Wednesday, June 29, 2016
I received the McDonnell decision with mixed feelings. Initially, I was happy for my colleague Hank Asbill, one of the nation's top criminal defense attorneys, for a great victory. Asbill and his co-counsel litigated this case the "old-fashioned way" - they fought it, and fought it, and then fought it. Their tenacity, dedication and skill make me proud to be a defense lawyer.
Not having read the briefs of the parties, or of the amici, or heard the oral arguments, I am hesitant to criticize the opinion, especially an opinion by a brilliant chief justice for a unanimous court (I suspect due to a compromise by potential dissenters, possibly to avoid an outright dismissal). Indeed, the opinion makes a strong case that the decision was required by precedent. However, I do question several aspects of the opinion. First, I find questionable Justice Roberts' Talmudic crucial narrowing of the definition of "official act" by virtually eliminating the broad catch-all words "action" and "matter," largely by resort to the Latin word jurisprudence that is often an indication that the interpretation is on shaky ground.
Second, while I am less troubled than the Court about the federal assumption of power to monitor the conduct of state officials for purportedly violating their offices, there is something bothersome about federal officials by criminal prosecutions in effect setting ethical standards for state officials. However, as a practical matter it appears that with rare exceptions local prosecutors lack the will and/or the resources to prosecute high state officials. In New York City, for instance, U. S. Attorney Preet Bharara has in recent years prosecuted about ten state legislators on corruption charges, while New York's five district attorneys combined have not prosecuted any.
Third and most importantly, I am concerned by the decision's enablement of business-as-usual pay-to-play practices. By narrowing the definition of "official act, the Court has legalized (at least federally) the practice of paying a government executive to set up a meeting with a responsible official. By doing so, the Court has given such "soft" corruption a green light. Under the opinion, a businessperson does not violate federal bribery law by paying a governor, mayor - or even the President - tens of thousands of dollars to make a phone call to a purchasing official asking or directing her to meet with the businessperson. And that call, however innocuous that actual conversation may sound, will have real consequences - otherwise, why would the businessperson pay for it? Even absent a verbal suggestion that the executive wants the official to do business with the caller, the official cannot but think that the executive would like that she do business with that person. I imagine a New Yorker cartoon with a governor sitting at a phone booth with a sign saying, "Phone calls, official meetings. $10,000 each."
To be sure, the law concerning bribery - not alone among federal statutes - vests too much power in the government. At argument government counsel conceded (candidly but harmfully) that a campaign contribution or lunch to an official could constitute the quid in a quid pro quo. That is frightening, but the problem is in the quid, not in the quo - about which this case is concerned. (I applaud Chief Justice Roberts statement in response to the standard "Trust me, I'm the government" argument that "We cannot condone a criminal statute on the assumption the government will use it responsibly.") And, certainly, if this case were to apply to campaign contributions - and not, as in this case personal receipt of money and goods-in the words of the amicus brief of former White House counsel - it would be "a breathtaking expansion of public corruption law." Indeed, a distinction should be made between personal and campaign contributions. But this case applied to the quo - what the governor did in exchange for $175,000 worth of goods and money. And, in my view he took "action" as the governor on a "matter" by "official acts" - hosting an event at the official mansion, making calls and arranging meetings.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
McDonnell v. United States and Arthur Andersen v. United States are remarkably similar Supreme Court reversals. In both cases, aggressive federal prosecutors pushed obviously dubious jury instructions on all-too-willing federal district judges. In Arthur Andersen, Enron Task Force prosecutors convinced Judge Melinda Harmon to alter her initial jury charge, defining the term "corruptly." Judge Harmon's charge was right out of the form book, based on the approved Fifth Circuit Pattern Criminal Jury Instruction. The Government's definition allowed conviction if the jury found that Andersen knowingly impeded governmental fact-finding in advising Enron's employees to follow Enron's document retention policy. The 5th Circuit Pattern's requirement that the defendant must have acted "dishonestly" was deleted by Judge Harmon and the jury was allowed to convict based on impeding alone. Thus, at the government's insistence, knowingly impeding the fact-finding function replaced knowingly and dishonestly subverting or undermining the fact-finding function. This effectively gutted the scienter element in contravention of the standard Pattern definition. Local observers were not surprised by Judge Harman's ruling. Her responses to government requests are typically described as Pavlovian. Judge James Spencer, the trial judge in McDonnell, is also an old pro-government hand. Generally well regarded, he was a military judge and career federal prosecutor prior to ascending the judicial throne. In McDonnell, the government's proposed jury instructions regarding "official act" flew in the face of the Supreme Court's Sun Diamond dicta. They were ridiculously expansive, with the potential to criminalize vast swaths of American political behavior. In both cases, Andersen and McDonnell, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed. In both cases, careful attention to the law, even-handedness, and a willingness to stand up to the government would have saved taxpayer dollars and prevented human suffering. Careful attention to the law, even-handedness, and a backbone. That's what we expect from an independent federal judiciary.
