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March 2, 2013

When Counting Bribes For Sentencing Guidelines Purposes, You Only Count The Ones That Actually Happened

Michael Roussel used to be a Captain in the New Orleans Police Department. As you might expect, he was convicted of bribery.

After his conviction at trial, he went to sentencing. The judge determined that an enhancement for receiving more than one bribe was warranted. The Fifth Circuit, in United States v. Rousel, disagreed.

419055_rainy_night_in_the_french_quar.jpgSynergy

Mr. Roussel was friends with Joey Branch. As a result of Mr. Branch's plea and cooperation agreement with the federal government, one suspects that they are no longer friends.

But back in 2008, Mr. Branch was an entrepreneur trying to place private security guards and Mr. Roussel was a police official with deep connections in a police force that has a tradition of officer's moonlighting as private security guards.

There was synergy in their relationship.

Of course, the thing about success is that one naturally wants it to continue and build. What was once an exciting threshold quickly starts to look like a stale plateau. And so it was with Mr. Branch and Mr. Roussel. Soon, they were working together to try to get more business for Mr. Branch's company. And that involved recorded calls to a confidential informant.

The informant worked for an energy company, and part of his job was to hire security guards during natural disasters. Roussel, Branch, and the informant agreed that uncertified, but falsely represented as certified, guards would be hired by the informant's company in exchange for the three splitting the profits and a fake job for the informant's wife.

Mr. Roussel ultimately gave $1,000 to the informant as earnest money of a sort. He and Mr. Branch were arrested soon after that - no other money was made.

Is Each Payment A Separate Bribe?

At sentencing, the district court determined that Mr. Roussel should receive a guidelines enhancement for being involved in multiple bribes.

Here's what the district court said:

[w]hat was intended was a series of actions over a period of time. This contract was to continue for some period of time in the future . . . . It could not be anticipated exactly when they would occur, but whenever there would be a presidentially declared natural catastrophe or emergency and Entergy would be required to immediately beef up its security force, then . . . Gladius, would be called upon to supply security officers, . . . but in any event, it seems to me that that is very different from a one-time agreement to pay a bribe that is then just paid over in installments. This was going to be a series of actions. Effectively another bribe to be paid every time there was another event that occurred.

If you're bribing a public official and tell him that you're going to give him, say $10,000 for selecting your bid for a federal contract, and you pay him in two installments of $5,000, is that one bribe or two? One can see how this could be a hard question.

Here, though, the Fifth Circuit thought it wasn't that tricky - in counting the number of bribes, you don't look at all the stuff that could have happened if the full deal went through. Instead, you look at what actually happened.

Or, as the court of appeals said

Simply put, the government proved the payment of only one bribe--the $1,000 "good faith" money to Dabdoub. The rest was all speculative.

Mr. Roussel is going back for resentencing.

October 18, 2012

What's It Worth To You? The Seventh Circuit Looks At The Value Of Things Bought Through Bribery

How do you determine the value of a thing?

Normally, in our free-market (or heavily regulated free-market) economy, we think that the value of a thing is set by what people are willing to pay for it.

If I'll see you my collection of neckties for $10,000, and you'll pay $10,000 to buy my collection of neckties, then we know my collection of neckties is worth $10,000.

But does that way of determining value work when talking about government action bought by a bribe?

Maybe.

The Seventh Circuit's case in United States v. Owens illustrates why this is a hard problem.

1388504_chicago_city_skyline_2.jpgHow To Do Business In Chicago

Dominick Owens worked for the City of Chicago as a zoning inspector. Christoir McPhillip was an "expediter" - a guy who worked with folks who needed things from zoning inspectors to make sure they got the things they needed.

Not surprisingly, for someone working in the shadow of the law, he came into some trouble and wound up cooperating with the federal government. (I'm assuming he came into trouble. The opinion only says that he was a cooperator. My bet is that he wasn't doing it out of a sense of patriotism.)

Mr. McPhillip recorded Mr. Owens taking $600 for issuing certificates of occupancy for single family homes. He recorded him twice taking one bribe each time. Mr. Owens was indicted for two counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(B) - once for each bribe.

The $5,000 Question

Mr. Owens was convicted at trial and appealed. His only issue on appeal was whether the government proved that he violated the bribery statute.

The only element he said the government didn't prove was the value threshold.

