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?

ImagesIn 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:

March 19, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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:

March 14, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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

Download (2)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.

March 12, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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.

March 3, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

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?

Ross-ulbricht-600x450This 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.

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

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

January 30, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

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:

January 13, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, January 09, 2015

US Sentencing Commission proposes (modest but significant) changes to the fraud guidelines

Download (1)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:

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.

January 9, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Former Virginia Gov McDonnell gets (way-below-guideline) sentence of two years in prison

As reported here by the Washington Post, a "federal judge sentenced former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell to two years in prison Tuesday — a term far lower than what prosecutors had sought and one that means the popular politician will be free before his 63rd birthday." Here is more:

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer said he was moved by the outpouring of support for McDonnell, though he could not ignore the jury’s verdict. “A price must be paid,” Spencer said. “Unlike Pontius Pilate, I can’t wash my hands of it all.  A meaningful sentence must be imposed.”

The penalty is a win for defense attorneys, who had asked that the former governor be sentenced to mere community service even as prosecutors initially advocated for a prison term stretching longer than a decade.  The U.S. probation office had determined that federal sentencing guidelines called for a term of incarceration between 10 years and a month and 12 years and seven months.

Spencer ordered the former governor to report to prison on Feb. 9. Though McDonnell (R) will certainly appeal his conviction, the sentence brings to a close a stunning narrative of politics, greed and family drama that reached a climax in September when McDonnell, 60, and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of public corruption. A jury found unanimously that the couple used the governor’s office to help a wealthy dietary supplement company executive advance his business interests, and in exchange, the businessman gave the McDonnells $177,000 in loans, gifts and luxury goods.

January 6, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

Previewing (and predicting) federal sentencing prospects for former Virginia Gov McDonnell

The Washington Post has this lengthy article, headlined "What to expect at former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell’s sentencing," providing an effective preview of a high-profile white-collar sentencing taking place in federal court tomorrow. Here are highlights:

As a federal judge on Tuesday sets the punishment for former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, he will consider legal issues as well as sweeping personal questions.  U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer will look first to guidelines that call for McDonnell to receive as much as 12 years and seven months for trading the influence of his office to a smooth-talking businessman in exchange for sweetheart loans, lavish vacations and high-end merchandise.

But the judge is not bound by those recommendations.  And his ultimate decision rests, in part, on intangible considerations: How serious was McDonnell’s public corruption?  What penalty might deter others in the former governor’s shoes?  What weight should be given to the good the former governor has done?...

rosecutors want McDonnell to spend at least 10 years and a month in prison.  The former governor’s attorneys believe a sentence of community service — and no time behind bars — would be sufficient.

Both sides will make their best pitches to the judge in person beginning at 10 a.m. McDonnell may offer a personal plea, as may some of his supporters.  Spencer has been given more than 440 letters that friends, family members and others wrote on the governor’s behalf, urging leniency and extolling the virtues of the onetime Republican rising star.  Spencer also has reviewed filings from prosecutors, who have accused McDonnell of feeling no remorse and still seeking to blame others....

The starting point for determining the former governor’s punishment is this: The U.S. probation office — the federal agency tasked with calculating a range of appropriate penalties according to the federal sentencing guidelines — has recommended that McDonnell face between 10 years and a month to 12 years and seven months in prison. There is no parole in the federal system, and if McDonnell were to be incarcerated, he would be able to reduce his time behind bars with good behavior by only 54 days a year, at most.

Spencer is not bound by the probation office’s recommendation — it is merely a technical calculation of how the office believes federal sentencing guidelines should be applied in the case — but experts say he typically heeds its advice....

After Spencer determines the guideline range, he will weigh entirely different factors as he fashions what he considers an appropriate punishment.  Among those that prosecutors and defense attorneys highlighted in McDonnell’s case: the nature and circumstances of his offenses, McDonnell’s personal history and characteristics, and the need to deter others from ending up in similar straits....

A former prosecutor and Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer, Spencer was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.  Known as a no-nonsense and efficient jurist, he took senior status on the bench last year, meaning he is now semi-retired.  Jacob Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor who now does white collar criminal defense work, said Spencer probably will not impose a decade-long sentence, but defense attorneys’ bid for only probation is something of a “Hail Mary.”

I share the view that it is unlikely McDonnell will get either probation as he wishes or the 10 years in prison sought by the feds. As a betting man, I would put the over-under line at around three years. The nature of the crime and the defendant leads me to think the sentencing judges will be likely to impose a substantial prion term, but still something less (perhaps much less) than half a decade.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just discovered that Randall Eliason at his Sidebars Legal Blog has this lengthy post about the McDonnell sentencing which provides much more detailed review of the interesting guideline calculation issues that are in dispute in the case.  

January 5, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Former District Judge Paul Cassell at center of two big new victim-rights stories

ImageLong-time readers of this blog are surely familiar with the name Paul Cassell, perhaps primarily for his notable sentencing rulings back when he was a federal district judge concerning mandatory minimums and the impact of Blakely on the federal sentencing guidelines.  Long-time criminal justice academics are familiar with his long-ago scholarly work on Miranda and related police-practices jurisprudence and modern victim-rights advocates know Paul as one of the leading modern (court-focused) advocates for the interests of crime victims.  

With all that background (and the disclaimer that I have worked with Paul on various issues over the last decade and greatly respect his talents, energies and perspectives), I am now fascinating to see Paul Cassell's name at the forefront of two big new victim-rights stories.  Here are links and the start of articles about these stories:

From the Washington Times here, "Loretta Lynch questioned over secret deal depriving fraud victims of $40M":

More than a year before President Obama nominated federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch to be attorney general, a former federal judge quietly called on Congress to investigate her U.S. attorney’s office for trampling on victims’ rights.

Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah, said Ms. Lynch’s office, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, never told victims in a major stock fraud case that a culprit had been sentenced — denying them a chance to seek restitution of some $40 million in losses. Mr. Cassell, in written remarks to a House Judiciary Committee panel in 2013, said if prosecutors were using secretive sentencing procedures to reward criminals for cooperating with them, it could violate the Crime Victims Restitution Act.

From the Salt Lake Tribune here, "Utah law professor claims British prince, well-known attorney had sex with teen ‘sex slave’":

University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell has come under fire for filing a motion in a victims’ right suit that claims a client was forced as a girl to be a "sex slave" who allegedly was made available to a well-known attorney and a member of the British royal family.

The motion filed Friday in a federal court in Florida alleges that a woman identified as Jane Doe #3 was sexually exploited beginning at age 15 by billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, who also loaned her for sex to politically connected and powerful people — including Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz and Prince Andrew, a son of Queen Elizabeth II.

Both men have denied the allegations, and Dershowitz is threatening to initiate disbarment proceedings against Cassell and Bradley Edwards, a Florida attorney who also represents Jane Doe #3, according to The Wall Street Journal.

For lawyers and politicians, the story about criticisms of the Attorney-General-nominee is much more important and consequential.  But the teen sex slave story is sure to get a whole lot more attention — and that story could, I think, end up making it difficult for Paul Cassell to be called to testify or otherwise be a visible voice in AG-nominee Lynch's upcoming confirmation hearings.

January 5, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Current Affairs, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Former Virginia Gov McDonnell upcoming sentencing sets out white-collar terms of debate

McdonnellThis lengthy local article from Virginia, headlined "U.S. seeks McDonnell sentence of 10 to 12 years," details the competing arguments being set forth in a high-profile federal white-collar sentencing slated for next month. Here are excerpts from the piece:

Prosecutors are asking that former Gov. Bob McDonnell, convicted of 11 corruption charges in September, be imprisoned for at least 10 years and one month to as much as 12 years and seven months when sentenced Jan. 6 by U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer.

In sentencing memorandums filed Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked for a term within the federal sentencing guideline range determined by the probation office, while McDonnell’s lawyers asked for 6,000 hours of community service instead of prison time and argued the guideline range should be 33 to 41 months.

“After serving as a prosecutor and attorney general, this defendant corrupted an office that few bribery defendants achieve, and then falsely testified and shifted blame for his actions before the jury that convicted him,” wrote Dana J. Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. McDonnell, the government wrote, “stands before this court as only the 12th governor in the United States — and the first governor of Virginia — to be convicted of a public corruption offense.”

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in a six-week trial in which the marriage and the former first lady were portrayed as troubled.  Maureen McDonnell was convicted of nine charges, one later thrown out, and will be sentenced Feb. 20.  Bob McDonnell testified on his own behalf, but his wife did not.  The McDonnells were indicted in January for accepting more than $177,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the then-CEO of Star Scientific, in exchange for promoting a new dietary supplement product. Williams, a key government witness, was granted immunity....

In its 31-page sentencing memorandum, the government urged Spencer to adopt the findings in the presentencing report from the probation office and reject McDonnell’s objections.  Prosecutors argued that McDonnell abused his power and violated his duty to the people of Virginia.

“The defendant is fond of pointing out that under Virginia law, no limits on gifts to elected officials existed and that he thus claims that he was merely a ‘part of the culture of unlimited gifts that has permeated Virginia politics,’ ” prosecutors wrote. “But he was not convicted of accepting gifts; he was convicted of accepting bribes. And bribery has always been a violation of state (as well as federal) law,” they added.  The government said the presentencing report correctly factored in obstruction of justice based on what it termed McDonnell’s lies from the witness stand....

McDonnell’s 51-page sentencing position, also filed Tuesday, took a very different view of the case.  It said: “Bob McDonnell has devoted his life to public service, family, and faith. This offense is a total aberration in what was by all accounts a successful and honorable career.”

McDonnell argued the appropriate guideline range should be 33 to 41 months. “A sentence of imprisonment of any length, however, much less one of 10 years or more, would be a severely disproportionate punishment,” his lawyers contend.  “Instead, a variant sentence of probation with a condition of 6,000 hours of full-time, rigorous, unpaid community service at a remote location served over three years is ‘sufficient, but not greater than necessary,’ to provide a just punishment,” they wrote.

“An outcome in which Mr. McDonnell serves any time in prison ... while Mr. Williams suffers no criminal justice consequences at all would neither promote respect for the law nor provide a just resolution to this case,” McDonnell’s lawyers argued.

Much of McDonnell’s sentencing position is taken up with his biography, accomplishments, and service in the military and as a state legislator, Virginia attorney general and governor.  Seven appendixes, including hundreds of letters of support, were filed along with the document.

The memorandum notes the outline of the scheme for which he was convicted.  “Mr. McDonnell’s actual conduct, however, differs in critical ways from that of others who have been convicted under the same federal bribery laws,” McDonnell’s lawyers argued.  “Mr. McDonnell did not demand or receive cash payments from Mr. Williams.  He did not take briefcases of money or hide stacks of $100 bills in his freezer,” they wrote.  “Rather, the quid that the indictment charges that Mr. McDonnell or his family members received were gifts — a wedding gift to Mr. McDonnell’s daughter and several rounds of golf at Mr. Williams’ country club — as well as three loans at commercial rates that the McDonnells paid back with interest.”

While McDonnell’s decision to accept the items showed poor judgment, Virginia state ethics laws at the time permitted officials to accept unlimited gifts of that nature, McDonnell’s lawyers argued.  “Numerous state officials routinely took advantage of these laws and accepted luxury vacations, rounds of golf, sports tickets, dinners, and other things of value from donors and wealthy hangers-on.”...

The defense contends that McDonnell’s trial and conviction already act as powerful deterrents to criminal conduct by others, making imprisonment unnecessary.  “No elected official would want to live through the last year of Mr. McDonnell’s life,” his lawyers write.  McDonnell and his family “have already suffered tremendously,” the lawyers write. “His once-promising political career is dead,” and “his marriage has fallen apart.”

Defense lawyers wrote that McDonnell’s “sterling reputation in the community has been irreparably damaged,” he has lost his ability to practice law, he is likely to lose his state pension, “and he will have to sell his family home.”  The former governor’s lawyers also contend prison is unnecessary to protect the public because there is no risk McDonnell will commit any further crimes. “He is 60 years old and out of politics.”

Relatedly, this Washington Post article reports on some of the notable letters written to the sentencing judge in support McDonnell. The piece is headlined "Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s downfall is wife’s fault, daughter says," and it provides this link to some notable character letters.

Prior related posts:

December 28, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, December 15, 2014

Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation

This recent article from the Washington Post, headlined "Early federal sentencing recommendation for McDonnell: At least 10 years in prison," spotlights the seemingly severe sentence recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines for a former Governor's corruption.  Among other notbale aspects of this high-profile sentencing story is the fact that former Virginia Gov Bob McDonnell is now facing a guideline sentencing range that is more than three to four times longer than the longest possible sentence he would have faced had he been willing to plead guilty on terms urged by federal prosecutors.  Here are the notable details at this stage of a developing high-profile sentencing story:

The guidelines recommended by the U.S. probation office are preliminary, and even if finalized, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer is not required to follow them. But experts said that Spencer typically heeds the probation office’s advice, and judges in his district have imposed sentences within the recommendations more than 70 percent of the time in recent years. “It’s of critical importance,” said Scott Fredericksen, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. “The fact is, the vast majority of times, courts follow those recommendations closely.”

