Posts Tagged ‘fraud’

Who Are the Real Victims of Insider Trading?

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

 

Last week, the prosecution and the defense filed their sentencing memoranda in the Rajaratnam case.  Raj was convicted of 14 counts in all — 9 counts of securities fraud, and 5 conspiracy counts.  So what do the parties think that’s worth?  The feds asked Judge Holwell to sentence Raj in the range of 19.5 to 24.5 years.  The defense didn’t make a specific request, just said it ought to be “well below” what the feds want.

So 20 years, huh?  Wow, he must have been an awful bad guy.  Must have hurt a whole lot of people, right?

After all, a mugger in a dark alley only takes one person’s wallet.  A “white-collar criminal” can steal from thousands of people — and takes not just their wallet, but their life savings!  Right?

Well, hang on.  Did Raj actually steal from anyone?  How many investors did he really harm?  And did any of them really lose enough money to warrant locking someone up till we all have flying cars and jetpacks?

Judging from the feds’ sentencing memo, you bet.  Just look at this, from the introduction:

Raj Rajaratnam’s criminal conduct was brazen, arrogant, harmful, and pervasive.  He corrupted old friends.  He corrupted subordinates.  He corrupted entire markets.  Day after day, month after month, year after year, Rajaratnam operated as a billion-dollar force of deception and corruption on Wall Street.

Wow, that sounds awful.  So the victims are… who again?

But wait, there’s more:

Rajaratnam repeatedly leveraged the power of money and his position as the head of a 7-billion dollar hedge fund to induce friends, employees, and associates to participate in his criminal activities.  Although already rich, Rajaratnam did this to drive up his personal wealth through profitable trading in his hedge fund.  He did it to make sure that investors did not pull their money out of Galleon and to attract new money to his fund.  And he did it because of his egomaniacal drive to triumph over his competitors on Wall Street.

Again, wow.  (The feds sure like their adjectives, don’t they?  Comes off a tad over-the-top, if not insulting to the intelligence.)  So he was trying to increase his wealth, gotcha.  But at whose expense?  Guess we have to read more:

That was what he cared about: money and success.  What he did not care about, at all, was the extensive harm he left in his wake: harm to the capital markets; harm to the average, ordinary investors who played by the rules; harm to the companies whose secret information was misappropriated; and harm to the lives of those he corrupted.

Well, that sounds a little more like it… but again, who was harmed, and how?

Although particular investors on the other side of Rajaratnam’s illegal trades are not easily identifiable, there should be no question that ordinary investors paid the price for Rajaratnam’s crimes and that public companies were harmed by Rajaratnam’s repeated theft of corporate secrets.

Oh for crying out loud.  Are they joking?  Stripped of its demagogical rhetoric, this translates to “We have not identified any actual victims.  But we shouldn’t have to.  It’s obvious that lots of people must have been harmed, even if we don’t know who they were.”

If they don’t know who — or even whether — anyone was actually harmed here, how in blazes do the feds justify asking for 19.5 to 24.5 years of imprisonment?  Here’s how:

[The feds want that much time because they feel it is] proportionate to the historic nature of his crimes.  He is arguably the most egregious violator of the laws against insider trading ever to be caught.  He is the modern face of illegal insider trading.

That’s it.  That’s all.  “Because this is the first time we’ve ever caught someone so red-handed,” and “because this case got so much press.”  Those are the sole reasons why they are looking to put this guy away until he dies of old age.

Really?

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For the record, we’re predicting (more…)

How the Feds Enforce the FCPA

Monday, October 25th, 2010

 

The other day, we drew a contrast between the Manhattan DA’s new public integrity unit and the way the feds go after FCPA violations, and some folks asked just what exactly the feds do in these cases.  That’s a good question.  Especially now, as the FCPA has become a major star of the feds’ redoubled efforts to fight white-collar crime.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, among other things, says it’s against the law for any U.S. citizen or business to pay a bribe to a foreign official.  The penalties can be staggering, with fines calculated as the amount of income the briber hoped to receive down the road as a result of paying the bribe.  “Any” U.S. citizen means just that: anybody, not just a corporate executive.  A “foreign official” means anyone with a government job — including people working in industries that are government-owned or government-controlled.

