Thursday, May 29, 2014
Credit Suisse Conviction Does Not Demonstrate Substantial Change In Department Of Justice Enforcement
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Attorney General Eric Holder were strutting last week over the criminal conviction by plea of guilty of Credit Suisse, a major financial institution. "This case shows that no financial institution, no matter its size or global reach, is above the law," declared the Attorney General. Recent prosecutions of major financial institutions had resulted in lesser results, "deferred prosecutions," a somewhat deceptive term for "delayed dismissals," or a guilty plea by a minor affiliate.
The Credit Suisse guilty plea does not represent a sea change in the attitude of DOJ toward major financial institutions; rather, it appears to be a small ratcheting-up of the baseline penalty for serious criminal financial acts by such institutions. Credit Suisse, despite paying a hefty $2.6 billion fine, will not suffer the severe collateral consequences that ordinary individual defendants do upon a criminal conviction. (See here, NACDL's report "Collateral Damage: America's Failure to Forgive or Forget in the War on Crime -- A Roadmap to Restore Rights and Status After Arrest or Conviction," released today, Thursday, May 29, 2014.) It will still be able to act as an investment advisor, due to waivers agreed to by federal and New York State governmental agencies. Thus, its conviction, according to its chief executive Brady Dougan, will not have "any material impact on our operational or business capabilities." In other words, for Credit Suisse, it will be business as usual.
I hold no sympathy for Credit Suisse. Its crimes, continuous and notorious, have enabled American citizens and citizens of other countries to launder and evade tax payments on billions of dollars. In effect, Credit Suisse (not alone among Swiss banks) (see here) was a criminal enterprise, for many years making huge profits from extraordinary fees for its knowing and willful provision of a presumably safe haven for untaxed income, ill-gotten or otherwise. Mr. Dougan had stated to a Senate hearing in February that the tax evasion scheme was the work of a small group of private bankers that was hidden from senior management. That hard-to-believe claim was challenged in a statement by Schweitzerisher Bankpersonalverband, the organization representing the bank's employees: "It was common knowledge that tax evasion was the strategy, a business model pursued by many banks for a long time." See here.
To be sure, Credit Suisse's crimes did not cause the vast hardship to tens of millions of Americans that the wrongs -- criminal or not -- of other major financial institutions did in the last several years. And, further, its acts -- while subject to the long-arm jurisdiction of American courts -- were apparently legal under Swiss law, and seemingly condoned by the Swiss government.
Some commentators have suggested that there is considerable unfairness in prosecuting corporations for acts of low- or mid-level employees without knowledge of corporate leaders (see here), a position with which I generally agree. The demi-prosecution of Credit Suisse, however, does not appear to fit within that category, despite Mr. Dougan's claim. I see no unfairness in the government's requiring Credit Suisse to plead guilty.
I do, however, wonder about the effectiveness of the insistence on a guilty plea if the collateral consequences are waived. The conviction of a major financial institution with a considerable financial penalty but a waiver of regulatory bars is to me little different from a civil finding of wrongdoing with such a penalty. Other than its current status as a convicted felon, Credit Suisse today is essentially in the same position it was two weeks ago.
Given the legitimate (but probably exaggerated) fear that a felony conviction of a major financial institution without regulatory waivers will have on its existence and thus on the economy and societal well-being, it may well be that guilty pleas (and trial convictions too) of such corporations should be accompanied by limited collateral consequences. Such prosecutions, however, will then serve little more than a symbolic purpose (which I accept as a legitimate purpose). Overall, DOJ's prosecution to conviction of Credit Suisse is a positive step, albeit a small one.
The resolution here suggests again that the criminal process is inadequate to prosecute large financial institutions. Society looks to the criminal law to solve far more problems than the criminal law is capable of solving. Meaningful reform of a flawed financial system will not come from criminal prosecutions of corporations, but, if at all, from strong, substantial regulatory rulemaking and non-criminal legislation.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
The Department of Justice (DOJ) on May 12, 2014 issued a memorandum creating "a presumption" that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives (AFT) and United States Marshals Service (USMS) electronically record, if possible videotape, post-arrest statements made by individuals in their custody in a place of detention, essentially FBI and local police offices and detention facilities, where the facility has suitable equipment. Additionally, agents and prosecutors are encouraged to consider electronic recording in circumstances where the presumption does not apply. This policy is not intended to create any enforceable rights for arrestees.
This is a significant change and DOJ should be commended. Historically, the FBI, in particular, has resisted recording conversations and in fact has had a formal policy prohibiting it without special permission from a supervisor. FBI memoranda stated that recording "may interfere with and undermine . . . successful rapport building techniques" and that "perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants." A transcript of the testimony of an FBI agent in a 2013 trial reads:
Q: Does the FBI have a policy of recording interviews?
A: We do not record interviews.
Civil liberties and defense lawyer groups have been seeking such a policy for well over a decade. Indeed, I wrote an NACDL president's column on the subject in December 2002. The cynical have believed that the FBI refusal to record investigations was in order to allow agents to use tough, deceptive and coercive methods to induce confessions and then testify to a sugar-coated sanitized version of the interrogation. The more cynical have believed it gave FBI agents a license to lie with impunity about what the defendants said or did not say.
I believe recording interrogation is a win-win situation. Jurors will be able to see and hear the circumstances surrounding the questioning and the specific words and tones used by the agents and the defendant. Agents will be discouraged from shading testimony as to their methods and the defendant's statements. Defendants and defense lawyers will be unable to argue effectively that the defendants did not make the statement they actually did or claim that they were beaten or coerced when they were not.
To be sure, the memorandum does not require, as some civil liberties and defense lawyer groups have advocated, that the recording begin at arrest. Thus, there still remains the possibility that agents will coerce statements on the way to the place of detention and lie about it or falsely state that the defendant confessed, or that defendants who did make admissions upon arrest will deny it before the jury.
Nonetheless, this is an important positive step toward presenting the triers of fact with accurate best-evidence versions of events so that they will reach a more just determination. It will reduce the number of unjust convictions and perhaps unjust acquittals also. Every law enforcement agency -- federal, state and local -- should adopt such a policy, absent special reasons. The federal government should require it as a condition of a state police agency receiving federal support.
(I just received notice that Martin Tankleff, who was released from prison in 2007 after serving 17 years upon a wrongful conviction for killing his parents based on a false confession when he was 17 years old, will graduate from Touro Law School this Sunday. Had Marty's confession been recorded, Marty would very likely not have been convicted. Marty has vowed to dedicate himself to becoming an advocate for the wrongfully convicted. Congratulations, Marty; consider this policy a graduation present from DOJ.)
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Two New York State legislators have proposed the creation of a state commission on prosecutorial misconduct to review and investigate complaints of prosecutorial misconduct and to discipline prosecutors who have been found to have acted improperly. See here.
The proposed commission would, it is said, be the first in the nation of its kind. It will be modeled upon New York's Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigates allegations of misconduct by judges and, if misconduct is found, may discipline a judge by public admonition, censure or removal from the bench.