The matter is far from settled. The probation office recommended a punishment from 10 years and a month to 12 years and 7 months. Calculating an appropriate range of sentences in the federal system is a complicated, mathematical process that takes into account a variety of factors, including the type of crime, the defendant’s role and the amount of loss. The judge has yet to see the arguments from each side.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in September of lending the prestige of his office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury items. McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 6. His wife’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 20, and her guideline range is expected to be lower than her husband’s. The probation office has not yet filed a report concerning her.

It is unclear how the probation office determined that the former governor’s crimes necessitate a minimum decade-long sentence. The initial report on the matter is sealed, and people familiar with its contents revealed only the recommended range to The Washington Post.

The range is particularly notable because last December, prosecutors offered to let McDonnell plead guilty to just one count of lying to a bank as part of an agreement that would have meant he could be sentenced to three years in prison at the most and probation at the least. Importantly, though, McDonnell would have been required to sign a statement acknowledging that he helped Star Scientific, Williams’s dietary-supplement company, at the same time the businessman was giving him loot, fully shouldering blame for a relationship he has insisted was not criminal and was driven largely by his wife....

White-collar criminal defense lawyer Matthew Kaiser said McDonnell’s range probably was increased because he was a high-ranking public official, because he took more than one payment from Williams and because the total value of the gifts he received was so high. Kaiser said the probation officer also probably faulted McDonnell because his testimony was contrary to the jury’s verdict.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will still have an opportunity to argue to the probation officer about whether the range was correctly calculated — although Kaiser said the probation office often “sticks to its guns.” After that, both sides can try to persuade Spencer to modify the recommended range.

Even then, Spencer is not bound by the guideline. Defense attorneys have already begun working vigorously in their bid to sway him toward leniency. This week, they won a legal skirmish with prosecutors so they can file additional pages in their sentencing memorandum — a key document outlining the sentence they believe McDonnell should receive and why. It is unclear whether their efforts to move Spencer away from the probation office’s recommended range will be fruitful.

In the Eastern District of Virginia, where McDonnell is being sentenced, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range more than 70 percent of the time last fiscal year, according to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In about 21 percent of cases, they imposed sentences below the guideline range without a request from prosecutors to do so. Nationally, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range about 51 percent of the time last fiscal year and deviated downward without a request from prosecutors to do so in about 19 percent of cases.

In the McDonnell case, prosecutors are not expected to ask for a sentence below the guideline range.... Brian Whisler, a defense lawyer who used to work as a federal prosecutor in

Richmond, said that Spencer is known to be “largely deferential to the probation office and its sentencing calculations.” Whisler — whose firm, Baker & McKenzie, represented state employees in the McDonnell case — said the judge will likely draw on other cases in the district to inform his conclusion.

The outcome of those might not be to McDonnell’s liking. In 2011, another federal judge in Richmond sentenced former Virginia delegate Phillip A. Hamilton to 9.5 years in prison in a bribery and extortion case. In 2009, a federal judge in Alexandria sentenced former congressman William J. Jefferson to 13 years in prison for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — though, notably, that fell well short of the recommended range of 27 to 33 years.

December 15, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Second Circuit panel finds evidence insufficient to support two major insider trading convictions

There is big news in the white-collar crime (and sentencing?) world this morning coming out of New York thanks to the Second Circuit's significant new opinion in US v. Newman, No. 13‐1837 (2d Cir. Dec. 10, 2014) (available here).  This New York Times article about the ruling helps spotlight why this is Newman ruling is a very a big deal:

A federal appeals court on Wednesday overturned two of the government’s signature insider trading convictions, a stunning blow to prosecutors and their campaign to root out illegal activity on Wall Street.

In a 28-­page decision that could rewrite the course of insider trading law, sharply curtailing its boundaries, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan tossed out the case against two former hedge fund traders, Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson. Citing the trial judge’s “erroneous” instruction to jurors, the court not only overturned the convictions but threw out the cases altogether....

The unanimous decision – the first higher court rebuke of an insider trading case filed by Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan – could portend a broader revisiting of Mr. Bharara’s insider trading crackdown. It will also offer a blueprint for traders to defend future insider trading cases, a development that is likely to unnerve prosecutors while delighting the defense bar.

Here are a few paragraphs from the start of the Newman opinion:

Defendants‐appellants Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson appeal from judgments of conviction entered on May 9, 2013, and May 14, 2013, respectively in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Richard J. Sullivan, J.) following a six‐week jury trial on charges of securities fraud....

The Government alleged that a cohort of analysts at various hedge funds and investment firms obtained material, nonpublic information from employees of publicly traded technology companies, shared it amongst each other, and subsequently passed this information to the portfolio managers at their respective companies.    The Government charged Newman, a portfolio manager at Diamondback Capital Management, LLC (“Diamondback”), and Chiasson, a portfolio manager at Level Global Investors, L.P. (“Level Global”), with willfully participating in this insider trading scheme by trading in securities based on the inside information illicitly obtained by this group of analysts.   On appeal, Newman and Chiasson challenge the sufficiency of the evidence as to several elements of the offense, and further argue that the district court erred in failing to instruct the jury that it must find that a tippee knew that the insider disclosed confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit.  

We agree that the jury instruction was erroneous because we conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit.  Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons.    First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive.    Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties. 

 Accordingly, we reverse the convictions of Newman and Chiasson on all counts and remand with instructions to dismiss the indictment as it pertains to them with prejudice.

Though this Newman opinion does not discuss formally sentencing issue, I cannot help but think that modern white-collar sentencing realities might be playing a role (perhaps a significant role) in the review and ultimate rejection of insider-trading convictions here. Both defendants appealing in this case were sentenced to a significant number of years in prison, and appellate judges are surely aware of how high the stakes now are for white-collar defendants subject to novel and aggressive prosecutorial practices.

December 10, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Madoff aides finally getting sentenced for their roles in massive Ponzi scheme

As reported in this new AP article, a notable set of fraud sentences are being handed out this week and next in New York federal court.  Here are the early parts of a high-profile white-collar sentencing story:

The former secretary for imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison after she apologized to victims of the multi-decade, multi-billion dollar fraud and berated herself for failing to see past her boss's influence and the riches he bestowed on her.

Annette Bongiorno, 66, was sentenced in Manhattan by U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who said she believed Bongiorno's testimony at trial that she was largely duped by Madoff into manufacturing fake trade results for his private investment business.  She called her "a pampered, compliant and grossly overcompensated clerical worker who supervised other clerical workers with a ferocious enthusiasm."

The judge said Bongiorno "could and should have recognized that Mr. Madoff's success seemed impossible because it was impossible." Swain added: "Ms. Bongiorno chose to put her life and the life of others in the wrong hands."

One of Madoff's computer programmers was awaiting an afternoon sentencing.  Bongiorno was convicted earlier this year along with four others after a six-month trial.  Sentencing proceedings resulting from it will conclude on Monday.

On Monday, Madoff's director of operations was sentenced to a decade in prison.

Prosecutors said in court papers that Bongiorno was "at the very heart of the fraud" for decades. They had sought a prison sentence of more than 20 years. The fraud cost thousands of investors nearly $20 billion. Madoff, 76, was arrested in December 2008 and is serving a 150-year prison sentence.

Before she was sentenced, Bongiorno portrayed herself as a loyal worker who was in over her head from the time she was hired at age 19. "Not once in my 40 years there did anyone say to me, 'Annette, this is not the way it's done in the real world,'" she said. "I thought I was doing my job as I thought it should be done."...

The judge, who also ordered forfeiture of $155 billion, said she will recommend that Bongiorno serve the last year of her prison term in home confinement.

December 9, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Former basketball star taking (wild?) shot at fighting loss calculation in federal fraud sentencing

TateThis notable article from Connecticut reports that a notable fraud defendant is going to be representing himself as he agrues against how loss is being calculated and used against him in his upcoming federal sentencing.  Here are some of the interesting details:

Ever since being convicted on four felony counts in a real estate scheme, former University of Connecticut basketball star Tate George has been complaining about his legal representation.  He criticized his trial attorney, saying he didn't listen to requests for calling witnesses and other strategies.

After dropping his first attorney, George briefly switched to another, who is also out of the picture.  Now George has received permission from a federal judge to represent himself at his sentencing.

A first-round NBA draft pick, George has more basketball experience than legal experience.  He is best known for hitting "The Shot" at the Meadowlands arena in New Jersey in the final second to defeat Clemson in the NCAA playoffs in 1990, one of the most stunning victories in UConn basketball history.

Before his request was granted this week, federal prosecutors warned George in court papers about "the dangers and perils of self-representation."  They quoted the saying that "he who represents himself has a fool for a client."  Prosecutors told George, "There are many complex rules in court, and that most non-lawyers, including yourself, cannot know all of these rules."

But George, 46, has gone his own way before.  After expressing dissatisfaction with his trial attorney, George began sending letters directly from his prison cell to the federal judge instead of sending them through his attorney.  In at least five letters to U.S. District Court Judge Mary L. Cooper in Trenton, George proclaimed his innocence.

"I understand that my life has no value to all those who have gone about defaming my name, but I beg to differ and will continue to fight to prove my innocence," George wrote to the judge.  "Again, for the record, even though the government refuses to want to hear or admit to the truth above their lies to make me look guilty, there are no losses to report at this time, which means there is no crime or victims.  PERIOD! AS I HAVE SAID, BUT NO ONE SEEMS TO BE LISTENING, THERE ARE MONIES OWED YES, BUT NOT LOSSED!"

As part of his legal strategy, George is saying that the $250,000 investment by former UConn basketball star and NBA player Charlie Villanueva that was never repaid should not be counted as a financial loss.  Since he has promised to repay Villaneuva, George says there is no victim and no loss....  

George has said he was upset that his attorney, David E. Schafer, a federal public defender, said that investors in his case had lost $833,000 when George maintained that the actual loss was zero.  Federal prosecutors say the investors lost more than $2.5 million. At one point, a prosecutor described George as a "baby Madoff," referring to the massive Ponzi scheme operated by now-imprisoned New York City financier Bernie Madoff in which investors lost billions of dollars in a long-running scheme.

George was convicted in September 2013 and could face as many as nine years in prison when he is sentenced. Although he was convicted more than a year ago, his sentencing has been postponed multiple times.

December 7, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Federal judge (improperly?) delays imposing max sentence on fraudster to allow time to consider withdrawal of plea

This Newsday article provide an account of a seemingly unusual development as a federal district judge was about to throw the book at a high-profile white-collar defendant.  Here are the details:

Onetime New York Islanders part owner Stephen Walsh was hit with the maximum sentence of 20 years for a $50 million fraud on Wednesday, but the judge postponed imposing it to let stunned defense lawyers consider an appeal or voiding his guilty plea.

Walsh, 70, of Sands Point, an Islanders executive and co-owner from 1991 to 2000, was accused in 2009 of bilking investors in his WG Trading Company to finance a lavish lifestyle. He pleaded guilty in April, and partner Paul Greenwood pleaded guilty in 2010.

At the sentencing before U.S. District Judge Miriam Cedarbaum in Manhattan, Walsh said he was "deeply sorry," while his lawyer argued most investors were made whole and said Walsh deserved credit for charitable work, such as co-founding a Long Island Alzheimer's foundation. They asked for 18 to 24 months with community service.

But Cedarbaum was unmoved, noting that the scam went on for 13 years and Walsh fought the charges for five years before pleading guilty and taking responsibility. "The proceeds of this scheme were used for personal extravagances and high living," she said. "Lots of people lost lots of money, and some of it will trickle back to them, but that does not justify using it for your own benefit and spending it on frivolous things."

The judge said she was imposing the maximum penalty for securities fraud of 20 years. That was the sentence recommended by probation officers, called for under federal sentencing guidelines and urged by prosecutors.

Walsh, as part of his plea, had agreed to not appeal any sentence up to 240 months.  But white-collar defendants frequently get more lenient treatment -- in part because many judges feel federal guidelines overemphasize the significance of the amount of loss in calculating sentences -- and the sentence produced gasps from Walsh's friends and family in the gallery. "Oh my God!" said one woman.

Defense lawyer Michael Tremonte first asked Cedarbaum to impose 20 years and a day, so it would become appealable.  "I don't think anyone expected we would be at the outer range of the hypothetical guideline range," he said.  "There is not another case even remotely like it where a 20-year sentence has been imposed."

The judge refused, telling him that she would not circumvent a plea agreement in which Walsh gave up his right to appeal the sentence.  But she agreed to postpone imposing the sentence until Tuesday, to give Tremonte the chance to consult with Walsh and research grounds for withdrawing the plea. Tremonte and prosecutors had no comment after the hearing.

Walsh and Greenwood were charged soliciting $7.6 billion, mostly from institutional investors, to pursue a conservative investing strategy, and then misappropriating it. Walsh allegedly used investor money to finance a divorce settlement and fund businesses for his children, and Greenwood purchased expensive stallions and high-priced teddy bears.

I am inclined to be a bit sympathetic to the defense side here because I find troublesome any and all waivers of the right to appeal a sentence.  That said, I would guess that the defendant here had sound legal representation and knowingly agreed to a plea deal that included such a waiver, and thus I am not especially inclined to believe he should now be able to back out of the deal because it did not work out the way he expected.   And I am not aware of any case in which a judge defered imposition of a sentence to give the defendant a chance to try to undo a plea deal simply because that judge was going to impose a long sentence that was, as reported above, "recommended by probation officers, called for under federal sentencing guidelines and urged by prosecutors."

