Appeal of Federal Insider Trading Convictions: Defendants Say They are Not Guilty and the Sentences Were Too Long

March 12, 2013 by Paul Kish

I came across this story about two Defendants in New York who were appealing to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals their convictions for "insider trading", which as we all know is a rarely prosecuted federal crime arising out of a securities investigation that usually starts with the SEC. These Defendants also argued on appeal that their sentences were too long. Both issues, the insider trading question and sentencing arguments, are matters we have come across frequently, and we will be following the case closely.

The basic idea of an "insider trading" case is that someone learns about "material non-public information", such as the fact that one company might be in the process of buying another company. When companies prepare to engage in such moves, they need to hire bankers, lawyers, accountants, printers and lots of folks who work on the deal. It is illegal for anyone who learns such "material non-public" information to give a "tip" to anyone, and for the recipient of the tip (the "tippee") to make trades (such as buying the stock of the company that is about to be purchased.)

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Federal Appellate Court Restricts Federal Mail Fraud Statute

January 17, 2013 by Carl Lietz

Ellen Podgor over at the White Collar Crime Prof Blog recently pointed out a significant decision out of the Ninth Circuit involving the federal mail fraud statute which could be helpful to those of us that handle white collar cases in federal court. Specifically, in United States v. Phillips, Judge Rackoff, writing for the panel and sitting by designation as a visiting judge, reversed the defendant's mail fraud conviction, concluding that the Government failed to prove that the mail system was used for the purpose of executing the scheme at issue.

The facts in Phillips were relatively unremarkable. In essence, Phillips executed a scheme in which he improperly used company funds to purchase a $10,000 watch for himself. After he paid for the watch, the jeweler mailed the watch to Phillips. In prosecuting him for mail fraud, the Government attempted to use the mailing of the watch to Phillips to satisfy the mailing requirement of the federal mail fraud statute. After he was convicted at trial, Phillips appealed and argued that the mailing of the watch was not in furtherance of the fraudulent scheme to defraud his company, and that he was instead simply using the money he obtained from his company to purchase a watch.


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Responding to a Grand Jury Subpoena Without a Lawyer: Always a Bad Idea

June 29, 2012 by Paul Kish

Here in Atlanta we have a good relationship with the federal prosecutors, and can generally work out some good arrangements when we represent a client who is served with a federal grand jury subpoena. As we explain elsewhere, it is always a good idea to have a lawyer help one through this dangerous process. Yesterday the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion that demonstrates the dangers of going through this process without at least first consulting with an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer. The case is US v. Merrill.

Mr. Merrill was involved in a company that sold munitions to the Army. The munitions would then be shipped to Afghanistan. There is a federal statute and regulation saying that companies cannot provide any such munitions if the material was manufactured by a company in Communist China. Merrill and others had "old" munitions that had been made by a Chinese Communist manufacturer years before the prohibition went into effect. When they tested the waters, they discovered that the US government would still not allow the use of this "old" Communist material, so they did what any self-respecting international arms dealer would do: they removed all signs of its origin and shipped the stuff to Afghanistan.

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Federal Sentencing Law in the Eleventh Circuit: United States Sentencing Commission Issues Summary of Decisions To Assist Federal Practitioners

August 29, 2011 by Carl Lietz

Lawyers that specialize in defending federal criminal cases may be interested to know that the federal sentencing commission recently released a document entitled: "Selected Post-Booker and Guideline Application Decisions for the Eleventh Circuit". According to the Commission, "[t]he document is not a substitute for reading and interpreting the actual Guidelines Manual or researching specific sentencing issues." However, those of you that practice federal criminal law in Georgia, Alabama and Florida will find the document useful, because it does contain helpful "annotations to certain Eleventh Circuit judicial opinions that involve issues related to the federal sentencing guidelines."

I reviewed the document this morning and it is a fairly comprehensive. It not only includes case annotations dealing with many of the more common guideline provisions (including fraud, internet, and immigration offenses), but it also includes several sections that involve general principles of federal sentencing law, such as burden of proof issues, the requirements for sentencing on acquitted conduct, and departures and variances.

