White-Collar Crime

If you’re going to steal millions from clients, at least make a good story out of it. Like blowing hefty sums on luxurious private air travel and wiring millions to casinos to cover gambling debts. Make it a rock star story right up until the very end.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a lawyer successfully stealing millions. There are just too many checks in place to let it get that far. It felt like the only thing anyone needed to know to pass professional responsibility was to respect escrow accounts. You just make sure all the money you’re watching for your customers, consumers, lenders and employees is always accounted for. There’s inevitably more than one person handling the bank statements. It’s just hard to lose millions.

Nonetheless, one law firm with offices around the country thinks it’s discovered more than a minor problem in its accounts. In fact, it just filed a lawsuit against its former managing partner, alleging that he siphoned off a cool $30 million from client escrow accounts to live like a proverbial rock star….

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Mindy Kaling and Preet Bharara at the Harvard Law School commencement.

The legal world doesn’t have too many “crossover celebrities,” figures who are big enough to be known outside our little corner of the world. We can all think of a few — Alan Dershowitz, Judge Judy, Supreme Court justices (arguably) — and not all of them are awesome (cough cough, Nancy Grace).

One of the youngest crossover celebrities is Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He’s been on the cover of Time magazine. He’s attended the Vanity Fair Oscars party.

Bharara is best known for his crackdown on Wall Street abuses and insider trading, but he’s a fun person underneath the prosecutor’s dark suit. Yesterday the New York Times ran an interesting profile of Bharara. Here are some highlights….

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On Friday, special prosecutor Michael McCrum secured an indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry, whose 2012 campaign is the first abortion Republicans have celebrated in years, is accused of coercion and abusing his office when he threatened to, and subsequently did, revoke funding for the Public Integrity Unit. That unit is charged with rooting out government corruption, and Perry took away its budget because the district attorney in charge of the unit — a Texas Democrat — was convicted of drunk driving and wouldn’t step down. Perry thought she should leave her post because she had lost the public trust over her conviction and not at all because she had been investigating possible corruption related to Perry’s signature project, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

If you don’t think this is shady and improper, you’re a hyperpartisan for Perry. Entirely obliterating the agency charged with protecting citizens from official corruption because you don’t like the person in charge — for whatever reason — smacks of overreach. Imagine Congress and the President zero-funding the Supreme Court because they wanted one justice to resign. It’s just cockroach hunting with a bazooka.

Still, is it criminal as opposed to just shady? That’s a different question. Law professors weigh in….

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When I was in law school, I went to hear Chief Justice Rehnquist speak. He told a story of going to visit Finland, and meeting with their attorney general. The Chief Justice asked the attorney general whether the highest court in Finland could overturn an act of its parliament. She didn’t know the answer. She huddled with her staff for a few minutes, then told Rehnquist that they think their Supreme Court could, but the issue had never come up, because their high court had never tried.

Rehnquist told the audience that he thought this was just straight up freaky (not his words). And then began to wonder why he thought this was so strange. He concluded that there is something in the American psyche — especially in the part of the American psyche that lawyers seem to embrace — that feels compelled to push power to its outer limits.

This is a dangerous thing to think about if you think that our law enforcement community — from the lowly beat cops to an FBI forensic accountant — shares this disposition.

It’s an idea perhaps best explored by The Onion in Insecure, Frustrated Bully With Something To Prove Considering Career In Law Enforcement.

Friends and family confirmed that [the frustrated insecure bully], an unpredictable, petty individual who frequently loses his temper when he feels he is being threatened or disrespected, has in recent months been inquiring into joining the ranks of the Raleigh Police Department. In this role, the man with a massive chip on his shoulder and no visible sense of empathy would be tasked with peacefully resolving disputes and evenhandedly administering justice to members of the community over whom he would have official power.

And it’s a problem in the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests. And police response to protests. And violence in response to the police response.

There’s a cultural shift happening in our law enforcement communities, and that shift matters to folks doing white-collar criminal work as much as blue-collar criminal work.

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Americans are obsessed with taxes.

Maybe it’s our libertarian streak. Maybe an anti-tax bias is in our DNA from the Boston Tea Party. In any event, no real American likes paying taxes.

And some people don’t like paying them even more than the rest of us. Like Donna Marie Kozak.

In Omaha Nebraska this week, Kozak was convicted of a number of tax crimes. She is a member of the “sovereign citizen group ‘Republic for the united States of America.’”

According to DOJ’s press release about the case,

since the late 1990s, Kozak has engaged in a long series of fraudulent schemes to obstruct the internal revenue laws. These included placing her property in sham trusts, establishing a sham charitable foundation, sending harassing correspondence to IRS employees and filing bogus tax returns, trust returns, private-foundation returns and other false documents with the IRS. In 2008, she filed a tax return based on fictitious income and tax withholdings on Form 1099-OID statements that claimed a refund of $660,000.

