Sheldon Silver, Bob McDonnell, and the Sorry State of Public Corruption Law

The Supreme Court’s Bob McDonnell decision claimed its highest-profile casualty last week. On July 13 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit threw out the corruption convictions of Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State General Assembly. The court ruled that, in light of McDonnell, Silver’s jury was not properly instructed on what constitutes an “official act” in a corruption case.

Silver is not out of the woods yet; he may well be convicted again after a new trial. But his case does highlight how much easier it is in the post-McDonnell era for public officials to sell government access to the highest bidder.

Regular readers know I’ve written extensively, and critically, about McDonnell. By adopting an artificially narrow definition of “official act,” the Court in McDonnell cleared the way for public officials to enrich themselves through secret gifts and payments. The Silver case highlights the safe harbors McDonnell creates for corrupt behavior and the sorry state of public corruption law.

Sheldon Silver

Facts of the Silver Case

Sheldon Silver was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1976, representing much of lower Manhattan. He was elected Speaker in 1994 and held that position until he resigned in 2015. As Speaker, he was one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

In 2015 the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (then headed by the recently-fired Preet Bharara) indicted Silver. The charges were based on two different corruption schemes.

In the first, the government charged that Silver agreed to do political favors for Dr. Robert Taub, a physician and researcher at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital who specialized in mesothelioma. Silver obtained state grants worth $500,000 to support Dr. Taub’s research, introduced a state resolution commending Dr. Taub, worked to help secure jobs for his children, and did other favors for him.

In return, and to curry favor with Silver, Dr. Taub regularly referred mesothelioma patients who needed legal representation to a law firm with which Silver was affiliated. Silver received a percentage of any legal fees that resulted. Over a ten-year period, Silver earned about $3 million from Dr. Taub’s referrals.

The second scheme involved two major New York real estate developers. Over a number of years Silver took actions in the state legislature to benefit the developers on issues related to real estate taxes and rent legislation. In return, the developers sent tax-related work to another law firm that also had an arrangement with Silver. These referrals resulted in nearly another $1 million in fees for Silver.

In short, the government charged that Silver enriched himself to the tune of about $4 million through these referral schemes, which were not disclosed to the public. In return, he used the considerable powers of his office to benefit those providing the referrals.

The charges against Silver included honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right. These were also two of the primary statutes used in the McDonnell indictment. Both charges, which are essentially bribery by another name, are commonly used in public corruption cases.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

The Bob McDonnell Decision

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted on multiple counts of corruption in 2014. Prosecutors charged that the two accepted more than $175,000 in secret gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams. In return, Williams sought to have the McDonnells promote his company’s dietary supplement, Anatabloc, within the Virginia government.

In exchange for the gifts, McDonnell introduced Williams to Virginia health researchers and arranged meetings for him with other government employees. He also held a product launch event for Anatabloc at the Virginia Governor’s mansion, attended by other state employees and health officials.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unanimously upheld the McDonnell convictions. But in June 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed.

Bribery requires a quid pro quo, an exercise of government power in exchange for something of value. There was no doubt Williams had showered the McDonnells with secret gifts that satisfied the quid side of the equation. But the Supreme Court ruled that in a federal corruption case the quo agreed to by a public official must fit a specific definition of an “official act.” McDonnell’s actions, the Court concluded, did not rise to that level.

The McDonnell Court held that an official act must be a “decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” that is or may be pending before the public official. It must be specific and focused, and involve a “formal exercise of government power” similar to a lawsuit before a court or a hearing before an agency. The public official must take an action “on” that matter, such as taking steps to resolve it somehow or pressuring another to do so.

Merely arranging a meeting or holding an event, the Court held, does not constitute an official act. These are simply routine political courtesies and interactions with constituents, not decisions or actions on a particular matter or controversy. If they could form the basis of a corruption case, the Court said, politicians would be unable to perform routine services for any supporter without fearing a potential criminal prosecution.

Timing Is Everything

The McDonnell case was on appeal when Silver went to trial, but the Supreme Court had not yet decided it. Silver’s attorneys requested a narrow definition of “official act” similar to the one argued for by McDonnell. Consistent with Second Circuit law at the time, the trial judge rejected this request. The judge told the jury that official acts included anything the public official did “under the color of official authority.”

As the Court of Appeals noted, this was completely correct at the time. The trial court and prosecutors could not be faulted for the instruction. But the McDonnell decision, which came down just a few weeks after Silver was sentenced, changed the rules.

In light of McDonnell, Silver was convicted based on a broader definition of “official act” that is no longer the law. The Court of Appeals noted that some of the things Silver did, such as obtaining state grants or introducing official resolutions in the House, could still quality as official acts after McDonnell. But other things included in the indictment, such as writing letters or attending meetings on behalf of his benefactors, would not.

It was impossible for the Court of Appeals to be certain which of Silver’s actions the jury actually relied upon, or how they would have viewed those actions if they had been instructed consistent with the McDonnell holding. That meant it was possible Silver was convicted for political favors that would not meet McDonnell’s definition of official acts and so would not be a crime. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial to allow a properly instructed jury to consider the evidence.

The Post-McDonnell World

The Silver case provides a good case study of the state of public corruption law in the post-McDonnell world. Silver received about $4 million in secret benefits from individuals and companies that were seeking his help in his official capacity. Whether these corrupt deals were actually criminal has now been cast into doubt by the McDonnell case.

McDonnell and his supporters argued that his convictions risked criminalizing routine political courtesies and constituent services for those who support a politician. Such interactions are indeed an integral part of politics. And as long as we have a system of privately funded campaigns, politicians inevitably will respond to their supporters.

But Silver was not simply acting on behalf of routine political supporters — individuals who gave him campaign contributions or helped him raise legal contributions from others. Like Governor McDonnell, Silver was receiving personal benefits that went into his own pocket. Those gifts were secret, not publicly disclosed for the voters to see.

The essence of corruption is politicians acting not for the good of those they are elected to represent but in order to enrich themselves. Corrupt politicians abuse the trust of their public office by acting not on behalf of all their constituents but on behalf of those who are secretly paying them off. And access to the corridors of power becomes simply another commodity available to those willing and able to pay.

By its obsessive focus on a narrow and overly legalistic definition of “official acts,” the McDonnell Court missed the corruption forest for the trees. The key to corruption is not the precise nature of what the politician does. It’s the overall corrupt relationship, including whether support is public or secret, whether it is within any applicable legal limits, and whether it goes to the politician’s campaign or into his or her personal bank account. McDonnell imposes precise limitations on the quo side of a bribery transaction, while ignoring the overall corrupt relationship that allows a public official to secretly profit from his or her position.

The original jury instructions in Silver’s case embodied this concept: corruption may be found when there are secret payoffs to a politician in exchange for any actions done “under the color of official authority.” There are many things done under the color of official authority that do not meet the McDonnell definition of “official act.” But regardless of how large the personal benefit or how corrupt and secret the relationship, sale of those political favors is now outside the reach of federal corruption law.

This is the unfortunate result of the McDonnell case. The wealthy and connected are free to keep politicians in their back pockets through secret, personal gifts. In return, those politicians may provide political favors, grease the wheels of government, and provide access to government power. They are free to skate right up the “official act” line, personally enriching themselves through their public office, while the general public is kept in the dark.

It’s Not Over for Silver

It’s important to recognize that the Second Circuit did not find the evidence against Silver was insufficient, just that the jury was not properly instructed. The United States Attorney’s Office promptly announced that it intends to re-try the case. Former U.S. Attorney Bharara Tweeted that the evidence was strong and he expects Silver to be convicted again after a new trial.

The case on retrial will certainly be more challenging for the government. The universe of actions that may qualify as “official acts” has been substantially narrowed. Some of Silver’s actions fall outside of the statute of limitations, and that may be an issue in the new trial as well. The Court of Appeals also suggested that some of Silver’s actions, even if they did amount to official acts, might have been so insubstantial that a jury would not find they satisfied the quo requirement for a corrupt relationship. That defense argument will likely be a focus of the new trial as well.

Silver clearly won the battle in the Second Circuit. It remains to be seen whether he ultimately will win the war. But there’s no doubt the McDonnell decision has made rooting out and prosecuting public corruption significantly more challenging.

That’s the true legacy of Bob McDonnell: making life easier for corrupt politicians everywhere.

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You can read more of my commentary on the McDonnell case here:

Supreme Court Narrows Federal Bribery Law in a Win for Bob McDonnell

The Bob McDonnell Case May Have Been Won Months Before Trial

Bob McDonnell’s New Trial Motion and the Definition of “Official Act”

Bob McDonnell, Bribery, and “Official Acts” – Part II

Supreme Court Allows Challenges to Jury Deliberations Based on Evidence of Racial Bias

What should a court do when confronted with evidence of racial bias in jury deliberations? At common law, once a case was over a verdict could not be challenged based on evidence of what happened during jury deliberations. This historical rule against the impeachment of jury verdicts is codified in Rule 606(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence. The rule serves to encourage free and frank communications within the jury room, to prevent the harassment of jurors once a case is over, and to promote respect for and finality of jury verdicts.

