Friday, July 17, 2015
You be the federal judge: should tax cheating former rep Michael Grimm go to prison?
As previewed by this AP article, headlined "Ex-NY Congressman Grimm Faces Sentencing in Tax Case," a high-profile white-collar defendant is due to be sentenced in federal court today. Here are the basics about the case to enable answering the question posed in the title of this post:
Lawyers for former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm have asked a judge to spare him a prison term at his sentencing, while prosecutors argue he deserves at least 2 years behind bars for tax evasion. The sentencing Friday in federal court in Brooklyn before U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen follows Grimm's guilty plea late last year to aiding in filing a false tax return — a charge that stemmed from an investigation into the Staten Island Republican's campaign financing.
Prosecutors say the tax fraud began in 2007 after Grimm retired from the FBI and began investing in a Manhattan eatery called Healthalicious. An indictment accused him of underreporting more than $1 million in wages and receipts to evade payroll, income and sales taxes, in part by paying immigrant workers, some of them in the country illegally, in cash.
Grimm, 45, won re-election in November while fighting the charges, but later resigned. In court papers asking for a sentence of probation, defense lawyers called Grimm's offense "an aberration in an otherwise remarkable life in selfless service of his country," including a stint in the Marine Corps. They also argued that losing his career in Congress was punishment enough.
Grimm "is tremendously remorseful over his offense," they wrote. "He understands that his tax violation is not something to be taken lightly, and he is anguished over his wrongdoing and will live with the shame of it the rest of his life."
Prosecutors countered by telling the judge Grimm's record of "falsely minimizing his criminal conduct and impugning anyone who questions him is indicative of an individual who has not come to terms with his own crimes." The government papers cite a news conference last year outside the courthouse where Grimm called the case "a political witch hunt." The papers also refer to an episode in which Grimm threatened to throw a local cable TV news reporter off the balcony of the capitol for asking about the campaign financing inquiry.
If there was a formal sentencing enhancement for acting like a pompous ass, I might expect Grimm to be heading to the federal pen. But I would guess that Grimm's ultimate willingness to plead guilty and resign from Congress will help him secure a nonprison punishment in this case.
UPDATE: This local article details that I was wrong in my guess that Grimm would not be sentenced to prison; as the headline explains, "Michael Grimm gets 8 months in prison at sentencing."
Sunday, July 12, 2015
Seventh Circuit panel affirms as reasonable probation sentence for tax dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
Late Friday, a Seventh Circuit panel rejected the government's claim that a probation sentence given to a high-profile tax cheat was unreasonable. The lengthy opinion in US v. Warner, No. 14 -1330 (7th Cir. July 10, 2015) (available here), gets started this way:
Defendant H. Ty Warner, the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies, evaded $5.6 million in U.S. taxes by hiding assets in a Swiss bank account. He pled guilty to one count of tax evasion, made full restitution, and paid a $53.6 million civil penalty. The Sentencing Guidelines provided a recommended 46- to 57-month term of imprisonment, but the district judge gave Warner a more lenient sentence: two years’ probation with community service, plus a $100,000 fine and costs. The government claims his sentence is unreasonable because it does not include a term of incarceration.
In a typical case, we might agree. But this is not a typical case. The district judge found Warner’s record of charity and benevolence “overwhelming.” Indeed, the judge remarked that Warner’s conduct was unprecedented when viewed through the judge’s more-than-three decades on the bench. In the district court’s opinion, this and other mitigating factors — including the uncharacteristic nature of Warner’s crime, his attempt to disclose his account, his payment of a penalty ten times the size of the tax loss, and the government’s own request for a sentence well below the guidelines range — justified leniency. District courts enjoy broad discretion to fashion an appropriate, individualized sentence in light of the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The court here did not abuse its discretion. Rather, it fully explained and supported its decision and reached an outcome that is reasonable under the unique circumstances of this case. We therefore affirm Warner’s sentence.
Though the panel stresses unique factors applying only in this case to support its reasonableness ruling, white-collar practitioners (especially those in the Seventh Circuit) will find a lot of broader interest and potential value in this opinion.
Prior related posts:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence should the Beanie Babies billionaire get for tax evasion?
- Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
- Feds call probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire substantively unreasonable
- Seventh Circuit panel seemingly unmoved by feds appeal of probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire
July 12, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, July 10, 2015
Evil doc gets 45 years in the federal pen for fraudulent cancer treatments
I noted in this prior post about his upcoming sentencing, I used the term evil to describe the Michigan oncologist who pleaded guilty to mistreating cancer patients and bilking the government through false Medicare claims. Today the doctor learned our federal criminal justuce system's response to his evil deed, as this local press account reports:
A metro Detroit cancer doctor who made nearly $20 million off hundreds of patients suffering from unneeded chemotherapy and other stunningly bad treatments was sentenced today to 45 years in federal prison.
"This is a huge, horrific series of criminal acts that were committed by the defendant," U.S. District Judge Paul Borman said, later adding that Dr. Farid Fata "practiced greed and shut down whatever compassion he had." Borman said the crimes called for "a very significant sentence for very, very terrible conduct."
Fata, 50, who openly wept in court today as he apologized for his actions, admitted to fraudulently billing Medicare, insurance companies and at least 550 patients through misdiagnoses, over-treatment and under-treatment. In some cases, he gave nearly four times the recommended dosage amount of aggressive cancer drugs; in at least one, a patient was given toxic chemotherapy for five years when the standard treatment was six months, according to former patients and experts in court this week.
"I misused my talents... because of power and greed. My quest for power is self-destructive," a sobbing Fata told the court before sentencing. He said he is "horribly ashamed of my conduct" and prays for repentance.
Defense attorney Christopher Andreoff asked Borman to sentence Fata to no more than 25 years in prison, saying even that could be a life sentence because of Fata's health. "Our recommendation will give him nothing more than a chance for release before he dies," Andreoff said.
U.S. Assistant Prosecutor Catherine Dick told the court her office has "has never seen anything like this before. ,,. And that is because of the harm."
"Fata was greedy and he wanted that money," Dick said. "What this defendant did is unquantifiable. There is no way to quantify the suffering." Dick, whose office had asked for 175-year sentence, said patients died in horrible pain from Fata's treatments.
Borman had set the sentencing guidelines to 30 years to life on Thursday based on the charges and circumstances. "My role.. is to impose a sentence sufficient but not greater than necessary," Borman said this morning.
The federal court this week heard accounts of about 22 victims, who shared unthinkable experiences of a healthy adult undergoing chemotherapy and losing nearly all his teeth, of a patient diagnosed with lung cancer when he had kidney cancer, and more. Some statements were read by family members of patients who died. Some patients with no documented iron deficiencies were given overwhelming amounts of iron, while others were given lower-than-needed doses of chemotherapy drugs, experts testified.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade previously called his case the "the most egregious" health care fraud case her office has seen.
Fata pleaded guilty in September to 13 counts of health care fraud, two counts of money laundering and one count of conspiring to pay and receive kickbacks. The case involves $34.7 million in billings to patients and insurance companies, and $17.6 million paid for work Fata admitted was unnecessary.
Prior related post:
Tuesday, July 07, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for evil cancer doctor?
A few weeks ago, I was discussing with my kids whether they thought some humans were innately evil. In any such discussion, it might make sense to bring up the story of the Michigan oncologist who pleaded guilty to mistreating cancer patients and bilking the government through false Medicare claims. The doctor's federal sentencing began this week, and this AP story provides an overview of the proceedings and basic information to enable any would-be judges to suggest sentences for the doc in the comments:
Patients of a Detroit-area doctor received "stunning" doses of a powerful, expensive drug that exposed them to life-threatening infections, an expert testified Monday as a judge heard details about a cancer specialist who fleeced insurance companies and harmed hundreds of people.
Dr. Farid Fata is headed to prison for fraud and other crimes. But U.S. District Judge Paul Borman first is hearing from experts and former patients about the extent of his scheme to reap millions of dollars from Medicare and other health programs.
Nearly three dozen ex-patients and family members, many dressed in black, chartered a bus to attend the hearing, which could last days. Some will testify Tuesday."This is a small fraction of the people this guy has hurt," said Terry Spurlock, 52, of Holly, who had three more years of treatments after a tumor on his neck disappeared. "He gave me so much treatment, it stopped my immune system."
Fata, 50, pleaded guilty last fall to fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. The government is seeking a 175-year prison sentence, while the Oakland County man is asking for no more than 25 years.
The government said 553 people have been identified as victims, along with four insurance companies. There were more than 9,000 unnecessary infusions or injections. "There is an aggressive approach to treating cancer. This was beyond. This was over the top," said Dr. Dan Longo, a Harvard medical professor and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine, who testified Monday as a $400-an-hour expert for prosecutors after examining 25 patient files, a tiny portion of Fata's practice.
Longo was asked about patients who were given a drug called Rituximab, which can weaken the immune system if overused. It is typically given eight times for aggressive lymphoma, but one patient got it 94 times. Another got it 76 times.... Later, he told the judge that "all the files I looked at had problems, but I would not say all the treatment was inappropriate."
It was the first time that many former patients had seen Fata in months, if not years. He has been in custody since his 2013 arrest. He wore a white dress shirt and dark suit in court.
"I wanted to knock that smirk off his face," said Geraldine Parkin, 54, of Davison, who[se] husband, Tim, has survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma but has other chronic problems because of excessive treatments. "He has a lot of anger," Parkin said.
Tuesday, June 09, 2015
You be the federal defense attorney: would you urge Dennis Hastert to cut a plea deal?
