Tuesday, May 4, 2021
Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued an order today that dissects two claims raised in Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washinton v. U.S. Dept. of Justice related to the Mueller Report. It notes that "CREW brought this action under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552, against the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”), seeking the production of documents that Attorney General Barr reviewed in advance of his public announcement concerning the report transmitted to him by Special Counsel Mueller." Key to this analysis was looking at applicable exemptions under FOIA.
The Court found Document 6 properly withheld, but Document 15 did not have a like finding. The agency attempted to use the deliberative process provilege and the attorney-client privilege under exemption 5. The court stated:
As noted above, summary judgment may be granted on the basis of agency affidavits in FOIA cases, when “they are not called into question by contradictory evidence in the record or by evidence of agency bad faith.” Judicial Watch, Inc., 726 F.3d at 215, quoting Consumer Fed’n, 455 F.3d at 287. But here, we have both.
The court stated:
The review of the unredacted document in camera reveals that the suspicions voiced by the judge in EPIC and the plaintiff here were well-founded, and that not only was the Attorney General being disingenuous then, but DOJ has been disingenuous to this Court with respect to the existence of a decision-making process that should be shielded by the deliberative process privilege. The agency’s redactions and incomplete explanations obfuscate the true purpose of the memorandum, and the excised portions belie the notion that it fell to the Attorney General to make a prosecution decision or that any such decision was on the table at any time.
Perhaps a deeper investigation is needed here. Examining prosecutorial discretion on when obstruction of justice is proper and when it is not, is something that needs review. In my recent Article, "Obstruction of Justice: Redesigning the Shortcut," I argue that there needs to be a consistent framework for obstruction of justice and not one that can be rearranged dependent upon the Attorney General or others.
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."
Friday, August 28, 2020
Judge Gary R. Brown issued a Memorandum & Order in U.S. v. Cohn allowing for a waiver of a jury trial despite government objection. In this unusual move, in these unusual times, he is allowing for a securities fraud related case to proceed to a bench trial with the defendant's consent, but without the government's approval. See here.
Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Michael Flynn Update: D.C. Circuit Sets Argument Times and Asks Parties to Address Judge Sullivan's Possible Disqualification
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today announced the allocation of oral argument time in the Michael Flynn Mandamus case, In re Flynn. This was expected. Twenty minutes each were allotted to General Flynn, the Department of Justice, and Judge Emmet Sullivan. The Court "FURTHER ORDERED that, in addition to the issue set forth in the court's order filed July 30, 2020, the parties be prepared to address at oral argument the effect, if any, of 28 U.S.C. §§ 455(a) and 455(b)(5)(i) on the District Court judge's Fed. R. App. P. 35(b) petition for en banc review." This was unexpected. The Court further Ordered "One counsel per side to argue."
Under the Federal Rules of Appellate procedure, only a party may petition a full appellate court for a rehearing en banc. Judge Sullivan is the person who filed the petition in In re Flynn. Both the Department of Justice and General Flynn argued in response to Judge Sullivan's Petition for En Banc Rehearing that he had no standing to even file such a Petition, because he was not a party to the Petition for Mandamus. But the full Court had not indicated, until yesterday, that it wanted to hear about that issue.
Under 28 U.S.C. § 455(a) "Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned."
Under 28 U.S.C. § 455(b)(5)(i), a judge "shall also disqualify himself" if "He...is a party to the proceeding."
What is going on here? As noted above, originally, the full court only wanted to hear oral argument on whether Mandamus was the appropriate remedy under the facts of the case.
Judge Sullivan has not disqualified himself from the underlying case of U.S. v. Flynn.
Does the full Court simply want the parties to now be prepared to argue whether Judge Sullivan had standing to file the Petition for Mandamus? Are they saying, in effect, "We know Judge Sullivan would not make himself a party without disqualifying himself. Since he hasn't disqualified himself, is this further proof that he isn't a party and does not have standing in our Court?" Do they even want to hear from Sullivan on the 11th if he is not a party? If so, why did they grant his counsel 20 minutes to argue the case? Are they signaling Judge Sullivan to reassign the case below prior to the 11th?
Or does the Court merely want to hear argument on whether, in the event that Mandamus is denied, the case should be assigned to another judge because Judge Sullivan's "impartiality might reasonably be questioned" or, more likely, because he has made himself a "party to the proceeding" ? (General Flynn has already argued for reassignment to another judge. DOJ did not ask for this.) In other words, is the Court basically saying to Judge Sullivan" "Since we voted to grant your Petition for Rehearing, haven't we implicitly accepted your status as a party? And if we have accepted your status as a party, how can you remain as the trial judge in Flynn's case, even if we deny the Mandamus Petition?"