According to 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(B), the thing that was provided in exchange for a bribe - here the certificates of occupancy - has to be worth more than $5,000.

The Value Of A Thing Bribed For

How do you determine the value of the government action that was purchased by a bribe? There are two ways.

First, you can look at the value of the bribe. This is a basic market analysis. If you'd pay $14,000 for the government to indict your ex-wife, then the value of an indictment against your ex-wife is at least $14,000.

As the Seventh Circuit describes it:

at how much someone in the market was willing to pay for the benefit and an official was willing to take to provide the benefit--the value of the bribe. This means that the bribe amount may suffice as a proxy for value; at least it provides a floor for the valuation question.

Of course, that answer cuts against the government in Mr. Owens' case - the bribes were only $600.

The second way is to look at the value of the thing purchased or the value of the benefit to the person paying the bribe received from what he got from the bribe.

In United States v. Curescu, 674 F.3d 735 (7th Cir. 2012), for example, a developer had used an unlicensed plumber to add plumbing to four newly constructed residential units. A plumbing inspector discovered the violation and told the developer that he had to redo the plumbing using a licensed plumber. Id. at 738. Rather than removing the old plumbing and replacing it using a licensed plumber, a different plumbing inspector was bribed to certify falsely that a licensed plumber had completed the plumbing in the four units, which allowed the illegal plumbing to remain. Id. Thus, the value of the false certification was the money the developer did not have to spend redoing the plumbing, an amount that exceeded $5,000.

The government in Mr. Owens case argued that the mortgages at issue in Mr. Owens bribes ranged from $200,000 to $600,000. So, since certificates of occupancy were necessary for the mortgages to be funded, the government said, the certificates of occupancy were worth well more than $5,000.

Not so fast, said the Seventh Circuit.

It cannot be that simple, though, as anyone who complies with the Board of Zoning procedures and has a home that passes inspection can receive a certificate of occupancy for free. Obtaining the issuance of the certificates through greasing a palm rather than through legitimate means must therefore create value in some other way.

What's the other way that a certificate of occupancy issued through a bribe can be valuable?

Perhaps, as the Government suggests, it is obtaining a certificate without an inspection. This could be valuable in at least two ways. First and most obviously, if the home's construction was defective and the home would not pass inspection, paying a bribe and avoiding an inspection would save the cost of performing repairs. Alternatively, a home could be free of zoning violations, but a developer or homeowner places a premium on expediting the issuance of a certificate due to a pressing need to sell or occupy the home or obtain a mortgage with favorable and time sensitive terms.

So, if it's the first way, the value of the benefit from the bribe would be the value of the repairs avoided. If it's the second way, the value would be the value of not losing the time it would take to wait for a legitimate certificate.

The problem for the Government, though, is that it failed to present any evidence of either of these situations in this case, or of any situation in which the issuance of the certificates as a result of the bribes benefitted the developers or homeowners in some way that the issuance of the certificates through legitimate means would not have.

And, without that proof, Mr. Owens conviction was reversed by the Seventh Circuit.

April 5, 2012

Phone Calls From Africa To Kentucky Cannot Be Prosecuted In Virginia, Even If Virginia Is Where You Thought About The Fraud You'd Do On The Phone Call


Former Congressman William Jefferson, a son of New Orleans, will perhaps be best known for having been found with cash - cold, hard, cash - in his freezer.

He was convicted in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia of eleven charges in connection with a bribery scheme involving his role as a member of Congress and officials in Africa. In a major coup for his lawyer, he was not convicted of the offense involving the cash found in his freezer.

IMG_3793.jpgHe was convicted, alas. And, the Fourth Circuit affirmed 10 of his 11 counts of conviction in United States v. Jefferson.

The one count they reversed on, though, is exceptionally interesting (to me).

Count 10 - Wire Fraud

Count ten of the indictment against Mr. Jefferson alleged that he violated the federal wire fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1343.

This count was based on a telephone call from Africa to Kentucky on July 6, 2005. The government alleged that the call was in furtherance of a scheme that was hatched, in part, in the Eastern District of Virginia.

His lawyers challenged whether there was venue for such a call in the Eastern District of Virginia. After all, the call was started in Africa and accepted in Kentucky. That doesn't look like it affects the folks who live near the federal courthouse in Alexandria.

The district court rejected the venue challenge.