At trial, in addition to the questionable tax filings, she also seems to have filed a $19 million tax lien against a federal judge who oversaw the tax fraud prosecution against two of her friends. She also filed other multi-million dollar tax liens against the federal prosecutors who brought her friends’ case.

It seems Kozak did not have a legitimate claim to $19 million from that judge. And self-help to a fake tax lien is not how one should address a suspicion of prosecutorial overreach.

Like the folks who believe that the limits on maritime jurisdiction, explained by a talking salamander, holds the key to beating a federal criminal charge, the full tapestry of wacko tax fraud theories is a lovely thing to behold….

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Forfeiture law is insane.

There are lots of reasons to hate criminal forfeiture. You could dislike forfeiture because of the way law enforcement uses it to target poor people, the way law enforcement takes small sums of money that no reasonable person would fight over, the way some law man down south threatened parents with choosing between being arrested and having their kids put in foster care or forfeiting their cash, or even the way it creates insane incentives for cops to fund themselves by taking money from people whether they ought to or not. (For examples of this stuff, see either The New Yorker or The Daily Show, depending on whether you’re currently trying to impress someone).

Law enforcement wants that forfeiture money. And, as the examples above show, they’re going to do a lot to get it.

Though now, in Baltimore, a forfeiture case has led to an allegation that a federal prosecutor knowingly produced a forged document in a case.

If you believe a law enforcement officer’s testimony under oath.

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Here’s something I’m envious of as a Canadian lawyer. The United States is filled with celebrity lawyers: Robert Shapiro, Gerry Spence, Harvey Levin (thank you, TMZ), Judge Wapner, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Lance Ito.

Bobby and Teddy—lawyers.  John, Jr., a prosecutor.  Bill and Hillary and the current POTUS and FLOTUS, lawyers all.

And, of course, the most celebrated American lawyer, Geraldo Rivera (you forgot that, didn’t you?).

The U.S. loves to gawk at its lawyers, making them famous for defending ex-Hertz pitchmen, or for screaming at people on crappy daytime television where they make all judges look like arrogant cork smokers.

What about celebrity lawyers in Canada?

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The white-collar bar is a varied and wonderful thing.

On one hand, there are the large-firm players — the FCPA mongers and the folks doing criminal antitrust work who fly all over the globe representing clients in lucrative conference room litigation that will rarely see a courtroom.

These cases are well-funded. Even if the client has a higher chance of French kissing the Chief Justice during the State of the Union address than of being indicted, as long as he’s indemnified by a large company, many firms will do everything they possibly can to be completely and fully ready for an indictment that will never come. I haven’t yet heard of a mock jury for a client in an investigation that isn’t going to be indicted, but I think that’s only because no one has thought it up yet. (And, to my friends currently representing such indemnified clients, you’re very welcome for the suggestion.)

For these folks, attorney-client privilege exists and is relatively easy to preserve. It’s good to be pre-indictment and it’s good to be indemnified.

But, for the rest of the folks accused of white-collar crimes, our Department of Justice is only too happy to make folks choose between a preserved attorney-client privilege and the Sixth Amendment.

How?

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No one has getting indicted on their bucket list. No one sends word of their indictment to their alumni magazine.

That said, if you’re going to get indicted, it’s a whole lot better to be charged in state court in New York than in federal court anywhere else in the country, in at least one way.

The criminal case about the implosion of Dewey & LeBoeuf shows why. Last week, the folks charged in the Dewey meltdown filed a number of motions to dismiss the indictment. Everyone but Zachary Warren filed an omnibus motion to dismiss. Steve DiCarmine filed his own motion that was so, well, something that it contained Above the Law’s quote of the day. Zachary Warren filed a separate motion. There’s some great stuff in all of the pleadings about the government’s case.

What’s perhaps less obvious to those of us who do white-collar criminal defense but don’t normally practice in state court in New York is that, according to the law as set out in these papers, New York state is a magical Shangri-la of due process compared to federal court.

How?

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Insider trading is one of those activities that you should avoid. If you’re a lawyer, it’s an activity you should definitely avoid. It’s not really all that hard to steer clear of insider trading either. Obviously there are some murky cases, but it’s wise to err on the side of caution.

On the other hand, there are also cases where the SEC says a close friend of a company’s executive is emailing you and telling you which days to buy because “[e]arnings are being released on the 30th along with some good news,” and “[l]ooking forward to getting paid back. Good luck…. SHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Those are the cases where you probably should walk away.

Put aside the insider trading: what lawyer is using email to have these conversations?

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