Crime in the Suites: An Analyis of Current Issues in White Collar Defense
Author Archive
Aug 12
2016

The E-Rate Honey Pot

When you grant access to a $ 4 billion fund and give fund participants relative autonomy in how they use those funds, ne’er-do-wells will sniff their way to the honey pot. Keeping them out can be a challenge. So goes the story of the federally administered Schools and Libraries Program, better known as E-Rate.

Established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, E-Rate is a federal subsidy that helps schools and libraries–particularly those in disadvantaged areas–pay for telecommunications services (e.g., Internet access). The program runs a $3.9 billion fund today.

Schools and libraries that want to take advantage of E-Rate simply need to follow the program’s bid and approval process. Participants oversee the bidding process and choose their service provider. While participants are required to choose the most cost effective provider, there isn’t much of a check on whether they actually do: they need only self-certify that they chose the most cost effective bid.

E-Rate participant autonomy has been a problem as the program regularly faces allegations of fraud and abuse. These concerns prompted a GAO study and senate hearings in the early 2000s. Former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-PA) told the New York Times, “You couldn’t invent a way to throw money down the drain that would work any better than this.” After the GAO reported its findings (2004), U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, said, “Unscrupulous vendors … fleeced the program while underserved communities and telephone customers pay the price.” Over the past decade, there have been a number of investigations and enforcement actions, resulting in civil as well as criminal penalties, including jail time for a few program profiteers.

Some noteworthy fleecing includes:

  • Puerto Rico wasted more than $100 million in program funds and its secretary of education was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $4 million.
  • In the Chicago Public School system, some $8.5 million in equipment was stockpiled (better yet, the CPS and E-Rate were essentially paying twice for equipment that was never installed!).
  • A company in the San Francisco Unified School District was required to pay $20.7 million in fines and restitution.

More recently, schools and libraries in the Chicago and New York City areas have been investigated for violating the competitive bidding process and taking E-Rate funds without actually providing E-Rate services. Those investigations are still underway, with dramatic raids last March.

Adding to the temptation for ne’er-do-wells are the millions of dollars left on the table in E-Rate funds each year. According to EducationDive, some $245 million in funds went unclaimed in 2014. It is almost hard to blame profiteers for seeking out what they perceive as free money, especially when they have so much control over the process.

There may be a lot of good intentions behind E-Rate. But in its current form and function, E-Rate is but one more example of a poorly administered federal funds that attract those able to game the system.

Jun 09
2016

Keep It Short and Prosper

What a difference two words can make. Just ask the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) or Americans for Prosperity (AFP), two organizations that filed separate lawsuits against the same defendant, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, over the same issue: whether Harris’s office had the right to access the organizations’ donor information. (The cases are Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris and Americans for Prosperity v. Harris.)

The plaintiffs’ arguments in each case were basically the same: the state’s request to access donor information would violate the first and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. But there the similarities stopped: the CCP never got to trial, whereas the AFP did—and won!  Was the CCP the victim of a miscarriage of justice? Nah. It all came down to two words: “as applied.”

You know the saying “go big or go home?” Well, unfortunately the CCP did both: it tried to get the court to rule that Harris’s probe of donor information would be unconstitutional for all organizations. The AFP took a different approach: it asked the court to call the probe unconstitutional “as applied” to the AFP alone.

Ding!

The AFP’s narrower approach enabled the court to provide relief without upsetting Harris’s authority and potentially affecting thousands of other organizations. Courts generally hesitate to invalidate a state’s actions when they can provide individual relief to the plaintiff instead. If the CCP had taken this course, it might have had a flying chance. But now it had the added burden of proving how the state’s actions would adversely affect all organizations subject to the same request.

Meanwhile, the AFP coasted without having to prove any such thing. All it had to show was how the state’s request had already affected the organization and could continue to do so. This was no fun task, though. Several individuals testified that they suffered reprisals, assaults, and even death threats due to their association with the AFP—a strongly conservative organization. Clearly, being publicly linked to the AFP could lead to serious fallout. For her part, Harris tried to argue that the state would keep donor information confidential, but the AFP was able to show how this had failed before, citing over one thousand instances of donor information being improperly disclosed on the AG’s own website!

The AFP showed that the risk of scaring, and therefore discouraging, would-be donors was real. The chilling effect on individuals’ freedom of association would be too steep a price to pay for a nominal benefit to the state.

