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.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Here are two (ahem) differing views on yesterday's Second Circuit insider trading decision in United States v. Newman. The Wall Street Journal editorial writers are understandably happy at the ruling and contemptuous of Preet Bharara, dubbing him an Outside the Law Prosecutor. The Journal exaggerates the extent to which the case was an outlier under Second Circuit precedent and incorrectly states that "the prosecution is unlikely to be able to retry the case." The prosecution cannot retry the case, unless the full Second Circuit reverses the panel or the U.S. Supreme Court takes the case and overturns the Second Circuit.
Over at New Economic Perspectives, Professor Bill Black insists that the Second Circuit Makes Insider Trading the Perfect Crime. Black thinks Wall Street financial firms will enact sophisticated cut-out schemes in the wake of the opinion to give inside traders plausible deniability. He compares the fate of Newman and his co-defendant to that of Eric Garner and calls for a broken windows policing policy for Wall Street. Black's piece is outstanding, but in my view he underestimates the extent to which the Newman court was influenced by Supreme Court precedent and ignores the opinion's signals that the government needed to do a much better job of proving that the defendants knew about the tipper's fiduciary breach. As a matter of fact, in the typical insider trading case it is relatively easy to show such knowledge. That's what expert testimony and willful blindness instructions are for.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
The Second Circuit's decision in United States v. Newman is out. The jury instructions were erroneous and the evidence insufficient. The convictions of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasso are reversed and their cases have been remanded with instructions to dismiss the indictment with prejudice. Here is the holding in a nutshell:
We agree that the jury instruction was erroneous because we conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit. Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons. First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive. Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Special Prosecutor Mike McCrum has survived an attempt to quash the Rick Perry indictment based on alleged procedural irregularities connected to McCrum's appointment. Courthouse News has the story here. The Order Relating to Authority of Attorney Pro Tem, written by Assigned Judge Bert Richardson, appears to be carefully and thoughtfully crafted. We can expect a similar approach to the more substantive constitutional issues awaiting Judge Richardson's pen.
Monday, October 6, 2014
Rob Cary's book, "Not Guilty: The Unlawful Prosecution of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens" is a wonderful read and reminder of what needs to be corrected in our criminal justice system. Discovery in a criminal case is incredibly important, and this book emphasizes its importance in the criminal justice system and to society. In white collar document driven cases, the amount of paperwork can be overwhelming. It becomes important to not merely provide discovery to defense counsel, but also that it be given in an organized manner. Dumping documents on defense counsel is not enough. And failing to provide crucial documents, witnesses, and evidence is even more problematic. More needs to be done to correct discovery injustices in society and hopefully this book can serve as the momentum and real-life story to make it happen.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
And here it is. DeLay v. State of Texas. To clarify my ealier comments, the majority held that DeLay did not commit or conspire to commit money laundering. He did not launder or conspire to launder criminally derived proceeds, because the facts proved by the State failed to prove a violation of the Texas Election Code. In other words, the State proved no underlying crime.
This just in. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has affirmed 8-1 the lower appellate court ruling vacating Tom DeLay's money laundering conviction. Why was the conviction vacated? DeLay's actions, even if proven, did not constitute the crime of money laundering under Texas law at the time he committed them. Here is the brief KPRC-TV story. Hat Tip to Roger Aronoff for the alert.
Friday, September 26, 2014
Yesterday's announcement that Attorney General Eric Holder will be stepping down from his position makes one think back about all that he accomplished while in office.
Many have been critical of his handling of white collar cases, but few have focused on the enormous number and amount of fines given to entities during his term. There has been a growing list of deferred and non-prosecution agreements entered into between entities and the DOJ (see here). Internal investigations are becoming routine by companies and hopefully corporations are realizing the cost-benefit of monitoring employees to adhere to the law.
Although discovery issues have not been resolved, there is certainly more focus by this Office on the importance of making sure that favorable evidence is given to defense counsel. With more time, emphasis and some new legislation this issue could move even further ahead.