Virtually every state (but not the federal government) has a commission on judicial conduct and these commissions, it is generally agreed, have had a positive effect in limiting judicial misconduct, removing unfit judges who had committed serious misconduct and increasing public confidence in and awareness of the workings of the court system. (I note that I am a past chair of New York's Commission.) There is, I believe, no good reason that there should not be an analogous agency to review instances of alleged prosecutorial misconduct, sanction offending prosecutors, and remove the most serious offenders from their positions. Indeed, there are stronger reasons for a commission concerning prosecutorial misconduct than for one concerning judicial misconduct. Much of the most serious prosecutorial misconduct, such as concealing exculpatory material and suborning perjury, occurs in the investigative and preparatory stages of a case and is hidden from the view of judges, defense attorneys, and the public and thus not detectable and reviewable by a court. Almost all judicial misconduct, on the other hand, occurs on the bench in public view, is recorded and observed by lawyers and the public, and is readily reviewable by appellate courts.
With rare exception, see here, prosecutorial misconduct has gone unpunished by prosecutorial offices, bar disciplinary committees and judicial authorities. Although grievance committees have authority over the improprieties of prosecutors as much as other lawyers, they have historically shown little interest in sanctioning prosecutorial misconduct. See, e.g., Gershman, Reflections on Brady v. Maryland, 47 S. Tex. L. Rev. 685 (2006); Yaroshefsky, Wrongful Convictions: It is Time to Take Prosecution Discipline Seriously, 8 D.C. L. Rev. 275 (2004). Similarly, judges, even when they reverse a conviction due to egregious prosecutorial misconduct, almost always conceal the prosecutor's identity and rarely refer the prosecutor for professional discipline. And, prosecutorial offices themselves often defend on appeal and thus ratify even serious misconduct of line prosecutors, and fail to sanction even those prosecutors whose serious misconduct they concede. See, Rudin, The Supreme Court Assumes Errant Prosecutors Will Be Disciplined By Their Offices or the Bar: Three Case Studies That Prove That Assumption Wrong, 80 Fordham L. Rev. 537 (2011).
Further, potentially criminal misconduct by judges may be investigated and prosecuted by the District Attorney, an agency wholly independent from the judiciary. However, except in the extremely rare instances where a special prosecutor is appointed, potentially criminal misconduct by prosecutors generally may only be investigated or prosecuted by the very same prosecutorial office that committed that misconduct, which in almost all instances will be hesitant to prosecute one of its own and embarrass the office.
Additionally, there is a stark imbalance in the adversarial criminal justice system where one adversary -- the prosecutor -- may criminally charge the other adversary -- the defense attorney -- when he tampered with evidence or suborned perjury, but where the defense attorney who believes the prosecutor committed such criminal acts may only make a shout in the wilderness by a futile complaint to an overprotective disciplinary agency with no criminal prosecution power. A commission on prosecutorial conduct will not wholly right this imbalance, but will tilt it in the right direction.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
18 U.S.C. § 1519, known as the “anti-shredding provision” of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, makes it a crime for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation (emphasis added). Congress passed this statute in the aftermath of the Enron debacle. But did they ever envision that a prosecutor would use this statute against a commercial fisherman for allegedly having undersized grouper fish that were thrown overboard following the issuing of a civil fishing citation from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission?
The government’s extension of this SOX statute is the subject of a Petition for Certiorari (Download Yates Pcert_Filed) before the Supreme Court. A key issue is whether “fish” are tangible objects for the purposes of this statute. And even more bizarre is that the fisherman allegedly started with 72 undersized red grouper and when he came to shore there were purportedly only 69 fish. Could this be a federal prosecution under SOX for 3 missing fish? And is this all happening during a time of sequestration with tight funding?
Perhaps the Supreme Court will agree that in the ocean of crime, this one is a bit fishy. Following the filing of the Petition for Certiorari and a distribution for conference, the Court requested a response from the government. Amici filed a couple of briefs and it was again distributed for conference. It is now set for distribution a third time, April 25, 2014 (see here). It's a wonderful case for the Court to examine principles of statutory interpretation and how far afield the government can go in using a statute written and intended to stop one form of criminal conduct but being used in an unintended manner. This case also provides the Court the chance to step to the plate and express a view on overcriminalization. (see NACDL amicus brief of William Shepherd here - Download NACDLYATESAMICUS). There are many other issues in the "fish case" that may also interest the Court, such as how a civil fishing citation became a criminal case with an indictment issued 985 days after the citation. (see Petitioner's Reply Brief - Download Yates Reply to Brief in Opposition). But the real question is whether the Court will order fish this coming Friday at their conference.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
I had the privilege of being at an NYU Conference titled, Deterring Corporate Crime: Effective Principles for Corporate Enforcement. Hats off to Professor Jennifer Arlen for bringing together folks with some different perspectives on corporate crime. Individuals presented data, and I heard different positions presented (corporate, government, industry, judicial) on a host of topics. The individual constituent (CEO, CFO, employee) within the corporation was not a key focus, unless it was a discussion of their wrongdoing or prosecution.
From this conversation it was clear that deterring corporate wrongdoing is not easy. Penalties have increased, yet we continute to see corporate criminality. So the question is, how do we encourage corporations not to engage in corporate wrongdoing?
This is my top ten list of what I think exists and what needs to be changed -
1. Most companies try to abide by the law.
2. Complying with the law is not always easy for corporations. In some instances the law and regulations are unclear, making it difficult to discern what is legal. The array of different laws and regulations (e.g., state, federal, and international), as well as their complexity makes corporate compliance problematic.
3. Companies resort to internal investigations to get information of wrongdoing within the company. In some instances companies will threaten individuals with the possible loss of their jobs if they fail to cooperate with a corporate internal investigation. Individuals who provide information to their employers sometimes do not realize that the company may provide that information to the government and the information may then be used against them.
4. If a company is criminally charged, it typically is financially beneficial for the company to fold, work with the government, and provide information to the government of alleged individual wrongdoing within the company.
5. DOJ's incentives to a corporation that causes it to fold and provide evidence to the government against alleged individual wrongdoers may be causing more harm because it pits corporations against its individual constituents.
6. We need a stronger regulatory system. Our system is broken and one just can't blame agencies like the SEC.
7. If we expect agencies like the SEC to work, Congress needs to provide them with more money to engage in real regulatory enforcement.
8. There are many good folks in DOJ, including AG Holder, who look longterm at stopping corporate wrongdoing. But there are also individuals in DOJ who fail to see the ramifications of what may seem like short-term benefits.
9. Corporate crime can be reduced if everyone - the corporation, government, and also the individual constituents would work together.
10. It would be beneficial in reducing corporate crime if there was more transparency. We all need to hear what works - when there are declinations of prosecutions, or when an agency decides not to fine a company. We can learn from the good things companies do (anonymously) and when DOJ declines to proceed against the company.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
In Kaley v. United States (12-464, decided February 25, 2014) (see here), the Supreme Court by a 6-3 vote extended the rulings of United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600 (1989) and Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989) by determining that a grand jury finding of probable cause that a federal defendant committed a crime was conclusive in any effort by that defendant to secure funds out of temporarily restrained assets to hire a private attorney of his choice. A defendant seeking release of funds may still be able to challenge the grand jury determination that there was probable cause that the assets seized resulted from or were involved in the purported criminal activity, but not that the activity was criminal.