It was a strong case—unlike the defendant’s. Harris claimed that accessing donor information was in the state’s best interest; reviewing the findings would help uncover potential irregularities tied to fraud, waste, or abuse. Maybe it would—but it doesn’t pass the “exacting scrutiny” test, which requires states to protect their interests by the least restrictive means in situations like this. More importantly, Harris could not produce any evidence or testimony to corroborate her argument that access to donor information was important to state law enforcement. Although several state-employed investigators and attorneys took the stand, none could claim that they needed, or even used, donor information to do their work—and if they did need it, they could generally get it elsewhere. This evidentiary failure undercut Harris’s arguments and called into question the state’s overall scheme.

In the end, it was not a tough decision: with so strong a case by the plaintiff, and so weak one by the state, the court sided plainly with the plaintiff. It could have gone a step further and declared the state’s actions broadly unconstitutional, but instead it judged the state’s actions to be improper as applied to the AFP alone. This was a good idea, because Harris will have a harder time challenging the decision on appeal.

So the AFP trial didn’t set a huge precedent for everyone—but that’s kind of the point. If you’re going to file suit, and there’s a path of least resistance, take it. Those sweeping courtroom victories you see in the movies are rare. In real life, justice takes baby steps.

May 19
2016

Data Breach Lawsuits: Challenges Persist After Spokeo v. Robins

Data breaches are as common as the common cold—unfortunately, just as incurable. Run a news search on “data breaches” and you’ll find that all kinds of institutions—major retailers, tech companies, universities, even government agencies—have been vulnerable at some point. Now run a search on “data breaches,” but include the word “lawsuit.” You’ll find that many of these cases are going to court, but ultimately getting dismissed. What’s going on?

First, you should look at some of these lawsuits more closely: are they filed against the alleged perpetrators of the data breach? Many of them aren’t; those perpetrators are usually hackers who live outside the country or are unable to pay a money judgment. (In legal parlance, that’s known as being judgment proof.) Faced by those limitations, individual victims of data breaches frequently settle for the next best thing: going after the institutions that endured the breach.

Often, this isn’t fair—the institutions are victims too. The point here is that although going after the institutions looks like an easy win from “deep pockets,” that seldom turns out to be the case.

Plaintiffs in data breach cases, which are usually class actions, need to demonstrate liability on the part of the institution. Much of the time, they rest their case on either negligence or breach of contract claims. Both legal theories require the plaintiff to show the same things: 1) that the defendant had a clear duty to protect the plaintiff’s data, 2) that the defendant breached that duty, and 3) that the plaintiff sustained injury as a result. (For breach of contract, plaintiffs must point to a concrete or sufficiently implicit contract that binds the institution to the stated responsibilities; often this is the institution’s privacy policy.) Plaintiffs typically argue that the institution had an obligation to take precautionary measures against data breaches but failed, and therefore caused injury to the plaintiffs.

It’s with the third and final point—demonstrating injury—that plaintiffs have the most trouble. Why? Because courts view injury in fiscal terms; you need to show that you actually lost something, not simply that you might. So even if you were the victim of a data breach, as long your data hasn’t yet been compromised, it doesn’t really count as injury.

There have been exceptions, when the court greenlit cases based mainly on speculative injury, but these usually ended in a settlement before a legal precedent could be set. (See cases against Home Depot, Target, Adobe, and Sony.) For the most part, the fiscal view of injury has prevailed—reinforced in 2013, when the Supreme Court, weighing in on Clapper vs Amnesty Int’l, determined that a plaintiff cannot proceed with a data breach lawsuit unless he or she can demonstrate actual injury or at least imminent threat of injury, each one measurable in economic loss. Otherwise, mere perception of injury is too tenuous to establish legal standing, which a case requires to go forward, and the lawsuit will probably get tossed.

The challenge of establishing legal standing recently made its way to the Supreme Court in Spokeo v. Robins. In that case, a plaintiff filed suit against the “people search engine” Spokeo for publishing false information about him. The issue before the Court was this central question of how much injury must be shown for a case to go forward. Prospective plaintiffs were optimistic that the high court would affirm a lower court’s decision that speculative injury was indeed enough. Alas, the Supreme Court sidestepped the issue and punted it back to the lower court for further review. The Court nonetheless reinforced the general tenets that, for a plaintiff to have standing to bring a case, he must allege an “injury in fact” that is both “concrete and particularized.” There is still room for the lower court to broaden the approach to what constitutes an injury, but the Supreme Court’s ruling keeps the status quo in place.

