Thursday, September 29, 2016
In white collar cases, prosecutors often stress the signs or "indicia" of fraud inherent in a given defendant's conduct. In the FBI/DOJ investigation of Secretary Clinton we have several signs of incompetence and/or highly irregular conduct on the part of those in charge. The one that stands out most clearly to anyone who practices white collar criminal defense was the decision to allow Cheryl Mills to attend Secretary Clinton's FBI interview. Competent prosecutors do not allow a key witness to participate as an attorney in an FBI interview of the main subject. It just isn't done. It isn't a close question. It is Baby Prosecution 101. Director Comey's attempt to justify this decision during yesterday's House Judiciary Committee Oversight Hearing was disingenuous and disgraceful. According to Comey, the FBI has no power to control which attorney the subject of an investigation chooses to represent her during an interview. This is literally true, but irrelevant and misleading. Prosecutors, not FBI agents, run investigations. Any competent prosecutor faced with the prospect of Ms. Mills's attendance at Secretary Clinton's interview would have informed Clinton's attorneys that this was obviously unacceptable and that, if Clinton insisted on Mills's attendance, the interview would be conducted under the auspices of the federal grand jury. At the grand jury, Secretary Clinton would not have enjoyed the right to her attorney's presence in the grand jury room during questioning. In the event Clinton brought Ms. Mills along to stand outside the grand jury room for purposes of consultation, competent prosecutors would have gone to the federal judge supervising the grand jury and attempted to disqualify Ms. Mills. In all likelihood, such an attempt would have been successful. But of course, it never would have gotten that far, because Secretary Clinton will do anything to avoid a grand jury appearance. So, Director Comey's response was a classic dodge, one of several that he perpetrated during yesterday's hearing. As noted above, the decision to allow Ms. Mills to attend Secretary Clinton's FBI interview was only the clearest example to date of irregular procedures sanctioned by the prosecutors in charge of the Clinton email investigation. More to come on that in a subsequent post.
Monday, September 26, 2016
In the recently-released hit movie "Sully," about a pilot who landed a disabled US Airways plane on the Hudson River after its engines hit a flock of geese shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport, the film's heroes, Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger lll (the "Sully" of the title), played by Tom Hanks, and the co-pilot Jeff Skiles, played by Aaron Eckhart, worry that the agency investigating the water landing, the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") will publicly criticize them for making a dangerous water landing rather than just turning around and returning to LaGuardia. In the movie, the agents appear adversarial and close-minded and looking to blame the pilots based on simulated tests and preliminary expert evaluation.
NTSB released a statement regretting that the filmmakers had not asked it to review the film before its release, and the now-retired leader of the NTSB inquiry complained that the film unfairly characterized the agency as prosecutorial. According to the New York Times (Negroni, "'Sully is Latest Historical Film to Prompt Off-Screen Drama" Sept. 9, 2016), the NTSB maintained that its investigations are primarily meant to understand how humans and machines fail to prevent accidents, and not to blame individuals. (Later that week, however, the NTSB strongly criticized the pilot and crew of a Delta airplane that had skidded off a LaGuardia runway).
While "true story" films often veer from accuracy, as this one apparently did, one of the film producers denied that the film took creative license as to the pilots' fears, saying that the film was told through the perspectives of the pilots, who felt under "extreme scrutiny." And, Mr. Sullenberger, in an e-mail to the Times, wrote that the film accurately reflects his state of mind. "For those who are the focus of the investigation, the focus of it is immense," he wrote, and that the investigative process was "inherently adversarial, with professional reputations absolutely in the balance."
The contrasting viewpoints of the former NTSB investigator and its investigatee, Mr. Sullenberger, demonstrates the not uncommon disconnect in perception between how those who investigate and those who are investigated. Investigators view their behavior, even if aggressive and apparently hostile, as just rightfully doing their jobs. Those being investigated, no matter how innocent or blameless they might be, often feel that the investigators are biased and out to get them, regardless of their blameworthiness or lack of it.
To be sure, investigators often believe that an aggressive, hostile, unbelieving manner is a good way to reach the truth. Those being questioned often view that type of investigation and interrogation as a means to reach a predetermined result regardless of its accuracy.
Investigators - and I include criminal prosecutors - often lack sensitivity to how those they investigate perceive them or the psychological toll their investigations take. They rarely understand, in Sully's words, "the [immense] intensity " that affects an individual, including the innocent. Investigators virtually never take into consideration how heart-wrenching, all-consuming and destructive an investigation may be to an individual when they determine whether and how to investigate. They generally believe, and judges rarely disagree, they (and especially the grand juries prosecutors nominally act for) have an absolute right to investigate and question (with some constitutional and statutory restraints) anyone. In the movie, and in real life, the investigation consumed and heavily worried the pilots, members of a profession known for calm and equanimity. One would expect people in other walks of life to be more affected.
