Posts Tagged ‘fastow’

Are White Collar Sentences Too Harsh Now?

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

dilbert-wcc.pngPrison Farm

When we started law school back in ’93, we felt that white-collar criminals just weren’t punished that harshly in this country. The Dilbert strip above, from about the same time, shows that we were not alone in thinking this. It seems that this was a common perception going at least as far back as our early childhood — click on the audio button above to listen to an early ’70s National Lampoon skit called “Prison Farm.”

Like many, we felt that there was some serious injustice going on here. Socioeconomic elites were getting off lightly, even though they may have victimized far more people, far more seriously, than street-level crooks who were doing hard time. A mugger takes one person’s money, and gets a long sentence in a high-security prison. Meanwhile, a Wall Street scammer wipes out thousands of families’ savings, erases their years of labor and planning, and gets a slap on the wrist. It seemed absurd, like something from Alice in Wonderland.

And we weren’t wrong. As late as the early ’90s, we had guys like Mike Milken serving less than two years, even after the sentencing judge (Kimba Wood) had said such things as “You were willing to commit only crimes that were unlikely to be detected…. When a man of your power in the financial world… repeatedly conspires to violate, and violates, securities and tax business in order to achieve more power and wealth for himself… a significant prison term is required.”

The lesser sentences were of course due in no small part to the difficulty of spotting white-collar crime in the first place, and then proving it to a jury. Also, the law itself classified these crimes at the less-serious end of the spectrum. So you had to expect significant plea bargaining in difficult-to-prove cases, and the plea sentences were being discounted from relatively short terms in the first place.

Another important factor was the socioeconomic status of the white-collar defendants. These were not street thugs, they weren’t skeevy bottom-feeders. They were college-educated, productive members of the community, involved in charities and otherwise living “normal” lives. Their crimes weren’t violent, they were almost administrative. Victims weren’t in your face, with visceral injuries and tangible losses; they were anonymous and diffuse, with paper losses of mere money. These middle- and upper-class defendants weren’t people who belonged in prison — their loss of status, their shame, did more to rehabilitate and deter than any time behind bars. Judges felt this, and acted accordingly.

But by the time we graduated law school, this had all started to change. By then, the federal Sentencing Guidelines had gone into effect. The Guidelines had three major effects on federal cases. First, they increased the penalties for white-collar crimes, especially where the dollar amounts were high and there were many victims. Second, judges lost most of their discretion to sentence lightly based on the defendant’s socioeconomic status, and were not all that willing to put such reasoning on the record. Third, the Guidelines took away much of the plea-bargaining leeway, only permitting two or three levels of departure for taking a plea.

The biggest change happened when the tech bubble burst in 2000. In the late ’90s, Americans became investors like never before, with even cops and construction workers becoming day traders at home. Tons of our money went into IRAs, brokerage accounts and 401(k)s. And then the bubble burst, the markets dipped, and the average Joe saw his investments tank. As always happens, this revealed financial frauds that had escaped unnoticed in the up market. The middle class was outraged, and began to demand severe penalties for the fraudsters.

Prosecutors and judges got the message, and the exposed fraudsters got slammed. WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers got 25 years. Enron’s Jeff Skilling got 24 years and 4 months (Andy Fastow, reported to be the primary Enron fraudster, cooperated and got six years). Adelphia’s John Rigas got 15 years. In state court, Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski got 8-1/3 to 25 years.

This pattern repeated itself in the recent economic downturn. After several boom years, a credit crunch and market dip exposed many white-collar offenses (most of which we are told are still in the pre-indictment phase). Voters had lost a lot, and their voices were heard.

So now we get yesterday’s 150-year sentence of Bernie Madoff. As we’ve explained before, we’ve avoided writing about the Madoff case, because everyone else is already talking about it, and we don’t feel like we have anything new to add.

But this 150-year sentence… we’re going to go against the grain here and wonder out loud if perhaps it’s too harsh.

