Articles Tagged with sentencing guidelines

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After a long trial followed by over forty hours of jury deliberations, Ghislaine Maxwell finally stands convicted of several federal charges relating to the sexual abuse of minors. Ms. Maxwell somewhat curiously chose not to testify in her own defense, and she now faces a sentence of up to 65 years in federal prison. Ms. Maxwell’s fight is far from over, but ultimately it will almost certainly lead to one final choice: cooperate with the government or die in prison.

After a federal conviction – by guilty plea or by jury verdict – the defendant is interviewed by a specialized officer from the U.S. Department of Probation. These officers typically have backgrounds in social work, and it is their responsibility to prepare a biography – or presentence report – for the court. The judge uses this presentence report at sentencing to understand the defendant’s life, background, and circumstances. (The Bureau of Prisons also uses this report in determining the defendant’s prison designation.) The preparation of a report can easily take two months or more, as the interview has to be scheduled, a draft report prepared, edits and objections made by both the defense and the prosecution, and a final draft with a sentencing recommendation submitted to the sentencing court.

Following the preparation of the presentence report, both the prosecution and defense prepare sentencing memoranda for the judge. Both sides make arguments about the proper application of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the sentencing factors pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Defense lawyers usually submit character letters from friends and family of the defendant, and sometimes the defendant also submits his/her own letter of remorse. Eventually, the sentencing court then holds a sentencing hearing at which both sides make oral arguments about the sentence and the court pronounces its decision. That sentencing hearing could be anywhere from 4 to 6 months after the conviction, though it could take even longer.

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Yesterday, the Department of Justice announced that its U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan (Southern District of New York) had filed an indictment charging 18 former NBA players and 1 of their spouses with federal crimes relating to the defrauding of the NBA players’ association HRA (health reimbursement account). In short, the alleged mastermind of the crime, Terrence Williams, allegedly recruited former players into his scheme. They allegedly created fake invoices for chiropractic, medical, and dental services that they did not in fact receive, and then submitted those invoices to the HRA for reimbursement for those phony services.  The defendants are charged with violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1341 (wire fraud) and 18 U.S.C. § 1347 (health care fraud), and Terrence Williams also faces a charge of identity theft for bizarrely impersonating a health care plan administrator to try to shake down another player for his kickbacks under the scheme.

Of course some of these players may in fact be innocent. But you can expect the government’s case to be strong here. The prosecutors will probably be able to demonstrate that the medical/dental/chiropractic services detailed in these invoices submitted for reimbursement were not in fact provided. And the government almost certainly has the bank records, phone calls, emails, and text messages showing the transactions between Terrence Williams and the other participating defendants. There are probably several cooperating witnesses as well (i.e. former players who did not participate in the scheme though they were approached about it). So, most of these defendants – if not all of them – are likely to plead guilty. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of federal defendants do.

Sentencing at the federal level is an inexact science.  There is no statutory minimum here, and sentencing judges will look to the federal Sentencing Guidelines for guidance. However, the sentences suggested by those Guidelines are merely advisory, and not mandatory or binding.  In fraud cases, the biggest variable in the Guidelines calculation is the amount of loss (assuming these defendants mostly do not have criminal records already). The defendants will likely be in Criminal History Category I, on the left hand column of the sentencing table provided for by the Sentencing Guidelines.  Their base offense levels for Wire Fraud/Health Care fraud would be six. See U.S.S.G. 2B1.1. But then, you would have to add an additional offense level for the amount of fraud. There is some debate about whether this number should reflect “actual loss” or “intended loss,” which would make a difference here as the intended loss (i.e. the amount of false invoices submitted) was $3.9 million overall, but the actual loss was $2.5 million overall. Theoretically, each member of the group could be held responsible for the entire $3.9 million, as they were co-conspirators in a group effort to defraud the HRA. However, normally, in fraud cases, defendants are held accountable, so to speak, for the amount of money they themselves were actually involved in stealing (though that is not always the case, it is a fuzzy question of foreseeability). Terrence Williams, however, as the mastermind of the scheme, would probably have to add at least 16 levels to his sentencing offense level, in light of his being in charge of the entire scheme. Additionally, “masterminds” or managers of criminal enterprises can have their sentencing levels increased by another four levels. Pleading guilty tends to get a defendant an overall three-level reduction in sentencing offense level, so Terrence Williams could find himself at a suggested Guidelines sentencing range of 57-71 months (offense level 25), or roughly 5-6 years in federal prison.

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