Tuesday, November 28, 2023
On December 8, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to grant the Petition for Writ of Certiorari in United States v. James Snyder, a case out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. There is a split in the federal circuit courts over the question of whether 18 U.S.C. Section 666 criminalizes gratuities as well as bribes. The majority of circuits have held that 666 criminalizes both bribes and gratuities. A minority of circuits have held that the statute only criminalizes bribes. The case has enormous implications for the federal prosecution of public corruption at the state and local level in the United States. Attached are the relevant filings by the government and the defense, plus a brilliant amicus brief filed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Wednesday, November 15, 2023
Today Hunter Biden's lawyers filed a Motion for Pretrial Issuance of Subpoenas Duces Tecum, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 17(c)(1), to Donald Trump, William Barr, Jeffrey Rosen, and Richard Donoghue. The proposed subpoenas demand documents relating to decisions involving the investigation or prosecution of Hunter Biden in both the Trump and Biden Administrations. The defense maintains that the documents are highly likely to be relevant to its contention that the Hunter Biden Indictment is an example of a constitutionally impermissible vindictive or selective prosecution. Defendants are entitled under the Sixth Amendment to present a defense and to compulsory production of witnesses and documents in aid of that right. Here is the motion. U.S. v. Hunter Biden - Defense Motion for Issuance of Subpoenas Duces Tecum Pursuant to Rule 17(c) and Memorandum in Support.
Wednesday, November 8, 2023
On Friday afternoon, November 2, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted an administrative stay of Judge Chutkan's 10-17-23 Gag Order in U.S. v. Trump. The Court was careful to point out that, "[t]he purpose of this administrative stay is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the emergency motion for a stay pending appeal and should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion." In other words, the Court issued an administrative stay while considering, on an expedited basis, Trump's Motion for a Stay of the Gag Order pending appeal of that Order. The granting of the administrative stay did not involve any analysis of the likelihood of Trump's ultimate success on the merits of the Gag Order. Trump's brief on the Motion for Stay Pending Appeal is due today, 11-8-23, as is the Joint Appendix. The Government's Response is due 11-14-23. Trump's Reply is due 11-17-23. Oral argument is set for 11-20-23.
Here is the Circuit Court's Friday Order Granting an Administrative Stay. U.S. v. Donald Trump - U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. Order Granting Administrative Stay of Trump Gag Order.
Stay tuned for more.
Saturday, July 8, 2023
How To Think About The Hunter Biden Whistleblowers’ Disclosures And The Hunter Biden Plea Agreement. Part I.
There are three key elements to the recent disclosures by IRS Criminal Investigation Division whistleblowers concerning the DOJ’s criminal investigation of Hunter Biden: 1) the false and/or conflicting statements by Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss and Attorney General Merrick Garland about the degree of authority and independence conferred upon Weiss by DOJ; 2) the alleged efforts of Delaware AUSAs and DOJ Tax Division prosecutors to slow-walk the case and block or delay avenues of investigation; and 3) the alleged underlying criminal conduct of Hunter Biden.
Let’s start with the false and/or conflicting statements by Garland and Weiss. AG Garland has repeatedly made public statements, sometimes sworn, indicating that Trump-appointed Delaware U.S. Attorney Weiss had (and still has) complete independence and authority to bring charges against Hunter Biden in any federal district where venue might lie, free of political interference. Note that there is a difference between being able to run your investigation free of political interference and having the authority to bring charges in a federal district outside of Delaware. You can give Weiss all of the freedom to investigate he wants and still deny him the ability to bring charges in the District of Columbia or the Central District of California. But Garland recently reiterated that Weiss had (and has), “complete authority to make all decisions on his own,” had, “more authority than a special counsel,” and was “authorized to bring a case anywhere he wants in his discretion.” Garland has also stressed that Weiss never came to him asking for special counsel authority.
But here is a key contradictory fact we now know, thanks to the transcribed interview of IRS-CID Supervisory Special Agent (“SSA”) Gary Shapley, a/k/a Whistleblower #1 and the documents Shapley provided. Delaware U.S. Attorney Weiss told a roomful of IRS and FBI special agents and DOJ attorneys, on October 7, 2022, "that he is not the deciding person on whether charges are filed." He then revealed that, months before, he had sought and been denied the authority to bring felony tax evasion charges against Hunter Biden in the District of Columbia by District of Columbia U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves. Weiss further told the agents at the same October 7, 2022, meeting that he had requested special counsel status from Main Justice in order to bring charges in the District of Columbia but had been rebuffed. (Weiss also told the agents and prosecutors in the October meeting that the case was then at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California awaiting its decision on whether to file. He stated that if CDCAL rejected his request he would go to Main Justice again to ask for special counsel status.)
