Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Total Victory for the Defense in Greenbelt Health Care Fraud Case

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.

(wisenberg)



June 29, 2022 in Defense Counsel, Fraud, Privileges, Verdict | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 27, 2022

Massive Victory for Physicians and the White Collar Bar in the Government's War Against Doctors

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.

(wisenberg)

June 27, 2022 in Fraud, Judicial Opinions, Prosecutions | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Timothy Shea Mistrial: It's Tough To Dismiss An Obstinate Juror

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).

Here is the New York Times story. Here is Meringolo's U.S. v. Timothy Shea Letter Motion for Mistrial.  

(wisenberg)

June 13, 2022 in Current Affairs, Defense Counsel, Fraud, Judicial Opinions, Prosecutions | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Corporate Crime and COVID Fraud - Top Federal Priorities

AG Garland's speech today at the White Collar Crime Institute - get ready for more corporate crime and COVID fraud cases -  here

(esp)

March 3, 2022 in Fraud | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 18, 2022

Michael Sussman's Motion to Dismiss

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. 

(wisenberg)

February 18, 2022 in Current Affairs, Defense Counsel, Fraud, Government Reports, Grand Jury, Investigations, Judicial Opinions, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 3, 2022

Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Convicted On 4 Of 11 Counts. And That Will Be Enough.

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.

(wisenberg)

January 3, 2022 in Current Affairs, Fraud, News, Prosecutions, SEC, Securities, Sentencing, Settlement, Verdict | Permalink | Comments (0)

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.

(wisenberg)

December 4, 2021 in Fraud, Judicial Opinions | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Supreme Court Takes Cases on Prescribing Doctors' Good Faith Defense

Guest Bloggers: Eugene V. Gorokhov & Jonathan Knowles of Burnham & Gorokhov, PLLC

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.

Conclusion

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.

November 30, 2021 in Fraud, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)

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."

(wisenberg)

April 3, 2021 in Computer Crime, Defense Counsel, Fraud, Judicial Opinions, Prosecutions, Prosecutors, Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

What A Durham Report May Look Like: Hasn't Anyone Heard of Speaking Indictments?

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.

(wisenberg)

August 11, 2020 in Corruption, Current Affairs, Fraud, Government Reports, Grand Jury, Investigations, Legal Ethics, Obstruction, Perjury, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Bridgegate Convictions Reversed - Unanimous - Of Course!

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.

(esp)

May 7, 2020 in Fraud, Judicial Opinions, Prosecutions | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 14, 2019

More Varsity Blues - Privilege and Perspective

So Felicity Huffman gets 14 days (see here and here) in the college admissions scandal. But there are problems with this -

  1. 14 days serves no real punishment purpose.   It is not the prison time that will deter her in the future.  The general deterrent and rehabilitation was accomplished the minute she was indicted.  The indictment in this case served that purpose because it stigmatized her and her family and brought their then-current lives to a crushing halt.  The 14 days is a token to society that only costs the taxpayer money with no benefit. It was unnecessary here.
  2.  Should she have gotten more time?  Absolutely not. As stated above this public shaming was more than sufficient and one can only hope that she and her family can rise above this event and move on in a positive way to assist society. Your mother loves you - forgive her and be there for her. 
  3.  Is the sentence an acknowledgement of disparity in the criminal justice system?  Definitely yes.  Accused individuals who are poor or minorities can suffer significantly greater consequences. There are too many examples of this to even mention.  This case highlights the disparity in our judicial system and for that alone, courts should go back and resentence those who received greater sentences for less activity - and reduce their sentences. The case was supposed to punish privilege but ends up acknowledging that privilege matters. This is no fault on the part of the sentencing judge - it is a problem of how society treats criminal justice. I applaud the judge for not giving a harsher sentence.
  4.  This case brought forth improprieties in college admission testing and admissions. This needs serious reevaluation. In the corporate criminal sphere - a rogue employee can sometimes still hold the entity liable. Although, there is no criminality here, nor should there be, hopefully admissions testing processes will go through massive re-evaluation, not only on how they are administered, but also on the value of these exams.    
  5.  Was there a better way to handle all of this?  Yes. If prosecutors had proceeded on correcting this unethical conduct by exposure - a report - and sending a message to all that privilege in national testing will not be tolerated, then stopping this unethical conduct could have been accomplished.  Using a broken criminal justice system to attempt to correct this process just ends up showing how broken the system really is.
  6. The individual who brought in so many parents into this scheme deserves stiff punishment.  Giving cooperator status to the individual who promoted this unethical conduct is backwards.  The parents who were roped into this scheme, oftentimes of their free will, should be the ones testifying here. If you want to stop the criminal conduct, punish the party who made the crime possible.  
  7. Bottom line - what were the parents all thinking - really?  The criminal justice system is not the answer to the problem here. 