“Bribery” includes giving anything of value in the hopes of getting something in return.  It’s really a broad standard.  A bribe doesn’t have to be an explicit tit-for-tat, and it doesn’t have to be just for the purpose of landing a choice contract.  A bribe can be just a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant that might make get you looked on with more favor next time contracts are being awarded.  A bribe can be a “facilitation payment” to a petty bureaucrat, some grease to ensure that you are allowed to do what you are already entitled to do (this, by the way, is an example of where Wikipedia, at least as of today, get things wrong).  See here for a more thorough discussion.

As with many white-collar offenses, this one is enforced by both the SEC and the DOJ.  As of this year, the SEC now has a special unit dedicated to investigating and punishing suspected offenders.  As we mentioned the other day, the point is to keep as much expertise in the institutional memory, and also to better coordinate investigation and enforcement.  On the criminal side, the DOJ’s Frauds Section is the main enforcer as a matter of law, though some local U.S. Attorney’s offices like the SDNY will handle most of the work in-house.

Over the past few years, the number of FCPA cases has risen dramatically, in part because the (more…)

Stop the Music – 3rd Circuit Slams DOJ’s “Musical Chairs” in Securities Fraud Prosecution

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

musical chairs

SEC Rule 10b-5 is one of the main securities fraud laws. It says you can’t mislead people in connection with the purchase or sale of a security. You can’t make an untrue statement of a material fact. And you can’t fail to state a fact, when without that fact the statements you just made would be misleading.

That seems simple enough. But federal prosecutors in New Jersey seem to be having a hard time figuring out what that means.

In June 2005, the feds in New Jersey indicted Frederick Schiff, the CFO of Bristol-Myers Squibb, for failing to disclose material facts to investors. Allegedly, Bristol-Myers (a drug company) was paying wholesalers to order more drugs than they really needed, so Bristol-Myers could report higher sales numbers and inflate its stock value. Schiff allegedly didn’t tell investors about it during conference calls and in SEC filings. (See the indictment here and the DOJ’s press release here.) That indictment got thrown out for a grand jury leak, so they got a second one in May 2006, and finally a third one in April 2007 that dropped allegations of accounting violations.

With respect to the omissions, the government kept changing its tune. First, they said the company had a duty to correct misleading statements of others, based on a “general fiduciary duty.” The district court helpfully pointed out that there is no such duty in the law. So then the feds said there was a statutory duty under SEC regs S-K, which might actually have worked, but then they changed their mind and put on the record that they weren’t pursuing that theory. There was a “theory of duty based on falsity of reported sales and earnings,” which the District Court said wouldn’t fly. Then they tried to say the stuff left out of filings is a material omission that is misleading if you include the earlier analyst calls in the context (calling it “all of a piece”). The district court ruled that, no, there is no affirmative duty under either the “falsity” or the “all of a piece” theory. “It defies logic,” the court ruled, “to charge as a crime that an utterance in an analyst call must have other words written in a later SEC filing in order to make the utterance in the prior phone call ‘not misleading.’” Thanks for playing. The feds appealed.

In a unanimous decision today (opinion here), the Third Circuit slammed the DOJ for constantly changing its theory of the case, for playing “musical chairs” with its theory of how Schiff’s conduct counted as an unlawful omission under Rule 10b-5.

More importantly, the Circuit said the DOJ’s ultimate theory of liability here — that Schiff had a “general fiduciary” duty as a “high corporate executive” to disclose the inventory issue — was simply overbroad. “This argument reaches too far.”

This is a big setback for the feds, who now are left with a much narrower (more…)

Hoist on Their Own Petard — How Forensic Accountants Catch Small-Time Scammers

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

 

No law today. Let’s have a police procedural for a change. We’re in the mood for some white-collar stuff, so here goes.

Forget about the Madoff case. Most financial crimes are nowhere near as headline-worthy, nor do they involve such massive amounts of other people’s money. But smaller scams are just as likely to get prosecuted, and they’re just as much a felony as the big ones. And though the news may not report it, people get caught and convicted all the time.

And like Al Capone, the smaller scammers aren’t caught by the gun-toting detectives so much as by the green visor-wearing accountants.

It’s usually a case of self-incrimination. Defendants usually create the very evidence that puts them behind bars, in their financial books and records. Of course, most of them aren’t doing it on purpose. They’re not creating blatant records that flatly proclaim “here there be crimes.” Most take pains to avoid creating records of improper doings, and to conceal or camouflage the rest. But it is often those very attempts to hide their activities that wind up calling attention to them.

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Every law enforcement agent knows that, to catch the “bad guys,” you need to follow the money. Who wound up with the cash or the assets? How did the money get from person A to person B, and so on to Mr. X?