For now, individuals whose data has been compromised generally must be satisfied with what the institutions offer them after a breach occurs: free credit checks and/or access to credit monitors. Do checks and monitoring seem inadequate? Not if you think about what type of harm people face after a data breach. Individuals can detect and report problems in the event someone actually misuses their data. If they keep on top of it, their credit scores will not be impacted. Moreover, credit card companies and other financial institutions will bear the cost of any unapproved charges. In the event of further problems, plaintiffs can then take their injury to the legal system and have their day in court. But at this point, the courts are right to keep this type of class action litigation at bay.

May 02
2016

Getting Started with E-Rate

Public schools and libraries in the U.S. can save a lot of money on Internet service by applying for the Schools and Libraries Program, a federal subsidy better known as E-Rate.

E-Rate funding, capped yearly at $3.9 billion, helps eligible institutions cover costs of Internet service. Participants can save anywhere from twenty to ninety percent of their Internet expenses—the precise amount being dictated by the economic standing of both the participating institution and the school district where it is located.

E-Rate and three other programs are part of the Universal Service Fund (USF), a system of subsidies born out of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a way to ensure affordable telecom rates across the country. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees the USF, the fund is managed by a nonprofit corporation called the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).

Detailed information on how to apply for E-Rate can be found in the Schools and Libraries Program overview. Basically it works as a bidding process. An applicant fills out FCC Form 470, requesting specific services, and submits it to the USAC. The USAC then issues an RFP for telecom providers who want to bid for the requested services. After 28 days, the applicant can study the bids. When it selects one, it requests E-Rate funding by filing FCC Form 471 within a deadline set by the FCC (for FY2016 it is May 26).

The discount rate is generally determined by the size of the population, in the applicant’s school district, that qualifies for the National School Lunch Program. The applicant must also file Form 486, listing services for which funds are requested and ensuring compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

There are limits to what E-Rate can cover. The applicant is solely responsible for end-user equipment, like hardware and software, and also for any non-discounted portions of Internet services.

While it is a great opportunity to save money, E-Rate isn’t a free-for-all. To discourage abuse and misuse of the program, the FCC requires applicants to comply with a series of rules, notably:

  1. Compliance with state and local law. It’s not enough to follow the FCC standards only.
  2. Applicants cannot seek discounts for services not requested. In other words, services listed on Form 471 must match (or not exceed) services requested on Form 470.
  3. Fair, competitive bidding. Applicants are responsible for ensuring an open, fair, and competitive bidding process to select the most cost-effective provider.
  4. Document retention. Applicants must save all competing bids for services to demonstrate they selected the most cost-effective bid, with price being the primary consideration. Records should be kept for at least ten years after the last date of service delivered.
  5. CIPA compliance. Applicants must confirm compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires schools and libraries that receive federal funding to employ Internet filters that protect children from harmful content.

 

In spite of these rules, the wealth of funds in the E-Rate program can attract abuse. In response, the FCC created the USF Strike Force in 2014 and tasked it with combatting waste, fraud, and abuse of the USF programs. Federal agents have shown that they are serious about investigating alleged abuses. One widely publicized case in Ramapo, NY, recently led to several raids. We will look at that case and others like it in upcoming posts.

Apr 28
2016

Feds Open The Gates and Seize the Domain Names

 

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Does the federal government have the right to seize a domain name without notice? With growing frequency, the feds have seized the domain names of thousands of websites for alleged criminal wrongdoing. The latest example is the seizure earlier this week of 67 website domain names for the alleged illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit and prescription drugs.

There still is little information publicly available on the recent seizure. The Justice Department issued a short new release with a statement from U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, in which he noted,

It’s important for consumers to understand the significant risks involved in purchasing pharmaceutical drugs from these websites.  The generic versions of these prescription drugs are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and cannot be distributed in the United States legally.  To be safe and effective, prescription drugs must be taken under the care and supervision of appropriate health care professionals; not purchased off the internet from unknown and unregulated foreign sources.

Whether or not the sites facilitated the alleged criminal behavior remains to be decided by a judicial proceeding (if the case ever gets to that point). Federal agents can obtain a seizure order based merely upon probable cause set forth in an affidavit. That’s a relatively low bar considering the consequences of domain name seizures.

The only recourse for the sites at this point is to file a petition with a federal court to contest the forfeiture. Contesting a forfeiture is an uphill—and oftentimes protracted—battle. In the meantime the businesses operating through those domain names are effectively shut down, if the seized websites were their main channel of business. Once the feds carry out a domain name seizure, the “offending” sites will show a seizure banner notifying any visitors that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities for violations of federal laws. No business can be done on the site and the chances of visitors returning are slim.

