Category: White Collar

Stop the Music – 3rd Circuit Slams DOJ’s “Musical Chairs” in Securities Fraud Prosecution

SEC Rule 10b-5 is one of the main securities fraud laws. It says you can’t mislead people in connection with the purchase or sale of a security. You can’t make an untrue statement of a material fact. And you can’t fail to state a fact, when without that fact the statements you just made would be misleading.

That seems simple enough. But federal prosecutors in New Jersey seem to be having a hard time figuring out what that means.

In June 2005, the feds in New Jersey indicted Frederick Schiff, the CFO of Bristol-Myers Squibb, for failing to disclose material facts to investors. Allegedly, Bristol-Myers (a drug company) was paying wholesalers to order more drugs than they really needed, so Bristol-Myers could report higher sales numbers and inflate its stock value. Schiff allegedly didn’t tell investors about it during conference calls and in SEC filings. (See the indictment here and the DOJ’s press release here.) That indictment got thrown out for a grand jury leak, so they got a second one in May 2006, and finally a third one in April 2007 that dropped allegations of accounting violations.

With respect to the omissions, the government kept changing its tune. First, they said the company had a duty to correct misleading statements of others, based on a “general fiduciary duty.” The district court helpfully pointed out that there is no such duty in the law. So then the feds said there was a statutory duty under SEC regs S-K, which might actually have worked, but then they changed their mind and put on the record that they weren’t pursuing that theory. There was a “theory of duty based on falsity of reported sales and earnings,” which the District Court said wouldn’t fly. Then they tried to say the stuff left out of filings is a material omission that is misleading if you include the earlier analyst calls in the context (calling it “all of a piece”). The district court ruled that, no, there is no affirmative duty under either the “falsity” or the “all of a piece” theory. “It defies logic,” the court ruled, “to charge as a crime that an utterance in an analyst call must have other words written in a later SEC filing in order to make the utterance in the prior phone call ‘not misleading.’” Thanks for playing. The feds appealed.

In a unanimous decision today (opinion here), the Third Circuit slammed the DOJ for constantly changing its theory of the case, for playing “musical chairs” with its theory of how Schiff’s conduct counted as an unlawful omission under Rule 10b-5.

More importantly, the Circuit said the DOJ’s ultimate theory of liability here — that Schiff had a “general fiduciary” duty as a “high corporate executive” to disclose the inventory issue — was simply overbroad. “This argument reaches too far.”

This is a big setback for the feds, who now are left with a much narrower …

Criminalizing the Contractual: Have We Finally Seen the End of “Honest Services” Fraud?

enron annual report 2000

Try this on for size:

For the purposes of this chapter, the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” includes:

(1) a scheme or artifice by a government official whereby the government official’s position is used for the private gain of any person or entity; or

(2) a scheme or artifice by an officer of a corporation, partnership, nonprofit organization or labor union, whereby the officer’s position is used for the private gain of any person or entity and not for the benefit of the officer’s shareholders or members.

If Congress had half a brain, this is what 18 U.S.C. § 1346 would look like. The whole point of the section is to prevent official corruption. A politician or bureaucrat who steers a contract to a buddy, or a corporate CEO who enriches himself instead of his shareholders, or a union boss who mismanages the pension fund — basically anyone who breaches a trust to act on behalf of those he represents.

But instead, Congress wrote this nonsense:

For the purposes of this chapter, the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.

For one thing, anyone can commit this crime, not just people who owe a duty to a constituency. Moreover, instead of a straightforward definition, this is hopelessly vague. Nobody knows what “the intangible right of honest services” means. Does it include an employee who’s playing solitaire instead of reviewing a file? Does it include a politician making promises he can’t keep?

Nobody knows.

And that’s just how federal prosecutors like it. Actual corruption charges, like bribery and extortion, are notoriously difficult to prove. But a mail/wire fraud charge, based on deprivation of “honest services” — that could mean anything, and so anything they can prove could count. Actions that don’t fit any particular category get to be called “fraud.”

Unethical behavior is now criminal. Contractual breaches, especially in the employment arena, also seem to count.

The courts have had a hard time applying this statute, differing widely on what counts and on how to instruct juries. Earlier this term, the Justices on the Supreme Court sounded like they have real problems with the statute. They seem even to wonder whether it’s void for vagueness. Criminal laws have to be specific enough to put you on notice that certain conduct could land you in jail, and a law where nobody even knows what it means certainly could be unconstitutionally vague. The Court hasn’t decided those open cases yet, presumably because they were waiting for one more to be argued.

And that gets us to today’s Supreme Court arguments in the case of Enron’s former CEO, Jeff Skilling.

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Enron was the nation’s 7th-largest company in 2001, when it suddenly came to light that …

Shameless Self-Promotion

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Yet More Prosecutorial Misconduct by the Feds

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Food Fraud Prosecutors Caught Selling Snake Oil

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