Weiss’s October 7, 2022, statement to the roomful of agents and prosecutors is clearly at odds with Garland’s public comments that Weiss had all the authority he needed to bring charges in any federal district. Garland has not indicated how he conferred this authority on Weiss. Was it reflected in a written authorization giving Weiss special attorney status under 28 USC §515(a)? Was it orally conveyed? If orally conveyed, did Garland merely invite Weiss to ask in the future for any authority he needed? Is this all a shell game in which Weiss asked Deputy Attorney General (“DAG”) Lisa Monaco for special attorney or special counsel status which she rebuffed and never reported to Garland?
Weiss’s June 7, 2023, letter to Congressman Jim Jordan, purported, “to make clear that, as the Attorney General has stated, I have been granted ultimate authority over this matter, including responsibility for deciding where, when, and whether to file charges and for making decisions necessary to preserve the integrity of the prosecution, consistent with federal law, the Principles of Federal Prosecution, and Department regulations.” This statement had to be clarified once the Shapley transcript and supporting documentation were released to the public. So on June 30, 2023, Weiss wrote again to Jordan, setting out his geographically limited charging authority but noting his ability to request special attorney status under 28 U.S.C. § 515 in the event that a U.S. Attorney in another federal district does not want to partner with him on a case. Then the kicker: “Here, I have been assured that, if necessary after the above process, I would be granted § 515 Authority in the District of Columbia, the Central District of California, or any other district where charges could be brought in this matter.” Translation? I never asked Main Justice for special attorney status or authority. But if Weiss was being truthful in his June 30, 2023 letter to Jordan, he certainly lied to federal agents on October 7, 2022 when he told them that he had asked for special counsel authority to bring the Hunter Biden case in the District of Columbia and been denied.
Honest prosecutors running a legitimate criminal investigation do not need to lie to their case agents or prevaricate in their public pronouncements. And Garland surely realizes that his public statements to date, for whatever reason, have left a misleading impression. Yet he has done noting to get to the bottom of what happened. It’s time for him to lance the boil. More to come in Parts II and III.
July 8, 2023 in Corruption, Current Affairs, Fraud, Government Reports, Grand Jury, Investigations, Legal Ethics, Money Laundering, Privileges, Prosecutions, Prosecutors, Tax | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, January 5, 2023
Congratulations to Dr. Lesly Pompy, acquitted on all counts (illegal distribution and health care fraud) on January 4, 2023, in the Eastern District of Michigan. Kudos as well to his outstanding team of defense lawyers, Ronald Chapman II (Chapman Law Group), Joe Richotte (Butzel Long), and George Donnini (Butzel Long). Here is a recap from Ron's Federal Defense Blog. Attached below is Defendant's Proposed Jury Instruction. The proposed illegal distribution charge should serve as a model for other defense attorneys practicing in this area.
I don't yet have a copy of the district court's final jury instruction, but will post it as soon as it becomes available on PACER.
This is one of several post-Ruan acquittals that have come down in the last six months. In each of these cases the government's evidence was weak and the strengthened scienter requirement established in Ruan v. United States no doubt played a major role in facilitating the not guilty verdicts.
Sunday, January 1, 2023
Last June, in the consolidated cases of Ruan v. United States and Kahn v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the mens rea required to convict a physician charged with illegal distribution of narcotics under the Controlled Substances Act. The Court held that: "After a defendant produces evidence that he or she was authorized to dispense controlled substances, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew that he or she was acting in an unauthorized manner, or intended to do so." A health care professional acts in an authorized manner under statute's controlling regulation when he or she acts in the "usual course of professional practice for a legitimate medical purpose." The vote was 9-0 on the need to reverse the judgments of the 11th Circuit (in Ruan) and the 10th Circuit (in Kahn), because both courts "evaluated the jury instructions under an incorrect understanding of [Title 18 U.S. Code] §841's scienter requirements," but the vote was 6-3 on the majority's specific holding. Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas and, far the most part, Justice Barrett, concurred in the result only. They did not join the majority's holding that, once the defendant meets the burden of producing any evidence that he or she was authorized to write prescriptions, the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to act, or knew he or she was acting, "in an unauthorized manner" falls on the government. But all nine Justices agreed that at least a portion of the jury instructions in each trial were defective because they injected objective reasonableness requirements into their good faith definitions. The Court sent the cases back to their respective circuits to determine, under the correct scienter requirements, whether: 1) the offense instructions as a whole were correct as a matter of law, and 2) whether any error in the instructions was harmless.