I would think that the Court really wants to hear the reassignment issue, but the wording of the order leaves this open to question. Here is In re Flynn 8-5-20 Order re Oral Argument and 28 U.S.C. 455(a) and (b)(5)(1)
Friday, July 31, 2020
The full United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit yesterday granted Judge Emmet Sullivan’s Motion for Rehearing En Banc, vacating a decision by one its three-judge panels, and will soon decide whether to grant General Michael Flynn’s Petition for a Writ of Mandamus against Judge Sullivan. Flynn seeks the Writ of Mandamus in order to force Judge Sullivan to immediately grant the Department of Justice’s May 7, 2020 Motion to Dismiss the criminal case against him, a motion consented to by Flynn. Regardless of the full Court’s ultimate ruling on the mandamus issue, DOJ’s Motion to Dismiss will have to be granted sooner or later under governing legal precedents. No federal appellate court has ever sustained a district court’s refusal to grant an unopposed government motion to dismiss an indictment.
There are two separate but related legal issues at stake before the Court of Appeals. First, does the law require Judge Sullivan to grant DOJ’s Motion to Dismiss in the absence of a grave constitutional issue, reducing Sullivan’s function to a ministerial one? Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 48(a) requires “leave of court” when the government moves to dismiss an indictment, but an abundance of federal case law holds that the district court’s role is in fact quite limited when the government moves to dismiss a criminal case and the defendant consents. Second, is mandamus the appropriate remedy for Flynn given that Judge Sullivan has yet to rule on DOJ’s Motion to Dismiss? Mandamus is an extraordinary remedy, typically reserved for situations where the remedy provided at law is inadequate. Judge Sullivan had not yet ruled on DOJ’s Motion to Dismiss when Flynn filed his Petition for a Writ of Mandamus. Why didn’t Flynn just wait for Judge Sullivan to rule and for DOJ to appeal Sullivan’s order if he denied the motion?
The DOJ has argued that Judge Sullivan’s: 1) appointment of retired federal judge John Gleeson as an amicus, or friend of the court, for the specific purpose of opposing DOJ’s Motion to Dismiss; and 2) Judge Sullivan’s indication that he intends to examine closely DOJ’s motives in filing the Motion to Dismiss, will themselves be an improper intrusion into Executive Branch functions, in violation of Separation of Powers. Flynn has argued that these same factors, along with Sullivan’s setting of a drawn out briefing schedule, harms him financially and reputationally by delaying the immediate relief he is entitled to.
What is likely to happen next?
Argument before the Court sitting En Banc has been set for August 11, but the Court wants no further briefing. The Court’s Order states that the parties “should be prepared to address whether there are ‘no other adequate means to attain the relief’ desired. Cheney v. U.S. Dist. Court for D.C., 542 U.S. 367, 380 (2004).” Cheney is a key Supreme Court case involving the intersection of Separation of Powers and Mandamus case law. In other words, the key issue before the full D.C. Circuit is whether mandamus is premature. Should Judge Sullivan have been allowed to hold a hearing and make a ruling before Flynn went to a higher court seeking mandamus relief or did the very mechanisms set in place by Sullivan create an improper intrusion into Executive Branch matters and a harmful delay in the relief to which Flynn was entitled?
Even if the Court of Appeals ultimately holds that mandamus is premature, expect the full Court to set clear standards as to what Judge Sullivan can and cannot do (and how long he can take) in ruling on DOJ’s Motion to Dismiss. And make no mistake about it. The DOJ’s Motion will ultimately be granted.
July 31, 2020 in Current Affairs, Defense Counsel, Government Reports, Investigations, Judicial Opinions, Legal Ethics, News, Obstruction, Perjury, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, July 20, 2020
Michael T. Flynn's Opposition to Rehearing En Banc has been filed today in the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. This is in opposition to Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's Petition for Rehearing En Banc, filed on July 9. The Department of Justice was invited by the Court to respond and did so today in the United States' Response to the Petition for Rehearing En Banc.
Both Flynn and DOJ argue that Sullivan lacked standing to file the Petition for Rehearing, as he is not a party and there is no longer a case or controversy. Apparently only one federal judge in history has filed such a petition and it was denied. DOJ's brief also argues in detail, quite effectively I think, that the panel's decision granting mandamus does not conflict with: D.C. Circuit precedent; precedent in other circuits; or Supreme Court precedent.
DOJ also responds directly and succinctly to Judge Sullivan's argument that mandamus was premature, because he had not yet held a hearing or made a ruling on DOJ's Motion to Dismiss. Flynn therefore had an effective remedy on appeal from any adverse ruling. This argument ignores the continuing harm to the Executive Branch's interests occasioned by the judge's dilatory behavior:
"That objection misses the point: at stake is not mere consideration of a pending motion, but a full-scale adversarial procedure spearheaded by a court-appointed amicus hostile to the government’s position raising factual questions, relying on extra-record materials, probing the government’s internal deliberations, and second-guessing core prosecutorial judgments.... Accordingly, while the panel specifically recognized that '[a] hearing may sometimes be appropriate before granting leave of court under Rule 48,' it determined that the hearing contemplated by the district court here would 'be used as an occasion to superintend the prosecution’s charging decisions' and would cause 'specific harms.' "
My prediction is that Judge Sullivan's Petition for Rehearing En Banc will be denied.
