Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Justified criticisms of Prez Obama's not-so-justified criticisms of proposed mens rea reform
This new National Review commentary authored by James Copland and Rafael Mangual, headlined "On Criminal-Justice Reform, Obama Should Practice What He Preaches — Civility," levels complaints at the Obama Administration for complaining about mens rea reform efforts in Congress. Here are excerpts:
In his final State of the Union address, President Obama expressed his hope to reach across the aisle on what he described as a “priority” issue: criminal-justice reform. Although we strongly agree with the president that reforming the federal approach to criminal justice should be a priority, he has unfortunately jeopardized such reforms with an uncompromising hostility to Republicans’ — and other Democrats’ — reform ideas....
Following the lead of left-wing advocacy groups including Public Citizen and Think Progress, the White House and the Justice Department almost instantly came out against both criminal-intent bills [introduced in the House and Senate]. A White House official told the Huffington Post that these bills would “enable defendants charged with a range of offenses — including violent crimes, terrorism, and sexual offenses — to potentially escape liability for egregious and harmful conduct.”
These claims are pure poppycock and completely at odds with the president’s State of the Union call for a “rational, constructive,” and “more elevated debate.” To be sure, there might be reasonable critiques of the draft legislation and possible amendments that could create different definitions or standards — just as the sentencing reforms supported by President Obama ought to be vetted to make sure that they are not releasing violent criminals back onto the streets. But by drawing a line in the sand against Republican priority reforms — and by suggesting that Republican and Democratic legislators who support criminal-intent standards are somehow soft on terrorism or sexual assault — the president is hardly being constructive or elevating the debate on criminal-justice reform.
In essence, the bill so vehemently opposed by the White House would merely require Congress to be explicit whenever it wishes to criminalize conduct without regard to the intent of the actor. It would prevent courts from assuming from congressional silence that Congress meant to send unknowing violators of a law or regulation to jail, as opposed to merely hitting them with an often-hefty civil fine or penalty.
Democrat stalwarts on the House Judiciary Committee, including John Conyers (D., Mich.) and Shelia Jackson Lee (D., Texas), are supporting this reform because they understand it’s a matter of fundamental fairness. They also understand that it is small businesses and individuals, disproportionately minorities and those less well off, that tend to get unknowingly entangled in the labyrinthine federal code; big businesses and their executives have teams of lawyers to advise them.
The fact is that 15 states have explicit “default” standards for criminal intent like those in the bipartisan task force’s bill. Michigan enacted such a reform most recently, in December 2015. The Michigan ACLU spoke in favor of the law, and it passed both houses of the legislature unanimously.
If President Obama really does care about getting something done on the issue of criminal-justice reform, he ought to heed his own advice and take a more civil tone in his own contributions to that debate. It’s hardly “constructive” to demonize others’ positions and adopt a “my way or the highway” negotiating stance. With Republicans enjoying majorities in both chambers, the criminal-intent piece of the reform effort — a product of more than two years’ effort by a bipartisan task force — is especially important if the president truly hopes to achieve meaningful progress toward criminal-justice reform in his remaining year in office.
Some recent and older related posts:
- Can and will Prez Obama effectively help get a federal sentencing reform bill to his desk?
- Might misguided mens rea reform concerns derail federal sentencing reform's momentum?
- "The Pressing Need for Mens Rea Reform"
- So thankful for federal sentencing reform moving ahead in Congress... but...
- "Our Voluminous Laws And The Need For ‘Mens Rea’ Reform"
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Might misguided mens rea reform concerns derail federal sentencing reform's momentum?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Atlantic piece headlined "A New Hurdle in the Push for Criminal-Justice Reform: A disagreement between a House Republican and the Obama administration creates a challenge." Here is how the article starts:
The stars seem to have aligned. An unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives has coalesced around criminal-justice reform, as the public appears to be paying more attention to fatal police shootings and mass incarceration. President Obama has worked to gin up momentum for reform, and is expected to press for action during his final State of the Union address Tuesday evening.
Even with that common ground, however, tensions are bubbling up. A debate over the burden of proof for criminal convictions now threatens to throw a wrench into the effort to overhaul the nation’s criminal-justice system. That debate was on full display Tuesday during a conversation between House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and The Atlantic’s Washington Editor-at-Large Steve Clemons at an Atlantic Exchange event. The Republican chairman suggested that the House of Representatives won’t approve a criminal-justice deal without changes to the way the U.S. criminal code determines criminal intent, despite the fact that the White House opposes the changes.
“A deal that does not address this issue is not going anywhere in the House of Representatives,” Goodlatte said when asked if he would oppose a deal that did not include such a provision. “It has to be overcome. This is a critical element to doing justice in this country.”
The disagreement points to the possibility that negotiations will break down. It highlights the challenges, and potential pitfalls, of assembling a left-right coalition, and raises the question of how much various interests at play will be willing to compromise. The dispute also threatens to stall sentencing reform, an issue that the president has elevated as a top priority in his second-term.
At stake is a question of fairness. Goodlatte, along with conservative and libertarian organizations, support legal changes that they say would protect citizens from being unfairly charged with crimes they unknowingly committed. The White House, along with liberal organizations, believe that altering the burden of proof could make it more difficult to prosecute criminal activity. Critics also fear the proposal could let big business off the hook for illicit activities that lawyers could claim a company didn’t know were illegal.
That conflict could derail sentencing reform. Goodlatte indicated Tuesday that he would not support an effort to deal with criminal-intent and sentencing reform separately as a way of bolstering the odds of passing legislation to cut down on mandatory minimums for certain offenses.
As the question in the title of this post suggests, I think Rep. Goodlate is 100% right that a provision clarifying that nobody should face serious federal criminal charges without federal prosecutors having to prove the accused had a significantly culpable mens rea is "a critical element to doing justice in this country." Indeed, one of the reasons I stopped considering myself a "liberal" as that term is now understood is because of these kinds of issues where so-called "liberals" seem eager to deny a premise I consider fundamental in a liberal society, namely that one should not be treated like and branded a serious criminal by the government unless and until that government can prove an individual has acted and thought like a serious criminal.
Notably, I know that at least one serious criminal justice reform group, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is supportive of mens rea reform. Consequently, I suspect and fear the "liberal organizations" against this kind of reform are the same type that were cheerleading the laws contributing to mass incarceration passed during the Clinton era when Democrats were eagerly trying to earn political points by being even tougher on crime than their political adversaries. Blah.
Some recent and older related posts:
- Can and will Prez Obama effectively help get a federal sentencing reform bill to his desk?
- "The Pressing Need for Mens Rea Reform"
- So thankful for federal sentencing reform moving ahead in Congress... but...
- "Our Voluminous Laws And The Need For ‘Mens Rea’ Reform"
January 13, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)
Tuesday, December 01, 2015
"Our Voluminous Laws And The Need For ‘Mens Rea’ Reform"
The title of this post is the title of this new posting at Right on Crime. It gets started this way:
As Congress has begun to consider various reforms to the federal criminal justice system in the last several months — sentencing and re-entry policies in particular — another element of federal law that merits consideration is beginning to receive its due, as well: namely, ensuring that criminal statutes or regulations have adequate mens rea, or criminal intent, requirements.
In yesterday’s edition of the Cato Daily Podcast, Caleb Brown interviewed Robert Alt, President of the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, about the current landscape of state and federal criminal law, where Alt succinctly describes the growing problem: “We’ve noticed over the years, both at the Congressional level and the state level, that more and more crimes are being passed that either have no criminal intent requirement at all — where you can be convicted for mere accidents — or they have inadequate mens rea requirements.”
A long-standing tradition among common law jurisdictions has held that criminal actions generally have two elements: the bad action itself (actus reus), and a guilty state of mind (mens rea). In recent decades, legislatures haven’t had much difficulty passing statutes detailing new crimes, or enabling regulatory agencies to concoct administrative rules that also bear criminal penalties. As Alt explains, an American Bar Association task force found in 1998 that the body of federal criminal law was so cumbersome that a single, “conveniently accessible” repository listing them all didn’t exist. Shortly thereafter, they commissioned a study to generate an inventory, in which case over 3,000 federal criminal statutes were detailed.
In 2007, a similar inventory performed by the Heritage Foundation and others found that the number had jumped to roughly 4,500, and this is to say nothing of federal regulatory offenses; estimates have pegged the Federal Register at approximately 300,000 regulations, though no one knows the exact number as those responsible for finding them eventually stop counting.
What hasn’t occurred with regularity as these new laws or rules are being promulgated is inclusion of the second element of crime: establishing culpable intent on the part of the actor. This has the effect of creating new criminals out of people who had no intention or knowledge of running afoul of the law, and can have adverse, long-term consequences.
You be the judge: what federal sentence for beloved elderly preist who embezzled half-million dollars?
This local article, headlined "Dozens ask judge for mercy in sentencing of embezzling Detroit-area Catholic priest," provides the interesting backstory for an interesting federal sentencing scheduled for late today. Here are the basics:
A beloved Catholic priest in Troy was scorned when allegations came forth that he embezzled more than $500,000 from church coffers. Rev. Edward A. Belczak, 70, admitted to diverting $572,775 collected by the church, most of which he kept in a secret private bank account. He also spent $109,570 to purchase a Florida condo in 2005.
Despite the admissions, dozens of people, including many of the parishioners he defrauded, have come forward to ask for a lenient sentence on behalf of the priest who headed St. Thomas More church in Troy from 1984 until 2013. He's scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday.
Belczak pleaded guilty to mail fraud as part of the plea agreement. In exchange, the U.S. Attorneys Office dismissed more serious charges and asked U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow to sentence Belczak to just over three years in prison.
Attorney John J. Morad, a friend and supporter of the priest, thinks any prison time is too much. "He made a terrible mistake and I know that he is embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated by the fact that he disappointed so many people who have grown to love and respect him for the work he has done among the people," Morad wrote in a letter to the judge. " ... I know he has confessed his sins and I'm certain God has forgiven him. Should we do anything less?"
The defense has asked for home detention, while sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of between 33 and 41 months. The theft from the church is believed to have occurred between 2004 and 2012.
UPDATE: This Detroit Free-Press article about the sentencing of Father Belczak report on the basic outcome via its headline: "Embezzling priest gets 27 months: 'It's .. my destiny'"
Monday, November 16, 2015
Sentencing prominent federal defendants: should sex offender Jared Fogle or Sunwest CEO fraudster get longer prison term?
Two notable (and notably different) federal prosecutions are to reach sentencing this week in Indiana and Oregon. Though the crimes and defendants are not similar, the range of sentences being requested by prosecutors and defendants in these two cases are comparable. Via press reports, here are the basic elements of these two federal cases (with links to some underlying documents):
Jared Fogle, who pleaded guilty to federal sex offenses, "Jared Fogle asks for 5-year prison term in court filing before sentencing":
Jared Fogle's attorneys asked for a five-year prison term for the former Subway restaurant pitchman in a court filing before his sentencing Thursday. The filing says Fogle will speak publicly during his hearing before Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in federal court in Indianapolis. "He is painfully aware of the fact that he has impacted the lives of minor victims, hurt those closest to him and, for all practical purposes, destroyed the life he worked to build over the last 18 years," the filing says.
Fogle has agreed to plead guilty to two counts: possession of child pornography and traveling across state lines to engage in sex with a minor. The prosecutor is asking for 12½ years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised probation. That was the maximum sentence the U.S. attorney had agreed to seek in a plea bargain struck with Fogle in August. Fogle faced a maximum sentence on the two federal felony charges of 50 years. The judge has discretion to sentence Fogle to more or less than what the prosecution has requested.
The defense filing acknowledges that the advisory sentencing guideline is 135 to 168 months, but said it is "entitled to little weight because it is the result of a flawed and widely criticized set of … provisions."
Jon Michael Harder, who pleaded guilty to federal fraud offenses, "Former Sunwest CEO, facing sentencing for $130 million fraud, apologizes for 'carnage and problems'":
U.S. prosecutors accuse former Sunwest Management CEO Jon Michael Harder of orchestrating the biggest investment fraud in Oregon history, and they are asking a judge to sentence him to 15 years in prison. IRS criminal investigators say that as the head of a vast network of assisted living centers, he helped make off with $130 million from 1,000 investors between 2006 and 2008.
Harder will go before a judge Monday morning for a rare two-day sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who found him guilty last January of mail fraud and money laundering.
Harder's legal team, seeking leniency, is asking Simon to sentence him to five years in prison. Assistant Public Defender Christopher J. Schatz took the unusual step of filing a court declaration that describes his client as possibly suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from the emotional clubbing he took after Sunwest's failures. "Many of the investors in Sunwest were family members, family friends and members of the Seventh Day Adventist community," Schatz wrote. "Mr. Harder feels that he let all the investors down, that he failed them all."
Harder, too, filed a court paper — a letter of apology to Simon. "I feel incredibly badly for all the carnage and problems that I have caused," he wrote. "I have obsessed, over the last 7 ½ years, about what I should have or could have done differently in operating Sunwest."
A government sentencing memo paints Harder as a chief executive who burned through corporate cash as if it were his own. He drove luxury cars, owned six homes, and once flew about 100 people to Alaska — most of them Sunwest employees — to go fishing.
Intriguingly, it seems that the federal sentencing guidelines would call for a much, much longer sentence for the fraudster than the sex offender: while Jared Fogle appears to be facing a guideline sentencing range of roughly 12 to 14 years, Jon Harder appears to be facing a guideline sentencing range of life without the possibility of parole.
November 16, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)
Saturday, November 14, 2015
"Is Deterrence Relevant in Sentencing White-Collar Defendants?"
The question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Peter Henning and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article is part of the Wayne Law Review symposium “Sentencing White-Collar Defendants: How Much Is Enough?” held in October, 2014. The article looks at the primary justification for imposing punishment on a defendant convicted of a crime, which is deterrence of both the individual who committed the offense (special deterrence) and others similarly situated who will be dissuaded from pursuing similar misconduct (general deterrence). White-collar crimes are different from traditional street crimes, both in the type of conduct involved and the nature of the perpetrators.
One would expect that well-educated individuals, the type of person who commits a white-collar crime, would be easily deterred from violations because of the penalties suffered by others and knowledge of the consequences that is communicated through sentences imposed on others in the same industry or profession. This article considers whether that message is heard because most white-collar offenses occur in seemingly unique circumstances, at least from the defendant’s point of view, and the person rarely expects to be caught, or may even believe that the conduct is not a crime.
The real value of deterrence is in keeping judges from succumbing to the impulse to view white-collar defendants as offenders who, having many good qualities, should not suffer any significant punishment. Deterrence does not so much stop future crimes but acts as a means to inform judges about the need to impose punishments that do not let white-collar defendants use their social status and other resources to avoid the consequences of violations.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Did former House Speaker Hastert get a sweetheart sentencing deal from federal prosecutors?
The question in this post is prompted by this lengthy new Politico article headlined "Hastert's sweet deal: Lawyers question whether federal prosecutors are following guidelines." Here are excerpts:
House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s guilty plea in a hush-money case has some lawyers asking whether the former speaker is getting a sweetheart deal.
At a court hearing in Chicago Wednesday, the prosecution and defense unveiled Hastert’s plea bargain under which he admitted to a felony charge of structuring $952,000 into 106 separate bank withdrawals to avoid federal reporting requirements. The two sides agreed that sentencing guidelines call for Hastert to receive between zero and six months in jail.
But legal experts say those guidelines arguably call for a much longer sentence—closer to two to three years or more, including a potential enhancement for obstruction of justice. And some lawyers say they’re baffled that prosecutors would buy into a calculation that opens the door to Hastert getting a sentence of probation. “It seems like a sweet deal,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said. “It’s just hard to understand.”
The indictment in the case also charged Hastert with lying to the FBI about what he did with the money, concealing that he paid it to a longtime associate in an effort to hide past misconduct. In the plea deal, Hastert admitted to misleading the FBI, but prosecutors agreed to drop the false statement charge....