The opinion, written by Justice Kagan, exalts the inviolability of the grand jury and demonstrates a naive misunderstanding of (or lack of concern about) the reality of its role in the determination of probable cause, ignores the presumption of innocence, and denigrates the importance of independent defense counsel in the criminal justice system. It tilts the playing field of justice in the government's favor by giving the government, in some cases, the option to deprive the defendant of the counsel he has selected or intends to select.
Essentially, the premise of the opinion is that since grand juries historically have the unreviewable power to determine probable cause to indict and require a person to stand trial and thus derivatively to deprive him of pre-trial liberty, they similarly have the power derivatively to deprive him of his right to counsel of choice. Justice Kagan, worrying that a different decision would be incongruous and unsymmetrical, seems more concerned with the effect of the decision on the pillars of architecture of the criminal justice system than the pillars of justice and fairness.
The underlying (but unspoken) foundation of the opinion is essentially fraudulent: the legal fiction that federal grand juries actually make independent, considered determinations of probable cause necessary to indict. Every experienced federal prosecutor, defense attorney, or judge knows otherwise; grand juries, especially federal ones, are virtually invariably merely "rubber stamps" for the prosecution. The government -- not the grand juries -- makes the actual decision who and for what to indict.
Former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously said, "A grand jury would indict a ham sandwich" -- referring to a grand jury in a state where prosecutors are constrained because they know that judges are mandated by law upon defense motion to review the grand jury minutes to determine whether the evidence presented was legally sufficient and to dismiss the indictment if not, and where hearsay evidence is not admissible. In contrast, in federal courts, as stated in Kaley (quoting United States v. Williams, 504 U.S. 36, 54 (1992)), "a challenge to the reliability or competence of the evidence supporting a grand jury's finding of probable cause will not be heard" (and an indictment may be, and sometimes is, based wholly on hearsay, often from a single government agent). A federal prosecutor thus has no such constraint as his New York State counterpart; he knows that no matter how flimsy or inadmissible the evidentiary basis for an indictment may be, that basis is unchallengeable. Thus, if a New York State grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, a federal grand jury would indict a slice of bread.
* * *
Chief Justice Roberts, to my knowledge the only current justice who had a significant career representing paying clients and thus may have greater empathy for the private bar than most of his colleagues, wrote a powerful dissent noting the basic lack of fairness allowing the prosecution essentially to disqualify an accused's counsel of choice without even a hearing. He wrote:
[F]ew things could do more to undermine the criminal justice system's integrity than to allow the Government to initiate a prosecution and, then, at its option, disarm its presumptively innocent opponent by depriving him of his counsel of choice -- without even an opportunity to be heard. . . . [I]t is fundamentally at odds with our constitutional tradition and basic notices of fair play. . . .
The issues presented here implicate some of the most fundamental precepts underlying the American criminal justice system. A person accused by the United States of committing a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But he faces a foe of powerful might and vast resources, intent on seeing him behind bars. That individual has the right to choose the advocate he believes will most ably defend his liberty at trial. . . .
In my view, the Court's opinion pays insufficient respect to the importance of an independent bar as a check on prosecutorial abuse and government overreaching. Granting the Government the power to take away a defendant's chosen advocate strikes at the heart of that significant role.
* * *
Following Monsanto, which explicitly left open the question as to whether a hearing on the provenance of seized funds was required, the federal courts divided on the issue. Some prosecutors had chosen to allow defendants to pay from restrained funds reasonable and legitimate fees to counsel of choice. Most had done so in order to avoid giving the defendant a preview of their case; others had done so out of respect for the constitutional right to counsel and a robust adversary system -- a right apparently not as much respected by the Court majority -- and a preference for a fair fight where the accused is not hampered by denial of his choice of counsel.
The elimination of the requirement in many courts for what was called "a Monsanto hearing" (a term likely to be soon forgotten) will undoubtedly eliminate, or at the very least severely limit, the opportunity for defendants in federal courts to pay counsel of choice from seized funds. Prosecutors who had chosen to allow defendants to pay counsel from restrained assets in order to avoid discovery of their cases will no longer have that reason to do so. Those who used the avoidance of discovery as a cover out of respect for the constitutional right to counsel of choice or the adversary system will no longer be able to do so. Pre-trial forfeiture claims will now in some cases offer a prosecutor a potential bonus beyond the stated goals of depriving a defendant of wrongfully-gained assets and using them for governmental purposes -- the elimination of a top-notch adversary. Thus, there is now a tactical trial benefit to the prosecutor to institute pre-trial asset restraint. In white-collar cases, where the prosecutor often knows who will probably represent the defendant from pre-indictment discussions, his determination to seek pre-trial restraint may be affected by whether he likes or dislikes the attorney, whether the attorney is dogged and aggressive, or whether the attorney is likely to give the defendant a better chance of success than a replacement.
The Kaley decision will also have a severe harmful effect on the finances of an already financially-distressed private middle-class (other than big-firm) criminal defense bar, which will (as will large firms) be deprived of a considerable number of well-paying clients because of lack of available assets outside of those seized. Defendants -- generally either drug or white-collar defendants, those who had a considerable amount of money prior to pre-trial seizure -- will be deprived of representation by the most experienced and successful criminal defense lawyers. They will be represented by court-appointed public defenders, institutional or private appointed attorneys, or less expensive private attorneys -- often, but not always, experienced, dedicated and able, but generally less so than high-profile, high-paid private attorneys, and almost always with more cases and clients and less time and resources to devote to them than well-compensated private attorneys (and it is unlikely that government funding will be increased to provide public defenders those resources). The ability, energy and knowledge of who represents them will often depend on the luck of the draw from assigned counsel lists, rather than their considered choice. The gulf between counsel of choice and public defenders is greatest in white-collar cases since few public defenders have experience in these cases, or ample resources to defend them.
In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts alluded to, but failed to state explicitly, the general disparity between the selected best of the private bar and the average (and an assignment-by-rotation system necessarily leads to the mean or average) public defender or assigned attorney. It is unfashionable (and politically incorrect) for judges (and bar leaders) to say or write anything that might be construed to disparage public defenders (and perhaps provide ammunition to ineffective assistance claimants). Rather, they, as did Chief Justice Roberts, often speak of "counsel of choice" when they mean "the private bar." Lawyers -- whether chosen or assigned -- are not fungible. Just as there is a difference in quality between a $300,000 Bentley and a $15,000 Toyota Corolla, there is usually a difference in quality between an attorney who commands large fees because of her reputation and stature and the average assigned attorney. (To be sure, like automobiles, there are lemons and diamonds among both the expensive and the inexpensive.)