I often highlight and review high-profile cases by urging readers to place themselves in the shoes of a judge facing a tough sentencing decision or a prosecutor having to recommend a specific sentence. But, as the title of this post connotes, now I am urging folks to think about how the attorneys for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert ought to approach (sentencing?) discussions with their client and their adversaries. This lengthy Politico account of the Hastert charges and proceedings by Josh Gerstein provides all the needed background and includes these excerpts:
After more than a week in seclusion, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert pleaded not guilty Tuesday to two criminal charges that he violated federal banking law and lied to the FBI as they investigated his alleged agreement to pay $3.5 million in hush money to cover up a past transgression.
Hastert, who became the longest-serving Republican speaker before the GOP lost the House in 2006, was released after entering the plea in front of U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin at an afternoon hearing which raised questions about whether Durkin will continue or the case will be reassigned to another judge.
Hastert, 73, looked much as he did during the height of his power, slightly stooped and with a shock of gray hair as he trudged into the packed courtroom clad in a dark pinstripe suit and blue tie. He stood in front of the judge’s bench throughout the roughly 15-minute hearing, softly answering the judge’s questions — usually with a “Yes, sir.”
Hastert’s lead defense attorney, Tom Green, spoke for the former speaker when it came time to offer a plea. “The defendant enters a plea of not guilty to both counts of the indictment, your honor,” Green said....
At Tuesday’s hearing, the defense waived a formal reading of the indictment, which alleges Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million to an unnamed individual and forked over $1.7 million of that before the charges were filed. Nearly $1 million of that was withdrawn from the former speaker’s bank accounts in increments of $10,000 after bankers warned him that larger donations would trigger reports to the authorities, the indictment claims.
Prosecutors said little during the session, but when the judge asked for details of the potential penalties, Block noted Hastert could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the two felony counts. However, judges usually impose sentences in accordance with federal guidelines that call for more lenient punishment for offenders with no serious criminal record.
A plea deal, if there were to be one, could also reduce Hastert’s sentence. Many criminal defense lawyers believe such a deal is probable because a jury is not likely to look favorably on a defendant trying to cover up alleged sexual abuse of a student.
One of the charges brought against Hastert — structuring cash transactions to avoid federal reporting requirements — is unpopular among defense lawyers and libertarians because it can render routine cash banking transactions in increments of just under $10,000 illegal even if the reason for the cash payments or withdrawals is lawful. Critics contend that prosecutors use the structuring law to bring charges or force guilty pleas from defendants when the government lacks proof to make a case for drug trafficking or tax evasion. Some judges have reacted skeptically when the feds have brought cases in which there is no charge that the underlying conduct was illegal.
The nature of Hastert’s reported relationship with the acquaintance who allegedly received the hush money is unclear, but experts say the statute of limitations in Illinois for a criminal prosecution on sexual abuse from the 1970s expired long ago.
Hastert, who as speaker was once second in line to the presidency, resigned his House seat in 2007 after he lost the speaker’s post due to the Democrats’ victory in 2006. He is the highest-ranking current or former federal official to face criminal prosecution since Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 and pleaded guilty to a felony tax evasion charge.
Sunday, May 31, 2015
Sentencing message sent: blazing a Silk Road for drugs gets you LWOP
A high-profile prosecution of a high-tech drug dealer culminated on Friday with the sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht. This Wired story provides an effective account of the sentencing, and includes these excerpts:
On Friday Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in creating and running Silk Road’s billion-dollar, anonymous black market for drugs. Judge Katherine Forrest gave Ulbricht the most severe sentence possible, beyond what even the prosecution had explicitly requested. The minimum Ulbricht could have served was 20 years.
“The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the Dread Pirate Roberts,” she told Ulbricht as she read the sentence, referring to his pseudonym as the Silk Road’s leader. “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”
In addition to his prison sentence, Ulbricht was also ordered to pay a massive restitution of more than $183 million, what the prosecution had estimated to be the total sales of illegal drugs and counterfeit IDs through the Silk Road—at a certain bitcoin exchange rate—over the course of its time online. Any revenue from the government sale of the bitcoins seized from the Silk Road server and Ulbricht’s laptop will be applied to that debt.
Ulbricht had stood before the court just minutes earlier in navy blue prison clothes, pleading for a lenient sentence. “I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” he said, as his voice grew hoarse with emotion and cracked. “I’m a little wiser, a little more mature, and much more humble.”
“I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives…to have privacy and anonymity,” Ulbricht told the judge. “I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.”
Ulbricht’s sentencing likely puts the final seal on the saga of Silk Road, the anarchic underground market the 31-year-old Texan created in early 2011. At its peak, the Dark Web site grew to a sprawling smorgasbord of every narcotic imaginable — before Ulbricht was arrested in a public library in San Francisco in October of 2013. Eighteen months later, he was convicted in a Manhattan court on seven felony charges, including conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and launder money, as well as a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for the leaders of organized crime groups....
Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it will seek an appeal in his case. That call for a new trial will be based in part on recent revelations that two Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents involved in the investigation of the Silk Road allegedly stole millions of dollars of bitcoin from the site. One of the agents is even accused of blackmailing Ulbricht, and of allegedly selling him law enforcement information as a mole inside the DEA. But the judge in Ulbricht’s case ruled that those Baltimore-based agents weren’t involved in the New York FBI-led investigation that eventually took down the Silk Road, preventing their alleged corruption from affecting Ulbricht’s fate.
Speaking to press after the sentencing, Ulbricht’s lead attorney Joshua Dratel said that Forrest’s sentence was “unreasonable, unjust, unfair and based on improper consideration with no basis in fact or law.” He added: “I’m disappointed tremendously.”
In emotional statements at the hearing, the parents of drug users who had overdosed and died from drugs purchased from the Silk Road called for a long sentence for Ulbricht. “I strongly believe my son would still be alive today if Mr. Ulbricht had never created Silk Road,” said one father whose 25-year old son had died from an overdose of heroin, requesting “the most severe sentence the law will allow.”
In the weeks leading up to his sentencing hearing, Ulbricht’s defense team attempted to lighten his punishment with arguments about his motives and character, as well as emphasizing the Silk Road’s positive effect on its drug-using customers. In more than a hundred letters, friends, family, and even fellow inmates pointed to Ulbricht’s idealism and lack of a criminal history. And the defense argued that Silk Road had actually reduced harm in the drug trade by ensuring the purity of the drugs sold on the site through reviews and ratings, hosting discussions on “safe” drug use, and giving both buyers and sellers an avenue to trade in narcotics while avoiding the violence of the streets.
But the prosecution countered that any protection the Silk Road offered drug users was dwarfed by the increased access it offered to dangerous and addictive drugs. And beyond the two parents who spoke at the Friday hearing, it pointed to six individuals who it claimed had died of drug overdoses from drugs purchased on the Silk Road.
In her statement preceding Ulbricht’s sentencing, Judge Forrest fully sided with the prosecution against the defense’s “harm reduction” argument, arguing that the Silk Road vastly expanded access to drugs. “Silk Road was about fulfilling demand, and it was about creating demand,” she said. “It was market-expanding.”
She also tore into the argument that the Silk Road reduced violence in the drug trade, pointing out that most of the academic papers submitted by the defense to support that argument focused only on the protection for the final buyer of drugs. But that digital remove, she argued, did nothing to prevent violence at any other point in the narcotics supply chain, from production to distribution. “The idea that it’s harm reducing is so very narrow,” she said. “It’s…about a privileged group, sitting in their own homes, with their high speed internet connections.”
The Justice Department also argued in their letter to Judge Forrest that Ulbricht should be made an example of to stop even more Dark Web market kingpins from following in his footsteps. After all, dozens of copycat sites and advancements on the Silk Road market model have sprouted in the years since its takedown, including the Silk Road 2, Evolution, and the currently largest Dark Web black market to survive law enforcement’s attacks, Agora. To combat the spread of those anonymous bazaars, prosecutors asked Judge Forrest to “send a clear message” with a sentence for Ulbricht well beyond the mandatory minimum.
Judge Forrest sided with the prosecution on that point, too, arguing that she needed to create a strong deterrent for the next Dread Pirate Roberts. “For those considering stepping into your shoes…they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences,” Forrest said.
The defense’s arguments about Ulbricht’s character and his idealistic motives were also undercut by accusations that Ulbricht had paid for the murder of six people, including a potential informant and a blackmailer. Those accusations never became formal charges in Ulbricht’s case — five out of six of the murder-for-hires appear to have been part of a lucrative scam targeting Ulbricht, with no actual victims.
But those murder accusations nonetheless deeply colored Ulbricht’s trial, and strongly influenced his sentence. “I find there is ample and unambiguous evidence that [Ulbricht] commissioned five murders to protect his commercial enterprise,” Forrest said, leaving out one alleged attempted murder for which Ulbricht was charged in a different case.
With those attempted murders as context, Forrest was merciless in her assessment of Ulbricht’s seeming multiple personalities: the altruistic and admirable young man described in the letters sent to her as evidence of his character, versus the callous drug lord she saw in his actions. “People are very complicated, and you are one of them,” she said simply. “There is good in you, Mr. Ulbricht. There is also bad. And what you did with the Silk Road was terribly destructive.”
May 31, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
More evidence for sentencing fans that soccer can be very exciting
This lengthy official Justice Department press release provides all the basic details on the sentencing and soccer story breaking in New York this morning. Here is the extended heading of the press release:
Nine FIFA Officials and Five Corporate Executives Indicted for Racketeering Conspiracy and Corruption
The Defendants Include Two Current FIFA Vice Presidents and the Current and Former Presidents of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF); Seven Defendants Arrested Overseas; Guilty Pleas for Four Individual Defendants and Two Corporate Defendants Also Unsealed
Here are some of the particulars:
A 47-count indictment was unsealed early this morning in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging 14 defendants with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, among other offenses, in connection with the defendants’ participation in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer. The guilty pleas of four individual defendants and two corporate defendants were also unsealed today.
