Thursday, January 24, 2013
It is hard to argue against the idea of criminal forfeiture; fairness demands that one convicted of a crime give up his ill-gotten gains. A recent article in the New York Times seemed to give its full unstinting approval to federal asset forfeiture (see here).
However, asset forfeiture, aside from its several unfair procedural aspects, has its downsides. It has to an extent diverted prosecutorial resources from investigation and prosecution of more serious cases to "sitting duck" targets involved in lucrative but arguably harmless violations of law, such as offshore gambling enterprises.
And, primarily because of pre-trial restraints, it has, with the 5-4 imprimatur of the Supreme Court in Caplin & Drysdale v. United States, 491 U.S. 617 (1989), and United States v. Monsanto, 491 U.S. 600 (1989), turned the presumption of innocence on its head and allowed pre-trial restraint of funds to leave many defendants without sufficient funds to hire experienced, able (and often expensive) counsel of choice. While court-appointed counsel assigned to represent those now-indigent defendants are generally competent or better than competent, they often lack the experience, resources, aggressiveness and time to provide a first-rate defense. Thus, asset forfeiture often tilts the board in the prosecutor's favor.
Prosecutors are obviously aware that broad pretrial restraint of assets may skew the results of a litigation by preventing the defendant from hiring top-notch counsel. While I do not believe that prosecutors often seek pre-trial restraint for that reason, eliminating experienced and able counsel is an obvious byproduct of many such restraints.
Even in New York State, where the Legislature has, alone among the 50 states, specifically provided for expenditures of seized funds to pay reasonable legal fees, some prosecutors, notably the New York County District Attorney, have taken a strong position, "play[ing] hardball" in the words of a senior forfeiture prosecutor, against release of seized funds for legal fees to private counsel. In New York County, a defendant seeking release of restrained funds for private counsel must initially fill out a sworn 40-page detailed financial questionnaire to demonstrate her lack of access to funds for legal fees. On the other hand, a defendant in New York County who seeks assigned counsel paid for by public funds needs only to say he cannot afford counsel, and such a statement is rarely questioned.
The District Attorney in New York and many places elsewhere receives a portion of forfeited funds; thus, he has an extra incentive to fight the release of funds for private counsel, as well as to prosecute those with substantial assets. An objective observer might question whether the crucial decision whether to prosecute should be made by one with a financial interest in the proceeds of the prosecution. Compare Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927) (conviction at trial by magistrate/mayor where municipality retains part of fine proceeds violates due process).
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
It is not often that I praise the Department of Justice ("DOJ"), especially for bringing a prosecution. However, I commend the decision to prosecute -- really prosecute, and not just indict and offer a deferred prosecution -- a UBS subsidiary for its role in manipulating the benchmark LIBOR interest rate. See here.
To be sure, UBS was allowed to offer as the defendant in this case a Japanese subsidiary (UBS Securities Japan Co. Ltd.), for which a conviction would bring considerably less collateral damage than it would upon the parent company. Substituting others for prosecution, whether corporations or individuals, of course, is not a common benefit offered to criminal targets. Nonetheless, for DOJ, bringing a prosecution against a major financial institution, even a subsidiary, is a considerable and commendable step.
Generally, I believe that prosecutions should not be brought against large institutions because of a few rogue employees, unless at least one is a director or "a high managerial agent acting within the scope of his employment and in behalf of the corporation." New York Penal Law Section 20.20(2)(b). See also Model Penal Code Section 2.07. UBS, however, is a serial offender with a history (not alone among Swiss and other banks) as an eager accomplice of money launderers and tax evaders throughout the world. Although UBS' belated and commendable efforts to clean up its act and cooperate deserve credit, in this case DOJ apparently felt it did not make up for its past conduct enough to deserve non-prosecution, and appropriately broke its usual pattern of allowing major financial institutions to avoid criminal convictions.
As a practical matter, one may ask what the difference is between an indictment/deferred prosecution (as occurred in the case of the parent, UBS AG of Zurich) and indictment/conviction if both ultimate results carry huge financial penalties and other requirements, such as monitoring. Aside from the collateral consequences -- which can, as in the obvious case of Arthur Andersen, be fatal to a major financial institution (although I agree to an extent with Gabriel Markoff (see here) that such a fear is exaggerated) -- the conviction here has importance as a symbol, and perhaps also a deterrent in both the specific and general aspects.