One easy way to start is to look at public documents. Lots of records get publicly filed, for anybody to look at, and they can be good leads. Does Mr. X own a house? Pull the deed from the county clerk’s office. There’s going to be information that leads to the mortgage itself, and then Mr. X’s bank records are just a subpoena away. Probate records lead to the estate, which leads to more bank records and real estate records. Does someone have a rap sheet already? Maybe they had to post bond in an earlier case. That’s going to show the source of the lien, and lead to more assets. Dun & Bradstreet and similar records can tell whether someone has a lien against Mr. X — such people are often more than willing to give more information to law enforcement. Heck, even newspapers can be a source of leads to get an investigation started.

Paper begets paper. Or computer data. It is nigh impossible to have dealings of any significance without some record being kept somewhere, in some form.

When following leads, the investigator ought to have an idea of what he’s looking at. What kind of business is this company in? Where are they located? What do they spend money on? The investigator can’t tell whether something is unusual unless he knows what the usual looks like.

Maybe this is a kickback scheme. If I am demanding kickbacks from you, or bribes, or extortion payments so I allow you to keep doing business with me, then maybe I don’t want that money coming directly to me. And maybe you don’t want it coming directly from you. So perhaps I set up a “consulting” company to receive payments from you. Or maybe you set up a “customer” company to make payments to me. Or perhaps we do both. Maybe we have lots of shell companies, or only one. If the investigator figures it out, though, our cautions might turn around to condemn us.

Maybe you pay me with a no-show job. If so, you’d better be careful about who is holding back my payroll checks or delivering them to me. And is my pay typical of my job? A steady, constant paycheck is more typical of an office worker than a blue-collar worker, after all. These are possible tipoffs to an investigator. And paper begets paper.

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So how else do they get the paper, apart from going to public records?

Subpoenas are the main stock-in-trade of the white-collar investigation team. Smart teams won’t subpoena the world, of course, because that just makes for far more work than necessary, while increasing the odds of tipping off Mr. X to the existence of the investigation. Instead, they’ll just limit their subpoenas to what they really need. Narrow requests also make more subpoenas necessary down the road, which keeps open a line of communication.

A shotgun subpoena followed by a narrower one just tips off defense attorneys like us. We see something like that, we have a chat with the client, and figure out what the investigators are probably looking for. We get all that extra time to prepare our defense.

When in doubt, utility bills are a common lead-generator, to figure out how someone is paying for their phone, cable, electricity, etc.

One thing they’ll probably want to see are old tax returns, especially for a business. Tax returns can be a mine of useful information, such as who formed the business, who the officers are, how much they get paid, who their accountant is (always a good person to interrog… ah, interview). And if the tax returns don’t match reality, well that’s another charge for the grand jury to hear, isn’t it?

The company’s accountant often did the tax returns for the owners and officers, too. Investigators can request the accountant’s retained copies of those returns, and find out all kinds of information about assets, mortgages, sources of income, etc.

Canceled checks are a high-want item. They’re one way of seeing who’s paying money to whom.

Bright investigators don’t settle for photocopies, but insist on originals. Critical information could have been whited out before copying. Photocopies are often illegible, and may not include the all-important information on the back of checks showing who deposited it and to what account.

In general, subpoenas are going to be issued to non-targets. There’s little point in asking the suspect to provide the evidence that will hang him. All it does is raise him up. And a savvy defense attorney is going to bring that client in to present the documents to the grand jury — because here in New York, for example, it is far too easy for the prosecutor to slip up and confer total transactional immunity on the client right there in the grand jury. (That’s a topic for a whole nother post.)

No, suspects aren’t usually the ones who get subpoenaed. They get searched.

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Search warrants are a unique chance for the investigators to get all that stuff they never would have gotten from a subpoena. The “second set of books,” rather than the official set they keep for the IRS and other outside eyes. The secret records. (Although these can sometimes be viewed by an undercover posing as a legitimate potential buyer of the business.)

That’s what the investigators are hoping for: a “smoking gun” document of some kind. Original documents with all the info that got whited out in the subpoena response. Records of illicit payments made, cash skimmed, investors gypped. Evidence that customers were told one thing, but reality was something else entirely. It may be buried somewhere in all those boxes of docs and all those hard drives, but they can’t wait to find it.