Last week in United States v. Peña-Rodriguez the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the Constitution requires an exception to this rule when there is evidence of racial bias in jury deliberations. (I first wrote about the case when it was argued last fall, you can find that post here.) Faced with the evidence of such bias, the Court was understandably reluctant to leave the defendant without a remedy. But the implications for the jury system go far beyond this single case.

The Issue in Peña-Rodriguez

A Colorado jury convicted Mr. Peña-Rodriguez of unlawful sexual contact with two young women. After the case was over, two jurors reported to his defense attorney that another juror had demonstrated bias against Hispanics during deliberations. That juror reportedly made several statements demonstrating his prejudices, including that the defendant was likely guilty because Mexican men have a macho attitude and believe they can take whatever they want when it comes to women.

The Colorado courts ruled Peña-Rodriguez could not challenge his conviction based on this evidence. Colorado has a rule similar to Federal Rule 606(b), which prohibits the impeachment of jury verdicts based on evidence of what happened during deliberations. The great majority of states follow this same rule.

Nine states, however, follow a more relaxed standard known as the Iowa rule. These states prohibit inquiry into a juror’s own subjective beliefs following a verdict but do allow scrutiny of things that take place during deliberations, including statements reflecting bias by other jurors.

Scene from 12 Angry Men - Racial Bias in Jury Deliberations

Confronting Racial Bias in Jury Deliberations

Peña-Rodriguez argued in the Supreme Court that his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial required that he be allowed to challenge his conviction. In an opinion by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court agreed. The Court ruled there must be an exception to the no-impeachment rule when there are allegations of racial bias in jury deliberations.

The Court held, in effect, that race is different. Our country has a long and troubled history involving racial discrimination, including within the justice system itself. In light of that history, it is essential that there be mechanisms to ensure racial bias does not infect jury verdicts. When there is evidence of such bias, there must be a remedy: “When jurors disclose an instance of racial bias as serious as the one involved in this case, the law must not wholly disregard its occurrence.”

It’s true there are other safeguards against biased jurors, including the voir dire process of jury selection. But the Court argued these might not be as effective when it comes to rooting out potential racial animus. Attorneys might be reluctant to press potential jurors about bias out of fear of alienating or offending them. Fellow jurors might be hesitant to report biased conduct that takes place prior to deliberations because it is difficult to accuse a fellow juror of being a bigot.

The Court noted that not every offhand comment or stray remark will justify a hearing challenging the verdict: “For the inquiry to proceed, there must be a showing that one or more jurors made statements exhibiting overt racial bias that cast serious doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the jury’s deliberations and resulting verdict.” The Court said the statements “must tend to show that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in the juror’s vote to convict.” Determining whether that threshold is met will be up to the discretion of the trial judge, who may evaluate the evidence in light of the entire case.

Notably, the Court did not spell out exactly what procedures a trial court should follow when presented with such evidence. Nor did it specify what exactly a defendant must show in order to set aside a verdict and obtain a new trial. The question before the Court was simply whether a defendant has the right to raise such a challenge at all. The details of how that is done will be worked out in the lower courts.

The Court concluded:

The Nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination. The progress that has already been made underlies the Court’s insistence that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule. It is the mark of a maturing legal system that it seeks to understand and to implement the lessons of history. The Court now seeks to strengthen the broader principle that society can and must move forward by achieving the thoughtful, rational dialogue at the foundation of both the jury system and the free society that sustains our Constitution.

The Dissenting Opinions

Justice Thomas dissented. He claimed the historical understanding of the right to a jury trial, as embodied in the Sixth Amendment, did not include the right to impeach a jury’s verdict for any reason. As a result, he argued, even if there were sound policy reasons that might cause a legislature to allow such an inquiry, there was no basis for the Court to find that the Constitution requires it.

Justice Alito also wrote a dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas. He too claimed the Court’s decision, although well-intentioned, lacked a constitutional foundation. Like Justice Thomas, he argued that historically there was no right to impeach a jury’s verdict and such a right thus could not properly be found in the Sixth Amendment. Congress adopted the traditional no-impeachment policy in Rule 606(b), and the Court had no basis to disturb that policy decision.

Justice Alito argued jury deliberations should be protected because jurors are “ordinary people” who “make decisions the way ordinary people do in their daily lives.” They should not be second-guessed by “trained professionals” who “do not speak the language of ordinary people.” In order to ensure free and frank communications, jury deliberations should be immune from scrutiny even if they occasionally reflect potential improper bias. The law protects other communications, such as those between spouses or attorney and client, even when they include evidence of misconduct. The same should be true, he argued, of jury deliberations.

In addition to agreeing with Justice Thomas’s historical arguments, Justice Alito challenged the majority’s empirical claims that other safeguards in the jury system are inadequate to protect against racial bias. He noted there are many resources discussing how to raise the issue of potential discrimination during voir dire without offending potential jurors. He also said it made little sense to  claim a juror might be somehow reluctant to report biased statements prior to deliberations but more willing to report them after the verdict.

Justice Alito noted that although the majority tried to limit its holding, once the no-impeachment rule was breached it would be difficult to limit the rule only to cases involving racial bias.

jury room door - what should a court do with evidence of racial bias in jury deliberations

Opening the Door to the Jury Room

The central dispute in Peña-Rodriguez was not whether the juror’s comments were reprehensible; all agreed that they were. It wasn’t even over whether it would be a good idea to allow the verdict to be impeached. The dispute was simply over who gets to decide: Congress or the Court. The dissenters argued Congress had already made a policy choice by enacting Rule 606(b) and that there was no basis for the Court to intervene. The majority held the Constitution trumps that decision by Congress when racial bias is involved.

The Court’s decision is understandable; it would be difficult for something that calls itself a justice system to provide no remedy at all when confronted with the evidence in this case. But at the same time, bright-line rules do have some advantages. Now that the door to the jury room has been cracked open, a lot of unanswered questions remain.

Justice Alito is correct when he says there is probably no principled way to prevent the Court’s decision from being expanded in the future. As the majority notes, our country’s history with racial discrimination is unique. But when it comes to an individual defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, it is hard to justify a rule that allows challenges to only some types of discrimination. What about juror bias based on the fact that the defendant is a Muslim? Or a woman? Or gay?

The Court held that remedying racial bias in deliberations is necessary in order to prevent “a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.” But surely verdicts that were upheld in the face of other types of discrimination would result in a similar loss of confidence and would require a similar remedy. Logic seems to demand that the Court’s rationale be expanded to other forms of bias in future cases.

Unintended Consequences and Practical Difficulties

 The Court’s decision may have additional unintended consequences. The rule against impeachment of verdicts was designed in part to shield jurors from harassment. There may be greater risk now that attorneys will aggressively seek out jurors after a loss to see if there is information to support a challenge. As the Court observed, those contacts will be limited to some degree by state legal and ethical rules governing when parties and their counsel may contact jurors.

There is also a fear that allowing these challenges will simply drive prejudice underground. Perhaps the biased juror will not speak up, where his ideas may be challenged and refuted by the other jurors, but will simply keep his prejudices to himself out of fear of having his statements challenged later. But this assumes a certain baseline of legal knowledge and perhaps is not a realistic concern. It’s hard to know how much the free-flowing discussion among a jury of Justice Alito’s “ordinary people” is influenced by the intricacies of the law on post-verdict challenges.

Practical issues will confront trial courts faced with a challenge to deliberations. The Supreme Court purposely did not spell out exactly how a court should decide whether a defendant deserves a hearing, or when a court should order a new trial. How does a judge determine whether expressions of bias by a single juror had an impermissible impact on the unanimous verdict of twelve? Should evidence of a single racist juror automatically result in a new trial? Is the court to presume the remaining eleven jurors were passive sheep unable to resist? It may be at least as likely that the remaining jurors rejected the improper views and disregarded any further statements by that juror.

The Peña-Rodriguez jury deliberated for twelve hours. Assessing the impact of a handful of biased statements on that entire deliberative process is a daunting challenge for a judge. It may require examining individual jurors one by one. This again implicates the interests about juror harassment and finality of verdicts that justified the rule against impeachment in the first place. Nevertheless, in those (probably rare) cases where this type of evidence emerges, it will now be up to trial courts to undertake that inquiry, with little guidance from the Supreme Court on how to proceed.

Amending Rule 606, and Schools of Constitutional Interpretation

Now that the Court has constitutionalized the right to challenge some deliberations, it would make sense for Congress to amend Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) to make something like the Iowa rule the federal standard. Challenges to jury verdicts should be allowed if there is evidence of any kind of improper bias or animus during deliberations. It makes little sense to wait for years while lower courts try to sort out whether Peña-Rodriguez requires them to entertain challenges based on other forms of discrimination.