(esp)

See also excellent op-ed -David Oscar Marcus, Felicity Huffman's 14-Day Sentence is Unjust - Because It's Too High, The Hill, here.

September 14, 2019 in Celebrities, Fraud, Prosecutions, Prosecutors, Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"Operation Varsity Blues"

The allegations coming from "Operation Varsity Blues" are incredibly sad -- from all perspectives.  The DOJ Press Release (here) tells of the arrest of "dozens of individuals" alleged to be "involved in a nationwide conspiracy" of cheating on college entrance exams and the admissions of students into top universities. The DOJ Press Release states:  "The conspiracy involved 1) bribing SAT and ACT exam administrators to allow a test taker, typically XXX, to secretly take college entrance exams in place of students or to correct the students’ answers after they had taken the exam; 2) bribing university athletic coaches and administrators—including coaches at Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Southern California, and the University of Texas—to facilitate the admission of students to elite universities under the guise of being recruited as athletes; and (3) using the façade of XXX’s charitable organization to conceal the nature and source of the bribes." (XXX's inserted here)

So it looks like there are several aspects to the allegations in Operation Varsity Blues 1) a college entrance exam cheating scheme; 2) a college recruitment scheme; and 3) a tax fraud conspiracy.

Some of the individuals (4) are charged by Information - a clear indication that they have reached an agreement with the government.  We see two cooperating witnesses mentioned in the documents.  The crimes alleged in the Information include charges of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the US, mail and wire fraud and obstruction of justice. Twelve others face indictment on a charge of  racketeering conspiracy.  The remaining individuals have criminal complaints against them of either conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud or conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. The affidavit for one of the criminal complaints is over 200 pages long (see here).  There are also forfeiture allegations for some of the accused individuals. It will be interesting to see how many of the criminal complaints turn into Informations (requires waivers by the defense) as opposed to Indictments in the next for weeks.

Some thoughts -

  1. The prosecutorial power of using conspiracy and picking one's venue is emphasized here as the cases are being brought in the District of Massachusetts, although the majority of those accused of criminal activity are not from that jurisdiction. The ACT is headquartered in Iowa City and the Educational Testing Service for the SAT is in New York and New Jersey.  
  2. Likewise the prosecutorial power of granting cooperation status appears likely as some of the cases have references to CW-1 and CW-2. Prosecutors get to decide who gets the cooperation status and who gets the cooperator's testimony against them.
  3. The alleged fraud appears to be massive, and one has to wonder how this could have occurred- but compromised college related entrance exams are not something new. Just today the Central District of California filed a 26-count Indictment with charges of conspiracy of false passport, and aggravated identity theft, against defendants for allegedly "using false passports" to take TOEFL (English proficiency) exams for others. (see here).  It may be tougher to detect some issues of fraud outside the United States, but internally this should not be happening. Will the verification processes used with college entrance exams be re-evaluated?  Or were they the ones who detected fraud?
  4. As an educator, I am wondering how the students fared in college.  Were the alleged improper scores an accurate prediction of their college abilities? Could the value of these tests become an issue should someone go to trial?
  5. How many students were improperly admitted to a college, taking a seat of a student who might have had this opportunity?  And if the admitted students were not aware of what their parents had done, one can only imagine the hurt they are feeling right now. So you have issues related to both the admitted students and those who may have been borderline but denied at these institutions.
  6. Likewise, the parents who are accused of this activity were attempting to assist their children, and it is likely that the damage caused is even greater right now. As is so often the case, especially in white collar cases, the collateral consequences can be significant.
  7. And should the collateral consequences to the families who may have committed these acts be considered if determining the plea offers and later sentences that might occur here.
  8. Many of those accused are probably trying to decide how best to handle these charges - plead not guilty and go to trial, or reach a quick agreement with the government. With tapes and other supporting evidence the decisions will likely be examined against possible cross-examination against cooperating witnesses who were involved in multiple cases.  How much sympathy will a parent trying to assist their children receive, and will it surpass criticism against privilege. And there are also legal questions to examine here - is this the intended use of mail and wire fraud, is conspiracy too broad a crime here, and was this a "wheel-and-spoke' conspiracy?   But what is the risk of making such challenges?
  9. The colleges and universities also need to reflect on the allegations here. What kind of compliance programs did they have in place to root out such conduct from individuals involved in sports activities on campus, and what now needs to be done to make certain that this doesn't occur in the future. Perhaps there is nothing they can do, but if the allegations prove true, it should be examined.