I do not suggest that prosecutors or agencies forego investigations if based on reasonable suspicion or another more than insubstantial basis. I do suggest, however, in instances where there is little factual or other basis to suggest wrongdoing by an individual, that prosecutors and agencies consider the human cost and anguish an investigation or the manner in which it will be conducted may cause the person being investigated or interrogated.
As a young lawyer just out of a prosecutor's office, I worked for a state investigative commission with subpoena power. Its chair, a prominent Wall Street lawyer and former bar association president, was hesitant to issue subpoenas to individuals without a substantial basis to believe there was wrongdoing, a hesitancy which bothered its ex-prosecutor lawyers (including me), who used to issue subpoenas like street vendors issue flyers. As Sully's situation suggests, some hesitancy in starting investigations, issuing subpoenas or harshly interrogating witnesses based on how it would affect the individuals involved may be appropriate.
Monday, September 12, 2016
I agree with my colleague Prof. Podgor that DOJ made the "right decision" to drop the prosecution of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell. Under the narrow definition of "official act" given by the Supreme Court a re-prosecution was doomed. I further agree with Prof. Podgor that McDonnell's legal team, led by Hank Asbill and Noel Francisco, deserves plaudits for its determined and outstanding lawyering.
I do not, however, criticize DOJ for bringing this case. McDonnell's acts - accepting $175,000 in money and gifts in exchange for favorable treatment for the donor - although ultimately determined not to be "official acts" and thus not criminal, were unseemly and corrupt. That the Commonwealth of Virginia, in its wisdom or lack of it, chose not to criminalize such activity to me was a reason for federal prosecution, not for abstention. To be sure, the government should have been aware that there was Supreme Court case law arguably undermining its position. On balance, the egregiousness of McDonnell's conduct, I believe, justified a prosecution, even if it "pushed the envelope."
The McDonnell decision will allow federal prosecutions of politicians accepting things of value for favorable votes or actions on legislation or favorable decisions awarding governmental appointments, contracts and benefits, the areas within which most corruption cases fall. It will, however, eliminate or preclude almost any prosecution for payments to officials for access, referrals and introductions, allowing donors an advantage over non-payers. "Pay-for-play" systems do not guarantee winning a contract, but do allow one to be among those considered - a giant and necessary step. Thus, the decision will, like Citizens United, most benefit the rich, powerful and politically-connected.
I, like many others, was surprised by the unanimity of the court. Although I am no expert on Supreme Court internal politicking, I suspect some justices might have gone along with the decision to prevent a broader decision which would have greatly limited, or even eliminated, federal prosecutions of state and local corruption, either by finding the term "official acts" constitutionally void for vagueness, or on federalism grounds. In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts mentioned, but did not rule on, both considerations.
I cannot dismiss an undiscussed "elephant in the room," alluded to by Prof. Podgor. The American election system commonly allows campaign contributions to be rewarded by at the least access to elected and appointed officials. It is extremely doubtful whether McDonnell would have been prosecuted for accepting campaign contributions and rewarding the donor with access to state officials. It seems to me extremely difficult to make a lawful/unlawful distinction between situations involving gifts to politicians for their personal use, as in McDonnell, and those involving gifts to politicians for campaign purposes. Absent such a distinction, an affirmance of McDonnell might have led to cases concerning campaign contributions, which might have led to an upheaval in campaign financing practices generally accepted in America. Thus, it is not surprising that a host of former Counsels to the President and Attorneys General submitted amicus briefs in support of McDonnell, a fact noted with apparent respect in the opinion.
Lastly, I wonder whether the Court was wary of allowing federal prosecutors expansive power to prosecute political officeholders. There is always a danger - at least theoretical - that a prosecutor will misuse her power to indict political opponents, as is not infrequently done in foreign nations, and perhaps occasionally done in the United States. It may well be that the case should be considered primarily as a limitation of prosecutorial and executive branch power.
Thursday, September 8, 2016
As noted here by Solomon Wisenberg, DOJ moved to remand the case against Robert F. McDonnell to the district court in order to dismiss the indictment with prejudice. Many in the media have reported about this dismissal (e.g., Washington Post here, USA Today here) The Washington Post states that this results from a "new legal definition" being given to public corruption (Washington Post). While others criticize the Supreme Court with comments such as "[w]e are now seeing that the Supreme Court's decision will in fact result in corrupt conduct going unpunished, just as we feared it would." See Statement here - Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
But some media and critics are missing the point here. The McDonnell decision was not a close call - it was a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court. There were no dissents.
This is not a case that puts a stop to prosecuting bribery and extortion cases. The law clearly allows such prosecutions and there have been many such prosecutions without reversals.
