Thursday, December 3, 2015
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.)
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Last week, the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section held the inaugural Global White Collar Crime Institute in Shanghai, China. The event was a tremendous success with participants from around the globe coming together to hear from prosecutors and judges, defense counsel and accountants, in-house counsel and academics. On the first day, we were honored to be joined by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Sung-Hee Suh. DAAG Suh delivered the keynote luncheon address and touched on many important and timely issues related to white collar crime. Below, I'll specifically mention just two of the areas discussed.
First, DAAG Suh discussed the Yates memo and provided additional information about the government's current perspective on corporate cooperation. DAAG Suh said:
In her memo, Deputy Attorney General Yates announced a policy change designed to further enhance the likelihood that individuals who are responsible for corporate crime will be held accountable. The existing policy stated that, in deciding whether to give a company credit for cooperation, a criminal prosecutor “may” consider a number of factors – including the company’s willingness to give information about individuals. The new policy means that the “may” has now become a “must.” In other words, in deciding whether to give a company credit for cooperation, a prosecutor now “must” consider the company’s willingness to give information about individuals. And a company that does not provide this information will not be eligible for any cooperation credit. Previously, companies could receive varying degrees of credit for varying degrees of cooperation. Now, a company will receive no credit for cooperation unless, at minimum, it does what it can to identify individuals involved in the conduct, whatever their level of seniority or importance within the company.
(emphasis in original).
Second, DAAG Suh discussed the Department of Justice's recent hiring of a new compliance counsel to assist them in analyzing and evaluating corporate compliance programs. DAAG Suh said:
Self-disclosure, cooperation and remediation are all steps that a company can take after the fact, but the Justice Department is just as committed to preventing corporate wrongdoing from occurring in the first place. To that end, the Department has long placed great emphasis on the importance of an effective corporate compliance program. In the U.S., there is no affirmative defense based on the company’s corporate compliance program, but the Filip Factors have long provided that in conducting an investigation of a corporation, determining whether to bring charges, or in negotiating plea or other agreements, prosecutors should consider, among other factors, “the existence and effectiveness of the corporation’s preexisting compliance program.”
Fundamentally we ask, is the corporation’s compliance program well designed? Is the program being applied earnestly and in good faith? And does the corporation’s compliance program generally work? This is common sense in broad strokes. But prosecutors are no experts in the nuances of corporate compliance programs. Indeed, over the past twenty years in particular, the role of compliance has been evolving, becoming more sophisticated, more industry-specific and more metrics-oriented. Many companies have rightly tailored compliance programs to make sense for their business lines, their risk factors, their geographic regions and the nature of their work force, to name a few. But many have not.
The Fraud Section has therefore retained an experienced compliance counsel. She started only two weeks ago, so it’s still too early to talk about specifics. But I can tell you generally that we wanted to get the benefit of someone with proven compliance expertise, so as to probe compliance programs in terms of both industry best practices and real-world efficacy. This compliance counsel will help us assess a company’s claims about its program, in particular, whether the compliance program is thoughtfully designed and sufficiently resourced to address the company’s compliance risks, or is – at bottom – largely window dressing.
No compliance program is foolproof. We understand that. We also appreciate that the challenges of implementing an effective compliance program are compounded by the everincreasing cross-border nature of business and of criminal activity. Many companies’ businesses are all over the world. They are creating products and delivering services not only here in China but overseas and are operating across many different legal regimes and cultures. We also recognize that a smaller company doesn’t have the same compliance resources as a Fortune-50 company. Finally, we know that a compliance program can seem like “state of the art” at a company’s U.S. headquarters, but may not be all that effective in the field, especially in far-flung reaches of the globe.
The Fraud Section’s compliance counsel – who, notably, has worked as a compliance officer here in China, as well as in the U.S. and the U.K. – has the concrete experience and expertise to examine a compliance program on both a more global and a more granular level. More so than ever, it is critical that companies have vigorous compliance programs to deter and detect misconduct. Our compliance counsel will give our prosecutors more tools to intelligently assess them.
DAAG Suh's entire comments at the inaugural Global White Collar Crime Institute are available here.
I was also pleased to announce in my closing remarks to the Institute in Shanghai that the second Global White Collar Crime Institute will take place in South America in the spring of 2017. I hope to see you there.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Sally Yates' new DOJ Memo has been a hot topic. (see here, here, here). Check out Sara Kropf's terrific entry here reporting and questioning the Yates Memo influence in a recent indictment of a corporate employee.