So how is it okay for a domain name to be seized based on the allegation of a crime, before proper notice and hearing? The feds are taking advantage of a process known as an in rem proceeding, whereby they can file suit against the offending property itself for its alleged role in facilitating criminal conduct. Typically in rem proceedings are filed against tangible assets like a car involved in a drug deal or a bank account used to funnel illegal funds. But in recent years, in rem proceedings have been used by both state and federal agencies against domain names in order to crack down on alleged criminal behavior carried out through the websites. Examples include (1) the Justice Department’s “In Our Sites” operation in which it seized the domain names of thousands of sites accused of violating U.S. copyright laws and (2) the state of Kentucky’s attempt to seize 141 domain names of online poker sites.

Despite the increasing use of pretrial domain name seizures, the legality is still hotly debated by civil liberties groups, free market advocates, and international organizations. These groups raise constitutional concerns, such as due process and restraint on free speech, as well as jurisdictional concerns, such as federal or state authority to reach domain names owned by foreign individuals or entities. The biggest issue is that an in rem proceeding is inappropriate against domain names because a domain name is not property – it is a contractual right that, as such, should not be subject to seizure. We will discuss these concerns in more detail in a coming post once we learn more about the Justice Department’s recent actions against the 67 pharmaceutical domain names.

Apr 15
2016

Good News: The Feds Can’t Freeze Your Assets to Stop You from Hiring a Lawyer

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Republished with permission from FEE.org, originally published April 12, 2016

There are limits to what the government can take from you. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution forbids the government from freezing a defendant’s “untainted” assets in advance of prosecution. The ruling is a significant victory for those caught in the government’s crosshairs. It is also a significant victory for a traditional concept of justice, which prefers to err on the side of the accused over government agents.

In its decision in Luis v. U.S., the high court agreed with a criminal defendant who argued that her Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when the government froze assets unrelated to allegedly criminal behavior. Without access to those funds, the defendant would be unable to retain the attorney of her choice.

The Court considered the government’s interest in preserving funds to pay restitution and criminal penalties, but concluded that a defendant’s right to counsel is “fundamental,” outweighing any interest the government mightultimately have: “[The government’s] interests are important, but — compared to the right to counsel — they seem to lie somewhat further from the heart of a fair, effective criminal justice system.”

In a 5-3 ruling, the Court based its decision on this balancing test, as well as on traditional understandings of common law, which distinguish between assets directly related to alleged criminal behavior and assets considered “innocent” or untainted. The Court found no legal precedent to authorize “unfettered, pretrial forfeiture of the defendant’s own ‘innocent’ property.” Moreover, the Court highlighted concerns that the government’s position has no obvious stopping point and could erode defendants’ right to counsel considerably.

Encroaching on the Sixth Amendment is but one of the several concerns posed by the government’s growing love of forfeiture — it has become too handy of a tool in prosecutors’ pockets — but it is perhaps the gravest concern, as it threatens an individual’s ability to effectively defend him or herself. It puts defendants at a significant disadvantage: they want to obtain the best representation they can afford in order to defend themselves, but they may not be able to afford any if the government freezes all their assets in the hope of confiscating them after a conviction. They may be left begging friends and family to help fund their defense or relying upon overburdened public defenders to represent them. The government’s tactic is the courtroom equivalent of inviting an opponent to a boxing match and then tying one hand behind his back.

The criminal defense bar has decried government’s overuse of asset forfeiture for years. While the government has argued that pre-trial asset seizure is justified in order to preserve its ability to recover funds and penalties, the process has been used to try to deter behavior by making an example of people. Moreover, pre-trial asset seizure looks a lot like presumed guilt, as opposed to presumed innocence. The occasional constitutionally minded congressional representative has tried to curb forfeiture overuse through legislative initiatives, but these bills keep getting left to die in committees and subcommittees. It is nice to see some effective limits placed on the practice by the Court.

Justice Thomas, in a concurring opinion, took issue with Justice Breyer’s opinion “balancing” the state’s interest against individuals’ constitutional rights. He argued the Sixth Amendment prevents the government from seizing untainted assets, period; there is no need to consider a balancing approach. But at least the plurality of the Court recognized that, when balancing the government’s interests in the outcome of a case against the individual’s right to adequately defend him or herself, you should err on the side of the individual.

If that means the state sometimes loses out on full satisfaction of a monetary judgment, that is preferable to defendants being prevented from mounting an effective defense. More wrongful convictions would result from that policy, and the seizure of a few more dollars from the truly guilty would be no consolation. If there is any question whether historically we have favored individual rights over the state’s interests in criminal prosecutions, look only to the Bill of Rights. Justice demands that if anyone’s hand is to be tied in the courtroom, it should be the hand of the government.