Most recently we see that DOJ is taking the ethical position in rethinking its position on waivers with guilty pleas. (see here) Some districts, unfortunately, were asking for plea waivers on ineffective assistance and prosecutorial misconduct claims. This practice, used by only some offices, suffered from ethics problems causing some states, like Florida, to have to issue an ethics opinion prohibiting this practice. It is nice to see DOJ stepping to the plate to stop this conduct.
And recently we have also seen that AG Holder has been at the forefront of enforcing the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel. A good number of state attorney generals stood up to take this position in Gideon v. Wainwright, filing an amicus brief in support of the right to counsel for indigent defendants. AG Holder's stance on this has been admirable.
Clearly our criminal justice system needs a good bit more work, but it is promising to see what one Attorney General has accomplished. Let's hope his successor continues advocating as a "minister of justice."
Thursday, September 18, 2014
Appellate Court Reverses Conviction Based on Last-Minute Prosecutorial Provision of Brady Material "Buried" in Mass of Discovery
Two of the many issues relating to prosecutorial disclosure of Brady material are the timing of the disclosure and the identification of the material as exculpatory. Many, perhaps most, prosecutors believe that they have satisfied their ethical and constitutional obligations under Brady by providing the exculpatory material just before trial (or before the witness affected testifies) without any specification that it is Brady material. Courts rarely -- almost never -- reverse a conviction because the Brady material was provided late or without any signal that it is exculpatory material.
In this connection, yesterday an intermediate New York appellate court in Brooklyn upon an appeal of a denial of a post-conviction motion unanimously reversed a kidnapping conviction because of the untimely disclosure of Brady material in a "document dump" on the eve of trial. The prosecutors there had during jury selection delivered the documents "interspersed throughout a voluminous amount of other documentation, without specifically identifying the documents at issue at the time of delivery," thereby, said the court, "burying" them. By doing so, the prosecution "deprived the defendants of a meaningful opportunity to employ that evidence during cross-examination of the prosecution's witness." People v. Wagstaffe, A.D.3d -- (2d Dept., Sept. 17, 2014). See here.
The prosecution's case was based exclusively on the testimony of a witness under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time of the event who testified that she saw the defendants force the 16-year old victim into a car. The documents, police requests for records for both defendants, would have revealed that the defendants were being investigated one day prior to the initial police interview with the witness, contrary to the testimony of one of the investigating officers that the interview led them to the defendants. Thus, the documents, said the court, would "bear . . . negatively upon the credibility of [the witness] and the investigating detectives," issues of "primary importance in this case."
Too often appellate courts, often while giving lip service to the notion that Brady material should be provided to the defendant in time for him or her to use in a meaningful fashion, accept the view that a few minutes before cross-examination is sufficient, or that the defense lawyer's failure to request an adjournment is fatal to the defense appeal. Too often courts distinguish between Giglio impeachment of witness material and other Brady material and accept that it is acceptable that the former be given as late as just before cross-examination. Too often courts expect defense counsel to find the Brady "needle in a haystack" in a pile of discovery or 3500 material provided shortly before trial.
It is refreshing for an appellate court to accept the practicality that a harried on-trial defense lawyer cannot be expected to appreciate immediately the significance of a single item or a few items of paper provided at the last-minute and/or together with a mass of other less significant documents. It is refreshing for a court not to accept the prosecutorial tactic or custom to provide a "document dump" to conceal a page or a few pages of significant exculpatory material.
Hopefully, this decision will be affirmed on appeal (if taken or allowed) to New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, and will be a bellwether for other courts, and not ignored or consigned to history as an aberrant decision of an intermediate appellate court.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Last month Prof. Douglas Berman reported in his indispensable Sentencing Law and Policy blog about a ten-year prison sentence imposed by SDNY judge Richard Berman upon defendant Rudy Kurniawan, who had sold counterfeit wine to the very rich, including billionaire William Koch (one of the less political Koch brothers), and allegedly profited by over $28 million (see here by scrolling down to August 10, "Can wine fraudster reasonably whine that his sentence was not reduced given wealth of victims?" See also here). Some of the ersatz wine sold for as much as $30,000 per bottle.
