Articles Posted in White Collar Crime

Being served with a Grand Jury subpoena by federal agents, a government attorney, or both can be a frightening experience. While the initial inclination may be to simply explain to the government agent everything that you know about the investigation, it is important to keep in mind that any statements you make could be used against you (and/or your company) down the road. While the information may very well be transmitted to the government at a later date, an experienced white-collar criminal defense attorney can guide you through this process and help protect you and your rights until the matter is resolved.

The first thing after speaking with you, the attorney will want to review the federal grand jury subpoena itself and that is the focus of this blog post. The subpoena, which is defined as “a writ commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure”[i], must be complied with or there can be consequences. It will tell you if you are being subpoenaed for in-person testimony, to produce documents, or both. Being subpoenaed for in-person testimony requires you to appear before a Grand Jury on a certain date to answer questions under oath that will be asked by a government attorney, who is referred to as the prosecutor. The Grand Jury is a secret process so while your attorney cannot be present during your testimony, they can wait outside and be available to you if you have questions during the process. More information on the Grand Jury process will be available in a later post in this Federal Grand Jury Subpoena series. If the subpoena is a request for documents (or both testimony and documents), it will also provide a description of the documents to be produced. This request for documents could be served to you individually or as a Custodian of Records for a company. Once you are served, you will need to preserve any and all documents related to the requests to review with your attorney.

The grand jury subpoena can also provide some initial information that will be helpful to both you and your attorney, especially if you are not aware of the pending investigation. It can tell you the jurisdiction or Court where the Grand Jury is being convened and the Assistant United States Attorney, or lead prosecutor handling the investigation. The prosecutor handling the case may also clue your attorney in to the type of investigation at issue, for example, if it is healthcare fraud, anti-trust, tax fraud, etc. If the subpoena includes a request for documents, the documents requested, and any time limitations on the document requests will also assist your attorney in gathering more information on the investigation and the various federal statutes at issue.

Since the 1970s, the number of federal criminal statutes has exponentially increased. So too has the number of federal regulations, many of which carry criminal penalties. Though there is disagreement among DOJ lawyers, academics, and private lawyers about the precise number of criminal laws codified in federal statutes and regulations, there is no dispute that it is at least several thousand.[1]

Given the potentially severe consequences for failing to comply with the expanding web of federal criminal laws, modern companies are wise to turn to expert and sophisticated legal counsel for advice on legal compliance. “The extensiveness and complexity of the laws governing” corporate affairs “have made legal advice a crucial element of [not only] major business decisions,” but also of “more mundane kinds of corporate activity.” Douglas W. Hawes & Thomas J. Sherrard, Reliance on Advice of Counsel as a Defense in Corporate and Securities Cases, 62 Va. L. Rev. 1, 5 (1976). As the Supreme Court noted in Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383, 389 (1981), the need to seek and rely on attorneys is especially important “[i]n light of the vast and complicated array of regulatory legislation confronting the modern corporation.” In the decades since these quotes were penned, their messages have become even more apt. Suffice it to say, modern corporations regularly need to rely on lawyers and compliance experts to help ensure they stay on the right side of the law.

Our white-collar defense group frequently represents executives who interface with lawyers on a regular basis in the course of making business decisions.  When the government investigates or prosecutes an executive we represent, we determine what legal advice (if any) the executive relied upon prior to engaging in the conduct at issue.  In the Eleventh Circuit, like others, this inquiry is relevant to, among other things, the defense of good-faith reliance upon advice of counsel.  For most crimes, such reliance is a complete defense because “evidence that the [accused] in good-faith followed the advice of counsel would be inconsistent with [] an unlawful intent.”  Eleventh Circuit Pattern Jury Instruction, Criminal Cases, S18 (Jan. 2019).  The Eleventh Circuit’s pattern jury instructions advise jurors that “[u]nlawful intent has not been proved if the Defendant, before acting: (1) made a full and complete good-faith report of all material facts to an attorney he or she considered competent; (2) received the attorney’s advice as to the specific course of conduct that was followed; and (3) reasonably relied upon that advice in good-faith.”

Those of us that handle federal criminal cases are closely watching a case that is currently before the Supreme Court concerning the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing.  The case, Asaro v. United States, which the Court has not yet decided it will hear, provides the Court with an opportunity to revisit its holding in United States v. Watts.

The background in Watts is fairly straightforward.  In Watts, the defendant was charged with a drug offense and a separate offense involving a firearm.  At trial, the jury acquitted Watts of the firearm offense but convicted him of the drug offense.  However, although Watts was found not guilty of the firearm related offense, the court that sentenced Watts concluded that it was permissible for courts to nonetheless hold defendants like Watts responsible for conduct for which they have been acquitted, as long as the government can establish the various factual prerequisites on the acquitted conduct by a preponderance of the evidence.  Finding that the government had indeed satisfied that standard in Watts, the lower court applied a firearm enhancement against Watts and increased his sentence, despite the jury’s conclusion that Watts was not guilty of the firearm related conduct.  Although the lower court’s decision was reversed on appeal, the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling, reinstated the lower court’s decision in Watts.