Monday, June 27, 2016
The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the convictions from former Governor Robert McDonnell's case this morning in a unanimous decision, finding that "hosting an event, meeting with other officials, or speaking with interested parties is not, standing alone, a 'decision or action' within the meaning of section 201(a)(3), even if the event, meeting, or speech is related to a pending question or matter." (see here) In vacating the conviction and remanding it back to the district court, the Supreme Court gives the lower court an option:
- It can find insufficient evidence under the Court's standard - then the charges get dismissed.
- If the lower court finds sufficient evidence under the Court's standard - then the case gets reset for trial for a new jury to properly evaluate this case.
But there really is a third option here. If the lower court decides that there is sufficient evidence for a trial (which there doesn't seem to be), then the government can step in and say - enough is enough and dismiss this case. In the Supreme Court's opinion, it states - "[W]e cannot construe a criminal statute on the assumption that the Government will 'use it responsibly.'"
This is an opportunity for the government to step in and accept the Court's decision and be responsible. And the responsible thing to do here is dismiss!
There are many criminal acts occurring in society that warrant prosecution. Companies are in need of computer laws being enforced. Corruption is without doubt a problem and when someone takes money for doing a specific official act, then prosecution is needed.
But being a nice guy and listening to constituents, trying to promote their businesses, and sticking to one's campaign slogan - "Bob's for Jobs" - should not be crime.
It was the last decision issued by the US Supreme Court this term, and an important one for many. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell's conviction (see here). It was a unanimous decision - a strong statement with which to end the Court's term. The key issue was what constitutes an "official act" to meet the bribery statute. The issue arose, as so many issues do, from the district court's giving of a jury instruction -
Chief Justice Roberts issued the 28 page decision vacating and remanding the lower court's decision -
- Setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or contacting officials - without more - is not an "official act".
- The Court uses a straightforward statutory definition analysis to define what constitutes an "official act".
- The precedent offered in Sun Diamond supports the Governor's arguments that "hosting an event, meeting with other officials, or speaking with interested parties is not, standing alone, a 'decision or action' within the meaning of section 201(a)(3), even if the event, meeting, or speech is related to a pending question or matter."
- "[S]omething more is required: section 201(a)(3) specifies that the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter or agree to do so."
- "[A]n 'official act' is a decision or action on a 'question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy."
- The government's "expansive interpretation" of what is an "official act" raises significant constitutional concerns.
- "[W]e cannot construe a criminal statute on the assumption that the Government will "use it responsibly."
- The Court notes three deficiencies in the district court's instructions from this case.
- The Court sends it back to the district court to determine if there is sufficient evidence to meet the Supreme Court's definition of "official act" and if the district court finds that there is - a new trial should be held using this standard.
More commentary to follow on whether this case should be retried. This case was tried by Hank Asbill (Jones Day).