Having a somewhat perverse sense of humor, I found it somewhat amusing that the 1% paid astronomical sums for and presumably sometimes drank the same wine that the other 99% of us drink. However, neither the judge nor the prosecutor (nor certainly the defendant and his lawyer) viewed the sentencing proceeding as a laughing matter.
To be sure, a $28 million fraud is a serious matter deserving serious punishment. Additionally, the judge seemed to view the crime in part as a public safety violation, declaring "The public at large needs to know our food and drinks are safe, -- and not some potentially unsafe homemade witch's brew," even though this was hardly a contaminated baby food case.
At the sentencing hearing, Kurniawan's attorney argued, reasonably I believe, that his client should be treated somewhat less severely since the victims were exceedingly wealthy. That argument provoked the prosecutor to the Captain Renault-like response that it was "quite shocking" for a lawyer to argue for a different standard for theft from the rich than from the poor.
That retort reminded me of Anatole France's immortal line (although not directly on point), "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal bread." In my view, a sentencing judge should certainly consider in sentencing the extent of damage to the victim(s). A fraudster who steals a million dollars from a billionaire, notwithstanding the Sentencing Guidelines' overemphasis on absolute figures, should (all things being equal) not deserve as harsh a sentence as one who steals the same amount if it were the entire life savings of a senior citizen.
Prosecutors, when fraud victims are pensioners and widows, argue, I believe reasonably, that the judge should consider the degree of suffering of the victims. Indeed, every seasoned white-collar trial lawyer knows that in a multi-victim fraud case the government is likely to call as "representative" witnesses those most sympathetic victims for whom the monetary loss was most damaging.
I assume that the prosecutor will get over his "shock" when he prosecutes a fraud case where a less than affluent victim's life savings are stolen. I further assume he will not argue that the judge should impose the same sentence she would if the victim were a billionaire for whom the loss figure might be pocket change.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Article About Former Penn State President Raises Issues Concerning Independent Investigative Reports and Role of Corporate Counsel
The New York Times Magazine several weeks ago published a lengthy, largely sympathetic article about Graham Spanier, the former Penn State president (Sokolove, "The Shadow of the Valley"), see here, who is awaiting trial on charges of perjury and other crimes in connection with the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation of his alleged complicity or nonfeasance concerning the actions of now-convicted (and affirmed on appeal) former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
The article rather gently criticized the Freeh report, commissioned by the university, as I too did (see here), and asserts that it "probably led to [Spanier's] indictment." Commissioning an independent investigative report -- generally either by a former prosecutor or judge, or a large law firm -- is the de rigueur response of institutions or corporations accused of wrongdoing. An independent investigative report, especially by a respected authority, has the weight of apparent impartiality and fairness and thus the appearance of accuracy. However, the investigative report -- frequently done with no input from the accused or presumed wrongdoers (since, fearful of prosecution, they choose not to be interviewed) -- is often based on an incomplete investigation. Further, since the investigator is expected to reach conclusions and not leave unanswered questions, but unlike a prosecutor may not be required to have those conclusions tested by an adversary in an open forum, such investigations, like the Freeh investigation, are often based on probability, and sometimes even speculation, more than hard evidence. Lastly, the "independent" report, like the report concerning Gov. Christopher Christie's alleged involvement in Bridgegate, may be less than independent.
* * *
The article also discusses an interesting pretrial motion in Spanier's case concerning a question that had puzzled me since the Penn State indictments were announced over two years ago -- what was Penn State's counsel doing in the grand jury? Sub judice for six months is a motion for dismissal of the indictment and other relief related to the role of the Penn State general counsel ("GC") who appeared in the grand jury with Spanier, and also earlier with two other officials who were indicted, Tim Curley, the former athletic director, and Gary Schultz, a vice president.