The agreement between prosecutors and Hastert’s defense that the zero-to-six-month sentencing range is applicable to his case is not the end of the matter. A probation officer will also calculate the range and could disagree with the parties. Durkin will ultimately decide what the guidelines call for. Under the plea deal, Hastert retains the right to appeal the sentence to the 7th Circuit.
Under a 2005 Supreme Court decision, the judge is required to consult the guidelines but he can impose a more or less severe sentence. Experts in structuring cases say judges often sentence below the guidelines, especially in so-called “clean money” cases where the government does not allege that the funds were the product of illegal activity like drug dealing or were being used to avoid taxes.
"The sentencing guidelines for clean-source money cases are totally out of whack," the ex-prosecutor said. "It's insane to sentence someone for a purely regulatory violation as severely if not more severely than someone who defrauded someone out of $952,000. Having said that, there are a good measure of bad acts here, so maybe there would be some rough justice in it."
Prosecutors have alleged that Hastert paid the $952,000 in illegally structured withdrawals to a longtime associate because of Hastert’s past misconduct against that person, identified in court filings only as “Individual A.” Sources have alleged the behavior involved sexual contact with a male student while Hastert was a coach and high school teacher several decades ago, but the indictment does not mention any sexual aspect to the charges.
Experts say Hastert could not be charged or sued today over such acts years ago because the relevant statutes of limitations have expired. Lawyers say a key factor in Hastert's ultimate sentence could be whether Durkin decides Hastert's underlying misconduct is relevant for the purpose of sentencing on the bank reporting charge.
Criminal defense attorney Michael Monico, who co-authored a handbook on federal court practices in Illinois and the greater Midwest, said Durkin will want to know Hastert's motivation for paying out the $3.5 million and the exact nature of the behavior he was trying to hide.
"If I were the judge I would ask about it, I would want to know. I would want to know, what was he hiding?" Monico said. "I think that’s the number one question in the case: Is it relevant to his sentencing what Hastert did to this fellow decades ago? If it isn’t relevant, then probation is OK. If the conduct was despicable then it’s not an appropriate sentence. It seems to me that’s a question the judge has to answer."
October 29, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)
"The Corporation as Snitch: The New DOJ Guidelines on Prosecuting White Collar Crime"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay by Elizabeth Joh and Thomas Joo available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Volkswagen, the world’s largest auto maker, acknowledged in September 2015 that it had equipped its cars with software designed to cheat diesel emissions tests. The VW scandal may become the first major test of the Department of Justice’s recently announced guidelines that focus on individual accountability in white collar criminal investigations. Criminal investigations into safety defects at two other leading car makers, General Motors and Toyota, yielded no criminal charges against any individuals.
But in a recent speech announcing the new guidelines, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates stated, “Crime is crime,” whether it takes place “on the street corner or in the boardroom.” “The rules have just changed.” We raise questions about this new approach and some of its possible implications. The new cooperation policy’s emphasis on individual prosecutions could itself result in leniency: prosecutors may award excessively generous credit to corporations in order to build cases against individuals.
Tuesday, October 06, 2015
The title of this post is the title of this notable paper about a notable federal sentencing provision authored by Miriam Baer and now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This essay, written for the Wayne Law Review’s 2014 Symposium on white collar crime and sentencing, examines the rising popularity of the “sophisticated means” enhancement under Section 2B1.1 of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Over the past decade, the rate at which federal courts apply the enhancement in criminal fraud cases has more than tripled.
This Essay considers several possible explanations for the enhancement’s increasing prevalence, including the possibilities that: (i) fraud offenders as a whole have become more sophisticated; (ii) federal prosecutors are investigating and charging more sophisticated frauds; and (iii) the enhancement’s meaning has, over time, gradually expanded to include additional conduct, a phenomenon I refer to as “sentencing creep.” With this final explanation in mind, the Essay concludes with some practical advice for reinvigorating the enhancement as a useful sorting device.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Former peanut CEO (sort of) gets less than LWOP for salmonella outbreak
As reported in this Reuters article, high-profile federal white-collar sentencings yesterday culminated in a set of severe sentences for executives culpable in a harmful food safety crime. Here are the details:
The former owner of a peanut company in Georgia was sentenced to 28 years in prison on Monday for his role in a salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds, a rare instance of jail time in a food contamination case.
Stewart Parnell, 61, who once oversaw Peanut Corporation of America, and his brother, Michael Parnell, 56, who was a food broker on behalf of the company, were convicted on federal conspiracy charges in September 2014 for knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanuts to customers. Contamination at the company's plant in Blakely, Georgia, led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and forced the company into liquidation.
U.S. District Judge Louis Sands gave Michael Parnell 20 years in prison. Mary Wilkerson, 41, a former quality control manager at the plant who was found guilty of obstruction, was sentenced to five years in prison. Stewart Parnell faced life in prison and his brother faced about 24 years.
Before the judge issued the sentences, Stewart Parnell said; “This has been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family. I’m truly, truly sorry for what’s happened.”
A man whose mother died from eating tainted peanut butter was among those who told a federal judge on Monday that the Parnells should receive stiff prison time. Jeff Almer, of Brainerd, Minnesota, said his mother, Shirley Almer, was among the nine people killed in the salmonella outbreak linked to the company in 2009. "My mother died a painful death from salmonella, and the look of horror on her face as she died shall always haunt me," Almer said during the hearing on Monday in Albany, Georgia. "I just hope they ship you all to jail," Almer said.
During the seven-week trial last year, prosecutors said the Parnell brothers covered up the presence of salmonella in the company's peanut products for years, even creating fake certificates showing the products were uncontaminated despite laboratory results showing otherwise. The Parnells have said they never knowingly endangered customers, and their supporters asked a judge on Monday to show mercy....
An official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified at the trial that the company's peanut products sickened 714 people in 46 states, including 166 of whom were hospitalized.
Though not formally an LWOP sentence, the federal prison term here means the main defendant will have to live until well into his mid-80s to make it through his whole sentence even with time off for good behavior (and the brother will need to make it to his mid 70s). Thus, while I believe these are technically below-guideline sentences, they are still quite severe given the defendants' ages.
Prior related posts:
- Executive facing "unprecedented" LWOP sentence for food-poisoned peanut butter
- You be the federal judge: how long a prison term for peanut executives convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food
Sunday, September 20, 2015
You be the federal judge: how long a prison term for peanut executives convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food?
In this prior post a few months ago, I highlighted that a peanut company executive convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food was facing an “unprecedented” federal life without parole sentence according to the recommended guideline sentencing range. The sentencing proceeding, as reported in this new AP piece, is slated to go forward this Monday. Here is context for answering the query in the title of this post:
A year after a federal jury convicted him of crimes behind a salmonella outbreak blamed for killing nine people and sickening hundreds more, former peanut executive Stewart Parnell returns to court facing possible imprisonment for the rest of his life.
A sentencing hearing was scheduled for Monday in Albany, Georgia, for the 61-year-old former owner of Peanut Corporation of America. Due in U.S. District Court with Parnell were two co-defendants — his brother and a plant manager — also found guilty in what experts called the first food-poisoning trial of American food processors.
Parnell was convicted Sept. 19, 2014, of knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter from his plant in Blakely, Georgia, to Kellogg's and other customers who used it in products from packaged crackers to pet food. The jury also found Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, guilty of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.
The brothers were charged after a salmonella outbreak that sickened 714 Americans in 46 states was traced to Peanut Corporation's plant in Blakely, Georgia, in early 2009. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nine people who ate tainted peanut butter died during the outbreak in 2008 and 2009, though it couldn't say for sure salmonella caused each death.
Federal investigators found a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents, all ingredients for brewing salmonella. They also uncovered emails and records showing food confirmed by lab tests to contain salmonella was shipped to customers anyway. Other batches were never tested at all, but got shipped with fake lab records saying salmonella screenings were negative.
In a court order Friday, Judge W. Louis Sands noted Stewart Parnell faces a possible prison sentence of 9,636 months — which comes to 803 years. The U.S. Probation Office, which prepares pre-sentencing reports to help guide federal judges, recommended the stiff sentence based on the number of illnesses as well as estimates that the outbreak, which triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, cost Parnell's corporate customers $144 million.
The judge has the authority to impose a lighter sentence. Randy Napier, whose 80-year-old mother in Ohio died from salmonella poisoning after she ate contaminated peanut butter from Parnell's plant, said he plans to testify at the hearing and ask the judge to show little mercy. "We need to send a message to these food manufacturers," said Napier of Durham, North Carolina. "No one else should have to go through what we did, watching my mother die. I'm hoping to have closure. It's been six years of utter hell."
Attorneys in the case say voluminous testimony from victims seeking stiff sentences and defendants' relatives asking for leniency could push the sentencing proceedings into a second day Tuesday.
Parnell's attorneys insist locking him up for life would be too harsh. Even food-safety attorney Bill Marler, who represented many families of victims in the salmonella outbreak, has said life imprisonment would be "unprecedented."...
Michael Parnell, who was convicted on fewer counts than his brother, faces a recommended punishment of 19 to 24 years in prison. Co-defendant Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant's quality control manager, faces five years. She was convicted of obstruction of justice.
Three deaths linked to the outbreak occurred in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.
Prior related post:
Friday, September 18, 2015
Shouldn't former federal judge Mark Fuller now be federally prosecuted for perjury?
The question in the title of this post prompted by this new AP article, headlined "Judicial Conference says former federal judge's conduct was reprehensible, impeachable." Here are the details:
Judicial investigators told Congress this week that a former federal judge — arrested last year on a domestic violence charge — had demonstrated "reprehensible conduct" and there was evidence that he abused his wife several times and made false statements to the committee reviewing his behavior.
The Judicial Conference of the United States, in a report to Congress this week, said former U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller of Alabama brought disrepute to the federal judiciary and that his conduct might have warranted impeachment if he had not resigned this summer.
In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee [which can be accessed here], the Judicial Conference noted Fuller's resignation, but said the severity of Fuller's misconduct and its finding of perjury led it to turn the information over to Congress for whatever action lawmakers deem necessary. "This certification may also serve as a public censure of Judge Fuller's reprehensible conduct, which has no doubt brought disrepute to the Judiciary and cannot constitute the 'good behavior' required of a federal judge," Judicial Conference Secretary James C. Duff wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to House Speaker John Boehner....
The Judicial Conference wrote that there was substantial evidence that the judge "physically abused Kelli Fuller at least eight times, both before and after they married, which included and culminated in the assault that took place on Aug. 9, 2014, in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Atlanta, Georgia." The conference wrote that Fuller denied under oath to the investigating committee that he ever hit, punched or kicked his wife, and that the investigating committee considered those to be false statements. The Judicial Conference also cited a separate incident, on which it did not elaborate, saying Fuller in 2010 made a false statement to the chief judge that caused a disruption in operations and a loss of public confidence in the court.
The House committee is not releasing the full report, which contains some sensitive victim information. Fuller was placed on leave after his arrest. In May, he announced that he was resigning effective Aug. 1. The Judicial Council of the U.S. 11th Circuit at the time said Fuller's actions might have warranted impeachment, but the reasons for the determination were not released until this week.
Fuller was appointed to the bench in 2002 by then-President George W. Bush. He is perhaps best known for presiding over the 2006 public corruption trial of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman and former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.
As celebrity white-collar attorneys surely recall, in recent times a number of prominent public figures ranging from Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens to Marion Jones to 'Lil Kim to Scooter Libby have been federally prosecuted for alleged acts of perjury that seems far less serious and consequential than what the Judicial Conference has found former judge Mark Fuller committed. Absent some prominent explanation for why a federal perjury prosecution would not be worthwhile in this setting, I will be mighty disappointed and a bit concerned if Fuller does not face sanctions for his apparent criminal behavior in this matter. (Critically, I am not — at least not yet — asserting that Fuller should be imprisoned for his lying under oath to cover up his misbehavior and stay in his position as a federal judge. But I am saying (former state DA prosecutor) Fuller ought to at least face federal criminal charges and be subject to the heat that comes with a formal federal prosecution.)
Thursday, September 10, 2015
New Justice Department sound and fury about white-collar prosecutions signifying....?
The interrupted question in the title of this post is my first-cut reaction and uncertainty in response to this front-page New York Times report on new Justice Department guidance concerning white-collar prosecutions. The NYTimes piece is headlined "Justice Department Sets Sights on Wall Street Executives," and here are excerpts:
Stung by years of criticism that it has coddled Wall Street criminals, the Justice Department issued new policies on Wednesday that prioritize the prosecution of individual employees — not just their companies — and put pressure on corporations to turn over evidence against their executives.
The new rules, issued in a memo to federal prosecutors nationwide [which can be accessed here], are the first major policy announcement by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch since she took office in April. The memo is a tacit acknowledgment of criticism that despite securing record fines from major corporations, the Justice Department under President Obama has punished few executives involved in the housing crisis, the financial meltdown and corporate scandals.
“Corporations can only commit crimes through flesh-and-blood people,” Sally Q. Yates, the deputy attorney general and the author of the memo, said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s only fair that the people who are responsible for committing those crimes be held accountable. The public needs to have confidence that there is one system of justice and it applies equally regardless of whether that crime occurs on a street corner or in a boardroom.” Photo
Though limited in reach, the memo could erase some barriers to prosecuting corporate employees and inject new life into these high-profile investigations. The Justice Department often targets companies themselves and turns its eyes toward individuals only after negotiating a corporate settlement. In many cases, that means the offending employees go unpunished.
The memo, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times, tells civil and criminal investigators to focus on individual employees from the beginning. In settlement negotiations, companies will not be able to obtain credit for cooperating with the government unless they identify employees and turn over evidence against them, “regardless of their position, status or seniority.” Credit for cooperation can save companies billions of dollars in fines and mean the difference between a civil settlement and a criminal charge....
But in many ways, the new rules are an exercise in public messaging, substantive in some respects but symbolic in others. Because the memo lays out guidelines, not laws, its effect will be determined largely by how Justice Department officials interpret it. And several of the points in the memo merely codify policy that is already in place.
“It’s a good memo, but it states what should have been the policy for years,” said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor and the author of the book “Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise With Corporations.” “And without more resources, how are prosecutors going to know whether companies are still burying information about their employees?”
It is also unknown whether the rules will encourage companies to turn in their executives, but Ms. Yates said the Justice Department would not allow companies to foist the blame onto low-level officials. “We’re not going to be accepting a company’s cooperation when they just offer up the vice president in charge of going to jail,” she said.
Under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Justice Department faced repeated criticism from Congress and consumer advocates that it treated corporate executives leniently. After the 2008 financial crisis, no top Wall Street executives went to prison, highlighting a disparity in how prosecutors treat corporate leaders and typical criminals. Although prosecutors did collect billions of dollars in fines from big banks like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, critics dismissed those cases as hollow victories.
Justice Department officials have defended their record fighting corporate crime, saying that it can be nearly impossible to charge top executives who insulate themselves from direct involvement in wrongdoing. Ms. Yates’s memo acknowledges “substantial challenges unique to pursuing individuals for corporate misdeeds,” but it says that the difficulty in targeting high-level officials is precisely why the Justice Department needs a stronger plan for investigating them....
Ms. Yates, a career prosecutor, has established herself in the first months of her tenure as the department’s most vocal advocate for tackling white-collar crime. She foreshadowed plans for the new policy in a February speech to state attorneys general, in which she declared that “even imposing unprecedented financial penalties on the institutions whose conduct led to the financial crisis is not a substitute for holding individuals within those institutions personally accountable.”...
While the idea of white-collar investigations may conjure images of raids of corporate offices by federal agents, the reality is much different. When suspected of wrongdoing, large companies typically hire lawyers to conduct internal investigations and turn their findings over to the Justice Department. Those conclusions form the basis for settlement discussions, and they are likely to take on greater significance now that companies will be expected to name names....
Still, even if the Justice Department’s effort succeeds, it will not automatically put more executives behind bars. Mr. Garrett, the University of Virginia law professor, analyzed the cases in which corporate employees had been charged. More than half, he said, were spared jail time.