Although the huge UBS fines will be borne by current UBS shareholders (not necessarily the same stockholders who benefited from the LIBOR bid-rigging), one would hope that UBS makes an effort to recoup the substantial financial gains through bonuses and other compensation geared to profits that those in leadership and supervisory roles made as a result of UBS' now-admitted criminality even if those leaders were uninvolved or unaware of the wrongdoing. I suspect that there will be no such serious effort, or at least little or no success if there is one.
Monday, December 17, 2012
You can debate all day whether the government should allow any financial institution to get too big to fail. You can also debate whether such an institution, if it is too big to fail, should be too big to prosecute, even when it engages in blatantly criminal conduct over a lengthy period of time. However, you cannot seriously debate whether to prosecute senior bank officials of an international mega-bank who knowingly directed the criminal enterprise in question. Corporations only act through agents. Those agents are human beings.
We are not talking about technical matters here. This is not a question of whether each party to a complex transaction understood the fine print which revealed, or obscured, that an investment bank was betting against the deal it was pushing. According to the published reports and press statements, obvious narcotics-related money laundering was repeatedly facilitated by the bank, despite multiple regulatory warnings. The sources of funds connected to outlaw regimes were intentionally and repeatedly hidden. If this stuff happened, people did it. And they were no doubt high-ranking people.
No credible person will contend that the prosecution of corrupt bank officers can ever endanger the financial community. No matter how important the institution or high-ranking the officer, employees are fungible. The global financial impact of prosecuting these officers, no matter how important they think they are, will always be negligible.
Assistant AG Lanny Breuer said at his press conference that individual prosecutions were not being ruled out. (Similar statements were made at the time of the robo-signing settlement press conference, and we all know what an avalanche of individual DOJ prosecutions followed in the wake of that!) But other comments Breuer made, discussing how hard it supposedly is to prosecute the individuals involved, appear to be window-dressing rehearsals for future DOJ declinations.
Reporters should not let this issue slide into oblivion. The DOJ does not typically comment upon pending investigations of individuals. (Of course this does not stop some FBI and IRS agents from telling all of a target's friends that he is being criminally investigated, thereby ruining the target's life.) Here is an occasion where the policy should be ignored, particularly since the DOJ can comment on a pending investigation without revealing the names of the subjects and targets.
The question every self-respecting reporter should be asking AG Holder and Assistant AG Breuer is not whether individual indictments have been ruled in or out. The questions to be asked at every opportunity in the coming weeks and months are:
"What is the status of the investigation?"
"Is there really any investigation?"
"Are you treating this investigation like you treat the investigation of other individuals suspected of facilitating murder and drug crimes?"
Here is an account by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi of his appearance on Eliot Spitzer's Viewpoint program discussing the HSBC settlement. Taibbi's account contains a link to the Spitzer interview. Hat tip to Jack Darby of Austin's Krimelabb. com for alerting me to this posting. Taibbi also has an interesting opinion piece about the HSBC settlement on his Rolling Stone TAIBBLOG.
Sunday, December 9, 2012
One of the hottest issues these days concerns discovery violations by prosecutors. Check out Professor Ellen Yaroshefsky's article, New Orleans Prosecutorial Disclosure in Practice after Connick v. Thompson in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics that provides a view of this issue in looking at the New Orleans Prosecutor's Office.
Friday, December 7, 2012
New Article - Unregulated Corporate Internal Investigations: Achieving Fairness for Corporate Constituents
Professor Bruce Green (Fordham) and I have a new article coming out in Boston Colleg Law Review, titled Unregulated Corporate Internal Investigations: Achieving Fairness for Corporate Constituents. You can download the article here. The SSRN abstract states:
This Article focuses on the relationship between corporations and their employee constituents in the context of corporate internal investigations, an unregulated multi-million dollar business. The classic approach provided in the 1981 Supreme Court opinion, Upjohn v. United States, is contrasted with the reality of modern-day internal investigations that may exploit individuals to achieve a corporate benefit with the government. Attorney-client privilege becomes an issue as corporate constituents perceive that corporate counsel is representing their interests, when in fact these internal investigators are obtaining information for the corporation to barter with the government. Legal precedent and ethics rules provide little relief to these corporate employees. This Article suggests that courts need to move beyond the Upjohn decision and recognize this new landscape. It advocates for corporate fair dealing and provides a multi-faceted approach to achieve this aim. Ultimately this Article considers how best to level the playing field between corporations and their employees in matters related to the corporate internal investigation.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
On November 29, a divided panel of the Second Circuit vacated two out of four convictions obtained at trial by the government in the massive Ernst & Young (E&Y) tax shelter case, due to insufficient evidence. The opinion, United States v. Coplan et al, 10-583-cr(L), is available here.