But one wonders if this DOJ claim that they have changed their policy is anything new. Has DOJ forgotten Enron and Jeff Skilling, who remains incarcerated?
My take continues to be that all the Yates really does is make it official that companies have to throw individuals under the bus (see here). And knocking NPAs and DPAs is not the answer. Yes, the terms within these documents are often offensive. (see here) But getting compliance from companies and changing corporate culture is an important goal and one needs to remain focused on how best to achieve this goal. Working with companies, as opposed to against companies, is the best way to foster compliance. Likewise, pitting individuals within a company against the entity and the entity's counsel is not the answer.
Monday, November 2, 2015
Last Friday attorney Steven H. Levin posted a guest blog disagreeing with my view in a blog earlier that day that Dennis Hastert should not have been prosecuted. Hastert was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, structuring withdrawals from financial institutions of his own apparently legitimately derived funds, purportedly to conceal payoffs to an alleged extortionist whom he had purportedly sexually victimized over 30 years ago. Hastert, Mr. Levin said, "had to be prosecuted" because his prosecution had "potential deterrent effect" on "would-be structurers" and "would-be extortionists."
Even if the Hastert prosecution were to have a deterrent effect on such "would-be" criminals, I still believe, for the reasons I expressed, that this case was an appropriate one for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. I do recognize that deterrence is a commonly recognized goal of prosecution and sentencing, and accept that prosecutions do have a deterrent effect on some "would-be" white-collar criminals (but far less an effect on those who might commit crimes involving violence and narcotics). Nonetheless, I question whether this prosecution will cause a positive deterrent effect on those who are considering the commission of either structuring or extortion.
I do accept that the publicity attendant to the prosecution will to an extent increase public awareness of the existence of a crime called structuring whose broad expanse covers acts committed by otherwise law-abiding citizens to maintain their privacy and avoid disclosure of things they prefer be confidential, and therefore may have some deterrent effect on those persons. However, deterring people from committing essentially harmless acts even though criminalized by an overbroad statute does not appear to me to be much of a societal benefit. And, to the extent that the attendant publicity will educate money launderers of criminal proceeds and deter them from violating the structuring statute, of which sophisticated criminals are overwhelmingly aware in any case, the positive effect is also questionable since its potential effects will be further concealment and consequent limitations on governmental discovery of criminality.
Additionally, I doubt that many would-be extortionists would be deterred from acts of extortion by this prosecution, in which, it so far appears, the purported extortion victim has been prosecuted and the purported extortion perpetrator remains free and also has probably received millions of dollars in payments (and also perhaps achieved some measure of retribution by the exposure, so far limited, of Hassert's alleged misdeeds) . To the extent it has any effect on rational would-be extortionists who weigh the benefit/risk ratio, this prosecution encourages rather than deters them.
Friday, October 30, 2015
Guest Blogger - Steven H. Levin
White-collar laws are written broadly in order to permit federal prosecutors to combat the increasingly creative, technologically complex efforts of enterprising criminals. Most, but certainly not all, prosecutors make rational decisions based upon the best possible expenditure of resources, the assessment of the jury appeal of a particular case, and the desire to maintain a good reputation with the bench, if not the bar. In bringing a case, prosecutors also must consider the deterrent effect of a particular prosecution.
In the case involving Dennis Hastert, it has been reported that he was paying “hush money” to cover up alleged misconduct that occurred several decades ago. Mr. Hastert’s structuring fell squarely within the broadly worded federal statute. In his piece (“Should Hastert Have Been Prosecuted?”) Lawrence Goldman is correct to question the purpose such a prosecution serves. The answer is found in the concept of deterrence. Mr. Hastert’s prosecution has potential deterrent effect, both in terms of deterring those engaged in structuring (to cover up crimes) and those engaged in blackmail (threatening to expose crimes).
Once the investigation became known, the public learned that Mr. Hastert had been accused of taking money out of a bank account in order to pay an extortionist. Both would-be structurers and would-be extortionists were put on notice by the federal government: blackmailing may not be successful in the future, because the victim of the extortion may be better off going to law enforcement rather than a bank. Further, it might deter an individual from engaging in the initial misconduct in the first place, knowing that such actions may ultimately see the light of day, even decades later.