The supplemental briefs and replies have now been filed in each case, and are attached below. In Ruan, the harmless error analysis is complicated by the defendant's conviction on counts other than illegal distribution. In Kahn, a key focus of the government and defense briefs is the difference, if any, between knowingly or intentionally acting in an unauthorized manner (that is, outside the usual course of professional practice without a legitimate medical purpose) and knowingly or intentionally acting outside or beneath the relevant standard of care. The government maintains that there is no difference between the two concepts, which is an extremely doubtful position in light of the language and reasoning of both the majority and concurring opinions. This issue is really the elephant in the room in the post-Ruan/Kahn world. The Supreme Court originally granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split, but a split still exists, because some circuit courts have long approved instructions equating standard of care with authorized practice, while others have held that an intentional violation of the standard of care is not the same as acting with no legitimate medical purpose outside the scope of a medical practice. Attached below are the briefs on remand in Ruan and Kahn.
Shakeel Kahn's Supplemental Brief on Remand U.S. v. Shakeel Kahn-Government's Supplemental Brief on Remand U.S. v. Shakeel Kahn-Appellant's Supplemental Reply Brief Ruan Supplemental Brief on Remand Ruan and Couch Supplemental Brief of Appellee United States Ruan CA11 Supplemental Reply Brief on Remand (10.13 final)
Saturday, October 8, 2022
Last June, in the consolidated cases of Ruan v. United States and Kahn v. United States (hereinafter Ruan) the U.S. Supreme Court considered the mens rea required to convict a physician charged with illegal distribution of narcotics under the Controlled Substances Act. The Court held as follows: "After a defendant produces evidence that he or she was authorized to dispense controlled substances, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew that he or she was acting in an unauthorized manner, or intended to do so." The stunningly broad ruling was 9-0 on the final outcome, but 6-3 on the majority's reasoning. Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas and, far the most part, Justice Barrett, concurred in the result only. They did not join the majority's holding that, once the defendant meets the burden of producing any evidence that he or she was authorized to write prescriptions, the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to act, or knew he or she was acting, "in an unauthorized manner" falls on the government. But all nine Justices agreed that at least a portion of the jury instructions in each trial were defective because they injected objective reasonableness requirements into their good faith definitions. It is too early to predict with any certainty how the case law will develop in the post-Ruan world. Never underestimate the willingness of individual U.S. Attorney offices to find ways around inconvenient Supreme Court opinions. The convictions of Dr. Ruan and Dr. Kahn were not even overturned. Instead, the appellate judgments were vacated and the cases were sent back to their respective Courts of Appeals to determine whether the faulty instructions were harmless.
But here are some recent developments. In United States v. Bothra, et al. an Eastern District of Michigan case that went to the jury the very day Ruan came out, all Defendants were acquitted on all counts, 54 in total. In U.S. v. Given, in the Northern District of Florida, the lone Defendant was acquitted on all 33 counts. It should be noted that the government's evidence in each case was weak.
In United States v. Kim, in the Western District of Oklahoma, the the court granted the government's motion to dismiss without prejudice. The government seemed to concede that, in light of Ruan, the Indictment was defective.
Finally, in United States v. Brian August, a case in which I represented the Defendant, the United States filed, and the trial court promptly granted, a Motion to Dismiss, conceding that, among other things, the case could not go forward under the Ruan standard.
While these are promising signs, the dust has not yet begun to settle on post-Ruan developments. As I will explain in subsequent posts, the Ruan opinion leaves many questions unanswered. Is a physician-Defendant entitled to a subjective good faith instruction or no good faith instruction? Does the Defendant meet his or her burden of presentation merely by showing that he/she is authorized to prescribe narcotics? Must the government prove that a physician-Defendant had no legitimate medical purpose for his/her prescription and that he/she was operating outside the usual course of his/her medical practice or only one of these two factors? What should a proper jury instruction look like?
I will be posting more on these issues in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Wednesday, July 6, 2022
The Fourth Circuit has affirmed the wire fraud conviction of Communique founder Andrew Powers. The opinion is here. Powers argued that the Indictment failed to properly allege venue, because it did not specify where each alleged fraudulent wire and mailing were sent from or received. The Fourth Circuit held, unsurprisingly, that the general allegation of venue lying in the EDVA was all that was required to defeat a motion to dismiss for failure to allege venue. No more detail was required in the charging instrument.
Saturday, July 2, 2022
The Supreme Court accepted two cases that provide questions related to how to interpret current fraud statutes, specifically mail and wire fraud.
In Percoco v. United States, the question presented is "[d]oes a private citizen who holds no elected office or government employment, but has informal political or other influence over governmental decisionmaking, owe a fiduciary duty to the general public such that he can be convicted of honest-services fraud?" (see here).