In Coplan, four defendants were convicted after a 10-week trial on a variety of criminal tax charges arising out of their alleged involvement in the development and defense of five complicated tax shelters that were sold or implemented by E&Y to wealthy clients. Two defendants, Nissenbaum and Shapiro, had been tax attorneys at E&Y who were each convicted of conspiracy to defraud the United States and to commit tax evasion (18 U.S.C. §371) and two substantive counts of tax evasion (26 U.S.C. §7201). Nissenbaum also was convicted of one count of obstructing the IRS, in violation of 26 U.S.C. §7212(a), on the basis of allegedly causing false statements to be submitted to the IRS in response to an Information Document Request (IDR) submitted when the IRS was examining one of the tax shelters at issue.
The opinion is lengthy and complex, and resists easy summarization. It is well worth reading because it discusses in detail a kaleidoscope of issues relevant to any "white collar" criminal trial, from evidentiary rulings to jury instructions to sentencing. This commentary is limited to the sufficiency of evidence claims, and some of their implications for lawyers as potential defendants.
The panel in Coplan displayed a remarkable willingness to comb through an extremely complicated trial record and test every nuanced inference that the government urged could be drawn from the evidence in support of the verdicts. The bottom-line holding of the panel was that, after making all inferences in favor of the government, the convictions had to be vacated because the evidence of guilt was at best in equipose.
Although this general principle can be stated easily, its practical application in Coplan involved the panel conducting a particularized review of the evidence that appellate courts often forego. For example, one important fact for Shapiro was that a tax opinion letter provided to shelter clients stated that, for the purposes of the "economic substance" test governing tax-related transactions, the clients had a "substantial nontax business purpose" (OK, per the Coplan panel), rather than stating, as it had before Shapiro’s revisions, that the clients had a "principle" investment purpose. Likewise, although Shapiro had reviewed letters and attended phone conferences deemed incriminating by the government, his involvement in such conduct was not "habitual" or otherwise substantial. As for Nissenbaum’s Section 7212(a) conviction, his response to the IDR that the government characterized as obstructive – a partial explanation of the clients’ subjective business reasons for participating in the tax shelters – could not sustain the conviction because the IDR drafted by the IRS had sought all reasons held by the clients, rather than their primary reason. If this sounds somewhat murky and convoluted, it is. The point is that multiple convictions for very significant offenses were vacated after much effort at extremely fine line-drawing.
The implicit theme running throughout the discussion of the evidence was that it was not sufficiently clear that these lawyers had crossed the line while attempting to assist their clients, to whom they owed a duty. The competing tensions that lawyers can face was encapsulated in a jury instruction discussed later in the opinion. Although the trial court instructed the jury as requested by the defense that "[i]t is not illegal simply to make the IRS’s job harder[,]" it declined to instruct the jury on the larger defense point that "[t]his is particularly true for the defendants, whose professional obligations as attorneys or certified public accountants required them to represent the interests of their clients vigorously in their dealings with adversaries, such as the IRS."
The Coplan case echoes partially the case of Lauren Stevens, the former in-house counsel for GlaxoSmithKline who was indicted and tried in 2011 by the government for allegedly obstructing a U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation of alleged off-label practices by the company. The district court dismissed all charges against Ms. Stevens at the end of the government’s proofs for insufficient evidence. The ruling was a tremendous defense victory and underscored, like the Coplan case, the difficulties that the government can face when it targets a lawyer on the basis of alleged conduct undertaken on behalf of a client. Nonetheless, these cases still stand as cautionary tales to practitioners. Although there are important differences between Coplan and Ms. Stevens' case, both cases remind us of the pitfalls that can await advocates who stumble into the cross-hairs of the government. Ms. Stevens – like Shapiro and Nissenbaum – was fortunate enough to have an extremely conscientious court willing to parse through the nuances of the evidence, a great defense team, and the resources for extended litigation. It is no slight to these clients or their lawyers to recognize that, in many ways, sheer luck played a role in their ultimate outcomes. Although acquittals can provide vindication, such finales may provide limited comfort to the client after the excruciating process of being investigated, charged and tried. That such a process might turn eventually on the precise phrasing of a document, or how a conference call might be handled, is sobering.