Not surprisingly, the Court’s decision in Watts received a great deal of criticism on a number of grounds.  On its face, the idea that one can be held accountable for conduct for which one has been acquitted not only appears to offend the basic and fundamental Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, but it also seems to be plainly unfair.  Significantly, though, over 15 years after the Court’s decision in Watts, Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Ginsburg) urged the Court to reconsider its decision in Watts.  Unfortunately, however, on that particular occasion and others, the Court has been unable to gather the 4 votes that are needed in order for the Court to accept a case that would allow it to revisit this issue.

Last month, I attended a seminar put on by the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Georgia that focused on how to handle large scale discovery in criminal cases. The seminar also provided a good discussion of ways to describe to Judges in quantifiable terms the discovery produced by the government in a case. While there is no one right approach, the seminar reaffirmed for me what we have implemented here at Finch McCranie and I took away some tips to improve upon our process. I appreciate them sharing their ideas on organizing and analyzing large scale discovery in criminal cases.

The quantity of discovery that can be produced in a White-Collar case is now largely talked about in terms of gigabytes and terabytes, thumb drives and hard drives. However, being able to quantify it in terms of number of pages, documents, or bankers’ boxes in addition to the electronic file size may provide a visual image that is helpful to a Judge, if and when a motion to extend pretrial discovery deadlines needs to be filed to allow defense counsel time to review the discovery.

To track and analyze the discovery, there are three key control documents that we create and build upon as we work through each case. The first document is an Overarching Discovery Index. In almost all the Federal White-Collar cases I have worked on, the discovery productions are ongoing, not all at one time, and that is where this index comes in. It summarizes the productions and usually includes the following column headings: Date Produced, Bates-Range (including any bates-prefix or other file name), and Description. A Comments column is also included to note any follow up that is needed. Not only does this document create a snapshot of each production that can be used to quantify the data, but it also creates a road map to track and focus the discovery review.

On January 14, 2020, the Supreme Court will hear argument in Kelly v. United States (No. 18-1059), coined the Bridgegate case.  We are eager to see how the Court resolves this appeal because it raises important issues relating to the scope of money-or-property fraud prosecutions.

The material facts in the case are largely undisputed: in 2013, senior officials for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Port Authority) reallocated lanes over the George Washington Bridge.  Of the twelve lanes on the upper level of the bridge, three were generally reserved for drivers coming from local Fort Lee, New Jersey streets (“Local Access Lanes”) and the remaining nine were reserved for drivers traveling on various highways, including I-95 (“Main Line”).  The reallocation reduced the number of Local Access Lanes to one and increased the number of Main Line lanes to eleven.  Unsurprisingly, the reallocation caused massive gridlock in Fort Lee and expedited traffic flow on the Main Line.

The stated reason for the lane reallocation—issued to Port Authority employees by David Wildstein, Chief of Staff to William E. Baroni, Jr., Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority—was to study traffic patterns and determine whether the Port Authority would continue to reserve three Local Access Lanes for Fort Lee going forward.  In reality, the government alleged, the traffic study was a sham justification used to conceal the true purpose for the reallocation; according to the government, Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff to erstwhile Governor Chris Christie, hatched the lane reallocation strategy as retribution for Fort Lee’s mayor refusing to endorse Governor Christie’s reelection.

As we move towards the holidays and the year end rush to get as many things done as possible, I am sure that most folks are not thinking about CLE hours in 2020.  But for those of you that handle federal criminal cases in the white collar area, be sure to mark your calendars for the annual White Collar Crime Seminar here in Atlanta on January 31, 2020.  Danny Griffin and Paul Murphy have been hosting this great seminar for years.  Although they took last year off, the seminar is back in full force this year.  As everyone knows, Paul moved over to work at the FBI in the summer of last year.  But Danny teamed up with Matt Baughman over at King & Spalding to continue the tradition of hosting an outstanding white collar crime seminar here in Atlanta.  And this year, Danny and Matt have put together another great program.

The morning starts off with a session on Hot Topics and Trends in White Collar Crime, with the panel being moderated by Tom Bever, who incidentally, is starting a new white collar crime practice group over at Smith Gambrell and Russell, along with long time friend and partner, Tony Cochran, and colleague and friend Emily Ward.  From there, Paul Monnin moderates a panel on Securities and Financial Fraud.  I know this will be an interesting panel and I look forward to seeing and listening to Lynsey Baron, who left the U.S. Attorney’s Office not long ago to take a position over at UPS.  After that, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Matt Miner leads a panel that includes Paul Murphy, our local U.S. Attorney, BJ Pak, and other government lawyers. The topic of this panel is Views from the Government.