A final side note: in light of the upcoming confirmation hearings for the nomination of  Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the different schools of constitutional interpretation highlighted in Peña-Rodriguez are particularly interesting. With its concluding flourish about a maturing legal system confronting the country’s history of racial discrimination, the majority embraced a “living Constitution,” where constitutional norms grow and adapt to support a developing society. The dissenters, on the other hand, represent a classic textualist or originalist view. They interpret the Constitution strictly based on its text and how it was understood at the time it was adopted.

Judge Gorsuch falls squarely within the originalist school of interpretation, as did the man whose seat he would fill, Justice Scalia. It seems likely that if he had been on the Court, Gorsuch would have sided with the dissenters and it would have been a 5-4 decision. This is one of those areas where replacing Justice Scalia with Justice Gorsuch probably would not result in a significant shift in the balance of the Court.

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Judge Gorsuch, White Collar Crime, and the Legacy of Justice Scalia

The confirmation battle over Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s pick to fill the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, promises to be ugly. All aspects of his record will be thoroughly dissected — and likely distorted — by both political parties. Looming over the proceeding is Democratic anger over the Merrick Garland nomination and the threat of Republican Senators to invoke the “nuclear option” to break any Democratic filibuster. It’s destined to be one of those political knife fights that reminds everyone why they hate Washington.

Partisans on both sides will be trying to predict how a Justice Gorsuch might rule on any number of hot-button issues. But here at Sidebars we are particularly interested in how Gorsuch’s presence on the Supreme Court might influence the law of white collar crime. So I spent some time this week reading opinions written by Judge Gorsuch on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in cases involving white collar offenses such as mail and wire fraud, public corruption, obstruction of justice and money laundering, to see if I could glean anything from those decisions.

I didn’t find anything particularly remarkable. Most of the white collar cases where Judge Gorsuch wrote the opinion for a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the government, but that’s true of most criminal appeals. Most of the decisions were unanimous. That’s also not unusual, but at least it suggests a judge who generally colors within the lines of established precedent and is not a bomb-thrower writing dissents advocating extreme positions.

One thing I definitely learned is that Judge Gorsuch is indeed a terrific writer, as many others have noted. His opinions are clear, concise, and free of legal jargon. They are a pleasure to read, which is saying something when it comes to judicial opinions. In that regard he reminds me of Justice Kagan, in my view currently the best writer on the Court. That’s something I really admire — although I guess if you fear a Justice Gorsuch is going to gut your fundamental liberties it’s cold comfort to know he’ll do it with great style and clarity.

In any event, it appears unlikely that any of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions in white collar cases will be particularly controversial or a focus of his confirmation hearing. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can learn about how Justice Gorsuch might approach such cases at the high court.

Those who have studied or worked with Judge Gorsuch and know him best describe him as a judge in the mold of Antonin Scalia, the Justice whose seat he would assume. The opinions and other materials I reviewed certainly support that characterization. And if Justice Gorsuch does follow in the footsteps of Justice Scalia when it comes to criminal law, it could lead to some interesting and potentially surprising results.

Antonin_Scalia_Official_SCOTUS_Portrait

Justice Scalia’s White Collar Legacy

When it comes to Justice Scalia and criminal law, it’s complicated. Although conservative, he was definitely not a “hanging judge” ruling against criminal defendants at every opportunity. On the contrary, Scalia’s strict approach to statutory and constitutional interpretation often resulted in decisions that favored criminal defendants – and often led him to side with some of the most liberal members of the Court.

In constitutional law, Justice Scalia’s originalist approach made him suspicious of expansive notions of government power and protective of the rights of criminal defendants embodied in the text of the Constitution. In areas such as the right of defendants to confront witnesses against them (for example, Crawford v. Washington), the right to a jury trial (Blakely v. Washington), and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures (Florida v. Jardines and Kyllo v. United States, for example), Scalia was a powerful voice warning against government encroachment on these fundamental constitutional liberties. On the other hand, when it came to doctrines he considered judicial inventions not found in the text of the Constitution – such as the exclusionary rule and right to Miranda warnings – he was much less sympathetic.

White collar cases more often involve the interpretation of statutes, not the Constitution. And white collar statutes are notorious for being broad and somewhat vague, using sometimes fuzzy terms such as “fraud” that are not otherwise defined. Justice Scalia authored a number of significant white collar opinions and dissents. His strict textualist approach generally led him to read white collar statutes narrowly. He was skeptical of prosecutors’ attempts to fashion expansive theories of criminal liability not directly spelled out in the statutes. Some Justices are much more willing to hold that courts should flesh out the parameters of broadly-worded criminal laws; Scalia insisted that crimes had to be specifically defined by Congress, not by judges.

For example, Justice Scalia was a long-time critic of a popular species of mail and wire fraud known as honest services fraud. Frequently used in prosecution of state and local corruption, it charges that victims were defrauded not of money or property but of their intangible right to the honest services of a politician or other individual who owed them a duty. Justice Scalia maintained throughout his career that the idea of “honest services” was too amorphous to support criminal liability and failed to provide adequate notice about what conduct was prohibited.

In Skilling v. United States in 2010 the Court responded to vagueness concerns by narrowing honest services fraud liability to cases involving bribes and kickbacks. Justice Scalia wrote a separate opinion arguing that the Court should go further and declare the honest services fraud statute unconstitutionally vague in all circumstances. (He even referred to it as “so-called honest services fraud,” a locution that President Trump might appreciate.)

In another leading mail fraud case, Schmuck v. United States (yes, that’s the real name), the issue was whether the mailings proved by the prosecution actually furthered the scheme to defraud as required by the statute. The majority adopted a broad reading of the “in furtherance” requirement and upheld the convictions. Justice Scalia dissented, criticizing the prosecution for what he deemed an overly-expansive view of the mail fraud statute. His opinion arguing that the defendant’s convictions should be reversed was joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall, two of the most liberal Justices of the 20th century.

Justice Scalia similarly favored a narrow reading of a public corruption theory called extortion under color of official right under the Hobbs Act. In 1992 in Evans v. United States, the majority held that extortion under color of official right was basically equivalent to bribery. Justice Scalia joined a dissent by Justice Thomas arguing that bribery and extortion are distinct crimes and that the majority opinion wrongfully resulted in a vast expansion of federal criminal law and the power of federal prosecutors.

Of course, strict interpretation of the statute sometimes meant the defendant lost. For example, Brogan v. United States involved the false statements statute that criminalizes lying to the government about material matters. Lower courts had created an exception to the statute, known as the “exculpatory no,” holding that prosecution could not be based on a defendant’s mere denial of guilt. Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion holding the text of the statute contains no such exception and stating “[c]ourts may not create their own limitations on legislation, no matter how alluring the policy arguments for doing so . . . .” (He also noted the defendant’s concession that “under a ‘literal reading’ of the statute he loses.” If you had made that concession and then saw that Justice Scalia was writing the opinion in your case, you knew it was not going to be a good day.)

Recently in Yates v. United States the defendant was charged with obstruction of justice, a twenty-year felony, for throwing overboard some undersized fish that were evidence he had violated fishing regulations. During oral argument Justice Scalia expressed outrage that the government had brought such a case. But in the end he refused to join the five-Justice majority reversing the conviction on the questionable ground that fish were not “tangible objects” within the meaning of the law. Instead he joined with Justice Kagan in dissent, arguing that the plain wording of the statute compelled a ruling in favor of the government. He clearly thought the prosecution was misguided, but did not believe the solution was for the Court to adopt a strained interpretation of the statute that was contrary to its plain language.

gorsuch

Judge Gorsuch and White Collar Crime

Would Justice Gorsuch channel Justice Scalia when it comes to white collar crime? It’s always a bit dicey trying to predict how a judge would behave on the Supreme Court based on his appellate opinions. Appellate judges, of course, are bound by Supreme Court precedent, so they generally don’t have the same freedom and opportunities to decide novel legal questions. But there is reason to believe Justice Gorsuch’s approach would indeed look a lot like Justice Scalia’s.

Judge Gorsuch shares Justice Scalia’s belief in strict construction of the Constitution according to the intent of its framers. In a widely-quoted concurrence in Cordova v. City of Albuquerque, he wrote:

Ours is the job of interpreting the Constitution. And that document isn’t some inkblot on which litigants may project their hopes and dreams . . .  but a carefully drafted text judges are charged with applying according to its original public meaning.

Judge Gorsuch also appears to share the concerns of Justice Scalia about overcriminalization and sweeping criminal statutes that may place too much power in the hands of prosecutors. In a law review article in 2010 Judge Gorsuch wrote: “What happens to individual freedom and equality—and to our very conception of law itself—when the criminal code comes to cover so many facets of daily life that prosecutors can almost choose their targets with impunity?”

Judge Gorsuch’s strict textualist approach to statutory interpretation has occasionally led him, as it did Justice Scalia, to rulings that narrowly interpret criminal statutes and favor criminal defendants. One example involves a statute that makes it a crime for an individual with a felony conviction to possess a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The 10th Circuit has agreed with the majority of courts of appeal that the government in such a case needs to prove only that the defendant knew he possessed a gun and does not need to prove the defendant knew he had a felony conviction.

