Archive for the ‘Organized Crime’ Category

Allegations of Union Corruption in NYC? We’re Shocked… Shocked!

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

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In a series of predawn raids this morning, the FBI arrested the boss of New York City’s carpenters’ union and nine other men. The 29-count indictment alleges a scam whereby construction contractors paid bribes to union officials, in return for which they were allowed to use cheaper non-union labor. The Genovese crime family is mentioned. (If you’re looking for some light reading, here’s a copy of the 90-page Carpenters Union Indictment.)

Like all federal racketeering indictments, this one looks awful at first glance. It’s 90 freaking pages long! It talks about conspiracies, and schemes, and bribes, and fraud. It says they used code words to conceal the true nature of their actions. Someone said so-and-so would never rat them out, but if he did, “we’d fuckin’ have to kill him.” How in God’s name can one defend a case like that?

Well, it can certainly be done. There are several potential weak spots in any investigation case, which of course law enforcement tries to shore up as best they can. But a good defense attorney knows where the case is likely to be weakest. If there are wiretaps, he knows how to challenge that evidence. (Check out our CLE course on how to do this here.) If there are conclusions, matters of interpretation, he knows how to undercut them. By making the prosecution work harder to prove its case, by finding flaws and weaknesses, he can advocate for better plea bargains and less punishment — or even stand a chance to fight it at trial.

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This is something we actually have some experience with. The last big case like this involved the roofers’ union. We investigated and prosecuted that case, back in the days before we came over to the side of the angels. That investigation involved something like a year and a half of wiretaps on dozens of phones, “debriefings” of too many individuals to count, analyzing a warehouse-full of seized documents, and a six-month grand jury presentation. That’s just the stuff before anyone got arrested. By the time the case was over, we saw the first New York conviction of a labor union, as well as convictions of all the union leadership and the Genovese guys controlling them. So this case sounds pretty familiar.

In a nutshell, what happens is this: Let’s say you’re a contractor doing some work on a project. It’s a union project, which in this part of the world means you can’t put anybody on the job unless they’re a dues-paying member of a labor union. And your company has to be a union shop, complying with the collective-bargaining agreement. (State laws like prevailing-wage laws and the like actually force this kind of situation.) But you don’t like union workers. Their wages are too high. You have to pay more for their union benefits. The union collective-barganing agreements make you use manpower-intensive, inefficient labor techniques (to maximize union revenue). You have to hire more workers than you’d otherwise need, to comply with the union rules. And to top it all off, in your experience, union workers around here just aren’t as competent or skilled as the non-union guys.

So what do you do? You do what your father did, and what his father did. When you get a union job, one of the union officials meets with you, and you give him an envelope of cash. In return, the union looks the other way, and doesn’t enforce its collective-bargaining agreement with you. You get to higher fewer, cheaper and better workers, and you wind up making more profits off the job. The union bosses get extra cash. And the union guys get to sit in the union hall, wondering why there’s no work today.

And if you don’t pay up? Well, it’s no secret that there might be some people who might take it amiss if you did not do so. Everybody knows this, right? Don’t you watch movies? But did anyone actually say that to you… well, no. Did anyone ever actually threaten you? Not exactly. It’s just something you understood.

So maybe you’re a victim of extortion — pay up and make extra profits or else. Or maybe you’re a willing participant — it’s just the way things are done around here, might as well play along.

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Of course, this whole setup is wholly created by the law itself. In states like New York, the law gives huge power to labor unions, compels union work more often than not, and essentially requires union labor in government contracts. And there is no way to opt out. This is not a right-to-work state. And when the law prohibits the economically-rational decision, basic economics dictates that a black market will arise. And so you get a black market in labor.

It’s costly. The law raises the cost of doing business for the law-abiding, while creating profits for those who flout it. Higher costs mean higher prices and rents for the average Joe. And we pay more taxes to cover the expensive investigations, prosecutions and monitoring of those who would take advantage of the distorted incentives.

It’s not surprising that organized crime always seems to be involved. The mantra of organized labor — thou shalt not compete — just happens to be the mantra of organized crime. O.C. types enforce the lack of competition, and resulting extra costs, in return for a piece. And O.C. types are perfectly placed to take advantage of any black market created by foolish government policies.

So if anyone is ultimately to blame here, we’d say it’s the politicians. The idealists who create rules that would only work if the world didn’t happen to work differently. Rules that create incentives for honest people to do the economically-rational thing. Which creates a market for people — union officials who look the other way, others who protect the arrangement — who can fill that rational need. So long as these foolish laws continue to artificially warp the supply and demand curves for labor around here, we’re going to keep seeing these kinds of cases again and again.

No Org Chart Required: RICO “Enterprise” Needn’t Be Distinct from its Activities

Monday, June 8th, 2009

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In a solid 7-2 decision this morning, the Supreme Court ruled that jurors in a RICO case can infer the existence of a racketeering enterprise simply based on its activity, and don’t need evidence of any separate structure or hierarchy.

