and the lack of a convincing justification for it, however, for me pushes the ball over the 50-yard line and may be the linchpin of an appellate decision upholding the suspension. As Judge Barrington Parker stated at oral argument, "The cellphone issue raised the stakes. Took it from air in a football to compromising a procedure that the commissioner convened." He asked Brady's counsel,"Why couldn't an adjudicator take an inference from destroying a cellphone?," then stated that Brady's explanation - that he regularly destroyed cellphones for privacy reasons - "made no sense whatsoever."
Courts are understandably especially sensitive (sometimes too sensitive and too punitive, in my view) to acts like perjury or destruction of evidence which obstruct investigations or prosecutions. Our justice system relies, at least theoretically, on the basic (although somewhat erroneous) principle that, at least generally, witnesses will not violate the oath to tell the truth. It is therefore no great surprise that the court focussed on Brady's destruction of evidence and his purportedly lying about it. Indeed, Judge Parker appeared to accept that even if Brady had not been involved in tampering with the footballs, his destruction of evidence would justify Goodell's decision. "Let's suppose a mistake was made and the footballs weren't deflated, and then a star player lies in his testimony and destroyed his phone. An adjudicator might conclude the phone had incriminating evidence. Why couldn't the commissioner suspend Brady for that conduct alone?"
Of course, it would be rather perverse if Brady's suspension were upheld when in fact he had actually not been involved in deflating footballs and had destroyed his cellphone as an excuse for not producing it and lied about it for reasons unrelated to the deflating issue, such as that the phone contained wholly unrelated embarrassing information or that he possesses an Apple-like principled view of privacy rights. It calls to mind Martha Stewart, who was convicted and jailed for lying to federal agents and prosecutors in a proffer session even though the underlying insider trading allegation about which she was questioned, was not prosecuted. On the other hand, it would not be perverse if in fact the destroyed cellphone did contain incriminating conversations.
Sometimes a client under investigation asks his lawyer what the client should do with incriminating evidence he possesses. As much as the lawyer in his heart may want the evidence to disappear, he cannot ethically or legally advise the client to conceal the evidence. (The specific advice will vary depending on the facts and circumstances.) The lawyer should frankly explain his ethical and legal obligations. However, generally the client doesn't give a hoot about them. The lawyer should explain that destruction, tampering and concealment of evidence, if discovered by the prosecutor, will undoubtedly eliminate the possibility of non-prosecution, lessen the possibility of a favorable plea deal, strengthen the prosecution's case at trial, and, if there is a conviction, undoubtedly cause a more severe sentence. Just as lawyers sometimes invoke the Stewart case to caution about the danger of voluntary interviews with prosecutors, so might they invoke the Brady case to caution about the danger of destruction of evidence.
The Brady case highlights the danger of destruction of evidence and lying to investigators.
Thursday, March 3, 2016
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates was the luncheon speaker at the ABA White Collar Crime Conference. It was a Q and A format, and as one might suspect, the Yates Memo was a key topic - although she preferred not to call it the Yates Memo.
She started by saying that as long as a company acts in good faith, they can still get cooperation credit even if they can't designate a particular culprit. She stated that they are not requesting a waiver of privilege. She said, "we want the facts." As a matter of fact, she said this several times in answer to questions asked.
She was unable to say whether companies were not disclosing because of this new policy. But she did say that a company would get more credit if they voluntarily disclosed than if there was an investigation and they then disclosed. She noted that its a question of how quickly you cooperate. She also spoke about the civil side of investigations - again with an eye toward looking at the individuals. She also spoke about the training conference to educate on this policy.
My takeaway - it's all about throwing the individual under the bus, even if you can't name the specific individual.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
The decision by a Philadelphia suburban trial court that a previous prosecutor's publicly announced promise not to prosecute Bill Cosby was not enforceable has virtually no precedential value anywhere, but it may affect how prosecutors, defense lawyers, defendants and targets act throughout the nation. The rule of law from this case seems to be that a former prosecutor's (and perhaps a current prosecutor's) promise not to be prosecute, at least when not memorialized in a writing, is not binding, even when the target relies on it to his potential detriment. That promise can be disavowed by a successor prosecutor, and perhaps by the prosecutor himself.