I am going to need to read the new Yates memo a few times before I will have any sense of whether and how this new guidance to federal prosecutors is likely to really "move the needle" with respect to white-collar prosecutions. But, in part because my white-collar expertise and experience is at the sentencing stage after an individual has been charged and convicted of a federal economic crime, I am not sure I will ever be able to see clearly from the very back-end of the federal criminal process how much this memo could alter what typically happens at the very front-end of the federal criminal process in the corporate crime world.
In turn, I would be grateful to receive (in the comments or off-line) input from persons with more experience than me on the front-end of corporate criminal investigations about whether this Yates memo signifies much or not so much in the white-collar world. If nothing else, I suspect the Yates memo will prompt many "client alert memos" from big corporate law firms to their corporate clients, and perhaps what those client alerts say about the Yates memo could matter as much as what the Yates memo itself says.
UPDATE: At this link one can now find the text of the big speech Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates delivered today at New York University School of Law concerning DOJ's "New Policy on Individual Liability in Matters of Corporate Wrongdoing." White-collar practitioners will want to read the speech in full, and here is one thematic paragraph from the heart of the text:
But regardless of how challenging it may be to make a case against individuals in a corporate fraud case, it’s our responsibility at the Department of Justice to overcome these challenges and do everything we can to develop the evidence and bring these cases. The public expects and demands this accountability. Americans should never believe, even incorrectly, that one’s criminal activity will go unpunished simply because it was committed on behalf of a corporation. We could be doing a bang-up job in every facet of the department’s operations — we could be bringing all the right cases and making all the right decisions. But if the citizens of this country don’t have confidence that the criminal justice system operates fairly and applies equally — regardless of who commits the crime or where it is committed — then we’re in trouble.
September 10, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, September 02, 2015
Prison realities and reform insights from "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison"
Politico magazine has this fascinating excerpt from a new book titled "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis." The book is authored by Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator, who spent a year in federal prison for violating federal election laws, and parts of the excerpt read a bit like the Y-chromisone version of Orange is the New Black. But, as these passage highlight, it appears the book covers much more than just the fish-out-of-water elements of prison life for a white-collar offender:
Long story short: Five years after losing the election, I pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for impeding the federal investigation Carnahan had initiated. But I requested an unorthodox sentence: two years of home confinement and full-time community service during which I would be allowed to leave my house only to teach civics and coach basketball at a St. Louis charter school I’d co-founded a decade earlier. It would’ve saved taxpayers about $175,000: two years of a teacher’s salary, plus the cost of housing a federal prisoner, since I would’ve paid for my electronic monitoring. More than 300 people, including a bipartisan group of the state’s top elected officials, wrote public letters to the to the judge requesting clemency and arguing that — as the prison counselor in Kentucky would later note — locking me up would be a waste. But the Feds portrayed me as the mastermind of a “textbook case of political corruption” and pushed for a harsh sentence at the top of the federal guidelines. The judge gave me a year and a day in federal prison.
Six months later, I was adrift in a sea of sharks — a professor-turned-politician-turned-felon forced to learn prison patois and the politics of survival. Among other areas, I’d studied and taught criminal justice policy as a political scientist for a decade. But in prison I would be the student, not the teacher.
This is the story of what I learned — about my fellow prisoners, the guards and administrators, and the system in which we operated. It is a cautionary tale of friendship and betrayal. It is a story of how politics prepared me — and didn’t — for prison, and how prison prepared me for life. But more broadly, it is a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens, and a prescription for how America can begin to decarcerate and harness the untapped potential of 2.2 million incarcerated people through programs that will transform offenders’ lives, infuse our economy with entrepreneurial energy, increase public safety and save taxpayers billions by slashing sky-high recidivism rates....
Prisons have been called “training grounds for rapists,” and according to one estimate based on two decades of surveys, nearly 300,000 rapes occur annually in U.S. prisons. The most recent Justice Department data concluded that from 2003 to 2012, nearly 2 million inmates were sexually assaulted, costing society as much as $51.9 billion annually, including the costs of victims’ compensation and increased recidivism. Advocates hoped that passage of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which sought to prevent, uncover and address sexual assault, would help, but many large states have refused to comply with it (with little consequence). In 2011, a typical prisoner’s likelihood of being raped was roughly 30 times higher than that of a given woman on the outside, suggesting a depressingly steady trendline despite PREA’s passage. And since reporting assaults will only bring more trouble from fellow prisoners and COs alike, most victims remain quiet, rendering official prison data unreliably low.
Exacerbating this is a dearth of post-rape psychological treatment during incarceration and reentry, which increases the likelihood that victims will suffer from PTSD as well as their odds of recidivism — especially for crimes involving sexual assault. Tragically, prison rape often causes compensatory aggression as untreated victims commit rapes upon release to reclaim their manhood in the same way they imagine it was lost. This vicious cycle by which (frequently) nonviolent offenders become violent is the opposite of the duty that “correctional institutions” are meant to perform....
I spent less than a year in prison. In the words of my first cellie, I had less time in prison than he had done on the prison toilet. I had every advantage upon re-entry: I was a white guy with a Ph.D. from a top school, community and family support, and financial savings. Yet getting a decent job was a struggle. I often think about the re-entry of the guys I was locked up. Most had a GED earned in prison; some hadn’t had a visit in years, or even a decade, and had no one to call on the phone; few had savings to fall back on. They would be coming home to a world in which four of five landlords and nine of 10 employers run criminal background checks on prospective tenants and employees to screen out felons, in which many are not allowed to vote or use food stamps and in which they must immediately find money to pay for a halfway house room and urinalysis tests even as they cannot afford clothes for a job interview.
Mass incarceration is driven in large part by sky-high recidivism rates, and when one contemplates the myriad obstacles to successful prisoner re-entry, one grasps that the system is not, as many claim, broken at all; rather, it appears to be a well-oiled machine, keeping millions of people out of our economic mainstream. And only a shift in our cultural mindset — a realization that people who are incarcerated could, to paraphrase President Obama after his recent prison visit to a federal prison, be our brothers, our sons, our mothers, or ourselves — will change that.
Monday, August 31, 2015
SCOTUS lets convicted former Virginia Gov to remain free pending cert decision
As reported in this local article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court lets McDonnell stay free for now," a high-profile white-collar federal defendant has gotten a kind of prison sentence reprieve while continuing to pursue his appeals. Here are the basics:
In a surprise to many observers Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed former Gov. Bob McDonnell to remain free while the justices decide whether to take up his appeal....
Should the justices not take the case, the stay ordered this afternoon will end automatically. If the court takes the case the stay will continue, the court ordered.
"Wow," said Randall Eliason, former chief of the Public Corruption/Government Fraud Section at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington. "It suggests there is some level of interest at the Supreme Court in reviewing the case, even though not a single appellate judge in the 4th Circuit agreed with his arguments.”
Henry Asbill, one of McDonnell’s lawyers, said “We’re very grateful for this order and we’re gratified that the justices recognize that this case raises substantial and important legal questions and we look forward to a full merits briefing."
McDonnell’s lawyers made the request to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who referred the matter to the full court. McDonnell needed a majority vote for the stay - it is unclear if the full court voted - but only needs four votes for the court to agree to take up his appeal.
"I am surprised," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of law. "There's no explanation" provided by the justices, "so it's really hard to know what the vote might have been. But I think it may be a hopeful sign for McDonnell," he said.
"It certainly buys some time," perhaps four months or more while the court considers taking the case, he said. "I think it shows there is some interest on the court in this case," but not necessarily the ultimate outcome. "There's still a lot of steps to go," he said.
The government opposed continued bond for McDonnell and argued that he should begin serving his two-year term. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney had no comment on the order. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of corruption charges stemming from $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the former CEO of Star Scientific, in exchange for helping with the promotion of a product.
I am a bit disinclined to assert that the former Gov is getting the benefit of celebrity justice, especially because there is good reason to believe McDonnell would have possibly served the majority of his two-year prison sentence before SCOTUS would be able to decide the case on the merits if it ultimately chooses to take up his appeal. Still, many white-collar defendants (despite presumably not being a risk to public safet) do not often get the opportunity to remain free on bail pending an appeal of right to a circuit court, let alone a cert appeal to SCOTUS.
Prior related posts:
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell gets (way-below-guideline) sentence of two years in prison
- Fourth Circuit refuses to allow convicted former Virginia Gov to remain free pending SCOTUS appeal
Friday, August 28, 2015
Arkansas political corruption case showcases corruptness of federal sentencing guidelines
This local reporting from Arkansas, headlined "Martha Shoffner gets 30 months in bribery case," details today's federal sentencing of a significant political figure in the Natural State. Here are the basics, with some commentary to follow:
Judge Leon Holmes has sentenced former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner to 30 months in prison for taking bribes for state bond business. It will be followed by some supervised release. No fine was assessed. The 71-year-old will have to report to a Fort Worth prison in 60 days.
She faced as much as 15 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. Her attorney had asked for 12 to 18 months, with half that in home detention. U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer, who'd asked for 60 months, said he was satisfied with the outcome....
Judge Leon Holmes said Shoffner had netted little — he ordered restitution of $31,000 she'd kept in bribes — but as a public official should do prison time....Shoffner's attorney argued that the only loss was $36,000 in bribes, not the value of the bond business of $1.7 million. Holmes held there were multiple payments for multiple actions and the $36,000, paid in six installments, didn't amount to a single payment, which also means a potential enhancement of the sentence. He said [bribe giver Steele] Stephens benefited from the bribes to the tune of $900,000 the amount by which his $1.7 million in commissions exceeded the next biggest bond dealer who did business with Shoffner.
[Defense attorney Chuck] Banks asked the court to show mercy on Shoffner, saying she "made a terrible, terrible error in judgment" and characterizing her as "gullible" and "clueless." He said that she was inclined to accept the bribes from Stephens in large part because she was in a bad financial situation, having underestimated the cost of commuting on a regular basis between Newport and Little Rock.
Banks asked Holmes to consider Shoffner's "good deeds," including her work for the Humane Society. He presented the court with a picture of her dog, Fred, and said he was moved by the fact that after Shoffner was first arrested, she asked Banks to call her sister to check on Fred. He called two character witnesses to the stand to testify on her behalf.
He also said that in her capacity as treasurer, Shoffner's books consistently balanced and audits found no problems in the accounts of the office itself. "She was in all honesty doing a pretty dadgum good job," Banks said. "I'm proud to be standing with this poor woman here at this dark hour ... she really is gullible. She really is naive."...
Banks said Shoffner has experienced the most public vilification that he has ever seen in his career as an attorney. He compared her haggard appearance today with a picture of her being sworn in a few years ago, to show the physical toll her ordeal has taken. He said she was now "disgraced," "broke" and "ostracized" and noted that she drove to the courthose in a 2003 Oldsmobile this morning.
He also pointed out that Steele Stephens received complete immunity from prosecution for his cooperation with the FBI. Stephens got a $25,000 fine and lost his brokers license, and "that's it," Banks said.
The attorney argued that sentencing Shoffner to a long period in jail would not serve the public interest, and urged Holmes to give her only as much punishment needed "to repair people's confidence in the office." She might not live out a harsh sentence, he said.
Especially because to this day I remain grumpy Bill Clinton never got prosecuted for his crimes while in office, I tend not to be eager to argue for mercy for lawbreaking politicians. But, if I read the facts here right, it seems the bribe-giver netted nearly $1 million dollars in benefits and gets only a small fine for his misdeeds because of his FBI cooperation while the bribe-taker is headed off the prison for a couple years even though she has already been disgraced and likely never posed any real risk to public safety.
That all said, I do not find either the 30-month sentence imposed by the federal judge or even the 5-year sentence recommended by the federal prosecutor too troublesome. What offends me is a guideline structure that would recommend a 15-year(!) prison sentence for a 71-year-old, first-time offender who poses no risk to public safety. That guideline recommendation strikes me as crazy on these facts, and it is reassuring that the prosecutor here had the good sense to only urge a sentence only 1/3 as long as the guidelines recommend and that the judge imposed a sentence only half as long as the prosecutor requested. And it is cases like this that still lead me to consider circuit courts misguided in the post-Booker jurisprudence to embrace any kind of presumption of reasonableness for within-guideline sentences.
Thursday, August 20, 2015
Fourth Circuit refuses to allow convicted former Virginia Gov to remain free pending SCOTUS appeal
As reported in this local article, headlined "Bob McDonnell headed to prison after appeals court rejection," a high-profile white-collar federal defendant has just learned that he may no longer avoid serving his imposed prison sentence while continue to pursue his appeals. Here are the basics:
Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is likely headed to prison after a federal appeals court turned down his request to remain free while he appeals his federal corruption conviction to the Supreme Court....
The decision means we should know when and where McDonnell will serve his sentence in seven days. McDonnell’s attorneys planned to petition the Supreme Court to allow the former governor to remain free on bond.
“I am saddened by the Court’s decision today to deny me freedom while I pursue vindication in the U.S. Supreme Court,” McDonnell wrote in a statement released Thursday afternoon. “I am innocent of these charges and will petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a grant of bond. I ask my exceptional friends across the nation to continue to support and pray for me and my family during this agonizing time. I thank God for His abundant grace and strength as I continue this difficult journey.”
Earlier this month, the 4th Circuit Court unanimously rejected’s McDonnell’s second request to consider an appeal.
McDonnell was found guilty of corruption charges and sentenced in January to two years in federal prison. Since then McDonnell has been trying to get his guilty verdicts thrown out. As a result, McDonnell’s lawyer Henry Asbill said his team would appeal the conviction to the Supreme Court.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
"Why Not Treat Drug Crimes as White-Collar Crimes?"
The question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new article available on SSRN authored by Thea Johnson and Mark Osler. Here is the abstract:
Drug dealing is a business enterprise. At its core is the manufacture, transport, financing, and selling of illegal narcotics. The most successful drug dealers are the ones who are skilled in the tools of business, and success is measured in the profit generated. Given these undeniable realities, shouldn’t we treat narcotics trafficking the way we do other business-based crimes like fraud or embezzlement?
One odd point of distinction between narcotics and other business crimes has been the frequent use of harsh sentencing measures to create deterrence in the former but not the latter. This is odd because deterrence works where a potential violator both (1) is aware of possible sanctions, and (2) performs a rational cost-benefit analysis that incorporates those possible sanctions. White collar defendants are a better target for deterrence measures by both of these metrics, yet we use those tough measures often in addressing drug crimes and almost never in tackling other business crimes.
To conflate the punishments for narcotics crime and other business crimes would be fairly simple. They could fall under a single guideline in a guideline system, with sentences determined in proportion to the amount of profit taken. Statutes could be similarly constructed. Many sectors of society want to lower incarceration and bring new integrity to the criminal justice system. Treating drug crimes for what they are — crimes of commerce — would go a long way towards that goal.
Monday, August 03, 2015
Two distinct notable tales of crimes and punishment via the Grey Lady
The New York Times starts the work week off with these two intriguing lengthy pieces about two different stories of crimes and punishment:
Friday, July 31, 2015
Executive facing "unprecedented" LWOP sentence for food-poisoned peanut butter
I just came across this AP story from last week reporting on a notable sentence being urged by federal guidelines in a notable white-collar case. Here are the details:
Federal court officers have recommended a sentence of life in prison for a peanut company executive convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food, a move that attorneys on both sides called “unprecedented” for a food-poisoning case. The potential life sentence for former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell was disclosed by prosecutors in a court filing Wednesday. Parnell, 61, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 21 by a federal judge in Albany, Georgia....
Stewart Parnell ran the now-defunct company from his Bedford County home, just outside Lynchburg city limits. Parnell's defense attorneys confirmed the recommendation Thursday to The Associated Press, calling the possible punishment “unprecedented.” Bill Marler, a lawyer for victims sickened by peanut butter from Parnell's southwest Georgia plant, used the same word.
