Posts Tagged ‘conspiracy’

Something to Tide You Over

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

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We apologize to our loyal readers for the unusual delay between posts. We’ve been on trial, and you know how that goes. Trial is all-consuming. And then there’s all the work that piles up in the meantime. And the wife and kids need a token appearance from us once in a while. So the blog just isn’t happening while we’re on trial.

And that’s how it should be, of course.

So yeah, we’ve been on trial since November 2. We keep predicting that it will end soon, but it never does. With any luck, we’ll have closing arguments tomorrow. But we said the same thing yesterday, and on Friday, and on Thursday… And we’re going to have to take Thursday off if the jury’s still not back with a verdict then, because we’re giving our next “Hope for Hopeless Cases” lecture for West Legal Ed Center that day. So yeah, this case could easily last through Friday.

To tide you over until we finally get a chance to blog again, here’s a link to our latest article in Forbes magazine.

Link

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Expert View
BEAR STEARNS DEFENSE HOLDS LESSONS FOR EXECS

Going on offense is the best defense in white-collar cases.

It didn’t take long after the housing boom turned bust and trillions of dollars of wealth had gone poof that the public was out for blood. The government needed to “do something” about the mess.

An obvious point of focus were the securities firms Bear Stearns (now a part of JPMorgan Chase) and Lehman Brothers (now a part of Barclays) which blew up in quick succession. From there, it does not take a huge leap of logic to understand how federal prosecutors set their sights on Ralph Cioffi and Matt Tannin, two former managers of Bear hedge funds who were plucked out of obscurity, paraded through a perp walk and unceremoniously read their rights as criminal defendants.

As their Nov. 10 acquittals attest, they didn’t actually commit any crimes. But that didn’t spare them from two years of hell during which they were investigated, indicted, vilified, prosecuted and put on trial. If they’d lost, that would have all been a picnic compared with the 20 years of prison time they would have faced.

If the case teaches us anything, it’s that such ordeals can befall executives–innocent and otherwise. If enough things go wrong on their watch, it’s not all that rare for bosses to find gung-ho prosecutors eager to indict them before all the facts are in.

That leads to the question: What can you do to protect yourself if you fall under the eye of a suspicious prosecutor? Here, the Bear Stearns case is instructive.

Lesson One
You’re on your own. If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of an indictment related to your professional activities, don’t count on your…

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Can Skilling Get a New Trial?

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Jeff Skilling

On Tuesday, the Fifth Circuit ruled on Jeff Skilling’s appeal from his conviction in the Enron case, upholding the conviction, but sending the case back for re-sentencing. Skilling may be able to raise a Brady issue on remand, as well, so the case doesn’t seem to be over. The opinion is 106 pages long, so we will summarize the ruling and its meaning for you here.

Skilling challenged his conviction, on the grounds that the government’s theory of “honest services” fraud was wrong. The government’s case let the jury decide on three purposes of Skilling’s conspiracy, one of which was to deprive Enron of the honest services of its employees. Because the jury returned a general verdict, if any one of those legal theories was insufficient, then the verdict must be reversed.

Skilling focused on the honest services theory, arguing that it was insufficient because his actions were done to give Enron a higher stock price, so it was in the corporate interest. He didn’t act in secret, and wasn’t self-dealing.

In making this argument, Skilling relied on the Circuit’s previous Enron case, United States v. Brown, 459 F.3d 509. In that case, a loan secured by Nigerian barges was fraudulently booked as revenue. The defendants in that case were specifically ordered by their CFO, Andy Fastow, to carry out the deal. Not only did they believe that Enron had a corporate interest in the scheme, and was a willing beneficiary of it, but their superiors ordered and approved their actions. Furthermore, they were paid more depending on whether they successfully achieved the goal.

The Court held that Skilling’s reliance on Brown was misplaced. The Brown rule absolves low-level employees of liability for honest-services fraud when:

1) the employer creates a particular goal,
2) the employer aligns the employees’ interests with the employer’s interest in achieving that goal, and
3) higher-level management authorizes or orders improper conduct in order to reach the goal.

Here, the first two conditions were met, but the third was not. Condition 1 was met when Enron created a goal of meeting Wall Street earnings projections. Condition 2 was met as Skilling got paid more if Enron met those projections. But condition 3 was not met, as there was no evidence that anyone besides Skilling authorized his conduct. The Board tacitly approved several of the underlying transactions, but never authorized him to engage in fraudulent conduct.

Because the third condition was not met, the Brown rule does not absolve Skilling of his liability. His conviction was therefore upheld.

With respect to sentencing, Skilling argued that the district court got the Guidelines calculation wrong, and that the sentence is unreasonable under §3553. The Court didn’t get to the §3553 issue, because it held that the Guidelines calculation was indeed incorrect, and a court has to do the Guidelines right before the §3553 factors come into play.

Skilling appealed a §3C1.1 two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice, and a §2F1.1(b)(8)(A) four-level enhancement for jeopardizing a financial institution.

The §3C1.1 enhancement was based on a determination that Skilling perjured himself as to his sale of Enron stock right after he resigned from the company. He’d tried to sell his stock while still CEO, but it would have had to be reported. So he resigned, then tried to sell his stock. But then September 11 happened, and he wasn’t able to sell until September 17. Skilling testified to the SEC that his order to sell on September 17 was due to his concerns over the market’s reaction to 9/11. The judge decided that was perjury.

On appeal, skilling didn’t argue that it wasn’t perjury. Instead, he argued that the court should have suppressed his SEC testimony in the first place, because the SEC misled him as to the fact that the investigation was criminal in nature.