As Chief Justice Roberts said, "The possibility that a prosecutor could elect to hamstring his target by preventing him from paying his counsel of choice raises substantial concerns about the fairness of the entire proceeding." Just as a basketball team opposing the Miami Heat might choose, if it could, that LeBron James sit out the game, so too a prosecutor, if he could, might now choose to seek pre-trial restraint to keep a first-rate private lawyer on the bench.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
To the surprise of nobody I know, Mathew Martoma, the former SAC Capital portfolio manager, was convicted of insider trading last Thursday by a Southern District of New York jury. The evidence at trial was very strong. It demonstrated that Martoma had befriended two doctors advising two drug companies on the trial of an experimental drug, received confidential information from them about the disappointing result of the drug trial prior to the public announcement, and then had a 20-minute telephone conversation with Steven A. Cohen, the SAC chair, a day or so before Cohen ordered that SAC's positions in these companies be sold off. The purported monetary benefit to SAC, in gains and avoidance of loss, of the trades resulting from the inside information is about $275 million, suggesting that Martoma receive a sentence of over 15 years under the primarily amount-driven Sentencing Guidelines (although I expect the actual sentence will be considerably less).
Cohen is white-collar Public Enemy No. 1 to the Department of Justice, at least in its most productive white-collar office, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District. That office has already brought monumental parallel criminal and civil cases against SAC, receiving a settlement of $1.8 billion, about a fifth of Cohen's reported personal net worth, but it has apparently not garnered sufficient evidence against Cohen to give it confidence that an indictment will lead to his conviction. It had granted a total "walk" -- a non-prosecution agreement -- to the two doctors whose testimony it felt it needed to convict Martoma, unusually lenient concessions by an office that almost always requires substantial (and often insubstantial) white-collar wrongdoers seeking a cooperation deal to plead to a felony. As an FBI agent told one of the doctor/co-conspirators, the doctors and Martoma were "grains of sand;" the government was after Cohen.
In an article in the New York Times last Friday, James B. Stewart, an excellent writer whose analyses I almost always agree with, asked a question many lawyers, including myself, have asked: why didn't Martoma cooperate with the government and give up Cohen in exchange for leniency? Mr. Stewart's answer was essentially that Martoma was unmarketable to the government because he would have been destroyed on cross-examination by revelation of his years-ago doctoring his Harvard Law School grades to attempt to secure a federal judicial clerkship and covering up that falsification by other document tampering and lying. Mr. Stewart quotes one lawyer as saying Martoma would be made "mincemeat" after defense cross-examination, another as saying he would be "toast," and a third as saying that without solid corroborating evidence, "his testimony would be of little use." See here.
I strongly disagree with Mr. Stewart and his three sources. The prosecution, I believe, would have welcomed Mr. Martoma to the government team in a New York minute -- assuming Martoma would have been able to provide believable testimony that Mr. Cohen was made aware of the inside information in that 20-minute conversation. When one is really hungry -- and the Department of Justice is really hungry for Steven A. Cohen -- one will eat the only food available, even if it's "mincemeat" and "toast." And there is certainly no moral question here; the government gave Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, a multiple murderer, a virtual pass to induce him to testify against John Gotti. Given the seemingly irrefutable direct, circumstantial and background evidence (including, specifically, the phone call, the fact that Cohen ordered the trades and reaped the benefit, and generally, whatever evidence from the civil and criminal cases against SAC is admissible against Cohen), testimony by Martoma to the effect he told Cohen, even indirectly or unspecifically, about the information he received from the doctors would, I believe, have most likely led to Cohen's indictment.
I have no idea why Martoma did not choose to cooperate, if, as I believe, he had the opportunity. "Cooperation," as it is euphemistically called, would require from Martoma a plea of guilty and, very likely in view of the amount of money involved, a not insubstantial prison term (although many years less than he will likely receive after his conviction by trial). Perhaps Martoma, who put on a spirited if unconvincing defense after being caught altering his law school transcript, is just a fighter who does not easily surrender or, some would say, "face reality," even if the result of such surrender would be a comparatively short jail sentence. (In a way, that choice is refreshing, reminding me of the days defense lawyers defended more than pleaded and/or cooperated.) Perhaps Martoma felt cooperation, a condition of which is generally full admission of all prior crimes and bad acts, would reveal other wrongs and lead to financial losses by him and his family beyond those he faces in this case. Perhaps he felt loyalty -- which it has been demonstrated is a somewhat uncommon trait among those charged with insider trading -- to Cohen, who has reportedly paid his legal fees and treated him well financially (and perhaps Martoma hopes will continue to do so), or perhaps to others he would have to implicate.
And perhaps -- perhaps -- the truth is that in his conversation with Cohen, he did not tell Cohen either because of caution while talking on a telephone, a deliberate effort to conceal from Cohen direct inside information, or another reason, and he is honest enough not to fudge the truth to please the eager prosecutors, as some cooperators do. In such a case his truthful testimony would have been unhelpful to prosecutors bent on charging Cohen. That neutral testimony or information, if proffered, which the skeptical prosecutors would find difficult to believe, would at best get him ice in this very cold wintertime. Lastly, however unlikely, perhaps Martoma believed or still believes he is, or conceivably actually is, innocent.
In any case, it is not necessarily too late for Martoma to change his mind and get a benefit from cooperation. The government would, I believe, be willing to alter favorably its sentencing recommendation if Martoma provides information or testimony leading to or supporting the prosecution of Cohen. Indeed, I believe the government would ordinarily jump at a trade of evidence against Cohen for a recommendation of leniency (or less harshness), even if Martoma is now even less attractive as a witness than before he was convicted (although far more attractive than if he had testified as to his innocence). However, the five-year statute of limitations for the July 2008 criminal activity in this matter has apparently run, and an indictment for substantive insider trading against Cohen for these trades is very probably time-barred.
To be sure, federal prosecutors have attempted -- not always successfully (see United States v. Grimm; see here) -- imaginative solutions to statute of limitations problems. And, if the government can prove that Cohen had committed even a minor insider trading conspiratorial act within the past five years (and there are other potential cooperators, like recently-convicted SAC manager Michael Steinberg, out there), the broad conspiracy statutes might well allow Martoma's potential testimony, however dated, to support a far-ranging conspiracy charge (since the statute of limitations for conspiracy is satisfied by a single overt act within the statutory period). In such a case, Martoma may yet get some considerable benefit from cooperating, however belatedly it came about.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
One of the increasing incursions into constitutional rights in the white-collar area is the expansion of the "required records" exception to the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. In general, that doctrine provides that an individual or entity required by law to maintain for regulatory purposes certain records has no Fifth Amendment right to refuse to produce them to the government.
The Second Circuit last month, in affirming a contempt finding against an individual for failing to produce to a grand jury records of foreign bank accounts mandated to be kept by regulations promulgated pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act, 31 CFR 1012.420 ("BSA"), held, in accord with prior rulings by other circuits, that the "required records" exception to the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination pertains to the production of such records. In Re Grand Jury Subpoena Dated February 2, 2012, (13-403-CV, Dec. 19, 2013).