Thursday, July 9, 2020
The Supreme Court issued two opinions on the last day of the Court, all pertaining to the non-release of taxes and documents of President Trump. The questions presented (here) had different entities seeking business records or tax returns of the President for oversight or investigations. Some points from the Mazars/Duetsche Bank cases:
- A president contesting demands for presidential documents is not typically a problem because the president usually works it out with the legislature.
- There is a lot of history of "negotiation and compromise - without the involvement of this Court - until the present dispute."
- We're not going to use the typical standards when documents of the President are subpoenaed.
- A four-part test should be used: (a)"First, courts should carefully assess whether the asserted legislative purpose warrants the significant step of involving the President and his papers." (b) "Second, to narrow the scope of possible conflict between the branches, courts should insist on a subpoena no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress's legislative objective." (c) "Third, courts should be attentive to the nature of the evidence offered by Congress to establish that a subpoena advances a valid legislative purpose." (d)"Fourth, courts should be careful to assess the burdens imposed on the President by a subpoena."
- "When Congress seeks information 'needed for intelligent legislative action,' it 'unquestionably' remains 'the duty of all citizens to cooperate."
In a 7-2 opinion, the Court sent it back to the lower court to rule consistently with this opinion.
The Vance case was also 7-2. This case also provides enormous historical information and analysis:
- "Beginning with Jefferson and carrying on through Clinton, Presidents have uniformly testified or produced documents in criminal proceedings when called upon by federal courts. This case involves - so far as we and the parties can tell - the first state criminal subpoena directed to a President."
- There is no need to use a heightened standard here to protect the President, "the public interest in fair and effective law enforcement cuts in favor of comprehensive access to evidence."
- He could still challenge the subpoena just like everyone else could do so.
- "Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our Court established that no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding .... the President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need."
Justice Kavanaugh, with who Justice Gorsuch joined concurring stated, "In our system of government, as this Court has often stated, no one is above the law."
One last point - many say that the public will not see the documents and taxes of President Trump prior to the next election. That depends on whether the President continues this fight to keep the public and an investigating state from receiving these items. The Court has ruled in these two cases and given an opportunity to the President to comply with what every President has done in the past - provide the materials. The question is - will he?
The Flynn case has proved to be interesting, with first a guilty plea by Flynn, and then the government trying to dismiss the case. Prior posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The latest is that Judge Emmet G. Sullivan has filed a Petition for Rehearing En Banc. The issues include that "the panel opinion conflicts with the Supreme Court's Decision in Rinaldi v. United States," and that it "conflicts with this Court's mandamus precedents." This could prove some interesting legal questions for the full DC Circuit Court of Appeals to hear. Full brief available here (law.com)
These cases come at it from different angles, but all involve subpoenaed records of Donald Trump. In the Mazur case the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform issued a subpoena to Trump's accounting firm and some of his businesses for financial records. In the Deutsche Bank case the Committee on Financial Services and the Intelligence Committee also issued subpoenas for records from President Trump and his businesses. The issue before the Court was "whether three committees of the House of Representatives had the constitutional and statutory authority to issue subpoenas to their-party custodians for the personal records of the sitting President of the United States? In the Vance case it is the N.Y. District Attorney attempting to get financial records of President Trump and a business - the records being in the hands of an accounting firm. The question before the Court was "whether this subpoena violates Article II and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution."
And the winner is: Depends.
Mazur/Deutsche Bank here
Commentary to follow.
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
A frequent accusation hurled at the Michael Flynn camp is that Flynn’s plea deal was a tremendous boon to him, because Flynn faced possible charges, or, in the words of Lawfare’s Ben Wittes, “massive criminal liability”, for failing to register as a foreign agent for Turkey, during the transition period, in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (“FARA”).
This argument is absurd. For openers, almost nobody faces massive criminal liability under FARA. It has a five year statutory maximum and would, in Flynn's case, probably be scored under Section 2B1.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines. (This is because FARA has no Guideline section attached to it and 2B1.1, is "the most analogous" offense Guideline.) And no amount of monetary loss would be factored in. Thus, even a defendant in Flynn's shoes who went to trial and got convicted could easily receive a Guidelines range of 0-6 months.