Friday, November 2, 2012
The case of Ali Shaygan v. United States is set for distribution for conference on November 9, 2012 in the United States Supreme Court (see here). David Oscar Markus represents the Petitioner on a Hyde Amendment case that asks the question of "[w]hether the Government is exempted as a matter of law for Hyde Amendment sanctions under the statute’s prohibition on "bad faith" prosecutions despite subjective malice in its filing decision and extensive and pervasive prosecutorial misconduct during the course of the litigation, merely because there was probable cause to support the filing of the indictment." The Petition for Cert can be found here. See also Mike Scarcella, In the Supreme Court, a Fight Over Sanctions for Government Misconduct
The NACDL (here) raises the issue of the wide discretion afforded to prosecutors and how "'bad faith' surely includes situations where the government adds numerous charges for an illegitimate reason, such as retaliation for exercising a constitutional right, or engages in discovery abuse." The question here is whether the Hyde Amendment will have any teeth left, and whether there will be a check on government misconduct.
This case raises the important issue of whether there will be any ramifications to the government when it misuses its power.
Monday, October 22, 2012
Rajat Gupta is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Jed Rakoff on Wednesday. The Rajat Gupta Sentencing Memo filed last week by his attorneys is an outstanding work of its kind, and the Government's Sentencing Memo in U.S. v. Gupta is also quite good.
Gupta's Guidelines Range, according to the Government and the Probation Office, is 97-121 months. Gupta's attorneys, led by Gary Naftalis, put Gupta's Guidelines Range at 41-51 months. The different calculations appear to be based entirely on different views of the gain and/or loss realized and/or caused by Gupta. Key issues are whether Judge Rakoff should include the acquitted conduct in the loss calculations (which he is allowed but not required to do) and whether the gain should be confined to Gupta and his co-conspirators, as opposed to other investors. Gupta's attorneys are arguing for probation, with a condition of rigorous community service in New York or Rwanda.
My guess is that, however he gets there, Judge Rakoff will impose a prison sentence of 3 to 6 years. The judge is a well-known critic of the Guidelines and Gupta has apparently led a life of extraordinary kindness and good works. On the other hand, Gupta is an enormously wealthy member of the financial elite to whom much has been given. He stands convicted of insider trading, which everybody on Wall Street knows is illegal. This was not a case in which ambiguous admitted conduct did or did not violate the outer edges of the insider trading laws. This was a case in which Gupta either tipped clearly confidential, proprietary inside information or he didn't. The jury has ruled that he did, at least with respect to four of the six charged counts. Judge Rakoff must and will accept that verdict. I believe that Judge Rakoff will see it as his judicial duty to send, through Gupta's sentence, a message of general deterrence.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
We all make mistakes. We are all flawed. It is a relatively rare prosecutor who has not committed, overseen, or sufferred on his watch some kind of Brady error somewhere along the way. Usually it is unintentional. Prosecutors are not naturally inclined or oriented to sniff out Brady materials. (They are paid to win.) And case law is clear. Brady error occurs irrespective of prosecutorial knowledge or intent. Indeed, defense attorneys are trained to make Brady arguments that do not impugn the integrity of prosecutors. This is because most judges, particularly federal judges, do not like to see personal attacks on prosecutors.
But then there are the egregious cases-- blatantly obvious examples of Brady/Giglio materials that should have been, but were not, disclosed to the defense. What is the bar to do when confronted with such cases? One thing is clear. Congress to date has not had the guts to deal with this problem. The Department of Justice lacks both the guts and inclination to do anything about it. Do you doubt me for one moment? You only have to look at the pathetic administrative punishment meted out to the Ted Stevens line prosecutors, and the complete whitewash of their superiors. You only have to search the DOJ website for DOJ-OPR's Report on the Stevens debacle. Hint--you won't find it there.
What is the solution to the persistent blight of jaw-droppingly obvious Brady/Giglio violations? One solution is to bring ethical complaints against purportedly miscreant prosecutors in appropriate instances. Which brings us to the case of former DC AUSA Andrew J. Kline, currently making its way through the bar disciplinary process.The BLT has posted on the Kline case here and here. DC Bar Counsel wants Kline censured for an alleged Brady/Giglio violation that also runs afoul, according to Bar Counsel, of the arguably broader Rule 3.8(e) of the DC Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 3.8(e) 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 . . . ."