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Elkan Abramowitz, one of the best and most-respected white collar crime defense practitioners in the nation, last week received the Robert Louis Cohen Award for Professional Excellence from the New York Criminal Bar Association. At the dinner at which he received the award, Mr. Abramowitz spoke thoughtfully about the pernicious effect of prosecutions of corporations, particularly on the rights corporate employees.
The recent focus on perceived corporate wrongdoing, he said, "has seriously impeded the rights of individual employees caught up in the web of ... corporate investigations." He pointed out that the "simple threat"of a corporate investigation has forced corporations "to conduct internal investigations upon any suspicion of wrongdoing" and, because corporations rarely, if ever, can risk going to trial, they will end up disclosing alleged criminality to the prosecutors to work out the best deal they can. The results as to the corporations themselves are non-prosecution or deferred prosecution agreements "which typically give the prosecutors much more power over the corporation than [they] would have if the corporation were actually convicted of a crime in court." The results as to corporate employees are at the insistence of prosecutors as a condition for a deal with the corporation that "the heads of individual employees be handed to them on a silver platter."
Mr. Abramowitz made a distinction between investigations by prosecutors who "hopefully most of the time" investigate without bias toward a particular result and corporations which in an internal investigation "are incentivized to find out and expose criminality." Thus, corporate employees are explicitly made to understand that if they refuse to testify they will be terminated and often told that their legal fees will not be paid if they chose to defend themselves." And, since these individuals accordingly sometimes choose not to hire counsel and to talk to internal investigators, the information presented to prosecutors by corporations often provides "more ammunition" than an investigation conducted by the FBI, police or another federal agency.
The results are, Mr. Abramowitz said, cases against individuals "that might never have been brought without the corporation's coercion." Thus, he believes, "Whatever social utility is believed to be served by this system,..this outsourcing of a purely governmental function is extremely dangerous and [causes] great injustices to individuals working in companies under investigation."
Mr. Abramowitz's observations of the systemic changes, most obviously the role of corporations and their special prosecutors (who, interestingly, he did not mention specifically) as quasi-prosecutors, are right on the mark. And, he is quite correct that the prosecution of individuals coerced into giving up their rights to silence and to counsel in response to their employer's demands "flies in the face of the restraining values of our society as expressed in the Bill of Rights." However, I suspect that most prosecutors and many others (including those liberals and others who like Bernie Sanders are still complaining that no individuals from the big institutions involved in the 2008 financial crisis were jailed) would not say that on balance the addition of corporations to those ferreting out financial crime is a negative one. After all, that addition presumably has or will result in more indictments, convictions, and jail sentences of individuals who have committed financial crimes. While I too bemoan the incursion into fundamental individual rights as a result of corporate prosecutions, I suspect Mr. Abramowitz and I are in the minority.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Yes, The Supreme Court's opinion here looks at whether RICO has extraterritorial application in the civil context. And in that regard it limits its extraterritorial application. But there is some important language in this opinion for both civil and criminal practitioners, especially since much of RICO is premised on a criminal statute, and all of RICO is located in Title 18, the Criminal Code.
- There has been much confusion as to whether one should look at the predicate acts or the enterprise in determining extraterritoriality and the Court provides significant guidance here.
- In deciding RICO's extraterritorial application, the Court divides it into two issues: a) "do RICO's substantive prohibitions, contained in sec. 1962, apply to conduct, that occurs in foreign countries;" b) "does RICO's private cause of action, contained in sec 1964(c) apply to injuries that are suffered in foreign countries?" It is this first issue that one needs to examine for criminal cases.
- The Court reaffirms in statutory construction the premise that there is "presumption against extraterritoriality."