The document can be found here and for those of you that practice in other federal circuits, links to similar documents for those other circuits can be found here.

Restitution in Federal Criminal Cases: Prove it or Lose it

August 15, 2011 by Paul Kish

The Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion today on a fraud case out of Florida involving issues related to restitution. The appellate court reversed the restitution order, ruling that the government had not adequately proved the amount of restitution, nor had the district judge calculated restitution based on specific factual findings. The case is United States v. Singletary.

Like many of the federal fraud cases we handle, Singletary involved questions of how much "loss" was involved, along with how much "restitution" could be ordered. Many lawyers forget that these are two very distinct issues. "Loss" is a calculation under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, and this figure is one of the major factors that drives the calculation of the prison sentence in a fraud case. The Guidelines tell a judge to calculate "loss" as the "greater of actual or intended loss". Additionally, the Guidelines also instruct that loss can be "estimated" when the proof is difficult to establish.

Restitution is quite different than "loss." Restitution is based on the loss the victim actually suffered. In other words, "loss" can be much higher than restitution when the defendant tried to get money but was unsuccessful.

While "loss" and restitution are distinct concepts, each figure needs to be adequately proven by the prosecutor. Furthermore, when a defendant objects to either calculation, the sentencing judge must support the ultimate "loss" or restitution number with specific factual findings.

In Singletary, the Court of Appeals confronted a case where the prosecutor used a broad-brush approach to restitution, trying to come up with an estimated figure. The sentencing judge basically agreed with the prosecutor's approach, estimating a loss of $1 million. The Eleventh Circuit reversed because the trial court "failed to carry out the task" of rendering factual findings for each and every specific loss that supported the restitution order.

This case holds lessons for lawyers who handle federal fraud cases. Remember to make the government prove both the "loss" and restitution, and when they do not, appeal the issue. It might help the client in the long run.

Eleventh Circuit Affirms Former Birmingham Mayor's Federal Conviction But Doubts About the Constitutionality of the Honest Services Statute Remain

August 10, 2011 by Carl Lietz

Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions of Larry Langford, the former mayor of Birmingham, Alabama who was convicted last year on various federal white collar offenses, including mail and wire fraud, bribery, money laundering, and federal tax offenses.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the opinion is the way in which the Court of Appeals discussed the honest services portion of the federal mail and wire fraud charges. As we discussed in this previous post, last summer, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in United States v. Skilling, a case which, in essence, limited the honest services provision of the federal fraud statutes to bribery and kickback schemes.

Before Skilling was decided, many (if not all) federal circuits made a distinction between honest services prosecutions that involved public officials, as opposed to those working in the private sector. At the risk of simplifying the issue too much, it was far easier for the government to prove an honest services violation against a public official. Skilling itself, however, did not distinguish between public officials and private actors, leading some to believe that after Skilling, the prosecution of both public and private officials would be governed by the same standards.

In its decision in Langford last week, though, the Eleventh Circuit appeared to recognize that the public official/private actor distinction that existed in this Circuit before Skilling still exists. According to the Eleventh Circuit: Public officials inherently owe a fiduciary duty to the public to make governmental decisions in the public’s best interest. . . . [I]n a democracy, citizens elect public officials to act for the common good. When official action is corrupted by secret bribes or kickbacks, the essence of the political contract is violated. Illicit personal gain by a government official deprives the public of its intangible right to the honest services of the official."

Well before Skilling, there was considerable disagreement among judges regarding the reach and meaning of the honest services statute in both the public and private sector. Although Skilling limited the reach of the statute to cases that involve bribery and kickbacks, it did not address the abundance of issues over which this considerable disagreement existed. Given the Eleventh Circuit's apparent decision to return to the pre-Skilling era in which a distinction exists between the standards governing the prosecution of public officials and private actors, there are many issues that should and will be litigated in this amorphous area known as "honest services" fraud. As Justice Scalia himself recognized in Skilling, even with the majority's pairing down of the statute, the honest services statute nonetheless remains unconstitutionally vague.

The full opinion in Langford can be found here.