October 29, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Back from dead, fugitive fraudster gets 30 years in federal pen

As reported in this AP piece, a "former Georgia investment adviser was sentenced to 30 years in prison Tuesday for committing fraud that fueled a bank's collapse, cost investors millions of dollars and turned the accused banker into a fugitive who was ultimately — and mistakenly — declared dead." Here is more on this notable white-collar case:

Aubrey Lee Price, 48, returned to U.S. District Court for sentencing after he pleaded guilty in June to bank, wire and securities fraud. Price lost much of the $40 million he raised from about 115 clients at his private investment firm.  Prosecutors say he also misspent, embezzled and lost $21 million belonging to the Montgomery Bank & Trust in rural southeast Georgia, where Price served as bank director.

Price vanished in June 2012, a few weeks before the bank closed with its assets and reserves depleted, and he left rambling letters saying he planned to jump off a ferryboat.  In December 2013, a year after a Florida judge declared him dead at his wife's request, Price was captured in a routine traffic stop near Brunswick on the Georgia coast.

Price cut a plea deal with prosecutors that called for a maximum of 30 years in prison and in exchange for his guilty pleas to three fraud counts.  Price also agreed to pay tens of millions in restitution for bank and investor money that he lost, despite having convinced the court to appoint him a lawyer because he had no money to hire one.

Price gave rambling speech in front of the judge in which he acknowledged responsibility but also blamed other managers at the bank for its collapse.  Still, he pledged to help recoup money, and officials say he is cooperating with their efforts to collect restitution.  "These clients that are here today, and those who are not here, it's important for them to understand I'm trying my best to help them get their money back," Price said in court....

At his plea hearing June 5, Price told the judge he lied to clients and gave them phony financial statements to cover his tracks as he lost their money in speculative trading and other high-risk investments.  He said his flight from the financial mess left him depressed.  He said he tried smoking marijuana and methamphetamine and had tasted cocaine, but mostly self-medicated with the prescription amphetamine Adderall. Price said he also adopted at least five aliases, including Jason Rollins and Javier Martinez....

The plea agreement settled federal charges pending against Price in Georgia and New York.  Prosecutors agreed to drop 16 related bank fraud counts in Georgia plus charges in Miami related to the Coast Guard's search for Price.

October 28, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Up and down the east coast, notable white-collar federal sentencings

My usual review of the week's sentencing news with Google's help turned up a number of noteworthy federal while collar sentencing stories.  These three especially cuaght my eye:

From Delaware, via "Delaware multimillionaire gets prison," we learn: " Former eBay executive Christopher Saridakis of Greenville, Delaware, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for insider trading Wednesday by a U.S. District Court judge. Saridakis, 45, tipped off two family members and two friends in 2011 to the pending sale of GSIC – where he was chief executive officer – to eBay days before the sale was announced. The tip allowed those individuals to realize more than $300,000 profit, according to prosecutors."

From Florida, via "Ponzi schemer Rothstein’s former law partner sentenced to nearly three years," we hear: "The wife and children of Stuart Rosenfeldt said they have forgiven him for spending the dirty money of his former law partner, Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, on prostitutes and other criminal conduct. They and other supporters crowded into a Miami federal courtroom Thursday to point out Rosenfeldt’s long history of donating free legal work and personal time to charities in South Florida. But their pleas for mercy did not sway U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, who sentenced Rosenfeldt to almost three years in prison instead of a lesser term sought by his defense attorney. His sentencing came almost five years after the collapse of a $1.2 billion investment scheme that Rothstein ran out of their Fort Lauderdale law firm."

From New Jersey, via "RHONJ's Teresa Guidice gets 15 months; 41 for Joe," we see: "Two stars of the Real Housewives of New Jersey will be trading the drama of reality TV for prison after being sentenced on conspiracy and bankruptcy fraud charges.  After an initial delay, U.S. District Court Esther Salas sentenced Teresa Guidice to 15 months in prison Thursday afternoon.  Earlier in the day, her husband Giuseppe "Joe" Giudice was ordered to serve more than three years in prison on conspiracy and bankruptcy fraud charges. He was also ordered to pay $414,000 in restitution."

October 2, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

High-profile commentator Dinesh D’Souza gets below-guideline probation sentence for violating federal campaign finance laws

As reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "D’Souza Is Spared Prison Time for Campaign Finance Violations," another notable white-collar defendant got a below-guideline federal sentence today thanks to judges now having broader post-Booker sentencing discretion. Here are the details:

The conservative author and documentary filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza was spared prison time on Tuesday after pleading guilty earlier this year to violating federal campaign finance laws.

Judge Richard M. Berman of Federal District Court in Manhattan handed down a probationary sentence — including eight months in a so-called community confinement center — and a $30,000 fine, bringing to a close a high-profile legal battle that started with Mr. D’Souza’s indictment in January for illegally using straw donors to contribute to a Republican Senate candidate in New York in 2012.

Mr. D’Souza, who has accused President Obama of carrying out the “anticolonial” agenda of his father, initially argued that he had been singled out for prosecution because of his politics. In April, his lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, filed court papers contending that Mr. D’Souza’s “consistently caustic and highly publicized criticism” of Mr. Obama had made him a government target.

A month later, however, on the morning he was scheduled to go on trial, Mr. D’Souza pleaded guilty. “I deeply regret my conduct,” he told the court. Even with his fate hanging in the balance, Mr. D’Souza plowed ahead with his thriving career as a right-wing provocateur. Over the summer, while awaiting his sentencing, he published the book “America: Imagine a World Without Her,” which reached No. 1 on The New York Times’s nonfiction hardcover best-seller list, and a companion documentary film that has made $14.4 million at the box office.

The government charged Mr. D’Souza, 53, with illegally arranging to have two people — an employee and a woman with whom he was romantically involved — donate $10,000 each to the campaign of an old friend from Dartmouth College, Wendy E. Long, with the understanding that he would reimburse them in cash for their contributions. Ms. Long was challenging Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat.

According to prosecutors, Mr. D’Souza lied to Ms. Long about the donations, reassuring her that “they both had sufficient funds to make the contributions.” Ms. Long pressed Mr. D’Souza on the issue after the election, and he acknowledged that he had reimbursed the two people, the government said, but told Ms. Long not to worry because she had not known about it.

When Mr. D’Souza entered his guilty plea, Judge Berman said he could face up to two years in prison. The federal sentencing guidelines call for 10 to 16 months, but the final decision is up to the judge’s discretion. “Judges are all over the map on these reimbursement cases,” said Robert Kelner, a campaign-finance lawyer at Covington & Burling.

Mr. D’Souza’s lawyers asked for leniency, arguing in a court filing that their client had “unequivocally accepted responsibility” for his crime. “We are seeking a sentence that balances the crime he has regrettably committed with the extraordinary good Mr. D’Souza has accomplished as a scholar, as a community member and as a family member,” they wrote, requesting that he be sentenced to probation and community service at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego.

The government rebutted Mr. D’Souza’s claims, highlighting both the seriousness of his offense and what it called “the defendant’s post-plea failure to accept responsibility for his criminal conduct.” According to the government, Mr. D’Souza assumed a different posture with respect to his case when he was not before the court. It cited a television interview he gave two days after his plea in which he “repeatedly asserted that this case was about whether he was selectively prosecuted.”

This story reminds me why I am so sad Bill Otis no longer comments on this blog; I am so eager to hear from him directly whether he thinks this case is yet another example of, in his words, allowing "naïve and ideologically driven judges" to make sentencing determinations and therefore further justifies embracing mandatory sentencing schemes that would always require judges to impose prison terms on these sorts of non-violent offenders because these sorts of offenses do great harm even if they do not involve violence.

Based on my limited understanding of the crime and criminal here, I feel fairly confident asserting that a prison term for Mr. D’Souza would have achieved little more than spending extra federal taxpayer dollars without any real public safety return on that investment. But Bill and I rarely see eye-to-eye on these matters, and thus I am eager for a distinct perspective in this notable white-collar case.

September 23, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sixth Circuit reverses Ponzi scheme sentence because loss calculation failed to credit monies paid out

This morning a Sixth Circuit panel has handed down a notable ruling about loss calculations in the federal sentencing of a Ponzi schemer.  Here is how the panel opinion in US v. Snelling, No. 12-4288 (6th Cir. Sept. 22, 2014) (available here) starts and concludes:

Defendant-Appellant Jasen Snelling appeals a 131-month prison sentence imposed pursuant to a plea agreement.  In the agreement, Snelling admitted to charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and tax evasion for his part in an investment scheme that defrauded investors of nearly $9 million.  Snelling challenges the sentence based on an allegedly faulty Guidelines-range calculation that employed a loss figure that did not take into account the sums paid back to his Ponzi scheme’s investors in the course of the fraud.

For the reasons below, we vacate the sentence of the district court and remand the case for resentencing.....

Admittedly, there is intuitive appeal to the government’s argument that Snelling should not be allowed to benefit from the payments he made “not to mitigate the losses suffered . . . but to create the means to convince new victim-investors to pay him even more money.”  We need not reflect, however, on whether it is unseemly for Snelling to benefit from the money he paid out to investors in an effort to perpetuate his Ponzi scheme. Undoubtedly, it is.  The only question we must consider is whether the district court correctly applied the Guidelines and whether it used a correct Guidelines range.

An accurately calculated Guidelines range is necessary for a procedurally reasonable sentence — any error in calculating the Guidelines range cannot survive review.  See Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 49 (2007); see also United States v. Bolds, 511 F.3d 568, 579 (6th Cir. 2007) (“[W]e must ensure that the district court correctly calculated the applicable Guidelines range which are the starting point and initial benchmark of its sentencing analysis.”) (internal alterations and quotation marks omitted).  As appealing as the government’s argument may be, it does not comport with the text of the Guidelines. Accordingly, the district court was in error when it declined to reduce the loss figure by the value of the payments made by Snelling to his investor victims in perpetuating his Ponzi scheme.

September 22, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, September 19, 2014

"The Most Senior Wall Street Official: Evaluating the State of Financial Crisis Prosecutions"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article on SSRN authored by Todd Haugh. Here is the abstract:

This September marks six years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the height of the financial crisis.  Recently, a growing debate has emerged over the Justice Department’s failure to criminally prosecute Wall Street executives for their role in creating the crisis.  One side of that debate contends the government has failed to bring to justice individual wrongdoers — primarily the heads of banks operating in the mortgage-backed securities market — instead preferencing enforcement decisions that target corporations, resulting in punishments that are “little more than window-dressing.”  The other side argues that cases against individuals are precluded by the realities of the federal criminal justice system, and that “corporate headhunting” will only inhibit meaningful regulatory reform.

It is difficult, however, to evaluate these competing claims without proper context.  This Article explores the recent conviction and sentencing of Wall Street executive Kareem Serageldin as a means of providing that context.  Although Serageldin has been trumpeted as the “the most senior Wall Street official” to be sentenced for conduct committed during the financial crisis, and his conviction was framed as a victory in punishing those accountable for the financial collapse, a critical look at his case reveals he committed only a mundane white collar crime marginally related to the crisis.  This disconnect creates a unique lens through which to understand and evaluate the current state of — and debate surrounding — financial crisis prosecutions.  And it ultimately highlights the merits, and shortfalls, of each camp’s arguments.  The Article concludes by offering something largely absent from the current debate: specific proposals for how we might go about prosecuting individuals so as to prevent the next crisis.

September 19, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Seventh Circuit panel seemingly unmoved by feds appeal of probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire

As detailed in this new Chicago Tribune article, "Prosecutors in Warner tax evasion case grilled by appeals court judges," federal prosecutors apparently did not get a warm reception at oral argument in the Seventh Circuit as they pressed their claims that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable. Here are the basics:

Federal prosecutors appealing the probation sentence of Beanie Babies founder Ty Warner faced a three-judge panel Wednesday to make the case for why the Westmont billionaire should get prison time for evading taxes.

Warner pleaded guilty last year to one count of tax evasion for failing to report more than $24 million in income and skirting $5.5 million in federal taxes on millions of dollars he hid for more than a decade at two Swiss banks.  Prosecutors had been pushing for a sentence of at least one year in prison, partly to deter others from committing the same crime. Sentencing guidelines had called for a prison sentence of up to 57 months.  His defense lawyers had argued that many tax evaders were allowed to join an amnesty program and that, even among those criminally charged and convicted, more than half who had been sentenced received probation.

Ilana Rovner, a U.S. appeals court judge for the seventh circuit, said Wednesday that she had a problem reconciling why the government was seeking to throw out Warner’s sentence when many tax evaders get probation or might not be prosecuted at all.  Also, the amount of tax he evaded was a fraction of what he has paid in taxes, she noted. Warner has already paid a civil penalty for not reporting the offshore accounts and restitution for what he owed in back taxes and interest....

Rovner also noted that prosecutors seem to be ignoring the “considerable discretion” of the district judge, Charles Kocoras, has in imposing a sentence.  He is a “veteran” judge who “obviously agonized” over the decision, she said.

Judge Michael Kanne noted that Warner’s guilty plea “saved the government some money” and that the appeals court “shouldn’t be the sentencing court.”

Judge Joel Flaum wondered why, if Warner’s conduct was so egregious, he was charged with only one count of tax evasion and why the government was seeking at minimum at least a year in prison.  Rovner chimed in, addressing Petersen: “You agreed to this.”