The defendants charged in the indictment include high-ranking officials of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the organization responsible for the regulation and promotion of soccer worldwide, as well as leading officials of other soccer governing bodies that operate under the FIFA umbrella. Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner – the current and former presidents of CONCACAF, the continental confederation under FIFA headquartered in the United States – are among the soccer officials charged with racketeering and bribery offenses. The defendants also include U.S. and South American sports marketing executives who are alleged to have systematically paid and agreed to pay well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments....
The guilty pleas of the four individual and two corporate defendants that were also unsealed today include the guilty pleas of Charles Blazer, the long-serving former general secretary of CONCACAF and former U.S. representative on the FIFA executive committee; José Hawilla, the owner and founder of the Traffic Group, a multinational sports marketing conglomerate headquartered in Brazil; and two of Hawilla’s companies, Traffic Sports International Inc. and Traffic Sports USA Inc., which is based in Florida.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” said Attorney General Lynch. “It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. And it has profoundly harmed a multitude of victims, from the youth leagues and developing countries that should benefit from the revenue generated by the commercial rights these organizations hold, to the fans at home and throughout the world whose support for the game makes those rights valuable. Today’s action makes clear that this Department of Justice intends to end any such corrupt practices, to root out misconduct, and to bring wrongdoers to justice – and we look forward to continuing to work with other countries in this effort.”
Monday, May 11, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for latest CIA media leaker?
As explained via this Washington Post article, headlined "Judge faces choices in sentencing CIA leaker," a federal judge in Washington DC has a tough sentencing call to make this afternoon:
The way prosecutors see it, ex-CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling is a devious malcontent who spread classified half-truths to a New York Times reporter, seriously harming national security. By defense attorneys’ telling, Sterling is a compassionate, hardworking man whose misdeeds have been greatly exaggerated.
Which account U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema believes will ultimately shape the sentence she imposes Monday on the 47-year-old Missouri man, who was convicted in January of giving away sensitive information about an operation to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The range of options she has to consider is broad.
Defense attorneys are arguing for a sentence in line with other convicted leakers — including former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus, who was sentenced last month to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine for leaking classified information to his mistress and biographer. Prosecutors are advocating a “severe” penalty, and they have noted that federal sentencing guidelines call for 19 years and seven months at the low end and 24 years and five months at the high end.
Neither side has offered a specific recommendation on prison time. Experts say a sentence approaching two decades is unlikely: The sentencing guidelines, they say, seem to be intended for spies nefariously helping foreign governments — a characterization that does not fit Sterling’s case.
Prosecutors have argued such spies are charged under a different statute, and they have noted the U.S. Sentencing Commission “has not seen fit to carve out any exception or departure for disclosing national defense information to the media or the public.”
But experts say Brinkema is likely to impose a penalty well below what the sentencing guidelines call for. “Frankly, I can’t imagine her not departing downward here,” said Dan Schwager, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Martin & Gitner.
But Sterling, experts say, should probably expect a tougher sentence than Petraeus, even though his defense attorneys assert that the two men are not all that different. “It’s hard to put something like that completely out of your mind. It’s hanging out there,” former federal prosecutor Randall Eliason, who teaches law at George Washington University Law School, said of Petraeus’s recent sentence. “At the same time, at the risk of sounding cliche, every case is different, and there are some significant differences — at least to me — between the cases.”
Sterling was convicted of nine criminal counts for providing New York Times reporter James Risen with classified information about the CIA operation, which involved giving faulty nuclear blueprints to Iran. Prosecutors argued Sterling was a disgruntled employee with a vendetta against the CIA because of employment grievances, and he fed Risen a misleading story with some accurate, classified details to paint the agency as inept. As as result, prosecutors argued, the United States was forced to abandon one of its few mechanisms to keep Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check.
Experts say Brinkema is likely to weigh two key factors as she assesses prosecutors’ request for a harsh sentence: Sterling’s motive, and the harm his illegal disclosures caused. Eliason said those factors might separate Sterling from Petraeus, who did not seem to have any malevolence and whose leaks never wound up in any published material. “There’s kind of this spectrum of possible conduct, and I think someone like Sterling falls somewhere in the middle,” Eliason said.
Prosecutors themselves asserted in a recent filing that Sterling’s case stood apart from other recently convicted leakers, including Petraeus; former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who revealed the name of a covert officer and was sentenced to 30 months in prison; and former State Department arms expert Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who leaked classified information to a Fox News reporter and was sentenced to 13 months in prison....
Brinkema, though, might disagree with the government’s assessments, experts said. Schwager said that, not unlike other recent leak cases, “ego” seemed to play a key role in motivating Sterling. And the damage Sterling’s disclosures caused, Schwager said, was hard to point to explicitly — a fact that would not be lost on the judge. “She knows the difference between specific harm and speculative harm,” Schwager said.
Prior related posts:
- Should judge follow federal prosecutors' recommendation of no prison time for CIA leaker David Petraeus?
- Attorneys for another convicted CIA leaker urges judges to follow Petraeus sentencing lead
Friday, May 01, 2015
Federal indictments and a plea deal in New Jersey "Bridgegate" scandal
As reported in this CNN piece, headlined "Bridgegate: 1 guilty plea, 2 indictments and 'liars'," a couple of federal indictments hit the fan today for officials formerly in the administration of NJ Gov Chris Christie. Here are the basics:
Two senior government officials with ties to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were indicted Friday in the scheme to close lanes and create traffic tie-ups on the George Washington Bridge, hours after a former key Christie ally pleaded guilty in the act of political retribution against a mayor who did not back the governor in his re-election campaign two years ago.
Former Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and Port Authority Deputy Director Bill Baroni were charged with a total of nine criminal counts, including conspiracy and fraud, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman said at an afternoon press conference. The charges came after David Wildstein, a former Christie ally and Port Authority appointee, pleaded guilty earlier Friday to one charge of conspiracy to commit fraud on federally funded property and one civil rights violation.
"They agreed to and did use public resources to carry out a vendetta and exact retribution," Fishman said, adding that the scheme "callously victimized the people of Fort Lee," who were just trying to go about their lives.
In her first public comments since the scandal surfaced, Kelly proclaimed her innocence Friday at a press conference and slammed Wildstein and her former colleagues as liars. "David Wildstein is a liar."...
Although the developments deepen the stain the scandal has left on Christie's tenure, Fishman indicated the governor would likely avoid any criminal charges. "Based on the evidence that is currently available to us, we're not going to charge anybody else in this scheme," he told reporters, noting that he would not usually disclose that information. "I say it because the public has a right to know certain things."...
In his plea, Wildstein admitted to using a "traffic study" as a cover for the lane closures and choosing the first day of school to maximize the impact. Wildstein also admitted to purposefully not alerting Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich or the town's police chief, and admitted to intentionally keeping "radio silence" with local officials on the issue....
After the court hearing Friday, Wildstein's lawyer, Alan Zegas, said the government was satisfied with Wildstein's cooperation and reiterated the claim that Christie knew of the closures. "Mr. Christie knew of the lane closures while they were occurring and evidence exists to establish that. That is as much as I can say, as much as I will say at this time," Zegas said.
It is not yet clear whether Wildstein struck a plea deal with prosecutors to give them more information into how the scandal unfolded. But Fishman suggested that Wildstein could benefit from his cooperation, noting that "it is typical" for judges to take into account defendants' cooperation during sentencing.
Fishman also said that the investigation identified other co-conspirators who were not indicted. He declined to name them, but said they could be identified later. He would not elaborate on why those co-conspirators were not indicted.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Notable developments in prelude to federal sentencing for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht
This new Forbes article, headlined "Ulbricht's Defense Calls For Delayed Sentencing After Feds Reveal Six Alleged Silk Road Drug Overdose Deaths," reports on a notable new development in the lead up to the sentencing of a notable federal defendant. Here are the details:
The twists and turns in the Silk Road case aren’t slowing down as Ross Ulbricht’s sentencing approaches. According to a letter filed Friday, the government claims that six people allegedly died of overdosing on drugs bought on the Silk Road. Two of their parents will be speaking at Ulbricht’s sentencing, which is currently scheduled for May 15, 2015.
Because of this, Ulbricht’s defense is asking for his sentencing to be postponed for at least one month. In a letter on Friday, Joshua Dratel requested an adjournment of the sentencing, which is currently less than three weeks away. By Dratel’s logic, it shouldn’t matter to the prosecution, since Ulbricht is in jail already awaiting sentencing, but it would give the defense time to prepare.
The defense wants preparation time to respond to the government’s revelation on April 16 that there were “six alleged overdose deaths supposedly attributable to drugs purchased from vendors on the Silk Roads.” The parents of two of the alleged overdose victims will be speaking from 10-15 minutes each at the sentencing, according to a document filed by the prosecution on April 17. The government intends to use these deaths as part of the context for the sentencing and the victim impact assessment.
Dratel says the information the defense has received about the six deaths is “woefully incomplete.” According to the letter, the defense hasn’t seen evidence that the drugs were purchased on the Silk Road or certain autopsy, toxicology, and psychiatric information for the six individuals. Additionally, Dratel asked for the identities and statements of the two parents who will be speaking at the sentencing in order to avoid being “blindsided.”