The McDonnell case was one we see too many times, where prosecutors push the envelope and prosecute conduct that does not meet the statute. And Hank Asbill, Noel Francisco, and the rest of McDonnell's legal team did a wonderful job showing this.
Elected officials who corruptly take money or items of value for an official act can be prosecuted. And prosecutors need to focus on bringing cases that meet the language of this statute. But the receipt of money or items of value alone are not a crime. If a politician's merely taking money is considered to be a crime, then politicians would be unable to accept any campaign contributions. And although many may find this result good - it is not the law.
So, DOJ should be applauded for making the right decision here. Spending more time or money on a case that does not meet the legal mandates is a poor choice of how to spend limited resources. What is particularly outstanding on the part of DOJ here is that they issued a press release stating, ""[a]fter carefully considering the Supreme Court's recent decision and the principles of federal prosecution, we have made the decision not to pursue the case further."
It is rare that DOJ issues a press release noting a not guilty verdict, a court dismissal, or something other than an indictment or conviction. It is hopeful that what DOJ has done with the McDonnell case, of issuing a statement of dismissal, will be replicated in non-white collar cases.
It's now official. Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen will not be retried and all charges are to be dropped. The Washington Post has the story here. It is unclear whether Main Justice overruled the EDVA or caused that office to change its mind regarding proceeding to a second trial. More analysis to come.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Finally, as promised, here is the U.S. v. Reddy Annappareddy 9-1-16 Motion to Dismiss Hearing Transcript. At the conclusion of that hearing Judge George Levi Russell dismissed the Indictment with prejudice. Judge Russell's rationale for his ruling can be found at pages 49-62 of the transcript. This was a health care fraud case and a core government theory was that Mr. Annappareddy received Medicaid reimbursement for pills that were never given to patients. The government sought to prove its theory by showing that Mr. Annappareddy's pharmacies billed for more pills than they received. The most significant evidence that the prosecutors offered in support of this allegation was a calculation of the purported “loss” from the alleged fraud. The following factors were key to the Court's finding that the government committed due process violations that shocked the conscience and rendered it impossible to put Mr. Annappareddy back on an even footing with the government: 1) the government violated Brady by failing to disclose loss calculations from its initial auditing team that were significantly smaller (in total and with respect to two key pharmacies) than the calculations of a subsequent government auditor who testified at trial; 2) the government violated Brady by failing to disclose the risk of double-counting errors in the loss calculations; 3) the government presented false testimony regarding the loss calculations due to double counting errors; 4) the government presented false testimony by a government agent, based on her examination of the wrong set of phone records, that Mr. Annappareddy had NOT made any calls to a key individual in response to a material email from that individual, when in fact Annappareddy had several phone contacts with the individual within minutes of the material email; and 5) the government destroyed potentially key exculpatory evidence without a court order or the defense's permission. The Court also sent a not so subtle warning to the government: "In the event that my record is not clear or exercise of my discretion too broad, this Court will conduct an extensive time-consuming and costly hearing as to these matters and the other grounds supporting the motion to dismiss and other motions which have already been filed. To that end, the balance of all other motions in this case are denied as moot." Translation: If you appeal this ruling and I am reversed, we will delve in detail into the other grounds of error raised by the defense. And it will not be a pleasant process. Hat Tip to David Debold of Gibson Dunn for sending along the transcript.
Thursday, September 1, 2016
The case against Reddy Annappareddy is over. The Government's case has been dismissed with prejudice by U.S. District Court Judge George Russell because of a pattern of government misconduct that shocks the conscience. As soon as I obtain a copy of today's hearing transcript we will post it. Congratulations are in order for Mr. Annappareddy and his Womble Carlyle defense team of Mark Schamel and Josh Greenberg. Greenberg's relentless motions work over the past 11 months has been particularly brilliant. Anybody who does white collar work in the federal courts knows how difficult it is to obtain a result like this, post-trial. This is a magnificent victory.
As we write this post U.S. District Court Judge George Russell is holding a hearing on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss with prejudice. I have previously discussed this case here and here. The motion is bottomed on various alleged prosecutorial errors and misdeeds. In a bad omen for the Government, Judge Russell only set arguments on the Motion to Dismiss (despite the pendency of other motions) and summarily denied the Government's motion to delay the hearing. The Government wanted a delay in the wake of an onslaught of defense motions, authored by Womble Carlyle's Josh Greenberg, alleging additional Government misbehavior, including destruction of potentially exculpatory evidence at a time when the Defendant's Motion for New Trial was filed and awaiting a decision. The Government later joined in the Motion for New Trial after admitting that it presented false material testimony to the jury. Meanwhile, in a filing that can only be described as stunning, the Government yesterday attempted to defend its admitted document destruction. Here lies the Government's Response Re Document Destruction.