This clears up some misconceptions that have been floating around for a while about what the RICO statute actually says. We’ve always thought that the language was fairly straightforward, but have been amazed at the variety of interpretations we’ve heard from prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.

Writing for the majority in Boyle v. United States, Justice Alito ruled that an enterprise must have a structure of some kind, but not necessarily one that is separate and distinct from that “inherent in the pattern of racketeering activity in which it engages.”

Boyd was one of several people who took part in dozens of bank robberies across several states in the early 1990s. There was a “core group” of conspirators, and others would be brought in as needed. The crimes followed a pattern, but the offenders weren’t formally organized. It was a loose and informal association, without any hierarchy or long-term arrangement.

At trial, Boyd’s judge told the jurors that the government had to prove the existence of a RICO enterprise by proving that:

(1) There [was] an ongoing organization with some sort of framework — formal or informal — for carrying out its objectives; and

(2) The various members and associates of the association function[ed] as a continuing unit to achieve a common purpose.”

The judge also told the jury that it could:

find an enterprise where an association of individuals, without structural hierarchy, [had been formed] solely for the purpose of carrying out a pattern of racketeering acts;

[and that]

Common sense suggests that the existence of an association-in-fact is oftentimes more readily proven by what it does, rather than by abstract analysis of its structure.

Hewing to a common misconception about what RICO requires, Boyd’s counsel wanted instead an instruction that the government had to prove that the enterprise had:

a) An ongoing organization;

b) A core membership that functioned as a continuing unit; and

c) An ascertainable structural hierarchy distinct from the charged predicate acts.

But the judge’s instruction came almost straight out of the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576 (1981), which held that “an enterprise includes any union or group of individuals associated in fact,” and that RICO targets “a group of persons associated together for a common purpose of engaging in a course of conduct.” Such an enterprise could be “proved by evidence of an ongoing organization, formal or informal, and by evidence that the various associates function as a continuing unit.”

The newly-clarified rule of this case is that:

(1) An enterprise must have a structure. This essentially means that there have to be different parts that make up the whole, as well as a pattern of relationships among the members of the group.

An association-in-fact enterprise (one that exists without having been formally established as a legal entity) must have at least three structural features (though the word “structure” is not necessary in jury instructions). These features are: (1) A purpose; (2) Relationships among those associated with the enterprise; and (3) Longevity sufficient to permit the associates to pursue the enterprise’s purpose.

There is no requirement that a structure must have a hierarchy. Nor need there be role differentiation, a unique modus operandi, a chain of command, professionalism and sophistication of organization, diversity and complexity of crimes, membership dues, membership rules and regulations, uncharged or additional crimes aside from predicate acts, an internal discipline mechanism, regular meetings regarding enterprise affairs, an enterprise name, or induction/initiation ceremonies and rituals. All that is required is a continuing unit that functions with a common purpose, no more.

(2) It is redundant and misleading to require a jury to find the existence of an “ascertainable structure.” If a jury finds that there was a structure beyond a reasonable doubt, then of course it was ascertainable, because they found it. Requiring this extra verbiage implies that the structure be something more than what is required.

(3) The existence of an enterprise is, of course, a separate element to be proved. That does not mean, however, that the existence of the enterprise must be separate from the racketeering activity in which it engaged.

This stuff isn’t rocket science. It’s not even Logic 101. But we’ve heard prosecutors, judges and defense counsel mangle this often enough that the Court’s clarification today is refreshing.

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Speaking of mangling, however, two Justices did dissent. Stevens was joined by Breyer in opining that an “enterprise” refers only to “business-like entities that have an existence apart from the predicate acts committed by their employees or associates.”

This is the most common of the misconceptions we’ve come across regarding RICO. Still, it is surprising to hear it come from two such respected jurists. We think Stevens and Breyer do know better.

Stevens has been doing a lot of forceful dissenting in this term, and that has long led us to believe he’s putting the finishing touches on his legacy before retirement. If anyone had announced their retirement this term, we’d have certainly expected Stevens rather than Souter, for this reason alone. We still believe, however, that he’s preparing for retirement, and wants to get his jurisprudence out there.

On this matter, however, we don’t see this particular dissent coming back to form the basis of a new rule somewhere down the road. He focuses on an interpretation of Congress’ intent when it drafted the statute, an interpretation that is dubious at best. And he makes the unfortunate mistake of conflation: the existence of an enterprise is a separate element of the offense, and so therefore the enterprise must exist separately from its activities.

In other words, an enterprise that does nothing else but work to achieve its criminal ends cannot be a RICO enterprise. That’s just absurd. And that is certainly not what Congress intended.

Gang Crime Rising, So More… White-Collar Prosecutions?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

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Gang crime is on the rise, the FBI reports. The politicians and prosecutors, however, are focusing on white-collar crime these days. Here’s a look at why this is happening.

Gang crime seems to have increased, ironically, as a result of improved anti-gang law enforcement in the big cities.

According to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, street gangs have started expanding more rapidly from urban centers into suburban and rural areas. This has spurred new membership, as fresh populations are opened to gang recruitment. By the end of last year, about a million people were estimated to belong to gangs within the U.S.