While the government seems to [be] planning to hammer home its argument that the Silk Road was a dangerous and illegal operation with Ulbricht at the helm with these parents’ testimonies, the defense plans to argue the opposite–that the Silk Road actually made drug use safer. In the letter, Dratel states that the Silk Road “reduced the dangers of substance abuse, and consciously and deliberately incorporated ‘harm reduction’ strategies.” The defense has been working with experts, according to the letter, and needs more time to bring those witnesses to testify in person in response to the government....
After being arrested in a San Francisco library in October 2013 for allegedly running the Silk Road, Ulbricht faced trial in January 2015. After three weeks of trial and 3.5 hours of jury deliberation, he was found guilty of seven charges connected to his role as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Since then, he’s been in jail awaiting sentencing while his lawyers fought first for re-trial and now for delayed sentencing.
Prior related post:
Friday, April 24, 2015
Attorneys for another convicted CIA leaker urges judges to follow Petraeus sentencing lead
This notable new Washington Post article, headlined "Attorneys ask judge to consider Petraeus in sentencing ex-CIA officer Sterling," the seemingly lenient treatment given yesterday to former CIA director David Petraeus for leaking information to his journalist/mistress (basics here) is already having an echo effect in other federal criminal cases. Here are the interesting details:
Defense attorneys for the former CIA officer convicted of giving classified information to a New York Times reporter urged a federal judge on Friday to sentence their client in line with the terms faced by other so-called leakers — noting that not 24 hours ago, a retired general and ex-CIA director was given mere probation in a similar case.
Defense attorneys for Jeffrey Sterling did not endorse a specific penalty, but they urged U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to consider the impact of the case and be fair. The defense attorneys argued that in three other recent leak cases, those convicted received — at the most — 30 months in prison. On Thursday retired general and former CIA chief David Petraeus was sentenced to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine. “In meting out justice,” defense attorneys wrote, “the Court cannot turn a blind eye to the positions the Government has taken in similar cases.”
Sterling, 47, was convicted in January of nine criminal counts after jurors determined unanimously that he gave classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen about a sensitive operation to put faulty nuclear plans in the hands of Iranian officials. Federal prosecutors earlier this week urged a judge to impose a “severe” sentence and said they felt the U.S. probation office had correctly calculated the range in the federal sentencing guidelines as 19 years 7 months on the low end and 24 years 5 months on the high end.
Such a sentence would have few parallels: The closest might be the 35-year prison term imposed by a military judge on Chelsea Manning, who leaked the largest volume of classified documents in U.S. history. And Sterling’s defense attorneys argued that a prison term within the guidelines would be “plainly excessive,” essentially penalizing Sterling for not taking a plea deal. “Mr. Sterling was convicted, under the Espionage Act, for ‘leaking’ information to a reporter,” defense attorneys wrote. “He should be treated similarly to others convicted for the same crimes and not singled out for a long prison sentence because he elected to exercise his right to a trial.”
Defense attorneys pointed to two similar cases in which alleged leakers reached plea agreements and avoided decades behind bars. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who revealed the name of another covert officer, was ultimately sentenced to 30 months in prison, and former State Department arms expert Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who leaked classified information to a Fox News reporter, was ultimately sentenced to 13 months in prison, defense attorneys argued. They argued that Petraeus, who lied to the FBI, reached a deal to avoid prison entirely. “Mr. Sterling should not receive a different form of justice than General Petraeus,” Sterling’s defense attorneys wrote.
Prosecutors have characterized Sterling’s case as “unique” and argued that the harm he caused to national security was grave. They have argued that Sterling, motivated by “pure vindictiveness,” leaked details that compromised one of the nation’s few ways to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and in doing so, put a Russian scientist who was working with the CIA in danger....
Sterling is scheduled to be sentenced May 11.
Why the US Sentencing Commission's moderate moderation of fraud guidelines has few fans
This new Huffington Post piece, headlined "Why Nobody Is Really Happy With New Guidelines For Punishing White-Collar Criminals," provides an effective review of why the US Sentencing Commissions new amendments to the fraud guidelines is not garnering widespread praise. Here are excerpts:
A federal panel voted earlier this month to amend the guidelines that federal judges use when sentencing people who commit economic crimes. But few are happy with those changes: Sentencing reform advocates say they don't go far enough to fix draconian sentences, while the U.S. Department of Justice contends that the changes could give some white-collar criminals a new avenue for unfair leniency.
Recommended sentences for economic crimes under the current rubric are so severe, they are no longer taken seriously, some prosecutors and judges suggest. Those guidelines have relied on complicated calculations involving criminal gain and inflicted losses that spit out sentences that can appear inconsistent or absurd. One federal New York judge called the math "hocus-pocus." In 2008, for example, a federal judge sentenced a 72-year-old man to 330 years in prison for an investment scam.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission is responsible for coming up with the road map that federal judges can use when issuing these sentences. On April 9, the commission approved new guidelines, which now will be submitted to Congress and will go into effect in November, unless lawmakers intervene.
Chief Judge Patti Saris, who chairs the commission, contended last week that the economic crime guidelines are not broken, but has acknowledged that they could provide more clarity on what to do in the cases of certain first-time, low-level offenders. The changes aim to make punishments more fair by giving greater weight to a criminal's role and his or her intent....
In March, the Justice Department came out against some of these changes, in favor of more targeted reforms. DOJ is worried that the intent clarification could allow white-collar criminals to claim they never meant to hurt anyone. A fraudster running a Ponzi scheme who is caught early, for example, could argue that he hoped the scheme wouldn't fail.
It makes sense that the Justice Department would want to preserve the option to impose harsher sentences in certain cases. Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law who has commented on the draft guidelines, said that from DOJ's perspective, stringent guidelines can give them leverage when negotiating plea bargains.
But some legal experts argue that the Obama administration is missing the point in this case. "All we want to do is make guidelines such that a federal prosecutor can actually look a federal judge in the face and say, 'Impose these guidelines as written,'" Bowman said. If the guidelines had more credibility, he added, judges might be more inclined to follow them and hand down stronger sentences. "The Justice Department is cutting off its nose to spite its face," he said.
Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, told The Huffington Post that he considered the commission's emphasis on offender intent "a positive development and consistent with the Bill of Rights." He added that the guidelines "are an effort to make the punishment fit the crime," but that more needs to be done on criminal justice reform overall....
Advocates say that when it comes to sentencing reform, there are parallels between drug crimes and economic crime. Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, asked, "Do we just count drugs, or do we look at [the harm] people really intended? How much harm did they cause? … Are they the courier or the mastermind?" She added that she was disappointed with the pending changes to the economic crime guidelines, calling them "rather minimal."
Prior related posts:
- US Sentencing Commission votes to amend fraud guidelines (but not really "fix" that much)
- Basic report on basic changes to fraud guidelines promulgated by US Sentencing Commmission
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Should judge follow federal prosecutors' recommendation of no prison time for CIA leaker David Petraeus?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by the sorted story surrounding the criminal misdeeds of former CIA director David Petraeus. This press report, with the subheadline "Former CIA director and military commander expected to plead guilty to sharing government secrets with his biographer and lover, Paula Broadwell," provide the backstory leading up to this afternoon's sentencing of a high-profile federal defendant:
A scandal that began to unravel in Charlotte ends in Charlotte on Thursday when former CIA Director David Petraeus is expected to admit sharing top government secrets with his biographer and lover.
Under a February agreement with prosecutors, Petraeus, 62, will plead guilty to one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. The government will recommend that punishment for the former commanding general in Iraq and Afghanistan be limited to two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler, who will preside over Petraeus’ hearing, is not bound by the plea deal. But legal experts say judges typically give great weight to such agreements.
Critics say the retired general is getting off light, given how zealously the Obama administration has pursued government leaks. By comparison, CIA analyst and case officer John Kiriakou, the whistleblower who revealed the secret CIA torture program, is serving a 30-month sentence. Open-government groups say President Barack Obama’s lieutenants have prosecuted more leakers than the rest of U.S. administrations combined.
“It’s hard to reconcile cases like that, and it leads to the conclusion that senior officials are held to a different and more forgiving standard than others,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.
The case against Petraeus, a former Obama confidant, has apparently troubled the administration from the start. The New York Times reported earlier this year that Attorney General Eric Holder was resisting the recommendations of his staff to charge Petraeus with a felony that could have led to possible prison time.
Petraeus resigned three days after Obama’s 2012 re-election. Up to then, the retired four-star general was among the most respected military leaders of modern times. He was sometimes mentioned as a future presidential or vice presidential candidate.
That all began to change three years ago. Paula Broadwell of Charlotte had already written “All In,” Petraeus’ biography. But in May 2012, the West Point graduate began sending a series of anonymous emails disparaging Jill Kelley of Tampa, Fla. Kelley was a friend of Petraeus and other military leaders. Broadwell, documents say, considered her a romantic rival.
Using “Tampa Angel” and at least one other pseudonym, Broadwell sent some of her emails from the old Dilworth Coffee shop on East Boulevard. Within weeks, the FBI had traced the messages back to Broadwell. In June 2012, agents visited the Dilworth home she shares with her husband, radiologist Scott Broadwell, and their two children. A search of her email accounts uncovered the affair. Prosecutors say Broadwell’s computer housed classified information that went far beyond her security clearance as a major in the Army Reserve.
Petraeus resigned as CIA director on Nov. 9, 2012. Court documents filed by acting U.S. Attorney Jill Rose of Charlotte and others say Petraeus shared eight “black books” with Broadwell that he compiled in Afghanistan. Prosecutors say the books held everything from secret codes and the identities of covert officers, to war strategy and notes from National Security Council meetings. Broadwell kept the books for at least four days beginning in August 2011, prosecutors say. The FBI later seized the books during an April 2013 raid on Petraeus’ home.
