Articles Posted in Public Corruption

Politics impacts many of our criminal cases here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, Florida and Alabama, and in federal cases we do throughout the country. The intersection of politics and criminal prosecutions is especially prevalent in public corruption investigations. Prosecutors often have a political motive in “going after” a particular defendant, and many a prosecutor has made a name for him or herself by bagging a politician. These principles were on full display in the case against Tom Delay, the former Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives. Last week, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed Delay’s convictions, ruling that he had not committed any crime. The ruling is here.

Delay was known as a hard-charging Republican advocate, whose nickname of “the Hammer” demonstrated his supposedly ruthless tactics. In 2002, Delay wanted to have the Texas Legislature turn solidly Republican, which it did. To accomplish, he asked for a series of corporate political contributions to a campaign committee. Afterwards, that solidly Republican legislature allegedly jiggered the voting districts so that the Texas federal delegation was far more likely to elect Republicans to the U.S. Congress. All well and good, hard nosed politics.
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I write and think a lot about how federal criminal cases, and all criminal matters for that matter, intersect with the technological explosions we’ve seen in our lifetime. For example, in earlier posts like this one I’ve written about how courts are grappling with how to apply the principles from the 18th Century enshrined in our Fourth Amendment (no search and seizure unless based on probable cause and a warrant from a Judge) with the 21st century fact that cell phones can be searched and followed from just about anywhere. A few days ago, we heard about another instance where the modern world of the internet intersected with a federal criminal case, resulting in the dismissal of all charges when the Judge concluded that prosecutors violated the Constitution by anonymously posting about the case on a newspaper’s web site.

The basic story goes like this. In the havoc following Hurricane Katrina, there were reports that police officers shot victims of that natural disaster. There was an internal investigation. Cops were interviewed, and were told that they had to answer questions, and that their answers could not be used against them in any subsequent case (we call this “immunized testimony”). State prosecutors thereafter got indictments and convictions. The state appellate courts overturned the convictions, because the immunized testimony WAS used against the cops.
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Federal Criminal Charges were announced yesterday here in Atlanta by the U.S. Attorney. The feds have indicted a well-known State legislator, Representative Tyrone Brooks. According to the indictment, Representative Brooks committed mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax crimes. The grand jury returned a 30-count indictment which charges that, from the mid-1990s through 2012, Brooks solicited contributions from individuals and corporate donors to combat illiteracy and fund other charitable causes, but then used the money to pay personal expenses for himself and his family.

It seems there are three basic sets of crimes alleged in the indictment. First, there are two separate supposed frauds, followed by allegations that Representative Brooks violated the tax laws.
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Here in Atlanta, the local federal Court of Appeals just affirmed a conviction in a mail fraud and bribery white collar case out of Jacksonville, Florida. The case is but the latest saga in the long-running debate over the contours of “honest services fraud”, the species of fraud so often used by federal prosecutors when they go after what they perceive to be “local corruption.” In a 2-1 decision, the majority held that the Defendant’s convictions should be affirmed, even though one of the two judges in the majority had real problems upholding the lower court’s rulings. Judge Hill issued a blistering dissent, perhaps foreshadowing a more full review by the entire court. The case is US. v. Nelson, and can be found here.

Mr. Nelson was the chairman of the board of Jaxport, the entity that basically oversaw the port authority in Jacksonville. The board members worked part-time, were not paid, and were prohibited from voting on any matter in which they had a financial interest.
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Just a few hours ago the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sitting here in Atlanta affirmed most, but not all, of the convictions in the long-running saga of US v. Don Siegelman and Richard Scrushy.

Don Siegelman was the Governor of Alabama. Richard Scrushy was the founder and Chief Executive Officer of HealthSouth. The case stemmed from allegations that Governor Siegelman placed Scrushy and others on a State Board in return for a $500,000 payment. The government charged them with a series of crimes relating to alleged public corruption. Specifically, Siegelman and Scrushy were alleged to have violated 18 U.S.C. §666(a)(1)(B), the law that prohibits bribery involving organizations that receive federal funds. The government also charged the defendants with “honest services” mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit same. Finally, Governor Siegelman was charged with obstruction of justice.

While the case was on appeal, the Supreme Court issued the well-known decision in US v. Skilling, a ruling that restricts the scope of the federal “honest services” branch of mail and wire fraud. Each defendant contended that Skilling changed the landscape, and that their convictions must be reversed. Likewise after the verdicts, the defendants uncovered what appeared to be troubling evidence of juror misconduct and exposure to extrajudicial materials.

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.

Eleventh Circuit case law, the controlling federal law here in Georgia, is at risk of changing next fall, when the Supreme Court will likely decide a criminal case and resolve a split among the circuit courts of appeals.

The mail fraud and wire fraud laws are the bread and butter for federal prosecutors bringing white collar cases. Each of these laws requires a scheme to defraud another person out of “money or property.” For many years, federal prosecutors successfully argued that the word “property” included the right to “honest services” from public employees (such as elected officials). In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that the word “property” does not include “honest services,” but several months later Congress amended these statutes so as to include the concept of “honest services” within the universe of cases that can be prosecuted under the federal mail and wire fraud statutes. Specifically, Section 1346 of the Federal Criminal Code 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.”

Despite the background of this type of fraud, the concept of “honest services” has now been extended by federal prosecutors beyond situations where a public official may have engaged in fraud. Recently, federal prosecutors are bringing more and more cases against people who work for private companies, arguing that the employee breached his or her duty of rendering “honest services” to the employer.

Former Clinch County Superior Court Judge Brooks E. Blitch III faces numerous federal charges for various alleged public corruption activities, ranging from fixing cases to making illegal payments to courthouse employees. Last Monday, two of the charges, involving retaliation against witnesses, were thrown out by the U.S. District court.

The federal statute that was the basis for those charges protects witnesses and victims from retaliation in criminal cases. The indictment in this federal criminal case accuses Blitch of attempting to influence officials in two Georgia towns not to hire an applicant for the police chief position in both cities. That applicant was a former agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation who helped prosecute and convict Blitch’s son in a 1996 arson case.

The District Court ruled that the prosecutors misinterpreted the language of the statute when using it to charge Blitch. His ruling stated that “The statute is intended to protect from retaliation the private citizen who comes forward to provide law enforcement with information about a federal crime.” However, the law does not “protect the law enforcement officer who receives the information.”

The Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice issued a massive report earlier this week concerning how the various federal prosecutors around the country are doing (or not doing) their jobs. While there’s a lot of truth to the old saying about “lies, damn lies and statistics”, the numbers in this report give some clues about why certain federal white collar criminal investigations simply wither away over time.

The Department of Justice is the mother ship for all of the various lawyers who work for the federal government. When it comes to prosecuting federal criminal cases, the 94 U.S. Attorneys offices around the country have front-line responsibility. The U.S. Attorney him or herself is a person appointed by the President to head up one of these 94 offices. However, the day-to-day operations usually are handled by prosecutors who have generally made a career of or have spent a long time as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA). The statistics in this new report show that there can be great variations between the 94 offices when it comes to how AUSA’s handle white collar federal criminal cases.

Some of the statistics in this report are set out in Appendix XIV. This Appendix details how federal prosecutors have handled white collar criminal investigations over the past 5 years. The Appendix goes through each of the 94 U.S. Attorneys offices, and details how many such cases were referred to the prosecutors, provides numbers on how many were actually prosecuted, gives figures on how many were refused for prosecution, and sets out how many are still just hanging around with no decision.