Judge Kanne noted that one count of tax evasion and a minimum prison sentence of a year “doesn’t sound like deterrence to me.”  Petersen responded that probation is a far more lenient sentence than the minimum of one year the government was seeking.

Anyone eager to hear the oral argument in full can access it via this mp3 link from the Seventh Circuit's website.  Notably, former US Solicitor General Paul Clement argued on behalf of the defendant (and I cannot help but wonder if he got some special Beanie Babies from the defendant in addition to the usual fees for his efforts).

Prior related posts:

September 17, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, September 08, 2014

Former SAC trader Mathew Martoma gets lengthy (but way-below guideline) federal prison term of nine years for insider trading

As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Ex-SAC Capital trader gets 9-year sentence," a high-profile white-collar sentencing has resulted in a below-guideline (but still lengthy) prison term for an insider trader. Here are some of the interesting details from today's interesting sentencing in New York federal court:

Former SAC Capital portfolio manager Mathew Martoma was sentenced to a nine-year prison term Monday for his central role in what federal prosecutors called the most profitable insider-trading scheme in U.S. history.  Martoma, a former financial lieutenant to billionaire hedge fund founder Steven Cohen, sat silently, declining to speak before U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe imposed the sentence during a Manhattan federal court hearing.

The judge also ordered the 40-year-old father of three to forfeit nearly $9.4 million — more than his current net worth — and surrender for imprisonment on Nov. 10.  His attorneys are expected to file an appeal of his Feb. 6 conviction.

Federal jurors found Martoma guilty of conspiracy and two counts of securities fraud after a month-long trial during which the defendant declined to testify.  The case centered on charges that Martoma illegally obtained disappointing results of clinical tests on an experimental Alzheimer's disease drug in 2008 by cultivating relationships with two doctors who were privy to details of the testing outcome.  Martoma then set in motion a $700 million sell-off of SAC Capital stock holdings in shares of Elan and Wyeth, the pharmaceutical firms that developed the drug.  The transactions generated approximately $276 million in profits and avoided losses, along with a nearly $9.4 million 2008 bonus for Martoma.

The sentence imposed by Gardephe was lower than the 188-months-to-235-months range specified in federal sentencing guidelines.  It exceeded the eight-year prison term recommended by probation officials and met prosecutors' request for a sentence higher than that recommendation.

The sentence came after defense attorney Richard Strassberg argued for leniency.... He urged Gardephe to weigh Martoma's devotion to his family and history of helping others. The defense lawyer also filed more than 100 support letters from Martoma's relatives and friends — some of whom were in the courtroom for Monday's sentencing.

The defense team also argued that Martoma was the sole source of financial support for his wife, Rosemary, and the couple's three young children.  "Mathew, as a person, is much more than the charge of insider-trading that has brought us all to this courtroom today," said Strassberg.  He argued that a "just" sentence would consider Martoma's history of charitable acts and helping others.

But federal prosecutor Arlo Devlin-Brown said "It is hard to think of a more significant and brazen instance of insider trading than the case before this court.  The sentence in this case, we submit, must reflect the seriousness of this significant breach."

Gardephe, however, said he had weighed all of the submissions from both sides and studied sentences in other insider trading convictions in New York's Southern federal district.  The judge credited Martoma's charity and other acts of generosity but he said the evidence showed that Martoma went for "one big score" that would provide lifetime security.  "His plan worked, but now he has to deal with the fallout."

Gardephe also referred to Martoma's expulsion from Harvard Law School for falsifying a grades transcript, as well as his subsequent admission to Stanford University's business school without disclosing the expulsion.  Saying "there is a darker side" to Martoma's character, Gardephe added, "I do believe there is a connection" to the insider trading episode.  "The common thread is an unwillingness to accept anything but the top grade ... and the highest bonus."

September 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Pregame preview of another high-profile insider-trading sentencing in NYC

This new BloombergBusinessweek article, headlined "Mathew Martoma, Convicted SAC Trader, Gets Sentenced Today," provides these basics about a not-so-basic, white-collar sentencing scheduled in federal court today:

Around 9 pm on November 8, 2011, a pair of FBI agents pulled up outside of Mathew Martoma’s home in Boca Raton, a 6,200 square-foot mansion tucked behind a circular driveway and lavish palm trees.  They were there to talk to Martoma about insider trading at SAC Capital, his former employer and one of the world’s largest hedge funds.

The SEC, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan were five years into a far-reaching investigation of illegal trading among hedge funds across the country, and just three weeks before, Raj Rajaratnam, the co-founder of the $7 billion fund the Galleon Group, had been sentenced to a record 11-year prison term for insider trading.

The government was fairly confident that Martoma would lead them to an even bigger prize: one of the richest men in the world and the founder of SAC, Steven A. Cohen.  From that point on, nothing proceeded quite as the government expected. Instead, Martoma is scheduled to be sentenced today in what prosecutors describe as “the most lucrative insider trading scheme ever charged.”

After an investigation, an arrest and a high-profile five-week trial in January, Martoma was convicted of insider trading in two drug stocks, Elan and Wyeth, and earning profits and avoiding losses of $275 million while working as a portfolio manager at SAC. The government alleged that he spoke with Cohen right after learning about important drug trial results, and that Cohen traded the two stocks as well. Martoma’s was the eighth conviction of a former or current SAC employee of insider trading....

From the FBI’s perspective, Martoma was an ideal candidate for cooperation. He has three young children and a beautiful, devoted wife, all of whom he would be separated from during a long prison term. He was also fired from SAC after failing to replicate his success in Elan and Wyeth and, the government believed, there was powerful evidence against him. He had no reason to be loyal to his former boss and he had a lot to lose. Still, Martoma baffled everyone by refusing to flip, insisting he was innocent and bringing the government’s determined march toward Cohen to an abrupt stop. Without a witness, any developing case against the hedge fund founder fell apart. Now it is Martoma who faces a sentence of up to 20 years, although it’s likely to be closer to 8.

Cohen was never charged with insider trading, and his life goes on relatively unchanged. Prosecutors indicted SAC in January, 2013, calling the company a “magnet for market cheaters.” The firm agreed to plead guilty and pay a $1.2 billion fine (not including $600 million already pledged to the SEC over Martoma’s trades). A civil case brought by the SEC charging Cohen with failing to supervise his employees has not been resolved. Cohen shut down his hedge fund and transformed his firm into a family office, Point72 Asset Management, which invests his personal fortune.

September 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges

As detailed in this FoxNews report, headlined "Ex-Virginia governor, wife found guilty on corruption charges," a high-profile federal criminal trial is now over and a high-profile federal sentencing process is about to begin. Here are the basics:

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted Thursday on a range of corruption charges in connection with gifts and loans they accepted from a wealthy businessman, marking a stunning fall for the onetime rising Republican star.

A federal jury in Richmond convicted Bob McDonnell, 60, of 11 of the 13 counts he faced; Maureen McDonnell was convicted of nine of the 13 counts she had faced. Both bowed their heads and wept as a stream of "guiltys" kept coming from the court clerk. The verdict followed three days of deliberations, after a five-week trial.

Sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 6. Each faces up to 30 years in prison. After the verdict was read, FBI agent-in-charge Adam Lee said the bureau will "engage and engage vigorously in any allegation of corruption."  Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said the state's former first couple "turned public service into a money-making enterprise."

The former governor, up until his federal corruption case, was a major figure in national politics and had been considered a possible running mate for presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.  The couple, though, was charged with doing favors for a wealthy vitamin executive in exchange for more than $165,000 in gifts and loans.  They also were charged with submitting fraudulent bank loan applications, and Maureen McDonnell was charged with one count of obstruction.

The former governor testified in his own defense, insisting that he provided nothing more than routine political courtesies to former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Maureen McDonnell did not testify.  His testimony and that of others exposed embarrassing details about Maureen McDonnell's erratic behavior and the couple's marital woes as the defense suggested they could not have conspired because they were barely speaking....

Prosecutors claimed that the McDonnells turned to Williams because they were grappling with credit card debt that once topped $90,000 and annual operating shortfalls of $40,000 to $60,000 on family-owned vacation rental properties. Two of the loans totaling $70,000 were intended for the two Virginia Beach rent houses.  Williams said he wrote the first $50,000 check to Maureen McDonnell after she complained about their money troubles and said she could help his company because of her background selling nutritional supplements.

My (way-too-quick) rough review of likely applicable sentencing guidelines suggests that the McDonnells are likely facing guideline sentencing ranges of 10 years or even longer based on the offense facts described here. I presume they should be able to get some top-flight attorneys to make some top-flight arguments for below-guideline sentences. But, at least for now, I am inclined to urge former Gov McDonnell to expect to be celebrating his 65th (and maybe also his 70th) birthday in the graybar hotel.

September 4, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 30, 2014

"The criminalisation of American business"

20140830_cna400The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Economist cover story, which carries the subheadline "Companies must be punished when they do wrong, but the legal system has become an extortion racket." Here are excerpts:

Who runs the world’s most lucrative shakedown operation? The Sicilian mafia? The People’s Liberation Army in China? The kleptocracy in the Kremlin? If you are a big business, all these are less grasping than America’s regulatory system. The formula is simple: find a large company that may (or may not) have done something wrong; threaten its managers with commercial ruin, preferably with criminal charges; force them to use their shareholders’ money to pay an enormous fine to drop the charges in a secret settlement (so nobody can check the details). Then repeat with another large company.

The amounts are mind-boggling. So far this year, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other banks have coughed up close to $50 billion for supposedly misleading investors in mortgage-backed bonds. BNP Paribas is paying $9 billion over breaches of American sanctions against Sudan and Iran. Credit Suisse, UBS, Barclays and others have settled for billions more, over various accusations. And that is just the financial institutions. Add BP’s $13 billion in settlements since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Toyota’s $1.2 billion settlement over alleged faults in some cars, and many more.

In many cases, the companies deserved some form of punishment: BNP Paribas disgustingly abetted genocide, American banks fleeced customers with toxic investments and BP despoiled the Gulf of Mexico. But justice should not be based on extortion behind closed doors. The increasing criminalisation of corporate behaviour in America is bad for the rule of law and for capitalism (see [companion] article)....

The drawbacks of America’s civil tort system are well known. What is new is the way that regulators and prosecutors are in effect conducting closed-door trials. For all the talk of public-spiritedness, the agencies that pocket the fines have become profit centres: Rhode Island’s bureaucrats have been on a spending spree courtesy of a $500m payout by Google, while New York’s governor and attorney-general have squabbled over a $613m settlement from JPMorgan. And their power far exceeds that of trial lawyers. Not only are regulators in effect judge and jury as well as plaintiff in the cases they bring; they can also use the threat of the criminal law.

Financial firms rarely survive being indicted on criminal charges. Few want to go the way of Drexel Burnham Lambert or E.F. Hutton. For their managers, the threat of personal criminal charges is career-ending ruin. Unsurprisingly, it is easier to empty their shareholders’ wallets. To anyone who asks, “Surely these big firms wouldn’t pay out if they knew they were innocent?”, the answer is: oddly enough, they might.

Perhaps the most destructive part of it all is the secrecy and opacity. The public never finds out the full facts of the case, nor discovers which specific people—with souls and bodies—were to blame. Since the cases never go to court, precedent is not established, so it is unclear what exactly is illegal. That enables future shakedowns, but hurts the rule of law and imposes enormous costs. Nor is it clear how the regulatory booty is being carved up. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, who is up for re-election, reportedly intervened to increase the state coffers’ share of BNP’s settlement by $1 billion, threatening to wield his powers to withdraw the French bank’s licence to operate on Wall Street. Why a state government should get any share at all of a French firm’s fine for defying the federal government’s foreign policy is not clear....

In the longer term, two changes are needed to the legal system. The first is a much clearer division between the civil and criminal law when it comes to companies. Most cases of corporate malfeasance are to do with money and belong in civil courts. If in the course of those cases it emerges that individual managers have broken the criminal law, they can be charged.

The second is a severe pruning of the legal system. When America was founded, there were only three specified federal crimes — treason, counterfeiting and piracy. Now there are too many to count. In the most recent estimate, in the early 1990s, a law professor reckoned there were perhaps 300,000 regulatory statutes carrying criminal penalties—a number that can only have grown since then. For financial firms especially, there are now so many laws, and they are so complex (witness the thousands of pages of new rules resulting from the Dodd-Frank reforms), that enforcing them is becoming discretionary.

This undermines the predictability and clarity that serve as the foundations for the rule of law, and risks the prospect of a selective — and potentially corrupt — system of justice in which everybody is guilty of something and punishment is determined by political deals. America can hardly tut-tut at the way China’s justice system applies the law to companies in such an arbitrary manner when at times it seems almost as bad itself.

August 30, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pennsylvania Superior Court upholds (most of) sentence requiring former state Supreme Court Justice to write apology

As reported in this local Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, an intermediate state appellate court upheld most (but not quite all) of the notable sentencing terms imposed on former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin. Here are the basic details of a lengthy and interesting sentencing ruling:

The state Superior Court today affirmed the criminal conviction of former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, as well as that of her sister, Janine Orie. The panel also affirmed the part of Melvin's sentence requiring her to send apology notes to her former staff and fellow judges in Pennsylvania, but it eliminated the requirement that she do so on a picture taken of her following sentencing in handcuffs.