According to the submitted motions (see here , here and here ), largely supported by transcripts and affidavits, the GC appeared before the grand jury with Spanier (and also separately with Curley and Schultz) and Spanier referred to her as his counsel (as also did Curley and Schultz). According to what has been stated, neither she, who had previously told the supervising judge -- in the presence of the prosecutor but not Spanier -- that she represented only Penn State, nor the prosecutor corrected Spanier. Nor did the judge who advised Spanier of his right to confer with counsel advise Spanier that the GC was actually not representing him or had a potential conflict.
Later, after Spanier's grand jury testimony, according to the defense motion, the GC -- represented by Penn State outside counsel -- was called to testify before the grand jury. Curley and Schultz -- both of whom had by then been charged -- objected in writing to the GC's revealing what they asserted were her privileged attorney-client communications with them. Spanier apparently was not notified of the GC's grand jury appearance and therefore submitted no objection.
Prior to the GC's testimony, Penn State's outside counsel asked the court essentially to rule on those objections and determine whether the GC was deemed to have had an attorney-client relationship with the individuals, as they claimed, before Penn State decided whether to waive its privilege (if any) as to the confidentiality of the conversations. Upon the prosecutor's representation "that he would put the matter of her representation on hold" and not "address . . . conversations she had with Schultz and Curley about [their] testimony," the judge chose not to rule at that time on the issue of representation, which he noted "perhaps" also concerned Spanier, and allowed her to testify, as limited by the prosecutor's carve-out.
Nonetheless, despite the specific carve-out to conversations with Schultz and Curley analogous to those she had with Spanier and the judge's mention that the issue might also apply to Spanier, the prosecutor questioned the GC about her conversations with Spanier in preparation for his testimony. Her testimony was reportedly harmful to Spanier (see here). At no time did the GC raise the issue of whether her communications with Spanier were privileged.
Whether the motion will lead to dismissal, suppression of Spanier's testimony or preclusion or limitation of the GC's testimony, or none of the above, will be determined, presumably soon, by the judge. Whatever the court's ruling(s), I have little hesitation in saying that is not how things should be done by corporate or institutional counsel. At the least, even if the GC were, as she no doubt believed, representing the university and not the individuals, in my opinion, the GC (and also the prosecutor and the judge) had an obligation to make clear to Spanier (and Schultz and Curley) that the GC was not their counsel. Additionally, the GC had, in my view, an obligation to make clear to Spanier that the confidentiality of his communications with her could be waived by the university if it (and not he) later chose to do so. Further, the GC, once she was called to testify before the grand jury, had in my opinion an obligation to notify Spanier that she might be questioned as to her conversations with him in order to give him the opportunity to argue that they were privileged. And, lastly, the GC had, I believe, an obligation to ask for a judicial ruling when the prosecutor went beyond at least the spirit of the limit set by the judge and sought from her testimony about her communications with Spanier.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
As my editor, Ellen Podgor, noted last week (see here), the winning streak in insider trading cases of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York ended with the jury's acquittal of Rengan Rajaratnam, the younger brother of Raj Rajaratnam, who was convicted of insider trading in 2011 and sentenced to eleven years in prison.
The U.S. Attorney has done an excellent job in prosecuting insider trading, securing convictions by plea or trial of 81 of the 82 defendants whose cases have been concluded in the district court. The office has appropriately targeted primarily professional financial people who seek or provide insider information rather than those incidental offenders who by chance have received or provided insider tips and taken advantage of their knowledge. A few of these trial convictions, however, appear to be in jeopardy. At oral argument in a recent case the Second Circuit Court of Appeals seemed sympathetic to the contention that a trader may not be found guilty unless he knew that the original information came from a person who had received a benefit, and not only had violated a fiduciary duty of secrecy. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, who presided over the Rajaratnam case, agreed with that contention and thereupon dismissed two of the three counts.