Judge Gorsuch disagrees. In a classic Scalia-esque statutory interpretation argument, he has argued that the plain language of the statute requires the government to prove both – an interpretation that, if adopted, would favor defendants and place a heavier burden on the government. In one of the cases, United States v. Games-Perez, notice Judge Gorsuch’s language in his concurrence expressing disagreement with his colleagues:

Our duty to follow precedent sometimes requires us to make mistakes. Unfortunately, this is that sort of case. . . .

I recognize that precedent compels me to join the court’s judgment. But candor also compels me to suggest that we might be better off applying the law Congress wrote than the one [the court’s earlier decision] hypothesized. It is a perfectly clear law as it is written, plain in its terms, straightforward in its application. Of course, if Congress wishes to revise the plain terms of [the statute] it is free to do so anytime. But there is simply no right or reason for this court to be in that business.

Those final two sentences could have been lifted straight out of a Justice Scalia opinion: the statute says what it says, and if there’s a problem it is up to Congress to fix it, not the court.

But what a marked contrast to the writing style of Justice Scalia, who was famous for disagreeing with his colleagues in the most sarcastic and acerbic terms. In addition to being a gifted writer, Judge Gorsuch displays much more of a traditional judicial temperament than the man he would replace.

Later, dissenting from a denial of a rehearing en banc in the same case, Judge Gorsuch wrote a impassioned defense of the right of criminal defendants to be convicted only if the government proves every element of the offense: “There can be few graver injustices in a society governed by the rule of law than imprisoning a man without requiring proof of his guilt under the written laws of the land.”

Another 10th Circuit case, United States v. Makkar, involved a prosecution under the analogous drug act, which criminalizes selling substances that mimic a listed controlled substance. In another pro-defendant decision, Judge Gorsuch reversed the convictions and held that the plain language of the statute requires the government to prove the analogous substance had the same chemical structure as the controlled substance, not merely that it had the same effects on the user.

In addition to strictly interpreting criminal statutes, Judge Gorsuch, like Justice Scalia, has a history of holding prosecutors’ feet to the fire and insisting they play by the rules. For example, in United States v. Farr, a tax fraud case, Judge Gorsuch ruled in favor of the defendant and held that prosecutors had improperly convicted him under a theory of tax fraud different from the one that was charged in the indictment.

In a case that might be of interest in the current political environment, Judge Gorsuch also wrote the opinion in United States v. Hasan, reversing the perjury conviction of a Somali refugee. He ruled the trial court had erred by finding the defendant was not entitled to an interpreter when testifying in the grand jury. This was under the extremely deferential “plain error” standard of review, and it would have been easy for an appellate judge simply to defer to the judgment of the trial court. If opponents try to portray Judge Gorsuch as a cold-hearted conservative who cares nothing about the most vulnerable among us, we might see this opinion trotted out in response.

Overall, Judge Gorsuch’s opinions related to criminal law are largely uncontroversial and closely adhere to governing precedent. He definitely takes a strict approach to the interpretation of texts. He does not appear to be results-oriented and will not hesitate to rule against the government and in favor of a criminal defendant if he believes that is required. His approach to criminal law in general and white collar crime in particular does seem to be very similar to Justice Scalia’s.

At least as far as criminal law is concerned, Democrats thinking about opposing his nomination should probably consider they could do a lot worse.

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Selling Access: President Trump, Corruption, and the Legacy of Bob McDonnell

President Donald Trump took office last week amid a storm of controversy over ethics and potential conflicts of interest. There are widespread concerns about possible corruption in the Trump administration. A key focus has been the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which forbids federal officials to accept any payments or gifts from foreign governments. Trump’s extensive international business holdings appear to make violations of that clause almost inevitable. (I wrote last November about the Emoluments Clause and how it relates to bribery; you can find that post here.)

Trump recently did announce some steps to transfer control of his businesses to his sons, although it is unclear to what extent that has actually taken place. The head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, pronounced these efforts wholly inadequate  – and promptly found himself summoned to Capitol Hill to explain his temerity to a Congressional committee. Then this past Monday a public watchdog group and several prominent law professors filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to rule that the new president is already violating the Emoluments Clause.

But the Emoluments Clause is only one of the conflict of interest issues surrounding President Trump. A related ethical concern is the potential for access to the President and his administration to be used as a bargaining chip in his private business dealings. Businesses or governments could secretly agree to provide benefits to Trump-owned businesses in exchange for a private audience with the President or other Executive Branch officials, where they could lobby for government actions that would benefit them. The breadth of the President’s business holdings — and his refusal to divest himself of those holdings – creates an unprecedented risk of such conflicts.

Trump and his family have already demonstrated what might charitably be called a lack of sensitivity to the ethical issues that surround selling access to the White House. In December a nonprofit where Trump’s sons were registered as directors promoted an inaugural event called “Opening Day,” supposedly to benefit unnamed charities related to conservation. It offered donors of $1 million attendance at a private reception with the President-elect, as well as a four-day hunting or fishing excursion with one of his sons. In another incident, a charitable group ran an on-line auction of an opportunity to have coffee with Trump’s daughter Ivanka. The bidding was above $70,000 before the effort was shut down following media inquiries.

Even though the money from such events may go to charity, the buyer’s motives are not necessarily charitable. For example, the high bidder in the auction for coffee with Ms. Trump told the New York Times that he wanted to urge her to persuade her father not to go too far in restricting immigration. Another bidder hoped to speak to her about the Trump administration’s relationship with the Turkish government.

These efforts to sell access to the President and his family raised ethical red flags for a simple reason: access is valuable. Time on any senior government official’s schedule is a scarce commodity. Those able to meet personally with that official (or his family) have an advantage generally unavailable to ordinary citizens: the ability to directly and privately advocate for their own interests. Attempts to cash in on access to government officials – even for charitable causes – are deemed inappropriate because time with those who are supposed to serve all citizens should not be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

But public charity sales of access are just the tip of the potential ethics iceberg. Of far greater concern are transactions that could take place entirely out of public view. For example, imagine this hypothetical: a foreign company is negotiating some kind of deal with a Trump organization business. The company’s officers make it known that they will offer a sweetheart deal at substantial savings if, in exchange, Trump sets up a meeting for them with the Secretary of Commerce to discuss removing certain import restrictions that apply to the company’s products. (Note that because this hypo involves a private company, not a foreign government, the Emoluments Clause would not apply.)

Trump agrees and the deal goes through. Because it involves two private companies, it is not publicly disclosed. Trump then calls the Secretary of Commerce and says, “These guys are friends of mine, I’d like you to meet with them and hear what they have to say about these import sanctions.” Trump doesn’t tell the Secretary about the art of his deal with the company. He also doesn’t tell the Secretary how to decide the question, but the Secretary is no dummy and can read between the lines to see what would please the boss. The meeting happens, the import restrictions are lifted, both sides are happy, and the country is none the wiser.

Remarkable as it may seem, if such a scheme took place it would not violate federal bribery law. And for that, President Trump can thank the former Governor of Virginia – and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Image of Bob McDonnell, former governor of Virginia, whose case paved the way for corruption in the Trump administration

Access for Sale: McDonnell v. United States

Regular readers know that I’ve written a number of posts about McDonnellhere, here, and here, for example – that provide more details about the case. In brief, former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen were prosecuted for essentially selling access to Virginia government officials. Businessman Jonnie Williams was interested in having Virginia universities conduct research on his company’s dietary supplement Anatabloc. Over a two-year period he gave the McDonnells a variety of personal gifts and loans worth more than $170,000.

In exchange, the McDonnells agreed to help promote Anatabloc within the Virginia government. Governor McDonnell arranged meetings for Williams with various government health officials and researchers so Williams could make his pitch. He also held a product launch event for Anatabloc at the Governor’s mansion, attended by state health officials and other government employees.

The McDonnells were found guilty of multiple counts of corruption following a jury trial, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld their convictions. But last June the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that the actions taken by McDonnell on Williams’ behalf were too inconsequential to support a bribery conviction.

The Supreme Court held that simply arranging a meeting, making a phone call, or holding an event did not constitute an “official act” under federal bribery law. An official act, the Court said, requires the public official to take some more substantive steps to resolve a particular question or matter that may be pending before the government, or to pressure another official to do so. Preliminary actions or political courtesies such as arranging a meeting, the Court held, do not rise to that level.

After McDonnell, merely arranging access to government officials may not form the basis of a corruption conviction, even in extreme circumstances. For example, a governor could establish a policy whereby anyone who wanted to meet with a member of his administration had to pay the governor $10,000 to arrange the meeting. Similarly, a company could offer millions of dollars in secret benefits or concessions to a Trump business in exchange for a private dinner with the President or meeting with a Cabinet official. Neither arrangement would violate federal bribery law.