Second, it is not at all clear that Flynn was an agent of Turkey during the transition period or that he could have been successfully convicted as such pursuant to FARA. Flynn severed his ties with Turkey shortly after Trump won the election. His partner in Flynn Intel Group (Bijan Rafiekian) was tried and convicted in the Eastern District of Virginia for conspiring to violate FARA (by submitting a materially false FARA filing ) in relation to a transaction that Flynn himself participated in. (Indeed, the government's Statement of the Offense in U.S. v. Flynn included allegations of false statements by Flynn in connection with the very project at the heart of Rafiekian's case.) The highly respected trial judge, Anthony Trenga, however, threw out the jury's verdict after trial based on insufficient evidence, ruling that no rational juror could have found Flynn’s partner guilty. See U.S. v. Rafiekian Opinion Granting Rule 29 Motion. That ruling is currently being appealed by the DOJ at the Fourth Circuit.
Third, the DOJ itself told Judge Trenga that Flynn was not a co-conspirator with his Rafiekian. The DOJ tried to reverse its position on this point when Flynn moved to withdraw his DC plea, but Trenga was having none of it.
Thus, there is no indication that Flynn feared going to trial under 18 U.S.C. Section 1001 or FARA. His original lawyers didn't see a crime. Flynn had a good chance to win and the downside was small, which is quite rare in federal prosecutions. But the government threatened to charge Flynn's son. It’s as simple as that. Then the prosecutors left that key condition out of Flynn’s written plea agreement, so that this part of the deal wouldn’t necessarily have to be revealed as Giglio to future defendants who Flynn might be called to testify against. That's how the sausage is sometimes made in white collar cases. But let's not pretend anything other than his son's fate was at stake for General Flynn. Either a guilty plea or a guilty jury verdict would have been equally devastating for Flynn's reputation.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
The opinion of the DC Circuit Court can be found here - Download Flynn opinion
Some thoughts -
1. Bottom line is that the decision in a 2-1 vote that the Flynn case should be dismissed.
2. Rule 48 plays a crucial role in the decision - " Whatever the precise scope of Rule 48's 'leave of court' requirement, this is plainly not the rare case where further judicial inquiry is warranted."
3. The court rejects Flynn's request to seek reassignment of the district judge.
4. The court relies heavily on the Fokker decision.
5. Much of the decision (7 pages) is spent on responding to the dissent.
6. The court states - "This is not a case about whether 'a district judge may even hold a hearing on a Rule 48(a) motion. . . . Rather, it is about whether, after the government has explained why a prosecution is no longer in the public interest, the district judge may prolong the prosecution by appointing an amicus, encouraging public participation, and probing the government's motives."
The dissent -
1. This is first time granting a mandamus without first giving the lower court a chance to rule. - "Flynn fails to carry his burden, and especially given that the District Court has yet to rule on the motion to dismiss, the writ should not issue to compel the District Court to grant the motion."
2. The court is using dicta from the Fokker case, which creates a split with other Court of Appeals.
3. "Both this Court and the Supreme Court regularly permit the participation of amici in the criminal context, however, and there is no readily apparent reason why, in appropriate circumstances, a district court might not exercise its inherent power to do the same - especially in the absence of any authority expressly prohibiting it."
So what happens now?
Will Judge Sullivan ask for an en banc review of this decision? Will he conduct an inquiry as he did in the Ted Stevens case? And are there other options here? Stay tuned.
Friday, June 19, 2020
Attached are the separate Responses of Michael Flynn and the Department of Justice to former federal judge John Gleeson's Amicus Brief in U.S. v. Flynn. A copy of Gleeson's Brief is also attached for ease of reference. Keep in mind that all of these papers were filed in Judge Emmet Sullivan's court, rather in the DC Court of Appeals which is hearing General Flynn's Petition for Writ of Mandamus against Judge Sullivan. This is because it was Judge Sullivan who decided to appoint an amicus and set a lengthy briefing schedule instead of granting the Motion to Dismiss outright or simply holding a hearing in the first place.
The DOJ Response, in addition to demolishing Gleeson's legal arguments, puts more stress than before on the Interests of Justice rationale for moving to dismiss the case against General Flynn. I'll be commenting on that in the next few days. DOJ also goes out of its way to oppose the Flynn camp's position that there was prosecutorial misconduct connected to the prosecution. DOJ rejects this out of hand, both with respect to all of the older exculpatory materials and the information discovered, declassified, and turned over by U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jensen within the last two months. DOJ in fact turned over a significant amount of exculpatory material prior to General Flynn's guilty plea. Of course, we still have the mystery of the missing original draft 302, which has not been explained to my satisfaction by the Fan Belt Inspectors.
As noted, the Jensen documents were not turned over until very recently, but there is no indication that any prosecutor knew, much less received, these items. That's important, because these items unmistakably lend further support to the view that Flynn's January 24 statements to FBI Special Agents were not material to the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane investigation. This makes the items Brady in my view. But DOJ still has its institutional interests to protect. And it has historically been in the forefront of seeking to limit the reach of Brady.