Whether the prospective Second Circuit ruling, if it comes, will make good public policy is another matter. Insider trading (which fifteen years ago some argued should not be a crime) is, or at least was, endemic to the industry. Presumably, the U. S. Attorney's successful prosecutions have had a positive step in putting the fear of prosecution in traders' minds. Such deterrent to a particularly amoral community seems necessary: a recent study demonstrated that twenty-four percent of the traders interviewed admitted they would engage in insider trading to make $10 million if they were assured they would not be caught (the actual percentage who would, I suspect, is much higher). See here.
The latest Rajaratnam case, indicted on the day before the statute of limitations expired, was apparently not considered a strong case by some prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office. See here and here. Indeed, jurors, who deliberated four hours, described the evidence as "no evidence, period" and asked "Where's the evidence?" That office nonetheless did not take this loss (and generally does not take other losses) well. It was less than gracious in losing, making a backhanded slap at Judge Buchwald, a respected generally moderate senior judge. A statement by the U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara noted, "While we are disappointed with the verdict on the sole count that the jury was to consider, we respect the jury trial system . . . ." (Italics supplied.)
Southern District judges, generally out of deference to and respect for the U.S. Attorney's Office, whether appropriate or undue, rarely dismiss entire prosecutions or even counts brought by that office, even in cases where the generally pro-prosecution Second Circuit subsequently found no crimes. See here. It is refreshing to see a federal judge appropriately do her duty and not hesitate to dismiss legally or factually insufficient prosecutions.
Such judicial actions, when appropriate, are particularly necessary in today's federal system where the bar for indictment is dropping lower and lower. The "trial penalty" of a harsher sentence for those who lose at trial, the considerable benefits given to cooperating defendants from prosecutors and judges, and the diminution of aggressiveness from a white-collar bar composed heavily of big firm former federal prosecutors have all contributed to fewer defense challenges at trial and lessened the prosecutors' fear of losing, a considerable factor in the prosecutorial decision-making process. Acquittals (even of those who are guilty) are necessary for a balanced system of justice.
Lastly, it is nice to see a major victory by a comparatively young (43) defense lawyer, Daniel Gitner of Lankler, Siffert & Wohl, an excellent small firm (and a neighbor), in a profession still dominated by men in their sixties or seventies.
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
BNP Paribas Conviction Commendable, But Length of Investigation and Failure to Prosecute Individuals Raise Questions
Both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the District Attorney of New York County (DANY) deserve commendation for the criminal conviction of France's largest bank, BNP Paribas, and the securing of penalties of approximately $9 billion (including $2.25 billion to New York State's bank regulatory agency, the Department of Financial Services), and, for the first time, a seemingly not insignificant collateral sanction imposed by a regulator (although how significant remains to be seen). BNP for ten years falsified transactions in order to be able to use the American banking system to do business with Sudan, Iran and Cuba, countries deemed rogue states by the U.S. government (but not necessarily by France). See here. While I accept that those crimes were serious crimes, I would much have preferred a prosecution-to-conviction of an American bank whose wrongs made it and its bankers much richer while making millions of other Americans much poorer.
The investigation, according to a story in the New York Times (see here) began in 2006 under the venerable New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whose expansive view of jurisdiction included the planet of Saturn (one of his bureaus was called "DANY Overseas"), when an Israeli-American DANY financial analyst developed a lead from reviewing the court papers of a civil suit against Iran brought by a grieving lawyer father whose daughter was killed in a terrorist suicide bombing in Gaza in 1995. See here. The investigation was continued by District Attorney Cyrus Vance when he took office in 2009.
No individuals have been indicted (although 13 have been required to leave their jobs), perhaps because the statute of limitations had run during the lengthy investigation. One wonders why such an important investigation took seven to eight years and has resulted (at least so far) in no indictment of individuals. Perhaps it was due to the difficulty to forge cooperation between federal and state law enforcement agencies. New York's federal and state prosecutors have not always played well together.