The defense bar often talks about using various state versions of Rule 3.8(e) in tandem with Brady/Giglio, in part to get around the Brady/Giglio materiality problem. Here is a Bar Counsel actually doing something about it. Kline vigorously denies that the withheld information was material or that he intentionally engaged in any wrongdoing.
What information did Kline actually withhold? He 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. When the trial court found out about the hospital statement and that it had not been disclosed before the first trial because Kline did not consider it exculpatory, the court was thunderstruck: "I don’t see how any prosecutor could take that position. . . I don’t see how any prosecutor anywhere in any state in the country, could say I don’t have to turn that over because I think I know why he said that." See DC Bar Counsel's corrected Brief at 8.
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.
Kline's position now is that the hospital statement was not material, hence not Brady, because Boyd was in pain and being treated for a gunshot wound at the time and because Shelton was ultimately convicted upon retrial.
Bar Counsel's position is that the withheld hospital statement was material and exculpatory and therefore Brady material, but that even if it was not Brady material, the failure to turn it over violated Rule 3.8(e). Bar Counsel seeks a public censure of Mr. Kline.
DOJ argues, via the DC U.S. Attorney's Office amicus brief, that DC Rule 3.8(e) is no broader than Brady. This is not a surprising or frivolous argument. What is surprising is DOJ's position that Boyd's withheld hospital statement was not material under Brady. DOJ is taking this position at the same time it is trying to convince Congress and the Courts that it can be trusted to discipline and police prosecutors for discovery violations. Is anybody watching?
A further subject for investigation is the decision of DC-OUSA supervisors to withhold the Boyd hospital statement until the evening before the retrial. Let's see if DOJ takes the lead on that.
DC Bar Counsel and Hearing Committee Nine should be commended for addressing this issue. Oral Argument is scheduled to take place before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals Board on Professional Responsibility on October 11, 2012, at 2:00 PM in Courtroom II of the Historic Courthouse of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, located at 430 E Street NW.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
An interesting issue is presented to the Supreme Court on cert - defense witness immunity. The case of Walton v. the United States presents an issue that has plagued many a defense counsel - what do you do when you have a critical defense witness who will not testify without immunity. The government has the ability to give a witness immunity and often they do so in criminal cases to secure cooperation for the prosecution. But shouldn't the defense also be allowed this immunity when the evidence that would be offered is exculpatory to the defendant? This cert petition presents strong arguments showing the differing views among the circuits on defense witness immunity.
The Walton Petition also has a post-Global Tech issue. (for background on Global Tech, see here and here). The obvious is argued - Global Tech applies to criminal cases. The Court used criminal law doctrine in deciding the case, so of course it should apply to criminal law decisions. I am covering Global Tech in both criminal law and white collar crime classes because it summarizes the law on willful blindness. If the Court was using this criminal standard for a civil case and remarking that this is how it gets handled criminally, therefore, of course, it must be the appropriate standard for a criminal case. Even in his dissent, Justice Kennedy notes that "[t]he Court appears to endorse the willful blindness doctrine here for all federal criminal cases involving knowledge." He didn't like that they were doing this, but it was pretty clear that this is what they did. This cert petition, if granted, will send this message loudly and clearly to the Fifth Circuit.
Filing a separate cert petition is James Brooks. Argued here by attorneys Gerald H. Goldstein and Cynthia Eve Hujar Orr are that "[t]he jury instructions here not only failed to require that Brooks take deliberate steps to blind himself to the illegal purpose of his conduct, but additionally instructed the jury that he did not need to 'know' or even suspect that his conduct was unlawful."Global Tech clearly requires both.
Petition for Cert for Brookes - Download Brooks Petition for Writ of Certiorari
Friday, October 5, 2012
The Medicare Fraud Strike Force activities of yesterday were impressive (see here), but not new for the present AG's office. AG Holder promised that health care fraud would be a priority, and he has carried through with this promise. In this recent instance we are seeing 91 individuals being indicted across the country in a massive "Medicare Fraud Takedown." Assistant AG Lanny Breuer stated that "[t]his represents one of the largest Medicare fraud takedowns in Department history, as measured by the amount of alleged fraudulent billings." AG Holder noted that "[s]ince the first Strike Force was launched in 2007, these teams have charged nearly 1,500 defendants for falsely billing the Medicare program more than $4.8 billion."
Although I have not counted them, I can note that the DOJ press releases coming through my emails definitely support their claim that health care fraud has been a top priority for this DOJ.