"The trial court unquestionably staged the photograph for maximum effect," wrote Judge Christine Donohue. "At the time it was taken (immediately after sentencing), Orie Melvin was no longer in police custody and was otherwise free to go home to begin house arrest. She was not in restraints at that time, and the trial court directed that she be placed in handcuffs only to take the photograph.

"The trial court’s use of the handcuffs as a prop is emblematic of the intent to humiliate Orie Melvin in the eyes of her former judicial colleagues."

The Superior Court panel said it would enforce the idea of writing apology letters because, it "adresses the trial court’s intent to rehabilitate her by requiring her to acknowledge her wrongdoing."

As part of its 114-page opinion, the court also reversed the order of Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus, who in November stayed Justice Melvin's criminal sentence in its entirety pending appeal.

Justice Melvin was found guilty of six of seven counts against her, including theft of services, conspiracy and misapplication of entrusted property. Judge Nauhaus ordered her to serve three years of house arrest, pay a fine, work in a soup kitchen and write the letters of apology.

Thanks to How Appealing not only for alerting me to this ruling, but making sure I knew all 100+ pages from the Superior Court of Pennsylvania is available at this link.

August 21, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Texas Gov Rick Perry facing two felony charges carrying significant mandatory minimum prison terms

I know very little about Texas criminal laws and procedures, and I know even less about the political and legal in-fighting that appears to have resulted in yesterday's remarkable indictment of Texas Gov Rick Perry on two state felony charges.  But I know enough about mandatory minimum sentencing provisions to know Gov Perry might be looking a significant prison time if he is convicted on either of these charges.  This lengthy Dallas Morning News article, headlined "Gov. Rick Perry indicted on charges of abuse of power, coercion," provides some of the political and legal backstory (as well as a link to a copy of the two-page indictment): 

Republican Rick Perry, becoming the first Texas governor indicted in almost a century, must spend the final five months of his historically long tenure fighting against felony charges and for his political future. A Travis County grand jury on Friday charged Perry with two felony counts, abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant, after he vetoed funding for a county office that investigates public corruption.

Special prosecutor Michael McCrum of San Antonio said he felt confident in the case against Perry and was “ready to go forward.” Perry made no statement, but his general counsel, Mary Anne Wiley, said he was exercising his rights and power as governor. She predicted he would beat the charges. “The veto in question was made in accordance with the veto authority afforded to every governor under the Texas Constitution. We will continue to aggressively defend the governor’s lawful and constitutional action, and believe we will ultimately prevail,” she said.

The charges set off a political earthquake in the capital city.  Democrats said the indictment underscores Perry’s insider dealing and he should step down.  Republicans called it a partisan ploy to derail him, especially aimed at his second presidential run that had been gathering momentum.

The case stems from Perry's erasing $7.5 million in state funding last year for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit. He did so after District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, rejected his calls to resign after her drunken driving conviction.

Perry could appear as early as next week to face arraignment on the charges. Abuse of official capacity is a first-degree felony with punishment ranging from five to 99 years in prison, and coercion of a public servant is a third-degree felony with a penalty of two to 10 years.

In announcing the indictment, McCrum said he recognized the importance of the issues at stake. “I took into account the fact that we’re talking about the governor of a state and the governor of the state of Texas, which we all love,” he said. “Obviously, that carries a level of importance. But when it gets down to it, the law is the law.”...

The allegations of criminal wrongdoing were first filed by Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit campaign watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. McDonald has maintained that using veto threats to try to make another elected official leave was gross abuse of office. “The grand jury decided that Perry’s bullying crossed the line into lawbreaking,” he said Friday. “Any governor under felony indictment ought to consider stepping aside.”

State Republican Party chairman Steve Munisteri decried the prosecution as politically motivated. “Most people scratch their heads and wonder why we’re spending taxpayer dollars to try to put somebody in jail for saying that they didn’t feel it was appropriate to fund a unit where the person in charge was acting in a despicable way,” Munisteri said....

A judge from conservative Williamson County, a suburban area north of Austin, appointed McCrum to look into the case. The current grand jury has been studying the charges since April.  McCrum worked for 10 years as a federal prosecutor, starting during President George H.W. Bush’s administration. He’s now in private practice, specializing in white-collar crimes....

McCrum, a former federal prosecutor, said he interviewed up to 40 people as part of his investigation, reviewed hundreds of documents and read dozens of applicable law cases. He dismissed the notion that politics played any part. “That did not go into my consideration whatsoever,” he said.  Asked why he never called Perry before the grand jury, McCrum said, “That’s prosecutorial discretion that I had.”

Of course, what makes this story so very notable from a criminal justice perspective is the extraordinary power and discretion that the special prosecutor had in developing these charges and the extraordinary impact that mere an indictment seems likely to have on Gov Perry professional and personal life.

Regular readers know that former commentor Bill Otis and I often went back-and-forth in the comments concerning my concerns about (and his support for) federal prosecutors have very broad, unchecked, hidden and essentially unreviewable charging and bargaining powers. For this reason, I was especially interested to see that Bill now already has these two new posts up over at Crime and Consequences assailing the charging decision by the (former federal) prosecutor in the Perry case: The World's Most Absurd Indictment and Politics & Prosecution, a Toxic Brew.  I am hopeful (though not really optimistic) that the Perry indictment might help Bill better appreciate why I have such deep concerns about prosecutorial discretion as exercised by federal prosecutors (especially when their powers are functionally increased by severe mandatory minimum sentencing provisions).

August 16, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 14, 2014

US Sentencing Commission finalizes its policy priorities for coming year

As detailed in this official press release, the "United States Sentencing Commission today unanimously approved its list of priorities for the coming year, including consideration of federal sentences for economic crimes and continued work on addressing concerns with mandatory minimum penalties." Here is more from the release:

The Commission once again set as its top priority continuing to work with Congress to implement the recommendations in its 2011 report on federal mandatory minimum penalties, which included recommendations that Congress reduce the severity and scope of some mandatory minimum penalties and consider expanding the “safety valve” statute which exempts certain low-level non-violent offenders from mandatory minimum penalties....

The Commission also set out its intention to consider potential changes to the guidelines resulting from its multi-year review of federal sentences for economic crimes. “For the past several years, we have been reviewing data and listening to key stakeholders to try to determine whether changes are needed in the way fraud offenses are sentenced in the federal system, particularly in fraud on the market cases,” Saris said.  “We look forward to hearing more this year from judges, experts, victims, and other stakeholders on these issues and deciding whether there are ways the economic crime guidelines could work better.”

The Commission will continue to work on multi-year projects to study recidivism comprehensively, including an examination of the use of risk assessment tools in the criminal justice system.  The Commission will also consider whether any amendments to the guidelines or statutory changes are appropriate to facilitate consistent and appropriate use of key sentencing terms including “crime of violence” and “drug trafficking offense.”

The Commission is undertaking new efforts this year to study whether changes are needed in the guidelines applicable to immigration offenses and whether structural changes to make the guidelines simpler are appropriate, as well as reviewing the availability of alternatives to incarceration, among other issues.

The official list of USSC priorities is available at this link, and I found these items especially noteworthy (in addition to the ones noted above):

(4) Implementation of the directive to the Commission in section 10 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111–220 (enacted August 3, 2010) (requiring the Commission, not later than 5 years after enactment, to “study and submit to Congress a report regarding the 3 impact of the changes in Federal sentencing law under this Act and the amendments made by this Act”)....

(10) Beginning a multi-year effort to simplify the operation of the guidelines, including an examination of (A) the overall structure of the guidelines post-Booker, (B) cross references in the Guidelines Manual, (C) the use of relevant conduct in offenses involving multiple participants, (D) the use of acquitted conduct in applying the guidelines, and (E) the use of departures.

August 14, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Noting the push for reforming the fraud federal sentencing guidelines

This lengthy new AP article, headlined "Sentencing Changes Sought for Business Crimes," discusses the on-going push to reform the federal sentencing guidelines for fraud offenses.  Here are excerpts:

The federal panel that sets sentencing policy eased penalties this year for potentially tens of thousands of drug dealers.  Now, defense lawyers and prisoner advocates are pushing for similar treatment for an arguably less-sympathetic category of defendants: swindlers, embezzlers, insider traders and other white-collar criminals.

Lawyers who have long sought the changes say a window to act opened once the U.S. Sentencing Commission cleared a major priority from its agenda by cutting sentencing ranges for nonviolent drug dealers.  The commission, which meets Thursday to vote on priorities for the coming year, already has expressed interest in examining punishments for white-collar crime. And the Justice Department, though not advocating wholesale changes, has said it welcomes a review.

It's unclear what action the commission will take, especially given the public outrage at fraudsters who stole their clients' life savings and lingering anger over the damage inflicted by the 2008 financial crisis.

Sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, but judges still rely heavily on them for consistency's sake.  The discussion about revamping white-collar sentences comes as some federal judges have chosen to ignore the existing guidelines as too stiff for some cases and as the Justice Department looks for ways to cut costs in an overpopulated federal prison system....

The commission's action to soften drug-crime guidelines is a signal that the time is ripe, defense lawyers say.  Just as drug sentences have historically been determined by the amount of drugs involved, white-collar punishments have been defined by the total financial loss caused by the crime.  Advocates hope the commission's decision to lower sentencing guideline ranges for drug crimes, effectively de-emphasizing the significance of drug quantity, paves the way for a new sentencing scheme that removes some of the weight attached to economic loss.

A 2013 proposal from an American Bar Association task force would do exactly that, encouraging judges to place less emphasis on how much money was lost and more on a defendant's culpability.  Under the proposal, judges would more scrupulously weigh less-quantifiable factors, including motive, the scheme's duration and sophistication, and whether the defendant actually stole money or merely intended to.  The current structure, lawyers say, means bit players in a large fraud risk getting socked with harsh sentences despite playing a minimal role....

No one is seeking leniency for imprisoned financier Bernie Madoff, who's serving a 150-year sentence for bilking thousands of people of nearly $20 billion, or fallen corporate titans whose greed drove their companies into the ground.  But defense lawyers are calling for a sentencing structure that considers the broad continuum of economic crime and that better differentiates between, for example, thieves who steal a dollar each from a million people versus $1 million from one person.

Any ambitious proposal will encounter obstacles.  It's virtually impossible to muster the same public sympathy for white-collar criminals as for crack-cocaine defendants sentenced under old guidelines now seen as excessively harsh, which took a disproportionate toll on racial minorities.  The drug-sentencing overhaul also was promoted as fiscally prudent, because drug offenders account for roughly half the federal prison population.  Tea Party conservatives and liberal groups united behind the change.

In comparison, the clamor for changing white-collar guidelines has been muted. The Justice Department, already criticized for its paucity of criminal prosecutions arising from the financial crisis, has said it's open to a review but has not championed dramatic change. "I don't think there's a political will for really cutting back or retooling the guidelines," said Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman.

August 13, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Eleventh Circuit finds probation sentence for public corruption substantively unreasonable

All federal sentencing fans and white-collar practitioners will want to be sure to check out a lengthy opinion today from the Eleventh Circuit in US v. Hayes, No. 11-13678 (11th Cir. Aug 12, 2014) (available here). This start to the majority opinion in Hayes highlights why the substance of the ruling is noteworthy:

“Corruption,” Edward Gibbon wrote more than two centuries ago, is “the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.” EDWARD GIBBON, THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, Vol. II, Ch. XXI, at 805 (David Womersley ed., Penguin Classics 1995) [1781].  And so, although unfortunate, it is perhaps not surprising that, even today, people continue to pay bribes to government officials with the expectation that they will make decisions based on how much their palms have been greased, and not what they think is best for the constituents they serve.

In this criminal appeal involving corruption in Alabama’s higher education system, we consider whether the district court abused its discretion by imposing a sentence of three years of probation (with a special condition of six to twelve months of home confinement) on a 67-year-old business owner who — over a period of four years — doled out over $600,000 in bribes to a state official in order to ensure that his company would continue to receive government contracts, and whose company reaped over $5 million in profits as a result of the corrupt payments.  For the reasons which follow, we hold that such a sentence was indeed unreasonable.

Adding to the fun and intrigue of the ruling, Judge Tjoflat has a dissent that runs almost twice as long as the extended majority opinion.  Here is how it gets started (with footnotes omitted):

I fully agree with the court that the sentence of probation Hayes received in this case of massive public corruption is shockingly low and should not have been imposed.  In appealing the sentence, the Government treats the District Court as the scapegoat, as if placing Hayes on probation was all the court’s doing.  The truth is that it was the Government’s doing.  To ensure that Hayes was given adequate credit for cooperating in its investigation, the Government deliberately led the District Court to abandon the Sentencing Guidelines, which called for a prison sentence of 135 to 168 months, and then to ignore the Supreme Court’s explicit instructions, in Gall v. United States, 552 U.S. 38, 128 S. Ct. 586, 169 L. Ed. 2d 445 (2007), on the procedure to use in fashioning an appropriate sentence.  This set the stage for the court’s adoption of a fictitious Guideline range of 41 to 51 months and its creation of a downward variance to a sentence of probation.

In appealing Hayes’s sentence to this court, the Government deliberately avoids any discussion of the District Court’s procedural error.  To the contrary, it accepts the fictitious Guideline range the court adopted.  All it complains of is the variance from that fictitious range to a sentence of probation, arguing that it is substantively unreasonable.  Because it invited the procedural error, which, in turn, led to the complained-of substantive error, the “invited error doctrine” precludes the Government from prevailing in this appeal.  Yet the court fails to acknowledge that a procedural error has occurred.  Instead, it assesses the substantive reasonableness of Hayes’s procedurally flawed sentence — something the Supreme Court prohibits — and thereby avoids the need to grapple with the Government’s invited error.  I dissent from the court’s failure to invoke the doctrine and to send the Government hence without day.