Petraeus lied to investigators about both having classified information and sharing it with Broadwell, according to court documents. Prosecutors say none of the classified material appeared in Broadwell’s book.
I am troubled by the appearance of disparate favorable treatment being shown to Petraeus, especially given how serious his offense conduct seems and his lies to investigators (which could have been charged as obstruction of justice). Unfortunately, I do not think federal prosecutors have ever explained — or will ever have to explain — just why they gave Petraeus a seemingly "sweetheart" deal (every pun intended there). Without any such explanation from federal prosecutors concerning how they exercised their charging and bargaining discretion in this case, it is difficult for me to make an informed judgment on the sentence being recommended by prosecutors for the former CIA director.
UPDATE: This CNN piece reports on the outcome via its headline: "Petraeus sentenced: 2 years probation; $100K fine." By Theodore Schleifer,
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Tough (and record-long) sentences for cheating Atlanta school administrators
As reported in this lengthy USA Today article, "3 in Atlanta cheating scandal to serve 7 years prison," today was final sentencing day in a high-profile and seemingly unique state white-collar criminal case from Georgia. Here are the details (with my emphasis added):
In a testy courtroom Tuesday, a judge presided over the sentencing of 10 former Atlanta public school educators convicted of participating in a widespread conspiracy to cheat on state tests, telling three defendants that they would serve seven years in prison.
Despite the contentions from Sharon Davis-Williams' and Tamara Cotman's lawyers that they had maintained their innocence and are first offenders, Judge Jerry Baxter of Fulton County Superior Court said that each is being sentenced to 20 years in prison, will serve 7 years of incarceration with the balance as probation and also must do 2,000 hours of community service and pay a $25,000 fine.
"She's convicted, and she's at the top of the food chain," Baxter said of Davis-Williams, who along with Cotman and Michael Pitts were regional directors in the city's school system during one of the country's largest cheating scandals. "Your client ran numerous fine educators out. She non-renewed them."
Pitts received the same sentence and also was sentenced to five years, to run concurrently, on a charge of influencing a witness. The sentences were higher than prosecutors' recommendations.
Although Baxter initially did not want to consider the top administrators as first offenders, he decided to allow that status for all 10. That will allow each to have their convictions erased upon completion of their sentences.
Two of those convicted, former testing coordinator Donald Bullock and former teacher Pamela Cleveland, decided to take a plea deal that prosecutors had offered. Cleveland became the only one of the former educators to elude jail time.
Any deals required an acceptance of responsibility from the former educators, District Attorney Paul Howard said. Bullock, who took the deal before Tuesday's hearing, was sentenced to five years probation, will serve six months in jail on weekends, give 1,500 hours of community service and pay a $5,000 fine.
Cleveland, who apologized in court, was sentenced to five years probation including one year 7 p.m.-to-7-a.m. home confinement, 1,000 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine. Prosecutors took into consideration her elderly parents, so she will be able to serve her home confinement at their house or any hospital where either might be a patient.
Bullock also will apologize and both waived their right to appeal. All were sentenced Tuesday after the judge in the case gave them extra time to negotiate deals with prosecutors.
The former educators' community service will be served at Atlanta's jail teaching inmates, some of whom are the victims of the problems in Atlanta's school system, Baxter said. "I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed," the judge said. "That's what gets lost in all of this."
Some of the defendants' lawyers pushed back at the expectation of a deal being reached, causing Baxter to cut them off and say he was ready to deliver his sentences immediately. He had delayed sentencing after learning that Howard had been talking to defense attorneys and thought the case could be resolved with sentencing deals. "I just wanted them to get a taste of it," Baxter said of the sentences he had in mind after he quickly delivered Davis-Williams' and Cotman's punishment. "Apparently, that didn't quite move them."
In an exchange with Pitts' lawyer, Baxter said he was worried that some of those convicted were more remorseful that they were caught than they were about cheating young students out of an education. "They should have rose up and said no," the judge said of pressure to alter standardized test scores. "They didn't, and here we are."
The former educators were convicted April 1 on a racketeering charge. Some faced additional charges. They had been accused of falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs in Atlanta Public Schools. In all, 35 educators were indicted in 2013 on charges including racketeering, making false statements and theft. Many pleaded guilty and some testified at the trial.
A state investigation found that as far back as 2005, educators fed answers to students or erased and changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved, and teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation.
This is fascinating stuff both with respect to sentencing procedure and sentencing outcomes, especially because it seems that the failure to show remorse and waive rights to appeal explains the length of the various sentences as much, if not more, than the actual criminal conduct. Wowsa (and perhaps the basis for some interesting future appeal issues).
As the title to this post indicates, I would guess these sentences are harshest ever given to cheating school administrators. That said, it does seem the behavior here was maybe the worst, long-running examples of school cheating ever prosecuted criminally.
Friday, April 10, 2015
Basic report on basic changes to fraud guidelines promulgated by US Sentencing Commmission
Though the US Sentencing Commission's vote yesterday to revise the fraud sentencing guidelines is very big news for white-collar sentencing in future high-profile federal cases (basic here), this notable sentencing reform got very little news attention. Here are excerpts from this Reuters piece with the most fulsome coverage I have seen:
A federal judicial panel on Thursday adopted new guidelines for sentencing white-collar criminals in fraud cases, in an effort to make punishments more fairly reflect the harm suffered by victims and the intent of offenders to cause harm. The changes approved by the U.S. Sentencing Commission will take effect on Nov. 1 unless Congress objects.
They follow years of criticism from defense lawyers and some judges who say federal sentencing guidelines have led to overly severe punishments, potentially reaching life in prison, because they emphasize financial losses such as from falling stock prices. Judges need not follow the guidelines, but must consider them. "These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss," said Chief Judge Patti Saris of the federal court in Massachusetts, who chairs the commission.
The changes call for "intended" losses to reflect financial harm that defendants "purposely sought to inflict," and give judges greater discretion in factoring actual losses in stocks, bonds or commodities into punishments. They also permit greater punishments when even just one or a few people suffer "substantial financial hardship" from fraud, while current guidelines emphasize the number of victims, even if their losses are small. Another change adjusts fraud losses for inflation for the first time.
The U.S. Department of Justice had expressed concern that the new definition of intended loss could let defendants claim they never intended to financially harm anyone. It also said an inflation adjustment could negate the "overwhelming societal consensus" favoring tougher punishments for fraud, and reduce the length of typical sentences by roughly one-fourth. On the other hand, the Justice Department welcomed the greater focus on actual harm inflicted. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Thursday.
David Debold, a Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner who led an advisory group to the commission, said the changes on balance "tend to make sentences more fair" in fraud cases. "They make punishment better reflect the harm that defendants actually intended," he said. "That's an important change, and a good one."
Prior related post:
Thursday, April 09, 2015
US Sentencing Commission votes to amend fraud guidelines (but not really "fix" that much)
As reported in this official press release, "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to adopt changes to the fraud guideline to address longstanding concerns that the guidelines do not appropriately account for harm to victims, individual culpability, and the offender’s intent. The Commission also voted to change the drug quantity table to account for the rescheduling of hydrocodone." Here are some details from the press release concerning this important federal white-collar sentencing news:
The Commission altered the victim enhancement in the fraud guideline to ensure that where even one victim suffered a substantial financial harm, the offender would receive an increased sentence. It also made changes to refocus economic crime penalties toward the offender’s individual intent, while maintaining an underlying principle of the fraud guideline that the amount of loss involved in the offense should form a major basis of the sentence.
“We found through comprehensive examination that the fraud guideline provides an anchoring effect in the vast majority of cases, but there were some problem areas, particularly at the high-end of the loss table,” said Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “These amendments emphasize substantial financial harms to victims rather than simply the mere number of victims and recognize concerns regarding double-counting and over-emphasis on loss.”
The Commission also acted today to provide additional guidance as to which offenders are eligible to receive a reduced sentence as a minor or minimal participant in an offense. “This change is intended to encourage courts to ensure that the least culpable offenders, such as those who have no proprietary interest in a fraud, receive a sentence commensurate with their own culpability without reducing sentences for leaders and organizers,” Saris said....
The Commission also made an adjustment to monetary tables to account for inflation. This goodgovernment measure derives from a methodology provided by Congress and will have an effect on both penalty and fine tables. The amendments will be transmitted to Congress by May 1, 2015. If Congress does not act to disapprove some or all of the amendments, they will go into effect November 1, 2015. More information about this process and the amendments approved today will be available on the Commission’s web site at www.ussc.gov.
At the USSC's website, one can now find this "Preliminary 'Reader-Friendly' Version of Amendments. Though "reader-friendly," the amendments themselves do not really provide a complete picture of just how much these amendments, assuming they are not disapproved by Congress, could impact guideline-sentencing ranges in future high-loss white-collar cases. In addition, and of perhaps particular interest to some currently incarcerated defendants, the Commission has to my knowledge not yet indicated in any formal documents whether, when and how it might consider making these amendment retroactive in a manner that might impact past high-loss white-collar cases.
IMPORTANT FRAUD AMENDMENT RETROACTIVITY UPDATE: A helpful colleague who was able to watch the USSC meeting and votes provided this report on the topic of the potential retroactivity of these amendments:
At the end of the hearing, USSC staff brought up the question of retroactivity and said a motion would be appropriate at this time if the Sentencing Commission wanted the staff to conduct a retroactivity impact analysis. USSC Chair Saris asked whether anyone wanted to make such a motion and no one did. Saris then read a brief statement saying they have a statutory obligation to consider whether any amendments should be retroactive, and they had determined in this case that for these amendments that would not be appropriate.