The individual contended that he had a Fifth Amendment right to refuse to comply with a grand jury subpoena for foreign bank records. He claimed that the subpoena put him in a Catch-22 position: produce documents that might incriminate him or confirm that he failed to maintain records of his foreign bank accounts, which also might incriminate him. The court essentially said "tough," and affirmed the contempt order.
The court first considered whether the "act of production" doctrine (see United States v. Hubbell, 500 U.S. 27 (2000)) applied to "required records." Under that doctrine, generally a person could on Fifth Amendment grounds resist a subpoena for the production of records unless the government could demonstrate it was a "foregone conclusion" that the person actually possessed such records. Although the contents of the records, as in the case of "required records," might not be privileged, by producing them the individual essentially incriminated herself by its production by admitting, among other things, that she possessed such records. The court held that the Fifth Amendment did not apply to required records, either as to the content of or production of such records, and thus the "act of production" privilege, a form of Fifth Amendment protection, did not apply.
The court then applied the three-prong test of Grosso v. United States, 390 U.S. 62 (1968), to determine whether the required records doctrine applied to the BSA regulation. That test provides, first, that the purpose of the legal requirement must be "essentially regulatory;" second, that the information sought must be of a type "customarily kept;" and third, that the records must have "public aspects" which make them at least analogous to public documents. The court then held that the regulation, although it was designed in part to facilitate criminal prosecutions, was "essentially regulatory" in that it did not target only those suspected of criminal activity since possession of foreign bank accounts by itself was not unlawful. Second, it held that the records were "customarily kept" since holders of bank accounts are likely to be aware of or have records of the details of their accounts. Third, the court held that "records lawfully required to be kept" for purposes of constitutional analysis by definition have "public aspects." Practically, such a finding eliminated this third prong as an independent prerequisite for application of the exception.
In sum, the court essentially ruled that any records ordinarily kept by individuals that are required to be made available to governmental authorities pursuant to a law not primarily designed to detect criminal activity lack Fifth Amendment protection.
Thus, the decision essentially gives federal prosecutors the ability to subpoena any person and demand that she produce any foreign bank records she possesses, even absent any knowledge or suspicion that she has such an account. To be sure, in this case, and virtually all other reported cases involving subpoenas of foreign bank accounts, the government appears to have had a considerable basis to believe the person subpoenaed does have a foreign bank account. The Second Circuit's ruling, however, at least implicitly, does not require that such governmental knowledge be a prerequisite for an enforceable subpoena for foreign accounts. "Fishing expeditions" for foreign bank account information appear to be allowed.
I would not be surprised, therefore, to see a considerable increase in the number of governmental subpoenas for records of foreign bank accounts, and perhaps the addition of a boilerplate request for foreign bank records in other subpoenas for financial records. As they say, there's no harm in asking.
Monday, January 13, 2014
I have no particular sympathy for Governor Chris Christie in his current political travails. But the notion that he or his aides committed a federal crime is ludicrous, and the New Jersey U.S. Attorney's rash public announcement of a criminal investigation is a shameful example of DOJ's continuing politicization. Oh, I know, everyone commits a federal crime every single day. It's what makes America great. But I'm talking about a real crime, that a real prosecutor would seriously tackle. Contrast Paul Fishman's aggressive stance with DOJ's spectacular non-reaction to the fraud-induced 2008 financial crisis. How pathetic.
Friday, December 27, 2013
In the current New York Review of Books, Judge Jed Rakoff presents the most thoughtful, balanced analysis I have seen to date regarding DOJ's failure to prosecute high-level executives at elite financial institutions in connection with the recent financial crisis. Appropriately entitled, The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High Level Executives Been Prosecuted?, Judge Rakoff is careful not to point fingers, rush to judgment, or even allege that fraud has definitively been established. And that's a big part of the DOJ's problem. How can you establish fraud if the effort to investigate it has been haphazard and understaffed from the outset? Rakoff is someone worth listening to. An unusually thoughtful federal district judge, he has presided over many significant securities and bank fraud cases, served as chief of the Securities Fraud Unit in the SDNY U.S. Attorney's Office, and worked as a defense attorney. Oh yeah. He also hates the Sentencing Guidelines.
Among the many theories Rakoff posits for the failure to prosecute what, it bears repeating, only may have been fraud, are two that I take issue with. These investigations were apparently parceled out to to various OUSA districts, rather than being concentrated in the SDNY. Judge Rakoff believes that the SDNY would have been the more logical choice, as it has more experience in sophisticated fraud investigations. This may be true as a general proposition. But the most plausible historical fraud model for the mortgage meltdown-fueled financial crisis is the Savings & Loan Scandal of the late 1980s, so successfully prosecuted by DOJ into the mid-1990s. The SDNY had very little of that action.
Judge Rakoff also notes the government's role in creating the conditions that led to the current crisis as a potential prosecution pitfall. But this did not stop the S&L prosecutors from forging ahead in their cases. Back then, virtually every S&L criminal defendant claimed that the government had created that crisis by establishing, and then abandoning, Regulatory Accounting Principles, aka RAP. (One marked difference between the two scandals is that the S&L Scandal was immediately met with public outrage and a sustained Executive Branch commitment to investigate and prosecute where warranted. The sustained Executive Branch commitment has not happened this time around, for whatever reason.)
But these are minor quibbles and Judge Rakoff is spot on in most of his observations.
Judge Rakoff is right to reject the "revolving door" theory of non-prosecution. Any prosecutor worth his salt would love to make a name for himself, and would definitely enhance his private sector marketability, by winning one of these cases. Judge Rakoff also correctly notes that these cases are hard and time-consuming to investigate.
The judge's most salient point has nothing to do with the various theories for DOJ's failure to prosecute. Instead, it is his observation that there is no substitute for holding financial elites responsible for their major criminal misdeeds. The compliance and deferred prosecution agreements favored today are simply a cost of doing business for most big corporations. What's worse, in the current environment, DOJ is giving a walk to elite financial actors and simultaneously prosecuting middle-class pikers with a vengeance that is sickening to behold. The elite financial actors may not have committed criminal fraud, but many of them bear heavy responsibility for the ensuing mess. It is so much easier for DOJ to rack up the stats by picking the low hanging fruit.
The one thing Judge Rakoff cannot do, and does not try to do, is answer the question of whether criminal fraud occurred in the highest sectors of our financial world. The answer to that question can only be supplied, at least as an initial matter, by the AUSA in charge of each investigation. And if no prosecution occurs, you and I are unlikely to ever know the reason why.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Yesterday, in U.S. v. Under Seal (4th Cir. 2013), the Fourth Circuit, joining several other federal circuits, extended the Fifth Amendment's Required Records Exception to records of foreign bank accounts required to be maintained pursuant to the Bank Secrecy Act ("BSA"). John and Jane Doe received a subpoena to turn over records of their Swiss bank accounts. They responded that complying with the subpoena compelled them to testify against themselves, as they were required to create and maintain such records pursuant to the BSA. They also argued that the long-standing, judicially-created, Required Records Exception did not apply in this case, because the BSA's record-keeping provisions are essentially criminal, rather than regulatory, in nature. The district court disagreed, the Does took civil contempt, and an appeal ensued. Unsurprisingly, the Fourth Circuit sided with the government, accepting its argument that the BSA's record-keeping provisions are essentially regulatory in nature. You are shocked? There's not exactly a strong constituency, public or judicial, for foreign bank account tax evasion.