In fact, Marler and other experts say the trial of Parnell and two co-defendants last year was the first federal food-poisoning case to be tried by an American court. A jury convicted Parnell of 71 counts including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes related to a salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009. The Centers for Disease Control linked the outbreak to nine deaths and 714 illnesses. It prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
Justin Lugar, one of Parnell's defense attorneys, confirmed Thursday that the recommendation before Judge W. Louis Sands is for life in prison, with no lesser range. Parnell's lawyers are trying to persuade the judge to disregard numbers used as aggravating factors to boost the suggested sentence to its maximum: an estimate that Parnell's customers suffered $144 million in losses as well as health officials’ tally that 714 people got sick....
“That recommendation is truly absurd,” said Ken Hodges, an attorney on Parnell's defense team. “We hope the judge will see that Stewart Parnell never meant to hurt anyone. He ate the peanut butter himself. He fed it to his children and to his grandchildren.”...
“Life in prison, especially in a food case, it's frankly unprecedented,” said Marler, who has represented victims of food-borne illnesses for two decades. “But the case itself, on a factual basis, is unprecedented.” Marler said he suspects the judge and prosecutors will think carefully before deciding to pursue a life sentence for Parnell. Still, he said, even the possibility of such a stiff sentence sends a message to food companies....
Even if objections raised by Parnell's attorneys to the sentencing recommendation are denied, it's still possible the judge could impose a lighter sentence. Federal judges are required to consider recommendations based on complex sentencing guidelines, but they are not bound by them.
Parnell and his co-defendants were never charged with sickening or killing anybody. Instead prosecutors used the seven-week trial to lay out a paper trail of emails, lab results and billing records to show Parnell's company defrauded customers by using falsified test results to cover up lab screenings that showed batches of peanut butter contained salmonella. The tainted goods were shipped to Kellogg's and other food processors for use in products from snack crackers to pet food.
Prosecutors wrote that court officers “correctly calculated” Parnell's recommended sentence, but stopped short of saying whether they plan to ask the judge to impose a life sentence. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, Nicole Navas, declined to comment.
Prosecutors’ legal briefs also noted stiff sentences were recommended for Parnell's two co-defendants. Punishment of 17 to 21 years in prison was recommended for Parnell's brother, food broker Michael Parnell, who was convicted on fewer counts. The recommendation for Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant's quality control manager, was eight to 10 years. She was convicted of obstruction of justice.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
What accounts for decline in federal white-collar prosecutions (and should we care)?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new data report from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which is titled "Federal White Collar Crime Prosecutions At 20-Year Low." Here are some details from the start of the report:
Federal prosecution of individuals identified by the government as white collar criminals is at its lowest level in the last twenty years, according to the latest data from the Justice Department.
The available records show an overall decline that began during the Clinton Administration, with a steady downward trend — except for a three-year jump early in the Obama years — continuing into the current fiscal year.
During the first nine months of FY 2015, the government brought 5,173 white collar crime prosecutions. If the monthly number of these kinds of cases continues at the same pace until the end of the current fiscal year on September 30, the total will be only 6,897 such matters — down by more than one third (36.8%) from levels seen two decades ago — despite the rise in population and economic activity in the nation during this period.
The projected FY 2015 total is 12.3 percent less than the previous year, and 29.1 percent down from five years ago. These counts are based on tens of thousands of case-by-case records obtained from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
The decline in federal white collar crime prosecutions does not necessarily indicate there has been a decline in white collar crime. Rather, it may reflect shifting enforcement policies by each of the administrations and the various agencies, the changing availabilities of essential staff and congressionally mandated alterations in the laws.
White collar crimes — as defined by the EOUSA — involve a wide range of activities including the violation of health care, tax, securities, bankruptcy, antitrust, federal procurement and other laws. Because such enforcement by state and local agencies for these crimes sometimes is erratic or nonexistent, the declining role of the federal government could be of great significance.
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
"Sentencing the Wolf of Wall Street: From Leniency to Uncertainty"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Lucian Dervan. Here is the abstract:
This Symposium Article, based on a presentation given by Professor Dervan at the 2014 Wayne Law Review Symposium entitled "Sentencing White Collar Defendants: How Much is Enough," examines the Jordan Belfort (“Wolf of Wall Street”) prosecution as a vehicle for analyzing sentencing in major white-collar criminal cases from the 1980s until today.
In Part II, the Article examines the Belfort case and his relatively lenient prison sentence for engaging in a major fraud. This section goes on to examine additional cases from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s to consider the results of reforms aimed at “getting tough” on white-collar offenders. In concluding this initial examination, the Article discusses three observed trends. First, today, as might be expected, it appears there are much longer sentences for major white-collar offenders as compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Second, today, there also appears to be greater uncertainty and inconsistency regarding the sentences received by major white-collar offenders when compared with sentences from the 1980s and 1990s. Third, there appear to have been much smaller sentencing increases for less significant and more common white-collar offenders over this same period of time.
In Part III, the Article examines some of the possible reasons for these observed trends, including amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, increased statutory maximums, and judicial discretion. In concluding, the Article offers some observations regarding what the perceived uncertainty and inconsistency in sentencing major white-collar offenders today might indicate about white-collar sentencing more broadly. In considering this issue, the Article also briefly examines recent amendments adopted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and proposed reforms to white-collar sentencing offered by the American Bar Association.
Friday, July 17, 2015
You be the federal judge: should tax cheating former rep Michael Grimm go to prison?
As previewed by this AP article, headlined "Ex-NY Congressman Grimm Faces Sentencing in Tax Case," a high-profile white-collar defendant is due to be sentenced in federal court today. Here are the basics about the case to enable answering the question posed in the title of this post:
Lawyers for former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm have asked a judge to spare him a prison term at his sentencing, while prosecutors argue he deserves at least 2 years behind bars for tax evasion. The sentencing Friday in federal court in Brooklyn before U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen follows Grimm's guilty plea late last year to aiding in filing a false tax return — a charge that stemmed from an investigation into the Staten Island Republican's campaign financing.
Prosecutors say the tax fraud began in 2007 after Grimm retired from the FBI and began investing in a Manhattan eatery called Healthalicious. An indictment accused him of underreporting more than $1 million in wages and receipts to evade payroll, income and sales taxes, in part by paying immigrant workers, some of them in the country illegally, in cash.
Grimm, 45, won re-election in November while fighting the charges, but later resigned. In court papers asking for a sentence of probation, defense lawyers called Grimm's offense "an aberration in an otherwise remarkable life in selfless service of his country," including a stint in the Marine Corps. They also argued that losing his career in Congress was punishment enough.
Grimm "is tremendously remorseful over his offense," they wrote. "He understands that his tax violation is not something to be taken lightly, and he is anguished over his wrongdoing and will live with the shame of it the rest of his life."
Prosecutors countered by telling the judge Grimm's record of "falsely minimizing his criminal conduct and impugning anyone who questions him is indicative of an individual who has not come to terms with his own crimes." The government papers cite a news conference last year outside the courthouse where Grimm called the case "a political witch hunt." The papers also refer to an episode in which Grimm threatened to throw a local cable TV news reporter off the balcony of the capitol for asking about the campaign financing inquiry.
If there was a formal sentencing enhancement for acting like a pompous ass, I might expect Grimm to be heading to the federal pen. But I would guess that Grimm's ultimate willingness to plead guilty and resign from Congress will help him secure a nonprison punishment in this case.
UPDATE: This local article details that I was wrong in my guess that Grimm would not be sentenced to prison; as the headline explains, "Michael Grimm gets 8 months in prison at sentencing."
Sunday, July 12, 2015
Seventh Circuit panel affirms as reasonable probation sentence for tax dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
Late Friday, a Seventh Circuit panel rejected the government's claim that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable. The lengthy opinion in US v. Warner, No. 14 -1330 (7th Cir. July 10, 2015) (available here), gets started this way:
Defendant H. Ty Warner, the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies, evaded $5.6 million in U.S. taxes by hiding assets in a Swiss bank account. He pled guilty to one count of tax evasion, made full restitution, and paid a $53.6 million civil penalty. The Sentencing Guidelines provided a recommended 46- to 57-month term of imprisonment, but the district judge gave Warner a more lenient sentence: two years’ probation with community service, plus a $100,000 fine and costs. The government claims his sentence is unreasonable because it does not include a term of incarceration.
In a typical case, we might agree. But this is not a typical case. The district judge found Warner’s record of charity and benevolence “overwhelming.” Indeed, the judge remarked that Warner’s conduct was unprecedented when viewed through the judge’s more-than-three decades on the bench. In the district court’s opinion, this and other mitigating factors — including the uncharacteristic nature of Warner’s crime, his attempt to disclose his account, his payment of a penalty ten times the size of the tax loss, and the government’s own request for a sentence well below the guidelines range — justified leniency. District courts enjoy broad discretion to fashion an appropriate, individualized sentence in light of the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The court here did not abuse its discretion. Rather, it fully explained and supported its decision and reached an outcome that is reasonable under the unique circumstances of this case. We therefore affirm Warner’s sentence.
Though the panel stresses unique factors applying only in this case to support its reasonableness ruling, white-collar practitioners (especially those in the Seventh Circuit) will find a lot of broader interest and potential value in this opinion.
Prior related posts:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence should the Beanie Babies billionaire get for tax evasion?
- Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
- Feds call probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire substantively unreasonable
- Seventh Circuit panel seemingly unmoved by feds appeal of probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire
July 12, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, July 10, 2015
Evil doc gets 45 years in the federal pen for fraudulent cancer treatments
I noted in this prior post about his upcoming sentencing, I used the term evil to describe the Michigan oncologist who pleaded guilty to mistreating cancer patients and bilking the government through false Medicare claims. Today the doctor learned our federal criminal justuce system's response to his evil deed, as this local press account reports:
A metro Detroit cancer doctor who made nearly $20 million off hundreds of patients suffering from unneeded chemotherapy and other stunningly bad treatments was sentenced today to 45 years in federal prison.
"This is a huge, horrific series of criminal acts that were committed by the defendant," U.S. District Judge Paul Borman said, later adding that Dr. Farid Fata "practiced greed and shut down whatever compassion he had." Borman said the crimes called for "a very significant sentence for very, very terrible conduct."
Fata, 50, who openly wept in court today as he apologized for his actions, admitted to fraudulently billing Medicare, insurance companies and at least 550 patients through misdiagnoses, over-treatment and under-treatment. In some cases, he gave nearly four times the recommended dosage amount of aggressive cancer drugs; in at least one, a patient was given toxic chemotherapy for five years when the standard treatment was six months, according to former patients and experts in court this week.
"I misused my talents... because of power and greed. My quest for power is self-destructive," a sobbing Fata told the court before sentencing. He said he is "horribly ashamed of my conduct" and prays for repentance.
Defense attorney Christopher Andreoff asked Borman to sentence Fata to no more than 25 years in prison, saying even that could be a life sentence because of Fata's health. "Our recommendation will give him nothing more than a chance for release before he dies," Andreoff said.
U.S. Assistant Prosecutor Catherine Dick told the court her office has "has never seen anything like this before. ,,. And that is because of the harm."
"Fata was greedy and he wanted that money," Dick said. "What this defendant did is unquantifiable. There is no way to quantify the suffering." Dick, whose office had asked for 175-year sentence, said patients died in horrible pain from Fata's treatments.
Borman had set the sentencing guidelines to 30 years to life on Thursday based on the charges and circumstances. "My role.. is to impose a sentence sufficient but not greater than necessary," Borman said this morning.
The federal court this week heard accounts of about 22 victims, who shared unthinkable experiences of a healthy adult undergoing chemotherapy and losing nearly all his teeth, of a patient diagnosed with lung cancer when he had kidney cancer, and more. Some statements were read by family members of patients who died. Some patients with no documented iron deficiencies were given overwhelming amounts of iron, while others were given lower-than-needed doses of chemotherapy drugs, experts testified.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade previously called his case the "the most egregious" health care fraud case her office has seen.
Fata pleaded guilty in September to 13 counts of health care fraud, two counts of money laundering and one count of conspiring to pay and receive kickbacks. The case involves $34.7 million in billings to patients and insurance companies, and $17.6 million paid for work Fata admitted was unnecessary.
Prior related post:
Tuesday, July 07, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for evil cancer doctor?
A few weeks ago, I was discussing with my kids whether they thought some humans were innately evil. In any such discussion, it might make sense to bring up the story of the Michigan oncologist who pleaded guilty to mistreating cancer patients and bilking the government through false Medicare claims. The doctor's federal sentencing began this week, and this AP story provides an overview of the proceedings and basic information to enable any would-be judges to suggest sentences for the doc in the comments:
Patients of a Detroit-area doctor received "stunning" doses of a powerful, expensive drug that exposed them to life-threatening infections, an expert testified Monday as a judge heard details about a cancer specialist who fleeced insurance companies and harmed hundreds of people.
Dr. Farid Fata is headed to prison for fraud and other crimes. But U.S. District Judge Paul Borman first is hearing from experts and former patients about the extent of his scheme to reap millions of dollars from Medicare and other health programs.
Nearly three dozen ex-patients and family members, many dressed in black, chartered a bus to attend the hearing, which could last days. Some will testify Tuesday."This is a small fraction of the people this guy has hurt," said Terry Spurlock, 52, of Holly, who had three more years of treatments after a tumor on his neck disappeared. "He gave me so much treatment, it stopped my immune system."
Fata, 50, pleaded guilty last fall to fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. The government is seeking a 175-year prison sentence, while the Oakland County man is asking for no more than 25 years.
The government said 553 people have been identified as victims, along with four insurance companies. There were more than 9,000 unnecessary infusions or injections. "There is an aggressive approach to treating cancer. This was beyond. This was over the top," said Dr. Dan Longo, a Harvard medical professor and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine, who testified Monday as a $400-an-hour expert for prosecutors after examining 25 patient files, a tiny portion of Fata's practice.
Longo was asked about patients who were given a drug called Rituximab, which can weaken the immune system if overused. It is typically given eight times for aggressive lymphoma, but one patient got it 94 times. Another got it 76 times.... Later, he told the judge that "all the files I looked at had problems, but I would not say all the treatment was inappropriate."
It was the first time that many former patients had seen Fata in months, if not years. He has been in custody since his 2013 arrest. He wore a white dress shirt and dark suit in court.
"I wanted to knock that smirk off his face," said Geraldine Parkin, 54, of Davison, who[se] husband, Tim, has survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma but has other chronic problems because of excessive treatments. "He has a lot of anger," Parkin said.
Tuesday, June 09, 2015
You be the federal defense attorney: would you urge Dennis Hastert to cut a plea deal?
I often highlight and review high-profile cases by urging readers to place themselves in the shoes of a judge facing a tough sentencing decision or a prosecutor having to recommend a specific sentence. But, as the title of this post connotes, now I am urging folks to think about how the attorneys for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert ought to approach (sentencing?) discussions with their client and their adversaries. This lengthy Politico account of the Hastert charges and proceedings by Josh Gerstein provides all the needed background and includes these excerpts:
After more than a week in seclusion, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert pleaded not guilty Tuesday to two criminal charges that he violated federal banking law and lied to the FBI as they investigated his alleged agreement to pay $3.5 million in hush money to cover up a past transgression.
Hastert, who became the longest-serving Republican speaker before the GOP lost the House in 2006, was released after entering the plea in front of U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin at an afternoon hearing which raised questions about whether Durkin will continue or the case will be reassigned to another judge.
Hastert, 73, looked much as he did during the height of his power, slightly stooped and with a shock of gray hair as he trudged into the packed courtroom clad in a dark pinstripe suit and blue tie. He stood in front of the judge’s bench throughout the roughly 15-minute hearing, softly answering the judge’s questions — usually with a “Yes, sir.”
Hastert’s lead defense attorney, Tom Green, spoke for the former speaker when it came time to offer a plea. “The defendant enters a plea of not guilty to both counts of the indictment, your honor,” Green said....
At Tuesday’s hearing, the defense waived a formal reading of the indictment, which alleges Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million to an unnamed individual and forked over $1.7 million of that before the charges were filed. Nearly $1 million of that was withdrawn from the former speaker’s bank accounts in increments of $10,000 after bankers warned him that larger donations would trigger reports to the authorities, the indictment claims.