Some may argue that those being indicted here are not the real offenders in the system - after all, how many lower level individuals get caught in instances of trying to do what they think is required of them in their job. But two things come from any large scale prosecution such as this one: 1) with convictions will come general deterrence - in that they will be sending a message to others in the system that fraudulent conduct will not be tolerated; and 2) through these indictments, are likely to come more prosecutions as individuals plead guilty and offer to cooperate with the government.
Monday, September 24, 2012
On September 13th Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer spoke to the New York City Bar extolling the virtues of DOJ's strategy for corporate prosecutions (see here). Former co-blogger Peter Henning here, also authored an article which focuses on the use of deferred prosecution agreements by the government.
One clearly has to credit the government with raising the bar in the corporate world to comply with legal mandates. Corporations throughout the world now have strong compliance programs and conduct internal investigations when questionable activities are reported to them. Likewise, post-Arthur Andersen, LLP, corporations are shy to go to trial - although there are some who have done so successfully (e.g. Lindsey Manufacturing- see here).
When the government first started using deferred and non-prosecution agreements, in a prior administration, there were government practices that were questionable. For example, allowing for huge sums to money to go to a former attorney general as a monitor, giving a chair to a law school that happened to be the same school the US Attorney graduated from, and negotiating for continuing work with the government as part of the agreement. (see Zierdt & Podgor, Corporate Deferred Prosecutions Through the Looking Glass of Contract Policing-here) Without doubt there were terms within the agreements that needed revision. Some terms that give complete control to prosecutors in deciding who can determine breaches of agreements present problems. But many of the questionable practices are not seen in recent deferred prosecution agreements, and this is good.
Agreements that still provide an imbalance between corporate misbehavior and individual miscoduct is creates an imbalance, but much of this is created by the fact that corporations have greater resources and can control the discussion with DOJ, to the detriment of the individual. Clearly there needs to be a better recognition of corporate constituents during the internal investigations, the subject of a forthcoming article that I author with Professor Bruce Green (Fordham) titled, Unregulated Internal Investigations: Achieving Fairness for Corporate Constituents. But this issue may not be one strictly for DOJ to resolve.
What is particularly impressive about the DOJ use of deferred prosecution agreements today is that it uses an educative model to reform corporate misconduct. One can't put a corporation in prison, so with fines as the best alternative it is important to focus on motivating good conduct. Corporate deferred and non-prosecution agreements are an important step in achieving this positive result. So, it is important to credit today's DOJ with how it is tackling the problem of corporate misbehavior.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
This front page story from Sunday's New York Times details the sleazy nationwide scam cooked up by debt collection agencies and local prosecutors to pry funds from American citizens through misleading, threatening letters. People who write bad checks are sent threatening letters signed by local district attorneys. In reality the district attorneys are just renting out their letterhead to the debt collectors. The typical letter warns the recipient that he has been "accused" of a crime, but can avoid "the possibility of future action" by the District Attorney's Office if he pays off the bounced check and attends a financial accountability class. The class can cost as much as $180.00 and a small portion of that fee is kicked back from the debt collectors to the District Attorney. In almost all instances, no prosecutor has ever looked at a case file, much less examined whether the individual had criminal intent. The letters may be literally truthful, in the Clintonian sense, but they are undoubtedly misleading. They are a scheme. They are sent through the mail. Perhaps AG Holder can launch an investigation to determine whether this conduct constitutes federal mail fraud. It seems right up his alley, since most debt collection agencies are, relatively speaking, small-scale operations. In many jurisdictions it is a crime to threaten criminal action in order to gain advantage in a civil matter. But I guess it's okay if you team up with the local prosecutor. More than ever our state and federal prosecutorial authorities seem to be acting as collection agencies for big businesses. Kind of sad considering we are still mired in recession.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
In an editorial published July 16, 2012 entitled "Trial Judge To Appeals Court: Review Me" (see here), the New York Times, in the wake of Judge John Kane's opinion discussed here last week (see here), rightly criticized standard plea waivers in federal court, especially those that preclude appeals based on attorney ineffectiveness or prosecutorial misconduct. The editorial, however, in alleging that in order to induce pleas "[p]rosecutors regularly overcharge defendants with a more serious crime than what actually occurred" was largely off-the-mark, as Paul J. Fishman, the respected United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, claimed in a letter to the Times published on July 26, 2012 (see here).