Bribery laws aim to prevent government officials from using their public office to enrich themselves by offering favorable treatment to those willing to pay. Determining whether such a corrupt arrangement exists requires looking at the entire agreement – the quid, the pro, and the quo – and not just focusing on a single side of the equation. The McDonnell decision, through its myopic focus on the meaning of “official act,” effectively took off the table an entire area of public corruption law: the sale of access to government officials.

Image of a bribe taking place - bribery is a key corruption offense

Not All Access is Created Equal

Those familiar with the ways of Washington may observe that access is always up for sale to some extent. It’s just a reality of politics. Large campaign or PAC donors are regularly treated to private events with public officials. For example, large donors to the Presidential Inaugural last week were rewarded with access in the form of a candlelight dinner with Trump and Vice-President Pence at Washington’s Union Station.

This is part of what motivated the Supreme Court in McDonnell. The Court was concerned that if providing access could support a bribery conviction, then many routine interactions with supporters and political courtesies might end up being prosecuted. But again, this mistakenly focuses only on one side of the equation. It’s true that arranging a meeting may be an innocent political courtesy, just as voting on a bill may be a routine political act. But if either is done in direct exchange for a corrupt, secret gift that enriches the politician, that is neither innocent nor routine.

In deciding whether a sale of access might be corrupt, one should consider the whole picture. For example, donations to campaigns take place within a legal framework that generally involves at least some public disclosure and contribution limits. The public is able to see who is supporting the official and to what extent, and to judge the official’s actions accordingly. Sunlight is the best antidote for corruption.

Our current campaign finance system, whatever its flaws, is legal. Contributions made within the framework of that system come with almost a presumption of regularity, and are on a completely different footing from secret, undisclosed gifts. Access may be provided after such contributions, but proving corrupt intent in a case involving lawful contributions will be extremely difficult.

Another distinction is the type of access provided. There’s a big difference between attending a dinner or reception with a few hundred other donors (even by candlelight) and a one-on-one private meeting with an official. The former is more likely to be just a social event where the donors enjoy simply being in the presence of power and perhaps get a chance for a selfie; that is not a setting conducive to corrupt, secret deals.

But the most crucial factor on the quid side of the analysis can be summed up in the immortal words of Watergate’s Deep Throat: follow the money. Campaign contributions go to the campaign, a separate legal entity, as do donations for things such as PACs or Inaugural events. The public official is benefitting indirectly, to be sure, but the support is directed more at the office and campaign and not to line the official’s own pockets.

Contrast this with what Jonnie Williams gave to the McDonnells – secret gifts that enriched the family personally. These were not campaign contributions or other legitimate donations. Rolex watches, New York shopping sprees, and sweetheart loans do not show up on campaign finance reports, are not subject to any legal limits, and personally enrich the official. Unlike routine campaign or PAC contributions, secret gifts to a politician have no legitimate or legally recognized purpose and automatically have the whiff of corruption about them.

The point of all this is simply that it should not be enough to say, “Well, all he did was arrange a meeting, so there can be no corruption.” All of the circumstances surrounding any alleged deal have to be examined. The secret sale of access to public officials causes the exact harm that laws against bribery are intended to prevent: politicians enriching themselves by handing out favors only to those willing to pay. Unfortunately, the McDonnell decision has created a safe harbor for just that kind of corruption.

The Need for Divestiture

Some might suggest this is not a serious problem because there are other potential controls besides the criminal law. For example, the attempts to sell access for charitable causes that I mentioned at the top of this article were exposed and then cancelled. Perhaps the voters and the media can police any such misconduct and shame officials into proper behavior. Ultimately, unhappy voters can always express their displeasure at the ballot box.

But the problem with relying on public pressure and media scrutiny to police such actions is that it assumes full access to information. Most corruption takes place in secret. Although the charitable fundraising efforts were necessarily public, backdoor deals are not. Corruption and conflicts of interest can be very difficult to detect. This is why divestiture of assets that pose a potential conflict is so important: it removes even the possibility of using the power of one’s office to profit off of those assets.

The scenarios outlined here are hypothetical, of course. But the potential for this President to enrich himself and his family through the power of his office is truly extraordinary. With a green light from the Supreme Court, Trump and his family are free to use access to Washington power as a bargaining chip in his private business dealings, taking comfort in the fact that even if their actions come to light, they will not be unlawful.

Yet another way in which the Trump presidency is unprecedented.

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The Supreme Court, Salman, and Insider Trading: Why Stock Tips Make Bad Stocking Stuffers

Almost exactly two years ago, this blog posed the following question in a post about insider trading:

Suppose your brother-in-law has too much eggnog at Christmas dinner and starts blabbing about confidential inside information concerning the company where he works. If you trade the company’s stock based on that information, do you risk finding a subpoena from the SEC in your stocking?

Last week, in Salman v. United States, the Supreme Court provided some answers to this holiday conundrum. The bottom line: insider stock tips still make lousy holiday gifts.

Image of the bull on Wall St., home of insider trading

The Standards for Tippee Liability: Dirks v. SEC

Salman involves a subspecies of insider trading called “tippee” liability. Insider trading is defined as buying or selling securities based on material, non-public information, in violation of a duty of trust and confidence. Corporate insiders and others who acquire company secrets may not use that information to enrich themselves in violation of a duty owed to the source of the information.

But the ban on insider trading would be easily evaded if a corporate insider, forbidden to trade herself, could simply tip off an outside friend or family member and encourage them to trade instead. Accordingly, in some circumstances such tippees may themselves be charged with insider trading.

The Supreme Court first addressed tippee liability in Dirks v. SEC in 1983. Dirks held that a tippee who does not owe a direct duty to shareholders may nevertheless be liable for insider trading, but only if: 1) the tipper was violating a duty by providing the information; and 2) the tippee knew or should have known about that violation.

Whether the tipper was violating a duty, the Court said, turns on the purpose of the tip: “[T]he test is whether the insider personally will benefit, directly or indirectly, from his disclosure. Absent some personal gain, there has been no breach of duty to stockholders. And absent a breach by the insider, there is no derivative breach [by the tippee].”

The Court recognized that potential benefits to tippers are not limited to monetary gains and may include reputational benefits or other intangibles. In particular, a benefit could be inferred when an insider “makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.”

An important aspect of the Dirks test, therefore, is determining whether the tipper received a personal benefit sufficient to find a breach of duty. The Court took the Salman case to shed some light on how courts should approach this question.

Teeing up Salman: The Second Circuit’s Newman Decision

To fully appreciate Salman one must first consider the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s 2014 decision in United States v. Newman, the subject of my post two years ago. Corporate insiders in Newman had disclosed confidential information to several securities analysts who passed the information along to others, including the defendants.

After they were convicted for trading on that information, the defendants appealed and argued the government had failed to satisfy both prongs of the Dirks test: they claimed there was insufficient evidence the insiders had received a personal benefit in exchange for the tips and thus violated their duty, and even if they did, there was no evidence the defendants knew about that violation.

The Second Circuit agreed that the government’s evidence of personal benefit to the tippers was inadequate. The government had argued that one tipper received occasional career advice from an analyst to whom he leaked information, while the other tipper and another analyst were social friends who attended the same church.

The Court agreed that “personal benefit” could include intangible benefits, but this did not mean the government could simply establish that the tipper and tippee were friends. If that were sufficient this requirement would practically disappear, because at least a casual friendship between tipper and tippee probably exists in almost all such cases.

Accordingly, the court held, proof of a personal benefit requires evidence of a “meaningfully close relationship [between tipper and tippee] that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”   The evidence in Newman did not meet that standard, and so the court reversed the convictions.

The Supreme Court turned down the government’s request to review Newman, but then just three months later it granted certiorari in Salman, a Ninth Circuit case that also raised the “personal benefit” issue. (I wrote about Salman at the time, in a post you can find here.)

Image of street sign for Wall Street, the home of insider trading

Salman: What Qualifies as a Benefit to the Tipper?

Salman represents the Supreme Court’s first foray into tippee liability since Dirks. Maher Kara, a Citigroup investment banker, repeatedly passed confidential information about upcoming mergers and acquisitions to his brother Michael, knowing that Michael would use it to trade. Michael, in turn, shared the information with Bassam Salman, a close friend whose sister was married to Maher. Salman made more than $1.5 million by trading on these tips before the scheme was discovered. He was convicted of insider trading and sentenced to 36 months in prison.

On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Salman urged that court to apply Newman to overturn his conviction. Salman argued that Maher, the tipper, was simply helping his brother out and did not receive anything of a “pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” in exchange. Under the Newman test, he claimed, that meant no violation of a duty by Maher and thus no tippee liability for Salman.

The Ninth Circuit rejected Salman’s arguments, finding that his case involved a straightforward application of Dirks and disagreeing with the analysis in Newman. That created a circuit split that likely led the Supreme Court to take Salman’s case. But when it came to convincing the high court to adopt Newman, Salman was swimming upstream.

