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August 17, 2016

Federal district judge assails prosecutors for not seeking more prison time for cooperators in government corruption cases

This local article from New Jersey, headlined "Judge blasts U.S. attorney during sentencing of Guttenberg contractor in theft," reports on a federal judge expressing concern that federal prosecutors are being too soft in sentencing recommendations in a notable white-collar setting.  Here are the details:

A federal judge repeatedly criticized the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark during a hearing Wednesday, scolding prosecutors for seeking light sentences -- sometimes with no prison time -- for people who plead guilty to corruption and related offenses.

Before sentencing a Guttenberg contractor who conspired with Union City officials to steal federal housing funds, U.S. District Judge William H. Walls spent several minutes upbraiding the U.S. Attorney's Office for a "ridiculous" pattern of bringing corruption cases and then seeking lenient sentences for defendants who plead guilty.

"That is so ridiculous it makes no sense in the context of true law enforcement," Walls said from the bench. "This is sheer legal nonsense." "If you swindle the government, regardless of your status, you should go to jail," he added.

Despite his protests, Walls agreed in the end with prosecutors, who had filed motions to avoid mandatory sentencing guidelines, and sentenced the defendant in Wednesday's case to three years of probation instead of prison.

Walls, a senior judge appointed by President Bill Clinton, is also presiding over the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.  Attorneys for Menendez, D-Paramus, deny the charges and have sought to quash the indictment. Justice Department officials in Washington are handling that prosecution, not the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman has made corruption cases a hallmark of his tenure and his office is prosecuting Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, two former associates of Governor Christie's who have been implicated in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure case.  Christie, who was U.S. attorney before Fishman, also made corruption cases a highlight of his term.

Since President Obama appointed him in 2009, Fishman has secured convictions for several top officials including the former chairman of the Bergen County Democratic Organization, Joseph Ferriero; a former Trenton mayor, Tony Mack; and the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, David Samson, who is also a former New Jersey attorney general.

A spokesman for Fishman, in response to Walls's comments, noted that defendants who cooperate with prosecutors are entitled to "some consideration" at sentencing.  “It is firmly rooted in our system of justice that a defendant who admits his own guilt and cooperates in the government's investigation or prosecution of criminal conduct is entitled to some consideration at the time of sentencing," said Fishman spokesman Matthew Reilly.  "It is the prosecution's responsibility to bring that information to the attention of the court, and the court has the discretion to determine how much weight to give it.”

Darren Gelber, a lawyer at the Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer firm and a former president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, said "Judge Walls has a reputation of being a tough sentencer."

"I'm sure he like others has become increasingly frustrated with the perception that corruption is all too prevalent in our state," said Gelber, who was not involved in Wednesday's case.

The U.S. Attorney's Office charged that Leovaldo Fundora, the owner of Falcon Remodeling of Guttenberg, conspired with two public officials in Union City to steal federal housing funds. The two Union City officials instructed Fundora to collude with two other businesses, which are unnamed in court papers.... Prosecutors estimated losses from the scheme between $120,000 and $200,000.

"I deeply regret what I have done," Fundora told the court as his wife and daughter sat behind him. "I know it's going to take a long time to get my reputation back, but I will try my best."  His attorney, Raymond Flood, said Fundora was a Cuban immigrant who had been working since he was 12 years old. "He's been a criminal for four years," Walls noted, "four years that he swindled the government."

Fundora pleaded guilty in 2013 and his theft conviction carried a maximum sentence of 10 years and a $250,000 fine.  At Fundora's sentencing hearing Wednesday, prosecutors recommended a much lighter sentence and Walls, despite his critical comments, agreed.  The U.S. Attorney's Office filed what is known as a "5K1.1" motion, asking the judge to depart from the federal sentencing guidelines to impose a lighter punishment on Fundora.  Walls sentenced Fundora to three years of probation, ordered him to pay $73,753 in restitution, and imposed a $2,000 fine.

"This is absolutely ridiculous and I will not do it again," Walls told the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, Barbara Llanes.  Walls said businesses that win contracts from government agencies should hold themselves to a higher standard.  He suggested the U.S. Attorney's Office was more interested in getting favorable conviction statistics than pursuing tough punishments.  "The society is being swindled, and your office seems to care about notching wins," the judge told Llanes.

Responding to Walls's questions, Llanes noted that the two Union City public officials -- Johnny Garces and Washington Borgono, who both pleaded guilty -- have not been sentenced.  Prosecutors would not file "5K1.1" motions for them, she added.

August 17, 2016 at 05:43 PM | Permalink

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