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June 5, 2012

The Fourth Circuit Holds That Money Laundering Only Applies To The Profits Of A Crime, Not The Expenses

William Cloud believed in the American dream of home ownership. He worked to make buying a home easy for people in his community.

He wanted to make buying a house easy, even if it would be the second or third house that a person would own.

1389529_house.jpgTo make sure the houses he was helping people buy were up to snuff, he'd buy them first and do some work on them. He'd then sell them - or, using the government's language - he'd "flip" them to the people he was helping to become real estate investors.

He made money on each sale, because, of course, a man has to eat. And he didn't disclose these payments to himself because it didn't want to cloud his good works with the ugly taint of money.

Also, he knew that people could buy more houses if their credit was good. So, he'd work with people to purchase a number of houses quickly, so that they only had to use the one credit report for the series of mortgages. That way, the first house wouldn't show up on the credit report for the second or third house.

Unfortunately, like so many of us in this modern life, Mr. Cloud spread himself too thin. He was available to help folks get into the houses, but wasn't able to make the time to help his neighbors pay their mortgages.

Many of the homes were foreclosed on.

The government, immune to the pull of Mr. Cloud's good works, indicted him for mortgage fraud and money laundering.

Mortgage fraud, because Mr. Cloud told a number of people to make false statements on mortgage applications and also, uh, helped them make those false statements.

Money laundering because Mr. Cloud paid a number of people to help him with this home ownership vision - he paid people to find others to buy houses and facilitate real estate closings.

A jury convicted Mr. Cloud.

In United States v. Cloud, the Fourth Circuit reversed his money laundering conviction.

Money laundering is, generally, when a person take the profits from a crime and cleans them up by transferring the money.

However, the money has be profits from a crime. As the Supreme Court explained in United States v. Santos [FN1]:

Few crimes are entirely free of cost, and costs are not always paid in advance. Anyone who pays for the costs of a crime with its proceeds--for example, the felon who uses the stolen money to pay for the rented getaway car--would violate the money laundering statute. And any wealth-acquiring crime with multiple participants would become money laundering when the initial recipient of the wealth gives his confederates their shares. Generally speaking, any specified unlawful activity, an episode of which includes transactions which are not elements of the offense and in which a participant passes receipts on to someone else, would merge with money laundering.

And, of course, if money laundering merges with the underlying crime a person can't be convicted of both offenses without violating double jeopardy.

So - if a person is prosecuted for a substantive offense, that person can't be charged with money laundering for transferring expenses associated with that offense.

Or, as the Fourth Circuit explained,

Cloud's money laundering convictions are based on payments to recruiters, buyers, and other coconspirators for the role each person played in the mortgage fraud scheme. Cloud's mortgage fraud depended on the help of others, and their help, in turn, depended on payments from Cloud. Such payments are no different than "the felon who uses the stolen money to pay for the rented getaway car" or "the initial recipient of the wealth" in "any wealth-acquiring crime with multiple participants . . . [who] gives his confederates their shares." Santos, 553 U.S. at 516 (plurality opinion). Because Cloud's money laundering convictions on Counts 28-33 were based on paying the "essential expenses" of his underlying fraud, we find a merger problem.

Mr. Cloud's money laundering convictions were then vacated.

The Fourth Circuit also reversed an order that Mr. Cloud had to pay the costs of his court-appointed attorney's time.

The case was sent back for resentencing.

[FN1] - Strictly speaking this was just Justice Scalia writing for a plurality. But it's really good language.

See also:

Paying For Drugs Is Not Money Laundering

January 6, 2012

Paying For Drugs Is Not Money Laundering


Perhaps one of the most celebrated charging strategies by the federal government was to investigate and charge Al Capone with tax evasion. The feds weren't really after him for tax crimes - they wanted Al Capone because he was a mobster. Yet by charging the tax offense, the federal government was able to get a conviction that stuck.

