Articles Posted in Wire Fraud, Mail Fraud, Tax Fraud and other Federal Fraud Cases

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In U.S. v Doran, Dr. James Doran was convicted under 18 U.S.C. 666 of embezzlement form the Florida State University (FSU) as an organization receiving federal funds. He argued on appeals that he is entitled to a judgment of acquittal because any embezzlement was not from FSU and that the government did not prove that the victimized organization under the statutes was a recipient of federal benefits. Under the federal statute it is a federal crime for and agent of an organization to embezzle or convert to the use of any person other than he rightful owner any property valued at $5,000 or more that is owned or in the custody of that organization, government, or agency. The provision also requires that the organization, government or agency receive in any one year period benefits in excess of $10,000 under a federal program involving a grant contract subsidy, or other form of federal assistance.

The facts as they unfolded at trial showed that Doran was a professor in the College of Business of FSU and was a director and officer of the Student Investment Fund (SIF) a non-profit corporation established by FSU for charitable and educational purposes. He had a signatory authority over the SIF bank account. During his tenure he transferred SIF money from the SIF accounts to his own personal account. This embezzlement was discovered after an investigation.   He was charged in an indictment that alleged he embezzled funds or property from FSU which it described was the recipient of federal benefits.

On appeal he challenged his conviction on the grounds that the SIF was the victimized organization under section 666 but that it received no federal benefits. He maintained that SIF and FSU are separate entities. The government’s response was that the embezzlement by Doran came within the ambit of section 666 because the SIF was closely affiliated with FSU which did receive millions of federal dollars and that Doran was a FSU professor and an agent of FSU when he committed the crime.

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The Horners were convicted of two counts of assisting in the preparation of a fraudulent corporate tax return in violation of 26 U.S.C. 6206 and filing a false individual tax return in violation of 26 U.S.C. 7206. This couple owned and operated Topcat Towing and Recovery, Inc. an S-corporation, in Lithonia, Georgia. Because Topcat required customer to pay in cases for most of its services, the Horners deposited approximately $3 million in cases into several business accounts in various banks as well as in personal accounts. They did not tell their tax preparer H&R Block about any of the cash deposits into their personal accounts. The IRS investigators concluded that theses person cash deposits were actually diverted Topcat receipts which means the defendants underreported Topcat’s income as well as their own income. On this evidence, the defendants were indicted.

One issue raised on appeal was the resulted from the testimony from IRS Agent Owns who examined their tax returns and testified regarding what she calculated as their correct tax liability. In her estimation, they owed an additional $474,147 over a four-year period.   Her calculation did not account for any business expenses the Horners may have paid from their personal accounts but that they did not claim as a reduction. In her cross examination she said that such unclaimed deductions would reduce the Horners unreported income tax liability, but that it would not have a “really big impact” and would still leave “a substantial understatement.” When calculating the amount of tax due during the sentencing phase, the trial court ultimately accepted a figure of unclaimed business expense deductions which reduced the unreported income in the relevant periods by approximately one-third.

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After a two-week trial, defendant in U.S. v Stein was convicted of mail, wire, and securities fraud based on evident that he fabricated press releases and purchase money orders to inflate the stock price of his client, Signalife, Inc, a publicly traded manufacturer of medical devices. The district court sentenced Stein to 205 months in prison, ordered $5 million in forfeiture, and $13 million in restitution. In his appeal Stein argued that the government failed to disclose Brady v. Maryland material to the defense before trial and knowingly relied on false testimony to make its case. As for the sentence, Stein argues that the district court erred in calculating actual loss for the purpose of the Mandatory Victims Restitution Act of 1996 (MVRA) and § 2B1.1 of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. He argued that in estimating actual loss the district court erroneously presumed that all purchasers of Signalife stock during the period the fraud was ongoing relied on false information advanced by Stein.   He also argued that the district court failed to take into account other market forces that likely contributed to the investors losses.

After the Department of Justin conducted a criminal investigation of Stein and his work with Signalife, he was charged with money laundering and wire and securities fraud. Prior to his trial Stein moved to produce documents in the Security and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) files. The government’s response was that is lacked control over the SEC and it did not conduct a joint investigation with the SEC. Prior to trial Stein learned that in the course of its investigation the DOJ had accessed a very small subset of documents in the SEC’s date base which the DOJ then provided to him. As a result he filed a motion to dismiss on the basis of this Brady violation. Following his conviction at trial, he obtained additional documents from the SEC that he believed were exculpatory and he filed motion for a new trial based on the Brady violation.

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In U.S v. Leon, Leon appeals from her conviction following a jury trial of three counts of attempting to cause a financial institution to not file a required currency transaction report (a CTR) in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5324(a)(1). On appeal Leon claimed that the government and the district court constructively amended the indictment allowing her to be tried and convicted of violation §5324(a)(3) and not §5324(a)(1). The indictment alleges that Leon knowingly willfully and for the purpose of avoiding federal reporting requirements attempted to cause Bank of America not to file required CTRs concerning currency transactions exceeding $10,000 while violating another federal law and as part of a pattern of illegal activity involving more than $100,000 in a 12-month period. She was charged with making five cash withdrawals in the amounts of $9,500, $5,500, $1,430, $1,000 and $400. Another count charge her with making three cash withdrawals in amounts of $6,000, $3,995 and $500. And two cash withdrawals in the amounts of $9,846 and $300. The indictments alleged that these withdrawals, when aggregated on a daily basis, triggered Bank of America’s obligation to file CTRs and that Leon make the withdrawals in amounts less than $10,000 to try to cause Bank of America to not file CTRs.

Leon contended that the government’s theory and evidence as well as the district court’s jury instructions constructively amended the federal criminal indictment by allowing her to be convicted of violating §5324(a)(3) instead of §5324(a)(1). She claimed that the offense of structuring is prohibited by §5423(a)(3) but not by §5423(a)(1). Building on this premise Leon argues that there was a constructive amendment allowing her to be convicted of uncharged §5342(a)(3) offenses because the government repeatedly use the term “structuring” when referring to the three counts.

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In this appeal Birge was convicted of one count of mail fraud pursuant to 18 U.S.C. section 1341 for writing herself $767,218.99 while serving as the Chief Clerk of the probate court of Chatham County, Georgia. The checks were drawn from the conservatorship accounts belonging to 31 minors, two incapacitated adults, and two estates. She was sentenced to 72 months imprisonment and appealed that sentence raising the issue that the district court erred in applying the vulnerable victim enhancement when it calculated her guidelines range.

Under the federal sentencing guidelines a vulnerable victim of an offense is a victim who is unusually vulnerable due to age, physical or mental condition, or who is otherwise particularly susceptible to the criminal conduct.

Birge argued that the district court should not have applied the enhancement to her because there is no evidence that she targeted the vulnerable victims. The court found that amended versions of the language of commentary to section 3A1.1 of the guidelines revised the language to only require that the defendant knew or should have known of the victims’ unusual vulnerability.

The Sentencing Commission amended the commentary to the guideline to include language that the adjustment applies to offenses involving an unusually vulnerable victim in which the defendant knew or should have known of the victim’s unusual vulnerability. The court pointed to precedent holding that commentary in the guidelines Manual interpreting or explaining a guideline is binding on the courts unless it violates the Constitution or a federal statute.

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Appellants in the Pierre opinion appealed their federal criminal convictions and sentences for conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service, conspiracy to traffic in unauthorized access devises, aggravated identity theft and other substantive counts of identity theft following a jury trial.   The scheme in this case involved filing fraudulent income tax returns. The Defendants filed tax returns in the names of Florida prison inmates. The tax refunds were paid to the TaxProfessors’ debit cards that were used at automatic teller machines to obtain cash.

The scheme unraveled after an officer spotted a Cadillac with dark tinted windows and could not see inside the vehicle. He also noticed a temporary tag on the vehicle that was registered to the Defendant whose family owned a body shop that authorities suspected fraudulently issued temporary vehicle tags. The officer made a traffic stop because the he believed the tinting on the windows was below the standards permitted by Florida law.   After receiving consent to search the inside of the car the officer found prepaid debit cards issued by a business that was called TaxProfessor. The investigation into the debit cards led to a search warrant for the home of a defendant who was connected to TaxProfessor.   The Defendants also approached an employee of the Florida Department of Children and Family Services as a child protective investigator who had access to personal identifying information through a state database. The Defendant paid the DCF employee for a printout from the website which contained a list of inmates and SSN’s for 25 names on the list. Tax returns were filed using the inmates’ information and the tax refunds were loaded onto these debit cards for TaxProfessors accounts.

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In United States v. Croteau, the defendant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence for his ten-count criminal conviction in federal court for making false and fictitious claims on this tax returns and for the reasonableness of his 56 month federal sentence. Croteau was a tax protester who filed false returns for three consecutive years claiming that he was entitled to refunds totaling $400,000 and to substantiate his return he submitted false 1099-OID forms reporting that financial institutions had issued interest income to Croteau and withheld the interest for federal tax purposes. Croteau’s tax returns sought refunds of the money withheld. None of the financial entities listed on Croteau’s 1099-OID forms had issued any interest income or any income to Croteau. Despite communication from the I.R.S. notifying him that he had provided the I.R.S. with frivolous tax information, Croteau repeatedly submitted amended tax returns for the same years containing fictitious and fraudulent 1099-OID information.   To make matters worse, Croteau also recorded several false and fictitious liens and documents in the Lee County Clerks’ office asserting that the IRS owed him hundreds of millions of dollars.   At his trial he did not contest that he had in fact filed false and fictitious tax returns and other financial documents. He raised a good-faith defense, claiming he had an honest belief that what he was doing was correct.

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Rodriguez challenged her guilty plea to conspiracy to commit the federal crimes of mail fraud and wire fraud arguing that her plea was not knowing or voluntary. She also claimed her plea should not have been accepted by the district judge because she told the district judge she suffered from a mental illness. She also challenged the sentence imposed. The court of appeals found no error. Rodriguez pleaded guilty for her participation in a mortgage fraud scheme involving fraudulent loan applications submitted to lenders across the country to obtain loans and properties in Miami-Dade County and in Broward County. The scheme used straw buyers who had no intention of residing in the purchase properties. The loan applications contained false employment verifications, false paystubs, and false deposit verifications. The guideline range came to 78 to 97 months, but the district court gave her a sentence below the guideline range to prevent disparity with co-conspirators.

Because Rodriguez’s guilty plea challenge was raised for the first time on appeal, the court of appeals reviewed for plain error. During the plea she indicated that she had undergone treatment for mental than illness for the year following her arrest and was under the care of a psychologist. The court of appeals found that she had a full opportunity to do to consult with her Attorney during the guilty plea hearing. There was no evidence indicating an inability to consult with her attorney or to understand his advice to her. Similarly, there was no evidence to indicate she was not competent to enter the plea. The court found that the colloquy satisfied the provisions of rule 11.

The court of appeals rejected the defendant’s plea challenge on the grounds that there was and in sufficient factual basis to accept her plea. The court determined that Rodriguez confirmed at the plea hearing that she committed the offense, and it found a sufficient factual basis for the plea.

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Defendants Esquenazi and Rodriguez were convicted in Miami federal court of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. The FCPA makes it a crime to bribe the foreign official for the purpose of influencing the official. A foreign official is defined as an officer or employee of a foreign government or of any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof. The chief issue in the appeal in U.S. v. Esquenazi, was the definition of an instrumentality of a foreign government.

The defendants ran a telecommunications company that purchased phone time from foreign vendors and resold the minutes to customers in the United States. One of their main vendors was a telecommunications company in Haiti. The defendants worked out a deal with the phone company that reduced the defendants’ phone bill debt and in exchange the defendants agreed to funnel 50% of the savings to the principle under the guise of a consulting agreement. The government presented evidence that Haiti owned the phone company and that the phone company was an instrumentality of the government of Haiti. The issue to the court of appeals said to resolve was whether the district court’s definition of the instrumentality as it was used in the jury instructions was correct. Furthermore it had to define instrumentality in resolving the sufficiency of the evidence issue and the defendants’ challenge to the constitutionality of the statute.

The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the definition had to be limited to entities that perform traditional core government functions. The court defined instrumentality as an entity controlled by a foreign country that performs a function that the controlling government treats as its own. To decide whether the government controls entity courts and juries should look to the following: the foreign government’s formal designation of that entity; whether the gov’t has a majority interest in the entity; the government’s ability to hire and fire the entities principles; the extent to which the entity’s profits go directly to the government; and the to the extent to which the government funds the entity if it fails to break even. The court found that the lower courts jury instruction included most of the relevant elements for determining an instrumentality of a foreign governments incorrectly stated the definition of an instrumentality.

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In U.S. v. Massam, the defendant was convicted of theft and embezzlement of an employee benefit fund (E.R.I.S.A) he set of for himself and his employees and for which he served as the pension plan administrator. After divorcing his fifth wife, the state divorce court entered a distribution order to his ex-wife in the amount of $452,242. The defendant then attempted to illegally transfer of the funds in the pension plans to a foreign bank account so he could later withdraw the funds. His attempt to transfer the funds failed when the foreign bank refused to accept the wire and the funds were returned to the domestic bank. Following that failed attempt he appealed the state court judgment awarding his wife’s funds pension funds, and in filing the appeal he posted a supersedeas bond in an amount which covered the court ordered amount for the ex-wife. Subsequently, the divorce court order was affirmed and his obligation to pay her was met by the supersedeas bond. Following all that, the defendant was investigated for his theft of the pension plans and eventually indicted and he pleaded guilty to the federal crime of theft, embezzlement, and money laundering in connection with his attempted transfer of the employee benefit funds.

His presentence investigation report calculated is guideline range based on the intended loss of $1,185,863.00 which was the amount that he attempted to transfer to the foreign bank. The presentence report gave him some credit for the funds still remaining in the pension fund. The district court rejected his argument that he should receive credit and for the amount he paid out of the bond to satisfy his pension related obligations to in his ex-wife under the asset allocation order. Credit for this amount would have reduced his sentencing guideline range significantly but the district court refused to give them credit.

The 11th Circuit found that he should not be given credit for the bond posted to pay his ex-wife because in his case the sentencing guidelines required that the calculation be based upon the intended loss which was the amount the defendant attempted to transfer to the foreign bank. It rejected his argument that his guideline should be reduced by the amount his wife received from the bond posted after he appealed from the divorce order. While the guidelines provide that a loss they would be reduced by the money returned by the defendant, the credit-against-loss is not available where the guideline range is based upon intended loss alone. It is also not available here because there is no victim in the case of an intended loss. The 11th Circuit also rejected the defense argument that the wife became a victim because her property interests was imperiled by the attempted overseas transfer. The court found the overseas transfer attempt took place long before his wife was due to receive the funds, which she eventually received from the supersedeas bond.