A Bit Of Background on Venue in a Criminal Case

In a criminal case, a person's right to proper venue is Constitutional - it's in article III, section 2, clause 3; "The Trial of all Crimes . . . shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed." It's also contained in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 18.

For many federal criminal statutes, Congress has expressly said where venue lies. Money laundering, under 18 U.S.C. § 1956 is a good example. Congress has said that a money laundering prosecution can go forward in any jurisdiction where the money laundering transaction happened, or where the illegal act that requires money to be laundered was done (assuming the person accused did the laundering).

But, for many federal statutes, there's no explicit venue provision. Wire fraud, as it happens, is one of those statutes.

In that case, the Supreme Court has said that a person can be prosecuted in the jurisdiction where the conduct that is prohibited by the statute took place.

Venue in a Wire Fraud Case

Simple enough. What's the conduct in wire fraud?

Mr. Jefferson's lawyers argued that the conduct for wire fraud is the making or receiving of the wire. That's what "wire fraud" is about - using a wire.

The government, on the other hand, said that the elements of wire fraud are (1) the use of a wire that is (2) in furtherance of a scheme to defraud. Either one of those elements is an act necessary to complete the offense, argued the government. As a result, the government said that if either happened in the Eastern District of Virginia, the prosecution was proper there.

In fairness to the government, the Seventh Circuit has said basically the same thing in United States v. Pearson, 340 F.3d 459 (7th Cir. 2003).

Thinking Up A Fraud Scheme Is Not Conduct

The Fourth Circuit sided with Mr. Jefferson. It held that,

The scheme to defraud is clearly an essential element, but not an essential conduct element, of wire (or mail) fraud.

Picking up the phone and making a call is an act. Similarly, for mail fraud, putting a letter in a mailbox is an act. But planning a fraud scheme, not so much. Quoting a Second Circuit case, United States v. Ramirez, 420 F.3d 134, 144-45 (2005), the court of appeals held that,

devising a scheme to defraud is not itself conduct at all (although it may be made manifest by conduct), but is simply a plan, intention or state of mind, insufficient in itself to give rise to any kind of criminal sanctions.

Because Mr. Jefferson only had a state of mind in the Eastern District of Virginia, and didn't use the phone there - Count 10 was dismissed for improper venue.

The moral of the story is that you can think about fraud where ever you'd like. Just only answer the phone where you want to face a jury.

March 5, 2012

Pro Competitive Bid Rigging Is Not A Crime, Or, This Chicago Garbage Bid Doesn't Stink


A Joke:

What's the difference between a white-collar investigation and a blue-collar investigation?

In a blue-collar case, the government knows what the person has done, they just don't know who done it.

In a white-collar case, the government knows who done it, they just don't know what they've done.

[insert the sound of a rim shot]

This joke shows two things. First, the bar for lawyer humor is incredibly low. Second, in a white-collar case, once the government has indentified you as a target, they are likely to keep investigating until they find something to charge you with.

United States v. Fenzl makes the same point (the second one, about the tenacity of the Department of Justice - not the one about how bad legal jokes are).

1160677_chicago_skyline.jpgSteven Fenzl's Case

The government targeted Steven Fenzl, and his colleague Douglass Ritter. The two men ran Urban Services of America, Inc. The company bid on a contract to refurbish the garbage cans of the City of Chicago, Illinois. The company's bid was the lowest bid.

Unfortunately, the contract that the company bid on was never awarded. The folks at Urban thought that perhaps it was because there were too few bids submitted in response to the proposal. Though they weren't sure.

A bit after the company failed to win the bid, the Chicago Tribune announced that Urban was under investigation for improprieties in checks that had been issued to other contractors. Though the investigation never yielded a finding of wrongful conduct, no one told the folks at Urban that the investigation was over until months had passed.

Eventually, the City of Chicago again sought bids on a contract to refurbish their garbage cans. Urban had yet to learn that it was no longer under investigation. It was also worried that not enough other bids would come in.

Urban Services of America Organizes Other Bids

The company then started organizing other companies to also provide bids. The arrangements were, in essence, that the other companies would subcontract the work to Urban if it won, then tack on a profit margin for itself.

Not surprisingly, this did not result in these companies underbidding Urban. Since the other companies didn't really do the kind of work they were bidding on anyway - and would have had to subcontract to Urban - this was not a surprising result.