In part I of this opinion, I briefly recount the facts giving rise to Hayes’s conviction and sentencing. In part II, I describe how the Guidelines are supposed to operate and will show how the Government and the District Court misapplied the Guidelines and set the stage for the sentence at issue.  Part III outlines the role the courts of appeals play in reviewing a defendant’s sentence, pinpoints the procedural errors in this case, and explains why the invited error doctrine precludes the Government from capitalizing on its induced error and obtaining relief.  Part IV concludes.

August 12, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Can wine fraudster reasonably whine that his sentence was not reduced given wealth of victims?

FakewineThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing AP sentencing story about a guy who tried to get rich by selling very expensive (and sometimes fake) wine before its time to some very rich folks:

A collector was sentenced to 10 years in prison in New York Thursday for making bogus vintage wine in his California kitchen, and selling it for millions of dollars. In sentencing Rudy Kurniawan, 37, Manhattan U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman said he wanted to send a message to others who might tamper with what people eat and drink. “The public at large needs to know our food and drinks are safe — and not some potentially unsafe homemade witch’s brew,” Berman said as he announced the prison term for Kurniawan. He also ordered him to forfeit $20 million and pay $28.4 million in restitution.

Kurniawan, an Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent, lowered his head as the judge explained the sentence and described Kurniawan’s quest as a “bold, grandiose, unscrupulous but destined-to-fail con.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Stanley Okula described Kurniawan as the “kingpin of counterfeiters,” a man who turned his Arcadia home into a laboratory where he poured wine into what appeared to be vintage bottles before attaching elegant fake labels and selling them for tens of millions of dollars.

“He did it to line his own pockets,” Okula told Berman, who concluded that Kurniawan had caused losses close to $30 million, primarily to seven victims. One of them was William Koch, a billionaire yachtsman, entrepreneur and wine investor. Koch testified at Kurniawan’s December trial, when Kurniawan was convicted of mail and wire fraud.

Before he was sentenced, Kurniawan twice apologized, saying “I’m really sorry” and expressing a desire to take care of his mother, who lives in California after receiving asylum....

His lawyer, Jerome H. Mooney, asked for leniency, saying his client got swept up in the thrill of mixing with California’s wealthiest people. “He was insecure, very insecure,” Mooney said. “He wanted to be them. He wanted to be part of it.”

Mooney said Kurniawan used some of his family’s fortune to buy $40 million of wine, eventually selling $36 million of it before he realized he could develop a business in which he created mixtures that tasted like the world’s greatest wines. He said Kurniawan’s victims were wealthy and aware that counterfeit wines were a frequent occurrence in the marketplace. “Nobody died. Nobody lost their savings. Nobody lost their job,” he said. The lawyer said the 2 1/2 years Kurniawan has served in prison was enough penalty, since he had lost everything and been branded a cheat.

Okula called the defense lawyer’s comments “quite shocking,” especially when he suggested that Kurniawan should get lenient treatment because he ripped off rich people rather than the poor. “Fraud is fraud,” he said.

Kurniawan was a connoisseur of counterfeiting who mastered label making, cork stamping, bottle waxing and recorking to create fake bottles of wine. Federal prosecutors said Kurniawan turned his California home into a wine factory. Restaurants sent him empty wine bottles, then he mixed together cheap wine and rebottled it as vintage wine. He also borrowed money against his collection of fake wines and owes a New York bank several million dollars....

For example, Kurniawan phonied up two bottles of 1934 Romanee-Conti and sold them for $24,000. A fake double-magnum of 1947 Chateau Petrus was auctioned for $30,000. “He made blends,” Downey said. “He was like a mad scientist.” But he made mistakes that raised eyebrows in the world of fine wine. Kurniawan put up for auction bottles of Clos Saint-Denis from the 1940s and 1950s even though the winery didn’t start producing that appellation until the 1980s.

August 10, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sixth Circuit panel finds one-day prison sentence unreasonable for white-collar defendant

The Sixth Circuit today has reinforced its reputation as one of the circuits most likely to declare a below-guideline sentence unreasonable with a unanimous panel ruling in US v. Musgrave, No. 13-3872 (6th Cir. July 31, 2014) (available here).  Because post-Booker appellate sentence reversals are rare, this relatively short opinion is a must read for everyone who following federal sentencing law and policy closely.  In addition, at a time when debates over white-collar sentencing rules and practices remain hot, all those who follow white-collar crime and punishment will want to be sure to check out this opinion as well.

Here is how the Musgrave opinion starts and finishes:

A jury found Paul Musgrave guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud and to make false statements to a financial institution; two counts of wire fraud; and one count of bank fraud.  The district court sentenced him to one day of imprisonment with credit for the day of processing — a downward variance from his Guidelines range of 57 to 71 months’ imprisonment and below the government’s recommendation of 30 months’ imprisonment.  On appeal, the government asserts that Musgrave’s one-day sentence is substantively unreasonable.  For the following reasons, we vacate the district court’s sentence and remand for resentencing....

A defendant’s sentence must reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, and provide just punishment. 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2).  In imposing a sentence, the district court must explain, based on permissible considerations, how its sentence “‘meshe[s] with Congress’s own view of the crimes’ seriousness.’” United States v. Peppel, 707 F.3d 627, 635 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting United States v. Davis, 537 F.3d 611, 617 (6th Cir. 2008)).  The collateral consequences of the defendant’s prosecution and conviction are “impermissible factors” when fashioning a sentence that complies with this directive.  Peppel, 707 F.3d at 636.  A district court’s reliance on these factors “does nothing to show that [the defendant’s] sentence reflects the seriousness of his offense. Were it otherwise, these sorts of consequences— particularly ones related to a defendant’s humiliation before his community, neighbors, and friends—would tend to support shorter sentences in cases with defendants from privileged backgrounds, who might have more to lose along these lines.” United States v. Bistline, 665 F.3d 758, 765–66 (6th Cir. 2012).  Thus, when a district court varies downward on the basis of the collateral consequences of the defendant’s prosecution and conviction, the defendant’s sentence will not reflect the seriousness of the offense, nor will it provide just punishment.  See Peppel, 707 F.3d at 636; Bistline, 665 F.3d at 765–66.

Impermissible considerations permeated the district court’s justification for Musgrave’s sentence.  In imposing a sentence of one day with credit for the day of processing, the district court relied heavily on the fact that Musgrave had already “been punished extraordinarily” by four years of legal proceedings, legal fees, the likely loss of his CPA license, and felony convictions that would follow him for the rest of his life.  “[N]one of these things are [his] sentence.  Nor are they consequences of his sentence”; a diminished sentence based on considerations does not reflect the seriousness of his offense or effect just punishment.  Bistline, 665 F.3d at 765.  On remand, the district court must sentence Musgrave without considering these factors....

In the context of white-collar crime, we have emphasized that “it is hard to see how a one-day sentence” would “serve the goals of societal deterrence.” Davis, 537 F.3d at 617.  “‘Because economic and fraud-based crimes are more rational, cool, and calculated than sudden crimes of passion or opportunity, these crimes are prime candidates for general deterrence.’” Peppel, 707 F.3d at 637 (quoting United States v. Martin, 455 F.3d 1227, 1240 (11th Cir. 2006)); see also Davis, 537 F.3d at 617.

Consideration of general deterrence is particularly important where the district court varies substantially from the Guidelines.  See, e.g., Aleo, 681 F.3d at 300 (explaining that the greater the variance, the more compelling the justification based on the § 3553(a) factors must be).  This is even truer here, given that the crimes of which Musgrave was convicted are especially susceptible to general deterrence and the fact that there is a general policy favoring incarceration for these crimes.  Indeed, “[o]ne of the central reasons for creating the sentencing guidelines was to ensure stiffer penalties for white-collar crimes and to eliminate disparities between white-collar sentences and sentences for other crimes.” Davis, 537 F.3d at 617.  More importantly, Congress understood white-collar criminals to be deserving of some period of incarceration, as evidenced by its prohibition on probationary sentences in this context.  Id.  Where a district court’s view of a particular crime’s seriousness appears at odds with that of Congress and the Sentencing Commission, we expect that it will explain how its sentence nevertheless affords adequate general deterrence.  Id.; Camiscione, 591 F.3d at 834.  The district court failed to do so here.

Musgrave must be resentenced.  The district court relied on impermissible considerations and failed to address adequately how what amounted to a non-custodial sentence afforded adequate general deterrence in this context. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that “[w]hile appellate courts retain responsibility for identifying proper and improper sentencing considerations after Booker, it is not our task to impose sentences in the first instance or to second guess the individualized sentencing discretion of the district court when it appropriately relies on the § 3553(a) factors.”  Davis, 537 F.3d at 618 (citing United States v. Vonner, 516 F.3d 382, 392 (6th Cir. 2008) (en banc)). The district court’s sentence is vacated, and the case is remanded for the district court, in its discretion, to impose a sentence sufficient but not greater than necessary to serve the § 3553(a) factors.

I view the main message of this Musgrave case, along with other cited cases in which the Sixth Circuit has reversed similar one-day sentences on appeal, that the Sixth Circuit generally believe that at least a short period of incarceration is nearly essential for any serious crime for which the guidelines recommend years of incarceration even if the defendant is a relatively sympathetic first offender not likely to re-offend.

July 31, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, July 11, 2014

Second Circuit finds unreasonable probation sentence based on "cost of incarceration"

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss while on the road an interesting Second Circuit opinion in US v. Park, No. 13‐4142 (2d Cir. July 9, 2014) (available here), concerning reasonableness review and a sentenced reduced based on the cost of imprisonment.  Here is the heart of one part of the per curiam panel decision:

After a review of the record, we conclude that the District Court committed procedural error in imposing a term of probation in lieu of imprisonment for two reasons.  First, the only sentencing factor the District Court deemed relevant was the cost of incarceration to the government and the economic problems allegedly caused by the government shut‐down.  As the Court clearly announced, “I am not going to put him in jail only because of the economic plight that we are facing today.” After emphasizing that its sentencing decision was based solely upon this consideration, the Court then rebuffed defense counsel’s suggestion to “supplement the record,” asserting, “[i]f we have to resentence him, we will later.”  The Court also stated that if the Court of Appeals were to reverse, it would “consider all of these factors” at resentencing, clearly indicating that it did not consider the relevant factors in the first instance.  The Court therefore committed procedural error by refusing to consider the § 3553(a) factors in deciding what is an appropriate sentence.

Second, and equally problematic, is that the cost of incarceration to the government—the Court’s sole justification for imposing a term of probation rather than incarceration — is not a relevant sentencing factor under the applicable statutes.  We agree with the Eighth Circuit that, based on the plain language of § 3553(a), no sentencing factor can reasonably be read to encompass the cost of incarceration.  Nor does the statute permit the sentencing court to balance the cost of incarceration against the sentencing goals enumerated in § 3553(a).

Park is a must-read for post-Booker sentencing fans because it includes lots of important phrases about both procedural and substantive reasonableness review.  The Park opinion also talks up the importance of deterrence in one white-collar sentencing, noting "general  deterrence  occupies  an  especially  important role in criminal tax offenses, as criminal tax prosecutions  are relatively rare."

July 11, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Former NOLA mayor Ray Nagin gets 10-year federal prison sentence for corruption

As reported in this New York Times article, "Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Wednesday on federal corruption charges, ending a case that began with the rebuilding of the city after Hurricane Katrina." Here are a few more more details of this high-profile federal sentencing:

The sentence was less than the recommended 15 years, but Judge Ginger Berrigan of United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana told the court that the evidence failed to show that Mr. Nagin had organized or had been a leader of a corruption scheme....

Prosecutors objected to the sentence, a move that could set up an appeal. MOReaction was swift, and mixed. “I think that he got off lightly considering the violations of the public trust,” said Edward E. Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans and a critic of Mr. Nagin during his eight years as mayor.

“I think he should have gotten more time,” says Michelle Alford, 37, a native of New Orleans and a hotel employee. “He did nothing to benefit the city. I think he should have gotten 20 years at least. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.”

July 9, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Interesting account of guidelines accounting facing former NOLA mayor at upcoming federal sentencing

This lengthy local article, headlined "Emotions aside, Nagin sentence likely to come down to math," effectively reviews some of the guideline (and other) factors likely to impact the federal sentencing of former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin this coming week.  Here are excerpts:

Under the rules, Nagin starts with a base “offense level” of 20 because he was an elected official who took multiple bribes but otherwise has no criminal history — facts that, with the jury verdict, are now undisputed.

The other major factors that will add points to his offense level include the financial “loss” the court assigns to his actions, the court’s judgment as to whether he was an “organizer or leader” in “criminal activity” that involved at least five people, and whether Nagin is found to have obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the court.

There is some gray area in all of these questions. For instance, the monetary loss can be calculated to include not only bribes paid and received, but also the proceeds of any contracts that resulted from bribes. At a minimum, however, Berrigan will almost certainly find that the loss was greater than $200,000, as the jury convicted Nagin of taking more than that amount in bribes. That would bring his offense level to 32, but it could go significantly higher depending on whether Berrigan decides to include the profits of some or all of the contracts Nagin signed....

