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New Article Examines Overcriminalization, Plea Bargaining, And The FCPA Africa Sting Case

A guest post today from my Southern Illinois University School of Law colleague Lucian Dervan.  Professor Dervan is a widely recognized expert on plea bargaining and has, among other things, testified before Congress on such issues.

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I greatly appreciate the opportunity to guest post on Professor Koehler’s FCPA Professor site.  In my post today, I will focus on my discussion of overcriminalization, plea bargaining, and the Africa Sting case in a new article just posted to SSRN – “The Quest for Finality: Five Stories of White Collar Criminal Prosecution,” 4 Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy 91 (2014) (available here).

In an article I authored a few years ago for the George Mason Journal of Law, Economics, and Policy (available here), I discussed the growth of overcriminalization in the United States and the impact of broad and vague statutes on white collar criminal enforcement.  In particular, I argued that there is a symbiotic relationship between overcriminalization and plea bargaining because each of these important legal concepts relies on the other to flourish.

As I wrote in that article:

To illustrate the co-dependent nature of plea bargaining and overcriminalization, consider what it would mean if there were no plea bargaining. Novel legal theories and overly-broad statutes would no longer be tools merely for posturing during charge and sentence bargaining, but would have to be defended and affirmed both morally and legally at trial. Further, the significant costs of prosecuting individuals with creative, tenuous, and technical charges would not be an abstract possibility used in determining how great of an incentive to offer a defendant in return for pleading guilty. Instead, these costs would be a real consideration in determining whether justice is being served by bringing a prosecution at all.

Similarly, consider the significant ramifications that would follow should there no longer be overcriminalization. The law would be refined and clear regarding conduct for which criminal liability may attach. Individual benefits, political pressure, and notoriety would not incentivize the invention of novel legal theories upon which to base liability where none otherwise exists, despite the already expansive size of the United States criminal code. Further, novel legal theories and overly-broad statutes would not be used to create staggering sentencing differentials that coerce defendants, even innocent ones, to falsely confess in return for leniency.

In the Over-Criminalization 2.0 article, I went on to focus on the Computer Associates prosecution.  In the Computer Associates case, the government requested the company retain outside counsel to perform an internal investigation regarding allegations of accounting improprieties.  During that internal investigation, several employees allegedly lied to investigating counsel.  The government later brought obstruction of justice charges against those employees.  In the indictment, the government argued that the defendants “knew, and in fact intended, that the company’s law firm would present these false justifications to the United States Attorney’s Office, the SEC and the FBI so as to obstruct and impeded (sic) the government investigations.”

This broad and creative application of an obstruction of justice statute (18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2)) led to widespread concern from various sectors of the legal community.  In particular, much unease was expressed about the impact of this charging decision on the role of privately retained investigating counsel.  Had the government deputized law firms?  Embracing similar concerns, including concerns about the impact of this case on the attorney-client privilege, the defendants challenged the government’s theory of the case.  Unfortunately, the district court dismissed the motion without specifically addressing the core issues of concern.  While the stage appeared set for an important review of this charging theory by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, no such review ever took place.  As is so common today, the opportunity to examine the broad application of a vague statute was lost to the power of plea bargaining.  Instead of proceeding to the appellate court, all of the defendants pleaded guilty and the corporation entered into a deferred prosecution agreement.  Once again, the symbiotic relationship between overcriminalization and plea bargaining had prevented a true judicial review of this case.

In my new article, The Quest for Finality, I found similar issues in the FCPA Africa Sting case.  As readers of FCPA Professor will recall, the Africa Sting case involved an undercover FCPA operation targeting the defense sector.  As occurred in the Computer Associates case, the government used creative legal theories to build key aspects of its case.  Unlike the Computer Associates case, however, not all of the defendants pleaded guilty.  Therefore, the broad application of vague criminal statutes was tested and the results were very favorable for the defense.