In the end, Urban bid on the contract, as did three companies that Urban encouraged to bid. Three other companies, that had nothing to do with Urban, also submitted proposals.

Urban was the lowest bid of all seven and won the contract.

The Antitrust Division Gets Interested

The United States Department of Justice's Antitrust Division has a criminal section. The prosecutors in that office launched an investigation of Urban.

Bid rigging, generally, is illegal. As the Seventh Circuit said, "bid rigging [is] a form of price fixing in which bidders agree, usually by rotating bids, to eliminate competition among the bidders."

Yet, here, this bid rigging wasn't done to eliminate competition, rather, it was to encourage the city to take the bids seriously, again, the Seventh Circuit:

at some point [the Department of Justice] realized it didn't have an antitrust case. Urban had been the low bidder and its aim in "colluding" with other potential bidders had not been to prevent them from underbidding it but merely to buy insurance against its bid's being rejected because of false accusations against Ritter and Urban; if Urban lost the bid, at least it would be able to obtain some refurbishing work as a subcontractor of the winning bidder. The bidders invited by Urban were almost certain to submit higher bids because Urban would be doing the actual work and charging for it and the bidders would be repricing Urban's work in their bids.

This is, sort of, pro-competitive bid rigging.

The Department of Justice is Not Deterred

The Department of Justice had their man (or company), so the lack of a crime wasn't going to be an obstacle to prosecution.

So the prosecutors decided to charge fraud rather than an antitrust violation. [T]he theory behind the charge of fraud for misleading the City by inflating the number of bids was never made clear at trial. No evidence was presented that the more bidders there were, the more likely Urban's bid was to be accepted and that this would result in a higher price to the City for getting its garbage carts spruced up. Had there been four bidders rather than seven, Urban would still have been the low bidder, and there is no indication that the City would have cancelled the auction on the ground that there were too few bidders.

The Seventh Circuit's later skepticism notwithstanding, the government charged the Urban principals with fraud. Mr. Ritter pled guilty. Mr. Fenzl went to trial and was convicted. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison, a fine of $40,000, and restitution of $35,302.18.

The Seventh Circuit

Judge Posner, who knows a thing or two about antitrust law, wrote for the Seventh Circuit. He was not a fan of this prosecution (Judge Posner is not getting invited to any Department of Justice parties after this opinion, or this one).

As the learned jurist wrote,

It's difficult to see what's wrongful about such a "scheme." Suppose in despair of ever doing work for the City again Urban had sold its assets to another company and told it, "You go bid on the refurbishing contract." Would anyone think such conduct improper? How different is that from what Urban planned to do in case it was denied the contract even if it was the low bidder? Misconduct in bidding involves trying to reduce rather than increase the competition among bidders.

In addition to criticizing the theory undergirding the prosecution, Judge Posner noted that the government proved it's case using the wrong witness.

A government investigator testified - not as an expert witness - that the City would have disqualified Urban's bid if it knew that it had put the other bidders up to their bids. The basis for this knowledge was opaque to Judge Posner.

Without the testimony of City employees,

it is a matter of conjecture whether the relevant employees in the Department would have awarded the contract--at a loss to the City--to a higher bidder, in order to punish Urban (for what exactly?). But instead of asking them what they would have done had they known what Urban was up to, the prosecutors asked an investigator what he thought they would have done. What the government dignifies by the term "personal knowledge"--for a lay witness is permitted to base his testimony on his personal knowledge (and on nothing else)--is the investigator's conjectures based on seven years of "training and experience," an impermissible basis for lay opinion testimony.

Mr. Fenzl was charged under two separate fraud theories in separate fraud charges. On one he was acquitted. On the other, the court of appeals remanded for a new trial.

One wonders what Mr. Ritter - who pled guilty early - thinks of this opinion.

January 29, 2012

No Crime, But Still A Cover-Up; Another Skilling Reversal In A Public Corruption Case

The Supreme Court's opinion in United States v. Skilling marked a sea change in how the government prosecutes public corruption cases. It used to be that all the government had to prove is that a public figure had a conflict of interest and didn't disclose it. After Skilling, that is no longer a crime.

As the Third Circuit recently discussed, federal circuit courts are unwinding prior prosecutions of public officials for failing to disclose conflicts of interest since that is no longer a crime.