Notably, if Congress was truly eager to help with prison-crowding problems by doing something for some notable non-violent offenders, I think Congress could provide by statutory direction either that the amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part (or it might at least direct that the Commission consider more fully whether these amendments be made retroactive in whole or in part). Also, back in 2007, when the crack guidelines were first adjusted downward slightly, the Commission did not take up the retroactivity issue until many months after it promulgated amendments lowering the guidelines. But, I suspect absent some significant advocacy by the white-collar defense bar, the die may be already permanently cast against any even partial retroactivity of these new fraud amendments.
Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Terrific review of possible USSC fraud guideline amendments (and DOJ's foolish opposition)
As detailed in this official notice, the US Sentencing Commission has a public meeting scheduled for tomorrow, April 9, 2015, at 1:00 pm (which is to be live-streamed here). The big agenda item of note for the meeting is the "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and the most consequential amendments being considered concerns proposals to tweak § 2B1.1, the key guideline for fraud cases and many other white-collar offenses.
I doubt the actual USSC meeting will be a must-see event, though I have urged my sentencing students to tune in. (I plan to watch the meeting live on my iPad while also keeping an eye on another notable on-going event in Augusta, Georgia.) But I have a must-read for anyone interested in white-collar federal sentencing: this fantastic Jurist commentary by Prof Randall Eliason titled "The DOJ Opposition to the Proposed Sentencing Guideline Amendments: Fighting the Wrong Battles in Fraud Cases." The entire commentary is a must-read (with lots of great links) for all federal sentencing fans, and here are a few choice excerpts:
On March 12, 2015, the US Sentencing Commission held a public hearing on its annual proposed amendments to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. A number of the proposals concern the guideline for economic crimes and fraud cases, § 2B1.1. The amendments would reduce the recommended sentence in many such cases, particularly those involving large dollar amounts.
At the hearing the US Department of Justice opposed most of these amendments. DOJ argued that any move to reduce the sentences in fraud cases would be bad policy and would ignore the "overwhelming societal consensus" in favor of harsh punishment for these crimes.... But given the current realities of federal sentencing, DOJ is fighting the wrong battles....
At the March 12 hearing DOJ opposed the inflation adjustment; opposed the amendments concerning sophisticated means, intended loss, and fraud on the market; and supported the new enhancement based on causing victims substantial hardship. In other words, DOJ opposed virtually any amendment that could lead to lower sentences while supporting changes that could lead to higher ones. While this may seem predictable, I think it's a mistake.
DOJ was a lonely voice at the hearing and is definitely swimming against the tide by opposing the amendments. There is a widespread and growing belief that the sentences called for in major fraud cases have become excessive. More broadly, there is an emerging bipartisan movement in the country favoring criminal justice reform, including measures to reduce skyrocketing sentences (particularly for non-violent offenders) and our enormous prison population.
Law professor Frank Bowman provided some compelling hearing testimony tracing the history of the fraud guideline and demonstrating how various forces, both intentional and unintentional, have combined over the years to escalate the sentences in such cases dramatically. As he pointed out, given the large dollar values involved in some recent Wall Street frauds, it's relatively easy for a white-collar defendant to zoom to the top of the sentencing table and end up with a recommended sentence of 30 years or even life in prison—on a par with sentences recommended for homicide, treason, or a major armed bank robbery.
DOJ's resistance to virtually any amendment that might lead to lower sentences in economic crime cases appears short-sighted and runs the risk of looking reflexive. The Sentencing Commission has researched these questions for several years, gathering input from all stakeholders. The proposals seem reasonable and justified, and in fact are more modest than many had hoped.
It's hard to see what criminal justice purpose is being served by the escalating sentences in fraud cases. The prospect of prison does have a powerful and important deterrent effect that is unique to criminal law. But for a typical business executive it's hard to believe there's much additional marginal deterrent value in a possible twenty or twenty-five year sentence as opposed to, say, a fifteen year one.
But the more important fact is that legal developments have rendered DOJ's position in favor of higher guidelines sentences increasingly beside the point. It's been ten years since the Supreme Court ruled in US v. Booker that the mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional and the guidelines must be advisory only. Later in Kimbrough v. US the Court made it clear that a judge is free to depart from the recommended sentence if the judge disagrees with a policy decision underlying the guidelines.
In this legal environment, DOJ's push for higher guidelines looks like a struggle to keep the barn door closed when the horse left for greener pastures long ago. In the post- Booker/Kimbrough world, if judges believe a sentence called for by the guidelines is out of whack they will simply reduce it. For example, in the recent public corruption case involving former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, the judge called the recommended guidelines sentence of six to eight years in prison "ridiculous" and proceeded to sentence McDonnell to only two years.
There's evidence that the same thing is already happening in fraud cases. According to the Sentencing Commission's data, judges sentence below the recommended guidelines range in about 21 percent of fraud cases (not counting those cases where the government itself requests a reduced sentence). But in the Southern District of New York, home to Wall Street and many of the big-dollar fraud cases, judges depart below the guidelines in a whopping 45.6 percent of such cases. It does no good for DOJ to continue to push for extremely high guidelines numbers only to have judges ignore the guidelines and impose the lower sentences that they feel are just and reasonable.
DOJ's approach is worse than futile, it's counter-productive. The more that judges come to regard the guidelines as calling for inappropriate sentences, the more comfortable they may become not following them. This could lead to more widespread departures from the guidelines not merely in fraud cases but in cases across the board, accelerating a deterioration in the force and influence of the guidelines that so far has been held relatively in check since Booker.
April 8, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for modern sheriff playing Robin Hood?
In the legend of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham is the tale's primary villain. But this sentencing story out of South Carolina raises the question of what federal sentence ought to be given to a local sheriff who was committing fraud as a kind of modern Robin Hood. The press report is headlined "Convicted Williamsburg sheriff asks for sentencing leniency," and here are the details:
The convicted former sheriff of Williamsburg County should be sentenced to less than the three years in prison recommended by federal officials because he succeeded despite a troubled upbringing and is being treated for a painkiller addiction, his lawyer said.
Ex-sheriff Michael Johnson faces a judge Wednesday to learn his fate after a federal jury convicted him in September of mail fraud. Prosecutors said Johnson created hundreds of fake police reports for a friend who ran a credit repair business so people could claim their identities were stolen and get out of credit card debt. The sentencing recommendation for Johnson is 30 months to 37 months in prison, according to court papers filed this week.
Johnson's attorney said that is too harsh for a man with no criminal record who cooperated with authorities. Johnson's request asks for a lesser sentence, but is not specific. Johnson has suffered from depression and anxiety the past four years. He also has migraines, high blood pressure and insomnia, lawyer Deborah Barber said in court papers.
The former sheriff also was raised in a broken home, saw his mother abused by a boyfriend and left at age 17 to relieve her of financial burden, Barber said. "He resided in a poverty-stricken area in Kingstree, South Carolina, with the family not having enough money to adequately survive," Barber wrote....
Johnson joined the Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office in 1997, two years after graduating high school and rose to chief deputy, becoming sheriff in April 2010 when the former sheriff, Kelvin Washington, was named U.S. Marshal for South Carolina.
He is one of nine sheriffs in South Carolina's 46 counties to be charged or investigated while in office since 2010. Seven have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and another died while under investigation. Only two of those sheriffs so far have been sentenced to prison.
Intriguingly, this long earlier article explains some of the details of the fraud, and it suggests that sheriff Johnson may not have made any money from the scheme designed to help people to (falsely) improve their credit rating. I am disinclined to assert that sheriff Johnson is as noble or heroic as Robin Hood, but it does seem like his fraud involved trying to help some folks down on their luck by pulling a fast one on the (big bad monarchy?) credit companies. Given that the federal sentencing guidelines still call for a prison term of at least 2.5 years, I am now wondering what the real Robin Hood might have been facing in a federal fraud guideline range if he were facing sentencing today.
March 25, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Sentencing judgment days this week in federal court for two pols behaving very badly
Two prominent politician faced federal sentencing for two distinct crimes this week. Here are headlines reflecting the outcome for each on judgment day along with links to stories providing the details:
Saturday, March 14, 2015
Reviewing DOJ's opposition to any fraud guideline amendments
This Reuters article, headlined "Justice Department objects to white-collar sentencing reforms," details that the US Department of Justice is not too keen on proposed reformed to the federal sentencing guidelines for fraud offenses. Here are the excerpts:
The U.S. Justice Department has come out broadly against a series of proposals from a federal panel that would cut prison time for white-collar criminals. The department's views, revealed on Thursday at a hearing of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, marked a potential setback for the proposals, which defense lawyers had already criticized for being too moderate.
In a letter released at the meeting, the department objected to a proposal to adjust victim losses for inflation for the first time since 1987. Losses directly influence recommended prison term lengths, and the move would reduce fraud sentences by 26 percent on average. "It seems a somewhat odd thing to do," Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said at the hearing.
The Justice Department also objected to a proposal to shift the emphasis in calculating sentences for stock fraud cases to financial gains instead of investor losses, a change that could reduce the amount of prison time some executives would face. The department's position came amid continuing debate over whether changes to the guidelines are necessary to address what even some judges have said are overly harsh recommended punishments for fraud offenders.
Fraud offenses constitute the third largest type of federal crime in America, behind only immigration and drugs cases. Over the last decade, average prison sentences for fraud have lengthened three-fold, the commission said. But after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the guidelines advisory in 2005, judges increasingly gave shorter terms than what the commission recommended. In 2012, the average fraud sentence was 22 months, compared to the 29-month minimum recommended, the commission said.
Critics say the data shows many judges view the guidelines as overly-driven by victim losses, at times resulting in potential life sentences in cases like stock frauds with high-dollar amounts.