Occasionally, cases arise where defense lawyers contend that prosecutors violated oral promises made to them and/or their clients. Such situations include those where a prosecutor, it is claimed, promised a lawyer making an attorney proffer that if his client testified to certain facts, he would not be prosecuted or would be given a cooperation agreement and favorable sentencing consideration. Often these instances result in swearing contests between the adversary lawyers: the prosecutor denies making any such promise and the defense lawyer says he did. In most instances, in the absence of a writing, the court sides with the prosecutor. With respect to plea agreements, some courts have set forth a black-letter rule that promises not in writing or on-the-record are always unenforceable.
The Cosby case is very different. There the (former) prosecutor in testimony avowed his promise, which was expressed in a contemporaneous press release, although there was no formal writing to defense counsel or a court, and expressly testified he did so in part in order to deprive Cosby of the ability to invoke the Fifth Amendment in a civil case brought by the alleged victim, he also said that he believed his promise was "binding." Cosby, according to his civil lawyer, testified at a deposition because of that prosecutorial promise. (Generally, prudent prosecutors, when they announce a declination to prosecute give themselves an "out" by stating that the decision is based on currently-known information and subject to reconsideration based on new evidence).
To a considerable extent, the criminal justice system relies on oral promises by prosecutors (and sometimes judges) to defense lawyers and defendants, especially in busy state courts. And, in federal courts, while immunity agreements are almost always in writing, federal prosecutors (and occasionally, but rarely, federal judges) often make unrecorded or unwritten promises. Sometimes such prosecutorial promises are made in order to avoid the time-consuming need to go through bureaucratic channels; sometimes they are made by line assistants because they fear their superiors would refuse to formalize or agree to such a promise; sometimes they are made to avoid disclosure to a defendant against whom a benefiting cooperator will testify. Based on the Pennsylvania judge's decision, some defense lawyers (and some defendants) will believe that prosecutors' oral promises are not worth the breath used to utter them, and, perhaps, since there appears to be no dispute that such a promise was made here, that written promises are barely worth the paper they are written on.
Defense lawyers are frequently asked by their clients whether they can trust the prosecutor's word in an oral agreement. My usual answer is that they can: most prosecutors are reliable and honest. Defense lawyers are then sometimes asked a variant question about what will happen if the promising prosecutor leaves the office or dies. My usual answer is that if there is no disagreement as to whether the promise was made, it will be honored. The Cosby decision has made me reconsider that response.
There are certain highly-publicized cases of celebrities of little precedential or legal value that have a considerable effect on the practice of law by both prosecutors and defense lawyers. The case of Martha Stewart, who was, on highly disputed testimony, convicted of 18 USC 1001 for lying in a voluntary proffer to prosecutors investigating her purported insider trading (which, assuming it occurred, was most likely not a crime), is still invoked by prosecutors in cautioning witnesses not to lie to them and by defense lawyers in cautioning witnesses about making a voluntary proffer. The Cosby case will likely be cited by defense lawyers and their clients concerning the uncertain value of oral agreements with prosecutors. The skepticism of many defense lawyers about the reliability of agreements with the government and trustworthiness of prosecutors will grow. I suspect the sarcastic refrain of some defense lawyers, "Trust me, I'm the government," will be said more often.
I assume that the decision will be appealed, and also that a motion will be made to exclude Cosby's deposition because it was a consequence of the promise. That latter motion is likely to be denied based on the judge's decision on the issue discussed here, although since the judge failed to set forth any reasoning for his decision, there may be room for distinguishing that issue from the one decided.
Although the judge's ruling has no doubt pleased those clamoring for Cosby's conviction and those desiring a decision on the merits, it may have a considerable negative effect on the perceived integrity and reliability of prosecutorial non-memorialized promises and the actual practice of criminal law. And it reveals once again how celebrity cases often make bad law.
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
Not surprisingly, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance's office has announced it will after a hung jury retry, albeit in slimmed-down form with fewer defendants and counts, the criminal case involving the defunct firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf's alleged misrepresentations in seeking financing during its desperate dying days. Prosecutors rarely admit defeat in big cases after a single hung jury. Double jeopardy does not apply.
The major defendant, against whom (as often happens with the highest-ranking officer) there is the least evidence, Steven H. Davis, its former chair, has been pared from the case and apparently will receive a deferred prosecution. "Deferred prosecutions" are rarely, if ever previously, given to individuals by New York state prosecutors, at least by that name. Although the terms have not been announced, this disposition, I suspect will essentially be just a dismissal dressed up so that the prosecutor can save some face and not admit a total loss.