1223590_notebook_wih_spiral_and_red_cover.jpgLast week, it was the Fourth Circuit's turn in United States v. Hornsby. The Fourth Circuit reversed Mr. Hornsby's conviction for honest services fraud, but did not undo his conviction for obstructing justice to hide his honest services fraud.

In essence, Mr. Hornsby will spend time in prison for covering up a crime that didn't exist.

The Thing Which Is No Longer A Crime

Andre Hornsby was the chief executive officer of the school system in Prince George's County, Maryland.

His girlfriend was a sales representative for LeapFrog - a company that sells educational products to school systems.

Though it's a little convoluted, Mr. Hornsby was able to have Prince George's County purchase Leapfrog products. His girlfriend received a $20,000 commission for the deal. She generously shared it with Mr. Hornsby - and gave him half.

The Cover Up Of The Not-A-Crime

The Baltimore Sun wrote a story about Mr. Hornsby, his girlfriend, and the LeapFrog deal. The next day the Maryland United States Attorney's Office launched an investigation into the LeapFrog deal.

Mr. Hornsby, upon reading the Baltimore Sun article, ordered that all of his emails be deleted. Sadly, it's hard to find good help these days - one of the computer specialists not only didn't destroy Mr. Hornsby's emails, but turned them over to federal law enforcement.

Mr. Hornsby also had a private consulting firm, and a woman named Cynthia Joffrion worked for him in that business. The FBI told her to tell Mr. Hornsby that they had issued a subpoena for her computer, which had files on it relating to the LeapFrog deal. She did. Mr. Hornsby told her to hide the computer.

Of course, one doesn't become the CEO of a large school district without prior experience. Mr. Hornsby had previously been the superintendent of Yonkers Public Schools in Westchester County, New York.

When Mr. Hornsby was in Yonkers, Ms. Joffrion worked for him. At one point, he was under investigation there. When he learned he was under investigation, he told Ms. Joffrion to get any computers with evidence on them to her relatives. Then, on a recorded call, he told her to burn any paper associated with the ethics allegations. [FN1]

Mr. Hornsby In The District Court

Mr. Hornsby was charged with honest services fraud and obstruction of justice. He was tried in the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Maryland. His jury hung and the district court declared a mistrial.

A grand jury returned a superseding indictment against him, charging him with more honest services fraud, obstruction of justice, and tampering. He was convicted of some counts of honest services fraud, obstruction of justice, and tampering.

He was sentenced to seventy-two months in prison on all the counts of conviction, to be served concurrently.

Skilling Changes The Rules

After the trial, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Skilling - making it no longer a crime for a public official to decline to disclose a conflict of interest.

The Fourth Circuit found that Mr. Hornsby's convictions for honest services fraud could not survive after Skilling. The court of appeals vacated the conviction for those counts.

On the obstruction and tampering counts, Mr. Hornsby argued that they needed to be vacated as well. He made a number of arguments - the most interesting being that the jury's deliberations on the obstruction counts were contaminated by the idea that he had committed a crime based on honest services fraud. [FN2]

Here, Mr. Hornsby fared less well. The court of appeals noted that even if the government had just gone to trial on the obstruction counts, it would have been able to bring all of the other evidence about LeapFrog in at trial under Rule 404(b). (for a discussion of Rule 404(b), see this post).

So, in the end, Mr. Hornsby will go for resentencing. But will still be convicted of obstruction.

[FN1] - Really? She was recording his calls in New York? Years before this case?

[FN2] - Mr. Hornsby did not argue that obstruction is impossible if there's no underlying crime - regardless of whether you violated the law, you don't get to destroy evidence that you think is responsive to a grand jury subpoena.

January 10, 2012

Friendship Means A Lot In Philadelphia, And Why Honest Services Fraud Just Isn't The Same After Skilling

Christopher Wright and Andrew Teitelman were friends. As sometimes happens to the best of us, Mr. Wright fell on hard times. He was in the middle of a divorce, and he was out of cash. His mother had just died from cancer. He had a drinking problem that was getting worse.

Mr. Teitelman helped his friend out - he got him into rehab and, as a lawyer, Mr. Teitelman represented Mr. Wright in his divorce proceeding when he could no longer afford his first divorce lawyer. He also represented Mr. Wright in a foreclosure proceeding and, later, in an eviction proceeding. For all this legal work, Mr. Wright paid $350.