Alabama Mail Fraud Convictions Reversed by Court of Appeals sitting in Atlanta

April 18, 2011 by Kish & Lietz

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which sits several blocks from our offices here in Atlanta, reversed some of the convictions in a federal fraud prosecution that were brought against a defendant in Alabama. The reversal of some of the charges was because the indictment failed to allege the necessary facts for one type of federal fraud. This issue about what is needed in federal fraud indictments arises in many such cases we handle. It is refreshing to see the court make prosecutors indict such cases correctly, or else face the consequences.

The case is United States v. Suzanne Schmitz, and it was published on March 4, 2011. We have gotten a little behind in our blogging here, and over the next couple of weeks we will try to catch up by posting some entries from earlier this year.

In the Schmitz case, the defendant was charged with two varieties of fraud, mail fraud and fraud involving a program that received federal funds. The mail fraud charges were OK, appropriately setting out facts to support what we call the "scheme to defraud." However, the counts alleging that Ms. Schmitz defrauded a program that got some money from federal funds fared less well. These charges merely alleged that she worked for the program, that she got her salary each year by engaging in fraud, and that such conduct violated the specific law in question.

On the one hand, indictments that set out the language of a law sometimes are good enough. However, the indictment also needs to set out sufficient facts and circumstances so that the defendant knows what he or she must defend against. Here, the part of the indictment involving federal funds fraud failed to allege any such facts.

The prosecutors in the Schmitz case had a fallback position. There is another set of rules that tell judges to look at the indictment "as a whole" and give it a "common-sense construction." The prosecutors in Schmitz argued that by looking at the mail fraud charges (which, as mentioned above, were pled correctly) a person could understand what was charged in the counts alleging federal funds fraud. The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument. While one part of an indictment can "inform" the meaning of other portions, this does not mean that one part can be simply read into that other portion of the indictment. The better practice is to have explicit cross-references between the various parts of a complex indictment, so that the defendant knows exactly what he or she must defend against.

We are currently involved in a case with somewhat similar issues. We filed a series of pretrial motions in an attempt to force the prosecutors to tell us exactly what we must defend against. In one way we were successful, in that the government went back and got a new indictment that included some of the material we suggested had been missing from the earlier version. The Schmitz decision is a lesson to those prosecutors who fail to plead fraud cases with the appropriate particularity.

Federal Judge Admonishes Prosecutors for Inviting “Public Ridicule and Scorn” on the Justice System with “Mean-Spirited” Sentencing Memorandum

November 19, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Bruce Karatz, former CEO of KB Homes, was sentenced last Wednesday for fraud and false statements in connection with underlying stock-options backdating charges (of which he was acquitted.) He received eight months of house arrest, five years probation, $1 million in fines, and 2,000 hours of community service, the sentence recommended in the probation office’s presentence investigation report (PSR). Judge Otis D. Wright II admonished the prosecutors for their “mean-spirited” sentencing memorandum.

This New York Times article explains the backdating scandal and its results, quoting one professor who analogized it to a “corporate crime lottery.” Although backdating was a widespread practice, relatively few corporate executives have been prosecuted, and then with mixed results. The longest prison sentence given to a backdating defendant has been 2 years.

In this case, the government requested 6 years incarceration and $7.5 million in fines. In their sentencing memorandum, prosecutors argued that sentencing Mr. Karatz to home detention in his “24-room Bel-Air mansion” would suggest “a two-tiered criminal justice system, one for the affluent … and a second for ordinary citizens.” “To promote respect for the law, the public must be assured that a wealthy, well-connected individual, regardless of his station, array of prominent friends and associates, history of private success or acts of public largess, will be subject to the same standard of criminal justice as those less fortunate,” prosecutors wrote.

Judge Wright said he was disturbed by “the inflammatory language in the government’s report that if this court did not impose a harsh sentence that it was evidence of a two-tiered justice system, one of the rich and one for everyone else.” He told the prosecutors, “To invite public ridicule and scorn on this institution, I think, is unspeakable.” “I don’t care, sir, whether or not you have a pot to piss in,” Judge Wright said to Mr. Karatz. “What you get here is fairness.”