These records may be as simple as a notebook or a wad of scratch paper. They could be as detailed as anything. Maybe there’s evidence of a cash payroll — which leads to questions of where that cash came from (the bank? really?) on top of issues of tax and benefits evasion. Maybe there’s a little black book recording paid bribes, or extortion payments received.

Search warrants are often a fine way to gain evidence of embezzlement. Maybe those personal expenses were paid for with the business’s money, or with investors’ deposits. A good search warrant team will have agents who know what they’re looking for, others speaking to the subject. Others will be busy talking to witnesses, family members, employees and others at the location, letting them think the cops know exactly what’s going on, so they’d better come clean.

In a suspect’s home, the search team might see pictures of that really nice boat, or expensive collections, or the like. Investigators love to see things like that, especially when the checkbook doesn’t show those expenses. A lifestyle and possessions beyond one’s official means is going to make them poke around for illegitimate sources of cash.

Obviously, the execution of a search warrant means the investigation ain’t a secret any more. So these usually come at the end of an investigation.

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So how about some examples. Let’s say I have ABC company. Law enforcement subpoenaed or seized a bunch of payroll checks. Every week, my company is cutting a few dozen checks to employees. They all look totally legit, until one of the forensic accountants notices that Joe Blow tends to deposit four or five checks at a time, all on the same day. That means he’s probably not getting them each week like a normal employee, but is receiving a bunch of them once a month. That is typical of a no-show job. Joe Blow and I are now just that much closer to getting caught. Thanks, Joe.

Meanwhile, my manufacturing company DEF sends out invoices every month or so to Jack Nimble, charging tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for all kinds of different products being delivered. Payment is due on receipt, send the check to my headquarters at 1405 Blank Lane, Suite 120. Unfortunately, the forensic accountant noticed that each month’s invoice number is one more than the previous month’s. Do I only have one customer, for all these things I’m selling? And Suite 120 turns out to be a mail drop box number. Suspicious. They’re going to watch that box and I.D. who uses it, and maybe figure out who’s paying for it. And due on receipt? Someone’s standing on the loading dock with a check for a couple hundred grand? No way. And anyway, how come there are no bills of lading, shipping records, or anything else indicating this really happened? This looks like Jack Nimble is paying me some kickbacks through a shell company.

Original checks are a treasure trove. I’m cutting tons of them to small suppliers, nothing more than $9500 or so. Oddly enough, however, they all tend to get cashed at the same check-cashing joint. They’re not deposited to anyone’s accounts. Looks like I’m laundering some money. Investigators are going to check up on these companies to see if they’re legit, maybe subpoena invoices, bills of lading and purchase order forms to see what’s going on.

Food Fraud Prosecutors Caught Selling Snake Oil

Friday, March 13th, 2009

snake-oil.png

Judge Posner issued a scathing decision yesterday for the 7th Circuit, reversing a jury’s fraud conviction and directing an acquittal. Why? Because the only fraudulent misrepresentations were those of the prosecutor.

The decision is great, and we plan to use some of it in our own future arguments. Sadly, it is just the latest in a string of recent cases where federal prosecutors — uncharacteristically — have far overstepped the bounds. We hope it’s not becoming a trend.

In U.S. v. Farinella, the government accused Farinella of fraudulently misleading consumers by slapping a new label over the “best when purchased by” date. The Justice Department alleged that this altered the dates on which “the dressing would expire.”

But the Justice Department was itself misleading when it said so. The dressing had a very long shelf life indeed — in fact, it has no expiration date. There is no time after which one shouldn’t eat it. The “best when purchased by” date was merely a marketing ploy. “For all we know,” Posner wrote, “the date is determined less by a judgment about taste than about concern with turnover.” Nevertheless, the government consistently referred to the date as the “expiration date,” routinely misleading the jury and the court.

Posner made an outstanding observation during his discussion of the government’s expert testimony. They had called an FDA employee, whose testimony strongly implied that changing food labels requires FDA approval. But though that may be the expert’s understanding, it wasn’t actually a requirement.

For it “to be a lawful predicate of a criminal conviction,” Posner wrote, it would “have to be found in some statute or regulation, or at least in some written interpretive guideline or opinion, and not just in the oral testimony of an agency employee.”

He then gave us white-collar defense attorneys a wonderfully quotable ruling: “It is a denial of due process of law to convict a person of a crime because he violated some bureaucrat’s secret understanding of the law. The idea of secret laws is repugnant. People cannot comply with laws the existence of which is concealed.”