Yet the government runs a risk when it charges an auxiliary crime - one that isn't the main offense that they're targeting but, rather, something that derives from it.

The Fifth Circuit's recent opinion in United States v. Harris illustrates this point.

Two men, named Harris and Miller, were involved in some drug transactions between Texas and California. No, not cocaine or marijuana, these guys were trafficking in codeine cough syrup. [FN1]

1361620_grungy_money_4.jpgInstead of being charged with drug trafficking, they were charged with money laundering for paying for the drugs, under 18 U.S.C. § 1956.

Money laundering, as relevant to this case, is basically when a person participates in a financial transaction to conceal that the money in the transaction came from some illegal activity.

The government's theory, from its opening statement, was that,

In any drug transaction there are drugs going one way and money coming back the other way. That's the nature of a drug transaction. Now, because drug transactions are illegal, they have to be concealed by those people who are participating in them. The people who are transporting and distributing the drugs have to conceal their actions. Likewise, the people that are paying the money, transporting the money and distributing the money have to conceal their actions. That's the nature of drug transactions, that they have to be concealed from law enforcement, both the drugs and the money.

The government's theory was that because the money was sent to pay for the drugs, the folks who sent the money engaged in money laundering.

Miller and Harris were both convicted at trial. Miller was sentenced to 252 months in prison, or 21 years. Harris was sentenced to 293 months, or more than 24 years.

The Fifth Circuit reversed, and rejected the government's theory for what makes money laundering.

In essence, the court of appeals held that when the transfers of money are a part of the illegal transaction, those transactions can't be money laundering. Money laundering only arises once the illegal transaction is done.

As the court of appeals described it, the evidence that money was sent to purchase drugs does not show that

the funds transferred from Miller to Harris were proceeds of drug trafficking or anything other than payment of the purchase price for drugs. Money does not become proceeds of illegal activity until the unlawful activity is complete. The crime of money laundering is targeted at the activities that generally follow the unlawful activity in time.

And, as a result Mr. Miller and Mr. Harris are now saved decades in prison. And a very aggressive attempt to construe money laundering by the government has been brushed back.

(Hat tip to the White Collar Crime Prof Blog for the heads up on this opinion.)

[FN1] - This may be too much information, gentle reader, but I was recently prescribed codeine cough syrup for a bronchial infection. I'm not sure I see why folks would buy and sell it illegally, but there is likely something I'm missing. Perhaps it's more interesting when you mix it with Four Loco?

September 23, 2011

Mortgage Fraud Is Not Money Laundering, Or, Why Not To Buy A House With A Drug Dealer

It's money laundering week here at the Federal Criminal Appeals Blog. Yesterday, I wrote about Walter Blair, the lawyer who was convicted for performing extra-legal services.

Today, the Third Circuit issued a happier decision (though not for the government) in United States v. Richardson.

The Dream of Home Ownership

Asya Richardson was the fiancé of Alton Coles, a known drug dealer in Philadelphia. Mr. Coles was also something of a renaissance man, promoting a series of nightclub events and running a record label, Take Down Records. The nightclub generated revenue and broke even. Take Down Records was not financially successful.

Ms. Richardson and Mr. Coles wanted to realize the American dream of home ownership. This presented a problem. Ms. Richardson only made $22,800 a year as a customer service representative at Bank of America. Mr. Coles asserted that he made $100,000 a year as the CEO of Take Down Records. Unfortunately, Mr. Coles, like many entrepreneurs, had bad credit.

The solution? Mortgage fraud. The couple decided to put the house in Ms. Richardson's name, and they said in their paperwork that she made more than $110,000 per year.

This allowed the couple to purchase the house together, but place it in Ms. Richardson's name.

Closing Costs

They still needed money for the down payment though. Here's how the court of appeals describes how they funded part of the money they brought to settlement.

