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AV Preeminent - Peer Rated for Highest level of Professional Excellence

I have been a lawyer handling federal criminal defense for almost 40 years, mostly here in Atlanta, but in other parts of the United States when my cases take me there.  I keep tabs on trends in federal law enforcement, because it’s part of may job to do so.  As part of my regular reading, I came across this article about the likely increase in federal fraud investigations and prosecutions.

Readers (you three know who you are) recognize this is a somewhat regular topic I write about, the changing trends in federal criminal enforcement.  For many years, the Feds could not take their eyes off drug crimes.  Then came “illegal” aliens.  Then it was “terrorism.”   Now, after we opened the Federal Treasury for what seems to be much-needed pandemic-assistance, the federal law enforcement agencies are going after individuals who possibly committed fraud to get some of this money.

Astute readers of the previous paragraph will note that I never mentioned the words “corporation,” “companies,” or “businesses.”  That is because the history of the past four decades of federal law enforcement clearly demonstrates that the Feds prefer targeting individuals, and let the bigger players get off with little pain.  Sure, we occasionally see a big federal criminal case against a company, but this is the rare exception.  Instead, we seem to prefer going after the poorest and weakest, make lots of cases and act as if we are doing something about a societal problem.  The author  Matt Taibbi has written extensively about this trend, I recommend his work.

For you readers you here in Atlanta, those in Macon, Gainesville, Savannah, Athens, and Valdosta in Georgia, and others around the country who know I handle federal criminal cases just about everywhere, this is a post about the sometimes dreaded and often misunderstood “sentencing hearing” in federal criminal cases.  I am working on a few this afternoon, and wanted to discuss four pitfalls, and some tips, to make the process go more smoothly for the client and the attorney.

A Judge’s clerk will set the date for the sentencing hearing when the client pleads guilty, or in the unfortunate situation where the clerk reads the dreaded one-word jury verdict (“guilty” instead of the happier sounds of the two-word “not guilty”).  This is generally 2-3 months down the road.  Pitfall Number One: remind the client that he or she must still be on their best behavior, no matter how down or depressed is the client after pleading or being found guilty.  The key is to arrive at sentencing with a life that is worth living, so the attorney has a story to tell and why the sentence should be the shortest interruption possible for that client’s life.

Next comes the interview with the U.S. Probation Officer (the “PO”) who has the task of researching and then writing the Presentence Investigation Report (the “PSR” in our lingo).  Pitfall Number Two: please, please, please,  I never again want to hear about an attorney who lets his or her client attend this interview alone.  Tip: experienced federal criminal defense attorneys have been through dozens (or if the lawyer has done this as long as me, several hundred) of these interviews.  Experienced federal criminal defense attorneys know what to expect, and we spend a significant amount of time prepping the client to avoid mistakes when communicating with the PO.  The biggest problem the client can make is to lie when speaking with the PO, so prep to avoid any of that.

So, there I was reading my morning paper in this 13th month of the pandemic, and I see a story about a local criminal case involving bribery.  The crime involved elected officials taking money to improve the chances that certain property sellers will have their land selected for government land purchases.  The story mentions a specific property and project, and I thought, “that sounds familiar.”  I was right, it’s one of the same properties that one of my clients owned 10 years ago when that client got caught up in a federal bribery investigation/prosecution. I was able to almost immediately track down my old client and assure him (and me) that he has nothing to fear from this recent case for he had no role in the latest deals. This little episode teaches a valuable lesson about the importance of the attorney-client relationship AFTER the case is over, and guidance for clients looking to hire an attorney for present matters.

I generally like people, and almost always like my clients, even though they come to work with me during some of the most difficult parts of their lives.  I also enjoy knowing that I had a part in helping them put their lives back together after the end of the investigation or prosecution in which I was their attorney.  Staying in touch is important, for both sides of the equation. The lawyer needs to maintain a good and ongoing relationship with his or her former client so that they can quickly connect up with one another if something like this comes up.  The client needs to know he or she can easily get their lawyer for the same reason.

When people interview me to decide whether to hire me as their lawyer, I always suggest that they keep in mind that their lawyer needs to be someone that they trust.  This should be a deep down trust, the kind that allows the client to rely on it when making some of the most important decisions of his or her life.  Only if the client is pretty sure that the attorney is someone they can rely on now, and in the future, will that kind of trust be established.  They need to know that their lawyer is someone who will reach out to them, even if that happens to be 10 years down the road.