The prosecutor, as is a custom in New York County, announced publicly on the record his plea offers to the three defendants remaining. I find this custom repugnant and sometimes in return I announce the defendant's terms for a final disposition - such as, a dismissal, an apology by the prosecutor and a testimonial dinner in the defendant's honor.
The plea offers here were a felony plea with a one-to-three year jail term to Joel Sanders, a felony plea with 500 hours of community service to Stephen DiCarmine, both of whom spent six months at the trial that ended in a hung jury, and a misdemeanor plea with 200 hours of community service, to Zachary Warren, who was severed and has not yet gone to trial. I would not be surprised if these cases were settled before trial, not necessarily at the offered price.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
Not Guilty on Two Counts and Conviction on a Misdemeanor Count in CEO's Case Following Deadly Mining Accident
It is interesting to see the headlines from the NYTimes - Former Massey Energy C.E.O. Guilty in Deadly Coal Mine Blast and Politico - Coal baron convicted for mine safety breaches. Both headlines focus on the conviction of the CEO. The Wall Street Journal headline says - Jury Convicts Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship of Conspiracy - but does say in smaller print below this headline "Former executive found not guilty of securities-related charges after deadly West Virginia mining accident."
Yes, it is important to note that a CEO was convicted here of workplace related safety violations and this was after a deadly accident. But what is also important is that CEO Blankenship was found not guilty of the serious charges that he initially faced. What started as a 43 page indictment by the government (see here), ended as a misdemeanor conviction on one count. William W. Taylor, III of Zuckerman Spaeder LLP was the lead on this defense team.
The New York Times reported today (Goldstein, "Witness in Insider Trading Inquiry Sentenced to 21 Days, see here) what it called a "surprising" 21-day prison sentence imposed by Judge P. Kevin Castel upon a felony conviction broke "what has been the standard practice" in insider trading cases in the Southern District of New York. Anyone not familiar with the customs of that court's prosecutors and judges might think that such a sentence was out-of-the-ordinary lenient. However, as the article makes clear, that sentence, for a major cooperator, was apparently considered out-of-the-ordinary harsh.
The defendant, Richard Choo-Beng Lee, was a California hedge-fund owner who, after being approached by FBI agents with evidence that he (and his partner, Ali Far, who was later sentenced to probation by a different judge) had broken securities laws, cooperated with the government by recording 171 phone calls with 28 people, including Steven A. Cohen, DOJ's no. 1 target, who has not been indicted (although his firm, SAC Capital Advisers, was and pleaded guilty and paid a multi-billion dollar fine).
New York City is the cooperation capital of the world. As the Times article indicates, cooperators in white-collar (and other) cases in the Southern District of New York are given considerable benefits for cooperating (far greater than in most jurisdictions) and the default and almost uniform sentence for them is probation and not jail. To be sure, cooperators make cases, and many of those cases and the individuals charged would go undetected without cooperators looking to provide assistance to the government to lessen their own potential sentences.
However, the cooperation culture in New York has many deleterious consequences. To the extent that deterrence is achieved by jail sentences (and I believe it is in white-collar cases, but not in many other areas), its effect has been minimized. The clever white-collar criminal (and most but not all are intelligent) knows that he has in his pocket a "get-out-of-jail card," the ability to cooperate against others and get a non-jail sentence. The mid-level financial criminal can commit crimes, enjoy an outrageously lucrative, high-end life style, and, when and if caught, cooperate, stay out of jail and pay back what assets, if any, remain from his wrongdoing.
Knowledgeable white-collar defense attorneys are well aware of the benefits of cooperation. It is often good lawyering to urge cooperation, at times even in marginal cases, to avoid jail sentences. Indeed, more than a a trifling number of those who plead guilty in white-collar cases are actually innocent, often because they lack the requisite mens rea (a difficult, even when accurate, defense). And sometimes, at the urging of their lawyers, they admit guilt and tailor their stories and testimony to what the prosecutors and agents (who usually see only the dark side of equivocal facts and circumstances) believe actually occurred so that others actually innocent are convicted (or also choose to plead guilty and perhaps cooperate against others). The bar for indictment and conviction has been lowered. The adversary system has been turned sideways, if not upside-down.