* * * * *

Whoa. How can we say that, when we just got done saying how unjust it seemed when white-collar types were getting off lightly? Isn’t this exactly what we wanted?

No, it isn’t. We wanted the punishment to fit the crime, and to fit the policies underlying criminal punishment. This sentence doesn’t do that.

For one thing, Madoff took a plea to avoid trial. And yet he still got the worst sentence that he could have gotten had a jury convicted him. What was the point of taking a plea? This sends a strong message to white-collar defendants now: you might as well just go to trial, because you’re going to get the same sentence if you lose — and juries being what they are, you might just win. The system could see a lot fewer pleas — pleas it relies on to keep working.

For another thing, Madoff got a bunch of consecutive sentences. Normally, even after trial, they’d mostly run concurrently. He’d have gotten about 30 years — still a life sentence for a 71-year-old guy. Judge Chin said he did so for “symbolic” reasons, to make the victims feel better. But is that a valid purpose of sentencing?

Of course it isn’t. The purpose of sentencing is not to make victims feel better, or give them closure, or anything like that. The criminal justice system does not serve the function of making victims whole. That’s the job of the civil courts. A criminal court can order restitution as a condition of sentencing, but that’s about it. The purpose of sentencing is not reparation, but punishment. Punishment is supposed to deter future crimes, retaliate against the offender, rehabilitate the offender so he doesn’t do it again, or remove a threat to society.

But maybe Judge Chin is on to something here. Perception is important. Few of the purposes of punishment work unless there is some perception. Deterrence doesn’t work, unless people get the impression that crimes are probably going to be punished, and that they will probably be punished harshly enough to make them not worth your while. (This raises an interesting thought experiment — would the criminal justice system work just as well if we could give the public the impression that crimes are punished, without actually incurring the expense and hassle of, you know, punishing them? Discuss.)

Another problem we have with this sentence is that his scam wasn’t directed at Joe Retail out there. It was a secretive investment fund that did not disclose what it was doing, as it would have had to if it had been sold to the average person. It could be secretive because it was sold to sophisticated investors. These sophisticated investors saw an unusually high and steady rate of return, and instead of investigating to see what was going on, simply told Madoff to cut them in.

Sophisticated investors have a duty to check these things out. Are we blaming the victims here? Yeah, a little. They had the size or experience to know that something that sounds too good to be true probably isn’t. And yet they shoved their money into the fund anyway. And for those who shoved all of their money into the fund, ignoring basic investment principles of diversification, they were victimizing themselves just as much as if they’d invested in Pets.com. And for those who invested beyond their discretionary income, but actually sent Madoff the money they needed to live on, that’s the epitome of dumb. These weren’t blue-collar workers, these were investors with enough dough to get in the game, and enough savvy to have known better. The law just doesn’t need to afford them the same protections as ordinary folks.

So the law doesn’t need to impose punishments harsher than those imposed on victimizers of ordinary folks.

What is needed is parity. Yes, white-collar sentences should reflect the seriousness of the harm done, just as sentences for violent crimes and street crimes need to be proportionate to the offense. A white-collar offense that causes as much harm as a back-alley mugging probably deserves a similar punishment, all else being equal. Maybe a little less, actually, as there is more likelihood of deterrence or rehabilitation. White-collar crimes are usually calculated, they aren’t crimes of the moment, and offenders usually have the smarts to take punishment into account. And white-collar offenders aren’t as likely to re-offend once they’ve gone through the system. So sure, maybe they don’t need quite as much punishment. But it ought to be about the same.

Giving 150 years here, though, is not at all proportionate. Murderers don’t get that much. Kidnappers don’t get that much. And taking someone’s life or liberty is just not the same as taking someone’s property. White-collar victims only lose money. It’s only money. It’s a big deal, but it should not be punished more severely than crimes that are obviously more severe.

The pendulum has swung too far.

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.