There was no evidence of misbranding, and so the defendant had to be acquitted. However, even if there had been evidence, the Circuit would have reversed and ordered a new trial, because the Justice Department’s misconduct was beyond the pale.

As already pointed out, the prosecution repeatedly misrepresented the facts, referring to the “best when purchased by” date as the “expiration date.” In her closing argument alone, the prosecutor substituted that phrase 14 times.

The prosecutor further misled the jury when she told them that the “best when purchased by” date “allows a manufacturer to trace the product if there is a consumer complaint, if there is illness, if there is a need to recall the product.” That’s not remotely true, and there was no public safety issue with what the defendant did.

She made several more arguments hinging on implied threats to public safety: “If what he did was business as usual in the food industry, I suggest we stop going to the store right now and start growing our own food. . . . In spite of all this talk about the quality of the dressing, I don’t see them opening an of these bottles and taking a whiff. . . . [The defendant was indifferent to] safety. . . . The harm caused by the fraud was to public confidence in the safety of the food supply.” She called the still perfectly fine bottles “truckfulls of nasty, expired salad dressing.” She said that after the “expiration date” the dressing was no longer “fresh,” so the defendant “had to convert the expired dressing into new, fresh product.”

During rebuttal arguments, the prosecutor said “Ladies and gentlemen, don’t let the defendant and his high-paid lawyer buy his way out of this.” Then she went on to say “Black and white is our system of justice, ladies and gentlemen. You have to earn justice; you can’t buy it.” The implication that the defendant might be trying to bribe his way to an acquittal should have resulted in a warning of mistrial, but only resulted in sustained objections.

The Justice Department repeated its misrepresentations in its brief, using the phrase “expiration date” and hinting at public safety concerns. But the trial prosecutor’s misconduct alone was sufficient for the Circuit to order a new trial, and the only reason they didn’t do so was because there was no evidence in the first place, resulting in a directed acquittal.

“That does not detract from the gravity of the prosecutor’s misconduct and the need for an appropriate sanction,” Posner was quick to point out, however. “The government’s appellate lawyer told us that the prosecutor’s superior would give her a talking-to. We are not impressed by the suggestion.”

Posner finished his opinion with a nice kicker: “Since we are directing an acquittal on all counts, the sentencing issues are academic and we do not address them, beyond expressing our surprise that the government would complain about the leniency of the sentence for a crime it had failed to prove.”

Ouch.

Recession Creating More Work for Defense Attorneys — But Not More Criminals

Monday, March 9th, 2009

 

A couple of weeks ago, we were at a luncheon with some white-collar defense attorneys, listening to a presentation by the acting U.S. Attorney, Lev Dassin. Mr. Dassin let us know that, although he couldn’t spill any particulars, there are a number of ongoing investigations at the Southern District of New York right now, which he expected to provide a lot of work for us later this year.

He also confirmed our impression that there is a lot of political pressure right now, causing prosecutors and law enforcement to focus more assets on white-collar crime. Many see the current economic downturn as the result of Wall Street skullduggery, so law enforcement is being tasked with doing something about it.

Our biggest fear is that people who did nothing illegal may get caught up in the frenzy to blame people for the recession. A federal criminal investigation is a serious matter, and even people who did nothing wrong can wind up in prison because of how they behaved during the investigation.

Still, a lot of white-collar crime is now coming to light these days, because of the hurting economy. Ponzi schemes and other fraudulent investments are being caught out left and right, as investors start trying to pay bills by cashing out their accounts, only to discover that their money isn’t there.

Furthermore, PricewaterhouseCoopers today published a white paper, “Boom Time for White Collar Crime,” predicting that the economy will cause greater numbers of people to commit white-collar crimes, such as embezzlement and fraud.

PwC partner Andrew Gordon told GAAP web that “sales targets seem ever more out of reach, bonuses are under threat, and people’s reputations and livelihoods are at stake. Together, these can be powerful motives for individuals to cross the line.”

The white paper predicts an increase in specific types of fraud: data theft by criminal organizations, “rogue traders” in corporate finance departments, and fraudulent mis-reporting of business numbers to make companies appear better to investors. The paper also sees more Ponzi schemes and fraudulent investment schemes collapsing as investors try to cash out.

So criminals caused a bad economy which is causing more criminals? That sounds a little simplistic.