Mateos: An Eleventh Circuit Reminder to Criminal Defense Lawyers to Brush Up on the Rules of Evidence

October 26, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

Last week the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in United States v. Mateos, a Medicare fraud case in which the Court held that exclusion of an exculpatory videotape was harmless error. This case is an important reminder to all trial lawyers to remain as well-versed as possible in the law of evidence to best represent our clients.

The defendants were employees of a clinic that purported to treat HIV patients. The clinic’s two doctors saw 70 patients per week, each of which was paid to complain about bleeding disorders. Every patient received either saline or a diluted dose of an expensive and medically unnecessary drug, and then the clinic billed Medicare for full treatments. The clinic received more than $8 million from Medicare during the five months that it was open.

Doctor Alvarez’s defense at trial was that she had not known about the fraud. She tried to introduce a video in which a member of the conspiracy assured her that the clinic was not involved in fraud to show that she had not been aware, but the video was excluded as inadmissible hearsay. The Eleventh Circuit held that the video was not hearsay because it was offered for a purpose other than the truth of the matter asserted. However, the Court held that the error was harmless because the defense had elicited the exculpatory content of the video through testimony.

The Court also upheld an upward departure in sentencing, noting that, under the new healthcare laws, the sentence would have been within the guidelines range had the fraud been committed today. Because sentences within the guidelines are presumptively reasonable and because the sentencing judge named numerous reasons for its upward departure, the Court held that a 30-year sentence was not an abuse of discretion, despite sentencing disparities.

The full opinion is available here.

Skilling: Supreme Court Limits Federal Criminal Honest Services Fraud Law to Bribery and Kickbacks

July 2, 2010 by Kish & Lietz

In this post last week, we announced the Supreme Court’s decision in Skilling v. U.S. The Court held that 18 U.S.C. § 1346, the honest services law that the government has been using to prosecute nearly everything as a federal crime, applies only to bribery and kickback schemes.

The honest services fraud statute simply defines “scheme or artifice to defraud” as used in the mail- and wire fraud statutes to “include a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” Congress enacted this statute quickly after the Supreme Court, in McNally, held that the fraud statutes were “limited in scope to the protection of property rights.” Congress intended to incorporate pre-McNally case law that had recognized fiduciary duties as intangible rights to honest services and a breach of those duties as fraud.

The majority’s rationale for limiting the honest services fraud statute to only bribes and kickbacks was that such cases constituted the “core” of pre-McNally honest services fraud cases and that statutes should be construed, where possible, rather than invalidated. Because, the Court said, circuit conflicts and disagreements regarding honest services fraud cases were primarily outside the bribery and kickback scheme cases, limiting the application of the statute to those cases would avoid vagueness troubles.

The government argued that undisclosed self-dealing cases should be included, but the Court held that the relative infrequency of and intercircuit inconsistencies regarding such cases disallowed the statute’s application to undisclosed self-dealing. In a lengthy footnote, the Court indicated numerous questions Congress would need to clearly address to include such cases in the statute.

Justice Scalia, an open critic of the honest services fraud statute, disagreed with the majority’s limitation of honest services fraud to bribery and kickback schemes. In his concurring opinion, he argued that the Court had no precedent for “paring down” a statute to save it from invalidity and that, even with the limitation, the statute remains unconstitutionally vague. Although the Court clarifies what acts constitute a breach of the “honest services” obligation, the statute and case law do not clearly determine the character of the fiduciary capacity to which the restriction applies. What is the source of fiduciary obligations; who qualifies as a fiduciary; and is anything beyond a breach of fiduciary duty necessary for conviction?

As Justice Scalia recognized, the majority's decision fails to resolve a host of issues surrounding the honest services doctrine. For this reason, litigation surrounding the meaning of this amorphous doctrine will not end with the Court's decision in Skilling. Also, by extending the Yates decision to cases on direct appeal, the impact of the favorable ruling in Mr. Skilling's case is yet to be determined.

While we are relieved that the previously outrageous reach of this statute has finally been limited, we are disappointed that Justice Scalia’s analysis did not gain the support of the majority of the Court.