Prosecutors said little during the session, but when the judge asked for details of the potential penalties, Block noted Hastert could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the two felony counts. However, judges usually impose sentences in accordance with federal guidelines that call for more lenient punishment for offenders with no serious criminal record.
A plea deal, if there were to be one, could also reduce Hastert’s sentence. Many criminal defense lawyers believe such a deal is probable because a jury is not likely to look favorably on a defendant trying to cover up alleged sexual abuse of a student.
One of the charges brought against Hastert — structuring cash transactions to avoid federal reporting requirements — is unpopular among defense lawyers and libertarians because it can render routine cash banking transactions in increments of just under $10,000 illegal even if the reason for the cash payments or withdrawals is lawful. Critics contend that prosecutors use the structuring law to bring charges or force guilty pleas from defendants when the government lacks proof to make a case for drug trafficking or tax evasion. Some judges have reacted skeptically when the feds have brought cases in which there is no charge that the underlying conduct was illegal.
The nature of Hastert’s reported relationship with the acquaintance who allegedly received the hush money is unclear, but experts say the statute of limitations in Illinois for a criminal prosecution on sexual abuse from the 1970s expired long ago.
Hastert, who as speaker was once second in line to the presidency, resigned his House seat in 2007 after he lost the speaker’s post due to the Democrats’ victory in 2006. He is the highest-ranking current or former federal official to face criminal prosecution since Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 and pleaded guilty to a felony tax evasion charge.
Sunday, May 31, 2015
Sentencing message sent: blazing a Silk Road for drugs gets you LWOP
A high-profile prosecution of a high-tech drug dealer culminated on Friday with the sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht. This Wired story provides an effective account of the sentencing, and includes these excerpts:
On Friday Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in creating and running Silk Road’s billion-dollar, anonymous black market for drugs. Judge Katherine Forrest gave Ulbricht the most severe sentence possible, beyond what even the prosecution had explicitly requested. The minimum Ulbricht could have served was 20 years.
“The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the Dread Pirate Roberts,” she told Ulbricht as she read the sentence, referring to his pseudonym as the Silk Road’s leader. “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”
In addition to his prison sentence, Ulbricht was also ordered to pay a massive restitution of more than $183 million, what the prosecution had estimated to be the total sales of illegal drugs and counterfeit IDs through the Silk Road—at a certain bitcoin exchange rate—over the course of its time online. Any revenue from the government sale of the bitcoins seized from the Silk Road server and Ulbricht’s laptop will be applied to that debt.
Ulbricht had stood before the court just minutes earlier in navy blue prison clothes, pleading for a lenient sentence. “I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” he said, as his voice grew hoarse with emotion and cracked. “I’m a little wiser, a little more mature, and much more humble.”
“I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives…to have privacy and anonymity,” Ulbricht told the judge. “I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.”
Ulbricht’s sentencing likely puts the final seal on the saga of Silk Road, the anarchic underground market the 31-year-old Texan created in early 2011. At its peak, the Dark Web site grew to a sprawling smorgasbord of every narcotic imaginable — before Ulbricht was arrested in a public library in San Francisco in October of 2013. Eighteen months later, he was convicted in a Manhattan court on seven felony charges, including conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and launder money, as well as a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for the leaders of organized crime groups....
Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it will seek an appeal in his case. That call for a new trial will be based in part on recent revelations that two Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents involved in the investigation of the Silk Road allegedly stole millions of dollars of bitcoin from the site. One of the agents is even accused of blackmailing Ulbricht, and of allegedly selling him law enforcement information as a mole inside the DEA. But the judge in Ulbricht’s case ruled that those Baltimore-based agents weren’t involved in the New York FBI-led investigation that eventually took down the Silk Road, preventing their alleged corruption from affecting Ulbricht’s fate.
Speaking to press after the sentencing, Ulbricht’s lead attorney Joshua Dratel said that Forrest’s sentence was “unreasonable, unjust, unfair and based on improper consideration with no basis in fact or law.” He added: “I’m disappointed tremendously.”
In emotional statements at the hearing, the parents of drug users who had overdosed and died from drugs purchased from the Silk Road called for a long sentence for Ulbricht. “I strongly believe my son would still be alive today if Mr. Ulbricht had never created Silk Road,” said one father whose 25-year old son had died from an overdose of heroin, requesting “the most severe sentence the law will allow.”
In the weeks leading up to his sentencing hearing, Ulbricht’s defense team attempted to lighten his punishment with arguments about his motives and character, as well as emphasizing the Silk Road’s positive effect on its drug-using customers. In more than a hundred letters, friends, family, and even fellow inmates pointed to Ulbricht’s idealism and lack of a criminal history. And the defense argued that Silk Road had actually reduced harm in the drug trade by ensuring the purity of the drugs sold on the site through reviews and ratings, hosting discussions on “safe” drug use, and giving both buyers and sellers an avenue to trade in narcotics while avoiding the violence of the streets.
But the prosecution countered that any protection the Silk Road offered drug users was dwarfed by the increased access it offered to dangerous and addictive drugs. And beyond the two parents who spoke at the Friday hearing, it pointed to six individuals who it claimed had died of drug overdoses from drugs purchased on the Silk Road.
In her statement preceding Ulbricht’s sentencing, Judge Forrest fully sided with the prosecution against the defense’s “harm reduction” argument, arguing that the Silk Road vastly expanded access to drugs. “Silk Road was about fulfilling demand, and it was about creating demand,” she said. “It was market-expanding.”
She also tore into the argument that the Silk Road reduced violence in the drug trade, pointing out that most of the academic papers submitted by the defense to support that argument focused only on the protection for the final buyer of drugs. But that digital remove, she argued, did nothing to prevent violence at any other point in the narcotics supply chain, from production to distribution. “The idea that it’s harm reducing is so very narrow,” she said. “It’s…about a privileged group, sitting in their own homes, with their high speed internet connections.”
The Justice Department also argued in their letter to Judge Forrest that Ulbricht should be made an example of to stop even more Dark Web market kingpins from following in his footsteps. After all, dozens of copycat sites and advancements on the Silk Road market model have sprouted in the years since its takedown, including the Silk Road 2, Evolution, and the currently largest Dark Web black market to survive law enforcement’s attacks, Agora. To combat the spread of those anonymous bazaars, prosecutors asked Judge Forrest to “send a clear message” with a sentence for Ulbricht well beyond the mandatory minimum.
Judge Forrest sided with the prosecution on that point, too, arguing that she needed to create a strong deterrent for the next Dread Pirate Roberts. “For those considering stepping into your shoes…they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences,” Forrest said.
The defense’s arguments about Ulbricht’s character and his idealistic motives were also undercut by accusations that Ulbricht had paid for the murder of six people, including a potential informant and a blackmailer. Those accusations never became formal charges in Ulbricht’s case — five out of six of the murder-for-hires appear to have been part of a lucrative scam targeting Ulbricht, with no actual victims.
But those murder accusations nonetheless deeply colored Ulbricht’s trial, and strongly influenced his sentence. “I find there is ample and unambiguous evidence that [Ulbricht] commissioned five murders to protect his commercial enterprise,” Forrest said, leaving out one alleged attempted murder for which Ulbricht was charged in a different case.
With those attempted murders as context, Forrest was merciless in her assessment of Ulbricht’s seeming multiple personalities: the altruistic and admirable young man described in the letters sent to her as evidence of his character, versus the callous drug lord she saw in his actions. “People are very complicated, and you are one of them,” she said simply. “There is good in you, Mr. Ulbricht. There is also bad. And what you did with the Silk Road was terribly destructive.”
May 31, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
More evidence for sentencing fans that soccer can be very exciting
This lengthy official Justice Department press release provides all the basic details on the sentencing and soccer story breaking in New York this morning. Here is the extended heading of the press release:
Nine FIFA Officials and Five Corporate Executives Indicted for Racketeering Conspiracy and Corruption
The Defendants Include Two Current FIFA Vice Presidents and the Current and Former Presidents of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF); Seven Defendants Arrested Overseas; Guilty Pleas for Four Individual Defendants and Two Corporate Defendants Also Unsealed
Here are some of the particulars:
A 47-count indictment was unsealed early this morning in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging 14 defendants with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, among other offenses, in connection with the defendants’ participation in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer. The guilty pleas of four individual defendants and two corporate defendants were also unsealed today.
The defendants charged in the indictment include high-ranking officials of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the organization responsible for the regulation and promotion of soccer worldwide, as well as leading officials of other soccer governing bodies that operate under the FIFA umbrella. Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner – the current and former presidents of CONCACAF, the continental confederation under FIFA headquartered in the United States – are among the soccer officials charged with racketeering and bribery offenses. The defendants also include U.S. and South American sports marketing executives who are alleged to have systematically paid and agreed to pay well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments....
The guilty pleas of the four individual and two corporate defendants that were also unsealed today include the guilty pleas of Charles Blazer, the long-serving former general secretary of CONCACAF and former U.S. representative on the FIFA executive committee; José Hawilla, the owner and founder of the Traffic Group, a multinational sports marketing conglomerate headquartered in Brazil; and two of Hawilla’s companies, Traffic Sports International Inc. and Traffic Sports USA Inc., which is based in Florida.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” said Attorney General Lynch. “It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. And it has profoundly harmed a multitude of victims, from the youth leagues and developing countries that should benefit from the revenue generated by the commercial rights these organizations hold, to the fans at home and throughout the world whose support for the game makes those rights valuable. Today’s action makes clear that this Department of Justice intends to end any such corrupt practices, to root out misconduct, and to bring wrongdoers to justice – and we look forward to continuing to work with other countries in this effort.”
Monday, May 11, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for latest CIA media leaker?
As explained via this Washington Post article, headlined "Judge faces choices in sentencing CIA leaker," a federal judge in Washington DC has a tough sentencing call to make this afternoon:
The way prosecutors see it, ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling is a devious malcontent who spread classified half-truths to a New York Times reporter, seriously harming national security. By defense attorneys’ telling, Sterling is a compassionate, hardworking man whose misdeeds have been greatly exaggerated.
Which account U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema believes will ultimately shape the sentence she imposes Monday on the 47-year-old Missouri man, who was convicted in January of giving away sensitive information about an operation to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The range of options she has to consider is broad.
Defense attorneys are arguing for a sentence in line with other convicted leakers — including former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus, who was sentenced last month to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine for leaking classified information to his mistress and biographer. Prosecutors are advocating a “severe” penalty, and they have noted that federal sentencing guidelines call for 19 years and seven months at the low end and 24 years and five months at the high end.
Neither side has offered a specific recommendation on prison time. Experts say a sentence approaching two decades is unlikely: The sentencing guidelines, they say, seem to be intended for spies nefariously helping foreign governments — a characterization that does not fit Sterling’s case.
Prosecutors have argued such spies are charged under a different statute, and they have noted the U.S. Sentencing Commission “has not seen fit to carve out any exception or departure for disclosing national defense information to the media or the public.”
But experts say Brinkema is likely to impose a penalty well below what the sentencing guidelines call for. “Frankly, I can’t imagine her not departing downward here,” said Dan Schwager, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Martin & Gitner.
But Sterling, experts say, should probably expect a tougher sentence than Petraeus, even though his defense attorneys assert that the two men are not all that different. “It’s hard to put something like that completely out of your mind. It’s hanging out there,” former federal prosecutor Randall Eliason, who teaches law at George Washington University Law School, said of Petraeus’s recent sentence. “At the same time, at the risk of sounding cliche, every case is different, and there are some significant differences — at least to me — between the cases.”
Sterling was convicted of nine criminal counts for providing New York Times reporter James Risen with classified information about the CIA operation, which involved giving faulty nuclear blueprints to Iran. Prosecutors argued Sterling was a disgruntled employee with a vendetta against the CIA because of employment grievances, and he fed Risen a misleading story with some accurate, classified details to paint the agency as inept. As as result, prosecutors argued, the United States was forced to abandon one of its few mechanisms to keep Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check.
Experts say Brinkema is likely to weigh two key factors as she assesses prosecutors’ request for a harsh sentence: Sterling’s motive, and the harm his illegal disclosures caused. Eliason said those factors might separate Sterling from Petraeus, who did not seem to have any malevolence and whose leaks never wound up in any published material. “There’s kind of this spectrum of possible conduct, and I think someone like Sterling falls somewhere in the middle,” Eliason said.
Prosecutors themselves asserted in a recent filing that Sterling’s case stood apart from other recently convicted leakers, including Petraeus; former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who revealed the name of a covert officer and was sentenced to 30 months in prison; and former State Department arms expert Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who leaked classified information to a Fox News reporter and was sentenced to 13 months in prison....
Brinkema, though, might disagree with the government’s assessments, experts said. Schwager said that, not unlike other recent leak cases, “ego” seemed to play a key role in motivating Sterling. And the damage Sterling’s disclosures caused, Schwager said, was hard to point to explicitly — a fact that would not be lost on the judge. “She knows the difference between specific harm and speculative harm,” Schwager said.
Prior related posts:
- Should judge follow federal prosecutors' recommendation of no prison time for CIA leaker David Petraeus?
- Attorneys for another convicted CIA leaker urges judges to follow Petraeus sentencing lead
Friday, May 01, 2015
Federal indictments and a plea deal in New Jersey "Bridgegate" scandal
As reported in this CNN piece, headlined "Bridgegate: 1 guilty plea, 2 indictments and 'liars'," a couple of federal indictments hit the fan today for officials formerly in the administration of NJ Gov Chris Christie. Here are the basics:
Two senior government officials with ties to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were indicted Friday in the scheme to close lanes and create traffic tie-ups on the George Washington Bridge, hours after a former key Christie ally pleaded guilty in the act of political retribution against a mayor who did not back the governor in his re-election campaign two years ago.
Former Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and Port Authority Deputy Director Bill Baroni were charged with a total of nine criminal counts, including conspiracy and fraud, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman said at an afternoon press conference. The charges came after David Wildstein, a former Christie ally and Port Authority appointee, pleaded guilty earlier Friday to one charge of conspiracy to commit fraud on federally funded property and one civil rights violation.
"They agreed to and did use public resources to carry out a vendetta and exact retribution," Fishman said, adding that the scheme "callously victimized the people of Fort Lee," who were just trying to go about their lives.
In her first public comments since the scandal surfaced, Kelly proclaimed her innocence Friday at a press conference and slammed Wildstein and her former colleagues as liars. "David Wildstein is a liar."...
Although the developments deepen the stain the scandal has left on Christie's tenure, Fishman indicated the governor would likely avoid any criminal charges. "Based on the evidence that is currently available to us, we're not going to charge anybody else in this scheme," he told reporters, noting that he would not usually disclose that information. "I say it because the public has a right to know certain things."...
In his plea, Wildstein admitted to using a "traffic study" as a cover for the lane closures and choosing the first day of school to maximize the impact. Wildstein also admitted to purposefully not alerting Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich or the town's police chief, and admitted to intentionally keeping "radio silence" with local officials on the issue....
After the court hearing Friday, Wildstein's lawyer, Alan Zegas, said the government was satisfied with Wildstein's cooperation and reiterated the claim that Christie knew of the closures. "Mr. Christie knew of the lane closures while they were occurring and evidence exists to establish that. That is as much as I can say, as much as I will say at this time," Zegas said.
It is not yet clear whether Wildstein struck a plea deal with prosecutors to give them more information into how the scandal unfolded. But Fishman suggested that Wildstein could benefit from his cooperation, noting that "it is typical" for judges to take into account defendants' cooperation during sentencing.
Fishman also said that the investigation identified other co-conspirators who were not indicted. He declined to name them, but said they could be identified later. He would not elaborate on why those co-conspirators were not indicted.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Notable developments in prelude to federal sentencing for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht
This new Forbes article, headlined "Ulbricht's Defense Calls For Delayed Sentencing After Feds Reveal Six Alleged Silk Road Drug Overdose Deaths," reports on a notable new development in the lead up to the sentencing of a notable federal defendant. Here are the details:
The twists and turns in the Silk Road case aren’t slowing down as Ross Ulbricht’s sentencing approaches. According to a letter filed Friday, the government claims that six people allegedly died of overdosing on drugs bought on the Silk Road. Two of their parents will be speaking at Ulbricht’s sentencing, which is currently scheduled for May 15, 2015.