1317372_philadelphia_.jpgMr. Teitelman also helped Mr. Wright get housing when Mr. Wright had to move. Mr. Teitelman's sole client (aside from Mr. Wright) was Ravi Chawla. Mr. Chawla was a developer, who had an empty apartment building. Mr. Teitelman persuaded Mr. Chawla to let Mr. Wright stay in one of the units of that apartment building, for free. Mr. Chawla also tried to send a multi-million dollar real estate deal to Mr. Wright to try to get some money in Mr. Wright's pocket during this time - Mr. Wright was a realtor - though nothing came of the deal.

If Mr. Wright hadn't also been the Chief of Staff of a member of the City Council of Philadelphia during this time, the nice things Mr. Teitelman and Mr. Chawla did for Mr. Wright would have been much less likely to get the three of them indicted in federal court.

Though, perhaps, the problem was that Mr. Wright did nice things to Mr. Chawla too.

Mr. Chawla really wanted a law passed that would have made zoning easier for new development. Mr. Wright worked with his boss to get the law passed.

Mr. Chawla needed information from various city departments. Mr. Wright, asking from a City Council office, was able to get it more quickly than Mr. Chawla would be able to get it on his own. Mr. Wright was happy to help that way.

The three men were charged with honest services fraud and wire fraud. The Third Circuit decided an appeal of their trial conviction in United States v. Wright.

Honest Services Fraud

A few years ago, honest services fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1346 could be charged in two ways relevant to this case. The jury was instructed that they could find the three men guilty of an honest services fraud scheme if the government proved either that (a) there was a conflict of interest for Mr. Wright that he didn't disclose, or (b) that Mr. Wright was taking money in exchange for providing a service in his official duties.

That changed in United States v. Skilling - decided after the trial in this case. In Skilling, the Supreme Court, ruling on an appeal from ex-Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling's conviction, held that the conflict of interest theory was not a constitutional reading of honest services fraud.

The jury convicted the three men of honest services fraud. It's pretty straightforward to see that this violates the conflict of interest theory of honest services fraud - Mr. Wright had a conflict of interest based on the largess he accepted from his friends. He didn't disclose it.

When Skilling was decided, the government did not oppose the release of the three men from prison pending the resolution of the appeal.

The Third Circuit After Skilling

The question in this appeal was whether the government had proven that the men committed quid pro quo honest services fraud beyond a reasonable doubt. The Third Circuit found that the government hadn't met that burden.

In essence, the government would have had to show that Mr. Wright helped out Mr. Teitelman and Chawla in his performance of his duties because they had helped him with his personal situation. And, conversely, that Mr. Teitelman and Mr. Chawla helped Mr. Wright because he would then perform official acts.

The government's proof fell short on both sides of the quid pro quo.

First, Mr. Wright worked for a councilman who was, everyone agreed, pro-developer. The councilman directed his staff to help folks out in the developer community. There was trial testimony that his staff did a lot of favors and secured a lot of information for many members of the business community. So it looks like Mr. Wright was not uniquely favoring Mr. Chawla.

Second, Mr. Teitelman, in particular, was friends with Mr. Wright. This, in itself, provided a motivation beyond a corrupt scheme. As the Third Circuit said,

The evidence establishes, and the Government does not dispute, that Wright and Teitelman were close friends. It is equally clear that Wright was in dire personal straits at the time. His mother had just died of cancer, he was embroiled in a marital fight and divorce, he was essentially broke, and he was drinking heavily. Teitelman was among Wright's few friends who intervened and helped him enter rehabilitation. . . . While friendship is no bar to an honest services fraud conviction (as the parties involved are often friends), these facts show a close friendship. Here, the jury could have found that friendship, not fraud, motivated Teitelman to find the apartment in Center City and to act as Wright's lawyer.

Because the government had not proven honest services fraud on the remaining viable count beyond a reasonable doubt, the conviction for honest services fraud was vacated.

October 21, 2011

What's Fair For the Goose Is Maybe Not The Same For the Gander; Immunity Orders And The Ninth Circuit


It's good to be king.

The government, in a criminal investigation, can issue a grand jury subpoena to collect evidence and put witnesses under oath. It can execute search warrants to go into a home or business and take documents. It can cut deals with people it thinks are involved in a criminal enterprise, so that they'll spend less time - or no time - in prison if they turn in someone else.

Someone fending off a government investigated can't do any of this.