There will be much to learn from what happened today.  It was a sad day for many people.

(esp)

March 12, 2019 in Fraud, Money Laundering, Prosecutions, Prosecutors, RICO | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

NACDL Trial Penalty Report and White Collar Crime

The NACDL recently released an important report detailing the impact of the trial penalty, which is the difference between the sentence a defendant receives in return for pleading guilty and the often much larger sentence he or she receives in return for exercising his or her constitutional right to trial. 

From the NACDL press release:

The ‘trial penalty’ refers to the substantial difference between the sentence offered in a plea offer prior to trial versus the sentence a defendant receives after trial. This penalty is now so severe and pervasive that it has virtually eliminated the constitutional right to a trial. To avoid the penalty, accused persons must surrender many other fundamental rights which are essential to a fair justice system

This report is the product of more than two years of careful research and deliberation. In it, NACDL examines sentencing and other data underlying the fact that, after a 50 year decline, fewer than 3% of federal criminal cases result in a trial. With more than 97% of criminal cases being resolved by plea in a constitutional system predicated upon the Sixth Amendment right to a trial, the fact of imbalance and injustice in the system is self-evident. The report identifies and exposes the underlying causes of the decline of the federal criminal trial and puts forth meaningful, achievable principles and recommendations to address this crisis. With its release, NACDL intends to launch a sustained effort to rein in the abuse of the trial penalty throughout federal and state criminal justice systems. The Trial Penalty report, and the principles and recommendations it puts forward, seeks to save the right to a trial from extinction.

The entire report is well worth reading.  For those in the white collar field, I'll note that the report contains a specific section on economic crimes.  This portion of the report focuses on Section 2B1.1 of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  The report discusses the role of 2B1.1 and loss calculations in creating incentives for defendants to plead guilty.  You can access the entire NACDL report here.

I found the NACDL report particularly interesting as I've engaged in much research on the issue of plea bargaining and sentencing differentials, including the impact of such incentives on innocent defendants.  In one study, we found that 56% of innocent participants were willing to falsely confess guilt and "plead guilty" in return for a bargain.  You can read more about those findings and the issue of plea bargaining's innocence issue here

(LED)

August 14, 2018 in Fraud, News, Scholarship, Sentencing | Permalink

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

U.S. v. Manafort: Judge Ellis Rules on Prosecution and Defense Motions in Limine

For all of you Manafort junkies out there, here is Judge T.S. Ellis, III's July 24 2018 Order, resolving most of the outstanding prosecution and defense motions in limine in U.S. v. Manafort, due to be tried next week in Alexandria.

It is abundantly clear, based on these rulings and the charges in the EDVA Superseding Indictment, that this case will be presented to the jury by the government, as much as possible, as a relatively straightforward bank fraud, concocted by the defendant in order to hide the amount and source of improperly derived offshore income. Manafort and Rick Gates (now a cooperating witness) allegedly created phony loans from offshore nominee entities in order to conceal lobbying income derived from their work as unregistered agents on behalf of, among others, the Government of Ukraine and former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. Later, when Yanukovych lost power and the money source dried up, Manafort and Gates allegedly inflated the value of Manafort's real estate holdings (and/or lied about the nature and use of said real estate) in order to obtain new loans and maintain a lavish lifestyle. The jury will hear and see evidence regarding Manafort's lavish lifestyle, his failure to register as a foreign agent, and his failure to disclose foreign bank accounts that he controlled. But the jury will not see or hear anything pertaining to the Trump campaign's purported collusion or interaction with Russia.