Federal prosecutors do not, in my view, "regularly" overcharge defendants "with a more serious crime than what actually occurred," at least in white-collar cases (although they often pile on unnecessary if legally justifiable multiple charges). As Mr. Fishman noted, DOJ has directed prosecutors to charge only provable crimes, and in my experience that directive is generally followed. In many districts, notably with respect to white collar cases the Southern District of New York, guilty pleas are to the indicted charges or top count, and rarely only to less serious counts. Since defendants are unlikely to plead guilty to unprovable charges, that practice indicates that the charging decisions are consistent with the law and the facts.
Indeed, there is little incentive for prosecutors to overcharge in order to induce pleas since defense lawyers are aware that the Sentencing Guidelines suggest that the sentencing judge should in any case consider all relevant conduct committed by the defendant, no matter to what crime the defendant has pleaded, and prevailing statutes (and often a conviction of multiple charges) virtually always provide the courts more than ample sentencing leeway. Unlike many state statutory schemes, most federal statutes in the white collar area -- mail and wire fraud, for instance -- are generic and not scaled by degrees according to the amounts of money involved, such as state statutes concerning grand larceny in different degrees. The Sentencing Guidelines levels, but not the statutory crimes, are determined primarily by the dollar loss figure.
This is not to say that most defendants do not face considerable institutional pressure to plead guilty (and, if possible, "cooperate" with the prosecution). Defendants, depending on from which direction one looks, are either "punished" for going to trial or "rewarded" for pleading guilty by the Guidelines provisions for a near-automatic two or three level decrease for pleading (acceptance of responsibility, U.S.S.G. 3E1.1) and a near-automatic two level increase for a convicted defendant who has testified in her defense (obstruction of justice, U.S.S.G. 3C1.1). Additionally, a defendant who pleads guilty usually receives a more generous interpretation of the Guidelines by the prosecutor, probation officer and the court, and a lessened fervor from the prosecution and more lenient attitude by the judge. And, of course, the sweet carrot of a U.S.S.G. 5K1.1 letter for those who cooperate with the government is often, perhaps too often, the difference between a severe sentence and a lenient one.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Professor Douglas Berman, in his excellent blog, Sentencing Law and Policy, quoting a Denver Post article, writes that after a federal judge rejected a plea agreement urged by both parties because it included a standard appellate waiver, the prosecutor came back with a harsher offer, albeit one without an appellate waiver, which the defendant accepted. See here and here.
Senior District Judge John Kane of Colorado refused to accept a deal involving Timothy Vanderwerff, a defendant accused of child pornography, because of the waiver provision. That deal provided that the government would seek no more than 12 years in prison and the defendant seek no less than five. The judge said that "indiscriminate acceptance of appellate waivers undermines the ability of appellate courts to ensure the constitutional validity of convictions and to maintain consistency and reasonableness in sentencing decisions."
In court papers Vanderwerff's attorney, federal public defender Edward Harris (who worked with me years ago) wrote that the prosecutors refused to agree to the same sentencing position deal without the appeal waiver and instead took a much harsher position.
One possible lesson from this case is that well-meaning judges, reacting to the government's increasing efforts to expand the terms of plea agreements to limit a defendant's ability to appeal and appellate courts' ability to review, might actually do harm to the individual defendant before them in rejecting a bargained-for agreement. Another possible lesson is that the government does not take kindly to judges interfering with its de facto power to set plea bargaining parameters and may demonstrate its displeasure by treating even acquiescent defendants more harshly when the judge rejects a plea deal it has offered.
Whether the defendant will ultimately suffer is unclear, because the court now, presumably subject to appeal by either side (as well as any applicable mandatory minimums), has the ultimate power to set the defendant's sentence and may well choose to sentence him under the posture both sides agreed upon in the original plea bargain.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Sergey Aleynikov, a former Goldman Sachs programmer whose federal conviction for stealing source code from the firm's computers had been vacated by the Second Circuit on the grounds that the statutes under which he was prosecuted did not cover his conduct, has been charged by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance with state charges relating to the same activities.
Arguably, the Fifth Amendment double jeopardy clause does not apply here because the United States and the State of New York are separate "sovereignties." That "dual sovereignties" exception to the double jeopardy clause has been occasionally questioned but generally remains in force. One possible exception that may apply here since presumably the D.A.'s case will rely on the federal investigation and prosecution (the federal case agent signed the affidavit supporting the state complaint) is when the two governments are acting in concert.