King.jpgNormally, if a person has information that would make someone who hears it think the person is guilty of a crime, that person has a right to refuse to talk about it. It's a part of the Fifth Amendment. The government has a fix for that problem too - if a witness won't talk, and won't play ball by cooperating, the government can ask a court to grant the person immunity. The statute that lets a court grant immunity is at 18 U.S.C. § 6003.

If a court grants a person immunity, that person cannot be prosecuted based on the information he provides. That's in 18 U.S.C. § 6002. There's an exception if the person lies or does something similar when immunized, but, beyond that, a person with immunity cannot be prosecuted for what they talk about.

Getting immunity can be a very good deal.

What about defense witnesses though? Surely, there are times when a person who is accused of a crime identifies a witness who he needs for his defense, yet the witness may get himself charged with a crime if he provides information.

For example, imagine that a witness knows a person accused of a crime didn't commit it, because the witness and the accused were across town counterfeiting money together at the time of the alleged crime. The witness refuses to testify and invokes his Fifth Amendment right not to - he doesn't want the government to put him in prison for the counterfeiting.

Can the defense ask the court to give immunity to the witness?* If so, when?

That was exactly the situation that the district court dealt with in United States v. Wilkes. The Ninth Circuit issued an opinion on this very question.

Mr. Wilkes was accused of bribing Congressman Duke Cunningham.** The government alleged that Mr. Wilkes made inappropriate gifts to the Congressman - including a trip to Hawaii where they enjoyed the beach, scuba diving, and prostitutes.

In exchange, Mr. Wilkes' company was alleged to have sold inferior products to the United States government.

A number of people testified against Mr. Wilkes. They worked for his company and the government had asked the district court to grant them immunity. The district court did. They testified against Wilkes.

One of Mr. Wilkes other employees would have told a different story. The district court listened to what Mr. Wilkes lawyer said the witness would say. The court concluded,

I have to tell you the proffer I have as to what this fellow can offer strikes me as material and relevant evidence that the defense would want to present to counter some of what's been presented by the United States through immunized witnesses.

So, naturally, the trial court ruled that

The court, having fully heard all counsel, denies the motion to convey use immunity.

The district court believed that it could only grant immunity if the prosecutors had intentionally engaged in misconduct. As the court saw things,

unless it's somehow tethered to the suggestion of prosecutorial misconduct, I don't think it's appropriate for the court to make determinations of who gets immunity and who doesn't. In the first instance, under our system of Government, that's a prosecutorial decision. And unless I can find that the way in which discretion was exercised was unfair so as to deny the defendant a due process right, then it's not appropriate for me to substitute my judgment for that of the prosecutor. I do have a concern about the effect of not granting immunity in this case, but I would have the same concern if it was a different privilege implicated over which I'd have no authority to pierce the privilege and order a witness to testify, any number of other privileges. So it's an effect that the criminal justice system lives with and accommodates.

One can imagine that the court's regret about this "effect" was not very comforting to Mr. Wilkes.

Happily, after Mr. Wilkes trial, the Ninth Circuit decided United States v. Straub. (click for Ninth Circuit blog commentary)

Straub held that a district court should order immunity when the testimony would be relevant and the prosecutor gave immunity to one witness, but not to another who would have contradicted the one the prosecutor choose, and that choice by the prosecutor

the effect of so distorting the fact-finding process that the defendant was denied his due process right to a fundamentally fair trial

(Keep in mind, friends who aren't from the left coast, the rule in your part of the country may be different.)

Based on this standard, the court of appeals remanded for a hearing on whether the district court should have immunized the witness under Straub. The appellate court did note, though, that "[t]he district court also repeatedly expressed its concern that not granting Williams immunity would have the effect of distorting the fact-finding process." So perhaps the court of appeals thought it knew how this would turn out.

The rest of the opinion in Wilkes is a bit bleak. I wouldn't read it unless you're a prosecutor or looking to be saddened.

* This is assuming the defense is willing to swallow a conviction on the counterfeiting. There's probably a better hypothetical out there.
** The opinion says that the total list of charges were "one count of conspiracy
(18 U.S.C. § 371), ten counts of honest services wire fraud (18 U.S.C. §§ 1343 and 1346), one count of bribery of a public official (18 U.S.C. § 201), and one count of money laundering (18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i))."

September 29, 2011

Bribery in New Jersey. No, really.