One might think that the burbs lack the same social pressures that drive gang membership. Gangs are products of the inner cities, after all, where kids lack fathers to lead them, involved communities to belong to, competent schools to teach them, and opportunities for money and glory. We expect gangs to arise in the inner cities of single moms, apathetic neighbors, dysfunctional schools, government welfare and hopelessness. Suburbia’s not like that, right?

Well, according to the NGTA, drugs drove the expansion. During the 1980s, the suburbs began to become a profitable new market for drug dealers who had previously focused on the urban market. During the 1990s, the huge profits from suburban drug sales caused the street gangs to physically expand their territory, often resulting in violence as urban gangs clashed with local toughs and with each other in the race to occupy the burbs.

Meanwhile, law enforcement started cracking down on gang and drug crime in the cities. It was getting dangerous to operate in NYC, LA and Chicago. Suburban cops, however, just weren’t as much of a concern. The burbs were also seen as safe places to hide from unsuspecting law enforcement, unused to dealing with a gang element.

The combination of weaker opposition from law enforcement, and higher profits from suburban drug users paying “white boy prices,” was a clarion call for gang expansion. It was an irony that improved law enforcement actually resulted in the spread of gang-related crime.

There were other reasons for the spread of gangs into suburban and rural communities, not detailed by the NGTA report. From the author’s own interviews with drug traffickers in the New York area, gangs sometimes followed inner-city populations that had moved out there first. People on government assistance began moving out to places such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania and various towns Upstate along the Hudson River, because a person on welfare could have a nicer quality of life there. Many of them brought with them the quality of life that they were trying to avoid, unfortunately. And those who were drug users brought their demand with them. And so the dealers followed, the gangs followed, and the forces that spurred gang recruitment never went away.

Despite the spread of violent crime and drug trafficking, however, the FBI is focusing more on white collar crime. White collar crimes certainly are on the rise lately, especially fraud cases.

“We may not be doing as many drug enterprise operations,” Special Agent in Charge Richard Lambert recently said, “so we can focus more on mortgage fraud and corporate fraud problems.”

In just the past month or so, 3000 new FBI positions have been created to combat white collar crime. On top of those new hires, the Senate Banking Committee is preparing a $110 million fund that would hire 500 new FBI agents, 50 new AUSAs, and 100 new SEC agents.

Bill co-sponsor Chuck Schumer (D-NY) stated in the accompanying press release that “our white collar crime divisions are under-staffed, under-funded, and overwhelmed. When a wave of violent crime sweeps through a city, the immediate response is to beef up the police forces, putting more cops on the beat, extending overtime, and making sure the city returns to safety. Our reaction to the financial crisis and the massive and complex financial fraud investigations that loom should be no different.”

Why the rise in white collar cases? It’s not just the economy, stupid.

Sure, people may be tempted to commit crimes in an economic downturn. But this usually applies to people who are on the bottom rungs of the economy. Wall Street types and CEOs don’t start robbing banks just because their net worth slipped a bit.

Instead, white collar crime goes on all the time. What’s changing now is not the number of crimes being committed, as the number of cases being prosecuted. There’s a difference. As Anne van Heerden, head of forensics at KPMG Switzerland told Swissinfo, “I do not believe that the number of cases is growing, but rather the detection rate is increasing.”

Sophisticated financial crimes have always been sexy for law enforcement. What prosecutor didn’t want to convict the next Ivan Boesky, Andy Fastow or Michael Milken? The problem is, they’re hard to catch. The crimes take place on paper, in back rooms, and on golf courses. Not places frequented by cops or detectives. Evidence is often hard to find, and even harder to comprehend if found.

But the new economic downturn — which many see as the direct result of white collar crime — has led to new political pressure to “do something about it.” (At a function last week, we joked with a prominent judge that our white-collar defense practice was recession-proof, to which the judge responded “yes, but your clients caused the recession.”) Elected officials feel that pressure to “do something,” and they start rewarding successful prosecutions, and funding more of them.

So the word has come down from above that white-collar prosecutions are what the chiefs want. And that’s what they’re getting.

Expect to see more.

Treasury & Fed Rules Outlaw Internet Gambling

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

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Yesterday, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury promulgated new rules that prohibit the processing of payments related to Internet gambling. By forbidding financial institutions from processing the payments, the government has essentially outlawed online gambling.

What constitutes “online gambling” is left up to state law. A few kinds of betting are still allowed, including government lotteries, horse racing and fantasy sport leagues. College and pro sports books, however, are no longer allowed. The same goes for online poker, roulette, craps, slots and other casino-type gaming.

Internet gambling is believed by many in law enforcement to be important to organized crime. It is a profitable source of revenue in its own right, and is difficult to police. “Street level” bookmakers are also believed to use online sports gambling to facilitate their activities, and to hedge or shift the risks of the street wagers they accept.

The new rule has been opposed by Democratic lawmakers and gambling businesses, as well as by financial institutions that would bear the burden of implementing the rule.