It is becoming fairly obvious to me that Mueller has no criminal collusion case to bring against the President or anyone in the President's entourage absent: 1) bombshell disclosures from Michael Cohen; 2) Manafort flipping after conviction; or 3) Manafort testifying through a post-conviction compelled immunity order issued by a federal court pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §§ 6002 and 6003. The Manafort case was never about Manafort. It was always about Trump. The law unquestionably allows Mueller to operate in this manner. It is what it is.

(wisenberg)

July 25, 2018 in Current Affairs, Defense Counsel, Fraud, Judicial Opinions, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Government's Exhibit List in U.S. v. Manafort

For all of you Manafort trial junkies, here is the Government Exhibit List, recently filed in U.S. v. Paul J. Manafort, Jr., set to start soon in U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis, III's Alexandria courtroom.

Here also is Judge Ellis's Order Denying Paul Manafort's Motion for Change of Venue.  Judge Ellis ruled last week that Manafort is not entitled to a presumption that any Alexandria federal trial jury would be partial to the government. If Manafort can establish actual prejudicial partiality through voir dire, a herculean task under current federal criminal law, Judge Ellis will revisit the issue.

(wisenberg)

July 23, 2018 in Corruption, Current Affairs, Fraud, International, Judicial Opinions, Money Laundering, Mortgage Fraud, Obstruction, Prosecutions | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 6, 2018

49 Questions All In A Line. All Of Them Good Ones? All Of Them Lies?

The leak and publication of 49 questions for President Trump, orally given to President Trump's lawyers by Robert Mueller's team and then transcribed by Jay Sekulow, has unquestionably damaged Team Mueller's reputation. Why? Many of the questions are incredibly broad, incredibly stupid, and/or incredibly intrusive forays into core functions of the Executive Branch. But whose questions were they? The original New York Times story indicated that the questions were revealed orally in a meeting between Team Trump and Team Muller and then transcribed by Team Trump. Next we were informed by other media sources that Sekulow was the scrivener and that the 49 questions may be more in the nature of a Team Trump moot court briefing book, based upon a smaller set of inquires/topics broached by Team Mueller. For example, the AP reported that a "person familiar with the matter, who insisted on anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, said Trump’s lawyers extrapolated a list of expected questions based on conversations with Mueller’s team. The questions contained in a document posted online by the Times on Monday night reflected questions that defense lawyers anticipated rather than verbatim queries that Mueller’s team provided, the person said."  The subsequent clarifications have been all but forgotten on the Internet and cable news shows and it is still widely assumed that the 49 questions are a verbatim rendition of those directly relayed by Team Mueller to Team Trump.

But the difference between the two versions is significant. If these are the literal questions from Mueller's team, they reflect (in addition to the flaws noted above) a dangerously elastic view of criminal obstruction of justice. If they are mere briefing book questions, intended to prepare the President for every possible question Team Mueller may ask, they should be of much less concern to Team Trump and to observers attempting to fairly critique the Mueller operation. Finally, if these are briefing book questions that were deliberately leaked and packaged to the media by Team Trump as if they were Team Mueller's literal proposed interview questions for President Trump, this says something disturbing about the Trump legal operation.

(wisenberg)

May 6, 2018 in Celebrities, Corruption, Current Affairs, Defense Counsel, Fraud, Investigations, Legal Ethics, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 5, 2018

That's Entertainment: Judge Ellis and the Hearing on Manafort's Motion to Dismiss

Attached is the transcript of  yesterday's hearing in the Eastern District of Virginia on Paul Manafort's Motion to Dismiss the Indictment against him: USA v PAUL J MANAFORT JR - 5-4-2018 Hearing on Motion to Dismiss. The hearing was before Judge T.S. Ellis III and was characterized by Judge Ellis's typically blunt and withering wit.

Here are some takeaways:

  1. Despite the headline worthy comments of Judge Ellis, the Court will reject Manafort's argument that the Indictment should be dismissed because the Order appointing Mueller is broader than the Special Counsel regulation allows. DAG Rod Rosenstein's  August 2 2017 Letter Re The Scope of Investigation and Definition of Authority makes clear that Mueller had the authority from the first day of his appointment, on May 17, 2017, to investigate Manafort for colluding with Russian officials during the 2016 election in violation of U.S. laws and for crimes arising out of payments Manafort received from former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. Judge Ellis indicated that he considered this to be the government's strongest argument. Unless Judge Ellis believes that Rosenstein's August 2 letter was an after-the-fact sham, the letter puts an end to Manafort's central claim. Judge Ellis may also find, although this is not as certain, that the Special Counsel regulation creates no personal rights for Manafort that are enforceable in a judicial proceeding. In other words, this is a non-justiciable intra-branch matter within the Department of Justice.  
  2. It was striking to me that Michael Dreeben, who spoke for the government, did not lead with the argument that Rosenstein's August 2 letter resolves the question of whether Mueller is acting within his authority. Why not? Is it because, Mueller does not want a detailed factual inquiry on this point? During the motions hearing, both sides referenced Rosenstein's December 13, 2017 House Judiciary Committee testimony. Here are relevant Excerpts from that testimony, in which Rosenstein stated under oath that "the specific matters are not specified in the [May 17] order. So I discussed that with Director Mueller when he started, and we've had ongoing discussion about what is exactly within the scope of his investigation." (Rosenstein could not say with 100% certainty what parts of Mueller's investigation were an expansion and what parts were a clarification of Mueller's original mandate. He promised to get back to the House Judiciary Committee on this point.] Dreeben told Judge Ellis that the "specific factual  [August 2] statement, as [DAG] Rosenstein described in his Congressional testimony, was conveyed to the special counsel upon his appointment in ongoing discussions that defined the parameters of the investigation that he wanted the special counsel to conduct." So which is it? Was the scope of the investigation crystal clear on March 20, 2017 or on May 17, 2017, or did it have to be hammered out in ongoing discussions. Rod Rosenstein's May 17 2017 Order Appointing Robert S. Mueller III clearly states that Mueller has the authority to conduct the investigation confirmed by former FBI Director Comey in his March 20, 2017 Congressional testimony. Manafort's attorney, Kevin Downing, wanted to see any memos written by Rosenstein leading up to Mueller's appointment to help determine the scope of Mueller's authority. When Judge Ellis asked Downing how he knew such memos existed, Downing, who worked under Rosenstein for five years, replied: "Mr. Rosenstein is a stickler for memos being written, for there to be a written record for the actions of the Department of Justice." Downing argued that if Rosenstein exceeded his authority in appointing Mueller, Mueller "does not have the authority of a U.S. Attorney." In that event, according to Downing, any indictment procured from the grand jury by Mueller's operation would presumably be null and void.
  3. Fox News's assertions that Judge Ellis accused the Mueller team of "lying" and using "unfettered power" to target Trump are not supported by the record. Judge Ellis did express extreme skepticism regarding one of the government's arguments and made the undoubtedly true statement that the government was using Manafort to go after Trump.
  4. The non-justiciable, intra-branch dispute argument by Mueller's people could end up biting them in the butt in another context. Expect President Trump to use a similar argument if he is subpoenaed, asserts Executive Privilege, and is challenged on this point by Mueller. Trump will argue that Mueller, as an inferior officer within the President's DOJ, lacks regulatory authority to contest Executive Privilege, and that the entire matter is a non-justiciable, intra-branch dispute. Contrary to general assumptions, U.S. v. Nixon does not settle this issue. The Supreme Court in Nixon rejected President Nixon's justiciability argument, but did so on the basis that Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski had the explicit authority to contest assertions of Executive Privilege pursuant to the terms of the federal regulation that governed his appointment. As far as I can tell, Special Counsel Mueller has not been given explicit authority to contest issues of Executive Privilege.

(wisenberg)

May 5, 2018 in Corruption, Current Affairs, Defense Counsel, Fraud, Government Reports, Grand Jury, Investigations, Judicial Opinions, News, Obstruction, Perjury, Privileges, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Supreme Court Overturns Conviction And Narrows Reach Of Tax Code's Omnibus Clause

Today in United States v. Marinello, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved a circuit split and significantly narrowed the reach of Internal Revenue Code Section 7212(a)'s Omnibus Clause, which makes it a felony to "corruptly or by force...endeavor[r] to obstruct or imped[e] the due administration of this title [the Internal Revenue Code]."

The Court held that the phrase "'due administration of [the Tax Code]' does not cover routine administrative procedures that are near-universally applied to all taxpayers, such as the ordinary processing of tax returns. Rather the clause as a whole refers to specific interference with targeted governmental tax-related proceedings, such as a particular investigation or audit."

Justice Breyer  wrote the 7-2 opinion for the Court. Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, dissented.