In a unanimous opinion by Justice Alito, the Court agreed with the Ninth Circuit and held that Dirks “easily resolves the narrow issue presented here.” Dirks, the Court observed, held that a personal benefit may be inferred when an insider “makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.” Maher passed information to his brother knowing he would trade on it, which falls squarely within this language. Game, set, match.

The Court noted that if Maher had traded on the information himself and given the proceeds to his brother, there is no question that would be insider trading. By passing the information to his brother knowing he would trade himself, Maher achieved exactly the same goal. “In such situations, the tipper benefits personally because giving a gift of trading information is the same thing as trading by the tipper followed by a gift of the proceeds.” Because he obtained this personal benefit, sharing the information was a violation of Maher’s duty of trust and confidence to his clients – a duty that Salman inherited and then violated when he traded on the information with full knowledge of its improper origins.

The Supreme Court expressly rejected the more stringent benefit test adopted by Newman: “To the extent that the Second Circuit [in Newman] held that the tipper must also receive something of a ‘pecuniary or similarly valuable nature’ in exchange for a gift to family or friends . . .we agree with the Ninth Circuit that this requirement is inconsistent with Dirks.”

The Court also rejected Salman’s claim that the benefit test was unconstitutionally vague. Although it agreed that determining whether a benefit occurred might be difficult in some cases, the Court said it did not need to confront that issue because “Salman’s conduct is in the heartland of Dirks’s rule concerning gifts.”

Image of Christmas Stockings - stock tips make bad holiday gifts

Issues Remaining after Salman: Moving Beyond Friends and Family

The most significant aspect of Salman is its rejection of Newman. Because the Second Circuit includes New York and Wall Street, Newman had caused quite a stir and was seen as a significant blow to the government. Prosecutors were forced to drop a number of insider trading cases in the wake of the decision. Salman thus should give a boost to both criminal and civil insider trading investigations.

The court of appeals in Newman had also considered what the government must prove concerning the tippee’s knowledge – the second part of the Dirks test. The government argued it had to prove the tippee knew the information was given in violation of the tipper’s duty but did not need to prove the tippee knew the tipper had received a benefit. The Second Circuit, however, held that the government must prove that the tippee knew both.

The knowledge issue was not before the Supreme Court in Salman, as the Court noted in a footnote. But the briefs, oral argument, and opinion all indicate the government now agrees it must prove the tippee knew both that the tipper violated a duty and that he received a benefit. Salman therefore provides some clarity on the knowledge prong of the Dirks test as well, and that portion of Newman appears to remain good law. And that means cases like Newman involving “remote tippees” – those several steps removed from the source of the information and thus less aware of the details of the tipper’s activities – may continue to be challenging for the government.

Some commentators have suggested Salman leaves unanswered how close a friendship must be before the tipper can be said to benefit from disclosure. Must there be a close, personal friendship, or would the standard apply to an occasional golfing buddy or even a casual Facebook friend? And who qualifies as a “relative”? In-laws? Second cousins twice removed?

I think future cases are unlikely to hinge on such questions. Basing criminal liability on determining, for example, whether a friendship was sufficiently “meaningfully close,” as the Second Circuit suggested in Newman, would likely be vague and unworkable.

The Court in Dirks listed a gift of information to a friend or relative merely as an example of an improper disclosure, not as the definition of one. It would be a mistake to believe that a court must now determine whether a tippee is truly a “friend” or “relative” and what exactly that means. The test should focus not on the nature of the relationship but on the purpose behind the tip.

Dirks held that whether disclosure is a breach of duty “depends in large part on the purpose of the disclosure,” and the Court in Salman reaffirmed this language. Much of the Salman oral argument also focused on the purpose of the gift, with the Justices (and the government) pointing out that Maher’s gift of inside information was done for a personal purpose and not a corporate one.

The government in Salman argued that the benefit requirement of Dirks is met any time an insider discloses information for a personal purpose rather than a corporate purpose. The Court did not need to go that far because Salman fell squarely within the language of Dirks about disclosure to a relative, and the Court simply took the narrowest path possible to decide the case at hand. But for future cases a test that hinges on the tipper’s purpose is the logical outgrowth of Dirks and Salman.

To borrow an analogy used during oral argument, suppose I see a sad person on the street and feel bad for them, so I give them inside information intending that they trade on it. If I traded on the information myself and give the stranger the money, that would be insider trading. That tip benefits me – it allows me to make the desired charitable gift without actually taking money out of my pocket. As the Court said in Dirks: “[t]he tip and trade resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient.”

A test based on the tipper’s purpose does not make criminal liability rest upon something as nebulous as the closeness of the relationship between tipper and tippee. Instead it focuses on intent, with which criminal law is accustomed to dealing. An insider who tips to a family member, occasional golfing buddy, or stranger on the street does not act for any proper corporate purpose. All such disclosures violate the insider’s duty to refrain from using corporate information for some personal end.

Tippee liability based on gifts of information is unlikely to be limited to close friends and family. Anyone who believes Salman leaves them free to act on improper tips from casual acquaintances will likely find that prosecutors and courts disagree. The Supreme Court’s reaffirmation of Dirks and rejection of Newman signify that it remains very comfortable with a robust theory of insider trading liability.

And as for that errant brother-in-law, tell him you’d rather have a nice sweater or something — and ask him to pass the eggnog.

Note: This post is adapted from a commentary I published in the George Washington Law Review’s “On the Docket.”  You can find that commentary here.

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In Defense of the Grand Jury (Part 3): Disclosure of Exculpatory Information

During the course of a grand jury investigation, a federal prosecutor may learn information favorable to the defense, perhaps even suggesting that the target of the investigation is innocent of any crime. What are the rules concerning disclosure of exculpatory information to the grand jury?  And beyond what the rules require, what are the best practices a prosecutor should follow?

In my earlier posts on the federal grand jury (available here and here), I discussed how the grand jury, whose proceedings take place in secret, is a frequently misunderstood and sometimes controversial institution. One source of controversy is the one-sided nature of a grand jury presentation.

grand jury door - what are the rules concerning disclosure of exculpatory information to the grand jury?

Disclosure of Exculpatory Information to the Grand Jury

The grand jury generally hears only from the government. The prosecutor presents the witnesses, documents and other evidence and ultimately asks the grand jury to return an indictment if the evidence establishes probable cause. The defense has no right to call witnesses or otherwise present its case. There is no defense attorney to object, cross-examine, or offer contrary evidence. The defendant himself has no right to testify.

This one-sided nature of the proceeding may seem to run counter to our most fundamental concepts of justice. How can the grand jury possibly make the right determination if it only hears one side of the story? But this argument misperceives the grand jury’s function.

The grand jury is merely accusatory, not adjudicatory. Its purpose is not to decide guilt or innocence or to weigh both sides of the case but to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify bringing the defendant into court to answer the charges. As such, part of its historic function is to serve as a shield against executive power. The government cannot simply run into court and file criminal charges on its own; it must first convince a panel of citizens in the same community that there is a basis for those charges.

In making that determination the grand jury needs to find only probable cause that the crimes took place, not the far higher standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that would be required for conviction at trial. And unlike a trial jury, a grand jury does not need to be unanimous; only twelve out of sixteen jurors need to find probable cause in order to return an indictment.

Many of the procedural protections we associate with a trial do not apply in the grand jury. If they did, grand jury proceedings could quickly become bogged down with endless hearings and disputes about the evidence being presented. A grand jury is simply making a threshold determination about whether there is a basis to proceed. It is not supposed to be “trial #1,” where we litigate every dispute and evidentiary issue, to be followed later by “trial #2” where we do it all over again with a higher standard of proof.

Accordingly, the defense generally is not able to challenge the evidence being presented to the grand jury or to present evidence of its own. With few exceptions, any such matters have to wait until pre-trial court proceedings or the trial itself, once the grand jury investigation is over and the case is indicted.

But this system must acknowledge a major caveat: an indictment alone can be devastating. It’s not much comfort to tell a wrongly indicted defendant, “It’s okay, now you can present your side of the case and be found not guilty at trial.” Trial may come only after two years of delay, a million dollars in legal fees, and severe damage to the defendant’s family, business, and reputation. That “not guilty” verdict at the end, even if it comes, is not going to feel like much of a victory. Simply being indicted can ruin someone’s life.

This fact, in turn, highlights the critical importance of the prosecutor’s obligations in the grand jury. Prosecutors, of course, must do everything they can to avoid indicting the wrong people. A fundamental part of the prosecutor’s role is to ensure that the innocent do not suffer. This requires recognition of the gravity of the decision to return an indictment and the potential impact on the person being indicted. The prosecutor’s duty is not to “win” by securing an indictment by any means necessary, but to ensure that justice is done. In the grand jury, the one-sided nature of the presentation makes that duty all the more critical.

Given these obligations and the nature of the grand jury, what should a prosecutor do when she comes across information favorable to the defense during a grand jury investigation?

The Supreme Court ruled that disclosure of exculpatory information to the grand jury is not a constitutional requirement.