More to come on all of this.
Sunday, June 14, 2020
One of the ironies of high-profile, criminal investigations of public officials, particularly Special and Independent Counsel investigations, is the outrage expressed by certain segments of the populace upon discovering the existence of very common law enforcement techniques. Hence the outrage among President Clinton's supporters when they learned that Linda Tripp secretly tape-recorded her "best friend" Monica Lewinsky at the behest of Ken Starr's prosecutors. Hence the outrage, among Trump's supporters, when they discovered that FBI officials wanted to catch General Flynn in a lie and threatened his son with prosecution in order to coerce a guilty plea. "That happens all the time," say the know-it-all criminal law cognoscenti who fellow-travel with one side or another, as well as their minions who parrot the party line to the faithful. Except in the case of Judge Starr. Almost nobody was on our side, parroting our points. Except the courts. Most of the time. But I digress.
Our subject today is a nasty little paragraph inserted into General Flynn's plea agreement by Bob Mueller's staff. I first started noticing this provision 5 or 6 years ago in some of the plea offers that came my way, depending on which U.S. Attorney's Office I was dealing with at the time. It has shown up more often since then, but is far from universal. It can be found in most or all of the Mueller team's plea agreements. It is typically found in Paragraph 9(F) within the Waivers section. It states as follows: "Your client agrees to waive all rights, whether asserted directly or by a representative, to request or receive from any department or agency of the United States any records pertaining to the investigation or prosecution of this case, including and without any limitation any records that may be sought under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. Section 552, or the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. Section 552(a), for the duration of the Special Counsel's Investigation." The limiting of the waiver to the duration of the investigation is not a feature I have previously encountered.
Although the waiver does not mention Brady material on its face, it clearly applies to requests for exculpatory records. (As I noted here recently, it was after General Flynn’s case was transferred to Judge Sullivan’s court, and Sullivan entered his broad standing Brady Order, that Mueller’s team appears to have provided voluminous additional discovery to Flynn’s lawyers.) Prosecutors have a constitutional duty to turn over exculpatory information to the defense even if defense counsel does not request it. But case law holds that more detailed, specific defense requests create a greater prosecutorial obligation. In my view, this paragraph forces defense counsel to breach his or her ethical duties to the client to vigorously demand Brady material as well as mitigating information required under state ethical rules and the McDade Amendment. The Department of Justice should put a stop to this and prohibit all such provisions from being part of its plea agreements. This includes FOIA requests, which serve to ensure, post-judgment, that the government's Brady obligations have been met. Here is the Flynn Plea Agreement.
Thursday, June 11, 2020
Reply briefs were filed yesterday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in In re: Michael T. Flynn. Oral arguments are set for tomorrow morning, June 12. Attached here are; Flynn's Emergency Petition for Writ of Mandamus; the D.C. Circuit's highly unusual May 21, 2020 Order requiring Judge Emmet Sullivan to respond to the Petition's argument that Sullivan is obliged to grant DOJ's Motion to Dismiss the Flynn Indictment with prejudice; Judge Sullivan's June 1, 2020 Brief in Response to the Court of Appeals Order; Flynn's June 10 Reply Brief; DOJ's June 10 Reply Brief; and a further Response Brief on behalf of Judge Emmet G. Sullivan. Enjoy!
Saturday, June 6, 2020
Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001, criminalizes certain false statements or omissions made to the federal government. The statute requires that the false statement be material to a matter within the jurisdiction of a federal agency or department. Materiality is an element of the offense that must be alleged and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. It is usually a fairly easy element for prosecutors to establish.
General Michael Flynn was charged with violating Section 1001 in a one count Criminal Information that tracked a portion of the statutory language. The Information was filed in federal court on December 1, 2017, by prosecutors in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office. Those prosecutors charged Flynn with lying to the FBI during the course of a White House interview conducted on January 24, 2017. The January 24 interview concerned late December 2016 conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Kislyak during the post-election Presidential transition period.
A federal court cannot accept a guilty plea without a Factual Basis, sometimes referred to as a Factual Statement or Statement of the Offense. It is typically filed along with the Plea Agreement or is incorporated into the Plea Agreement itself. According to the Statement of the Offense filed in General Flynn's case: "Flynn's false statements and omissions impeded and otherwise had a material impact on the FBI's ongoing investigation into the existence of any links or coordination between individuals associated with the Campaign and Russia's efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election." We now know this wasn't true. Flynn's statements, whether false or not, had no effect on the Russian Collusion investigation.