In the second case, Ciminelli v. United States, the question presented is " "[w]hether the Second Circuit's "right to control" theory of fraud-which treats the deprivation of complete and accurate information bearing on a person's economic decision as a species of property fraud states a valid basis for liability under the federal wire fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1343. (see here)
These cases offer an opportunity to the Court to provide better clarity to "honest services" fraud and also to how the "right to control" theory may apply. The decisions could affect a wide range of cases, such as those that are part of the Varsity Blues prosecutions. Leaving fraud as a "stop-gap device" until particularized legislation, is not the way to proceed with criminal prosecutions that could result in years of incarceration. It is time to provide clarity as to what is criminal and what is not when it comes to fraud related offenses. We don't need a statute for every imaginable type of fraud (e.g., we don't need a Beanie Baby fraud statute here). But we do need clarity in the areas of honest services fraud and the right to control. Mail fraud was an 1872 statute and even with its 1909 amendment, more is clearly needed.
See my prior article on Criminal Fraud here.
(esp)(h/t Peter Goldberger)
Wednesday, June 29, 2022
After a three-week trial, and only one full day of deliberations, a federal jury in Greenbelt, MD acquitted Kasandra Vilchez-Duarte and Donnie Amis on all counts of an indictment charging conspiracies to defraud Medicaid and violate the Anti-Kickback statute. Congratulations to the defense teams: Federal Defenders Maggie Grace & Ned Smock on behalf of Ms. Vilchez-Duarte, as well as John McNichols & Allie Eisen (Williams & Connolly) and Eugene Gorokhov (Burnham & Gorokhov) on behalf of Mr. Amis.
Monday, June 27, 2022
We have posted several times over the past year about the consolidated cases of Ruan v. United States and Kahn v. United States, pending at the U.S. Supreme Court this term. The cases involved the level of scienter required to convict doctors of illegal distribution of Schedule II Narcotics under the Controlled Substances Act. The opinion in Ruan v. U.S. and Kahn v. U.S. is now out and it is even better than most of us thought it would be. "After a defendant produces evidence that he or she was authorized to dispense controlled substances, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew that he or she was acting in an unauthorized manner, or intended to do so." The ruling was 9-0 on the final outcome, but 6-3 on the majority's reasoning. Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas and, far the most part, Justice Barrett, concurred in the result only. They did not join the majority's holding that, once the defendant meets the burden of production, the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt shifts back to the government. All nine Justices agreed that the jury instructions in the two trials were defective because they injected objective reasonableness requirements into their good faith instructions. Many issues remain to be resolved in these Pain Doctor cases, but the victory here is truly sweeping. Doctors have been convicted nationwide over the past several years under what amounts, in many circuits, to a civil malpractice/negligence standard. Those days now appear to be gone.
Monday, June 13, 2022
SDNY Judge Analisa Torres granted a mistrial last week in the federal fraud trial against "We Build A Wall" Defendant Timothy Shea. On June 2, 11 of the jurors sent a note to the judge, asking that a 12th juror be dismissed because he allegedly refused to deliberate, based on what appeared to be his Trumpian political comments and bias. The hold-out denied the charges, and accused his fellow jurors of liberal political bias. Judge Torres questioned the juror on the record, but in private away from the public and the other jurors. According to the New York Times account, "she asked whether the juror had 'biases or personal views' that would prevent him from being 'fair and impartial,' whether he could determine facts subject to her explanation of the law and whether he could consult with other jurors. The juror replied no to the first question and yes to the second two." Judge Torres declined to kick the hold-out off the jury, gave a modified Allen charge, and told the jury to continue deliberations. By Tuesday they were at a total impasse and a mistrial was declared. Shea's counsel, John Meringolo had already filed a motion for mistrial, based on Judge Torres' modification of the Allen charge and the 11 jurors' alleged breach of jury secrecy when the jury note revealed their numerical division. It doesn't look like Judge Torres ever ruled on that motion. She didn't need to, once the jury reached a total impasse.