Experts say the question of financial loss is among the thorniest in calculating guidelines. The amount of bribes paid is an imperfect measure, for contracts awarded on the basis of bribes are presumed to be inflated to cover the cost of the payoffs. At the same time, the contractor usually completes the work outlined in the contract, making it unfair to count the entire value of the contract as a loss. In Nagin’s trial, the government did not present evidence to show that those who bribed Nagin failed to perform....

Other questions are similarly nuanced. If Berrigan finds Nagin obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the jury, as prosecutors say he did on more than 25 occasions, the offense level would jump another two points. And if she finds he took a leadership role in a scheme involving five or more people, that would add as many as four more points. Though it’s clear that Nagin’s criminal conduct involved more than five people, experts say there may be wiggle room in that question, too....

Depending on how the judge rules on those questions, Nagin’s final offense level could be as low as 32, or as high as 40 or more. Based on those numbers, the guidelines would call for a sentence ranging from 10 years at the low end to as much as 30 years or even life. A filing by Nagin’s lawyer, Robert Jenkins, suggests that probation officers came up with an offense level of 38, which translates to a range of 20 to 24 years.

Jenkins asked Berrigan to consider a downward departure from that figure based on Nagin’s lack of a criminal history and an argument that the crimes of which he was convicted constituted “aberrant” behavior for an otherwise upstanding citizen. But prosecutor Matt Coman argued in an opposing motion that the guidelines already take into account the mayor’s unblemished past, which they do. Meanwhile, Coman said it was laughable to consider Nagin’s criminal conduct as an aberration, considering that he was convicted of multiple bribery and fraud schemes that unfolded over a period of years....

Apart from applying her own analysis of the guidelines, Berrigan also has some ability to go outside the recommended range, experts said. She could grant a “downward variance” on some basis she deems appropriate, provided that she explains it and the variance is not too great. Federal law spells out a number of factors a judge may consider, from the need to protect the public from further crimes to the deterrent effect of the sentence.

July 6, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 05, 2014

High-profile ex-con (who is also an ex-Gov) eager to keep pushing for death penalty abolition

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Ex-Illinois governor Ryan wants to continue anti-death penalty work," the death penalty abolitionist community now has another high-profile advocate newly free to preach the gospel. Here are some excerpts from an interesting article:

George Ryan, an ex-Illinois governor and now an ex-convict, says he’d like to re-engage with the cause he left behind when he went to prison in 2007 — campaigning for the end of the death penalty in the U.S.  “Americans should come to their senses,” Ryan said this week, in an hourlong interview at his kitchen table.

Newly free to speak after a year of federal supervision that followed his more than five years in prison for corruption, Ryan appeared to have recovered some of his old voice and feistiness, in contrast to the subdued figure that emerged a year ago from the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., and ducked briefly into a Chicago halfway house.

At his home in Kankakee, south of Chicago, the Republican, 80, held forth on capital punishment, the state of American politics and the criminal justice system — though not the difficult details of his own corruption case.

He said he’d like to spend some time on the national circuit to encourage other states to follow Illinois’ lead in abolishing capital punishment.  That move came in 2011 and stemmed from Ryan’s decision to clear death row in 2003. While he was treated as a champion by death penalty opponents at the time, he acknowledged some public figures now may have trouble openly associating with him. “I’m an ex-convict,” he said. “People tend to frown on that.”

Ryan, who was governor from 1999 to 2003, was indicted in 2003 and convicted in 2006 on multiple corruption counts, including racketeering and tax fraud.  He said he does not plan to discuss the details of the criminal case — to which he always maintained his innocence — though he might in an autobiography he is writing....

He also lashed out at the U.S. justice system, calling it “corrupt” and bluntly contending that the fervor with which he was prosecuted was due in part to his nationally prominent campaign to end the death penalty.  “It put a target on my back when I did what I did,” he said, adding that even prison guards derided and mocked him. “It certainly didn’t win me any favor with the federal authorities.”

It’s unclear whether Ryan’s re-emergence on the public scene will be welcomed.  But at least one former federal prosecutor balked at Ryan’s contention that he may have been singled out because of his death penalty stance. “It’s absurd,” said Jeff Cramer, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago, noting that four of Illinois’ last seven governors have gone to prison.  “It wasn’t his political stand that made him a target. It is what he did. ... He’s trying to rewrite history.”...

[Ryan] also expressed some sympathy for his Democratic successor, Rod Blagojevich, saying the 14-year prison sentence the former governor is serving in Colorado for trying to sell President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat and other pay-to-play schemes was excessive.  The sentence is under appeal. “I wasn’t a fan” of Blagojevich, he said. “Irrespective, his sentence was out of line.”

But Ryan displayed the most passion while discussing capital punishment. Once a fervent advocate of the death penalty, he said he agonized about approving the last execution in Illinois before he issued a ban in 2000. “I killed the guy,” he said of the man who had raped, kidnapped and murdered a 21-year-old Elmhurst woman. “You can’t feel good about that.”

As he contemplated commuting all death sentences in 2003, he said he felt increasing pressure not to do it, including from one influential politician whom he remembers asking him directly not to spare one man convicted of murdering a friend’s daughter. After the commutations, Ryan said the politician never spoke to him again.

July 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Two new examinations of white-collar prosecutions and punishment schemes

Lucian Dervan has recently posted two notable new articles on white-collar crime and punishment on SSRN.  Here are links to both articles and their abstracts:

The Quest for Finality: Five Stories of White Collar Criminal Prosecution

Abstract: In this symposium article, Professor Dervan examines the issue of finality and sentencing. In considering this issue, he argues that prosecutors, defendants, and society as a whole are drawn to the concept of finality in various ways during criminal adjudications.  Further, far from an aspirational summit, he argues that some outgrowths of this quest for finality could be destructive and, in fact, obstructive to some of the larger goals of our criminal justice system, including the pursuit of truth and the protection of the innocent.

Given the potential abstraction of these issues, Professor Dervan decided to discuss the possible consequences of our quest for finality through examination of specific cases.  Therefore, the article examines five stories of white collar criminal prosecution.  The five stories are ones in which the players sought to achieve finality in different ways and in which finality came in different forms. Despite their differences, however, the stories do share important commonalities.

First, the stories demonstrate that we must be careful not to value finality over accuracy.  As an example, though plea bargaining offers both the prosecution and the defense a mechanism by which to reach sentencing finality, it must not be used to mask unfounded criminal cases or offer overpowering incentives to innocent defendants to falsely confess in return for a promise of leniency.  Second, the stories remind us that the government must be careful not to confuse achieving a victorious sentencing finality with achieving a just one.  Too often today, the government proceeds after indictment as though winning a sentence at any cost is worth any price.  Third, the stories reveal that, in many ways, the quest for true finality in criminal cases is fleeting.  While we have long been aware of the lingering collateral consequences present even after a sentence is concluded, we now must also recognize that even those who are acquitted face significant collateral consequences from indictment itself.

White Collar Over-Criminalization: Deterrence, Plea Bargaining, and the Loss of Innocence

AbstractOvercriminalization takes many forms and impacts the American criminal justice system in varying ways. This article focuses on a select portion of this phenomenon by examining two types of overcriminalization prevalent in white collar criminal law. The first type of over criminalization discussed in this article is Congress’s propensity for increasing the maximum criminal penalties for white collar offenses in an effort to punish financial criminals more harshly while simultaneously deterring others.  The second type of overcriminalization addressed is Congress’s tendency to create vague and overlapping criminal provisions in areas already criminalized in an effort to expand the tools available to prosecutors, increase the number of financial criminals prosecuted each year, and deter potential offenders.  While these new provisions are not the most egregious examples of the overcriminalization phenomenon, they are important to consider due to their impact on significant statutes.  In fact, they typically represent some of the most commonly charged offenses in the federal system.

Through examination of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and examples of these two types of over criminalization within that law, this article seeks to understand whether new crimes and punishments really achieve their intended goals and, if not, what this tells us about and means for the over criminalization debate and the criminal justice system as a whole.

June 29, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Effective review of debate over federal fraud guidelines in preview of another high-profile insider trading sentencing

Newsweek has this lengthy and effective new article on federal fraud sentencing, headlined "Nonsensical Sentences for White Collar Criminals," which seems prompted in part by the upcoming sentencing of hedge fund trader Mathew Martoma of SAC Capital Advisors LP following his conviction of insider trading. Here are a few excerpts:

[A]s the government’s probation department recommends a sentence [for Martoma] that would be the longest ever for insider trading — anywhere from 15 to 20 years — U.S. judges, federal public defenders, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Bar Association are increasingly calling into question the nation’s sentencing guidelines, which, in the words of one federal judge, “are just too goddamn severe.”...

The biggest quibble judges have with white-collar sentencing guidelines is the fact that prison terms are heavily weighted toward how much money is made or lost on a financial crime, regardless of the circumstances of the offense, whether it is insider trading, embezzlement, a Ponzi scheme or some other type of financial fraud....

The problem, says federal Judge John Gleeson, who represents the Eastern District of New York City, has built up over time, as congressional directives and statutes—often pushed by public pressure to treat offenders more aggressively and rigorously—have acted as what he calls a “one-way ratchet,” boosting the austerity and length of sentences ever higher....

The concerns come at a time when insider-trading cases — a subsection of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s broader financial fraud category — have nearly tripled over the past three years (2011 to 2013), compared with the prior three years (2008 to 2010), according to commission data.

In sum, insider-trading cases are on the rise, with the money involved and the prison sentences growing even as judges continue to abandon federal sentencing guidelines to minimize sentences they believe to be too punitive.  Sentences are “diverging, that’s for sure, and, to some extent, that reflects an absence of respect for the guidelines,” Gleeson says.

June 26, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How SCOTUS Halliburton ruling could have white-collar sentencing echoes

HallExperienced lawyer and federal sentencing guru Mark Allenbaugh (firm website here) sent me an intriguing set of insights about how yesterday's Supreme Court ruling yesterday in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund (available here) could possibly impact some white-collar sentencing arguments. Mark kindly allowed me to reprint his analysis here:

White collar defense practitioners should be aware of today’s ruling in in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund. While a civil class action case, Halliburton may have some helpful applicability at sentencing. 

The Court in Halliburton has expanded the application of Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U. S. 224 (1988) regarding WHEN plaintiffs can prove damages in “fraud on the market cases” from a defendant’s misrepresentation.  In Basic the Court, held that a class of plaintiffs could  prove reliance of a defendant’s misrepresentation by “invoking a presumption that the price of stock traded in an efficient market reflects all public, material information—including material misrepresentations.”  The presumption effectively allows plaintiffs to side-step proof of actual reliance on any misrepresentations for purposes of establishing damages.  Without class certification, however, individual plaintiffs cannot invoke the presumption thereby making proof of damages far more difficult.  The Court held that, contrary to the Fifth Circuit, Defendant/Petitioner Halliburton could introduce evidence that any misrepresentation lacked “price impact” to prevent certification of the class.

Halliburton could be helpful in securities fraud sentencing cases inasmuch as the government usually lumps all the victims together to determine a collective “loss” for sentencing purposes without introducing any evidence that any particular victim (save for those few who may have testified at any trial) relied on any misrepresentations of the defendant.  Such a collectivization of victim losses, therefore, implicitly invokes the Basic efficient market presumption allowing the government to side-step having to prove reliance by any particular victim.  But just as the Commission’s (relatively new and untested) modified recissory method for calculating loss in securities fraud case is subject to rebuttal, so too is the Basic presumption.  In light of today’s ruling in Halliburton, counsel should consider providing the Court evidence that any misrepresentation by the defendant lacked “price impact” on the victims sufficient to overcome the de facto Basic presumption with respect to collective victim losses.  In this way, the Government would be required to provide evidence how individual victims relied on any misrepresentations. 

To be sure, unlike in sophisticated civil class actions that require precision, since determining loss at sentencing need only be a reasonable estimate, only those victims that would materially affect the loss amount should not be granted the Basic presumption; in those cases the Government would be required to prove reliance.  But this is as it should be inasmuch as years if not decades of your client’s life could be at stake.

June 24, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, June 23, 2014

SCOTUS rules against defendant concerning required bank fraud intent in Loughrin

The Supreme Court this morning handed down a quasi-unanimous ruling in a federal bank fraud case this morning in Loughrin v. US, No. 13-316 (S. Ct. June 23, 2014) (available here). I call the ruling only quasi-unanimous because a few Justices only concurred in part with the opinion for the Court. Here is the vote break-down:

KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined, and in which SCALIA and THOMAS, JJ., joined as to Parts I and II, Part III–A except the last paragraph, and the last footnote of Part III–B. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

And here is how Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court in Loughrin gets started:

A provision of the federal bank fraud statute, 18 U. S. C. §1344(2), makes criminal a knowing scheme to obtain property owned by, or in the custody of, a bank “by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.”  The question presented is whether the Government must prove that a defendant charged with violating that provision intended to defraud a bank. We hold that the Government need not make that showing.