Over lunch, Sally Yates, our former U.S. Attorney and Deputy Attorney General, will be there to give a talk.  Sally’s talks are always interesting and entertaining and I am sure this one will be as well.  After the lunch break, Judge Baverman, Natahsa Silas, Gary Spencer, and Steve Sadow will participate in a session entitled Practical Tips: From Bonds to the BOP and In Between.  The participants on this panel have a ton of trial and courtroom experience in white collar cases and I look forward to participating in this panel as the moderator.  One highlight of the afternoon session will be the panel discussion on Health Care Fraud moderated by our friend Brian McEvoy.  Mr. McEvoy has a way of livening things up and I was glad to see that Tom Clarkston is traveling up from the Southern District of Georgia to participate in this session.  Finally, to close out the day, our buddy Joey Burby will lead a panel on Trial Tactics in White Collar Cases.  Undoubtedly, this will be a fun and lively session as well, with Craig Gillen and Amanda Clark Palmer participating along with a few others.

Earlier today, the Department of Justice issued a press release announcing that it reached an agreement with BP Oil in which BP agreed to plead guilty to a number of federal criminal violations. More specifically, according to the press release, BP has agreed to enter guilty pleas to violations of various federal criminal statutes involving the Clean Water Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Obstruction of Congress, and a number of even more obscure federal criminal laws pertaining to the Seaman’s Manslaughter Act. In addition to agreeing to plead guilty to these federal criminal offenses, BP also agreed to pay $4.5 billion, including $1.3 billion in criminal fines. At a press conference announcing the resolution of these federal criminal charges, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that “[t]his marks the largest single criminal fine and the largest total criminal resolution in the history of the United States.”

I grew up in the Northern District of Florida and the impact that the oil spill had on the people and the environment in that area is something that hits close to home for me. My family was down on the Gulf Coast the summer that the spill occurred and we observed firsthand how the people, the economy, and the environment were unquestionably impacted in negative ways that most of us never envisioned. In addition, I still have many close friends that live in Pensacola and one of our special friends (and a fellow federal criminal defense lawyer) lives on the beach over in Alabama. For these and other reasons, although I am not particularly familiar with the “evidence” against BP, I was pleased to hear of today’s criminal settlement with the company.
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A week or so ago over at Ellen Podgor’s White Collar Crime Prof Blog, guest blogger Jon May summarized the testimony of Deputy Attorney General James Cole concerning the Government’s position on the Fairness in Disclosure of Evidence Act 2012, an act which would require prosecutors in federal criminal cases to disclose exculpatory evidence in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the Government is taking the position that Congress should not enact this important federal statute. Among other things, the Deputy Attorney General claims that requiring the Government to turn over this information would endanger the lives of Government witnesses.

As Jon May points out here, this argument relies on fear, not fact. It is, however, not the first time that the Government has used this argument. As I discussed in a previous post, in 1974, the Advisory Committee and the Supreme Court recommended amending the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure to require the parties in federal criminal cases to exchange witness lists. This proposed amendment had a broad base of support, and ultimately both the Advisory Committee and the Supreme Court agreed that the change should be made. Before the Congressional Committee addressing the legislation, prosecutors argued (just like Deputuy Attorney General Cole) that pretrial disclosure of prosecution witnesses would result in harm to witnesses. Although the Committee recognized that there may be a risk in some cases, it ultimately concluded that “the risk is not as great as some fear that it is.”
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From our offices here in Atlanta, Georgia, we have been following recent developments in a number of federal criminal investigations and prosecutions concerning antitrust violations involving real estate foreclosure auctions. For instance, back in December, the Department of Justice indicted five individuals in federal court for alleged bid rigging and fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions. In that matter, the indictment included charges against four real estate investors and an auctioneer.

According to the Department of Justice press release issued in connection with the indictment, the defendants and their co-conspirators agreed to suppress and restrain competition by rigging bids to obtain selected properties offered at public, real estate foreclosure auctions. In addition, the Government also alleged that after the conspirators’ designated bidder bought a property at a public auction, they would hold a second, private auction, at which each participating conspirator would bid the amount above the public auction price he or she was willing to pay. The conspirator who bid the highest amount at the end of the private auction won the property. The difference between the price at the public auction and that at the second auction was the group’s illicit profit, and it was divided among the conspirators in payoffs.

The federal indictment against these individuals includes antitrust charges under the Sherman Act, as well as a charge that the defendants conspired to commit mail fraud. Since the return of this indictment, one of the individuals has entered a guilty plea and the others appear to be headed for a trial in federal court sometime later this year. This, however, is not the only investigation or prosecution concerning alleged antitrust violations in connection with real estate foreclosure auctions. From what we have read, however, the investigations and prosecutions in other districts appear to involve similar allegations.

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.