Sometimes, the cooperating witness in a case seems a little shadier than the guy who got caught.

Herman Friedman owned an apartment building in West New York, New Jersey. He rented out 16 apartments. One day, a building inspector visited Mr. Friedman's property. He noticed that the building had only 15 legal units - not 16. The inspector issued a Notice of Violation.

To try to sort this out, Mr. Friedman went to meet with a Construction Code Official, Franco Zanardelli. Perhaps like many New Jersey zoning officials, Mr. Zanardelli was working for the FBI. He was trying to get a sentence reduction under 5K1.1 after he was caught taking bribes in a prior investigation.

Mr. Friedman told Mr. Zanardelli that the apartment had 16 legal units when he bought it and that he shouldn't be penalized. Mr. Friedman asked Zanardelli to issue a variance for his 16th unit.

Zanardelli took no official action in response. One can imagine that he shrugged.

Without a resolution from Zanardelli, Mr. Friedman went to Municipal Court. The court told him to try to work things out with Zanardelli because the penalty for having an illegal apartment is $500 a day.

Mr. Friedman called Zanardelli, desperate for help. Zanardelli asked him "What, what do you want to do? You just want to legalize the unit?"

Mr. Friedman indicated that this was exactly what he wanted to do.

They met at the building. Mr. Friedman pointed out that the 16th unit had obviously been there a while. Zanardelli said it wasn't in the tax records. He asked again what Mr. Friedman wanted to do.

Mr. Zanardelli told Mr. Friedman he could go for a variance. That wouldn't solve the $500 a day problem. They had this exchange,

 

Zanardelli:  [y]ou're gonna have to go for a variance. That's it. I mean, I mean what are you gonna do.

Friedman: "Well, you know what you could do, what you can do?

Zanardelli:  "So what are you suggesting here?

Friedman:  "You tell me . . . Whatever it is."

Zanardelli: "I can't tell you, you tell me."


If you couldn't guess, "whatever it is" was a bribe.

Using hand gestures, the two worked out a bribe of $5,000. Mr. Zanardelli lifted the complaint.

Months passed. Mr. Friedman didn't come through with the money. He avoided Mr. Zanardelli's calls. Mr. Zanardelli pressured him at the direction of the FBI, reissuing the complaint.

Mr. Friedman put the building up for sale. He found a buyer who would buy it only if the building had 16 units. Mr. Friedman, finally, paid $5,000 to Zanardelli. He didn't lift the complaint. The sale fell through.

Close to a year later, Mr. Friedman was indicted.

The Trial

At trial, Mr. Friedman tried to introduce evidence that the records in Mr. Zanardelli's office actually showed that the building had 16 legal apartments. According to a witness from the local zoning office, the best, most recent documents, showed that Mr. Friedman was allowed to have 16 units there.

The trial judge didn't let the evidence in, because it was "a whimsical argument that this is somehow related to entrapment."

Mr. Friedman was convicted.

The Sentencing

At sentencing, the government and Mr. Friedman disagreed about the loss amount from the bribery guidelines.

The bribery guidelines are particularly hard on people convicted of a crime. The loss amount that U.S.S.G. § 2C1.1 aren't based on the amount of the bribe, but, rather, based on "the benefit received or to be received in return for the payment."

So, the loss number shouldn't be $5,000 - the amount of the bribe - but, rather, the amount of money that the city of West New York lost out on.

The government figured that to be a very high number indeed, based on the accumulation of daily penalties. Mr. Friedman disagreed, and said that number was too inchoate.

The sentencing judge split the baby. He declined to find a loss number, or resolve what the right guidelines are. Instead, the sentencing judge said that thought a sentence of 34 months was about right.

A sentence of 34 months was imposed on Mr. Friedman.

The Appeal

The Third Circuit heard a number of challenges to Mr. Friedman's conviction. In United States v. Friedman, it rejected them all.

The court of appeals did, however, vacate his sentence and remand for resentencing. After the guidelines were made nonbinding in Booker, the Supreme Court, and then the courts of appeals, set out a procedure for sentencing in a federal case.

First, the district court has to calculate the guidelines. A district court cannot sentence a person in federal court without first determining the appropriate guidelines.

Since that didn't happen here - the sentencing judge cut to the chase of what it thought a fair sentence is - the court of appeals remanded to do it again.