The majority relied in part on analogous cases from its general obstruction jurisprudence, including United States v. Aguilar and Arthur Andersen v. United States. Although the focus was on the nexus required between the obstruction and a particular act of administration, the Court also stressed the rule of lenity and the need to provide fair warning to the public. This approach could be potentially relevant to any obstruction of justice case that Special Counsel Mueller may one day bring against President Trump or administration officials. Some of the theories floating around cable television about what constitutes obstruction under the federal criminal code are unusually broad and unlikely to survive rigorous analysis based on Aguilar and Arthur Andersen.

(wisenberg)

 

March 21, 2018 in Arthur Andersen, Fraud, Investigations, Judicial Opinions, Obstruction, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mueller's Investigation & Recent Russian Indictments

The speaking indictments of this past week provide a clear trail to Russian individuals and entities allegedly interfering in the 2016 Presidential election.  The choice of charges, which include conspiracy to defraud, are no surprise. An indictment under section 371 can take one of two avenues: conspiracy to commit a specific offense or conspiracy to defraud the government. This is a classic case for the defraud statute to be used, as it is the U.S. election process that is alleged to be compromised here.  Several questions to consider here:

  1. Why has it taken so long for this indictment?  Answer - it hasn't.  Actually Mueller's team is moving faster than we often see in white collar cases where the investigation can take many years. In less than a year, the Special Counsel's Office has accumulated several cases (see here). Computer related cases can take even longer as tracking items on the web are not easy, especially when a perpetrator tries to mask its origin.    
  2. Can the U.S. prosecute extraterritorial conduct? Answer - Yes and No. You will notice that the alleged conduct in this indictment either took place inside the U.S. or had an "affect" here in the U.S.  Under principles of "objective territoriality," the U.S. has, in many instances, prosecuted conduct occurring outside the U.S. that has an effect in this country.  As one who has been somewhat critical of objective territoriality, I have been a strong advocate for using what I term "defensive territoriality."  Interfering in a U.S. election would most definitely fit the bill of conduct that the U.S. needs to defend against.  Over the past few years, the Supreme Court has wrestled with the issue of the application of different U.S. statutes for conduct occurring outside this country.  A three-fold response here: 1) this is not extraterritorial conduct, 2) even if it is extraterritorial, there are enough acts in this country to allow for jurisdiction here, and 3) the U.S. needs to defend its election process. 
  3.  Can the government bring the charged Russians to the U.S.? Answer - It may be difficult here. Do we think that the Russian government will be turning over these individuals for a U.S. prosecution? Without a U.S.-Russian extradition treaty the chances of this happening are diminished. Perhaps one of them will travel to a country where the U.S. does have an extradition treaty  (see here). Other methods exist, such as luring (see here), but the international community frowns on its use. Prosecuting these individuals/entities are less important than letting the public know that our election process has allegedly been the subject of attacks from Russia.  Mueller's team definitely accomplishes this here.

The more interesting Information and Statement of the Offense relates to Richard Pinedo, a cooperating witness who has a plea agreement for a violation of section 1028.  Although the Information has section 1028 on it, it also is termed identity fraud and speaks to an alleged violation of the wire fraud statute found in section 1343.  The Information only speaks about a Count One.  Whether there is another document with other counts is unknown. We saw this previously with the Informations of Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, so it is doubtful that the use of "1" without a "2" is significant. The special counsel's website has "et al" after Pinedo's name, but no other names listed. Other Indictments and Informations on the Special Counsel's website do not have "et al." (See Flynn, Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulos). The Pinedo Information says it was filed on February 7, 2018, as "sealed." The header on the understanding for the plea is also marked sealed, but dated February 12, 2018.   All of this may be nothing, but it is interesting to note. Finally, kudos to the special counsel's team for writing a plea that does not include offensive language such as a waiver of any possible claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.  These documents go a step further to allow  for such claims to be brought by the accused even though they are pleading guilty. Ethically, this is the way a plea should be written, but some past documents in some US Attorneys' Offices have not always done this. The Florida Ethics Board went so far as to issue an ethics opinion prohibiting waivers of ineffective assistance of counsel (see here).  So Mueller's team taking the high road on the wording of its pleas, is nice to see.

What happens next?  The Mueller team may know, but we don't.  So stay tuned. 

(esp) 

February 18, 2018 in Computer Crime, Current Affairs, Fraud, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)