Crossfire Hurricane, launched on July 31, 2016, was the name given to the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion, witting or unwitting, between members of Trump’s campaign team and Russians attempting to influence the 2016 election. Crossfire Hurricane was not begun based on any allegations related to General Michael Flynn. Instead, the Bureau authorized Crossfire Hurricane after it learned, third-hand, that Russia may have “suggested” assisting the Trump campaign by anonymously releasing dirt on Hillary Clinton. An FBI subfile was created on Flynn, not because of any allegations against him, but because of Flynn’s known contacts with Russia. Such contacts would hardly be surprising for a former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who was a Trump advisor rumored to be Trump’s choice for National Security Director if he won the election. The subfile investigation of Flynn was known as Crossfire Razor.
FBI officials Jim Comey, Andy McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page each knew, well before Flynn's January 24 interview, that the General had no involvement whatsoever in any improper or illegal coordination with Russia regarding the 2016 election. Flynn had already been completely cleared in Crossfire Razor by January 4, 2017. A draft Closing Communication, documenting the complete lack of evidentiary support for Flynn's involvement in, or knowledge of, 2016 election collusion, was prepared on January 4 by the Crossfire Razor team. But the decision to close the file had been made even before January 4. Such a draft Closing Communication would never have been commenced unless the case agents had received prior approval from their FBI Supervisor, and Former FBI Director Comey testified that he authorized the closing of Crossfire Razor by December 2016.
But none of this exculpatory information regarding materiality was shared at any time with the original defense attorneys representing Flynn, either before or after he entered his December 1, 2017 guilty plea. (Nor was it shared with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was by then the Acting Attorney General for purposes of the Mueller Investigation and had final authority over Mueller's charging decisions.) The knowledge that Flynn's January 24, 2017 interview responses did not influence and were arguably incapable of influencing the Crossfire Hurricane investigation was relevant both to Flynn's guilt and punishment. While there is some uncertainty in the law as to whether Brady material must be turned over to the defense prior to a guilty plea, there is no uncertainty about Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's standing Discovery Order that he enters in every criminal case, and entered in Flynn's. It directs the government "to produce to defendant in a timely manner any evidence in its possession that is favorable to defendant and material either to defendant's guilt or punishment. This government responsibility includes producing, during plea negotiations, any exculpatory evidence in the government's possession."
Flynn had already pled guilty when his case was transferred to Sullivan's court, but he was still awaiting punishment. After the case was transferred, and Sullivan entered his Standing Order, Mueller's team produced voluminous additional documents to Flynn's team. Why did they do this when, under the terms of the Plea Agreement, Flynn was no longer allowed to request additional documents from the government? Because Mueller's prosecutors knew the significance of Sullivan's Standing Order and the additional burden it placed on them. Moreover, Sullivan had Flynn reaffirm his original plea colloquy, under oath, in December 2018. There is thus no question that the information discovered by Eastern District of Missouri U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jensen, and publicly released for the first time last month at the direction of Bill Barr, should have been produced by Mueller's team to Flynn. What we don't know yet is whether any prosecutor on Mueller's original team, or on the post-Mueller team handling the Flynn case, knew about the recently disclosed documents.
And one more thing. You can ignore commentators like Chuck Rosenberg, who recently listed here, in the Washington Post, all the folks (Trump, Pence, Priebus, etc.) who presumably thought Flynn's allegedly false statements were material. Chuck is relying on the general public's ignorance of federal criminal law. The only materiality at issue in U.S. v. Flynn is the materiality of the January 24, 2017 statements Flynn made to high-ranking FBI Supervisory Agents, which statements formed the basis of Michael Flynn's guilty plea and Statement of the Offense. Those post-inauguration statements about post-election conversations with Ambassador Kislyak, were clearly immaterial to an investigation of election-related collusion that had already cleared Flynn.
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.
Thursday, March 5, 2020
U.S. District Court Reggie Walton issued an order today stating that he would review in camera the unredacted version of the Mueller Report to determine whether the withheld material comports with FOIA exemptions. But the Court's Order also sends a message on the importance of truthful transparency. The court in comparing the redacted Mueller Report with Attorney General Barr's comments states in part:
"The Court has grave concerns about the objectivity of the process that preceded the public release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report and its impact on the Department's subsequent justifications that is redactions of the Mueller Report are authorized by the FOIA."
"The speed by which Attorney General Barr released to the public the summary of Special Counsel Mueller's principal conclusions, coupled with the fact that Attorney General Barr failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings set forth in the Mueller Report, causes the Court to question whether Attorney General Barr's intent was to create a one-sided narrative about the Mueller Report - a narrative that is clearly in some respects substantively at odds with the redacted version of the Mueller Report."
"[t]he Court cannot reconcile certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report. The inconsistencies between Attorney General Barr's statements, made at a time when the public did not have access to the redacted version of the Mueller Report to assess the veracity of his statements, and portions of the redacted version of the Mueller Report that conflict with those statements, cause the Court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller Report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the contrary.