Recall that the case concerned the alleged fraudulent diversion of funds solicited under the premise of finishing then-President Trump's wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Shea allegedly conspired with others, including former Trump advisor Steve Bannon who was pardoned by Trump. Venue could have been had in a number of jurisdictions, but the prosecutors chose SDNY. Gee. I wonder why. So did the 12th juror. Was the 12th juror truly refusing to deliberate or was he simply unconvinced of Shea's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. According to the Times, the other jurors spoke of the hold-out's refusal, "to deliberate based on evidence." Hmmm. Does that mean the evidence as they saw it, but not the hold-out? You can see the danger in dismissing hold-outs in this context, particularly in a politically charged case. Any 11 could complain about the hold-out's recalcitrance and "refusal to deliberate." Was there truly a "refusal to deliberate" or 11 bullies ganging up on a principled hold-out? We'll never know of course. The Second Circuit law is very clear on this issue. Once the hold-out answered Judge Torres's questions in the manner he did, he could not be removed. Under United States v. Thomas, 116 F.3d 606, 608 (2nd. Cir. 1997), a juror can be dismissed "for a refusal to apply the law as instructed only where the record is clear beyond doubt that the juror is not, in fact, simply unpersuaded by the prosecution's case." That standard was simply not met in Shea's case. This was the right result under the case law. Meringolo's objection to the modified Allen charge was based on Judge Torres's additional admonition that the jurors not be swayed "by sympathy, emotion, or political views or opinions." (emphasis added).
Thursday, March 3, 2022
Friday, February 18, 2022
Here is the Sussman Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State an Offense, filed in Special Counsel John Durham's 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 false statement prosecution against former Perkins Coie attorney Michael Sussman. Sussman's argument is that even if the facts laid out in Durham's Indictment are true, they fail, as a matter of law, to allege/establish the essential Section 1001 element of materiality or to establish a sufficient nexus between Sussman's alleged falsehood and the agency (FBI) decision purportedly capable of being affected. Keep in mind that Sussman's alleged false statement to FBI General Counsel James Baker was that he was not acting on behalf of any client in reporting the Alfa Bank tip to Baker, when, in truth and in fact, Sussman was there representing and acting on behalf of Tech-Executive 1 and the Clinton Campaign. The materiality portion of the Sussman Indictment has always struck me as weak, but very little is required of the government in order for it to prove materiality in a Section 1001 prosecution. Sussman's real problem in winning on this motion is decades of case law holding that an indictment setting out the statutory elements of the offense, along with minimal factual allegations, is sufficient to allege an offense as a matter of law. In other words, the defendant is not allowed to go beyond the indictment's allegations in litigating whether it alleges an offense. There appears to be no recognition of this case law in the Sussman brief. Durham was not required to put much meat on the skeletal elements of the offense. But he chose to do so, presenting a 27-page speaking indictment to the grand jury. There is some scattered authority for the proposition that an indictment setting out in detail what appear to be the full and undisputed facts behind the offense, in addition to the statutory elements, can be defeated by accepting those facts as true and arguing that the do not constitute the purported offense being charged. See for example, U.S. v. Ali, 557 F.3d 715, 719-20 (6th Cir. 2009). That's what Sussman is up to here. Durham's response will surely be that he has set out the required statutory elements plus additional contextual detail and that the Government must be allowed to show its full factual case to the jury in order to prove why, under said factual particulars, Sussman's alleged lie was material.
Monday, January 3, 2022
Here is the CNN story. The jury acquitted Holmes, the former CEO of blood-testing startup Theranos, on all 4 counts related to the alleged defrauding of patients. She was convicted on 4 counts related to defrauding of investors, including a conspiracy count. The jury hung on 3 additional investor fraud counts. There will be no retrial of the counts that the jury could not reach agreement on, because Holmes' ultimate sentence would not be affected by a guilty verdict on those counts. Moreover, under current Supreme Court case law, the trial court can (unfortunately) consider the government's evidence against Holmes on both the acquitted and hung counts in determining her sentence. The SEC long ago settled its case against Holmes without demanding an admission of wrongdoing on her part. Had she made such an admission there would have been no need for a criminal trial.
Saturday, December 4, 2021
Man Bites Dog. Hell Freezes Over. Third Circuit Reverses Section 1001 Conviction Based on Government's Failure to Prove Materiality.