The United States Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s Answer: United States v. Williams

The Supreme Court confronted this issue in 1992 in United States v. Williams. Williams was indicted for bank fraud for allegedly misrepresenting the nature of some of his assets when applying for a loan. After he was indicted, he argued the prosecutor should have disclosed to the grand jury information demonstrating that he had always treated those assets the same way for his tax and other accounting purposes. This information, Williams claimed, would have demonstrated he did not misrepresent his financial position and lacked any intent to defraud the bank.

After a hearing, the trial court agreed with Williams that the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the information rendered the grand jury’s decision to indict “gravely suspect.” The court dismissed the indictment without prejudice (which would have allowed the government to present the case to a new grand jury, this time including the allegedly exculpatory information). The court of appeals agreed and upheld the dismissal.

Given the nature and history of grand jury proceedings, Williams did not claim in the Supreme Court that the Constitution itself required the government to present exculpatory evidence to the grand jury. But he argued the Court should create such a rule on its own, as part of its general supervisory role over the justice system, in order to ensure the fairness of grand jury proceedings.

A divided Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Scalia discussed the historical independence of the grand jury, which is mandated by the Bill of Rights but is not textually assigned to any one of the three branches of government. As such, it functions as a “constitutional fixture in its own right.” Given the grand jury’s independence, he concluded, the Court does not have a general supervisory power that would allow it to create rules for grand jury proceedings.

The Court also relied on the role of the grand jury, which is “not to determine guilt or innocence, but to assess whether there is adequate basis for bringing a criminal charge.” Williams’ proposed rule, the Court said, would effectively turn the grand jury into an adjudicatory body required to weigh both sides of the case. This would threaten to tie up grand jury proceedings in evidentiary hearings and disputes. It would also run counter to a long history of Court decisions refusing to scrutinize the adequacy of the evidence before the grand jury; such scrutiny would “run counter to the whole history of the grand jury institution.”

The Court concluded that if a rule requiring the disclosure of exculpatory information was good policy, Congress was free to enact a law requiring prosecutors to do so. The Court itself, however, declined to create such a rule on its own. Four dissenting Justices argued that a court should have the power to dismiss an indictment if the prosecutor withheld evidence that would “plainly preclude a finding of probable cause,” and that such a rule was necessary to limit potential prosecutorial misconduct.

Practical Challenges of Legally Mandating Disclosure

Congress has not taken the Williams Court up on the suggestion that it could pass a law requiring disclosure of exculpatory information. If Congress did so, enforcing such a requirement would raise a number of challenges. For example, what would happen when the defense and prosecution don’t agree over whether information is truly exculpatory? (Even the dissenting Justices in Williams agreed there was some doubt whether the proffered information really exculpated the defendant. If he treated the financial information the same way for tax and other purposes, might that not simply mean that he was a consistent crook?)

If the prosecutor didn’t agree that information proffered by the defense was exculpatory and declined to put it before the grand jury, what would be the remedy? Presumably the defense would file a motion with a judge and there would have to be a hearing. But reluctance to bog down grand jury proceedings with hearings and delays is precisely why the Court has consistently held that rules of evidence and procedure that apply during a trial do not apply in the grand jury. In a large, hard-fought white collar investigation, it would be easy to imagine the defense filing multiple motions concerning exculpatory information and potentially grinding the investigation to a halt.

In addition, it would be difficult to litigate such a motion while still preserving grand jury secrecy. How would the government demonstrate information was not truly exculpatory without being forced to reveal confidential information about the investigation? Even if the judge reviewed the papers in camera and did not disclose them to the defense, ruling on such a motion would require the judge to become enmeshed in the details and merits of the grand jury investigation to a degree completely contrary to the grand jury’s historically independent function.

Or suppose the prosecutor agrees that the information is potentially exculpatory, but it is contained in documents that are not self-explanatory. Does the defense then have the right to designate the witness who will explain the documents, to make sure they are properly understood? To write out the examination to make sure it is effective – or to conduct the examination itself? The same questions arise if the evidence consists of testimony from a witness: how does the defense ensure that the testimony is presented effectively without compromising grand jury secrecy? And if there are disputes about how to present the evidence, presumably a judge would again need to get involved.

In short, although creating a legal rule mandating the disclosure of exculpatory information may sound good in theory, it’s not difficult to see why the Court in Williams was reluctant to create such a rule, or why Congress has declined to do so.

DOJ has a policy on disclosure of exculpatory information to the grand jury

DOJ Policy and Prosecutor Best Practices

Simply because disclosure is not legally mandated does not mean it should not take place. The Department of Justice has recognized this in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, which provides that if the prosecutor is “personally aware of substantial evidence that directly negates the guilt” of the target, that evidence should be disclosed to the grand jury. USAM 9-11.233.

Of course, although policies in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual provide important guidance to prosecutors, they do not create enforceable rights. The prosecutor may be subject to discipline for violating a rule, but a defendant cannot move to dismiss an indictment on that basis. Some might also argue that terms such as “substantial evidence” and “directly negates the guilt” leave a fair amount of wiggle room and that DOJ policy should require more fulsome disclosure.

But for the good prosecutor there are many sound reasons to disclose exculpatory information to the grand jury, whether or not the information is substantial enough to require disclosure under the DOJ policy.

The first reason is simply fairness: disclosing such information is the right thing to do. A good prosecutor has no interest in “hiding the ball,” misleading the grand jury, or giving even a perception that the grand jury process was unfair. The U.S. Attorneys’ Manual also provides that a prosecutor must be “scrupulously fair” in the grand jury and ensure that the grand jury is not misled. USAM 9-11.010. That may require disclosing even information that is only marginally or potentially exculpatory.

A prosecutor with a good case should have nothing to fear from disclosing potentially exculpatory information to the grand jury. After all, such evidence will undoubtedly come up at trial. If you as a prosecutor are so concerned about the information that you think it might result in the grand jury not finding probable cause, then how are you ever going to get a trial jury with the same information to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?

Indeed, if you’re a prosecutor and you have information you fear might cause the grand jury not to indict, then you shouldn’t be thinking merely about whether you should disclose that information to the grand jury. You should be thinking about whether you should pursue the case at all. Certainly if you have “substantial evidence” that “directly negates the guilt” of the defendant, you’d better stop and consider whether the investigation should proceed.

There also are sound tactical reasons to introduce exculpatory information in the grand jury. It allows the prosecutor to probe and explore the evidence completely, through examination of witnesses and possible additional investigation. A full review of the information may lead to additional evidence that further exonerates the defendant, or evidence that demonstrates the information is not truly exculpatory. It is better to explore those details in the grand jury than to wait and potentially be surprised at trial.

Presenting the evidence to the grand jury also allows the prosecutor to see how the grand jurors react to the evidence, to hear what questions they have, and to discuss the evidence with them. Again, all of that can be incredibly useful to guide further investigative efforts, prepare more fully for trial, or to decide that the case should not be indicted and the investigation should be closed.

It All Comes Down to the Prosecutor’s Responsibility

Critics of the grand jury may argue that we need a rule mandating the presentation of exculpatory evidence because most cases never make it to trial. An unscrupulous prosecutor could conceal substantial exculpatory information from the grand jury, thinking that he or she will be able to coerce a guilty plea once the case is indicted and the exculpatory information will never come to light.

There is no doubt, as I’ve noted in other posts in this series, that a prosecutor bent on misconduct can abuse the grand jury process, cause tremendous harm, and perhaps even indict a ham sandwich. But a legal rule that tries to regulate the type of evidence put before the grand jury is probably not the solution.  Good prosecutors are already going to consider themselves bound by DOJ policy and will want to disclose exculpatory information for the reasons I discussed above. Bad prosecutors who intend to abuse the process likely would find the rule easy to avoid. And the rule would raise all of the practical difficulties discussed above and fundamentally alter the nature of the grand jury.

Although concerns about prosecutorial misconduct in the grand jury are valid, the solutions need to focus primarily on the prosecutors themselves; on whom we hire to be prosecutors and how they are trained. Unless we do away with the grand jury entirely or fundamentally alter its centuries-old function, prosecutors in the grand jury are always going to have a great deal of autonomy and power. Given the one-sided nature of grand jury proceedings, it is particularly critical that prosecutors respect their obligations and recognize that with that great power comes great responsibility.

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Click here to read part one in this series, “The Guilty Ham Sandwich.”

Click here to read part two in this series, “Grand Jury Secrecy.”

When Is Fraud Involving a Bank Not Bank Fraud? Shaw v. United States

Update 12/12/16: Today the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Shaw and held that Section 1 of the bank fraud statute applies to a scheme to obtain deposits held by the bank even if the bank suffers no financial loss. The Court also affirmed that a bank does have a property interest in deposits that it holds, as both sides had basically ended up agreeing during oral argument. The Court sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit to consider the adequacy of the jury instructions, whether that issue was properly preserved, and whether any error in the instructions may have been harmless. See discussion below.