Of course, the economy didn’t go south because a few Wall Streeters went around defrauding investors. The economy tanked for a lot of reasons, but mostly because lenders stopped believing they’d get paid back. Institutions with the most leverage — financial institutions particularly — got their margins called and couldn’t get new credit, a deadly combination. No amount of government stimulus would change that, without a condition that capital infusions to lenders must turn into loans. The government didn’t make such conditions, so lenders just hoarded their cash to sit out the storm. The credit market, already dying, was pretty much killed. The U.S. Congress and the new Administration have since then acted fairly consistently to prevent lenders from regaining sufficient confidence to start lubricating the economy again. In modern economics, perception is everything — if you are perceived to have liquidity, even if you are at risk, you will have liquidity (see JPMorgan Chase this time last year), but if you are perceived to be at risk even though you aren’t, your liquidity dries up (see Bear Stearns this time last year). Once lenders start perceiving that they will get their money back, things will start picking up. This crisis of confidence was caused, not by white-collar criminals, but by Clinton-era directives to make mortgages to people who can’t pay them, by borrowers and lending agents who cashed in on the resulting laxness, and by an ever growing house of cards that was destined to collapse.

So the economy didn’t go south because of criminals. Similarly, a worse economy doesn’t necessarily translate into more crimes being committed. People who would steal in bad times would have stolen in good times, too. White-collar types aren’t exactly Jean Valjean, stealing a crust of bread so their families don’t starve. No, white-collar crime requires a combination of opportunity and character traits, neither of which correlate with economic pressures.

What is true, however, is that more white-collar prosecutions are going to happen because an under-informed public and its politicians are screaming for blood. Unfortunately, we do not believe that all prosecutors out there understand the complexities and realities of the financial world well enough to accurately sift the guilty from the merely unlucky. Some innocent people are going to get caught in this ever-widening net.

We’re Not Alone

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

 

Yesterday, we observed that there have been a lot of Ponzi schemes coming down lately, and asked what gives? Today, the Wall Street Journal made the same observation, and asked the same question.

Here are some points from the article:

* In 2007, the SEC had brought civil actions from 15 alleged Ponzi schemes. In 2008, they brought 23 such cases. So far this month, they’ve already brought 9. And that doesn’t include all the state-level fraud cases that have come down.

* On the criminal side, there have already been 6 multimillion-dollar fraud cases brought this month.

* Experts say these schemes are being discovered now because of the economic downturn. Investors try to cash out their investments, only to learn that the money’s gone. There’s also less money out there being invested, so the source of cash for these schemes dries up, and the house of cards comes crashing down.

The New York Times also had some similar observations:

* “What is causing them to surface now appears to be a combination of a deteriorating economy and heightened skepticism about outsize returns after the revelations about [Bernie Madoff]. That can scare off new clients and cause longtime investors to demand their money back, which brings the charade tumbling down.”

* The Commodities Futures Trading Association has also experienced a doubling of reported Ponzi schemes in the last year.

* On Thursday last week, Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard Shelby introduced a bill to hire 500 new FBI agents, 50 new AUSAs, and 100 new SEC officials to crack down on these crimes.

Yet Another Massive Ponzi Scheme Alleged. What’s that tell you?

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Agape World screenshot

Nick Cosmo, the 37-year-old head of Agape World Inc. and Agape Merchant Advance, was arraigned today on charges that he ran a Ponzi scheme that cheated investors out of $370 million since 2006.

The feds allege that about 1,500 investors were promised annual returns of as much as 80%. These huge profits were to come from short-term loans to businesses. Instead of coming from actual profits, however, the complaint states that returns paid to investors actually came from the outlays of subsequent investors.

Investor money went mostly to pay other investors, in a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul setup similar to the Bernie Madoff and seemingly countless other Ponzi schemes hitting the news these days. About $55 million went to pay brokers who brought in the investors. A bunch of cash was allegedly spent on expensive luxuries for Cosmo himself, as well as to pay the restitution ordered in a previous mail fraud conviction. Only about $10 million actually went to the loans that were supposed to be the core investment. The firm also transferred $100 million since 2003 into Cosmo’s futures-trading accounts, of which $80 million was lost. As of last Thursday, said prosecutors, Cosmo’s firms had less than $750,000 in the bank.

Agape World was listed as #73 in Entrepreneur Magazine’s Hot 100 fastest-growing businesses in America. (See its listing, screenshotted above.)