Need I say more? It is a truism that materiality is an exceedingly easy element to prove in a prosecution brought under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001. It is even easier to sustain on appeal. But in U.S. v. Joseph Johnson, the Third Circuit held that the government failed to prove materiality under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 (a) (2), which prohibits “knowingly and willfully... mak[ing] any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” in a matter within the jurisdiction of the federal government. Joseph R. Johnson was a Bill Cosby supporter who filed a fraudulent pleading in a federal civil action brought by one of Cosby's alleged victims. Specifically, Johnson filed a praecipe that used the signature of the alleged victim's actual attorney, but which was filed without the attorney's knowledge and which contained unsupported allegations that Cosby's alleged victim had failed to report income. Almost immediately after the false pleading was discovered it was stricken from the record by the civil trial judge. Johnson was then indicted under Section 1001 for making a false material representation to the civil trial judge. Materiality requires evidence that the false statements were of the kind "capable of influencing the decisionmaker" and that "could have bearing on an actual decision entrusted to the decisionmaker." In Johnson, the only decisionmaker identified by the prosecution was the civil trial judge, who testified in general that he extracted information whenever he looked at the docket and then took action based on that information. But, according to the Third Circuit, "given the subject matter of the underlying litigation and posture of the case, there is no evidence that this false statement, even if considered by the Judge, could have been relevant, much less material, to any decision." In other words, the stricken meshugannah pleading would not have been relevant or admissible in the alleged victim's case. The only thing it was relevant to was the judge's decision to strike it from the docket, which was not enough. The Third Circuit, without explicitly saying so, seemed to believe that no proof the government might have offered would have sufficed to show materiality in this instance. Assistant Federal Defender Abigail Horn successfully argued the appeal for Johnson and congratulations are in order. I doubt there have been very many successful federal criminal defense appeals on the materiality issue.
Tuesday, November 30, 2021
The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in two cases addressing criminal liability for doctors who prescribe controlled substances in good faith. It is also considering a similar petition from the Fourth Circuit, which includes Maryland and Virginia. The Court last addressed this issue nearly 50 years ago. United States v. Moore, 423 U.S. 122 (1975). Since then, the federal courts have drawn very different conclusions as to the level of wrongdoing required for prosecution. These cases present an opportunity for the Supreme Court to clarify whether physicians can become criminals for a simple mistake.
As two professors of health law point out, the potential for injustice goes far beyond those who are imprisoned. Fear of prosecution may inhibit other doctors from prescribing medicine, to the detriment of patients with legitimate medical needs. The easier it is to convict a medic, the more cautious one will be with medicine that many patients find necessary.
Too low a bar also risks interfering with traditional regulation of the medical profession. One of the defendants, Dr. Saheel Kahn, was twice investigated—and cleared—by the Arizona Medical Board. Nevertheless, he was found guilty of violating federal law.
Just the Facts
Saheel Kahn, who practiced in Arizona and Wyoming, failed to realize that some of his patients were selling their medication. Xiulu Ruan owned a pain clinic and pharmacy in Alabama, where he prescribed unusually large numbers of pain-killers. George Naum worked at an addiction clinic in West Virginia, where he signed prescriptions based on his nurse’s evaluations and reports. All were charged with distributing controlled substances.
Dr. Kahn, Dr. Ruan, and Dr. Naum maintained that they had their patients’ best interests at heart. The courts said, in effect, that it didn’t matter. All of the doctors were convicted. Two of them were sentenced to decades of imprisonment.
Is Legitimate Medical Purpose A Defense?
A physician violates the law when by distributing controlled substances “outside the usual course of professional practice.” Moore, 423 U.S. at 124. Thus, physicians can be prosecuted when they prescribed drugs “not for legitimate purposes” or their “conduct exceeded the bounds of ‘professional practice.’” Id. at 135, 142.
As a matter of common sense, to avoid criminalizing medical error, conviction should require a lack of legitimate purpose and treatment beyond the bounds of medical practice. The appropriate regulation arguably supports this requirement: “A prescription . . . must be issued for a legitimate medical purpose by an individual practitioner acting in the usual course of his professional practice.” 21 C.F.R. § 1306.04(a). A few appellate courts have unambiguously adopted this position. U.S. v. Pellman, 668 F.3d 918, 923 (7th Cir. 2012); U.S. v. Feingold, 454 F.3d 1001, 1010 (9th Cir. 2006).
Many circuits, however, have taken the opposite approach. In the Fourth Circuit, for example, the government must prove that a doctor’s actions “were not for legitimate medical purposes in the usual course of his professional medical practice” or that they were “beyond the bounds of medical practice.” U.S. v. Singh, 54 F.3d 1182, 1187 (4th Cir. 1995). Thus, “malicious motive or the desire to make a profit” is not required to convict a physician. Id. at 1188.
This reasoning reached its logical conclusion in Dr. Naum’s trial. Dr. Naum tried to prove that his treatment was for a legitimate medical purpose. The judge did not let him. The court of appeals affirmed his conviction: because the government wasn’t required to prove the lack of any legitimate medical purpose, it wasn’t relevant whether Dr. Naum had one. U.S. v. Naum, 832 F. App’x 137, 142 (4th Cir. 2020).
Similarly, in the Tenth Circuit, a physician may be convicted “if she prescribes the substance either outside the usual course of medical practice or without a legitimate medical purpose.” U.S. v. Nelson, 383 F.3d 1227, 1232 (10th Cir. 2004). The Court of Appeals denied Dr. Kahn’s request to reconsider this rule. U.S. v. Khan [sic], 989 F.3d 806, 822 (10th Cir. 2021). Dr. Kahn then sought certiorari on this issue.