The day of settlement was marked by a flurry of banking activity. At 12:08 p.m., a $9,800 cash deposit was made into Coles' and Richardson's joint checking account at PNC Bank. This deposit took place at a PNC branch located in Philadelphia. At 1:12 p.m., Coles made a $9,140 cash deposit into Take Down Records' business account. The funds were later transferred to Coles' personal checking account and used towards the down payment. Half an hour later, at the same bank branch, Coles deposited $9,200 in cash directly into his personal checking account. At 3:33 p.m., Richardson made a $9,200 cash deposit into the couple's joint checking account. This deposit was made at a PNC branch located in Stratford, New Jersey, which was near the location of the settlement. Finally, at 4:00 p.m., Coles made a $6,160 cash deposit into a Wachovia checking account belonging to his son. This deposit, too, occurred at a branch located in Stratford.

The settlement went smoothly and the couple became happy homeowners.

Trouble Brews

Sadly,

shortly after the couple had moved into the new home, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Coles with a single count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Three superseding indictments followed charging Coles and others with various drug trafficking and firearms crimes. On March 22, 2006, a fourth superseding indictment was filed charging Coles and Richardson with money laundering, 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i), conspiracy to commit money laundering, 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h), and wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. § 1343.

The couple went to trial, along with others. Mr. Coles was convicted of the drug distribution charges, as well as the money laundering. Ms. Richardson was convicted of money laundering. Both were acquitted of wire fraud.

Ms. Richardson was sentenced to twenty-four months in prison.

The Appeal

On appeal, Ms. Richardson argued that there was not enough evidence to support her conviction for money laundering.

As the Third Circuit explained, to find someone guilty of money laundering, the government has to prove:


  1. an actual or attempted financial transaction;

  2. involving the proceeds of a specified unlawful activity;

  3. knowledge that the transaction involves the proceeds of some unlawful activity; and

  4. knowledge that the transaction was designed in whole or in part to conceal the nature, location, source, ownership, or control of the proceeds of a specified unlawful activity.(internal textual modifications omitted)


Ms. Richardson argued that there was not enough evidence that she knew that the transaction was being used to launder drug money to convict.*

The government countered that the intricate set of deposits on the day of settlement strongly indicated that something was afoot. All the deposits were under $10,000, giving a strong argument that they were made to defeat the reporting requirement that is triggered by a $10,000 deposit.

This, by the way, is itself a crime, prohibited by 31 U.S.C. § 5324, and known as smurfing.**

However, as the court noted, there was precious little showing that Ms. Richardson herself was aware of the pattern of deposits.

The government argued that not having Mr. Coles name on the loan was suspicious. And, the government pointed out, that Ms. Coles lied about her income to get the loan - surely that's suspicious.

In a passage sure to warm the hearts of mortgage brokers everywhere, the court noted,

These circumstances show that Richardson lied about her income and had the property titled in her name, not to hide Coles' involvement (which by then was perfectly obvious), but to get around Coles' bad credit and purchase the house as planned. No jury could have reasonably reached a different conclusion.

(internal citation omitted)


This wasn't money laundering - it was mortgage fraud. With a little more than a year left on her sentence, Ms. Coles conviction was vacated.

 

* She also argued, based on United States v. Santos, that the money laundering statute only applies to profits from drug dealing, not gross receipts, and that the money here involved gross receipts. The court of appeals rejected that argument.

** And, yes, that's my second Smurf reference in a money laundering post this week. Here's an odd article on how "smurf" is used that doesn't include this NSFW varation.

September 22, 2011

Money Laundering, Obstruction of Justice, And A Full-Service Lawyer

Walter Blair was a full-service lawyer. He received a phone call from a woman who wanted to hire a criminal defense lawyer. The woman's name was Ms. Nicely. Ms. Nicely had a relatively intricate problem.

The Safe Full of Money

As it happened, she was in possession of a safe that contained a substantial amount of money that belonged to Mr. Rankine. Mr. Rankine was a drug-dealer. The money was drug money. Mr. Rankine's girlfriend had been found murdered, and Mr. Rankine was missing.

