Articles Posted in Fraud

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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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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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.

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.

This past Friday the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in U.S. v. Ghertler, a federal criminal case. The Court held that Ghertler, who had impersonated corporate officials to obtain urgent cash transfers from large corporations, did not abuse a position of trust in perpetrating his frauds because he had no relationship of trust to abuse. For that reason, the abuse of trust sentencing enhancement at U.S.S.G. § 3B1.3 should not have applied.

In 2006 and 2007, Mr. Ghertler researched the names of corporate officers, then called the company and identified himself as an officer, usually the general counsel. He claimed that some urgent matter, such as settlement of a lawsuit, required an immediate cash transfer and provided instructions for distribution of the funds. He pleaded guilty to eight counts of wire fraud in 2008, admitting to defrauding the seven companies named in the indictment. He was sentenced to concurrent 185-month sentences.

One of Ghertler’s arguments on appeal was that the District Court should not have applied U.S.S.G. § 3B1.3, a two-level sentencing enhancement for abuse of a position of trust. The District Court recognized that Ghertler did not actually hold a position of trust, but based its decision on Application Note 3, which provides for application of the enhancement where “the defendant provides sufficient indicia to the victim that the defendant legitimately holds a position of private or public trust when, in fact, the defendant does not.”

The Health Care bill that passed last night provides for additional funding to the Health Care Fraud and Abuse Control Program (HCFAC). This program was established as a part of the Heath Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in 1996 “to combat fraud committed against all health plans, both public and private.” The HCFAC program coordinates federal, state, and local law enforcement actions with respect to health care fraud and abuse.

Section 1304 of the bill passed last night provides additional funding to the tune of $250 million between 2011 and 2016 to the HCFAC program. The HCFAC Account is funded by the Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1395i(k). It covers the costs of:

(i) prosecuting health care matters (through criminal, civil, and administrative proceedings);

Prosecutions against executives accused of fraud in connection with backdating stock options have been plagued by prosecutorial misconduct. In August, the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction of Gregory Reyes, former CEO of Brocade Communication Systems, due to prosecutorial misconduct. Last week, Judge Carney of the Central District of California dismissed charges against former Broadcom executives with prejudice, entering a judgment of acquittal for one.

Stock-option backdating is a practice in which an employer grants stock options to an employee, retroactively dated to increase its value. Backdating itself is not illegal, but it must be properly disclosed in financial records and filings with the SEC. This article, published at the beginning of the backdating scandal in 2006, explains the history and controversy of backdating options. The SEC began charging corporations and executives in enforcement actions relating to backdating in significant numbers in 2006, and criminal charges have resulted in a few cases. The SEC has continued to bring enforcement actions against corporations and executives for secret backdating of options.

US v. Reyes was the first, and most high-profile, of the criminal cases. Reyes’ defense was that, although he had signed off on backdated options, he had relied on Brocade’s finance department to properly account for the backdated options in the corporate books and was not responsible for false records. The government put up a witness from the finance department who testified that she and other employees in the department did not know about the backdating. However, higher-up finance department employees had told the FBI that they did know about the backdating, but those witnesses did not testify because they were subject to possible criminal prosecution and had been targets of SEC civil suits. In the prosecutor’s closing argument, he told the jury that “finance did not know anything” in direct contravention of the statements given to the FBI. The Ninth Circuit stressed the special duty of federal prosecutors not to impede the truth and remanded the case for a new trial, which is scheduled for February.

Last Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Black v. U.S. and Weyhrauch v. U.S., two of the three federal honest services fraud cases currently before the Court. On Friday, lawyers for Jeffrey Skilling submitted their brief in the third, Skilling v. U.S. This Monday, the Court set oral arguments for Skilling for March 1, 2010, at least three weeks before it would normally be heard. We have previously discussed these cases here, here, here, and here.

Background

For many years, federal prosecutors successfully argued that the mail fraud and wire fraud laws covered schemes to defraud the people of the “intangible right” to have affairs conducted honestly. Now referred to as “pre-McNally caselaw” this body of law was not uniform; the circuits disagreed on exactly what conduct constituted the illegal conduct at the boundaries of the law. In McNally v. U.S. in 1987, the Supreme Court held:

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in another honest services fraud case: Skilling v. United States. Jeffrey Skilling, of Enron notoriety, is challenging his conviction for honest services fraud and the venue of his trial.

The honest services fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1346, expands the definition of a scheme or artifice to defraud under the mail and wire fraud statutes to encompass schemes that “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” This federal criminal case will address whether the statute requires the government to prove that the defendant’s conduct was intended to achieve “private gain” rather than to advance the employer’s interests, and, if not, whether the statute is unconstitutionally vague. A second issue in the case involves when a presumption of jury prejudice arises.

We have previously discussed two other honest services fraud cases, Black v. United States and Weyhrauch v. United States, that the Court will also hear this term. Our discussion of Black is here and of Weyhrauch is here.

As we discussed in this post, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear media mogul Conrad Black’s appeal regarding whether the honest services fraud statute applies in a purely private setting where the defendant’s conduct risks no foreseeable harm to the putative victims. We are very interested in the outcome of this case because it has the potential to change the law in the Eleventh Circuit (the court that hears federal criminal appeals from Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.) Unfortunately, we will have to wait a while. The appeal will not be heard until after the beginning of the Court’s new term this fall, likely as late as November or December.

As reported over at the SCOTUS Blog, Black has requested bail during the time his appeal is pending. He has served 15 months of a 78-month prison sentence and, if bail is denied, will have served about two years before the Justices decide his case. If his conviction is reversed, those are several months he cannot get back. His lawyers also argue that he should be released from prison in the meantime because his co-defendant, John Boultbee, has been released on a $500,000 bond and allowed to return to Canada to await the Supreme Court’s decision.

You can read Black’s application here.