Still, as Mr. Goldman writes, Mr. Hastert is, at least in part, a victim. And the decision to prosecute is different than a demand for jail time, which, under the plea agreement, is what prosecutors may seek. Mr. Hastert’s conduct does not warrant jail time, as the collateral consequences of the prosecution itself are significant enough to deter at least some future would-be extortionists from engaging in blackmail and their victims from submitting to it. This fact is all-too-often overlooked by prosecutors.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert yesterday pleaded guilty to money laundering in a Chicago federal court. Hastert admitted that he structured banking transactions by taking out amounts under $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements in order to conceal the reason he was using the money, which according to the plea agreement was "to compensate and keep confidential his prior misconduct." Although the facts were not revealed in court (but may later be in sentencing proceedings), sources reported that he was paying "hush money" to a former student he allegedly molested over 30 years ago when he taught high school and coached wrestling.
It thus appears that Hastert was an extortion victim, coerced into paying a former student millions of dollars to avoid public disclosure of his misdeeds and the destruction of his reputation. (I assume that the applicable Illinois statute of limitations had passed.)
I question whether Hastert should have been prosecuted. The money laundering statutes, although clearly an intrusion into privacy, serve a generally laudable purpose in making it difficult for criminals to accumulate and spend ill-gotten gains. Here, however, Hastert (although he may have done serious wrongs many years ago) was not a criminal, but a victim.
Congress has given the government broad power to prosecute violators of the money laundering laws well beyond those who derive funds from crime. I do not know what drove the decision to prosecute Hastert. Perhaps it was outrage over his long-ago sexual misconduct; perhaps it was to put forth a case which would derive considerable publicity, something to which prosecutors are not averse; perhaps it was just a rigid application of the law. Although Hastert's banking conduct does clearly fall within the statutory bounds, and there may be arguably legitimate reason to prosecute him, on balance I believe prosecutorial discretion should have been exercised and a case not brought. I wonder whether it would have been brought against an ordinary Joe Smith.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
The Yates Memo is all the rage. DOJ is saber-rattling at various CLE events and bloggers are holding forth on what it actually means. But wanting isn't getting. The question remaining is how to make sure that the company coughs up, or an investigation reveals, wrongdoing that occurred at the highest levels.
Here are two modest reform proposals I offer free of charge to the DOJ and FBI, based on my own experience defending individuals and. far less often, companies under investigation.
1. Modify Standard DOJ Proffer Letters. Mid-level corporate employees often possess very damaging information about those higher up the food chain. But these same mid-level employees can themselves be the subjects or targets of DOJ. At some point the employees are given the opportunity to proffer in front of the lead prosecutor. But the standard DOJ Proffer Agreement is riddled with loopholes. Assume that the proffer session does not result in a plea or immunity agreement and the employee is indicted. The primary loophole allows the government to use the proffered statement against the client at trial if the statement is in any way inconsistent with the defense presented. That's not much protection, which is why most seasoned white collar attorneys will not let a client with exposure proffer in front of DOJ. Thus, DOJ loses valuable information. DOJ should offer true non-Kastigar immunity for the information revealed in its proffer sessions. Nothing is lost by doing this, but much can be gained.
2. Demand Independent Internal Investigations. The first question every prosecutor should ask the corporation's outside attorney who is conducting an internal investigation or tendering an internal investigation report to DOJ is, "What is your reporting chain?" If outside counsel is not reporting to the Audit Committee or some other independent entity within the corporation there is absolutely no assurance that culpable upper management will be identified. Management can edit the final report and its conclusions to protect top executives and throw lower level employees to the DOJ wolves. Meanwhile, employees are less likely to truthfully cooperate with the internal investigation if they think the boss is reviewing interview reports every night after drinks. I am astounded at how often internal investigations are reported right up the chain of command at small and large publicly traded companies. DOJ prosecutors can make it clear that the procedural independence of the internal investigation will affect how the company is treated.
Friday, September 18, 2015
Just days ago, DOJ came down with a new corporate directive (discussed here) describing a shift in investigation policy. The new focus would be on the prosecution of individuals within the entity. It states:
"2. Both criminal and civil corporate investigations should focus on individuals from the inception of the investigation.