Ms. Nicely had been receiving threats about the money in the safe and became frightened. Through a referral from a co-worker, Mr. Henry, she contacted Mr. Blair.

They met. Mr. Blair told her to open the safe "by any means necessary" and bring the money to him. She did.

 

$170,000

Mr. Blair and Mr. Henry counted the money - there was approximately $170,000. Mr. Blair made up a cover story about a joint investment headed by Mr. Rankine's girlfriend. Since she was no longer living, she couldn't repudiate the story.

Mr. Blair then had his law partner create a corporation to take the money so that Ms. Nicely and Mr. Henry could invest in real estate. This was in 2003 when investing in real estate seemed less like investing in Smurf collectibles.

Mr. Blair also told Mr. Henry and Ms. Nicely that they would need to set aside money to cover the legal fees for two of Mr. Rankine's colleagues who had been arrested and were charged in the U.S. District Court in Richmond Virginia.

The Federal Case In Virginia

Mr. Blair reached out to two Virginia lawyers to represent Mr. Rankine's colleagues. Mr. Blair also retained himself to represent the men. Eventually, he filed a pro hac vice motion in the federal case in Virginia.

(A pro hac vice motion is a motion that lets an attorney practice law in a court that she is not otherwise admitted to practice in for one time only, provided certain conditions are met).

As a part of the pro hac vice motion, Mr. Blair told the court that he had never been disciplined by any bar association. As it happened, that was not entirely accurate - Mr. Blair had previously had his law license suspended in West Virginia for witness tampering.

Things Break Bad

Mr. Blair gave Ms. Nicely a set of things to memorize about how all of these transactions were supposed to have gone down. Sadly, when interviewed by the FBI, Ms. Nicely was not 100% in line with Mr. Blair's instructions. Oh what a tangled web we weave.

Mr. Blair was indicted for money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956 and § 1957 for his handling of the funds brought into his office. He was charged with obstruction of justice for his false statement in his pro hac vice motion under 18 U.S.C. § 1503. He was also charged with failing to file a tax return.

On appeal, he had two main challenges. The Fourth Circuit gave Mr. Blair a split decision in United States v. Blair.

The Money Laundering Safe Harbor Issue

First, the money laundering statute has a safe harbor provision for criminal defense attorneys who are receiving money from someone to mount a defense. Mr. Blair contended that this safe harbor provision sheltered him from one of the money laundering charges against him.

There's been a lot of attention to this issue lately, particularly since the Eleventh Circuit rejected a government money laundering prosecution in United States v. Velez. The basic rule of the safe harbor provision is that if a person has money that was derived from illegal conduct, and uses that money to pay for a defense attorney, that transfer cannot be the basis of a money laundering conviction. Section 1957(f)(1) recognizes that the Sixth Amendment protection of the right to counsel is more important than criminalizing this behavior.

Here, though, the Fourth Circuit rejected the safe harbor provision's application to Mr. Blair. As Judge Wilkinson said,

Blair used someone else's criminally derived proceeds to bankroll counsel for others.

This, the majority found, exceeds the scope of the safe harbor provision. Though Judge Traxler wrote a forceful dissent arguing that the safe harbor provision should apply.

Obstruction of Justice Challenge

Mr. Blair fared much better on his challenge to the obstruction of justice conviction. The government argued that lying on a pro hac vice motion is obstruction of justice. To do that, the prosecutors had to successfully "establish a nexus between the false statement and the obstruction of the administration of justice." That is, the government had to show that Mr. Blair's false statement "had a natural and probable effect of impeding justice."

The Fourth Circuit found no evidence that Mr. Blair lying about his West Virginia disciplinary troubles caused any problems, or was likely to cause any problems, with anything. Mr. Blair's representation was already a massive conflict of interest - his lie was just icing.

The court of appeals concluded that the government's allegations rested on "mere speculation."

The appellate court, then, vacated Mr. Blair's conviction for obstruction of justice, and remanded for resentencing without that count of conviction.