The Circuit, however, pointed out that suppressible evidence can still be used at sentencing, and none of the exceptions to that rule apply here. The Court also found no justification for the original perjury. So the two-level enhancement was proper.

The §2F1.1(b)(8)(A) enhancement was based on the finding that Enron’s retirement plans were “financial institutions” for the purposes of that Guideline. Retirement plans aren’t specifically mentioned in the Guideline’s definition, which enumerates a long list of included entities. Various kinds of pension funds are included, however. And the list does include a catch-all “any similar entity.”

With respect to “pension funds,” the Guidelines don’t define the term. But a pension requires more than just employee investment for later payout — a pension has definitely determined payouts. Here, the retirement funds didn’t have specific benefits, they were just there as a pool for funding any benefits that might be given. So the Court decided they didn’t count.

With respect to the catch-all, apart from pension funds, the Guideline definition lists classic financial institutions like banks, investment houses, and the like. The Court did not want to expand the definition to declare every corporate retirement plan to be a financial institution.

Because the retirement plans weren’t financial institutions, the four-level enhancement was improper. So Skilling’s sentence was vacated, and the case was remanded for resentencing.

In addition to these main issues, the Court also rejected Skilling’s other challenges to his trial. Giving a “deliberate ignorance” instruction was at worst harmless error. None of the other jury instructions were problematic. The venue was proper. There was no prosecutorial misconduct.

Interestingly, however, the Court specifically stated that Skilling can raise Brady issues on remand. An FBI interview note showed that Andy Fastow didn’t think he had discussed a certain list with Skilling. This was omitted from the formal “302” report provided to the defense. Skilling claims that Fastow was talking about a list of talking points that Fastow had testified at trial he actually had discussed with Skilling.

The Circuit found this troubling, but the trial court never saw the notes or ruled on this claim, so nothing could be decided on appeal. But the Court instructed that “Skilling must bring this claim to the district court before we can address it.”

Therefore, Skilling might be able to get a new trial! If Skilling can show that there was a Brady violation, this case could be far from over. The government claims that the list in question is unrelated to the case, however, so we’re just going to have to wait and see.

OJ Simpson Sentence Confuses Press

Friday, December 5th, 2008

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OJ Simpson was sentenced today in Clark County District Court, after previously being found guilty of multiple crimes arising out of an armed break-in and theft at a Las Vegas hotel. The details can be found in any news outlet you fancy. But what sentence did he get? The headlines are all over the place.

Some sources say he got 12 years. Many say 15 years. Some say 33 years. Some say 9 years. What gives?

The reason for the confusion is the fact that OJ was sentenced on 10 counts, with many of the sentences running concurrent, and some running consecutive.

Concurrent sentences are served at the same time. So if you get sentenced on two counts, one for 5 years and the other for 6 years, to run concurrent, then you only face 6 years. But if they were to run consecutively, then you’d be serving 11 years.

So how does OJ’s sentence break down?

First, the concurrent sentences:

Count 1: Conspiracy to Commit a Crime: 1 year
Count 2: Conspiracy to Commit Kidnapping: 1 to 4 years (eligible for parole after 1 year, max of 4)
Count 3: Conspiracy to Commit Robbery: 1 to 4 years
Count 4: Burglary While in Possession of a Deadly Weapon: 2yrs 2 mos to 10 years
Count 5: First Degree Kidnapping with Use of a Deadly Weapon: 5 to 15 years
Count 6: First Degree Kidnapping with Use of a Deadly Weapon: 5 to 15 years
Count 7: Robbery with Use of a Deadly Weapon: 5 to 15 years
Count 8: Robbery with Use of a Deadly Weapon: 5 to 15 years

So the concurrent sentences have a max of 15 years, with eligibility for parole after 5 years.

Next, the consecutive sentences:

Counts 5 to 8 add 1 to 6 years to run concurrently with each other, but consecutive to the rest
Count 9: 1.5 to 6 years consecutive to Count 8
Count 10: 1.5 to 6 years consecutive to Count 9

So add 1 + 1.5 + 1.5 = 4 years to the parole eligibility, for a total of 9
Then add 6 + 6 + 6 = 18 years to the max number, for a total of 33

So OJ is eligible for parole in 9 years, and could conceivably serve a maximum of 33 years.

Hope that clears things up.

Antitrust Division Cuts Flat-Screen Prices, Just in Time for the Holidays

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Antitrust Division gets guilty pleas in TV price-fixing conspiracy

Three major flat-screen TV and monitor manufacturers have pled guilty to price fixing, in a case brought by the DOJ’s Antitrust Division.

Sharp, LG Display and Chunghwa will pay $585 million in fines, pursuant to their plea. The DOJ alleged that, as a result of the price-fixing conspiracies, consumers paid inflated prices for products with LCD screens. Affected products ranged from flat-screen TVs to computer monitors, laptops, iPods and cell phones.

Division chief Thomas O. Barnett stated that these were international conspiracies that “affected millions of American consumers who use computers, cell phones and numerous other household electronics every day.” Without calculating how much extra the consumers wound up paying, he predicted that this plea would now result in lower prices.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the world’s largest LCD maker, Samsung, had cooperated with the Antitrust Division and was not named in the plea announcement. AAG Barnett declined to comment on whether Samsung had received legal immunity. Federal law provides that the first company to give evidence of a criminal conspiracy can receive immunity. When the investigation first became public in 2006, Samsung stated that it had “pledged its full and continuing cooperation” with law enforcement.