Because of this, Ulbricht’s defense is asking for his sentencing to be postponed for at least one month. In a letter on Friday, Joshua Dratel requested an adjournment of the sentencing, which is currently less than three weeks away. By Dratel’s logic, it shouldn’t matter to the prosecution, since Ulbricht is in jail already awaiting sentencing, but it would give the defense time to prepare.
The defense wants preparation time to respond to the government’s revelation on April 16 that there were “six alleged overdose deaths supposedly attributable to drugs purchased from vendors on the Silk Roads.” The parents of two of the alleged overdose victims will be speaking from 10-15 minutes each at the sentencing, according to a document filed by the prosecution on April 17. The government intends to use these deaths as part of the context for the sentencing and the victim impact assessment.
Dratel says the information the defense has received about the six deaths is “woefully incomplete.” According to the letter, the defense hasn’t seen evidence that the drugs were purchased on the Silk Road or certain autopsy, toxicology, and psychiatric information for the six individuals. Additionally, Dratel asked for the identities and statements of the two parents who will be speaking at the sentencing in order to avoid being “blindsided.”
While the government seems to [be] planning to hammer home its argument that the Silk Road was a dangerous and illegal operation with Ulbricht at the helm with these parents’ testimonies, the defense plans to argue the opposite–that the Silk Road actually made drug use safer. In the letter, Dratel states that the Silk Road “reduced the dangers of substance abuse, and consciously and deliberately incorporated ‘harm reduction’ strategies.” The defense has been working with experts, according to the letter, and needs more time to bring those witnesses to testify in person in response to the government....
After being arrested in a San Francisco library in October 2013 for allegedly running the Silk Road, Ulbricht faced trial in January 2015. After three weeks of trial and 3.5 hours of jury deliberation, he was found guilty of seven charges connected to his role as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Since then, he’s been in jail awaiting sentencing while his lawyers fought first for re-trial and now for delayed sentencing.
Prior related post:
Friday, April 24, 2015
Attorneys for another convicted CIA leaker urges judges to follow Petraeus sentencing lead
This notable new Washington Post article, headlined "Attorneys ask judge to consider Petraeus in sentencing ex-CIA officer Sterling," the seemingly lenient treatment given yesterday to former CIA director David Petraeus for leaking information to his journalist/mistress (basics here) is already having an echo effect in other federal criminal cases. Here are the interesting details:
Defense attorneys for the former CIA officer convicted of giving classified information to a New York Times reporter urged a federal judge on Friday to sentence their client in line with the terms faced by other so-called leakers — noting that not 24 hours ago, a retired general and ex-CIA director was given mere probation in a similar case.
Defense attorneys for Jeffrey Sterling did not endorse a specific penalty, but they urged U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to consider the impact of the case and be fair. The defense attorneys argued that in three other recent leak cases, those convicted received — at the most — 30 months in prison. On Thursday retired general and former CIA chief David Petraeus was sentenced to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine. “In meting out justice,” defense attorneys wrote, “the Court cannot turn a blind eye to the positions the Government has taken in similar cases.”
Sterling, 47, was convicted in January of nine criminal counts after jurors determined unanimously that he gave classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen about a sensitive operation to put faulty nuclear plans in the hands of Iranian officials. Federal prosecutors earlier this week urged a judge to impose a “severe” sentence and said they felt the U.S. probation office had correctly calculated the range in the federal sentencing guidelines as 19 years 7 months on the low end and 24 years 5 months on the high end.
Such a sentence would have few parallels: The closest might be the 35-year prison term imposed by a military judge on Chelsea Manning, who leaked the largest volume of classified documents in U.S. history. And Sterling’s defense attorneys argued that a prison term within the guidelines would be “plainly excessive,” essentially penalizing Sterling for not taking a plea deal. “Mr. Sterling was convicted, under the Espionage Act, for ‘leaking’ information to a reporter,” defense attorneys wrote. “He should be treated similarly to others convicted for the same crimes and not singled out for a long prison sentence because he elected to exercise his right to a trial.”
Defense attorneys pointed to two similar cases in which alleged leakers reached plea agreements and avoided decades behind bars. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who revealed the name of another covert officer, was ultimately sentenced to 30 months in prison, and former State Department arms expert Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who leaked classified information to a Fox News reporter, was ultimately sentenced to 13 months in prison, defense attorneys argued. They argued that Petraeus, who lied to the FBI, reached a deal to avoid prison entirely. “Mr. Sterling should not receive a different form of justice than General Petraeus,” Sterling’s defense attorneys wrote.
Prosecutors have characterized Sterling’s case as “unique” and argued that the harm he caused to national security was grave. They have argued that Sterling, motivated by “pure vindictiveness,” leaked details that compromised one of the nation’s few ways to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and in doing so, put a Russian scientist who was working with the CIA in danger....
Sterling is scheduled to be sentenced May 11.
Why the US Sentencing Commission's moderate moderation of fraud guidelines has few fans
This new Huffington Post piece, headlined "Why Nobody Is Really Happy With New Guidelines For Punishing White-Collar Criminals," provides an effective review of why the US Sentencing Commissions new amendments to the fraud guidelines is not garnering widespread praise. Here are excerpts:
A federal panel voted earlier this month to amend the guidelines that federal judges use when sentencing people who commit economic crimes. But few are happy with those changes: Sentencing reform advocates say they don't go far enough to fix draconian sentences, while the U.S. Department of Justice contends that the changes could give some white-collar criminals a new avenue for unfair leniency.
Recommended sentences for economic crimes under the current rubric are so severe, they are no longer taken seriously, some prosecutors and judges suggest. Those guidelines have relied on complicated calculations involving criminal gain and inflicted losses that spit out sentences that can appear inconsistent or absurd. One federal New York judge called the math "hocus-pocus." In 2008, for example, a federal judge sentenced a 72-year-old man to 330 years in prison for an investment scam.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission is responsible for coming up with the road map that federal judges can use when issuing these sentences. On April 9, the commission approved new guidelines, which now will be submitted to Congress and will go into effect in November, unless lawmakers intervene.
Chief Judge Patti Saris, who chairs the commission, contended last week that the economic crime guidelines are not broken, but has acknowledged that they could provide more clarity on what to do in the cases of certain first-time, low-level offenders. The changes aim to make punishments more fair by giving greater weight to a criminal's role and his or her intent....
In March, the Justice Department came out against some of these changes, in favor of more targeted reforms. DOJ is worried that the intent clarification could allow white-collar criminals to claim they never meant to hurt anyone. A fraudster running a Ponzi scheme who is caught early, for example, could argue that he hoped the scheme wouldn't fail.
It makes sense that the Justice Department would want to preserve the option to impose harsher sentences in certain cases. Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law who has commented on the draft guidelines, said that from DOJ's perspective, stringent guidelines can give them leverage when negotiating plea bargains.
But some legal experts argue that the Obama administration is missing the point in this case. "All we want to do is make guidelines such that a federal prosecutor can actually look a federal judge in the face and say, 'Impose these guidelines as written,'" Bowman said. If the guidelines had more credibility, he added, judges might be more inclined to follow them and hand down stronger sentences. "The Justice Department is cutting off its nose to spite its face," he said.
Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, told The Huffington Post that he considered the commission's emphasis on offender intent "a positive development and consistent with the Bill of Rights." He added that the guidelines "are an effort to make the punishment fit the crime," but that more needs to be done on criminal justice reform overall....
Advocates say that when it comes to sentencing reform, there are parallels between drug crimes and economic crime. Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, asked, "Do we just count drugs, or do we look at [the harm] people really intended? How much harm did they cause? … Are they the courier or the mastermind?" She added that she was disappointed with the pending changes to the economic crime guidelines, calling them "rather minimal."
Prior related posts:
- US Sentencing Commission votes to amend fraud guidelines (but not really "fix" that much)
- Basic report on basic changes to fraud guidelines promulgated by US Sentencing Commmission
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Should judge follow federal prosecutors' recommendation of no prison time for CIA leaker David Petraeus?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by the sorted story surrounding the criminal misdeeds of former CIA director David Petraeus. This press report, with the subheadline "Former CIA director and military commander expected to plead guilty to sharing government secrets with his biographer and lover, Paula Broadwell," provide the backstory leading up to this afternoon's sentencing of a high-profile federal defendant:
A scandal that began to unravel in Charlotte ends in Charlotte on Thursday when former CIA Director David Petraeus is expected to admit sharing top government secrets with his biographer and lover.
Under a February agreement with prosecutors, Petraeus, 62, will plead guilty to one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. The government will recommend that punishment for the former commanding general in Iraq and Afghanistan be limited to two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler, who will preside over Petraeus’ hearing, is not bound by the plea deal. But legal experts say judges typically give great weight to such agreements.
Critics say the retired general is getting off light, given how zealously the Obama administration has pursued government leaks. By comparison, CIA analyst and case officer John Kiriakou, the whistleblower who revealed the secret CIA torture program, is serving a 30-month sentence. Open-government groups say President Barack Obama’s lieutenants have prosecuted more leakers than the rest of U.S. administrations combined.
“It’s hard to reconcile cases like that, and it leads to the conclusion that senior officials are held to a different and more forgiving standard than others,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.
The case against Petraeus, a former Obama confidant, has apparently troubled the administration from the start. The New York Times reported earlier this year that Attorney General Eric Holder was resisting the recommendations of his staff to charge Petraeus with a felony that could have led to possible prison time.
Petraeus resigned three days after Obama’s 2012 re-election. Up to then, the retired four-star general was among the most respected military leaders of modern times. He was sometimes mentioned as a future presidential or vice presidential candidate.
That all began to change three years ago. Paula Broadwell of Charlotte had already written “All In,” Petraeus’ biography. But in May 2012, the West Point graduate began sending a series of anonymous emails disparaging Jill Kelley of Tampa, Fla. Kelley was a friend of Petraeus and other military leaders. Broadwell, documents say, considered her a romantic rival.
Using “Tampa Angel” and at least one other pseudonym, Broadwell sent some of her emails from the old Dilworth Coffee shop on East Boulevard. Within weeks, the FBI had traced the messages back to Broadwell. In June 2012, agents visited the Dilworth home she shares with her husband, radiologist Scott Broadwell, and their two children. A search of her email accounts uncovered the affair. Prosecutors say Broadwell’s computer housed classified information that went far beyond her security clearance as a major in the Army Reserve.
Petraeus resigned as CIA director on Nov. 9, 2012. Court documents filed by acting U.S. Attorney Jill Rose of Charlotte and others say Petraeus shared eight “black books” with Broadwell that he compiled in Afghanistan. Prosecutors say the books held everything from secret codes and the identities of covert officers, to war strategy and notes from National Security Council meetings. Broadwell kept the books for at least four days beginning in August 2011, prosecutors say. The FBI later seized the books during an April 2013 raid on Petraeus’ home.
Petraeus lied to investigators about both having classified information and sharing it with Broadwell, according to court documents. Prosecutors say none of the classified material appeared in Broadwell’s book.
I am troubled by the appearance of disparate favorable treatment being shown to Petraeus, especially given how serious his offense conduct seems and his lies to investigators (which could have been charged as obstruction of justice). Unfortunately, I do not think federal prosecutors have ever explained — or will ever have to explain — just why they gave Petraeus a seemingly "sweetheart" deal (every pun intended there). Without any such explanation from federal prosecutors concerning how they exercised their charging and bargaining discretion in this case, it is difficult for me to make an informed judgment on the sentence being recommended by prosecutors for the former CIA director.
UPDATE: This CNN piece reports on the outcome via its headline: "Petraeus sentenced: 2 years probation; $100K fine." By Theodore Schleifer,
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Tough (and record-long) sentences for cheating Atlanta school administrators
As reported in this lengthy USA Today article, "3 in Atlanta cheating scandal to serve 7 years prison," today was final sentencing day in a high-profile and seemingly unique state white-collar criminal case from Georgia. Here are the details (with my emphasis added):
In a testy courtroom Tuesday, a judge presided over the sentencing of 10 former Atlanta public school educators convicted of participating in a widespread conspiracy to cheat on state tests, telling three defendants that they would serve seven years in prison.
Despite the contentions from Sharon Davis-Williams' and Tamara Cotman's lawyers that they had maintained their innocence and are first offenders, Judge Jerry Baxter of Fulton County Superior Court said that each is being sentenced to 20 years in prison, will serve 7 years of incarceration with the balance as probation and also must do 2,000 hours of community service and pay a $25,000 fine.
"She's convicted, and she's at the top of the food chain," Baxter said of Davis-Williams, who along with Cotman and Michael Pitts were regional directors in the city's school system during one of the country's largest cheating scandals. "Your client ran numerous fine educators out. She non-renewed them."
Pitts received the same sentence and also was sentenced to five years, to run concurrently, on a charge of influencing a witness. The sentences were higher than prosecutors' recommendations.
Although Baxter initially did not want to consider the top administrators as first offenders, he decided to allow that status for all 10. That will allow each to have their convictions erased upon completion of their sentences.
Two of those convicted, former testing coordinator Donald Bullock and former teacher Pamela Cleveland, decided to take a plea deal that prosecutors had offered. Cleveland became the only one of the former educators to elude jail time.
Any deals required an acceptance of responsibility from the former educators, District Attorney Paul Howard said. Bullock, who took the deal before Tuesday's hearing, was sentenced to five years probation, will serve six months in jail on weekends, give 1,500 hours of community service and pay a $5,000 fine.
Cleveland, who apologized in court, was sentenced to five years probation including one year 7 p.m.-to-7-a.m. home confinement, 1,000 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine. Prosecutors took into consideration her elderly parents, so she will be able to serve her home confinement at their house or any hospital where either might be a patient.
Bullock also will apologize and both waived their right to appeal. All were sentenced Tuesday after the judge in the case gave them extra time to negotiate deals with prosecutors.
The former educators' community service will be served at Atlanta's jail teaching inmates, some of whom are the victims of the problems in Atlanta's school system, Baxter said. "I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed," the judge said. "That's what gets lost in all of this."
Some of the defendants' lawyers pushed back at the expectation of a deal being reached, causing Baxter to cut them off and say he was ready to deliver his sentences immediately. He had delayed sentencing after learning that Howard had been talking to defense attorneys and thought the case could be resolved with sentencing deals. "I just wanted them to get a taste of it," Baxter said of the sentences he had in mind after he quickly delivered Davis-Williams' and Cotman's punishment. "Apparently, that didn't quite move them."
In an exchange with Pitts' lawyer, Baxter said he was worried that some of those convicted were more remorseful that they were caught than they were about cheating young students out of an education. "They should have rose up and said no," the judge said of pressure to alter standardized test scores. "They didn't, and here we are."
The former educators were convicted April 1 on a racketeering charge. Some faced additional charges. They had been accused of falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs in Atlanta Public Schools. In all, 35 educators were indicted in 2013 on charges including racketeering, making false statements and theft. Many pleaded guilty and some testified at the trial.
A state investigation found that as far back as 2005, educators fed answers to students or erased and changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved, and teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation.
This is fascinating stuff both with respect to sentencing procedure and sentencing outcomes, especially because it seems that the failure to show remorse and waive rights to appeal explains the length of the various sentences as much, if not more, than the actual criminal conduct. Wowsa (and perhaps the basis for some interesting future appeal issues).
As the title to this post indicates, I would guess these sentences are harshest ever given to cheating school administrators. That said, it does seem the behavior here was maybe the worst, long-running examples of school cheating ever prosecuted criminally.
Friday, April 10, 2015
Basic report on basic changes to fraud guidelines promulgated by US Sentencing Commmission
Though the US Sentencing Commission's vote yesterday to revise the fraud sentencing guidelines is very big news for white-collar sentencing in future high-profile federal cases (basic here), this notable sentencing reform got very little news attention. Here are excerpts from this Reuters piece with the most fulsome coverage I have seen:
A federal judicial panel on Thursday adopted new guidelines for sentencing white-collar criminals in fraud cases, in an effort to make punishments more fairly reflect the harm suffered by victims and the intent of offenders to cause harm. The changes approved by the U.S. Sentencing Commission will take effect on Nov. 1 unless Congress objects.