Mar 07
2016

Even Bad Guys Have Rights

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This article first appeared February 29, 2016, on FEE.org – you can access this version here.

Remember Martin Shkreli, the “pharma bro” notorious for raising the price of his company’s life-saving drug by some 5,000 percent? Did you know he was recently arrested for securities fraud (completely unrelated to the drug hike)? It didn’t take long for the Justice Department to go after the universally unpopular rapscallion.

Big government gets a bad rap for being inefficient, but it can cut to the chase rather swiftly when it wants to. In order to stop, or at least dramatically curb, behavior that goes against law or policy — or perhaps just opinion — government enforcement agents know how to employ a show of force and to make an example of someone they deem a wrongdoer. The punishment is public and can be severe.

Setting an Example

A recent show of force can be seen in federal actions against the dietary supplement industry. The industry has exploded in recent years, thanks in large part to the public’s growing love for health and homeopathy. The popularity has, predictably, attracted moneymakers of both the scrupulous and unscrupulous kind.

The government wants to rein in the industry, so to set an example it has come down hard on one company. USPlabs was one of more than 100 makers and marketers of dietary supplements against whom the Justice Department announced it was pursuing civil and criminal cases. But the company had the unfortunate luck to become the government’s example of what it can do to wrongdoers. Not only did the DOJ charge the company; it also indicted several of its executives and froze their assets — from investment accounts to homes to automobiles.

Do the Ends Justify the Meanness?

The government’s heavy hand on USPlabs is the kind of crackdown you expect against organized crime or large drug rings. What were the criminal defendants at USPlabs alleged to have done? Not exactly Sopranos-level stuff: importing ingredients with false certificates of analysis and false labeling, misrepresenting the source and nature of product ingredients, selling products without determining safety, and continuing to sell products after they told agents they would stop.

If the allegations are true, the defendants’ actions were wrong. But public arrests and asset seizure are extreme. How often do people accused of false labeling get perp walked? The DOJ’s tactics look like shock-and-awe theater for the benefit of others.

If there is any doubt whether the government wanted to use its hard-line approach against USPlabs as an example for other companies, look no further than this statement by FDA Deputy Commissioner Howard Sklamberg: “The criminal charges against USPlabs should serve as notice to industry that if products are a threat to public health, the FDA will exercise its full authority under the law to bring justice.”

In other words, makers and marketers of dietary supplements: beware!

So What?

You may think the Justice Department performed a public service by coming down so hard on Shkreli and USPlabs. Why should we care if the government crushes some scalawags and discourages others in the process?

What if the government’s show of force comes at the cost of a defendant’s due process rights? Shkreli has said that the feds targeted him because of the drug price hike, looking for anything to stop him. Now he’s been fired and his company has filed for bankruptcy. That’s a pretty high price to pay for being obnoxious.

While deterrence may be an acceptable basis for punishment, it doesn’t justify punishment that exceeds the crime. Arresting executives and seizing their personal bank accounts, homes, and cars in an instance like this is excessive. More commonly in cases like USPlabs, prosecutors will settle with the company, levy a fine against it, require it to institute controls to avoid further wrongdoing, and perhaps require it to be monitored for a while to ensure controls are being observed.

Going after the individual executives as if they were Mafia kingpins goes beyond the pale. Freezing or seizing assets is something that prosecutors more commonly do when those assets are being used to carry out criminal behavior, or when there is a great risk those assets will be disposed of before judicial proceedings. Chances are slim that the executives in the USPlabs matter were planning on liquidating their family homes or cars.

Yet Another Slippery Slope

For those who think the government is on the right side in its show of force, ask yourselves whether the government isn’t pursuing its initiatives (even reasonable initiatives like reining in fraud) a bit brutishly. Making an example of an alleged wrongdoer even before the wrongdoer’s day in court harkens back to techniques used by conquerors in days of old who put heads on pikes to show the subjugated just who was in charge.

And what if the government decides to crack down on behavior not so clearly reprehensible? Say the government decides to put speeding in check by jailing a few folks going modestly over the limit. How many of us would feel safer?

Even when we dislike the targets of prosecutorial zeal, supporting justice is in our self-interest. When the government sets aside due process and proportionality to set an example of other would-be wrongdoers, they are sacrificing justice for the sake of regulatory expediency.

 

Mar 17
2015

Bureaucracy Unlimited

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This article first appeared on FEE.org – you can access this version at http://fee.org/freeman/detail/bureaucracy-unlimited

Big Gov and Big Biz. Are they holding hands, shaking hands, or boxing? It depends on the day and the issue. But while Big Biz hardly seems like a sympathetic character, Big Gov always has the upper hand.