- The Court describes the two-step process - "Morrison and Kiobel reflect a two-step framework for analyzing extraterritoriality issues. At the first step, we ask whether the presumption against extraterritoriality has been rebutted—that is, whether the statute gives a clear, affirmative indication that it applies extraterritorially. We must ask this question regardless of whether the statute in question regulates conduct, affords relief, or merely confers jurisdiction. If the statute is not extraterritorial, then at the second step we determine whether the case involves a domestic application of the statute, and we do this by looking to the statute’s 'focus.' If the conduct relevant to the statute’s focus occurred in the United States, then the case involves a permissible domestic application even if other conduct occurred abroad; but if the conduct relevant to the focus occurred in a foreign country, then the case involves an impermissible extraterritorial application regardless of any other conduct that occurred in U. S. territory."
- The Court says to look first at the predicate act, asking - is it one that applies extraterritorially ("Although a number of RICO predicates have extraterritorial effect, many do not.")
- With respect to 1962 (b) and (c) the Court states, "[w]e therefore conclude that RICO applies to some foreign racketeering activity. A violation of sec. 1962 may be based on a pattern of racketeering that includes predicate offenses committed abroad, provided that each of those offenses violates a predicate statute that is itself extraterritorial."
- With respect to 1962(a) the Court states, "arguably sec 1962(a) extends only to domestic uses of the income."
- In dicta, with respect to 1962(d), the conspiracy section, the Court states, "[w]e therefore decline to reach this issue, and assume without deciding that sec 1962(d)'s extraterritoriality tracks that of the provision underlying the alleged conspiracy."
- The Court is less focused on whether the enterprise element is domestically based. But it does note that "[e]nterprises whose activities lack that anchor to U.S. commerce cannot sustain a RICO conviction."
The language in this case provides important guidance for criminal practitioners on the extraterritoriality of RICO, and clearly it provides strong arguments that not all of RICO applies abroad.
The Supreme Court ruled today in Taylor v. United States, examining the interstate commerce element of the Hobbs Act. Although it provided a broad interpretation, it limited the decision to "cases in which the defendant targets drug dealers for the purpose of stealing drugs or proceeds." The Court explicitly states that it "did not resolve what the Government must prove to establish Hobbs Act robbery where some other type of business or victim is targeted."
A strong dissent by Justice Thomas argued that there should be a showing that the "defendant's robbery itself affected interstates commerce."
What this opinion means for white collar cases is that a strict interpretation of interstate commerce should be argued in these cases, with a requirement that there be a showing beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused acts affected interstate commerce.
Monday, June 13, 2016
A few weeks ago, in United States v Nesbeth (15 CR-18, EDNY, May 24, 2016) Judge Frederic Block wrote an important opinion on the effect of post-conviction collateral consequences on one convicted of a felony, and as a result of such consequences imposed a one-year probation sentence on a woman convicted of importing cocaine. He wrote that "sufficient attention has not been paid at sentencing by me and lawyers - both prosecutors and defense counsel - as well as by the Probation Department to the collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant." He went on to a history of collateral consequences, efforts at reform, and the breadth of post-conviction statutory and regulatory collateral consequences. He noted the "broad range of collateral consequences that serve no useful purpose other than to punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences."
The opinion is a call for reform, for mitigation of sentences because of such additional punishment, and for increased awareness of collateral consequences by all participants in the sentencing process. Judge Block specifically called for probation officers "to assess and apprise the court, prior to sentencing, of the likely collateral consequences facing a convicted defendant."
Judge Block recognized an apparent Circuit split as to whether collateral consequences may be a mitigating factor in sentencing. The Sixth, Seventh, Tenth and Eleventh Circuit seemingly have found that collateral consequences may not be considered, while the Second and Fourth Circuits appear to have found that they may. I believe that under 18 USC 3553(a) they may, especially when atypical, be considered.
White-collar defendants obviously face not only the usual collateral consequences applicable to all convicted felons, but often also special ones such as loss of licenses or other professional bars. I personally have had limited success in appealing to judges to mitigate sentences against white-collar defendants because of collateral consequences. Many judges feel that that to consider those factors would favor the rich and well-educated over the poor and less-educated. To be sure, as Judge Block's opinion demonstrates, the poor and less-educated too suffer from such collateral consequences.