Monday, November 18, 2013
How many federal appellate opinions begin like this?
"An attorney's reputation is her most valuable possession. It forms the basis for her peers' view of her and plays an important role-often a determinative one-in how she advances in her career. This case began with a government attorney's unauthorized filing of a motion for sanctions against Debra K. Migdal, an attorney who has served as an Assistant Federal Public Defender for nearly 25 years. It quickly took on a life of its own, resulting in two district-court orders strongly, publicly, and, we conclude, erroneously reprimanding Migdal. Because the record does not support any basis for these orders, we VACATE the sections of the first order pertaining to sanctions, REVERSE the second order in its entirety, and DISMISS the sanctions proceeding against Migdal."
And how many of them end like this?
"This opinion closes the book on a regrettable chapter in Debra Migdal's career, clears her of all claims that her conduct in this matter was sanctionable, and removes any taint of public censure on her reputation."
As anyone who practices criminal law in the federal court system knows, different districts, and sometimes different judges within a district, have different rules, formal and/or informal, for the issuance of subpoenas demanding early document production pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. Proc. 17(c). Some districts allow prosecutors and defense attorneys to issue the subpoenas, and examine documents, on their own. Other districts require a motion and court order. (Of course, the playing field is uneven, because the prosecution typically has the evidence it needs well before trial through the use of grand jury subpoenas.)
In 2011 Debra Migdal was an Assistant Federal Public Defender in the Northern District of Ohio handling a case in front of U.S. District Judge John R. Adams. At the time, neither the Northern District of Ohio nor Adams had any formal policy regarding the issuance of Rule 17(c) subpoenas. Migdal issued two Rule 17(c) subpoenas on her own, one of which was sent to the custodian of records at the U.S. Border Control, calling for the early production of materials in Judge Adam's court, but on a day she designated that was prior to a scheduled court date. Two previous district court opinions in the Northern District, neither of which were written by Judge Adams, had come to opposite conclusions about the propriety of issuing such subpoenas absent the court's permission. Migdal was unaware of the opinion holding that a court order is necessary.
Migdal used Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts Form AO 89, which commands both the appearance and testimony of the witness and, if necessary, the production of documents. In other words, unless the issuer crosses out the part of the authorized pre-printed form calling on the witness to testify, he/she is always commanded to appear and testify, even though in many cases the issuing party is only interested in obtaining documents. By way of contrast, on the federal civil side, there are two authorized subpoena forms, one calling for documents only and one calling for witness testimony.
AUSA Gregory Sasse told the Border Patrol Agent to ignore the subpoena. Sasse then moved to quash the subpoena and asked the court to impose whatever sanctions it deemed appropriate. Sasse wasn't authorized to move for sanctions and his superiors later withdrew this request. But Judge Adams was clearly not happy with Migdal. He held two hearings and publicly sanctioned Migdal under 28 U.S.C. Section 1927 and his inherent authority.
Section 1927 reads as follows:
"Any attorney or other person admitted to conduct cases in any court of the United States or any Territory thereof who so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct."
The Sixth Circuit, noting that nothing whatsoever in the statute's language authorizes the imposition of non-monetary sanctions, ruled that Judge Adams abused his discretion in sanctioning Migdal under 1927.
The Sixth Circuit then rejected the three rationales Judge Adams relied on for sanctioning Migdal pursuant to his inherent authority. (Any sanctions against Migdal required a showing of bad faith on her part.)
1. Adams had ruled that a criminal defendant is entitled to materials under Rule 17(c) "only after requesting-and not getting-the necessary items from the government via Rule 16 discovery." Incredibly, he believed he had the inherent authority to sanction Migdal for failing to follow this protocol. But as the Sixth Circuit pointed out, no such protocol exists under Rules 16 and 17.
2. Adams had ruled that Migdal violated her duty of candor to to the court by commanding production at a hearing that had not been scheduled or requested. (He referred to it as a "fabricated" hearing.) Migdal acknowledged that the subpoenas were defective in this regard, apologized to the court, and argued that she had not acted in bad faith. The Sixth Circuit agreed, emphasizing that: a) AO Form 89 lacks clarity; b) Migdal called for production in Judge Adams' courtroom, so she was obviously not trying to hide anything from the court; c) the longstanding practice in Migdal's office and in many Federal Public Defender Offices, was to issue Rule 17(c) subpoenas without prior court approval; and d) Migdal relied on a prior Northern District of Ohio opinion specifically authorizing issuance of Rule 17(c) subpoenas without prior court approval. Judge Adams noted that he preferred the contrary judicial opinion. "But Judge Adams' inclination to side with one judge's view over that of another obscures the point that Migdal did not act in bad faith when she hewed to at least one judge's reading of the controlling rule."
3. Adams had ruled that Migdal "utterly disregarded Rule 17(c)'s implicit requirement that the court must approve and order early-production subpoenas." (internal quotations omitted). The Sixth Circuit carefully pointed out that reasonable people could disagree on this point, as evidenced by the conflicting district court opinions. That Migdal chose to take a view of Rule 17(c) at odds with Judge Adams' position, at a time when there was no clear controlling authority, could hardly amount to bad faith.
Throughout Judge Jane Stranch's opinion, for a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel, there runs a tone of incredulity at Judge Adams' actions in "branding a blemish on Migdal's reputation." It should never have happened. It should never happen again.
Here is the Sixth Circuit Migdal Vindication Opinion.
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
The statute of limitations, I used to think, was designed to allow a wrongdoer who is not arrested for a period of years to have a certain sense of repose to be able to go on with his life without fear of arrest for that wrongdoing. Recent legislative and prosecutorial activity in extending statutes of limitations in areas such as child sex crimes and sex crimes where DNA of the otherwise-unidentified perpetrator has been preserved has undermined this rationale. Further, the use of conspiracy statutes in federal prosecutions also allows prosecutors to effectively punish defendants for acts committed beyond the ordinary statute of limitations as part of a conspiracy that continues into a period within the statutory limit.
White-collar prosecutors often view the statute of limitations, generally five years from the date of occurrence of the crime, as the period which they have to prepare a case to secure an indictment. Courts rarely, if ever, dismiss a case for a delay in indictment if the indictment is returned within the statutory period even if the defendant can demonstrate that the delay was due solely to prosecutorial lassitude and that the defendant has been prejudiced by loss of witnesses, dimming of witnesses' memories, and other factors that hamper her right to present a defense. And arguments at sentencing that the defendant has led a blameless but fearful life for the many years the prosecution took to indict him generally fall on deaf ears.