These circumstances generally, and Attorney General Barr's lack of candor specifically, call into question Attorney General Barr's credibility and in turn, the Department's representation that 'all of the information redacted from the version of the [Mueller] Report released by [ ] Attorney General [Barr]' is protected from disclosure by its claimed FOIA exemptions."
The Order can be found from the link on the Electronic Privacy Information Center's webpage here.
Saturday, July 13, 2019
- Who in DOJ made the ultimate decision to drop the proposed felony indictment of Jeffrey Epstein and to cap the Non-Prosecution Agreement ("NPA") sentence at two years--later reduced to 18 months? The 6-2-17 affidavit of AUSA Ann Marie Villafaña, the lead prosecutor on the original federal criminal case, largely supports Alex Acosta's account of certain key events in this week's press conference. Keep in mind, however, that her affidavit was filed as part of the Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 litigation in SDFL, which resulted in Judge Marra's ruling that SDFL violated the Crime Victim's Rights Act ("CVRA") by failing to notify Epstein's victims about the NPA. At the time it was filed, the affidavit was focused on the effort to convince Marra that SDFL had not violated the conferral/right to be heard provisions of CVRA. On pages 8 and 9 of her affidavit, Villafaña attests that: "Prior to the Office making its decision to direct me to engage in negotiations with Epstein's counsel, I discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the case with members of the Office's management and informed them that most of the victims had expressed significant concerns about having their identities disclosed. While I was not part of the final decision-making at the Office that arrived at the two year sentence requirement, I was part of the discussions regarding sex offender registration and the restitution provision. It is my understanding from these and other discussions that these factors, that is, the various strengths and weaknesses of the case...together with the Office's desire to obtain a guaranteed sentence of incarceration for Epstein, the equivalent of uncontested restitution for the victims, and guaranteed sexual offender registration...were among the factors that informed the Office's discretionary decision to negotiate a resolution of the matter and to ultimately enter into the NPA." Translation: Villafaña disagreed with dropping the indictment and was not part of the group that made the ultimate decision to go for an NPA with a two year state prison cap. If she was even present at the meeting where the decision was made, she disagreed with the decision and was thus not "part of the final decision-making process." It is unusual, but not unheard of, for the lead prosecutor to be overruled on a case. It is very unusual to go from a 50-plus page multi-count felony sex trafficking indictment to an NPA with no federal charges, particularly when your lead prosecutor wants to go to trial. Villafaña was and is a respected career AUSA. Apparently DOJ's Office of Professional Responsibility ("OPR") is looking into how the case was handled. OPR will want to see Villafaña's original pros memo in the case, will seek to interview all government participants in the negotiations, and will want to know every DOJ person involved in the ultimate decision to drop the indictment.
- Why was DOJ's standard language making it explicitly clear that the NPA bound only the SDFL not included in the NPA? Such language is employed every day by U.S. Attorneys' Offices throughout the United States and has been for years. It goes like this: "The defendant understands that this agreement is binding only on the U.S. Attorney's Office for the ________ District of _______." Why wasn't that done in Epstein's case? Epstein is now arguing that the SDFL NPA prevents his prosecution in SDNY. He will probably lose, given Second Circuit case law, but why even leave the possibility of challenge open? The NPA does not even include a standard integration clause. This is strange.
- Why was the entire NPA placed under seal? I understand the Government's desire to protect the identity of Epstein's victims, but this could have been done through a redacted version of the NPA, and indeed this has been done in the subsequent litigation.
- Why weren't all of Epstein's known victims notified of the NPA and its terms in a timely fashion? Acosta and Villafaña have explained that they did not want the victims to see the civil damages portion of the NPA before SDFL was certain that Epstein would be pleading to the Florida felony, because they did not want the victims to be cross-examined about having seen those provisions in the event the deal broke down and SDFL took Epstein to trial. Epstein signed the Florida plea papers only a few days before he actually pled guilty and there was not enough time to notify all the victims. I understand the explanation, and assume no bad faith on SDFL's part, but it doesn't cut the mustard. If Judge Marra is correct, CVRA required notification. And either the NPA or Florida plea deal could have been structured to prevent the fiasco of having to locate and confer with victims over a weekend. Marra ruled that SDFL affirmatively hid the NPA from the victims and essentially deceived them into thinking that the office was still investigating Epstein well after the NPA was signed. That scenario should have been avoided.
- Why were Epstein's lawyers allowed to lobby Main Justice after the NPA was signed? I understand going to Main Justice and arguing to overturn an individual office's charging decision. Not every lawyer obtains such access and these efforts to overturn are rarely successful. But they almost always occur BEFORE an indictment has been returned. Why was Epstein's team allowed to lobby for several months AFTER the NPA was signed. The original NPA was signed by attorneys on both sides in September 2007. An addendum was signed by the attorneys in October 2007. Epstein signed in December 2007. The Oosterbaan letter, explaining why federal involvement was legitimate, was not signed until May 15, 2008. This is weird.