Remember Arthur Anderson? Perhaps not. It used to be the biggest accounting firm around. Then the Justice Department went after it with little proof but lots of gusto. The megalith firm fought the law, and the law won (temporarily). The Department of Justice obtained a criminal conviction against the firm that was the equivalent of a death sentence: the company lost its reputation and therefore lost its clients. By the time the Supreme Court overturned the conviction, it was a pyrrhic victory for the defunct firm.

Through Arthur Anderson, companies learned that no matter how big you are, the government is bigger. When the government comes after you, stand down and don’t fight.

Enforcement creep

Do you care that Big Gov picks on Big Biz? While Big Gov is busy starting wars of attrition with Big Biz, it is building out its bureaucratic infrastructure — all while sharpening a strategy that means it can’t lose. And that’s everyone’s concern. Companies regularly acquiesce to government demands and pave the way for what I’ll call enforcement creep — de facto lawmaking whereby government agencies use the threat of costly litigation, the threat of multiple agency investigations, or the threat of Arthur Anderson’s sad fate to gain settlements with defendants, even when the companies haven’t committed any significant wrongs.

These settlements often exceed the scope of existing laws and regulations, more accurately reflecting what the agencies want, not necessarily what the law requires. Agencies thus further their policy initiatives — including those not defined by statute or by implementing regulations — on an ad hoc basis, outside the purview of traditional lawmaking.

Here are two examples of how enforcement creep plays out.

Sallie Mae

In May 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced a $96.6 million settlement against student loan servicer Sallie Mae (now Navient Solutions). The agreement was to settle allegations that the company failed to reduce interest rates on loans to military members as required under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). In the settlement agreement, Sallie Mae didn’t admit to any wrongdoing (a typical agreement term) but nonetheless agreed to pay fines and restitution. It also agreed to institute new measures to ensure compliance with the SCRA.

Here’s the kicker: the new measures require that Sallie Mae not only comply with current law, but go several steps further. That is, current law puts the burden on service members to seek loan reduction relief, but the consent order shifts the burden to Sallie Mae. It requires that the company presume loan reduction requests based upon service member actions (such as a request from the service member for another form of relief). It also requires the company to undertake other measures proactively to seek service member rate reductions (such as creating an online intake form and training designated customer service representatives to advise on SCRA protections).

It probably seemed to government regulators that the loan servicer, instead of the service member, was in a better position to bear the burden of looking after SCRA rights. And so they shifted that burden through an investigation and settlement with a major loan servicer — as opposed to going through the more public rulemaking process and requesting that Congress revise the law.

Costco

Here’s another example. In September 2014, Costco settled charges with the Environmental Protection Agency. The government authorities alleged the company violated the Clean Air Act by failing to repair refrigerant leaks and failing to keep adequate records of the servicing of its refrigeration equipment. The consent decree, in which Costco admitted no liability, requires that the company cut its leak rate to almost half the legal maximum over the next three years. (The decree requires Costco to achieve corporate-wide average leak rates of 19.1 percent; the regulations, 40 C.F.R. § 82.156 and EPA guidance, provide a legal leak rate maximum for commercial refrigeration equipment of 35 percent.)

The agreement requires the company to retrofit, replace, and install systems in a manner that similarly appears to surpass legal standards. Comparing the EPA guidance with the consent decree, the decree looks like a big leap from current regulatory requirements. The settlement agreement terms sound a lot more like policy objectives, in keeping with the EPA’s GreenChill initiative, than legal standards.

Give us your lunch money

It’s okay to encourage companies voluntarily to adopt more rigorous environmental standards than the law requires, but when a company’s decision not to comply can result in steep sanctions, the decision is no longer voluntary. So when the government looks for excuses to impose extralegal preferences, it starts to sound less like cheerleading and more like bullying. Think of it this way: it is still legal to encrypt your smartphone, but would you feel free to do so if you knew that the police were investigating everyone pursuing that form of privacy?

Where companies don’t do anything wrong, or where the wrongs committed pale in comparison to the punishment exacted, why do they settle with the feds? It has a lot to do with cost-benefit analysis. Rational parties will assess whether it makes financial sense to defend their positions in protracted litigation or to settle and move on. Since legal defense can be very costly, accepting a reasonable penalty that frees time and economic resources may seem like the best option. It’s similar to the pressure on someone charged with a serious crime, even when they are innocent, to plea bargain rather than face the expense of a long legal defense and the real possibility of a wrongful conviction. Plus, these companies don’t want to face significant bad press or a conviction that could effectively shutter operations. So Big Biz stands down; Big Gov expands its legal reach by applying an extralegal strategy of legislation by threat.