On the first day of arguments this term, the Supreme Court considered the scope of the federal bank fraud statute. The case, Shaw v. United States, involves complex questions concerning the definition of fraud and the nature of property rights. It’s a classic, nerdy white collar battle over statutory interpretation — and it was all completely unnecessary.

The federal bank fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1344, makes it a crime to execute or attempt to execute a scheme or artifice:

1) to defraud a financial institution; or

2) to obtain any of the moneys, funds, credits, assets, securities, or other property owned by, or under the custody or control of, a financial institution, by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.

Shaw involves the proper interpretation of clause 1 and what it means to defraud a financial institution. In particular, the issue is whether the defendant must intend to obtain property owned by the bank itself and cause the bank financial injury, or whether it is sufficient to show merely that the defendant intended to obtain property being held by the bank, such as customer deposits.

The defendant, Lawrence Shaw, was convicted for executing an elaborate scheme to steal money from a Bank of America checking account held by Stanley Hsu. After wrongfully obtaining Hsu’s bank statements and personal information, Shaw was able to open a PayPal account in Hsu’s name. He then repeatedly transferred money from Hsu’s checking account into the PayPal account and ultimately into other bank accounts that Shaw controlled. Shaw was able to siphon more than $300,000 out of Hsu’s account before Hsu, who was living in Taiwan, detected the losses.

Due to the operation of banking laws, Bank of America actually ended up suffering no financial loss as a result of the scheme. PayPal, which had allowed the phony account to be opened, ended up on the hook for about $100,000 of the loss. Hsu, who had failed to notify Bank of America about the fraud in a timely manner, personally lost nearly $200,000.

2000px-paypal_logo-svg

PayPal was left holding the bag

Shaw was indicted on multiple counts of executing a scheme to defraud a financial institution under clause 1 of the bank fraud statute. At trial and on appeal, Shaw did not deny his culpability. His defense was basically that the government had charged him under the wrong section of the statute. Clause 1, he argued, requires the government to prove that Shaw was targeting property owned by the bank itself and intended to expose the bank to a financial loss. Shaw maintained that his goal all along was simply to get Hsu’s money. He never had any intent to harm the bank, and the bank in fact did not suffer a loss. Accordingly, Shaw argued, his conduct, although fraudulent, did not constitute a scheme to defraud the bank within the meaning of the statute.

Shaw maintained that his scam should have been charged under clause 2, which covers schemes to obtain property of others in the custody of the bank – in this case, Hsu’s deposits. (This, of course, is not a very sexy or sympathetic defense; Shaw isn’t saying,“I didn’t do it,” he’s saying “Yeah, I did it, but you charged me the wrong way.” But sexy or not, if he prevails his convictions will be reversed. As I’m sure some famous football coach said once, an ugly win is still a win.)

The trial court ruled against Shaw and held the government was not required to prove that Shaw intended the bank to suffer any financial harm or to lose its own property. The judge instructed the jury that a scheme to defraud a financial institution required only proof that the defendant intended to deceive or cheat the bank somehow, but did not require proof that the defendant intended the bank to suffer any loss. The jury convicted Shaw on fourteen counts of bank fraud.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Shaw’s convictions. The court of appeals reasoned that Congress could not have intended liability for bank fraud to turn on arcane banking rules and regulations about who will bear the loss. Requiring proof of intent to harm the bank itself, the court said, would make prosecuting bank fraud unreasonably difficult. Because the goal of the statute is to protect the integrity of the banking system, any scheme that deceives a bank will suffice, regardless of who ultimately is harmed. The court therefore agreed with the trial judge that clause 1 requires only proof that the defendant intended to deceive the bank, not that he intended to expose the bank itself to any financial loss.

Supreme Court

SCOTUS Agrees to Weigh In

The Supreme Court agreed to hear Shaw’s appeal, and the case was argued this past Tuesday. The courts of appeal are divided on the question presented in Shaw. The Ninth Circuit is in the minority; most courts agree with Shaw’s argument that clause 1 of the bank fraud statute requires the government to prove the defendant intended to expose the bank itself to a risk of financial loss.

As I discussed in my last post, to defraud someone usually means to deprive him of money or property through some kind of deception. The law generally draws a distinction between defrauding someone and merely deceiving them; a scheme to defraud typically requires not only a deception but also an intent to injure the victim by depriving them of their property.

Based on this understanding of fraud, the plain wording of the statute supports Shaw’s argument that the scheme must target the bank’s own property. The language “scheme to defraud a financial institution” suggests that the financial institution itself would be the victim of the fraud. This in turn would mean that the scheme to defraud would be designed to deprive the bank of money or property.

But then the question becomes what qualifies as “property.” Although (as the Justices somewhat testily pointed out) the government’s brief was not entirely clear on this point, during oral argument the government confirmed that it agreed a scheme to defraud a bank requires intent to deprive the bank of property and that merely deceiving the bank is not enough. The government disagreed with Shaw, however, about the nature of the property interests protected by the statute, and about whether depriving the bank of a property interest necessarily requires exposing the bank to financial harm.

The government agreed that the Supreme Court has consistently held that a scheme to defraud means a scheme to deprive a victim of money or property, but noted that the Court has always interpreted the term “property” very broadly. Fraud, the government argued, protects both tangible and intangible property, and protects property that is merely in one’s possession as well as property that one owns.

Under this broad definition of property, a scheme to obtain customer deposits is in fact a scheme to deprive the bank of its possessory property interest in those deposits. The same would be true of a scheme to steal other assets being held by a bank, such as customer valuables in a safe deposit box. There is no requirement that the bank actually own the property or suffer a financial loss; the law of fraud requires only that the scheme contemplated depriving the bank of its possessory property right in the assets it holds.

During oral arguments, Shaw’s attorney ultimately agreed with the government that the bank’s possessory interest in customer deposits could qualify as a property interest for purposes of fraud. A line of questions from Justice Kagan honed in on the fact that both sides now seemed to agree about the definition of “property.” Shaw’s attorney maintained, however, that the ordinary understanding of a scheme to defraud meant that to deprive the bank of that property interest required proof of intent that the bank would bear the ultimate financial loss. The Justices seemed more skeptical on this point, with Justice Alito in particular arguing that you could deprive someone of a possessory interest in property without necessarily causing them a personal loss.

But even if the Court ends up agreeing with the government that Shaw’s scheme deprived Bank of America of a property interest in Hsu’s deposits, Shaw may still prevail – because that’s not what the jury instructions said. During oral argument, several of the Justices suggested that the key issue in the case is really the jury instructions. Under questioning from Justice Sotomayor, Shaw’s attorney argued that even if Shaw loses on the interpretation of the bank fraud statute, his convictions must be reversed because the jury instructions were flawed. When the Assistant to the Solicitor General began his argument, the Justices immediately started peppering him with questions about the jury instructions and whether they adequately conveyed the requirements of fraud.

The jury instructions could be read to say that depriving the bank of property was not required, and that it was enough if Shaw merely intended to deceive the bank. The instructions thus arguably failed to distinguish between defrauding and merely deceiving a victim, which is usually critical to the law of fraud. At oral argument, Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that the Ninth Circuit’s opinion also said the bank only needed to be deceived – which seems to endorse the incorrect standard. There was some additional back and forth about the grammatical structure of the instructions, how the jury would have interpreted them, and whether the issue was properly preserved, so how the Court will come out on that question is unclear. But it’s very possible the government could win the legal fight over the definition of bank fraud and still lose the appeal based on flawed jury instructions.

The Implications of Shaw

Although Shaw has implications for banking law and the definition of fraud – and certainly has significant implications for Mr. Shaw — it does not really implicate broader interests about federalism or overcriminalization that are present in many white collar cases. There is no real universe of cases that will no longer be subject to federal prosecution if Shaw wins; Shaw himself admits he could have been prosecuted under clause 2 of the bank fraud statute.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief supporting Shaw on federalism grounds. It argued the bank fraud statute should be construed narrowly in order to limit the scope of federal prosecutions and allow the states to pursue such cases. But this argument doesn’t really hold water. Regardless of the outcome here, cases like Shaw’s will still be subject to federal prosecution, whether through other provisions of the bank fraud statute or through other laws such as mail and wire fraud. There are more than enough arrows in the federal prosecutor’s quiver.

But however it ultimately comes out, Shaw will be instructive in one more area: the importance of sound prosecutorial charging decisions. Clause 2 of the bank fraud law seems clearly to cover Shaw’s conduct. If prosecutors had simply charged Shaw under clause 2 in the first place, this entire issue could have been avoided. Prosecutors would have saved themselves a lot of headaches, time and money that had to be devoted to defending the convictions.

This isn’t a case of over-charging of the type that has caused the Court concern in recent years. There’s no question that Shaw’s conduct was criminal and deserved to be prosecuted. But by charging the case the way they did, prosecutors handed Shaw an issue for appeal that may well be successful. It’s what that football coach would call an unforced error.

Shaw should bring some clarity to the law of bank fraud. But the real lesson of Shaw for prosecutors should be a reminder of the importance of careful charging decisions and selecting the proper statutes when crafting indictments.

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