Although there may be no federal constitutional bar because of the "dual sovereignties," New York statutory law does in some circumstances preclude a state prosecution after a trial for the same or similar offenses in another jurisdiction. See New York Criminal Procedure Law Article 40. Additionally, there is always the possibility that eventually the New York Court of Appeals, which recently has dusted off the New York State Constitution's equivalent of the Bill of Rights (Article 1, Section 6) in Fourth Amendment Cases, may apply the state's constitutional double jeopardy bar more broadly than federal courts have applied the federal constitutional bar.
A New York Times article (see here) about the case quotes Joshua Dressler, an Ohio State University law professor, as saying that this case provides "an exceptionally justifiable reason for the state prosecutor to use a state law to bring a prosecution." I disagree. Mr. Aleynikov has already undergone the trauma and expense and disruption of life that a criminal trial entails. He has already served almost one year in prison for a crime he did not commit. Even if convicted on state charges, I predict he will never serve an additional day in jail.
Thus, in some ways Mr. Aleynikov is a poster boy for application of the double jeopardy clause. This case does not involve a situation in which a dismissal or acquittal in the initial proceeding was tainted by misconduct or was so bizarre that it seems viscerally unjust. Rather, Mr. Aleynikov's case was reversed by a highly-respected court because a highly-respected prosecutorial office charged and convicted him and sent him to prison under statutes that did not apply. This is not the kind of case that justifies a prosecutorial end-run around the Constitution.
The Department of Justice's "Petite Policy" concerning federal prosecutions after state trials, as it has been applied, militates against a second prosecution after an unsuccessful prosecution in another jurisdiction when the first prosecution was generally fair. Apparently, the New York County District Attorney has no such policy.
Saturday, August 11, 2012
Here is an interesting piece from the Washington Examiner's Mark Tapscott, commenting on the Government Accountability Institute's new report, Justice Inaction: The Department of Justice's Unprecedented Failure to Prosecute Big Finance. According to Tapscott, the GAI "has concluded that conflicts of interest among President Obama's top Department of Justice appointees may explain why nobody on Wall Street has been prosecuted by the government following the economic meltdown of 2008." Notice those weasel words--may explain. I haven't read the report yet, but I'm not buying GAI's theory. DOJ's stunning failure to prosecute elite financial control fraud is coming from a pay grade much higher than Holder's.
Friday, August 10, 2012
The BLT reports here on the amicus brief filed by former federal prosecutors and judges in Ali Shaygan v. United States. At issue is whether the government can be fined and sanctioned under the Hyde Act, which covers vexatious, frivolous, or bad faith prosecutions, when the charges brought have an objectively reasonable basis in fact. In other words, can federal prosecutors act out of improper motives of bad faith and malice if they have a pretextual fig leaf to cover their actions? The WSJ Law Blog reports here on the brief, which was signed by yours truly, and greater lights.
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
And there it is. Right on page 24 of the Second Circuit's opinion in U.S. V. Mahaffy, posted here yesterday. "None of this [the government's various rationales for withholding exculpatory and/or impeaching SEC transcripts] excuses the government's misconduct. The transcripts contained substantial Brady material, much of which was easily identified as such." In fact, an SEC attorney, cross-designated as a Special AUSA in the first squawk-box trial, identified some of the material as potential Brady to his trial team superiors before the first trial commenced.
Here are some interesting dates. Jury selection in the squawk-box retrial began on March 30, 2009. The government rested on April 14, 2009, as did the defense. The jury returned its verdict on April 22. Ted Stevens had been found guilty in Washington DC in October 2008 and, as Judge Sullivan has noted, "[d]uring the course of the five-week jury trial and for several months following the trial there were serious allegations and confirmed instances of prosecutorial misconduct that called into question the integrity of the criminal proceedings against Senator Stevens." Attorney General Holder moved to set aside the Ted Stevens verdict and dismiss the indictment with prejudice due to gross Brady-related misconduct on April 1, 2009. Judge Sullivan granted the government's motion on April 7, 2009. According to the Mahaffy opinion, the second set of squawk-box prosecutors deliberately chose not to revisit any of the disclosure decisions made by the first trial team. New York prosecutors must not read the DC papers.They did not start to sift through the SEC transcripts until after the second trial concluded.
Monday, August 6, 2012
Here is the Second Circuit's opinion (U.S. v. Mahaffy) from last Thursday in the EDNY's Squawk-Box case, vacating the convictions due to Brady violations and an untenable honest services jury charge.