Occasionally, prosecutors find they are unable to prepare to their satisfaction cases within the statute of limitations period and ask defense counsel to agree to extend the limit. Unless there is a possibility that additional time would afford a defense lawyer a realistic possibility of dissuading the prosecutor from indicting or of securing a favorable pre-indictment plea disposition, there is rarely a good reason for a defense lawyer to agree to such an extension. Yet, defense lawyers frequently acquiesce to the prosecutor's request.
Some years ago, in a matter involving a series of allegedly false billings to the government, a federal prosecutor asked me to agree on behalf of my client to extend the statute of limitations. In response to my question why he sought an extension, the prosecutor said, quite frankly, that he had been too busy with other matters to bring the matter before a grand jury and that some (but not all) of the charges would soon be time-barred. I asked him why I, on behalf of the defendant, should therefore consent to a waiver of the statute. He responded that if I did not consent to the extension, he would charge my client as part of a massive conspiracy to defraud the United States in order to include the false billings on the expired dates (but not as separate charges). I told him that I would not agree.
A few days later, I received a letter from the prosecutor, thanking me for agreeing to an extension of the statute of limitations and including a waiver form to be signed by my client and me. Concerned that a failure to protest might be construed at a later time by a judge as an acquiescence to the prosecutor's request for an extension, especially if the prosecutor (or a successor) contended that I had agreed orally, I fired off a letter expressing my surprise at the letter and reiterating that I did not and would not consent to an extension. (I do not know whether the prosecutor's letter was prepared prior to our conversation in the expectation that I would consent and then sent in error, or was sent in the hope that I would change my mind or execute it without paying attention.) The client was never indicted.
As this case illustrates, it is my belief that defense lawyers too readily consent to prosecutors' requests to extend the statute of limitations. Although I personally am generally agreeable to consenting to an extension of time because an adversary is busy and needs more time to prepare papers, when such consideration clearly is to the detriment of a client, I believe a lawyer should not extend such professional courtesy, even if she fears she would be marked by the prosecutor's office as an attorney who deserves no personal consideration. Effective advocacy should generally trump civility.
I therefore note with interest that Reed Brodsky, the defense lawyer for Paul J. Konigsberg, a targeted long-time accountant for and close associate of Bernard Madoff, reportedly had refused to consent to an extension of the limitations period on behalf of his client. See here. I do not know what reasons, if any, the prosecution gave for its request and what reasons Brodsky had to refuse the request. I do know that a trial of some of Mr. Madoff's former employees, which is expected to go beyond the statute of limitations cutoff date, began this week. Of course, in the event any or all of those employees are convicted (or even not convicted), they might well then agree to cooperate with the authorities against Mr. Konigsberg.
If any of those defendants are available to testify against Mr. Konigsberg, the prosecutor will certainly be able to use them as witnesses. The prosecutor should not, however, properly be able to use the grand jury subpoena power or the grand jury itself to obtain their testimony or other additional evidence to prosecute Mr. Konigsberg for the crimes for which he was charged since a grand jury cannot be used to gain evidence for already-indicted cases or for additional Madoff-related crimes since they are time-barred. To be sure, at times prosecutors do secure additional evidence for use in a pending case when they conduct a grand jury investigation with a view toward indicting additional defendants or prosecuting not-yet-charged crimes against an already-indicted defendant. That is unlikely here.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Political prisoner Tom DeLay had his money laundering convictions reversed today, based on insufficency of the evidence, by Texas' Third Court of Appeals sitting in Austin. The 2-1 majority opinion held that there was no underlying violation of the Texas Election Code, and hence no illegal proceeds to be laundered. Thus ends, for now, one of the most abusive and unfair political prosecutions in recent Texas history. The State can appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The majority opinion is here. The opinion reveals that the jury twice asked, in essence, whether DeLay could be guilty of money laundering if the "proceeds" were not originally procured in violation of law. In each instance, the trial court refused, at the State's urging, to answer the jury's question. How pathetic. Hat tip to Dave Westheimer for bringing the decision to my attention.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Move over, Emmet Sullivan and Carmac Carney. Add Kurt D. Engelhardt to the Honor Roll roster of federal district judges willing to speak truth to the U.S. Department of Justice. Willing to speak truth and to do something about it. Here is Judge Engelhardt's Danziger Bridge Mistrial Order, issued yesterday in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and dismissing without prejudice all guilty verdicts obtained by the government in United States v. Kenneth Bowen, et al. This was the federal civil rights prosecution of New Orleans police officers allegedly involved in a horrific shooting of civilians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The mistrial was granted primarily due to a secret campaign of prejudicial publicity carried out through social media by members of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Orleans and a DOJ Civil Rights Division attorney in DC. But Judge Engelhardt's opinion raises several other troubling issues concerning the conduct of the trial, DOJ's post-trial investigation of what happened during the trial, and possible meddling by the Deputy AG's office in that investigation.
I will have more to say about these issues in the coming days. It is clear that Judge Engelhardt does not believe he has received anything like the full story from DOJ. It is clear that appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate the entire affair is in order. And it is clear, if history is any judge, that no such appointment will be forthcoming from this attorney general.
Judge Engelhardt's opinion is lengthy, but one that should be required reading for every criminal defense attorney who practices in federal court and every DOJ prosecutor throughout the land. For now, I leave you with Judge Engelhardt's stirring words, taken from some of the closing paragraphs:
On July 12, 2010, the indictment in this case was announced with much fanfare, a major press conference provided over by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and widespread media attention. On that occasion, a DOJ representative said that the indictments 'are a reminder that the Constitution and the rule of law do not take a holiday--even after a hurricane.' While quite true in every respect, the Court must remind the DOJ that the Code of Federal Regulations, and various Rules of Professional Responsibility, and ethics likewise do not take a holiday--even in a high-stakes criminal prosecution, and even in the anonymity of cyberspace. While fully appreciating the horrific events of September 4, 2005, and those who tragically suffered as a result, the Court simply cannot allow the integrity of the justice system to become a casualty in a mere prosecutorial game of qualsiasi mezzo.
Some may consider the undersigned's view of the cited rules and regulations as atavistic; but courts can ignore this online 'secret' social media misconduct at their own peril. Indeed the time may soon come when, some day, some court may overlook, minimize, accept, or deem such prosecutorial misconduct harmless 'fun.' Today is not that day, and Section N of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana is not that court.
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Yesterday the Seventh Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed and remanded (7-2) a Section 1014 (and Section 317) conviction connected to the mortgage meltdown crisis. Judge Posner wrote the majority opinion. Chief Judge Easterbrook (joined by Judge Bauer) dissented. The opinion is United States v. Lacey Phillips and Erin Hall.
Section 1014 prohibits making any false statement or report for the purpose of influencing in any way a federally insured bank. Longstanding case law requires the government to prove that the defendant knew the statement was false at the time it was made. Phillips and Hall were an unmarried couple who applied for a home loan and were rejected. Hall then contacted his friend Bowling, a mortgage broker, who began advising Hall and Phillips and ultimately led them to a different bank, Fremont Investment & Loan, which granted a home loan to Phillips. Hall was not listed as a borrower. This was a stated income loan, also known in the industry as a liar's loan.