Well readers, 2020 is coming to a close for this lawyer who specializes in defending against federal criminal investigations and prosecutions in Atlanta, down in Savannah, over in Augusta, the remainder of Georgia, and anywhere else in the country the my clients need for me to go.   As we ponder this difficult year, I am thankful and grateful for the cases we resolved this past year that led to positive results for some of our clients.

In January our work filing and pressing a Motion to Suppress led to the complete dismissal of all charges against our client.

Relying on the tips for using pretrial evidentiary hearings as a tool, we got a client’s case resolved when the Judge imposed the lowest possible sentence.

Readers know I am a federal criminal defense attorney in Atlanta who handles such matters throughout Georgia and the remainder of the country.  I recently took on the appeal in a case here in the 11th Circuit (which covers the federal courts in Florida, Georgia and Alabama).  The case was an appeal by a doctor who had been criminally prosecuted and then found guilty of what is called an “Anti-Kickback Act” violation, referred as an “AKA” case for shorthand.  The story of what happened is a lesson on how hard it is to win, even if we convince the courts that we are right on the legal issues.

When I took on the case, it seemed clear that the main issue for appeal was the use of what is called the “one purpose rule” in AKA cases.  We faced an almost unbroken line of 35 years worth of other federal courts around the country that had all affirmed the use of this “one purpose” test.  Basically, the rule says that a person, like my doctor, is guilty if he or she orders a medical procedure, equipment or prescription if even”one purpose” of the order is to get paid by someone else.  I noted that all the other courts had affirmed the one purpose rule, but that the 11th Circuit had not yet issued a binding and published opinion on the subject.

Like I do in all cases, I sat down one day to read the relevant materials, including the AKA statute in full.  I rubbed my eyes, walked around in circles a few times, then re-read the law.  Absolutely nothing in the language authorized by Congress said anything at all about “one purpose” or “any purpose” in an AKA case.  I then re-read the 35 years’ worth of earlier decisions, and realized they all relied on a single 1985 ruling that simply misapplied the words written by Congress. I felt a bit like the little boy who says “the emperor has no clothes” when I wrote my briefs and pointed out that everyone had been wrong up to now.

I am in the final prep stages for an “oral argument” tomorrow morning in the esteemed (or as some wags call it, the “steamed”) United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the home of which is a few blocks from my office here in lovely Atlanta, GA.  I think I have done over 70 such oral arguments in various federal courts of appeals around the country, but this will be the first “virtual” session, with the Judges and lawyers all participating via the Zoom app.  While the technology will have to replace the in-person proceeding, I wanted to briefly discuss five recurring features of an oral argument.

First, many people are not aware that it is only a rare federal appeal that is selected for oral argument.  The federal appellate courts are overwhelmed, and generally only select cases to be orally argued if the issues are unique, there was a lengthy trial, or the matter has some other unusual feature.  Once a case is selected for oral argument, it is placed on a calendar with other cases that will also benefit from oral argument.  Each day there are around 4 or 5 cases set for argument.  Then, a “Panel” of 3 judges is assigned who will hear the arguments and render decisions.  The clerk sets the dates and order of arguments and away we go!

Second, attorneys need to fully recognize that their time is very limited in an oral argument.  As a general rule, each side has only 15 minutes for their argument.  I am almost always the Appellant (because, after all, that is what happens in criminal cases, we lose and then appeal by claiming something went wrong in the lower court).  As the Appellant, we get to open and then have a brief rebuttal.  That means I generally have 10 or 11 minutes for my opening argument, and 4 or 5 for rebuttal.  Experienced oral advocates learn to think, and speak, quickly.

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I finished a federal criminal case in Atlanta recently.  My clients were very happy with the outcome.  Helping people is one of the reasons I still get excited about my work, even in my 36th year of handling such matters.  I mention this recent case because it has features we often see in such matters, and teaches lessons for both prospective clients and federal criminal defense attorneys, whether in Georgia or the rest of the country.

The clients are a husband and wife who have a small child together.  They are immigrants to the US, but are now citizens.  English is not their native language, as shown in the very nice statement the husband was willing to publish about their experience with me:  “I am grateful that we were able to retain Mr. Kish to represent my wife through an online research. We were panic before we met Mr. Kish. As a professional, intelligent lawyer, Mr. Paul Kish also provides outstanding customer service. Mr. Kish treats his client with respect and care. A HUGE Thank You here, Mr. Kish saved our family and got our life back on the right track.”