Both criminal and civil attorneys should focus on individual wrongdoing from the very beginning of any investigation of corporate misconduct. By focusing on building cases against individual wrongdoers from the inception of an investigation, we accomplish multiple goals. . . . "
So much for this new policy, as the GM Deferred Prosecution Agreement comes before any individual prosecutions. (see Corporate Crime Reporter here). It has the company paying $900 million, accepting responsibility, agreeing to cooperate, and providing information to the government.
Both the old DOJ approach and this new one, that seems to exist only on paper and not in practice, have problems. Both have the company serving as "agents" of the government. Both have the company doing the investigative work for the DOJ. Both have the company "throwing employees under the bus." And both show a disrespect for individual attorney-client relations.
Corporate and individual criminal actions are a problem that needs to be corrected. But as previously said, pitting the entity against its constituents will not correct misconduct. And telling the public that you intend to take a different approach and just days after you do the opposite fosters a lack of trust. It also demonstrates the importance of Congressional action as opposed to reliance on DOJ internal guidelines.
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
The new DOJ Policy (see here for the NYTimes story that includes DOJ Policy) makes the current practice of corporations "throwing employees under the bus," official. It states, "[t]o be eligible of any cooperation credit, corporations must provide to the Department all relevant facts about the individuals involved in corporate misconduct." Corporations have received deferred and non-prosecution agreements (DPAs and NPAs) that often provide for the corporation cooperating with the government in the investigation of alleged criminally culpable individuals. Now it is clear that to obtain "any" cooperation credit it will be necessary to provide the evidence against these individuals.
Three concerns here:
1) what is meant by providing "all relevant facts"? Does this mean only information that is relevant to the government's case against the individuals? Will the government also be asking for Brady material that might be exculpatory for the individuals? Does this mean that the corporation now is officially a member of the government team?
2) what does this mean for the corporate culture? The concept of the individuals in the company working together, asking for legal advice from corporate counsel, and working to resolve problems in an open environment may now be officially over. This policy pits the corporation against the individual. Is this a wise approach to correcting business misconduct?
3) does this make it more important that there be fairness in internal investigations? See here for a discussion of the importance of fairness in internal investigations.
Interestingly, the new policy calls for starting with the individual and also calls for sharing information between civil and criminal attorneys. It also requires "a clear plan to resolve related individual cases before the statute of limitations expires and declinations as to individuals in such cases must be memorialized." This is a clear message that individual prosecutions are now a priority.
The message to white collar criminal defense attorneys - corporate prosecutions may no longer be the focus. Get ready for more prosecutions against individuals.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay can rest quietly in their graves. Their "corrupt bargain" would not be considered a federal crime today. The same goes for Ike and Earl Warren. In United States v. Blagojevich, decided yesterday by the Seventh Circuit and discussed here by contributing editor Lucian Dervan, the panel vacated five counts of conviction based on partially faulty jury instructions. Under those instructions, the jury could have convicted the former Illinois Governor based on his attempt to obtain a Cabinet seat in the incoming Obama Administration in exchange for appointing Valerie Jarrett to President Obama's soon-to-be-empty Senate seat. This was just logrolling and Judge Easterbrook and his colleagues were having none of it. "It would be more than a little surprising to Members of Congress if the judiciary found in the Hobbs Act, or the mail fraud statute, a rule making everyday politics criminal." The same was true of the Government's efforts to shoehorn the Cabinet seat/Jarrett offer into 18 U.S.C. 666--the notorious mark of the beast. Altogether a sound public policy decision, although the statutory analysis is not as clear cut.
Saturday, June 6, 2015
The DOJ has prosecuted many companies, often resolving the cases with Deferred and Non-Prosecution Agreements. And on occasion, states have also proceeded against companies alleging corporate criminal liability. But how far does entity liability go, and can you extend corporate criminality to entities like the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. According to Jean Hopfensperger's article in the Star Tribune, Archdiocese Charged in Sex Abuse Coverup, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office has filed these charges against this entity and that the entity reports it will cooperate in this state investigation. Will we start seeing states adopting the federal path of proceeding criminally against entities, getting them to cooperate, followed by individual indictments premised upon the information provided? Does it make a difference here that an individual has already been indicted? And will proceeding against this particular entity, present a different model? And should corporate criminality versus civil liability be used here?
Friday, May 29, 2015
Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has been indicted for structuring and lying to the FBI, two crimes that many reasonable people, including me, are not certain should be crimes. Structuring involves, as alleged here, limiting deposits and other financial arrangements so as not to trigger a bank report to the IRS. Lying to the FBI includes a denial of wrongful activity, a natural human response by those confronted (although a mere "exculpatory no" without more is no longer generally prosecuted).