To many, probably most, lawyers, cooperation is personally easier than going to trial. Cooperation avoids the stress of battle and the distress of (statistically probable) defeat at trial. No longer do lawyers walk around with "no-snitch" buttons. The white-collar bar has become generally a non-combative bar. To the extent it ever had one, it (with notable and not-so-notable exceptions) has lost its mojo. The first (and often only) motion many lawyers make upon being retained is to hail a taxi to the prosecutor's office.
I write about the role of the bar as a lament more than a criticism. I too represent cooperators when I think cooperation is to their benefit. There is a great penalty (or, to put it gently, "loss of benefit") for not cooperating. Those accused who choose not to cooperate, or those whose own scope of criminality and knowledge of wrongdoing of others is so limited that they cannot, receive (in my opinion sometimes, but far from usually, appropriate) severe jail sentences. Those who cooperate, except for the unfortunate Mr. Lee, almost always avoid jail.
Lawyers and professors talk about the "trial penalty," the extra, often draconian, prison time one receives for exercising his right to trial. The principal "penalty" in white-collar cases is not the trial penalty, but the "non-cooperation penalty." Even those who choose not to go to trial and plead guilty are punished much more severely than those who cooperate.
Monday, November 30, 2015
Longtime New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, was found guilty today by a Southern District of New York federal jury on corruption charges, including honest services theft and extortion under color of law. As Speaker and majority leader, Silver was one of the "three men in a room" who controlled the New York Legislature (the others being the Governor and Senate majority leader, almost always a Republican, one of whom, Dean Skelos, is now on trial on corruption charges in the same courthouse as Silver was - an apparent show of federal prosecutorial bipartisanship).
Silver had requested and received case referrals to the tort specialty law firm where he was counsel from a doctor to whose university-affiliated clinic he later directed a half-million dollar state grant. He also requested from two major real estate firms that they send business to a different law firm from which he received large referral fees. Although the doctor and the real estate firm officers testified that they made the referrals to curry favor and influence Silver, no witness testified that there was an explicit quid pro quo or specific agreement that Silver would perform a specific (or even unspecific) act, although the government maintained that Silver did perform official actions that benefited the doctor and the real estate firms.
The defense argued that there was no quid pro quo, that the referrals were made out of friendship and respect, and that the official acts performed by Silver were legitimate and not performed because of the referrals.
The verdict was no surprise. Although the defense portrayed the incidents as "politics as usual," the "politics" just stunk. Silver had clearly received benefits, referrals to law firms from which he received millions of dollars only because those who had provided these benefits thought that Silver as a powerful official would do things - unspoken, unspecific and perhaps then unknown - that would benefit them. The cases, on which Silver did no actual legal work, were not referred to him because of his reputation as a lawyer.
On the one hand, as one who loathes corruption, I am somewhat gratified that it now appears (subject to judicial reversal of the jury verdict) that a public official may not request a substantial valuable benefit, direct or indirect, if he or she knows or believes, that the donor is conferring the benefit because the donor believes that the official will exercise his or her official power to the donor's advantage, even in the absence of an agreement that the official do anything in his official capacity.
On the other hand, I am concerned about what in effect is legislation by prosecution, even if it is good legislation. However unwholesome Silver's conduct was, he might have been convicted for what had been generally perceived as acceptable conduct in his world that he believed was not criminal. For better or worse, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has essentially changed the rules. A corruption conviction does not require as a quid pro quo that there be an agreement by a public servant to do a specific act or at least generally to act favorably in the future when circumstances arise, as many prosecutors had believed for years (and some still do). While the "new" rule is certainly better for society as a deterrent to corruption, I have some concern whether it is just to convict, and likely imprison for a considerable time, someone who acted within what he believed the rules were.
Perhaps this case will embolden prosecutors to go further in charging public officials. Here, Silver clearly solicited benefits, received benefits, and, at least in the case of the doctor, in return provided a benefit, even if not pursuant to an agreement. Will cases now be brought where public official receive monetary or equivalent benefits from those intending to influence them even where there is no evidence of solicitation by the officials and/or no evidence that the officials did anything in return for the benefits received? And what about cases involving campaign contributions made by donors and accepted by a candidates in the expectation that the candidates will act favorably toward their causes, and the candidates (if elected) do so act? (Or should there be an exemption for cases involving campaign funding?)
(Note - Silver, whom I have never met or spoken with, reappointed me three times as his designee to serve on the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, but did not reappoint me a fourth time.)