The wife was arrested in a blaze of publicity.  Turns out that the government made several incorrect assumptions when arresting this relatively guileless woman.  Over time, we were able to convince them they were wrong on several major matters.  We got all felony charges dropped, and agreed to a plea to a misdemeanor crime that does not require proof that the wife acted with criminal intent. Oh yes, we also agreed she would have to pay a whopping $632 fine. What started out as a big deal for the prosecution ended with a whimper when the Judge imposed a total of 1-year probation for the misdemeanor violation.

Even though the pandemic has slowed the federal courts here in Atlanta and throughout Georgia and the rest of the country, federal criminal investigations continue apace.  Those of you bored enough at home to spend time on this blog recognize that as a criminal defense lawyer specializing in federal criminal cases, I post on various aspects of this kind of work, the people involved, and various tips and tricks I’ve encountered over my 37 years doing this kind of work.  Today’s topic: the “reverse proffer.”

First let’s discuss the “proffer.”  I tell clients that the proffer is kind of like when you go car shopping and take one of the vehicles out for a test drive.  The dealership is not obligated to sell, you are not obligated to purchase, each side kind of wants to see how the situation might look if it all works out.  In a proffer, the person under investigation goes in (with his or her attorney, PLEASE!).  The prosecutor and agents ask questions, but the person’s answers are basically off-limits if the person is later prosecuted, with several major exceptions that we have discussed on other occasions. The prosecutor and agents want to hear the person’s answers, to see if they want to work out some kind of “deal” in return for the person’s information or possible testimony.

A “reverse proffer” is when the prosecutor feels that he or she might be able to convince the person under investigation that the Government has a very strong case. The prosecutor brings the individual under investigation and their counsel to the office (or everybody gets on a video call) and the prosecutor and agents lay out what they feel are the strongest parts of the Government’s potential criminal case. Such a prosecutor does this in the hopes that the person under investigation will realize that the game is over, and the person will tell his or her lawyer to negotiate plea agreement, thus saving the prosecutor the work of actually making a case.

Protests fill the streets around my office in Atlanta where I am a practicing criminal defense attorney who handles mostly federal cases.  While protestors are raising a much larger issue, I have my own protest: the loss of objective journalism in federal criminal cases when “reporters” merely parrot back whatever “press release” is issued by some prosecutor’s media person.

We all know the drill. A federal criminal case is announced after a person is arrested or charges are issued by a grand jury or a criminal complaint is filed.  Then, the multi-page press release is issued.  The public gets this “news” when a media outlet or a reporter for a more standard publication writes a story about the new case.  However, here is where things have changed so drastically over the years.

When I began three and a half decades ago, reporters ALWAYS called the defense attorney for a comment or reaction to the initial story.  This was ingrained into all journalists, the need to strive for “objectivity”, and the realization that there are always two sides to every story.  Sometimes it made sense to comment, many times the better course was to clam up and let the case work itself through the court system.  I remember one case where an egotistic young Public Defender (OK, it was me) told the assembled group of reporters, “We’ll do our talking in court, unlike the prosecutors.”  We got our butts kicked anyway.

Another Monday, and another week ahead of working on federal criminal cases here in Atlanta and the remainder of the State of Georgia (and other parts of our Nation from time to time).  I have to take a few minutes to write about the unanimous decision from the United States Supreme Court last week in the much-watched case of Bridget Kelly and her co-defendant, William Baroni.  This is the somewhat famous “Bridgegate” prosecution, and in the end the highest court in the land once again told federal prosecutors they are trying to stretch the federal fraud laws far too wide.

Way back in 2013, folks who worked for and with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey purposefully messed with the traffic pattern on the George Washington Bridge in order to punish the mayor of a nearby town who would not  support Christie’s reelection bid. This led to four days of gridlock on the streets surrounding the bridge, after which the original pattern was restored. Bridget Kelly was the Governor’s deputy chief of staff, and along with William Baroni, came up with a bogus traffic pattern study as the so-called rationale behind the lane close-downs.  The two officials were later charged with federal crimes for supposedly hatching and then executing the plan to mess with the traffic pattern as part of political “payback”. Continue reading

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