They follow years of criticism from defense lawyers and some judges who say federal sentencing guidelines have led to overly severe punishments, potentially reaching life in prison, because they emphasize financial losses such as from falling stock prices. Judges need not follow the guidelines, but must consider them. "These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss," said Chief Judge Patti Saris of the federal court in Massachusetts, who chairs the commission.
The changes call for "intended" losses to reflect financial harm that defendants "purposely sought to inflict," and give judges greater discretion in factoring actual losses in stocks, bonds or commodities into punishments. They also permit greater punishments when even just one or a few people suffer "substantial financial hardship" from fraud, while current guidelines emphasize the number of victims, even if their losses are small. Another change adjusts fraud losses for inflation for the first time.
The U.S. Department of Justice had expressed concern that the new definition of intended loss could let defendants claim they never intended to financially harm anyone. It also said an inflation adjustment could negate the "overwhelming societal consensus" favoring tougher punishments for fraud, and reduce the length of typical sentences by roughly one-fourth. On the other hand, the Justice Department welcomed the greater focus on actual harm inflicted. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Thursday.
David Debold, a Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner who led an advisory group to the commission, said the changes on balance "tend to make sentences more fair" in fraud cases. "They make punishment better reflect the harm that defendants actually intended," he said. "That's an important change, and a good one."
Prior related post:
Thursday, April 09, 2015
US Sentencing Commission votes to amend fraud guidelines (but not really "fix" that much)
As reported in this official press release, "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to adopt changes to the fraud guideline to address longstanding concerns that the guidelines do not appropriately account for harm to victims, individual culpability, and the offender’s intent. The Commission also voted to change the drug quantity table to account for the rescheduling of hydrocodone." Here are some details from the press release concerning this important federal white-collar sentencing news:
The Commission altered the victim enhancement in the fraud guideline to ensure that where even one victim suffered a substantial financial harm, the offender would receive an increased sentence. It also made changes to refocus economic crime penalties toward the offender’s individual intent, while maintaining an underlying principle of the fraud guideline that the amount of loss involved in the offense should form a major basis of the sentence.
“We found through comprehensive examination that the fraud guideline provides an anchoring effect in the vast majority of cases, but there were some problem areas, particularly at the high-end of the loss table,” said Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss.”
The Commission also acted today to provide additional guidance as to which offenders are eligible to receive a reduced sentence as a minor or minimal participant in an offense. “This change is intended to encourage courts to ensure that the least culpable offenders, such as those who have no proprietary interest in a fraud, receive a sentence commensurate with their own culpability without reducing sentences for leaders and organizers,” Saris said....
The Commission also made an adjustment to monetary tables to account for inflation. This goodgovernment measure derives from a methodology provided by Congress and will have an effect on both penalty and fine tables. The amendments will be transmitted to Congress by May 1, 2015. If Congress does not act to disapprove some or all of the amendments, they will go into effect November 1, 2015. More information about this process and the amendments approved today will be available on the Commission’s web site at www.ussc.gov.
At the USSC's website, one can now find this "Preliminary 'Reader-Friendly' Version of Amendments. Though "reader-friendly," the amendments themselves do not really provide a complete picture of just how much these amendments, assuming they are not disapproved by Congress, could impact guideline-sentencing ranges in future high-loss white-collar cases. In addition, and of perhaps particular interest to some currently incarcerated defendants, the Commission has to my knowledge not yet indicated in any formal documents whether, when and how it might consider making these amendment retroactive in a manner that might impact past high-loss white-collar cases.
IMPORTANT FRAUD AMENDMENT RETROACTIVITY UPDATE: A helpful colleague who was able to watch the USSC meeting and votes provided this report on the topic of the potential retroactivity of these amendments:
At the end of the hearing, USSC staff brought up the question of retroactivity and said a motion would be appropriate at this time if the Sentencing Commission wanted the staff to conduct a retroactivity impact analysis. USSC Chair Saris asked whether anyone wanted to make such a motion and no one did. Saris then read a brief statement saying they have a statutory obligation to consider whether any amendments should be retroactive, and they had determined in this case that for these amendments that would not be appropriate.
Notably, if Congress was truly eager to help with prison-crowding problems by doing something for some notable non-violent offenders, I think Congress could provide by statutory direction either that the amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part (or it might at least direct that the Commission consider more fully whether these amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part). Also, back in 2007, when the crack guidelines were first adjusted downward slightly, the Commission did not take up the retroactivity issue until many months after it promulgated amendments lowering the guidelines. But, I suspect absent some significant advocacy by the white-collar defense bar, the die may be already permanently cast against any even partial retroactivity of these new fraud amendments.
Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Terrific review of possible USSC fraud guideline amendments (and DOJ's foolish opposition)
As detailed in this official notice, the US Sentencing Commission has a public meeting scheduled for tomorrow, April 9, 2015, at 1:00 pm (which is to be live-streamed here). The big agenda item of note for the meeting is the "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and the most consequential amendments being considered concerns proposals to tweak § 2B1.1, the key guideline for fraud cases and many other white-collar offenses.
I doubt the actual USSC meeting will be a must-see event, though I have urged my sentencing students to tune in. (I plan to watch the meeting live on my iPad while also keeping an eye on another notable on-going event in Augusta, Georgia.) But I have a must-read for anyone interested in white-collar federal sentencing: this fantastic Jurist commentary by Prof Randall Eliason titled "The DOJ Opposition to the Proposed Sentencing Guideline Amendments: Fighting the Wrong Battles in Fraud Cases." The entire commentary is a must-read (with lots of great links) for all federal sentencing fans, and here are a few choice excerpts:
On March 12, 2015, the US Sentencing Commission held a public hearing on its annual proposed amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. A number of the proposals concern the guideline for economic crimes and fraud cases, § 2B1.1. The amendments would reduce the recommended sentence in many such cases, particularly those involving large dollar amounts.
At the hearing the US Department of Justice opposed most of these amendments. DOJ argued that any move to reduce the sentences in fraud cases would be bad policy and would ignore the "overwhelming societal consensus" in favor of harsh punishment for these crimes.... But given the current realities of federal sentencing, DOJ is fighting the wrong battles....
At the March 12 hearing DOJ opposed the inflation adjustment; opposed the amendments concerning sophisticated means, intended loss, and fraud on the market; and supported the new enhancement based on causing victims substantial hardship. In other words, DOJ opposed virtually any amendment that could lead to lower sentences while supporting changes that could lead to higher ones. While this may seem predictable, I think it's a mistake.
DOJ was a lonely voice at the hearing and is definitely swimming against the tide by opposing the amendments. There is a widespread and growing belief that the sentences called for in major fraud cases have become excessive. More broadly, there is an emerging bipartisan movement in the country favoring criminal justice reform, including measures to reduce skyrocketing sentences (particularly for non-violent offenders) and our enormous prison population.
Law professor Frank Bowman provided some compelling hearing testimony tracing the history of the fraud guideline and demonstrating how various forces, both intentional and unintentional, have combined over the years to escalate the sentences in such cases dramatically. As he pointed out, given the large dollar values involved in some recent Wall Street frauds, it's relatively easy for a white-collar defendant to zoom to the top of the sentencing table and end up with a recommended sentence of 30 years or even life in prison—on a par with sentences recommended for homicide, treason, or a major armed bank robbery.
DOJ's resistance to virtually any amendment that might lead to lower sentences in economic crime cases appears short-sighted and runs the risk of looking reflexive. The Sentencing Commission has researched these questions for several years, gathering input from all stakeholders. The proposals seem reasonable and justified, and in fact are more modest than many had hoped.
It's hard to see what criminal justice purpose is being served by the escalating sentences in fraud cases. The prospect of prison does have a powerful and important deterrent effect that is unique to criminal law. But for a typical business executive it's hard to believe there's much additional marginal deterrent value in a possible twenty or twenty-five year sentence as opposed to, say, a fifteen year one.
But the more important fact is that legal developments have rendered DOJ's position in favor of higher guidelines sentences increasingly beside the point. It's been ten years since the Supreme Court ruled in US v. Booker that the mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional and the guidelines must be advisory only. Later in Kimbrough v. US the Court made it clear that a judge is free to depart from the recommended sentence if the judge disagrees with a policy decision underlying the guidelines.
In this legal environment, DOJ's push for higher guidelines looks like a struggle to keep the barn door closed when the horse left for greener pastures long ago. In the post- Booker/Kimbrough world, if judges believe a sentence called for by the guidelines is out of whack they will simply reduce it. For example, in the recent public corruption case involving former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, the judge called the recommended guidelines sentence of six to eight years in prison "ridiculous" and proceeded to sentence McDonnell to only two years.
There's evidence that the same thing is already happening in fraud cases. According to the Sentencing Commission's data, judges sentence below the recommended guidelines range in about 21 percent of fraud cases (not counting those cases where the government itself requests a reduced sentence). But in the Southern District of New York, home to Wall Street and many of the big-dollar fraud cases, judges depart below the guidelines in a whopping 45.6 percent of such cases. It does no good for DOJ to continue to push for extremely high guidelines numbers only to have judges ignore the guidelines and impose the lower sentences that they feel are just and reasonable.
DOJ's approach is worse than futile, it's counter-productive. The more that judges come to regard the guidelines as calling for inappropriate sentences, the more comfortable they may become not following them. This could lead to more widespread departures from the guidelines not merely in fraud cases but in cases across the board, accelerating a deterioration in the force and influence of the guidelines that so far has been held relatively in check since Booker.
April 8, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for modern sheriff playing Robin Hood?
In the legend of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham is the tale's primary villain. But this sentencing story out of South Carolina raises the question of what federal sentence ought to be given to a local sheriff who was committing fraud as a kind of modern Robin Hood. The press report is headlined "Convicted Williamsburg sheriff asks for sentencing leniency," and here are the details:
The convicted former sheriff of Williamsburg County should be sentenced to less than the three years in prison recommended by federal officials because he succeeded despite a troubled upbringing and is being treated for a painkiller addiction, his lawyer said.
Ex-sheriff Michael Johnson faces a judge Wednesday to learn his fate after a federal jury convicted him in September of mail fraud. Prosecutors said Johnson created hundreds of fake police reports for a friend who ran a credit repair business so people could claim their identities were stolen and get out of credit card debt. The sentencing recommendation for Johnson is 30 months to 37 months in prison, according to court papers filed this week.
Johnson's attorney said that is too harsh for a man with no criminal record who cooperated with authorities. Johnson's request asks for a lesser sentence, but is not specific. Johnson has suffered from depression and anxiety the past four years. He also has migraines, high blood pressure and insomnia, lawyer Deborah Barber said in court papers.
The former sheriff also was raised in a broken home, saw his mother abused by a boyfriend and left at age 17 to relieve her of financial burden, Barber said. "He resided in a poverty-stricken area in Kingstree, South Carolina, with the family not having enough money to adequately survive," Barber wrote....
Johnson joined the Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office in 1997, two years after graduating high school and rose to chief deputy, becoming sheriff in April 2010 when the former sheriff, Kelvin Washington, was named U.S. Marshal for South Carolina.
He is one of nine sheriffs in South Carolina's 46 counties to be charged or investigated while in office since 2010. Seven have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and another died while under investigation. Only two of those sheriffs so far have been sentenced to prison.
Intriguingly, this long earlier article explains some of the details of the fraud, and it suggests that sheriff Johnson may not have made any money from the scheme designed to help people to (falsely) improve their credit rating. I am disinclined to assert that sheriff Johnson is as noble or heroic as Robin Hood, but it does seem like his fraud involved trying to help some folks down on their luck by pulling a fast one on the (big bad monarchy?) credit companies. Given that the federal sentencing guidelines still call for a prison term of at least 2.5 years, I am now wondering what the real Robin Hood might have been facing in a federal fraud guideline range if he were facing sentencing today.
March 25, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Sentencing judgment days this week in federal court for two pols behaving very badly
Two prominent politician faced federal sentencing for two distinct crimes this week. Here are headlines reflecting the outcome for each on judgment day along with links to stories providing the details:
Saturday, March 14, 2015
Reviewing DOJ's opposition to any fraud guideline amendments
This Reuters article, headlined "Justice Department objects to white-collar sentencing reforms," details that the US Department of Justice is not too keen on proposed reformed to the federal sentencing guidelines for fraud offenses. Here are the excerpts:
The U.S. Justice Department has come out broadly against a series of proposals from a federal panel that would cut prison time for white-collar criminals. The department's views, revealed on Thursday at a hearing of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, marked a potential setback for the proposals, which defense lawyers had already criticized for being too moderate.
In a letter released at the meeting, the department objected to a proposal to adjust victim losses for inflation for the first time since 1987. Losses directly influence recommended prison term lengths, and the move would reduce fraud sentences by 26 percent on average. "It seems a somewhat odd thing to do," Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said at the hearing.
The Justice Department also objected to a proposal to shift the emphasis in calculating sentences for stock fraud cases to financial gains instead of investor losses, a change that could reduce the amount of prison time some executives would face. The department's position came amid continuing debate over whether changes to the guidelines are necessary to address what even some judges have said are overly harsh recommended punishments for fraud offenders.
Fraud offenses constitute the third largest type of federal crime in America, behind only immigration and drugs cases. Over the last decade, average prison sentences for fraud have lengthened three-fold, the commission said. But after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the guidelines advisory in 2005, judges increasingly gave shorter terms than what the commission recommended. In 2012, the average fraud sentence was 22 months, compared to the 29-month minimum recommended, the commission said.
Critics say the data shows many judges view the guidelines as overly-driven by victim losses, at times resulting in potential life sentences in cases like stock frauds with high-dollar amounts.
The commission's proposals, released in January, were viewed as too moderate by groups like the American Bar Association, which had pushed for broader revision de-emphasizing the influence losses have not just in cases involving the stock market but also for other frauds, such as in mortgages and healthcare. Still, the commission said its proposal to adjust the loss calculations for inflation would itself reduce sentence lengths.
The Justice Department said any reduction would be contrary to "overwhelming societal consensus." Several commissioners, though, appeared skeptical of the department's position.
Prior related posts:
- US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed fraud and other guideline amendments
- Brief account of what proposed fraud guideline changes might amount to
- US Sentencing Commission proposes (modest but significant) changes to the fraud guidelines
Friday, March 13, 2015
Utah establishes criminal registry for white-collar offenders
Via this New York Times piece, I see that Utah has extended the idea of a criminal registry to fraudsters. Though I have reservations about criminal registries for a variety of reasons, I think this particular kind of registry might make a lot of sense as a recidivism/crime prevention measure. Here is how this fascinating story gets started:
With just a point and a click, you can browse a face book of felons, a new government website that will warn of the danger these criminals pose to society. Only these are not the faces of sex offenders and serial killers. These criminals are mortgage schemers and inside traders, most likely armed with nothing more than an M.B.A. or a law degree.
Their faces will soon appear online courtesy of the Utah Legislature, which on Wednesday approved a measure to build the nation’s first white-collar offender registry, appending a scarlet letter of sorts on the state’s financial felons. The registry — quirky even by the standards of a legislature that this week reinstated firing squads as a method of execution — will be replete with a “a recent photograph” of Utah’s white-collar offenders and, in case they try to run or hide, their “date of birth, height, weight, and eye and hair color.”
“White-collar crime is an epidemic in Utah,” said Sean Reyes, the state’s attorney general who formulated the idea for the registry when he was a defense lawyer, “representing some of these bad guys.” A former mixed martial arts fighter who has a metal plate lodged in his eye socket from a basketball injury, Mr. Reyes noted that while violent crimes were devastating, many “physical wounds heal,” whereas white-collar crimes “can forever deplete your life savings.”
While some Utah lawmakers fear that the registry is overkill, the idea does tap into a vein of populist outrage over financial misdeeds. As much as sex offender registries spread state by state, so too could a white-collar crime registry find favor across the nation, say its supporters.