The commission's proposals, released in January, were viewed as too moderate by groups like the American Bar Association, which had pushed for broader revision de-emphasizing the influence losses have not just in cases involving the stock market but also for other frauds, such as in mortgages and healthcare. Still, the commission said its proposal to adjust the loss calculations for inflation would itself reduce sentence lengths.
The Justice Department said any reduction would be contrary to "overwhelming societal consensus." Several commissioners, though, appeared skeptical of the department's position.
Prior related posts:
- US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed fraud and other guideline amendments
- Brief account of what proposed fraud guideline changes might amount to
- US Sentencing Commission proposes (modest but significant) changes to the fraud guidelines
Friday, March 13, 2015
Utah establishes criminal registry for white-collar offenders
Via this New York Times piece, I see that Utah has extended the idea of a criminal registry to fraudsters. Though I have reservations about criminal registries for a variety of reasons, I think this particular kind of registry might make a lot of sense as a recidivism/crime prevention measure. Here is how this fascinating story gets started:
With just a point and a click, you can browse a face book of felons, a new government website that will warn of the danger these criminals pose to society. Only these are not the faces of sex offenders and serial killers. These criminals are mortgage schemers and inside traders, most likely armed with nothing more than an M.B.A. or a law degree.
Their faces will soon appear online courtesy of the Utah Legislature, which on Wednesday approved a measure to build the nation’s first white-collar offender registry, appending a scarlet letter of sorts on the state’s financial felons. The registry — quirky even by the standards of a legislature that this week reinstated firing squads as a method of execution — will be replete with a “a recent photograph” of Utah’s white-collar offenders and, in case they try to run or hide, their “date of birth, height, weight, and eye and hair color.”
“White-collar crime is an epidemic in Utah,” said Sean Reyes, the state’s attorney general who formulated the idea for the registry when he was a defense lawyer, “representing some of these bad guys.” A former mixed martial arts fighter who has a metal plate lodged in his eye socket from a basketball injury, Mr. Reyes noted that while violent crimes were devastating, many “physical wounds heal,” whereas white-collar crimes “can forever deplete your life savings.”
While some Utah lawmakers fear that the registry is overkill, the idea does tap into a vein of populist outrage over financial misdeeds. As much as sex offender registries spread state by state, so too could a white-collar crime registry find favor across the nation, say its supporters.
The legislation’s sponsor in the Utah Senate, Curtis S. Bramble, a Republican, plans to promote the idea through his role as president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislatures, an influential group, saying that “the registry could become a best practices for other states.”
March 13, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack
Thursday, March 12, 2015
US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed fraud and other guideline amendments
Today, as detailed at this webpage with the official agenda, the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public hearing to receive testimony from invited witnesses on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines. This event is being streamed live (for the first time, I think), and can be watched at this link.
This webpage with the official agenda also provides links to the submitted written testimony of the scheduled witnesses. Most of the interesting conceptual and technical debate about guideline amendments this cycle are focused on the fraud guidelines, which have been subject to an array of criticisms due especially to their severity in cases including significant "loss" calculations. But, as the Department of Justice's written testimony (available here) makes the case that there is nothing really broken in the fraud guideline that needs to be fixed:
Lessening penalties for economic crime would be contrary to the overwhelming societal consensus that exists around these offenses. All three branches of government have expressed a belief that the sentences for fraud offenses are either appropriate or too low....
The Department also feels that penalties for economic crimes should remain unchanged and not be decreased. The proportionality established between loss and offense level is based upon numerous policy considerations, including how economic crimes should be punished and deterred. In the Department's experience and judgment, the harm from economic crimes is generally not being overstated.
In notable contrast, the written testimony of Professor Frank O. Bowman, III (available here) has a very different take on the realities of the fraud guidelines:
[F]or the last decade or so, the loudest complaint about §2B1.1 has been that it prescribes sentences which, at least for some defendants, are far too high. In particular, many observers have argued that for some high-loss defendants the guidelines now are divorced both from the objectives of Section 3553(a) and, frankly, from common sense....
Accordingly, one would have expected the proposed 2015 amendments to §2B1.1 to concentrate on the class of high-loss offenders the Commission seems to agree are over-punished by the guidelines. Curiously, however, the proposed amendments – though in several cases laudable for other reasons – would have virtually no material impact on the guidelines ranges for very high loss offenders, while producing modest guidelines reductions for significant numbers of low-to-moderate-loss offenders.
<P>I agree with the Commission’s basic conclusion that for many, perhaps most, economic offenders the Guidelines do not suggest manifestly unreasonable sentences. But I also agree with Judge Saris’s implicit conclusion that for many high-loss offenders the fraud guideline is “fundamentally broken.” The Commission doubtless believes that the modest proposals put forward in this cycle will at least ameliorate the high-loss offender problem. Unfortunately, the guidelines for high-loss offenders are so “fundamentally broken” that these modest measures will have no meaningful effect.
Tuesday, March 03, 2015
"Fishy SOX: Overcriminalization's New Harm Paradigm"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Todd Haugh available via SSRN. The piece argues that the recently decided Yates case is more consequential than the standard fish shory. Here is the abstract:
The harms of overcriminalization are usually thought of in a particular way—that the proliferation of criminal laws leads to increasing and inconsistent criminal enforcement and adjudication. For example, an offender commits an unethical or illegal act and, because of the overwhelming depth and breadth of the criminal law, becomes subject to too much prosecutorial discretion and faces disparate enforcement or punishment. But there is an additional, possibly more pernicious, harm of overcriminalization.
Drawing from the fields of criminology and behavioral ethics, this Article makes the case that overcriminalization actually increases the commission of criminal acts themselves, particularly by white collar offenders. This occurs because overcriminalization, by delegitimatizing the criminal law, fuels offender rationalizations. Rationalizations are part of the psychological process necessary for the commission of crime—they allow offenders to square their self-perception as “good people” with the illegal behavior they are contemplating, thereby allowing the behavior to go forward. Overcriminalization, then, is more than a post-act concern. It is inherently criminogenic because it facilitates some of the most prevalent and powerful rationalizations used by would-be offenders. Put simply, overcriminalization is fostering the very conduct it seeks to eliminate. This phenomenon is on display in the recently argued Supreme Court case Yates v. United States. Using Yates as a backdrop, this Article presents a new paradigm of overcriminalization and its harms.
Friday, February 20, 2015
Virginia's former first lady facing sentencing after hubby got only two years
Today brings another high-profile white-collar sentencing in the federal court in Virginia as Maureen McDonnell, former first lady, is to come before the same judge who sentenced former Virginia Gov Robert McDonnell to two years' imprisonment last month. Helpfully, Randall Eliason at the Sidebars Legal Blog provides this preview, titled "What to Expect at Maureen McDonnell’s Sentencing." Randall provides this refined summary of the guideline basics and the parties' recommendations:
The Presentence Report prepared by the U.S. Probation Department concludes that the Sentencing Guidelines call for a sentence of 63-78 months in prison. The prosecution agrees with those calculations but recommends the judge sentence her to only 18 months in prison to avoid an unwarranted disparity between her sentence and that of her husband. Mrs. McDonnell’s attorneys argue that, properly calculated, the Sentencing Guidelines call for only 33-41 months, but urge the judge to depart even further from the Guidelines and sentence her to probation along with 4000 hours of community service.
In addition, the Washington Post has this article headlined "Everything you need to know about Maureen McDonnell’s sentencing." But that piece does not set out these guideline basics, so the headline is not accurate for hard-core federal sentencing geeks like me.
UPDATE: As this Washington Post piece reports, "Maureen McDonnell was sentenced Friday to a year and a day in federal prison after an emotional, hours-long hearing in which the former first lady of Virginia apologized publicly for the first time since she and her husband were accused of public corruption."
As all competent federal sentencing lawyers know, a sentence of a year and a day for the former first lady is actually better than a sentence of one year. That extra day makes her formally eligible to earn good-time credit, which nearly all non-violent offenders earn. So, practically, Ms. McDonnell is now likely to be released from federal custody after only 10.5 months in the federal graybar hotel.
February 20, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, February 05, 2015
You be the judge: what federal sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht?
This Wired article provides the basic story on a notable modern federal defendant who, thanks to a jury verdict yesterday, is now a high-profile convicted felon awaiting sentencing:
A jury has spoken, and the mask is off: Ross Ulbricht has been convicted of being the Dread Pirate Roberts, secret mastermind of the Silk Road online narcotics empire.
On Wednesday, less than a month after his trial began in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, 30-year-old Ulbricht was convicted of all seven crimes he was charged with, including narcotics and money laundering conspiracies and a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug cartel leaders. It took the jury only 3.5 hours to return a verdict. Ulbricht faces a minimum of 30 years in prison; the maximum is life. But Ulbricht’s legal team has said it will appeal the decision, and cited its frequent calls for a mistrial and protests against the judge’s decisions throughout the case.
As the verdict was read, Ulbricht stared straight ahead. His mother Lyn Ulbricht slowly shook her head, and his father Kirk put a hand to his temple. After the verdict, Ulbricht turned around to give his family a stoic smile. “This is not the end,” Ulbricht’s mother said loudly as he was led out of the courtroom. “Ross is a hero!” shouted a supporter.