I do not believe that the Epstein deal was "dirty" in any way. I have heard from multiple sources that Acosta is a person of high integrity, who was well regarded within the office. I was impressed with Acosta's handling of the press conference. I don't think he should have resigned. I don't know how easy or hard it would have been for SDFL to achieve a victory at trial or how many victims would have been further traumatized by a trial. I do know that SDFL has a long history of aggressively prosecuting these types of cases--child sex trafficking and kiddie porn. And I do believe SDFL should have conferred with the victims before NPA was inked. Acosta had no criminal trial experience when he became U.S. Attorney. Was he was out-negotiated here, or overawed by the team of big name defense lawyers representing Epstein? His First Assistant Jeffrey Sloman, a veteran prosecutor who was deeply involved in the negotiations and signed the NPA, has denied this and has publicly defended both Acosta and the deal.
Still, the questions I and others have posed are legitimate and deserve answers. Perhaps we will get them from the OPR investigation.
Here are some additional documents. The first three were made available by Acosta in connection with his press conference in order to help support his explanation of the NPA. Next is the Jeffrey Sloman op-ed defending Acosta and the deal. The final three documents are the most recent filings in the SDNY case and all deal with the government's effort to detain Epstein pending trial.
July 13, 2019 in Celebrities, Civil Litigation, Current Affairs, Defense Counsel, Deferred Prosecution Agreements, Investigations, Judicial Opinions, News, Prosecutions, Prosecutors | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, June 17, 2019
As previously written here, the Supreme Court issued the Gamble decision upholding the continued use of the dual sovereignty doctrine. So states and the federal government - separate sovereigns - can continue to both prosecute defendants for the same conduct, without facing a double jeopardy problem. As the sovereigns are different, there is no constitutional violation.
Some thoughts on the decision:
- The Court does an exhaustive review of the history of double jeopardy before reaching its conclusion.
- The "foreign issue" raises a concern. ("If, as Gamble suggests, only one sovereign may prosecute for a single act, no American court—state or federal—could prosecute conduct already tried in a foreign court.")
- Stare decisis is an important concept that needs to be adhered to. ("Stare decisis 'promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.' Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U. S. 808, 827 (1991)"); ("Gamble’s historical arguments must overcome numerous 'major decisions of this Court' spanning 170 years.")
- If you want to change longstanding precedent, you need to have strong support to succeed. ("we have the following (1) not a single reported case in which a foreign acquittal or conviction barred a later prosecution for the same act in either Britain or America; (2) not a single reported decision in which a foreign judgment was held to be binding in a civil case in a court of law; (3) fragmentary and not entirely consistent evidence about a 17th-century case in which a defendant named Hutchinson, having been tried and acquitted for murder someplace in the Iberian Peninsula, is said to have been spared a second trial for this crime on some ground, perhaps out of “merc[y],” not as a matter of right; (4) two cases (one criminal, one in admiralty) in which a party invoked a prior foreign judgment, but the court did not endorse or rest anything on the party’s reliance on that judgment; and (5) two Court of Chancery cases actually holding that foreign judgments were not (or not generally) treated as barring trial at common law. This is the flimsy foundation in case law for Gamble’s argument that when the Fifth Amendment was ratified, it was well understood that a foreign criminal judgment would bar retrial for the same act.”)
- Beware of relying on secondary sources. ("Gamble’s argument is based on treatises, but they are not nearly as helpful as he claims. Alone they do not come close to settling the historical question with enough force to meet Gamble’s particular burden under stare decisis.").
Justice Thomas wrote a concurring opinion in which he states - "I write separately to address the proper role of the doctrine of stare decisis. In my view, the Court’s typical formulation of the stare decisis standard does not comport with our judicial duty under Article III because it elevates demonstrably erroneous decisions—meaning decisions outside the realm of permissible interpretation—over the text of the Constitution and other duly enacted federal law." But he then finds no showing that the dual sovereignty rule is "incorrect, much less demonstrably erroneous," and thus concurs with the majority.
There are two dissents - Justices Ginsburg and Gorsuch. Justice Gorsuch says, "[t]he separate sovereigns exception was wrong when it was invented, and it remains wrong today."
The Court sends a strong message in this decision that the Court is not going to be political in deciding this case. Some may focus on the stare decisis analysis, the italics used in the decision "numerous" and "170 years" as to whether other cases may remain in place, but that all remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether state legislatures will put in place restrictions on prosecuting cases already handled by the federal government. Likewise, one has to wonder if Congress will be engaged to step in to formalize the petite policy currently existing in DOJ. But for now, dual sovereignty remains.