Justia White Collar Crime Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
by
Memphis attorney Skouteris practiced plaintiff-side, personal injury law. He routinely settled cases without permission, forged client signatures on settlement checks, and deposited those checks into his own account. Skouteris was arrested on state charges, was disbarred, and was indicted in federal court for bank fraud. At Skouteris’s federal trial, lay testimony suggested that Skouteris was not acting under any sort of diminished cognitive capacity. Two psychologists examined Skouteris. The defense expert maintained that Skouteris suffered from a “major depressive disorder,” “alcohol use disorder,” and “seizure disorder,” which began during Skouteris’s college football career, which, taken together, would have “significantly limited” Skouteris’s “ability to organize his mental efforts.” The government’s expert agreed that Skouteris suffered from depression and alcohol use disorder but concluded that Skouteris was “capable of having the mental ability to form and carry out complex thoughts, schemes, and plans.” Skouteris’s attorney unsuccessfully sought a jury instruction that evidence of “diminished mental capacity” could provide “reasonable doubt that” Skouteris had the “requisite culpable state of mind.”Convicted, Skouteris had a sentencing range of 46-57 months, with enhancements for “losses,” abusing a position of trust or using a special skill, and committing an offense that resulted in “substantial financial hardship” to at least one victim. The district court varied downward for a sentence of 30 months plus restitution of $147,406. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, the jury instructions, and the sentence. View "United States v. Skouteris" on Justia Law

by
Hardwick helped found a law firm, MHS. MHS later sold part of its foreclosure operation. Hardwick received $14-$15 million in compensation. Hardwick lost the money and owed millions in loans, many for gambling debts. When a bank and a casino sued him, Hardwick lied to a different bank in a line-of-credit application. In addition, in 2011-2014, Hardwick siphoned off about $26.5 million from MHS; $19 million came from trust accounts. Hardwick relied heavily on Maurya, who initially worked as an MHS controller. Hardwick promoted Maurya to CFO, giving her broad authority over the trust accounts. At Hardwick’s request, she repeatedly sent money from MHS to Hardwick or his creditors and significantly underreported the distributions. After a 2014 internal audit, Hardwick was convicted of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and making false statements to a federally insured financial institution and was sentenced to 180 months’ imprisonment—an upward variance from the Guidelines range of 108-135 months. Maurya received a sentence of 84 months. A restitution order required Maurya and Hardwick to pay, jointly and severally, $40,307,431.00.The Eleventh Circuit vacated the restitution order as not supported by the reasoning required by law; affirmed Hardwick’s convictions and sentence; and vacated Maurya’s sentence. The district court violated the Ex Post Facto Clause by applying the 2018 Guidelines, which included a two-level substantial financial hardship enhancement added in 2015, after Maurya’s offense. View "United States v. Maurya" on Justia Law

by
Wegbreit founded Oak Ridge, a financial-services company, and worked with attorney Agresti to reduce his tax liability. At Agresti’s suggestion, Wegbreit transferred his Oak Ridge interest to a trust that would convey that interest to an offshore insurance company as a premium for a life insurance policy benefitting the trust. Agresti, as trustee, acquired a variable life insurance policy from Threshold (later Acadia), which shares a U.S. office with Agresti’s law firm. The Wegbreits leveraged the policies by means of policy loans and purchases by shell companies. Acadia, at Samuel’s direction, sold his Oak Ridge interest for $11.3 million. The proceeds were wired directly to Agresti, who conveyed them to Acadia; the Wegbreits did not report any taxable income from the sale. After an audit, the IRS determined that the trust income and policy gains, including those from the Oak Ridge sale, were taxable to the Wegbreits, who had underreported their 2005-2009 income by $15 million. The Wegbreits disputed that conclusion in the tax court. After discovery revealed suspicious documents related to the trust and policies, the IRS asserted civil fraud penalties.The judge found that the trust was a sham lacking economic substance that should be disregarded for tax purposes, agreed with the IRS assessment of tax liability, and imposed fraud penalties. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, noting that the Wegbreits had previously “stipulated away” their assertions, and ordering the Wegbreits’ attorney to show cause why he should not be sanctioned under Rule 38 for filing a frivolous appeal. View "Wegbreit v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue" on Justia Law