The indictment states that Hastert had paid off a fellow Yorkville, Illinois resident he had known most of that person's life $1.7 million, and promised a total of 3.5 million, "in order to compensate for and conceal...misconduct" committed "years earlier" against that person. The indictment mentions that Hastert was a teacher and wrestling coach at a local high school from 1965-1981.
Reading between the lines of this deliberately vague and unspecific indictment, my guess is that the alleged underlying misdeeds are sexual in nature. I also wonder whether the considerable payment mentioned in the indictment "to compensate for and conceal misconduct " resulted from extortion and, if so, whether as a matter of prosecutorial discretion and perhaps even as a matter of law Hastert should be prosecuted for such relatively minor crimes, and whether Hastert is really being punished for wrongs done decades ago (and probably beyond a statute of limitations). These thoughts, let me be clear, are based on speculation and surmise, with only preliminary knowledge of the facts.
Thursday, April 30, 2015
False Accusation of Rolling Stone Article Suggests prior Notification of Targets in White-collar Cases
In November Rolling Stone published a blockbuster article about a student's account of being gang-raped at a University of Virginia frat house. Within days others, primarily the Washington Post, sharply questioned the truthfulness of the student's claim. Rolling Stone then commissioned an independent investigation by Steve Coll, the respected Dean of Columbia Journalism School, to review the magazine's reporting, editing and fact-checking. That report, written by Coll and two colleagues, came out a few weeks ago. See here. Rolling Stone also "withdrew" the article.
The report (Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll, Derek Kravitz, "An Anatomy of a Journalistic Failure") is "intended as a work of journalism about a failure of journalism." It is thorough and comprehensive and, as expected, clear and thoughtful. Although the purpose of the report was to investigate the conduct of Rolling Stone and not the conduct of the student, it treats the student who made the false accusation and continued it over months of questioning by the reporter much too gently and itself is affected by the implicit bias that it suggests motivated the writer. For instance, it takes pains to state that the student who made the indisputably false accusation may well have in fact been a victim of some predatory sexual act(s), and does not even speculate that she might have made up the incident out of whole cloth. It expresses its regret that the the widely-disseminated revelation of the false accusation might cast doubt on other campus sex accusations (accepting the questionable estimates that false charges make up less than 8% of rape allegations) and fails even to consider the possibility that the false claim here might not be such an aberration , and perhaps will serve a salutary purpose by increasing public (and governmental and institutional) awareness that false accusations are not so infrequent.
To be sure, campus sexual abuse by male students against women is a serious problem and deserves vigorous, but measured and fair, action by universities and, when appropriate, law enforcement, and aggressive reporting on that subject is important to increase public knowledge. School officials, and magazine and newspaper writers (and also law enforcement officers) should be mindful, however, that this is an area where accusations are often inaccurate, exaggerated, and sometimes downright false, and that there are sometimes unjust findings and convictions, by courts and schools, that wrongly destroy the lives of those accused. Indeed, in my opinion, rape is the area of criminal law in which there are the most intentionally false (as opposed to mistaken) accusations by civilian complainants.
The report demonstrates convincingly that there were a series of errors in the investigation, review, fact-checking and editing of the story before it appeared. Among those errors was the failure to give the person accused an opportunity to refute the accusations. "Journalistic practice - and basic fairness - require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person's side of the story."
I could not help but thinking that the defective oversight of the Rolling Stone journalists and their seemingly limited concern for the reputations of the institutions accused were nonetheless far greater and far more likely to uncover false accusations than the minimal or nonexistent review by law enforcement that typically occurs in a criminal case prior to an arrest (and sometimes even after). Once law enforcement officers decide to make an arrest, why should the accused not be allowed to present beforehand his "side of the story?" Obviously, in many cases, such as where there is a need for immediate apprehension by a police officer, no pre-arrest review or notification is possible. Further, in many other cases, for instance where the identity of the alleged perpetrator is unknown, or where there is a reasonable fear that if not arrested he will flee and not be available to face charges, an immediate unannounced arrest is called for.
However, in many, probably most, white-collar cases, there is no such need. In those cases, as a general rule a prosecutor should notify a target that he is under investigation and seek his "side of the story." Nonetheless, many prosecutors proceed the "old-fashioned" way by ordering an arrest first without giving the defendant an opportunity to hire a lawyer and present, should he choose to, his side of the story.
