Posts Tagged ‘White Collar’

Be Very Afraid: “New Era” of White-Collar Prosecution at the DOJ

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

corporate crime

Lanny Breuer, the DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, gave a speech today announcing a “new era of heightened white-collar crime enforcement — an era marked by increased resources, increased information-sharing, increased cooperation and coordination, and tough penalties for corporations and individuals alike.”

You can read his prepared remarks here.  We did, and we find them very troubling.

This is, of course, part of a larger trend back towards more white-collar enforcement. For much of the post-WWII era, through the early 1990s, white-collar cases didn’t get much attention. They were hard to spot in the first place, taking place behind closed doors in boardrooms and offices, not really part of any policeman’s beat. And allegations were challenging to investigate, and ever harder to prove to a jury. Agents and prosecutors lacked the knowhow and the tools to do the job.

And white-collar crime just wasn’t worth the effort — the law classified these crimes at the less-serious end of the spectrum. This wasn’t murder, it was just money. The crooks weren’t burglars or muggers, 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. Devoting a lot of resources to prove minor offenses you didn’t really understand, with hard-to-identify-with victims, with easy-to-identify-with defendants, just wasn’t a big priority.

This all started to change in the mid-90s. By then, we’d gone through the junk-bond crisis and S&L meltdown of 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…)

White Collar Crime Going Prime Time

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

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What with white-collar crime being such big news these days, it was only a matter of time: The Hollywood Reporter reports that the USA Network is about to pick up a new series, “White Collar.”

Now that USA’s popular detective series “Monk” is ending, the cable network is looking for a new original series to lead in to crime comedy “Psych.” “White Collar” is described by the network as being “about the unlikely partnership of a con artist and an FBI agent who have been playing cat and mouse for years.”

It sounds to us like a takeoff on “Catch Me If You Can,” the 2002 dramedy based on real-life con man Frank Abagnale, Jr. Though entertaining, the movie wasn’t the most socially relevant story when it came out. But now that everyone’s saturated with Madoff (a topic we’ve studiously avoided, since everyone else is already talking about it), and as it looks like prosecutors are going to be announcing even more con and scam cases in the coming months, the timing certainly seems right now.

The pilot was green-lighted back in October. It stars Matthew Bomer (pictured, left) as the con artist, and Tim DeKay (right) as the FBI agent. Bronwen Hughes (“The Kids in the Hall,” “The L Word,” “Forces of Nature”) directed.

Memo to White-Collar Witnesses: Get Your Own Lawyer!

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

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A “Martha Stewart moment” is that unhappy moment during a white-collar investigation when one’s client misleads the investigators. A client who may have escaped prosecution entirely has now practically ensured that she will be prosecuted. If his client must speak with investigators, a good attorney tries to prepare her well, to prevent any Martha Stewart moments from happening.

During the recent SEC investigation of a possible $8 billion fraud at Stanford International Bank, they interviewed Stanford Financial Group’s chief investment executive, Laura Pendergest-Holt (pictured). She was accompanied to the interview by Proskauer Rose partner Thomas Sjoblom, a very good and experienced attorney.

Last Thursday, the investigation went criminal, as Pendergest-Holt was charged with a federal crime. She’s alleged to have had a Martha Stewart moment, lying to the SEC about her knowledge of Stanford’s investments, and about not meeting with other Stanford people to prepare for her meeting with the SEC.

How could that happen, when she had such a good lawyer?

The answer appears to be (first pointed out by Zach Lowe) that Sjoblom wasn’t actually her lawyer. He represented Stanford, not its executive.

This is something that comes up all the time in the white collar world. When a corporation is under investigation, it hires lawyers to protect its interests. The interests of its executives and employees are not always the same — in fact they are rarely the same — and so to avoid potential conflicts of interest they usually get separate counsel.

If the same law firm represented a corporation and its CIO, somewhere down the line the CIO might decide that it’s in her interest to testify against the company. That would cause a conflict of interest, so the company will usually insist that she get her own lawyer.

If the corporation’s attorneys speak with the CIO, they must make it very clear that they only represent the company, and do not represent the individual. In this case, Sjoblom made it very clear at least twice during the SEC meetings that he was Stanford’s lawyer and not Pendergest-Holt’s. It is not yet known whether he made this clear to Pendergest-Holt (he did not return Lowe’s calls seeking comment, but commenting is probably improper anyway), though it is hard to imagine that he did not do so.

Sjoblom had a bit of a dilemma in that situation, regardless. As Stanford’s lawyer, he probably needed to get information from Pendergest-Holt. And he probably needed to cooperate fully with the investigators. He would have had to make it perfectly clear to her that, as he did not represent her, anything she said to him would not be privileged. (Well, Stanford could assert a privilege perhaps, but Pendergest-Holt could not.)

If Pendergest-Holt reasonably believed that Sjoblom represented her, and then Sjoblom shared her information with Stanford or the SEC, then Sjoblom could well be liable in a civil suit. Again, there is no reason to believe that such is actually the case, and this is only mentioned to stress the challenges presented to the corporation’s attorney in a situation like this.

How does the company’s lawyer get information out of its CIO, then? If the lawyer tells the CIO he doesn’t represent her, and nothing she says is going to be confidential, and in fact he’s obligated to share her information, then she’s not going to want to talk. The solution is simple and cold: the lawyer must inform the CIO that if she doesn’t talk she will be fired.

Given all the warnings that must have been given, alerting her that Sjoblom did not represent her, it is strange to see that she didn’t get her own counsel. Nevertheless, Pendergest-Holt somehow appeared before the SEC without being represented by her own lawyer. She didn’t have someone watching out for her own interests, and now she’s been arrested and charged with a federal crime as a result.

She has lawyers now, of course. She is represented by the firm of Parsons Behle & Latimer in the civil SEC matter, and by Houston’s Dan Cogdell in the criminal matter. Still, we have to wonder why she waited until it was too late before she got her own counsel.

Memo to executives and employees: Get your own lawyers!

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.