by
The version of the apportionment statute at issue in this appeal, OCGA 51-12-33, was enacted as part of the Tort Reform Act of 2005. Subsection (b) required damages to be apportioned “among the persons who are liable according to the percentages of fault of each person.” Subsection (b) had a critical textual difference from subsection (a): although subsection (a) applied “[w]here an action is brought against one or more persons,” subsection (b) applied only “[w]here an action is brought against more than one person . . . .” Although the Georgia Supreme Court previously decided at least one case in which the provisions of subsection (b) were applied in single-defendant cases, the Court expressly left open the question of whether such an application was proper. In this case, the Court of Appeals answered that open question by determining that the apportionment by percentage of fault directed by subsection (b) did not apply in single-defendant cases. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on the question of whether subsection (b) applied in single-defendant cases and also on the question of whether an expenses-of-litigation award under OCGA 13-6-11 was subject to apportionment. Although the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals on the latter question and held that such expenses were not categorically excluded from apportionment, the Court concluded the Court of Appeals was correct on the scope of application of the apportionment directed by subsection (b): it applied only in cases “brought against more than one person,” not in single-defendant lawsuits like this one. Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings regarding the trial court’s apportionment of the expenses-of-litigation award. View "Alston & Bird, LLP v. Hatcher Management Holdings, LLC" on Justia Law

by
Jensen was charged as a coconspirator in a felony indictment alleging a scheme under which members of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department issued hard-to-obtain concealed firearms permits in exchange for substantial donations to an independent expenditure committee supporting the reelection campaign of Sheriff Smith. Jensen is a sheriff’s department captain identified as the individual within the sheriff’s department who facilitated the conspiracy. Jensen unsuccessfully moved to disqualify the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting him, alleging that that office leaked grand jury transcripts to the press days before the transcripts became public which created a conflict of interest requiring disqualification. He also joined in codefendant Schumb’s motion to disqualify the office due to Schumb’s friendship with District Attorney Rosen and Rosen’s chief assistant, Boyarsky.The court of appeal rejected Jensen’s arguments for finding a conflict of interest requiring disqualification: the grand jury transcript leak, Schumb’s relationships with Rosen and Boyarsky, and a dispute between Rosen and Sheriff Smith about access to recordings of county jail inmate phone calls. The trial court could reasonably conclude Jensen did not demonstrate that the district attorney’s office was the source of the leak. Jensen himself does not have a personal relationship with Rosen or Boyarsky. The trial court could reasonably conclude that Jensen did not establish a conflict of interest based on the existence of a dispute between the district attorney and the elected official with supervisory power over Jensen. View "Jensen v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

by
Schumb was charged as a coconspirator in a felony indictment alleging a quid pro quo scheme in which members of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department issued hard-to-obtain concealed firearms permits in exchange for substantial monetary donations to the reelection campaign of Sheriff Smith. Schumb is an attorney with a history of fundraising for elected officials; he accepted the donations as a treasurer of an independent expenditure committee supporting Sheriff Smith’s reelection. Schumb is a friend of Rosen, the elected Santa Clara County District Attorney, and previously raised funds for Rosen’s campaigns.Schumb unsuccessfully moved to disqualify the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting him, arguing that his friendships with Rosen and Rosen’s chief assistant, Boyarsky, created a conflict of interest making it unlikely Schumb would receive a fair trial. Schumb asserted that he intends to call Rosen and Boyarsky as both fact and character witnesses at trial and. despite their personal connections to the case, neither Rosen nor Boyarsky made any effort to create an ethical wall between themselves and the attorneys prosecuting the case. The court of appeal vacated and directed the lower court to enter a new order disqualifying the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office in Schumb's prosecution. View "Schumb v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiffs filed suit against Lexington Law and its vendor, Progrexion, for purportedly perpetrating a fraud in which the firm failed to disclose that it was sending letters to the companies in its clients' names and on their behalves. After a jury agreed that defendants violated Texas law in committing fraud and fraud by non-disclosure, the district court set aside the verdict and issued judgment in favor of defendants as a matter of law.The Fifth Circuit affirmed, concluding that plaintiffs have not shown that defendants committed fraud. In this case, the district court concluded that defendants did not make any false representations (material or otherwise) when signing and sending the dispute letters because Lexington Law had the legal right to sign its clients' names on the correspondence it sent on their behalf to data furnishers who reported inaccurate information about the clients' credit. Furthermore, Progrexion cannot be liable for fraud since it, like Lexington Law, did not make any material misrepresentations. The court also concluded that plaintiffs' fraud by non-disclosure claim must be dismissed because they did not justifiably rely on any failure of defendants to disclose material facts, and plaintiffs have not shown that defendants had a duty to disclose that they were the ones actually sending the dispute letters. Additionally, plaintiffs have not shown that Progrexion disclosed any facts—material or otherwise—and so cannot be liable for fraud by nondisclosure. The court explained that the fact that Lexington Law had the legal right to send dispute letters on their clients behalves and in their names suggests that the firm did not make any false representations, and thus the firm did not create any false impressions requiring disclosure. Finally, plaintiffs waived their conspiracy claim by failing to move for judgment as a matter of law on the claim before and after the case was submitted to the jury or for a new trial. View "The CBE Group, Inc. v. Lexington Law Firm" on Justia Law

by
In 2005-2007, Merchant purchased Michigan hotel properties from NRB and financed the purchases through NRB, using corporate entities as the buyers. Merchant sold interests in those entities to investors. The hotels had been appraised at inflated amounts and sold for about twice their fair values. When the corporate entities defaulted on their loan payments, NRB foreclosed in 2009. Merchant claimed that NRB’s executives colluded with an appraiser to sell overvalued real estate to unsuspecting purchasers, wait for default, foreclose, and then repeat the process.In 2010, an investor sued Merchant, Merchant’s companies, NRB, and 12 others for investor fraud. In 2014 the FDIC took NRB into receivership and substituted for NRB as a defendant. Merchant and his companies brought a cross-complaint, alleging violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and state laws. A Fifth Amended Cross-Complaint raised 14 counts against 10 defendants, including two law firms that provided NRB’s legal work. The district court dismissed several counts; others remain active.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of claims against the law firms. The counts under state law are untimely under Illinois’s statute of repose. The cross-complaint effectively admits that one firm played no role in NRB’s alleged fraud perpetrated against Merchant in 2005-2007. The cross-complaint failed to allege that either law firm conducted or participated in the activities of a RICO enterprise; neither firm could be liable under 18 U.S.C. 1962(c). View "Muskegan Hotels, LLC v. Patel" on Justia Law

by
The Ninth Circuit affirmed defendant's conviction of wire fraud and filing false tax returns. The jury found that defendant embezzled over $300,000 from the company for which he served as managing member and president.The panel overruled its prior decisions in light of the Supreme Court's intervening decision in Shaw v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 462 (2016), and held that wire fraud under 18 U.S.C. 1343 requires the intent to deceive and cheat, and that the jury charge instructing that wire fraud requires the intent to "deceive or cheat" was therefore erroneous. However, in this case, the panel held that the erroneous instruction was harmless. The panel noted that it was deeply troubled by an Assistant U.S. Attorney's disregard for elementary prosecutorial ethics, but that the misconduct did not entitle defendant to any relief. The attorney here had a personal and financial interest in the outcome of the case. The panel wrote that as soon as the Department of Justice became aware of the impropriety, it took every necessary step to cure any resulting taint, including turning over the entire prosecution of the case to disinterested prosecutors from the Southern District of California. Finally, the panel found defendant's remaining arguments to be without merit. View "United States v. Miller" on Justia Law

by
Insurance executive Menzies sold over $64 million in his company’s stock but did not report any capital gains on his 2006 federal income tax return. He alleges that his underpayment of capital gains taxes (and related penalties and interest imposed by the IRS) was because of a fraudulent tax shelter peddled to him and others by a lawyer, law firm, and financial services firms. Menzies brought claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and Illinois law. The district court dismissed all claims. The Seventh Circuit affirmed in part. Menzies’s RICO claim falls short on the statute’s pattern-of-racketeering element. Menzies failed to plead not only the particulars of how the defendants marketed the same or a similar tax shelter to other taxpayers, but also facts to support a finding that the alleged racketeering activity would continue. A fraudulent tax shelter scheme can violate RICO; the shortcoming here is one of pleading and it occurred after the district court authorized discovery to allow Menzies to develop his claims. Menzies’s Illinois state law claims were untimely as to the lawyer and law firm defendants. The claims against the remaining financial services defendants can proceed. View "Menzies v. Seyfarth Shaw LLP" on Justia Law