Notifying a prospective defendant that he is likely to be arrested and may choose to present his case beforehand has advantages for prosecutors in many situations. The defendant and his lawyer might provide evidence or legal arguments that will persuade the prosecutor to seek lesser charges or not to go forward at all. Sometimes a plea agreement might be reached with the defendant which will eliminate the need for a time-consuming grand jury presentation. And, should the defendant decide to cooperate, he may be able to do so proactively and generally more effectively since an indictment often tips off others to steer clear of him.
There are, arguably, certain benefits to law enforcement in making surprise arrests. There is a possibility that an upset, unprepared and uncounseled defendant will make incriminating statements. And, a defendant may have on his person or in proximity evidentiary items which will be found by a search. Those advantages, however, are less likely to occur in white-collar case, where defendants are less likely to make statements without lawyers or carry contraband or evidence. Another potential benefit to prosecutors is that at bail hearings a defendant's attorney may not be able to argue that the defendant did not flee after becoming aware of the charges. Such an argument, I have found, does not carry as much weight as it should. In any case, prosecutors are unlikely to provide prior notification of their intent to arrest to any who are conceivable flight risks.
For these reasons, the most successful and sophisticated prosecutors in white collar cases, such as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, generally notify white-collar targets of their investigations and give them or their attorneys an opportunity to dissuade, minimize or deal. Less sophisticated prosecutors of white-collar crimes, often state prosecutors, are more likely to make summary arrests. These cases, generally not well vetted since there was no input from the accused or his counsel, more often lead to dismissals, acquittals or cheap pleas.
Not only is pre-arrest notification to a prospective defendant more fair to him in that it gives him an opportunity to defend, explain, negotiate or prepare psychologically, it will benefit judicial and prosecutorial economy of resources by allowing for some matters to be settled with less or no litigation and court involvement. And, as discussed above, it helps law enforcement. It should be the default position in white-collar (and many other) cases, and deviated from only when there are genuine countervailing reasons.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Earlier this month, the Second Circuit, as expected (at least by me), denied Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's request for reargument and reconsideration of its December 2014 ruling in United States v Newman which narrowed, at least in the Second Circuit, the scope of insider trading prosecutions. I would not be surprised if the government seeks certiorari, and, I would not be all that surprised it cert were granted.
In Newman, the defendants, Newman and Chiasson, were two hedge fund portfolio managers who were at the end of a chain of recipients of inside information originally provided by employees of publicly-traded technology funds. The defendants traded on the information and realized profits of $4 million and $68 million respectively. There was, however, scant, if any, evidence that the defendants were aware whether the original tippors had received any personal benefit for their disclosures.
The Second Circuit reversed the trial convictions based on an improper charge to the jury and the insufficiency of the evidence. Specifically, the court ruled that:
1) the trial judge erred in failing to instruct the jury that in order to convict it had to find that the defendants knew that the corporate employee tippors had received a personal benefit for divulging the information; and
2) the government had indeed failed to prove that the tippors had in fact received a personal benefit.
Thus, at least in the Second Circuit, it appears that the casual passing on of inside information without receiving compensation by a friend or relative or golf partner does not violate the security laws. "For purposes of insider trading liability, the insider's disclosure of confidential information, standing alone, is not a breach," said the court. Nor, therefore, does trading on such information incur insider trading liability because the liability of a recipient, if any, must derive from the liability of the tippor. To analogize to non-white collar law, one cannot be convicted of possessing stolen property unless the property had been stolen (and the possessor knew it). Those cases of casual passing on of information, which sometimes ensnared ordinary citizens with big mouths and a bit of greed, are thus apparently off-limits to Second Circuit prosecutors. To be sure, the vast majority of the recent spate of Southern District prosecutions of insider trading cases have involved individuals who have sold and bought information and their knowing accomplices. Although Southern District prosecutors will sometimes now face higher hurdles to prove an ultimate tippee/trader's knowledge, I doubt that the ruling will affect a huge number of prosecutions.