Defense lawyers should, as Judge Block writes, be aware of such consequences in order to set them forth as mitigating factors at sentencing. Such knowledge is also necessary to inform defendants of these consequences so that they may make an educated decision whether to plead guilty. As indicated by the flurry of defendants who have claimed they were unaware that their guilty pleas would subject them to deportation, lawyers historically may not have focused on collateral consequences.
When I first read the Baylor University Board of Regents FINDINGS OF FACT, it was immediately obvious that these were not factual findings at all, not in any sense that lawyers would recognize. They were normative conclusions almost completely unsupported by detailed facts, particularly with respect to the individuals who have been publicly shamed by the Board. Say what you will about Pepper Hamilton's report on the Penn State Jerry Sandusky debacle, that report at least contained a detailed, chronological factual narrative. Not so with Baylor's findings, which were promulgated by the Regents under Pepper Hamilton's guidance. Want to find out what Ken Starr did to warrant removal? His name is nowhere mentioned in the findings. Is Starr mentioned by title? Yes, the President and Chancellor are referenced exactly three times. "A Special Committee of the Board of Regents, on behalf of the University, accepted the President and Chancellor’s recommendation to engage Pepper in order to ensure objectivity, and Pepper was provided with unfettered access to personnel and data." Wow. What an indictment! It was Starr who recommended, almost immediately after learning about Baylor's problems, that Pepper Hamilton be hired in the first place. "Pepper interviewed witnesses across multiple departments, including the President’s Office..." There you go! Fire the bastard! Pepper Hamilton was given unfettered access to his office. How about Coach Art Briles? Surely his dastardly deeds would be dealt with in the findings. But Briles is not mentioned by name or by his Head Coach title. There are six references to "coaches" in the Findings, but no way of telling if Briles is one of them or even knew or approved of what the others did.
So I was all set to call for releasing the real report, the Pepper Hamilton Report of Internal Investigation. You know what I'm talking about, right? The report that law firms produce after conducting internal investigations of purported misconduct for companies and other entities? The kind of report that companies typically do NOT release except to DOJ, but that universities, such as Penn state, do? But then I read the Board of Regents' Statement posted on Baylor's website and realized that there is no report! That's right folks, the Board met with Pepper Hamilton from time to time and was "updated" with factual findings. "Over the course of the investigation, a special committee of the Board of Regents was periodically updated on Pepper's work. Additionally, in early May, Pepper presented their findings of fact and recommendations to Board leadership in Philadelphia and was onsite to brief the full Board during its May meeting in Waco. While no written report has been prepared, the Findings of Fact reflect the thorough briefings provided by Pepper and fully communicates the need for immediate action to remedy past harms, to provide accountability for University administrators and to make significant changes that can no longer wait." Translation: the Pepper Hamilton investigation was structured in such a way that no written report would be generated. This was obviously done for reasons of litigation and public relations strategy.
Now the Baylor Board can pretend that it has issued detailed findings admitting its sins in the interest of transparency. It isn't true. There is not one fact in the findings justifying the firing of Starr, or even Briles for that matter. There isn't any information about any improprieties that may or may not have been committed by Board members themselves. The conflict of interest here is palpable, as the Board is currently being sued and can probably expect more suits in the future. Do we really think that no member of the Board ever intervened in any manner in Baylor's athletic programs?
There is only one action the Baylor Board can take to assure its students and alumni that the full facts of the scandal, and the justifications for the Board's actions and inactions in the wake of its findings, are set out for all to see. Release the factual materials actually presented to the Board and/or its subcommittee by Pepper Hamilton, with appropriate redactions to protect any victims. Release all interview summaries. Release all PowerPoint presentations. In the alternative, Pepper Hamilton can be directed to draft the report it should have done in the first place. Only then can the Baylor Board say that it has come clean.