June 23, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fascinating research on federal mortgage fraud prosecutions and sentencing in Western PA

20140525mortgage-fraud-thumbI am pleased and excited to have learned over the long weekend that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Duquesne University School of Law collaborated on an innovative Fact Investigations class, led by associate professor and Criminal Justice Program director Wesley Oliver, to study the modern work of Western Pennsylvania's federal prosecutors in response to modern mortage fraus.  As explained in this first article of a series about this work, this group "identified 144 prosecutions alleging mortgage-related crimes in the Pittsburgh area ... [and then] analyzed 100 prosecutions in which sentence had been pronounced and for which the federal sentencing guidelines could be discerned." Before getting into the findings, I want to heap praise on everyone involved in this project because it shows what valuable work can be done when law schools and traditional media team up to examine intricate and dynamic issues concerning the federal criminal justice system.

Here, from the start of the first article in the series, are the basic findings of this terrific project:

In 2008, as the housing market dragged the world economy down, orders came from Washington, D.C., to federal prosecutors nationwide: Bust the people whose lies contributed to the mess.

Six years later, the effort by Pittsburgh's federal prosecutors to punish fraudulent mortgage brokers, appraisers, closing agents, property flippers and bank employees can claim 144 people charged, more than 100 sentenced and no acquittals.

That undefeated record, though, came at a price: Some of the worst offenders got extraordinary deals in return for their testimony against others.

A review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Duquesne University School of Law students of 100 completed cases showed that the sentences of mortgage-related criminals in the Pittsburgh area were driven more by their degree of cooperation with prosecutors than by the number of people they scammed, the dollars they reaped or the damage they did to the financial system.  Some of the most prolific offenders used their central places in the fraud conspiracy to secure light sentences.

• Leniency for cooperation was doled out liberally.  At least 30 of the 100 defendants were the beneficiaries of prosecutorial motions to reward "substantial assistance" to the investigation.  That cooperation rate is nearly double that seen in fraud cases nationwide, suggesting that prosecutors here rewarded more defendants than normal.

• Most of the mortgage criminals who assisted prosecutors got no prison time, and the average amount of incarceration for those 30 defendants was a little more than three months.  By contrast, defendants who pleaded guilty but didn't provide substantial assistance to prosecutors, got average sentences of three years in prison.  Those few who went to trial faced an average of 6½ years behind bars.

•  Several of the figures most central to the region's mortgage fraud problem cooperated with prosecutors, and got non-prison sentences.  For instance, Kenneth C. Cowden, formerly of McKees Rocks and now of Florida, performed unlicensed appraisals that exaggerated real estate values in the region to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He cooperated and got nine months in a halfway house.  Jay Berger of Fox Chapel, who recruited Cowden and lived lavishly from fraudulent mortgages, was sentenced in 2012 to 15 months in prison, but died this month at age 49 without serving time.

Here are links to all the article in the series:

Regular readers will not be at all surprised to hear me say that I view this terrific bit of investigative journalism as further proof that those who are really concerned about suspect disparities in federal sentencing ought to be much more focused on the application of (hidden and unreviewable) prosecutorial sentencing discretion than about the exercise of (open and reviewable) judicial sentencing discretion.

May 27, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Identifying better DOJ prosecutorial priorities than low-level drug crimes

Perhaps the main reason I am a supporter of the Smarter Sentencing Act is my desire to have Congress send an important message about federal criminal justice priorities to the US Justice Department and others through a relatively modest revision of existing mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  Notably, the preamble to the SSA makes express mention of this goal, describing the purpose of the Act as designed to "focus limited Federal resources on the most serious offenders."  By reducing (though not eliminating) mandatory minimums for various drug crimes, Congress would be effectively saying that federal prosecutors ought not prioritize federal prosecutions of first offenders who may have been involved in dealing only a few ounces of crack or meth or heroin.

Critically, under current law and after the SSA were to become law, if and whenever a drug offender has even a single prior drug offense or just possesses a firearm or causes any significant bodily harm, additional heightened mandatory sentences kick in.  Thus, the only drug dealers likely to benefit significantly from the SSA are true first-offenders who deal only a few ounces of crack or meth or heroin.  I feel confident that major dealers, repeat dealers, and those who use or threaten violence will still be a priority for federal prosecutors after passage of the SSA, and that the feds will still have plenty of prosecutorial tools to take down serious drug traffickers.  And by making sure that lengthy prison terms are mandated only for the most serious offenders, federal prosecutorial and corrections resources can and should be better focused on other crimes, especially crimes that only federal prosecutors can effectively and efficiently prosecute.

What kinds of other crimes, you might ask, would I want federal prosecutors to prioritize over going after first offenders involved in dealing only a few ounces of crack or meth or heroin?  Helpfully, old pal (and forner federal prosecutor) Bill Otis in a pair of new posts over at Crime & Consequences identifies two classes of federal fraud and corruption that ought to be a signal concern for federal prosecutors. Here I will provide links and highlights from these two posts:

A New Prosecution Priority for DOJ: "The lead story in the Washington Post today reports that possibly a million applicants for Obamacare subsidies may have 'misstated' their income.... DOJ should not allow something like that to happen again.  Whether one loves Obamacare or hates it, no one has the right to bilk it by cheating.   A few hundred highly publicized false statement prosecutions would go a long way toward keeping applicants honest and, therefore, keeping the program as solvent as it's going to get."
Another Prosecution Priority for DOJ:  "My last post suggested that the Justice Department prosecute at least some of the thousands of Obamacare applicants who have intentionally falsified statements of their income in order to bilk the taxpayers for even more than they're being bilked out of already.  There is second priority I would suggest for DOJ examination -- a priority that, it seems, the Department may have taken up.  As the New York Times reports: 'The Department of Veterans Affairs' inspector general is working with federal prosecutors who are trying to determine whether criminal violations occurred at a medical center in Phoenix accused of falsifying data or creating secret waiting lists intended to hide months long delays for veterans to see doctors, a top official told a Senate committee on Thursday.'"

I suspect Bill would be quick to assert that the federal government in general and DOJ in particular has plenty of resources to keep going after all drug offenders and to now start going after Obamacare cheats and federal executive branch liars.  Though it is surely true that federal prosecutions are not a zero-sum game, the fact remains that the sentencing laws on the books necessarily serve to structure and greatly influence the exercise of prosecutorial discretion for this Administration and others.  Plus, state prosecutors can (and still do) go after low-level (and high-level) drug dealers, whereas state prosecutors cannot go after after Obamacare cheats and federal executive branch liars.

In short, I heartily endorse Bill's suggestion that AG Holder and his prosecutorial agents start going after Obamacare cheats and federal executive branch liars.  And that endorsement of DOJ prosecutorial priorities provides an additional reason for my support of the SSA and its effort to reorient federal prosecutorial priorities accordingly.

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

May 18, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Friday, May 16, 2014

Federal judge splits the difference in sentencing former SAC money manager to 3.5 years

As reported in this Wall Street Journal article, a federal district judge in a high-profile white-collar sentencing today imposed a prison term roughly half-way between what federal prosecutors and the defense sought.  Here are the basics:

A federal judge sentenced former SAC Capital Advisors LP portfolio manager Michael Steinberg to three and a half years in prison Friday, saying he hoped Wall Street would learn from this case. The term was well below what prosecutors had sought.

U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan called the former senior SAC employee "a basically good man," citing evidence of his character supplied in 68 letters sent by his family and friends. But he also pointed to the seriousness of Mr. Steinberg's insider trading.  "They are crimes that go to the heart of living in an honest society and having a market system," he said during a hearing in Manhattan federal court.  Wall Street, he hoped, would "derive lessons."

Mr. Steinberg, 42 years old, is SAC's most senior former employee to be convicted of insider trading.  Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 5¼ to 6½ years to send a strong deterrent message to the market.  Mr. Steinberg's lawyers had requested less than half that amount.

Mr. Steinberg was convicted in December on four counts of securities fraud and one count of conspiracy for trading on confidential information, handing prosecutors the first verdict from a federal jury to back up their allegations that there was insider trading at SAC.  There is a chance Friday's sentence won't stick.  A pending appeal in a related insider-trading case could bolster Mr. Steinberg's chances to overturn his conviction.

May 16, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Federal Judges Are Cutting Rich Tax Cheats Big Sentencing Breaks"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and interesting new piece at Forbes by Janet Novack.  Here are excerpts:

Increasingly, federal judges are going easy on tax cheats, or at least easier than the U.S. Sentencing Commission’ s guidelines say they should. The trend has been quietly building since 2007, but was given a high profile Forbes 400 face in January when a Chicago federal judge let billionaire H. Ty Warner off with probation for hiding as much as $106 million in UBS AG and a smaller Swiss bank for more than a decade and evading at least $5.5 million in tax on his secret accounts.  According to the sentencing guidelines, the 69-year-old Warner, who made his fortune by creating Beanie Babies, should have gotten 46 to 57 months in the federal pen.  Prosecutors have appealed Warner’s sentence, asserting, among other things, that the judge was unreasonably impressed by his “not so extraordinary” charity and by gushing letters from employees, and business associates....

[I]n 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v Booker that the guidelines were merely advisory.  Subsequent Supreme Court and appellate decisions have made it clear that trial judges have broad discretion to depart from the guidelines and will only be overturned if they’ve failed to properly consider the guidelines or their decision is clearly unreasonable.  “Once they make the noises about calculating the guidelines, they can come up with their own numbers, and they can base it on anything they want,” says Scott A. Schumacher, a professor at University of Washington Law School who has written a new paper on tax-sentencing post-Booker that is being published in the Villanova Law Review.  While the percentage of all sentences that fall within the guidelines has steadily declined since Booker, the change in tax sentences has been particularly dramatic, he adds.

For example, in fiscal 2013, judges gave below guideline sentences, without buy-in from prosecutors, to 45% of those sentenced for tax crimes, but just 28% of those sentenced for embezzlement; 26% of those sentenced for fraud; and 22% of those sentenced for forgery or counterfeiting. (Another 20% of tax offenders got sentence reductions which prosecutors sponsored, usually as a reward for providing “substantial assistance” to the government.)

While the light sentencing of some offshore cheats has gotten attention, the larger leniency-for-tax crimes trend has been mostly obscured by Internal Revenue Service reports, which show the average prison term for “tax and tax related crimes” rising from 21 months in 2004 to 31 months in 2013.  The IRS numbers, however, are skewed by the long prison sentences (some more than 10 years) being meted out to those convicted in the recent epidemic of identity theft refund fraud — a crime Kathryn Keneally, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Tax Division described at an American Bar Association Tax Section meeting last week as “more like street crime.”

The Sentencing Commission’s statistics, by contrast, count only pure tax crimes and not those in which identity theft, public corruption, drug dealing or some other charge is considered the primary offense and tax evasion is thrown in.  By the USSC’s figuring, the average sentence for a tax convict last year was just 14 months, with a median of 12 months.  In those cases where sentencing judges handed out a downward departure citing the Booker decision, the commission’s data shows, the median sentence was cut by 78.5%; in such cases the most lenient within-guideline sentence would have been a median of 16 months and the lucky convicts got a median sentence of just four months. (A side benefit: such short sentences can be served in community facilities, instead of the federal pen.)

Surprisingly, the average sentence for tax crimes hasn’t changed much, even as the percentage of tax cheats getting a sentencing break has risen.  The likely explanation is found in the way the sentencing guidelines work, ratcheting up prison terms as the amount of tax the government was cheated out of rises.  As prosecutors have focused more on wealthier tax cheats and bigger dollar cases involving both onshore and offshore evasion, the sentences tax offenders are supposed to get have risen too. Last Friday, for example, a federal judge sentenced Patricia Hough, a 67-year-old Fort Myers, Fla. psychiatrist, to 24 months in jail.  That might sound like a lot, except her guideline sentence was 80 to 100 months....

These days, sentencing judges routinely give lip service to that need for general deterrence, but still seem sympathetic to the argument that by being prosecuted, individual defendants have already suffered more than their chiseling peers.  In offshore cases, defendants’ lawyers never fail to point out that tens of thousands of people (the last count released by the IRS was, 43,000) with undeclared foreign accounts have escaped prosecution through the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program....

Sentencing judges also tend to be sympathetic to other arguments typically made by wealthy and successful convicts: that they have given a lot to charity; have already been publicly humiliated; have paid heavy fines (in Warner’s case a $53 million penalty for failing to file required reports of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts ); and even that they are simply too valuable as either job creators or community volunteers to be sitting in jail. Chicago Federal District Court Judge Charles P. Kocoras, before giving Warner probation, cited all those considerations....

[S]ince the Supreme Court’s Booker decision, only one tax sentence has been reversed on appeal. In that case a sentencing judge gave probation to Frederick L. Engle, who had evaded his taxes for 16 years using shell corporations.  According to sentencing guidelines, he should have gotten 24 to 30 months.  The sentencing judge’s stated reason for the leniency was that Engle, a high earning sales rep for shoemaker Nine West who had relationships with Wal-Mart, Target and J.C. Penny, would be able to earn good money to pay back the IRS if he was kept out of jail and allowed to travel abroad.

In overturning the sentence, a three judge panel of Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “Reduced to its essence, the district court’s approach means that rich tax-evaders will avoid prison, but poor tax-evader will almost certainly go to jail. Such an approach, where prison or probation depends on the defendant’s economic status, is impermissible.”

After Engle failed to appear for his new sentencing hearing and continued to evade tax, he was sentenced in absentia to 60 months in jail.  When U.S. Marshals caught up with him, he got an additional year for failure to appear.  Now 73, Engle is serving his time at the Butner, N.C. federal correctional institution and is not scheduled for release until October 2015.

May 14, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack