Articles Posted in Fraud and Corruption

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Today, the prosecutors in the case against Lori Loughlin filed with with the court a signed copy of her plea agreement, thereby indicating that Mr. Loughlin intends to plead guilty in connection with the “Varsity Blues” case involving college admissions fraud. (Her actual plea hearing has been scheduled for tomorrow, May 22, via videoconference). The agreement that she has entered into is somewhat rare in federal court, and has certain advantages for her.

Normally, in federal court, when a defendant chooses to plead guilty, he or she enters into a plea agreement with the prosecutors to establish certain terms and parameters for the sentencing. Plea agreements look like contracts and are usually at least five single-spaced pages long. A defendant acknowledges in the document that he/she is pleading guilty knowingly and voluntarily, and that he/she cannot take back the guilty plea once it has been entered before the court at a plea hearing. The agreements usually set forth the minimum and maximum possible penalties for the charged offenses, so that the defendant can acknowledge that he/she understands them. Also, a defendant agrees to plead guilty to certain charges in the indictment, and admits to certain conduct (for example, an amount of money fraudulently stolen, or a quantity of narcotics trafficked) that impacts the sentencing. Then, the parties to the plea agreement (the prosecutor and the defendant) agree to certain other factors (such as the defendant’s role in the offense, for example) that may establish where on the sentencing chart (for the Federal Sentencing Guidelines) that defendant’s sentence is likely to be. But, the agreements explicitly state that the ultimate decision as to the defendant’s sentence will be up to the sentencing judge to determine, based upon these established facts and parameters within the plea agreement, as well as the judge’s own considerations of the defendant and the defendant’s crime.

Here, in Ms. Loughlin’s case, the sentence has already been established by the agreement. This fact makes the agreement quite unusual for federal court, though hardly unprecedented. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C), Ms. Loughlin has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and in exchange, she will receive a sentence of two months in prison, a fine of $150,000.00, 24 months of supervised release with 100 hours of community service, and a special assessment of $100. The prosecution also will agree to dismiss the remaining charges against Ms. Loughlin and not pursue any further charges in connection with what it knows about this affair.  This all depends, however, upon the court accepting the agreement and Ms. Loughlin’s guilty plea.

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Strictly speaking, the criminal justice system does not require that victims of crime have lawyers. Prosecutors are responsible for pursuing criminal cases against perpetrators and are generally expected to at least consider the victims’ expectations or hopes regarding the outcome. However, over the years, Matthew Galluzzo (a former Manhattan prosecutor) has represented, advised, advocated on behalf of, and assisted dozens of crime victims in a wide variety of matters – most commonly sexual assault, domestic violence, and fraud. If you or a loved one have been a victim of a crime, you might benefit from a consultation with Mr. Galluzzo for the reasons set forth in more detail below.

  1. Understanding the Process

The criminal justice system can be intimidating for a victim, so much so that many crime victims decline to even make a report or complaint. As a longtime former Manhattan prosecutor, Matthew Galluzzo can answer questions a crime victim might have about the process, including: 1) whether, and how the perpetrator will be arrested, 2) what the perpetrator might be charged with and what penalties he/she would face, 3) whether the crime victim will have to testify, and/or when and how often, 4) whether the crime victim will ever have to confront the perpetrator in court, 5) whether the crime victim’s identity will ever be known to the perpetrator, and 6) what sort of outcome the crime victim might reasonably expect. Many crime victims have found these sorts of consultations with Mr. Galluzzo to be invaluable, in that it relieves some of the stress in the process and helps them decide what course of action to take.

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Two men in Rhode Island were recently arrested and charged by federal prosecutors with attempting to defraud the Small Business Administration (SBA) of over $500,000 by purportedly submitting a false application for relief funds earmarked for small business owners through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Given the increasing desperation of many small business owners during the pandemic and quarantine, as well as the significant amount of federal funding being made available, one can expect more such prosecutions to occur in the near future.

According to a Department of Justice press release, David Butziger and David Staveley sought over half a million in forgivable loans for various businesses that either were no longer operating, for which they had no employees, or in which they held no ownership stake. Though they have not yet been indicted, they have been charged by way of criminal complaint Conspiracy to Make a False Statement to Influence the SBA (18 U.S.C. § 371), Conspiracy to Commit Bank Fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1349), and Bank Fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1344[2]). Though it is difficult to estimate the prison penalties they may be facing, a fraud involving $500,000 might put them at an offense level of 18 for purposes of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. As such, they might be facing a Guideline sentence of 18-24 months in prison following a guilty plea. However, there is no statutory minimum sentence, so they could receive in theory receive probation.

This arrest and prosecution should serve as a serious warning to any small business owners considering submitting false or exaggerated applications. However, it will be interesting to see whether the federal authorities will start making arrests or threatening to prosecute individuals whose applications might contain sloppy mistakes rather than outright falsehoods. Without the assistance of a competent accountant, or with a fluctuating and/or seasonal payroll, one could easily envision a small business owner submitting an “honest” application that raises eyebrows from SBA administrators.

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Proffers are a big and important part of federal criminal defense practice. Basically, it involves a defendant, a witness, a person of interest, or a person with information having a face-to-face meeting with a prosecutor and law enforcement agents while accompanied by an attorney. (Attorneys can also have “attorney proffers” whereby the attorney tells the prosecutor what his client would say if the client were to hypothetically have a proffer with them).

Proffers can be done for many reasons: to initiate cooperation agreements, to attempt to persuade a prosecutor of one’s innocence, to offer information for an investigation, or to seek leniency at sentencing. Regardless of the reason, however, they should never be undertaken lightly.

First and foremost, a person proffering to federal law enforcement cannot lie. Obviously, if law enforcement discovers that the person has lied during a proffer, then that person’s credibility will be destroyed. Thus, any hope for a cooperation agreement or mitigation at sentencing will be eliminated. There are two other equally important reasons, however. First, a lie during a proffer can be prosecuted potentially as a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001, which makes it a federal crime to lie to a law enforcement officer. This is typically why prosecutors bring law enforcement agents (FBI, Homeland Security, etc.) to the proffers. Similarly, a lie during a proffer session can result in an enhanced sentence for any related convictions, under the theory that the lie “obstructed justice.” Finally, a lie during a proffer session could invalidate the proffer agreement, which otherwise protects a person from having those statements during the proffer session used against them.

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The criminal defense attorneys at the Law Office of Matthew Galluzzo have successfully represented many people charged with wire fraud in federal court. This serious accusation can result in very significant penalties, including huge fines and lengthy prison sentences. However, these charges are also frequently quite defensible, too. As such, if you or a loved one have been accused by federal prosecutors of money laundering, you should strongly consider contacting The Law Office of Matthew Galluzzo’s team of former prosecutors.

The crime of wire fraud occurs when someone voluntarily and intentionally uses an interstate communications device (such as a telephone) as a part of any scheme to defraud another of property, or anything else of value.

The main criminal statutes that apply to wire fraud are 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343 and 1349. Those statues refer to fraud by wire, radio, or television.

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A federal law enforcement investigation codenamed “Operation Varsity Blues” recently resulted in the arrests of dozens of people for allegedly conspiring to fraudulently obtain admissions into selective universities. Fifty people have been accused of working together to bribe university athletic coaches, submit fraudulent college applications, cheat on college entrance exams, and otherwise bribe college officials into admitting otherwise undeserving applicants. The accused individuals include two former Hollywood actresses – Felicity Huffman and Lori McLaughlin (who famously portrayed “Aunt Becky” on the TV show “Full House”) – as well as wealthy hedge fund managers and the chair of international law firm Wilkie Farr & Gallagher, among others. Wealthy parents paid as much as $6.5 million in bribes and fraudulent payments to get their children into the universities of their choice, including Stanford, Yale, USC and others. The case has seized the national attention as an example of the privileged elite abusing their power and influence, and the Department of Justice states that this is the largest college admissions scandal that it has ever prosecuted.

The case began as many federal investigations do – with an undercover cooperator. Somehow, law enforcement investigators with the FBI identified William Rick Singer, the founder and chief executive officer of a nonprofit “college placement organization” called the Key, as a person engaged in unlawful activity.  Though the precise details have not yet been shared, it is clear that they ultimately confronted him with the evidence of his illegal activity and made a deal with him: cooperate against the people who had enlisted his help in order to minimize his eventual punishment.

Mr. Singer then started recording his telephone calls and conversations with his criminal clients. Those calls apparently revealed a wide-ranging series of scams designed to get students into the schools of their choice. For example, Singer arranged for students who had struggled on the college entrance exams to get favorable disability diagnosis from an enlisted medical professional so as to get more time to take their tests. Then, he also arranged for the prospective students to take their college placement tests under the supervision of a paid-for proctor who either corrected their answers or permitted someone else to take their tests for them. Singer made arrangements to have students appear to be successful athletes when they were not, or flat-out bribed college athletic coaches into agreeing to tell the admissions office that they needed the students for their college sports teams. Some of the college coaches were allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to fraudulently accept students onto their teams (and therefore, into the school) without the relevant athletic credentials.

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From at least in or about January 2016, up to and including July 2018, in New York and New Jersey, Mikuki Suen, 43, Jian Min Huang, 42, Songhua Qu, 54, Kin Lui Chen, 53, and Fangrang Qu, 31 and others known and unknown allegedly smuggled hundreds of thousands of pairs of fake Nike Air Jordan sneakers. The five accused fake-shoes traffickers were arrested for having counterfeited over $70 million in Fake Nike shoes and sold them to buyers on the U.S. market. The NYPD and the Department of Homeland Security received the help of a confidential source who helped make numerous purchases during the investigation. This confidential source has been a law enforcement source for approximately two years.

Nike’s Air Jordan line of sneakers are some of the most popular and expensive athletic shoes in circulation. Nike has released a different Air Jordan model almost every year since the shoe line was first introduced in 1984. Many of these models are known by their model number, like the Air Jordan XIII, the 13th model, and some models are known by the year of introduction, like the Air Jordan 2009. Air Jordan sneakers can cost from approximately 100$ to the thousands of dollars, depending on color and design.

More than 42 containers carrying nearly 400 000 pairs of the trendy fake sneakers traveled from factories in China to Port Newark.  These sneakers were produced to resemble Air Jordan sneakers in design and color but are “generic” (the “Generic Air Jordan”). They were imported into the U.S. without the inclusion of logos that are trademarks registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). Once the Generic Air Jordan arrived in the U.S., they were altered within the New York area to add trademarked logos to the shoes in warehouses in Queens and Brooklyn. Once this alteration took place, the shoes were considered “counterfeit”. Finally, the Counterfeit Sneaker Ring processed with the distribution of the fake shoes within the U.S. at a significant profit.

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Most people do not realize that it is a federal crime to lie to a federal law enforcement agent. However, 18 U.S.C. § 1001 makes it a federal felony, punishable by up to five years in prison (or 8 years for a case involving terrorism), to “knowingly and willfully falsify, conceal, or cover[] up any trick, scheme or device a material fact… or make[] any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” in regards to a federal law enforcement investigation. It also prohibits the knowing and willful making or using of any “false writing or documents containing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry.” Thus, for example, a criminal suspect who lies when questioned by an FBI agent can be guilty of a serious crime, even if that suspect is not actually guilty of the underlying crime for which he was being investigated. This situation often arises when people who have received subpoenas from law enforcement agents unfortunately sometimes agree to speak with agents or prosecutors but then make statements that those agents later discover to be untrue.

Most of the time however, people accused of this crime are frequently also charged with other crimes, too. For example, this charge is frequently brought against those who lie to U.S. Customs officials about their possession of cash, in conjunction with a charge of 31 USC § 5361(a)(1)(A). It is also common in health care fraud matters for a defendant to be charged with violating both 18 U.S.C. § 1035 – making false statements relating to health care matters – as well as 18 U.S.C. § 1001. In any case, the additional charge for making false statements may not be as serious as the underlying crime for which the defendant was originally investigated, but the fact that the defendant lied to law enforcement can be viewed as an “aggravating factor” by the judge at sentencing, meaning that it could seriously increase the ultimate sentence that the defendant will serve.

Though the maximum possible statutory penalty for this offense is five years in prison, pursuant to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the base offense level for this crime is 6. This base offense level means that a person convicted of this crime (and this crime alone) is more likely to receive a sentence of between 0 to 6 months in prison.

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Earlier this week, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the New York Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigations announced the arrest of 10 individuals in connection with allegations of bribery, corruption and fraud in intercollegiate athletics. The arrests – which included that of four Division 1 NCAA men’s basketball coaches – were handed down as a resulted of a two-year joint investigation by the FBI and U.S. Attorney into the illicit influence of money on coaches and student-athlete relationships in the NCAA.

The takedown highlights a problem which has seemingly occurred under the nose of the NCAA for years: the exploitation of future NBA player prospects by their coaches – who happen to be those that have the greatest degree of influence and control over them and their future careers. According to the first of two complaints which were unsealed earlier this week, these coaches took bribes from athlete advisors – including business managers and financial advisors to professional atheletes – in exchange for convincing promising college players “under their control” to retain the services of the bribers. As stated in this complaint, “many…coaches have enormous influence over the student-athletes who play for them, in particular with respect to guiding those student-athletes through the process of selecting agents and other advisors when they prepare to leave college and enter the NBA.” The scheme targeted top high school and college prospects with lucrative contracts on the horizon.

The second complaint alleges that a high-level executive at an athletic apparel company – confirmed by the media to be Adidas – paid bribes to high school prospects and their families for the purpose of inducing them to commit to universities which are sponsored by Adidas as opposed to those that are sponsored by their rivals. In describing the allegations at a press release, Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim stated “the picture of college basketball painted by the charges is not a pretty one…Month after month, the defendants allegedly exploited the hoop dreams of student-athletes around the country, treating them as little more than opportunities to enrich themselves through bribery and fraud schemes.”

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