This is just one more in a series of prosecutions that have been coming down lately. Prosecutors are clearly ramping up their focus on financial crimes in the wake of the Bear Stearns meltdown — it’s definitely the sexy crime of the moment, where the press is throwing a lot of ink, where reputations stand to be made. Of course, crime is only found where it’s looked for, and right now this is a hot (and relatively easy) crime to prosecute. So it makes sense that this is where prosecutors are focusing lots of assets.

But apart from that, what does it mean about the rest of us? Almost all of these Ponzi schemes promised investors stupid-high returns. Wasn’t it obvious to the investors what was going on? Were they just blinded by the go-go stock market, while it was hot? Were they desperate for a winning number after the market soured? Lots of the alleged victims out there were sophisticated investors — one would think they at least would have known the meaning of “too good to be true.” We’d like to hear what you think is going on.

We guess people’s common sense just gets blinded by the prospect of easy gains. And it happens often enough, to enough people who ought to know better, that this crime continues to proliferate nearly a hundred years after it became part of the common lingo.

Oh well, more work for us defense attorneys.

“Not With Me, They Don’t” – Race Not a Factor in Sentence, Says Judge

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

 

District Court Judge Percy Anderson sentenced Jeanetta Standefor to more than 12 years in prison on Tuesday, for running an $18 million Ponzi scheme that preyed on middle-class black investors.

Standefor, who is also black, solicited investments from 650 people around Pasadena who thought the money would go to buying properties about to go into foreclosure. To maintain the illusion of profits, Standefor transferred $14 million of the invested money to early investors. She also spent about a million per year on herself, according to AUSA Stephanie Yonekura-McCaffery. The operation was run through her company Accelerated Funding Group — a name that is practically probable cause in itself.

At the sentencing hearing in the Central District of California, victims told Judge Anderson how they had trusted Standefor with their savings, often their life savings, after she first befriended them. Investors were told that they could make 50% profits in the first month.

Standefor’s attorney, federal defender Charles Brown, argued for leniency. “She is not a serial killer,” he said. “She is not a drug dealer. This is not a person who needs to be thrown in jail and locked up to learn her lesson.” He added that she was a foster child “who worked her entire life to prove her worth. . . [but] she took shortcuts, and started taking from Peter to pay Paul, and that’s how we got here.”

Judge Anderson disagreed with the defense attorney’s characterization, telling Standefor that even if this was just a white-collar crime, she was just as guilty “as if you’d taken a gun out and held it to the victims’ heads.”

Judge Anderson then ruled on sentence. Shortly before he imposed the sentence, however, Brown made one last attempt for leniency. Urging the judge to reconsider, Brown pointed out that the sentence was not consistent with those for similar cases around the country. Brown argued that it seemed to him that blacks get harsher sentences, even when they are convicted of white-collar crimes.

“Not with me, they don’t,” interrupted the judge, who is also black. “This isn’t about being black.”

Standefor was then sentenced to 151 months in prison and almost $9 million in restitution.

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.

Wave of White-Collar Investigations is Coming

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

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“The nation’s top white-collar criminal defense practices are receiving a steady flow of inquiries from clients embroiled in the ongoing credit crisis,” reports the National Law Journal. This is consistent with reports we have heard within the white-collar defense community.

With the economy continuing to take hits from the financial sector, there seems to be a growing demand for blame. Billions of dollars in pensions and retirement funds have disappeared, the money supply is crippled by banks refusing to extend credit, and jobs and tax revenue are at stake.

As the public and its elected officials call for punishment, state and federal prosecutors are launching investigations to see whether anyone broke the law. Anyone involved with complex debt instruments, which appear to have been responsible for much of the vanished wealth, ought not to be surprised to find themselves part of a criminal or regulatory investigation.

As we previously reported, Lehman Brothers executives are already being looked at. And of course the Eastern District of New York has already indicted two managers of the Bear Stearns subprime mortgage hedge funds. But that, our sources tell us, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Credit-default swaps, which enabled much of the subprime hedge fund investments, are now the focus of a joint investigation being brought by the New York Attorney General and the Southern District of New York.

The SEC has also begun taking action in investigations that had appeared to be dormant. Of particular interest to the SEC would be whether executives made misleading statements to investors or analysts about the financial health of their funds or institutions.

“Attorneys report hearing from clients,” reports the NLJ, “who are either already in receipt of subpoenas from federal and state investigators, or who are worried about what the mail will bring. Every lawyer interviewed agreed that their clients — including those confident they kept within the law — would be wise to anticipate that the government will cast a very wide net.”