From his first pre-trial hearings in New York, the government’s evidence that Ulbricht ran the Silk Road’s billion-dollar marketplace under the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts was practically overwhelming. When the FBI arrested Ulbricht in the science fiction section of a San Francisco public library in October of 2013, his fingers were literally on the keyboard of his laptop, logged into the Silk Road’s “mastermind” account. On his seized laptop’s hard drive, investigators quickly found a journal, daily logbook, and thousands of pages of private chat logs that chronicled his years of planning, creating and day-to-day running of the Silk Road. That red-handed evidence was bolstered by a college friend of Ulbricht’s who testified at trial that the young Texan had confessed creating the Silk Road to him. On top of that, notes found crumpled in his bedroom’s trashcan connected to the Silk Road’s code. Ulbricht’s guilty verdict was even further locked down by a former FBI agent’s analysis that traced $13.4 million worth of the black market’s bitcoins from the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland and Pennsylvania to the bitcoin wallet on Ulbricht laptop.
Ulbricht’s defense team quickly admitted at trial that Ulbricht had created the Silk Road. But his attorneys argued that it had been merely an “economic experiment,” one that he quickly gave up to other individuals who grew the site into the massive drug empire the Silk Road represented at its peak in late 2013. Those purported operators of the site, including the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, they argued, had framed Ulbricht as the “perfect fall guy.”...
But that dramatic alternative theory was never backed up with a credible explanation of the damning evidence found on Ulbricht’s personal computer. The defense was left to argue that Ulbricht’s laptop had been hacked, and voluminous incriminating files injected into the computer — perhaps via a Bittorrent connection he was using to download an episode of the Colbert Report at the time of his arrest. In their closing arguments, prosecutors called that story a “wild conspiracy theory” and a “desperate attempt to create a smokescreen.” It seems the jury agreed.
Despite the case’s grim outcome for Ulbricht, his defense team seemed throughout the trial to be laying the grounds for an appeal. His lead attorney Joshua Dratel called for a mistrial no less than five times, and was rejected by the judge each time. Dratel’s protests began with pre-trial motions to preclude a large portion of the prosecution’s evidence based on what he described as an illegal, warrantless hack of the Silk Road’s Icelandic server by FBI investigators seeking to locate the computer despite its use of the Tor anonymity software. As the trial began, Dratel butted heads with the prosecution and judge again on the issue of cross-examining a Department of Homeland Security witness on the agency’s alternative suspects in the case, including bitcoin mogul and Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles. And in the last days of the trial, Dratel strongly objected again to a decision by the judge to disallow two of the defense’s expert witnesses based on a lack of qualifications....
Ulbricht will nonetheless be remembered not just for his conviction, but also for ushering in a new age of online black markets. Today’s leading dark web drug sites like Agora and Evolution offer more narcotics listings than the Silk Road ever did, and have outlived law enforcement’s crackdown on their competitors. Tracking down and prosecuting those new sites’ operators, like prosecuting Ulbricht, will likely require the same intense, multi-year investigations by three-letter agencies.
Though I am not familiar with all the likely sentencing particulars, I would expect a guidelines calculation in this case to be life and that prosecutors will urge a guideline-recommended LWOP sentence. The defense surely will seek the minimum sentence, which in this case is the not-so-minimum 30 years in the federal greybar hotel.
In addition to pursuing their appeal, Ulbricht's defense team might reach out to Brian Doherty at Reason, who has this provocative commentary headlined "Silk Road: Ross Ulbricht's Loss is a Loss for Justice, Liberty, Safety, and Peace: The operation Ulbricht was found guilty of managing was one guaranteed to save lives, reduce real crime, and preserve liberty." Here are excerpts:
[T]he government's multi-year, incredibly expensive attempt to take down the site and prosecute Ulbricht were bad for liberty, bad for markets, bad for the safety of those who choose to use substances the government has declared forbidden, and bad for America....
Ulbricht, if he's guilty of what they tried him for, is guilty of nothing but trying, and for a while succeeding, in doing a good thing for his fellow citizens, the world, and the future. His case will be remembered not as one of stalwart cops saving the world from dangerous crime, but of a visionary martyr punished for the good he did.
The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was. But the government seems to never run out of candidates to be the last person to be a victim of that war, a victim of that mistake. May Ulbricht be among the last.
Friday, January 30, 2015
Notable new commentary on Yates v. US and overcriminalization
Via email I learned about these two notable new commentaries discussing issues surrounding the federal criminal case Yates v. United States soon to be resolved by the Supreme Court:
SOX on Fish: A New Harm of Overcriminalization by Todd Haugh
Going Overboard: Yates and DOJ’s “Most Serious Offense” Charging Policy by Scott Coffina & Edward James Beale
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Brief account of what proposed fraud guideline changes might amount to
This new Reuters article, headlined "U.S. panel proposes changes to white-collar prison sentences," provides a reasonable summary of the likely import and impact of the guideline reform proposes announced by the US Sentencing Commission late last week (discussed here). Here are excerpts:
Some executives and others convicted of stock fraud could face shorter prison terms under a U.S. commission's proposal to change how white-collar criminals are sentenced. The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Friday released proposals to amend advisory federal guidelines that would shift the emphasis in calculating a sentence for frauds on the market to financial gains instead of investor losses.
The proposal follows years of criticism by defense lawyers and some judges who say that the guidelines focus too much on financial losses caused by fraud, leading in certain cases to sentences that are too harsh. Judges have discretion to impose any sentence, but are required to consider the guidelines.
In stock fraud cases, losses can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, contributing to an advisory sentence of life in prison. Under the commission's proposal, judges in these cases would consider the gains from a fraud, a number defense lawyers say would often be considerably smaller.
The Sentencing Commission has scheduled a March 12 hearing on the proposals. The panel has until May 1 to submit any amendments to Congress. If Congress does not act by Nov. 1, the changes become law....
The commission has proposed setting a threshold sentencing level for gains, ensuring punishment in cases where profits are minimal. Depending on what floor is set, there is a "very good chance a number of cases would result in lower guideline sentencing ranges," said David Debold, a lawyer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who heads up an advisory group to the commission.
Defense lawyers cautioned that the proposed changes would not always result in a lower sentencing range. Some frauds like penny stock manipulation, for example, could involve significant gains to defendants and might still lead to lengthy sentences. Other proposals would affect the weight given to factors such as the harm to victims and the sophistication of a fraud.
Some defense lawyers say the proposals overall do not sufficiently emphasize a defendant's culpability and leaves loss as a driving factor for the bulk of fraud cases involving identity theft, mortgage fraud and healthcare fraud. "These changes don't go nearly as far as we would have liked," James Felman, a Florida lawyer and member of an American Bar Association task force advocating changes to the guidelines.
U.S. District Judge Patti Saris, the commission's chair, said in a statement that the panel did not consider "the guideline to be broken for most forms of fraud," but that its review had identified "some problem areas where changes may be necessary."
Prior related post:
Friday, January 09, 2015
US Sentencing Commission proposes (modest but significant) changes to the fraud guidelines
As reported in this official news release, the "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to publish proposed guideline amendments, including revisions to the sentencing guideline governing fraud." Here are the basics from the release:
The bipartisan Commission voted to seek comment on a proposed amendment to revise guideline §2B1.1 governing fraud offenses by clarifying the definition of “intended loss,” which contributes to the degree of punishment, and the enhancement for the use of sophisticated means in a fraud offense. The proposed amendment also revises the guideline to better consider the degree of harm to victims, rather than just the number of victims, and includes a modified, simpler approach to “fraud on the market” offenses which involve manipulation of the value of stocks.
The proposed revisions to the fraud guidelines come after a multi-year study, which included a detailed examination of sentencing data, outreach to experts and stakeholders, and a September 2013 symposium at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “We have heard criticism from some judges and members of the bar that the fraud guideline may be fundamentally broken, particularly for fraud on the market cases,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission. “Based on our extensive examination of data, we have not seen a basis for finding the guideline to be broken for most forms of fraud, like identity theft, mortgage fraud, or healthcare fraud, but this review has helped us to identify some problem areas where changes may be necessary.”...
Consistent with the Commission’s mission to make the guidelines more efficient and more effective, the Commission also voted today to clarify the provisions allowing for sentence reductions for offenders with mitigating roles in the offense and the provisions governing jointly undertaken criminal activity. The Commission similarly proposed adjusting the tables based on amounts of money for inflation in an attempt to keep the guidelines current and follow the approach generally mandated by statute for most civil monetary penalties....
The proposed amendments and issues for comment will be subject to a public comment period running through March 18. A public hearing on the proposed amendments will be scheduled in Washington, D.C., on March 12. More information about these hearings, as well as a data presentation on today’s proposed fraud amendment and other relevant data, will be available on the Commission’s web site at www.ussc.gov.
Here are links to new materials already posted on the USSC website this afternoon:
- "Reader-Friendly" Version of Proposed Amendments (January 9, 2015)
- Chair's Remarks at Public Meeting (January 9, 2015)
As the title of this post indicates, these new proposed amendments strike me as relatively modest but still quite significant. Most notably, the white-collar defense bar is likely to be very interested in what these changes signal and suggest, and any federal fraud defendants currently serving very long guideline sentences may want to start thinking about whether these proposed amendments might help their cause if they are formally adopted and thereafter made retroactive.
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.
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:
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell upcoming sentencing sets out white-collar terms of debate
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.
Former District Judge Paul Cassell at center of two big new victim-rights stories
Long-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.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Former Virginia Gov McDonnell upcoming sentencing sets out white-collar terms of debate
This 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:
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell (and wife) now facing high-profile federal sentencing after jury convictions on multiple charges
- Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation
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.
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.
Sunday, December 07, 2014
Former basketball star taking (wild?) shot at fighting loss calculation in federal fraud sentencing
This 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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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:
- You be the federal judge: what sentence should the Beanie Babies billionaire get for tax evasion?
- Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire
- Feds call probation sentence given to Beanie Babies billionaire substantively unreasonable
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.
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.
Saturday, August 30, 2014
"The criminalisation of American business"
The 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.
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.
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).
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.