Phillips and Hall could not keep up with the payments and lost their home. A prosecution ensued. There were several false statements on the loan application, but Phillips and Hall testified that they only were aware of one of the statements, which was as follows. Under the Borrower's Income line, Phillips put down the couple's combined income.
Phillips and Hall wanted to testify that Bowling told them: 1) Phillips should be the only applicant for the stated-income loan, because her credit history was good while Hall's was bad because of the recent bankruptcy; 2) Hall's income should be added to Phillips' on the line that asked for borrower's gross monthly income; and 3) adding the incomes together was proper in the case of a stated income loan, because the bank was actually asking for the total income from which the loan would be repaid, rather than just the borrower's income.
The government wanted to keep this testimony from the jury and U.S. District Court Barbara Crabb (I kid you not) agreed. The Seventh Circuit, per Posner, reversed, in an unnecessarily complicated opinion, but one that is nevertheless fun and instructive to read.
I see it this way. According to Phillips and Hall, Bowling told them that, to Fremont Investment & Loan, Borrower's Income meant the total income from which the loan would be repaid. They were in essence informed that Borrower's Income was a term of art for Fremont. If Phillips and Hall believed that Borrower's Income meant (to Fremont) Combined Income of the People Repaying the Loan, then Phillips and Hall were not making a statement to Fremont that they knew was false. Their state of mind on this point was directly at issue. Theirs may have been be an implausible story, but the jury was allowed to hear it. Judge Posner's opinion has some important things to say about terms of art and interpretation of seemingly simple terms.
This case reminds me of a home loan I took out while I was an AUSA. The bulk of the down payment was being paid through my Thrift Savings Plan. That is, I was loaning myself money out of my government retirement fund. At the time, all of the standard loan applications required the borrower to state that no part of the down payment was coming from a loan. I asked my real estate agent and the mortgage broker whether that language applied to a Thrift Savings Plan Loan. They assured me that it did not. So, when I wrote down on the application that no part of my down payment came from a loan, I knew that in one sense this might be considered false, but to the bank, and presumably to any bank, it would be considered true, because the bank did not consider a Thrift Savings Plan Loan to be a loan. Had I defaulted and been prosecuted, I would have liked to present this as a defense, and it is hard to believe that any competent judge would have prevented me from doing so. But Judge Crabb did not allow this kind of evidence in, and Judge Easterbrook cheers her on.
Judge Easterbrook points out that the jury, in finding Phillips and Hall guilty, already determined that the couple knew several statements on the loan application were false. This is back-asswards and misses the point. This is not a sufficiency of the evidence case. If the jurors had heard the excluded testimony, they may well have been more likely to believe Phillips' and Halls' testimony that the rest of the false statements were made and submitted by Bowling without their knowledge. According to Posner, there was evidence to the effect that Phillips and Hall were naive, while Bowling (who pled guilty and cooperated) and Fremont (a bank that Posner deems disreputable) were sophisticated.
Of course, it is appalling and embarrassing that any self-respecting U.S. Attorney's Office would prosecute a case like this, but it is all part of DOJ's Piker Mortgage Fraud Initiative. Even more embarrassing was the government's contention on appeal that the excluded statements were hearsay. Posner called this a "surprising mistake for a Justice Department lawyer." I'm not so sure. Maybe it wasn't a mistake.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
The Fourth Circuit has issued a rare and stern rebuke to the Eastern District of North Carolina U.S. Attorney's Office, for what the panel describes as repeated failures to disclose exculpatory evidence on the part of some of the office's prosecutors. Judge Floyd also directed that the opinion be sent to AG Holder and DOJ's OPR. This is remarkable. EDVA District Court Judge Henry Hudson was on the panel, sitting by designation, and concurred in the opinion. The Raleigh News & Observor has the story here. The opinion, U.S. v. Bartko, is here. The pertinent pages are 24-30.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Financial Meltdown Prosecutions Against Elite Actors? File Them Under "I'll Believe It When I See It."
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, reported here, Attorney General Holder promises that "he plans to announce new cases stemming from the economic meltdown in the coming months." Some media outlets have interpreted this as a harbinger of criminal prosecutions, but Holder did not indicate whether the cases would be civil or criminal. Any civil case against the likes of a major bank or investment house can be filed under "Costs of Doing Business." In addition to the civil-criminal wiggle room Holder allowed himself, the definition of "cases stemming from the economic meltdown" is broad enough to cover a multitude of alleged malfeasance. Is DOJ going to prosecute people who purportedly contributed to the meltdown through fraudulent omissions and commissions? Or will it bring desultory civil cases based on conduct that occurred in the wake of the meltdown? According to the article, Professor John Coffee "expected the five-year statute of limitations on many white-collar crimes may bar a successful prosecution of a number of pre-crash abuses." But virtually any federal criminal financial institution fraud case can be brought within 10 years, thanks to FIRREA. Criminally fraudulent activity involving a financial institution that occurred in May 2006 could be charged as late as 2016.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Attorney General Eric Holder's talk (see here) at the American Bar Association Conference should be applauded. To have an Attorney General say that "our criminal justice system is in too many respects broken" is a huge step in us moving ahead to change. His recognition "that 20th Century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st century challenges" is a high point of this speech.
Addressing issues relevant to the white collar world, he said that his administration had a "strong commitment to common sense criminal justice reform." To have the Attorney General tell the ABA and public "federal prosecutors cannot - and should not - bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law" is a huge step in correcting injustice in the criminal process. Recognizing the importance of state and local law enforcement is a step in the direction of reigning in federal overcriminalization. He even uses the "smarter" on crime terminology that many have been emphasizing across the country.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this speech is his statement regarding this being the 50th anniversary of the Gideon decision and how our public defender system needs increased funding. These are the words that reflect him as a true "minister of justice."
He also spoke about problems related to collateral consquences, something that has been most bothersome in the white collar world.
This was an uplifting speech and it is wonderful to see this coming from the Attorney General. Hats off to AG Holder.
Well, DOJ didn't admit it in those exact words. The tone and content were more Ziegleresque: "[T]he announcement overstated the number of defendants that should have been included as part of the Distressed Homeowner Initiative, as well as the corresponding estimated loss amount and number of victims." The original press release and press conference in October 2012 touted "the results of the Distressed Homeowner Initiative, the first-ever nationwide effort to target fraud schemes that prey upon suffering homeowners. The yearlong initiative, launched by the FBI, a co-chair of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force’s Mortgage Fraud Working Group, resulted in 107 criminal defendants charged in U.S. District Courts across the country. These cases involved more than 17,185 homeowner victims and total losses by those victims estimated by law enforcement at more than $95 million." It turns out the numbers given for people arrested, victims affected, and losses incurred were grossly inflated. Jonathan Weil's blistering Bloomberg.com column discussing the rigged numbers is here. The original press release and Newspeak retraction are here. No doubt DOJ is working up a Section 1001 case right now against the folks who gave out these numbers. I don't usually quote socialists, but I.F. Stone's favorite saying now comes to mind: "All governments are run by liars." Hat Tip to Professor William Black for bringing this story to my attention.