The clearly-written opinion, by Judge Barrington Parker, did leave open, or at least indefinite, the critical question of what constitutes a "personal benefit" to a provider of inside information (an issue that also might impact corruption cases). The court stated that the "personal benefit" had to be something "of consequence." In some instances, the government had argued that a tippee's benefit was an intangible like the good graces of the tippor, and jurors had generally accepted such a claim, likely believing the tippor would expect some personal benefit, present or future, for disclosing confidential information. In Newman, the government similarly argued that the defendants had to have known the tippors had to have received some benefit.
Insider trading is an amorphous crime developed by prosecutors and courts - not Congress - from a general fraud statute (like mail and wire fraud) whose breadth is determined by the aggressiveness and imagination of prosecutors and how much deference courts give their determinations. In this area, the highly competent and intelligent prosecutors of the Southern District have pushed the envelope, perhaps enabled to some extent by noncombative defense lawyers who had their clients cooperate and plead guilty despite what, at least with hindsight, seems to have been a serious question of legal sufficiency. See Dirks v. S.E.C., 463 U.S. 646, 103 S.Ct. 3255 (1983)(test for determining insider liability is whether "insider personally will benefit, directly or indirectly"). As the Newman court refreshingly said, in language that should be heeded by prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers, "[N]ot every instance of financial unfairness constitutes fraudulent activity under [SEC Rule] 10(b)."
As I said, I would not be shocked (although I would be surprised) if Congress were to enact a law that goes beyond effectively overruling Newman and imposes insider trading liability on any person trading based on what she knew was non-public confidential information whether or not the person who had disclosed the information had received a personal benefit. Such a law, while it would to my regret cover the casual offenders I have discussed, would on balance be a positive one in that it would limit the unequal information accessible to certain traders and provide a more level playing field.
Friday, April 10, 2015
District of Columbia Court of Appeals Makes It Official: Prosecutor's Duty To Disclose Exculpatory Evidence Is Broader Than Brady
Kline was prosecuting Arnell Shelton for the shooting of Christopher Boyd. Shelton had filed an alibi notice and "the reliability of the government's identification witnesses" was the principal issue at the 2002 trial, according to the Report and Recommendation of Hearing Committee Number Nine ("Report and Recommendation").
Kline spoke with Metropolitan Police Department Officer Edward Woodward in preparation for trial. Kline took contemporaneous notes. Woodward was the first officer at the scene of the crime and spoke to victim Boyd at the hospital shortly after the shooting. According to the Report and Recommendation, Kline's notes of his conversation with Woodward were, in pertinent part, as follows: "Boyd told officer at hospital that he did not know who shot him–appeared maybe to not want to cooperate at the time. He was in pain and this officer had arrested him for possession of a machine gun."
At trial Boyd identified Shelton as the shooter. According to Bar Counsel, Kline never disclosed Boyd's hospital statement to the defense despite a specific Brady/Giglio request for impeachment material. The other identification witnesses were weak and/or impeachable. The case ended in a hung jury mistrial and the alleged Brady material (that is, Boyd's hospital statement to Woodward) was not revealed to the defense until literally the eve of the second trial, even though DC-OUSA prosecutors and supervisors had known about it for some time.
The court offered defense counsel a continuance, but she elected to go to trial as her client was then in jail. The second trial ended in Shelton's conviction. You can consult my earlier posts for a more detailed factual and case history background.
Rule 3.8(e) of the DC Rules of Professional Conduct states in pertinent part that: "The prosecutor in a criminal case shall not . . . intentionally fail to disclose to the defense, upon request and at a time when use by the defense is reasonably feasible, any evidence or information that the prosecutor knows or reasonably should know tends to negate the guilt of the accused...except when the prosecutor is relieved of this responsibility by protective order of the tribunal."
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the position of D.C. Bar Counsel and the Board that Rule 3.8(e) is not synonymous with Brady v. Maryland. The Court declined to import Brady's materiality test into Rule 3.8(e), making it clear that at the pre-trial and trial stages of a case, no prosecutor is fit to make a speculative materiality analysis. The rule is now clear. Any evidence that tends to negate the guilt of the defendant must be disclosed under the D.C. Rules of Professional Responsibility.
The Court overturned the Board's 30-day sanction imposed against Kline, given the confusion engendered by the Commentary to Rule 3.8(e). The Commentary states in part that: "The rule...is not intended either to restrict or to expand the obligations of prosecutors derived from the United States Constitution, federal or District of Columbia statutes, and court rules of procedure." Courts in other jurisdictions, as well as the ABA, have construed the D.C. Rule as including the Brady materiality standard, based on this Commentary. Additionally, at the time of Kline's actions, DC-USAO's training taught that Rule 3.8(e) was synonymous with Brady. The Court held that even if the Commentary was inconsistent with the Rule, the plain language of the Rule, and its legislative history, prevailed.