The legislation’s sponsor in the Utah Senate, Curtis S. Bramble, a Republican, plans to promote the idea through his role as president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislatures, an influential group, saying that “the registry could become a best practices for other states.”
March 13, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack
Thursday, March 12, 2015
US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed fraud and other guideline amendments
Today, as detailed at this webpage with the official agenda, the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public hearing to receive testimony from invited witnesses on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines. This event is being streamed live (for the first time, I think), and can be watched at this link.
This webpage with the official agenda also provides links to the submitted written testimony of the scheduled witnesses. Most of the interesting conceptual and technical debate about guideline amendments this cycle are focused on the fraud guidelines, which have been subject to an array of criticisms due especially to their severity in cases including significant "loss" calculations. But, as the Department of Justice's written testimony (available here) makes the case that there is nothing really broken in the fraud guideline that needs to be fixed:
Lessening penalties for economic crime would be contrary to the overwhelming societal consensus that exists around these offenses. All three branches of government have expressed a belief that the sentences for fraud offenses are either appropriate or too low....
The Department also feels that penalties for economic crimes should remain unchanged and not be decreased. The proportionality established between loss and offense level is based upon numerous policy considerations, including how economic crimes should be punished and deterred. In the Department's experience and judgment, the harm from economic crimes is generally not being overstated.
In notable contrast, the written testimony of Professor Frank O. Bowman, III (available here) has a very different take on the realities of the fraud guidelines:
[F]or the last decade or so, the loudest complaint about §2B1.1 has been that it prescribes sentences which, at least for some defendants, are far too high. In particular, many observers have argued that for some high-loss defendants the guidelines now are divorced both from the objectives of Section 3553(a) and, frankly, from common sense....
Accordingly, one would have expected the proposed 2015 amendments to §2B1.1 to concentrate on the class of high-loss offenders the Commission seems to agree are over-punished by the guidelines. Curiously, however, the proposed amendments – though in several cases laudable for other reasons – would have virtually no material impact on the guidelines ranges for very high loss offenders, while producing modest guidelines reductions for significant numbers of low-to-moderate-loss offenders.
<P>I agree with the Commission’s basic conclusion that for many, perhaps most, economic offenders the Guidelines do not suggest manifestly unreasonable sentences. But I also agree with Judge Saris’s implicit conclusion that for many high-loss offenders the fraud guideline is “fundamentally broken.” The Commission doubtless believes that the modest proposals put forward in this cycle will at least ameliorate the high-loss offender problem. Unfortunately, the guidelines for high-loss offenders are so “fundamentally broken” that these modest measures will have no meaningful effect.
Tuesday, March 03, 2015
"Fishy SOX: Overcriminalization's New Harm Paradigm"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Todd Haugh available via SSRN. The piece argues that the recently decided Yates case is more consequential than the standard fish shory. Here is the abstract:
The harms of overcriminalization are usually thought of in a particular way—that the proliferation of criminal laws leads to increasing and inconsistent criminal enforcement and adjudication. For example, an offender commits an unethical or illegal act and, because of the overwhelming depth and breadth of the criminal law, becomes subject to too much prosecutorial discretion and faces disparate enforcement or punishment. But there is an additional, possibly more pernicious, harm of overcriminalization.
Drawing from the fields of criminology and behavioral ethics, this Article makes the case that overcriminalization actually increases the commission of criminal acts themselves, particularly by white collar offenders. This occurs because overcriminalization, by delegitimatizing the criminal law, fuels offender rationalizations. Rationalizations are part of the psychological process necessary for the commission of crime—they allow offenders to square their self-perception as “good people” with the illegal behavior they are contemplating, thereby allowing the behavior to go forward. Overcriminalization, then, is more than a post-act concern. It is inherently criminogenic because it facilitates some of the most prevalent and powerful rationalizations used by would-be offenders. Put simply, overcriminalization is fostering the very conduct it seeks to eliminate. This phenomenon is on display in the recently argued Supreme Court case Yates v. United States. Using Yates as a backdrop, this Article presents a new paradigm of overcriminalization and its harms.
Friday, February 20, 2015
Virginia's former first lady facing sentencing after hubby got only two years
Today brings another high-profile white-collar sentencing in the federal court in Virginia as Maureen McDonnell, former first lady, is to come before the same judge who sentenced former Virginia Gov Robert McDonnell to two years' imprisonment last month. Helpfully, Randall Eliason at the Sidebars Legal Blog provides this preview, titled "What to Expect at Maureen McDonnell’s Sentencing." Randall provides this refined summary of the guideline basics and the parties' recommendations:
The Presentence Report prepared by the U.S. Probation Department concludes that the Sentencing Guidelines call for a sentence of 63-78 months in prison. The prosecution agrees with those calculations but recommends the judge sentence her to only 18 months in prison to avoid an unwarranted disparity between her sentence and that of her husband. Mrs. McDonnell’s attorneys argue that, properly calculated, the Sentencing Guidelines call for only 33-41 months, but urge the judge to depart even further from the Guidelines and sentence her to probation along with 4000 hours of community service.
In addition, the Washington Post has this article headlined "Everything you need to know about Maureen McDonnell’s sentencing." But that piece does not set out these guideline basics, so the headline is not accurate for hard-core federal sentencing geeks like me.
UPDATE: As this Washington Post piece reports, "Maureen McDonnell was sentenced Friday to a year and a day in federal prison after an emotional, hours-long hearing in which the former first lady of Virginia apologized publicly for the first time since she and her husband were accused of public corruption."
As all competent federal sentencing lawyers know, a sentence of a year and a day for the former first lady is actually better than a sentence of one year. That extra day makes her formally eligible to earn good-time credit, which nearly all non-violent offenders earn. So, practically, Ms. McDonnell is now likely to be released from federal custody after only 10.5 months in the federal graybar hotel.
February 20, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, February 05, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht?
This Wired article provides the basic story on a notable modern federal defendant who, thanks to a jury verdict yesterday, is now a high-profile convicted felon awaiting sentencing:
A jury has spoken, and the mask is off: Ross Ulbricht has been convicted of being the Dread Pirate Roberts, secret mastermind of the Silk Road online narcotics empire.
On Wednesday, less than a month after his trial began in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, 30-year-old Ulbricht was convicted of all seven crimes he was charged with, including narcotics and money laundering conspiracies and a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug cartel leaders. It took the jury only 3.5 hours to return a verdict. Ulbricht faces a minimum of 30 years in prison; the maximum is life. But Ulbricht’s legal team has said it will appeal the decision, and cited its frequent calls for a mistrial and protests against the judge’s decisions throughout the case.
As the verdict was read, Ulbricht stared straight ahead. His mother Lyn Ulbricht slowly shook her head, and his father Kirk put a hand to his temple. After the verdict, Ulbricht turned around to give his family a stoic smile. “This is not the end,” Ulbricht’s mother said loudly as he was led out of the courtroom. “Ross is a hero!” shouted a supporter.
From his first pre-trial hearings in New York, the government’s evidence that Ulbricht ran the Silk Road’s billion-dollar marketplace under the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts was practically overwhelming. When the FBI arrested Ulbricht in the science fiction section of a San Francisco public library in October of 2013, his fingers were literally on the keyboard of his laptop, logged into the Silk Road’s “mastermind” account. On his seized laptop’s hard drive, investigators quickly found a journal, daily logbook, and thousands of pages of private chat logs that chronicled his years of planning, creating and day-to-day running of the Silk Road. That red-handed evidence was bolstered by a college friend of Ulbricht’s who testified at trial that the young Texan had confessed creating the Silk Road to him. On top of that, notes found crumpled in his bedroom’s trashcan connected to the Silk Road’s code. Ulbricht’s guilty verdict was even further locked down by a former FBI agent’s analysis that traced $13.4 million worth of the black market’s bitcoins from the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland and Pennsylvania to the bitcoin wallet on Ulbricht laptop.
Ulbricht’s defense team quickly admitted at trial that Ulbricht had created the Silk Road. But his attorneys argued that it had been merely an “economic experiment,” one that he quickly gave up to other individuals who grew the site into the massive drug empire the Silk Road represented at its peak in late 2013. Those purported operators of the site, including the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, they argued, had framed Ulbricht as the “perfect fall guy.”...
But that dramatic alternative theory was never backed up with a credible explanation of the damning evidence found on Ulbricht’s personal computer. The defense was left to argue that Ulbricht’s laptop had been hacked, and voluminous incriminating files injected into the computer — perhaps via a Bittorrent connection he was using to download an episode of the Colbert Report at the time of his arrest. In their closing arguments, prosecutors called that story a “wild conspiracy theory” and a “desperate attempt to create a smokescreen.” It seems the jury agreed.
Despite the case’s grim outcome for Ulbricht, his defense team seemed throughout the trial to be laying the grounds for an appeal. His lead attorney Joshua Dratel called for a mistrial no less than five times, and was rejected by the judge each time. Dratel’s protests began with pre-trial motions to preclude a large portion of the prosecution’s evidence based on what he described as an illegal, warrantless hack of the Silk Road’s Icelandic server by FBI investigators seeking to locate the computer despite its use of the Tor anonymity software. As the trial began, Dratel butted heads with the prosecution and judge again on the issue of cross-examining a Department of Homeland Security witness on the agency’s alternative suspects in the case, including bitcoin mogul and Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles. And in the last days of the trial, Dratel strongly objected again to a decision by the judge to disallow two of the defense’s expert witnesses based on a lack of qualifications....
Ulbricht will nonetheless be remembered not just for his conviction, but also for ushering in a new age of online black markets. Today’s leading dark web drug sites like Agora and Evolution offer more narcotics listings than the Silk Road ever did, and have outlived law enforcement’s crackdown on their competitors. Tracking down and prosecuting those new sites’ operators, like prosecuting Ulbricht, will likely require the same intense, multi-year investigations by three-letter agencies.
Though I am not familiar with all the likely sentencing particulars, I would expect a guidelines calculation in this case to be life and that prosecutors will urge a guideline-recommended LWOP sentence. The defense surely will seek the minimum sentence, which in this case is the not-so-minimum 30 years in the federal greybar hotel.
In addition to pursuing their appeal, Ulbricht's defense team might reach out to Brian Doherty at Reason, who has this provocative commentary headlined "Silk Road: Ross Ulbricht's Loss is a Loss for Justice, Liberty, Safety, and Peace: The operation Ulbricht was found guilty of managing was one guaranteed to save lives, reduce real crime, and preserve liberty." Here are excerpts:
[T]he government's multi-year, incredibly expensive attempt to take down the site and prosecute Ulbricht were bad for liberty, bad for markets, bad for the safety of those who choose to use substances the government has declared forbidden, and bad for America....
Ulbricht, if he's guilty of what they tried him for, is guilty of nothing but trying, and for a while succeeding, in doing a good thing for his fellow citizens, the world, and the future. His case will be remembered not as one of stalwart cops saving the world from dangerous crime, but of a visionary martyr punished for the good he did.
The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was. But the government seems to never run out of candidates to be the last person to be a victim of that war, a victim of that mistake. May Ulbricht be among the last.
Friday, January 30, 2015
Notable new commentary on Yates v. US and overcriminalization
Via email I learned about these two notable new commentaries discussing issues surrounding the federal criminal case Yates v. United States soon to be resolved by the Supreme Court:
SOX on Fish: A New Harm of Overcriminalization by Todd Haugh
Going Overboard: Yates and DOJ’s “Most Serious Offense” Charging Policy by Scott Coffina & Edward James Beale
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Brief account of what proposed fraud guideline changes might amount to
This new Reuters article, headlined "U.S. panel proposes changes to white-collar prison sentences," provides a reasonable summary of the likely import and impact of the guideline reform proposes announced by the US Sentencing Commission late last week (discussed here). Here are excerpts:
Some executives and others convicted of stock fraud could face shorter prison terms under a U.S. commission's proposal to change how white-collar criminals are sentenced. The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Friday released proposals to amend advisory federal guidelines that would shift the emphasis in calculating a sentence for frauds on the market to financial gains instead of investor losses.
The proposal follows years of criticism by defense lawyers and some judges who say that the guidelines focus too much on financial losses caused by fraud, leading in certain cases to sentences that are too harsh. Judges have discretion to impose any sentence, but are required to consider the guidelines.
In stock fraud cases, losses can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, contributing to an advisory sentence of life in prison. Under the commission's proposal, judges in these cases would consider the gains from a fraud, a number defense lawyers say would often be considerably smaller.
The Sentencing Commission has scheduled a March 12 hearing on the proposals. The panel has until May 1 to submit any amendments to Congress. If Congress does not act by Nov. 1, the changes become law....
The commission has proposed setting a threshold sentencing level for gains, ensuring punishment in cases where profits are minimal. Depending on what floor is set, there is a "very good chance a number of cases would result in lower guideline sentencing ranges," said David Debold, a lawyer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who heads up an advisory group to the commission.
Defense lawyers cautioned that the proposed changes would not always result in a lower sentencing range. Some frauds like penny stock manipulation, for example, could involve significant gains to defendants and might still lead to lengthy sentences. Other proposals would affect the weight given to factors such as the harm to victims and the sophistication of a fraud.
Some defense lawyers say the proposals overall do not sufficiently emphasize a defendant's culpability and leaves loss as a driving factor for the bulk of fraud cases involving identity theft, mortgage fraud and healthcare fraud. "These changes don't go nearly as far as we would have liked," James Felman, a Florida lawyer and member of an American Bar Association task force advocating changes to the guidelines.
U.S. District Judge Patti Saris, the commission's chair, said in a statement that the panel did not consider "the guideline to be broken for most forms of fraud," but that its review had identified "some problem areas where changes may be necessary."
Prior related post:
Friday, January 09, 2015
US Sentencing Commission proposes (modest but significant) changes to the fraud guidelines
As reported in this official news release, the "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to publish proposed guideline amendments, including revisions to the sentencing guideline governing fraud." Here are the basics from the release:
The bipartisan Commission voted to seek comment on a proposed amendment to revise guideline §2B1.1 governing fraud offenses by clarifying the definition of “intended loss,” which contributes to the degree of punishment, and the enhancement for the use of sophisticated means in a fraud offense. The proposed amendment also revises the guideline to better consider the degree of harm to victims, rather than just the number of victims, and includes a modified, simpler approach to “fraud on the market” offenses which involve manipulation of the value of stocks.
The proposed revisions to the fraud guidelines come after a multi-year study, which included a detailed examination of sentencing data, outreach to experts and stakeholders, and a September 2013 symposium at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “We have heard criticism from some judges and members of the bar that the fraud guideline may be fundamentally broken, particularly for fraud on the market cases,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission. “Based on our extensive examination of data, we have not seen a basis for finding the guideline to be broken for most forms of fraud, like identity theft, mortgage fraud, or healthcare fraud, but this review has helped us to identify some problem areas where changes may be necessary.”...
Consistent with the Commission’s mission to make the guidelines more efficient and more effective, the Commission also voted today to clarify the provisions allowing for sentence reductions for offenders with mitigating roles in the offense and the provisions governing jointly undertaken criminal activity. The Commission similarly proposed adjusting the tables based on amounts of money for inflation in an attempt to keep the guidelines current and follow the approach generally mandated by statute for most civil monetary penalties....
The proposed amendments and issues for comment will be subject to a public comment period running through March 18. A public hearing on the proposed amendments will be scheduled in Washington, D.C., on March 12. More information about these hearings, as well as a data presentation on today’s proposed fraud amendment and other relevant data, will be available on the Commission’s web site at www.ussc.gov.
Here are links to new materials already posted on the USSC website this afternoon:
- "Reader-Friendly" Version of Proposed Amendments (January 9, 2015)
- Chair's Remarks at Public Meeting (January 9, 2015)
As the title of this post indicates, these new proposed amendments strike me as relatively modest but still quite significant. Most notably, the white-collar defense bar is likely to be very interested in what these changes signal and suggest, and any federal fraud defendants currently serving very long guideline sentences may want to start thinking about whether these proposed amendments might help their cause if they are formally adopted and thereafter made retroactive.