In September 2011, a number of the Africa Sting defendants who had resisted the government’s offers of leniency in return for pleas of guilt went on trial.  Almost immediately, the government’s case began to fall apart under the weight of judicial scrutiny.  At one point, Judge Richard Leon stated, “I read all sixteen indictments, and I didn’t see it. I have zero sense that there was an omnibus grand conspiracy.”  Despite these words of caution, the government continued to pursue the conspiracy charges, the same conspiracy charges to which other defendants had already pleaded guilty.  Finally, after giving the government ample opportunity to make its case, Judge Leon dismissed the conspiracy counts in the middle of the trial.  Eventually, when the trial concluded, the case ended without a single conviction on the remaining counts.

In February 2012, the government asked Judge Leon to dismiss the charges against the remaining defendants awaiting trial in the Africa Sting matter.  As discussed on FCPA Professor at the time (see here), Judge Leon granted the motion and stated:

“This appears to be the end of a long and sad chapter in the annals of white-collar criminal enforcement. Unlike takedown day in Las Vegas, however, there will be no front page story in the New York Times or the Post for that matter tomorrow reflecting the government’s decision today to move to dismiss the charges against the remaining defendants in this case. Funny isn’t it what sells newspapers.
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Two years ago, at the very outset of this case I expressed more than my fair share of concerns on the record regarding the way this case has been charged and was being prosecuted. Later, during the two trials that I presided over I specifically commented again on the record regarding the government’s very, very aggressive conspiracy theory that was pushing its already generous elasticity to its outer limits. Of course, in the second trial that elastic snapped in the absence of the necessary evidence to sustain it.

In addition, in that same trial, I expressed on a number of occasions my concerns regarding the way this case had been investigated and was conducted especially vis-a-vis the handling of Mr. Bistrong. I even had an occasion, sadly, to chastise the government in a situation where the government’s handling of the discovery process constituted sharp practices that have no place in a federal courtroom.”

In a move seldom seen, the government even went on to dismiss the charges against the defendants who had already pleaded guilty in the case.

In discussing, amongst others, the Africa Sting prosecution in my new article on The Quest for Finality, I examine once again the role of plea bargaining.

It is disturbing to recognize that if all of the defendants in the Broadcom or Africa Sting cases had taken plea deals, we would likely never have learned just how tenuous the government’s positions were in these matters.  Further, evidence demonstrates that it is not unlikely that all the defendants in such a case might plead guilty, even if they were innocent.  During 2011 and 2012, Professor Vanessa Edkins and I conducted a psychological study in which we placed students in a situation where they were accused of cheating.  All the students, regardless of factual guilt or innocence were then offered a deal.  Of the guilty participants, 89% took the plea deal. Of the innocent participants, 56% took the plea deal.  Given the incentives plea bargaining creates for defendants to falsely admit guilt and the observed utilization of plea bargaining as a tool to mask flawed criminal cases where the evidence alone is insufficient for conviction at trial, perhaps it is time to reevaluate our reliance on bargained justice.

The Africa Sting Case is one in which a number of defendants proceeded to trial to challenge the government’s theory of the case.  Such challenges, however, have become a rarity in today’s criminal justice system.  As the Computer Associates case illustrates, even where the government’s aggressive application of broad criminal statutes draws wide attention, most defendants succumb to the powerful incentives plea bargaining offers to forgo trial.

You can read the full examination of the Africa Sting case and related white collar prosecutions by clicking here for a free copy of the article.

Referenced Articles

  • The Quest for Finality: Five Stories of White Collar Criminal Prosecution, 4 Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy 91 (2014) (available here).
  • Over-Criminalization 2.0: The Symbiotic Relationship Between Plea Bargaining and Overcriminalization, 7 The Journal of Law, Economics, and Policy 645 (2011) (available here).
  • The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem, 103 Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 1 (2013) (with Dr. Vanessa A. Edkins) (available here).

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