"However, while clear and convincing evidence has been presented that Kline violated Rule 3.8 when he failed to turn over the Boyd Hospital Statement to the defense prior to trial, we are mindful of the fact that our comment to Rule 3.8 (e) has created a great deal of confusion when it comes to a prosecutor’s disclosure obligations under Rule 3.8. Thus, Kline's understanding of his ethical obligations, while erroneous, does not warrant an ethical sanction."
The Board originally found that the suppressed exculpatory statement was material, even though a subsequent jury in possession of the material convicted the defendant. I don't know if that finding was ever revisited. I mention it because the Court's opinion nowhere discusses this point and seems to assume that the withheld statement was immaterial.
The opinion by Chief Judge Washington is extremely well-crafted and enormously significant.
Hat Tip to Charles Burnham of Burnham & Gorokhov for informing me of this ruling and sending a copy.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
The New York Times has the story, with a link to the criminal complaint, here. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara followed his longstanding tradition of holding a press conference in order to make inflammatory, prejudicial, and improper public comments about the case.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Monday, January 5, 2015
Many are focused on what sentence former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell will receive from the judge today. After all, he was convicted, and now is the time for him to be punished. But there is a second question, and an important one in this particular case, that also warrants consideration: Whether the former governor should be allowed to remain on bond pending his appeal. It should be an easy answer - he needs to remain free.
McDonnell’s case screams, ‘let’s wait before we put him behind bars.’ That’s because this is really a case about whether prosecutors stretched the law too far.
Creative federal prosecutions are not new and higher courts have been quick to strike prosecutions that exceed the boundaries of the law. Sometimes our courts have to remind prosecutors of John Adams words that we are “a government of laws, and not of men.”
We recently saw the Supreme Court strike down a prosecution that used the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act to prosecute a woman for an attempted simple assault. And the Supreme Court is currently reviewing the government’s use of the Sarbanes Oxley Act to prosecute a fisherman for throwing fish overboard that a state official had asked him to bring to shore.
McDonnell prosecutors used a novel approach in bringing this case. They attempted to prosecute conduct that folks may find offensive. But merely being offensive is not enough for making something a crime. It has to be criminal under existing laws, as opposed to a new interpretation created by the government in order to bring their case to court.
This case wasn’t the typical bribery case of someone handing a person money and that individual doing a specific official act in return. When an appellate court finally gets its hands on this case, it may all come down to whether McDonnell corruptly performed or promised to perform an “official act.” But what constitutes an “official act” is not so easy to explain. Will it include any act that happens to be done by a government official? Will it make a difference in a federal prosecution that the government official happens to be elected to a state position? Will it make a difference that state ethics rules exist to oversee what may or may not be considered corrupt conduct?
So now an appellate court will need to decide whether McDonnell’s conduct fits within the language of the statute. And that is a substantial question of law, the test the court looks at in determining whether to grant bond pending appeal. Pending that decision, it seems that he should remain free.
Many convicted defendants before McDonnell have been allowed to stay out on bond pending their appeal. There’s Martha Stewart, who eventually decided to go ahead and serve her sentence; Bernie Ebbers who received a 25 year sentence; John and Timothy Rigas, who received 15 and 20 years, respectively, and actor Wesley Snipes, who was convicted in a tax case. All went to trial and were convicted. And all were offered the chance to remain free pending their appeal. One even finds former governors and congressman on the list of those who have been given an appellate bond – former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was the recipient of one and so was former representative William Jefferson.
In many instances, the trial judge is the one who grants the bond pending appeal. But in some cases, it has required a higher, appellate court to step in to order the release of the accused pending his or her appeal. That happened to former Alabama Gov. Donald Siegelman, who was initially granted bail.
The bottom line in most white collar cases comes down to whether the accused has a significant issue being raised on appeal that it is better to have resolved prior to the start of the sentence. After all, once the individual is incarcerated, you can’t take back the time they have served.
Creative federal prosecutions have cost prosecutors much time and money, with few rewards. And in some cases it takes appellate courts to step in and act – and until they do, McDonnell should remain free.