What Is “Good Faith”?
Formally, good faith is a defense throughout the nation. Its effectiveness, however, varies greatly from circuit to circuit. Practically, in some parts of the country, it is no defense at all.
A few circuits have, with varying degrees of clarity, allowed a subjective test for good faith. That is, in some parts of the country, physicians may defend themselves by demonstrating that they were sincerely attempting to treat their patients.
By contrast, some circuits employ an objective standard. The Fourth Circuit is one of them. United States v. Hurwitz, 459 F.3d 463, 478-80 (4th Cir. 2006). Confusingly, some (non-binding) decisions arguably go further, suggesting that even an objectively reasonable belief is no defense. See United States v. Purpera, 844 F. App’x 614, 626-27 (4th Cir. 2021); United States v. Orta-Rosario, 469 F. App’x 140, 145-46 (4th Cir. 2012). In other words, it might not matter that a doctor believed he was following proper medical practice, only whether he should have believed it.
The Tenth Circuit leaves no doubt on this point: if a physician acted beyond professional boundaries, whatever her reasons, she cannot claim to have acted in good faith. Khan, 989 F.3d at 825-26. In the Eleventh Circuit, a defendant might not be entitled to a good faith instruction at all. U.S. v. Joseph, 709 F.3d 1082, 1097 (11th Cir. 2013). Effectively, there is no good faith defense within these circuits. It is on this issue that Dr. Ruan sought certiorari, as did Dr. Kahn.
These cases offer the Supreme Court an opportunity to correct the appellate courts’ error. The conflation of medical standards with legitimate purpose, and the absence of a good faith defense, mean that physicians can violate the law through a well-intentioned mistake. At best, this creates a crime out of what should be dealt with through professional discipline or malpractice lawsuits. At worst, it makes outlaws out of well-meaning doctors who trust their patients or employ unorthodox forms of treatment. In some cases, like Dr. Kahn’s, it can even lead to punishment where medical boards have investigated and found no wrongdoing.
Yet, a favorable decision alone will do little good for any individual defendant. An accused physician must understand precisely what the government will prove, how to convince the jury otherwise, and the necessary legal arguments. A small error, such as the failure to request the correct jury instructions, could ensure the conviction of even an innocent defendant. Therefore, as always, it remains important for wrongly-accused doctors to secure the representation of a skilled defense lawyer.
Saturday, April 3, 2021
Be Careful What You Ask For: Third Circuit Vacates Two Sentences For Defense Breaches Of Plea Agreement
In two cases consolidated for appeal, U.S. v. Yusuf and U.S. v. Campbell, the Third Circuit reversed downward variances based on defense breaches of the plea agreement. Both cases came out of the District of New Jersey and both involved plea agreements that recognized the sentencing court's ability to downwardly vary, but forbade the defense from arguing for a departure or variance below the recommended Guidelines range. The agreements also forbade the government from arguing for a departure or variance above the recommended range. Yusuf pled guilty to aggravate identity theft and conspiracy to commit bank fraud. Campbell pled guilty to felon in possession. Both cases involved mitigating circumstances that typically garner downward variances. Both cases involved sympathetic judges who all but encouraged defense breaches based on their searching inquiries during sentencing. Both cases stand for the proposition that there is a difference between defense counsel presenting the sentencing judge with all relevant facts about the defendant and the offense, including mitigating facts, and defense counsel asking for a downward variance, either directly or through questions to the client. This distinction is critical for defense counsel to keep in mind, even in response to questions for the court. In Campbell, defense counsel had the client ask the court for no jail time. In Yusuf, a much closer case in the Third Circuit's view, defense counsel suggested a sentence below the recommended Guidelines range. The Court distinguished defense counsel's sentencing hearing arguments in Yusuf from those of counsel for Yusuf's co-defendant Adekunle. (Adekunle's case was not on appeal and he had been sentenced by a different judge.) Adekunle's lawyer had reminded the sentencing court of its duty to consider proportionality, and the sentences handed down to co-defendants, but never asked for a downward variance and reminded the court twice that she was bound by the plea agreement: "I am constrained from arguing a below guideline sentence." The government also argued in Campbell that presenting character letters to the court asking for probation violated the plea agreement. The Third Circuit declined to reach this issue, which had not been preserved at sentencing, based on its finding that counsel's arguments alone constituted a breach. The Court cautioned district court judges at sentencing, "to be particularly mindful of the strictures on counsel when plea agreement provisions like the ones here are in place."
Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Speculation is rampant about indictments that may result from Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham's probe into the FBI's handling of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, and the Bureau's four materially false FISA Applications submitted to the FISA Court. Fans of the President, expecting or demanding a rash of indictments, are likely to be as disappointed as Trump haters were when Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump-Russia criminal collusion turned out to be a dud. Rumors also abound that, indictments or not, Durham will issue a Report, naming names and detailing the FBI's multiple misdeeds. Opponents of such a Report point out that the Department of Justice ("DOJ"), except in the unusual circumstance of a Special Counsel's Report, does not typically smear people when the grand jury fails to return indictments. You know some folks are getting worried when Mueller Pit Bull Andrew Weissmann pens a New York Times Op-Ed all but urging career DOJ officials to refuse to cooperate with the highly respected Durham if he asks the grand jury to return indictments within 90 days of the the 2020 election.
Attorney General William Barr has already made it clear (sending a not very subtle hint to the faithful) that not all governmental abuses of power, even serious abuses, constitute crimes. To take an obvious example, I consider the set-up of Trump's first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, by the FBI's Comey-McCabe Cabal, to be one of the most significant abuses of law enforcement power in recent American history. But I don't see any federal criminal statute that was violated in the process of the set-up.
So, we are likely to see a small handful of indictments at most, based on the currently available public record. Were the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls feloniously leaked? Almost certainly so, absent Presidential declassification, but good luck proving who did it. The only known individual publicly referred for possible prosecution as a result of Michael Horowitz's OIG investigation into FISA abuse was former FBI Office of General Counsel Attorney Kevin Clinesmith. Clinesmith gave false information to FBI Supervisory Special Agent #2, who served as the FBI's affiant on all three FISA Renewal Applications. Clinesmith also altered a key email from a CIA liaison, materially changing its meaning, and forwarded it to the same affiant. Of course it is possible that Clinesmith is cooperating and naming other people, but that is pure speculation at this point. More information may also come out explaining whether the predicate for Crossfire Hurricane, the Alexander Downer conversation with George Papadopoulos, was itself some kind of an intelligence agency set-up, but, again, turning that into an actionable crime is another matter.
So how will the story be told by Durham? The easiest way will be through a lengthy speaking indictment against one person, or a handful of conspirators, that tells the prosecution's story of the case. Speaking indictments which have been common for decades in federal criminal cases, tell the tale of the prosecution's case in as many chapters as the prosecutors need or want to take. These speaking indictments can be broad enough to include manner and means and overt acts, criminal and non-criminal, as part of the mosaic. In other words, in telling the story, the government can include non-criminal conduct, or conduct that it could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury, as long as long as the conduct is rationally related to the charged crime. Mueller himself did this, through some of his indictments or informations (Manafort, Gates, and the Russian hacking and troll farm cases) and through the Statement of the Offense in cases where defendants pled guilty. in fact, it was through careful examination of the Special Counsel's charging instruments that knowledgeable observers were able to determine fairly early on that that Mueller had no criminal collusion case.
So, that's what I think we will see from John Durham. A small handful of defendants and at least one significant, story-telling, speaking indictment.
Thursday, May 7, 2020
Of course the Bridgegate (Kelly v. United States) case was reversed by the Supreme Court here. And of course, it was unanimous. (Just like McDonnell)
Justice Kagan authored the 12 1/2 page decision. Yes, the court did note that the lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge were realigned and that "they did so for a political reason - to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to support the New Jersey Governor's reelection bid." But the Court holds, "not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime." Here are some key points:
- This decision reminds us that no matter how many times the government tries to get around the "money or property" element of the statute - it will not work.
- The Court makes it clear that regulatory activity is not property - repeating its holding from Cleveland.
- "Employee's labor was just the incidental cost of that regulation, rather than itself an object of the officials' scheme." The Court later says, "[b]ut that property must play more than some bit part in a scheme: It must be an 'object of the fraud.'" "Or put differently, a property fraud conviction cannot stand when the loss to the victim is only an incidental byproduct of the scheme."
- The Court reminds readers of the Skilling opinion - "We specifically rejected a proposal to construe the statute as encompassing 'undisclosed self-dealing by a public official' even when he hid financial fraud interests."
Many will not like this opinion, but it really is good to see for several reasons. For one it shows a united Court interpreting a statute consistently. Two it shows that when the government goes to stretch the statute it will not be tolerated. Three it puts back on the states the police power to stop activities within their powers. And most importantly, although the Court does not state this, the decision sends a message to the public of the importance of the ballot box - if you don't like political activities, voting is your place to express it.