Groupsink

The companies entering into settlement agreements will obviously have to adopt the terms of those agreements or be in breach. But they are not the only ones looking carefully at applying settlement terms. Other companies with similar business practices will recognize a world of limited choices: adopt the government’s policy objectives or prepare for your time in the ring. New de facto law is made outside the courts, outside Congress, and entirely outside the public sphere. The extent to which Big Biz could once serve as a check on Big Gov fades into history, as enforcement creep becomes the new reality.

Mar 09
2015

What Expats Need to Know Now about their Taxes, FATCA and the IRS

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Are you an American abroad living in perpetual fear of the IRS? Do you wake up every morning wondering if today you’ll receive a formidable notice that the taxman cometh? You are not alone. Expats around the world are facing (and fearing) the painful reality that the IRS’s global tax enforcement effort is underway. While you may want to stick your head in the sand, a brief review of where we are and how we got here may encourage you to confront your IRS situation.

It started in 2010 with the passage of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. FATCA was billed as an effective way to tackle offshore tax evasion. The legislation requires foreign financial institutions (FFIs) to report on U.S. taxpayers’ accounts or face hefty withholding penalties on transactions passing through the U.S. Affected institutions include not only banks, but any entities substantially engaged in holding or investing financial assets for others. These institutions are required to comply with the law regardless of conflict with the laws of their home country. That means FFIs have been put in the position of potentially violating local data privacy or bank secrecy laws or getting hit with significant penalties on funds passing through the States.

While the PR for the legislation presented it as an important means to tackle rich and greedy tax cheats, the reality is that FATCA impacts a lot more people than Swiss banking billionaires. The legislation has plenty of repercussions for the seven million plus U.S. citizens living abroad. Suddenly, dual citizens with negligible ties to the U.S. (say, they were born in the States but haven’t lived in the U.S. since infancy) realize they are supposed to be reporting their income and assets to the IRS, regardless of foreign location. Many of the unwitting lawbreakers and quiet law deniers have been waiting out the storm, not seeking resolution with the IRS as they think FATCA is not a fixed reality.

There is good reason why some people have hoped FATCA would be repealed, overturned, or perhaps ignored by other countries: (1) the conflicts between local laws and FATCA reporting requirements, (2) the significant costs to FFIs to implement FATCA compliance programs, (3) the unintended consequences to average expats that makes the legislation politically unpopular. The Alliance for the Defense of Canadian Sovereignty launched a legal challenge to FATCA in the Canadian courts. U.S. super lawyer, James Bopp Jr., has helped Republicans Overseas launch a challenge to the law in U.S. courts. And Senator Rand Paul has reintroduced legislation to effectively repeal the law. One would think Senator Paul’s efforts should get traction since there is a Republican-controlled Congress and the party has made FATCA repeal a part of the Republican National Committee platform. But power assumed is hard to retract.

Meanwhile, implementation of the law has trudged on. After a few delays, the law took effect July 1, 2014, and reporting has begun. More than 100 countries have entered treaties (intergovernmental agreements) with the U.S. to facilitate reporting and to get around local law conflicts. Countries with data privacy laws have agreed to have FFIs report to local tax authorities who in turn will report to the IRS. Even countries known for bank privacy protection and bank secrecy (like Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Austria) have agreed to comply with FATCA, eliminating secrecy for U.S. taxpayers.

Paving the way for large scale reporting, the IRS recently launched its web application, the International Data Exchange Service (IDES), for FFIs and foreign tax authorities. IDES is supposed to allow these FFIs and tax authorities to submit U.S. taxpayer information efficiently and securely by an encrypted pathway.

With treaties in play, reporting underway, and technological platforms built, the chances of FATCA getting repealed, overturned, or ignored are dissolving. This is especially true as more countries take their cues from FATCA and consider their own global tax enforcement efforts. Moving in this direction, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has issued a new standard to facilitate intergovernmental sharing of financial data.

Expats that are behind on their IRS reporting need to face this fact and bite the bullet before they shoot themselves in the foot. It is important to address options, like whether or how to use the IRS’s Online Voluntary Disclosure Program or whether and how to renounce U.S. citizenship (note, you’ll still have to pay up for past deficiencies). But the reality is that FATCA is in force and the IRS is invested in ensuring all U.S. taxpayers comply. You may disagree in principle and you may (and perhaps should) advocate for repeal or revision. But in the meantime, find a way to face Uncle Sam.