In any case, the appearance of the District Attorney of New York as a player in the prosecution of big banks is a welcome step. New York is, as Mr. Vance said, "the financial capital of the world," and therefore probably the financial crime capital of the world. Perhaps strong prosecutorial action by a local prosecutor -- in a sense a competitor with DOJ for high-profile cases -- will goad DOJ into stronger actions against financial institutions. Although the U.S. Attorney's Office under Preet Bharara has done a creditable job in fighting insider trading, it -- and DOJ -- had not until six weeks ago (see here) secured a criminal conviction against a major financial institution.
Friday, June 27, 2014
This past Wednesday's Supreme Court decision in Riley v. California stressed the importance of law enforcement needing to obtain a warrant if they sought to search digital information contained on a cell phone that had been seized from the individual. From this decision we can see that the Fourth Amendment is alive and well in the Supreme Court.
But is that the case in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office? Larry Goldman notes here on the White Collar Crime Prof Blog that the District Attorney's Office recent prosecution in a computer related case had 4th Amendment problems. And this morning's New York Times article by Vindu Goel and James McKinley, Jr., Facebook Bid to Shield Data From the Law Fails, So Far shows how the Manhattan district attorney's office has been obtaining Facebook information using demands for documents from Facebook without notification to the individuals who posted the information on Facebook, and precluding Facebook from notifying them. Admittedly in this instance the Manhattan DAs Office did obtain a warrant, but Facebook and individuals who had items being obtained from Facebook were precluded from fighting the warrant. According to this article, Facebook has continued to fight these warrants and hopefully a court will see the importance of having oversight when it comes to overbroad computer related searches.
One of the possible ramifications of what the Manhattan D.A. is doing it that when cases eventually come to court, the overbreadth of these searches will be raised. And hopefully attorneys handling these cases will have been alerted by this posting, the New York Times article, and other media sources who may be reporting on these events. But it is hard to believe that all the information received by the Manhattan DA will be used for a prosecution, and many of these individuals will never know that their privacy had been compromised. As we move further into a digitial age, the principles of the Fourth Amendment need to be maintained. Judges reviewing these search warrants need to provide clearer oversight when granting a warrant, especially when terrorism is not the focus of the search.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
One of the more fascinating cases around is the case of former Goldman Sachs programmer Sergey Aleynikov. Aleynikov was convicted in the Southern District of New York for stealing secret high-frequency trading computer code from Goldman Sachs and sentenced to eight years in prison. His conviction was reversed by the Second Circuit on the grounds that his actions were not covered by the federal statutes under which he was charged. Aleynikov had already served a year in prison.
Then, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, apparently provided the testimonial and tangible evidence used in the prosecution of Aleynikov by the U.S. Attorney, decided to prosecute him in state court under state statutes, a decision I criticized because it violated at least the spirit of double jeopardy protection (see here). Last week, a New York State judge threw out much of the evidence underlying the state prosecution on the ground that Aleynikov's arrest and related searches by federal agents were not supported by probable cause that he committed the underlying federal crimes, even though the agents acted in good faith. See here. New York has rejected on state constitutional grounds the "good faith exception" to unlawful searches applicable in federal courts. Compare People v. Bigelow, 66 N.Y.2d 417 (1985) with United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984). Mr. Vance's choice now is either to concede that the judge's suppression has made his case untriable and make an interlocutory appeal or go forward to trial without that evidence (or, of course, move to dismiss the case).
Ironically, Goldman Sachs, the purported victim of Aleynikov's alleged criminality, is laying out millions of dollars to afford Mr. Aleynikov the energetic and aggressive defense his lawyer, Kevin Marino, is providing. A New Jersey federal judge last October ordered Goldman to advance Mr. Aleynikov's legal fees based on a corporate bylaw that required it to advance legal fees for officers charged in civil and criminal proceedings. Aleynikov v. Goldman Sachs (Civ. No. 12-5994, DNJ, October 22, 2013).