 

Feb 05
2015

Closing the Loop: The Proposal of New Subcontracting Limitations on Small Businesses

Presentation1

Many small business government contractors may have to rethink the way they do business. The Small Business Administration issued a proposed rule at the end of December to implement provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013. The NDAA, which was signed into law in January 2013, requires several significant modifications to the rules for small business concerns, including changes to the Limitations on Subcontracting Rule (13 C.F.R. 125.6).

The proposed rule suggests a number of changes that would impact small businesses qualifying under one or more of the size or socioeconomic categories for set-aside contracts. These changes would (1) require companies to change how they determine compliance under §125.6, (2) require them to certify compliance in the bidding process, and (3) impose steep monetary penalties for delinquencies.

The Limitations on Subcontracting rule limits the extent to which prime contractors may subcontract obligations to outside entities, say to large companies that would not themselves qualify for a government set-aside. Under the current rule, a cost-based metric controls what prime contractors on set-aside contracts can subcontract to other entities: the prime must incur a certain percentage of the contract costs. For instance, for services contracts, a prime contractor must “perform at least 50 percent of the cost of the contract incurred for personnel with its own employees.” Section 125.6 currently provides different cost-base ratios based upon the type of contract (e.g., services, supplies, construction) and the type of set-aside (e.g., 8(a), SDVOB, HUBZone).

The proposed rule, if implemented, would alter how limitations are calculated, using an income-based, as opposed to a cost-based, metric. Under the proposed rule, prime contractors on set-aside contracts would be required to keep in-house a certain percentage of income—including passive income—paid by the government. For services and supply contracts, no more than fifty percent of the amount paid under the contract could be passed on to subcontractors; for construction no more than eighty-five percent; and for specialty trade, no more than seventy-five percent. (note that these are the same ratios used under the current cost-based metric, but now apply to the income-based metric). There no longer would be a distinction in ratios based upon type of set-aside, however.

An important exception to the rule would exist for “similarly situated entities.” Maintaining the philosophy behind the set-aside program, the proposed rule would allow prime contractors to contract out to companies who also qualify under their set-aside category without that relationship counting towards the income limit. In other words, the entities would be treated the same for purposes of the Limitations on Subcontracting rule. For instance, an SDVOB could subcontract out a services contract to another SDVOB and that contract relationship would not count towards the fifty percent income limit. However, the subcontractor must qualify under the same set-aside category as the prime in order to take advantage of this exception.

Another exception is that the rule would not apply to contracts valued under $150,000.

Closing a former loophole, the revised §125.6 would count all levels of subcontractor relationship, not just to the first prime-sub relationship. So companies could not get around the subcontract limitation through subcontracting out under the subcontractor.

In order to satisfy the new Limitations on Subcontracting rule, companies would need to address the rule in their contract bids for set-aside contracts. They would be required to certify that they can satisfy the rule. They would further be required to identify any similarly situated entities they planned to subcontract with and to what extent (percentage) they planned to subcontract with them. Any post-award changes would need to be presented to the contracting officer.

Unlike in the past, the proposed rule would institute steep penalties for non-compliance with the Limitations on Subcontracting rule. Companies found violating the rule would be subject to fines “the greater of either $500,000 or the dollar amount spent in excess of the permitted levels for subcontracting.”

The SBA’s proposed changes may seem staggering to small businesses that have carefully defined their business relationships to remain compliant under the current cost-based regime. But the changes could ultimately help to ensure the viability of the SBA’s set-aside programs. When small and disadvantaged prime contractors subcontract the bulk of their work to large businesses, they call into question the purpose of the set-aside structure. Those interested in presenting comments on this proposed change may submit their comments through regulations.gov by February 27, 2015.

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About Ifrah Law

Crime in the Suites is authored by the Ifrah Law Firm, a Washington DC-based law firm specializing in the defense of government investigations and litigation. Our client base spans many regulated industries, particularly e-business, e-commerce, government contracts, gaming and healthcare.

Ifrah Law focuses on federal criminal defense, government contract defense and procurement, health care, and financial services litigation and fraud defense. Further, the firm's E-Commerce attorneys and internet marketing attorneys are leaders in internet advertising, data privacy, online fraud and abuse law, iGaming law.

The commentary and cases included in this blog are contributed by founding partner Jeff Ifrah, partners Michelle Cohen and George Calhoun, counsels Jeff Hamlin and Drew Barnholtz, and associates Rachel Hirsch, Nicole Kardell, Steven Eichorn, David Yellin, and Jessica Feil. These posts are edited by Jeff Ifrah. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

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