April 01, 2014

Law review article on informant bounties

As the informant model spreads from traditional criminal law to administrative enforcement agencies like the IRS and the SEC, some have questioned its efficacy: do bounties work? are they a good idea in the white collar context? See for example this article from Forbes on the use of cash bounties, and this post: IRS expands use of informants.

This article--Bounties for Bad Behavior: Rewarding Culpable Whistleblowers under Dodd-Frank and the Internal Revenue Code--explores the use of the criminal snitch model in the white collar context. Here's the abstract:


In 2012, Bradley Birkenfeld received a $104 million reward or "bounty" from the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") for blowing the whistle on his employer, UBS, which facilitated a major offshore tax fraud scheme by assisting thousands of U.S. taxpayers to hide their assets in Switzerland. Birkenfeld does not fit the mold of the public's common perception of a whistleblower. He was himself complicit in this crime and even served time in prison for his involvement. Despite his conviction, Birkenfeld was still eligible for a sizable whistleblower bounty under the IRS Whistleblower Program, which allows rewards for whistleblowers who are convicted conspirators, excluding only those convicted of "planning and initiating" the underlying action. In contrast, the whistleblower program of the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act ("Dodd-Frank"), which was modeled after the IRS program, precludes rewards for any whistleblower convicted of a criminal violation that is "related to" a securities enforcement proceeding. Therefore, because of his conviction, Birkenfeld would not have been granted a bounty under Dodd-Frank had he blown the whistle on a violation of the federal securities laws, rather than tax evasion. This Article will explore an area that has been void of much scholarly attention -- the rationale behind providing bounties to whistleblowers who have unclean hands and the differences between federal whistleblower programs in this regard. After analyzing the history and structure of the IRS and SEC programs and the public policy concerns associated with rewarding culpable whistleblowers, this Article will conclude with various observations justifying and supporting the SEC model. This Article will critique the IRS's practice of including the criminally convicted among those who are eligible for bounty awards by suggesting that the existence of alternative whistleblower incentive structures, such as leniency and immunity, are more appropriate for a potential whistleblower facing a criminal conviction. In addition, the IRS model diverges from the legal structure upon which it is based, the False Claims Act, which does not allow convicted whistleblowers to receive a bounty. In response to potential counterarguments that tax fraud reporting may not be analogous to securities fraud reporting, this Article will also explore the SEC's recent trend of acting increasingly as a "punisher" akin to a criminal, rather than a civil, enforcement entity like the IRS. In conclusion, this Article will suggest that the SEC's approach represents a reasonable middle ground that reconciles the conflict between allowing wrongdoers to benefit from their own misconduct and incentivizing culpable insiders to come forward, as such persons often possess the most crucial information in bringing violations of the law to light.

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March 07, 2012

The way it's supposed to work: organizational informants

The strongest arguments for informant use are connected to the nature of criminal organizations: informants permit the government to get information about, infiltrate, and destabilize group criminal activity. The most famously effective such deployment was the FBI's use of informants to go after the mafia, a success story that is often invoked in support of informant use more generally. Of course even that success story had its costs: see this post on the dangers of mafia informants.

These tactics are now on display in several recent cases regarding insider trading and computer hacking, in which the use of informants has not only permitted prosecution of individual wrongdoers but may be weakening the culture of collective wrongdoing itself. According to this Reuters report, "[t]he FBI says it has enough informants lined up to keep its investigations of suspected illegal insider trading at hedge funds going for at least five more years." The New York Times opines that the conversion of a leading hacker into an informant "will sow even more distrust and dissension in the ranks of [the international hacker movement]." In both communities, the knowledge that colleagues and peers may be informants could well chill criminal activity. At the same time, the government should be careful not to send the message that becoming an informant is a get-out-of-jail-free card, a double-message that could undermine deterrence. See this post.

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January 23, 2012

Reuters criticizes leniency for insider trading informant

David Slaine, a participant in the Galleon hedge fund insider trading scandal, was sentenced to probation and community service on Friday in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors. He was facing up to 25 years in prison. This column from Thomson Reuters argues that Slaine got too good of a deal:

NEW YORK, Jan 23 (Reuters Breakingviews) - A financial snitch has gotten off too lightly. David Slaine, a former Galleon Group employee, pleaded guilty to insider trading and conspiracy but became an informant to help nab others, including the hedge fund and trading scandal kingpin, Raj Rajaratnam. At the urging of prosecutors, a federal judge has rewarded Slaine with probation and community service instead of up to 25 years in prison. Such leniency risks overreliance on criminals. . . .The justice system probably can't crack big cases without the cooperation of unsavory characters, and giving Slaine favorable treatment is justified up to a point. But even for the best information, letting confessed felons like him essentially off the hook is too high a price to pay.

In a similar vein, this New York Times piece points out that, under recently proposed amendments to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, heavier sentences for insider trading will make cooperation--and the vastly lower sentences that accompany it--an increasingly prominent feature of white collar prosecutions.
The potential for higher sentences means the incentive to cooperate with the government in an investigation will be that much greater. There is already a significant disparity between the sentences of a cooperating defendant and one who goes to trial, and the best way to avoid the recommended sentence under the guidelines is to help prosecutors convict others....

The benefits of cooperation are likely to be on display in the near future when crucial cooperating witnesses in the prosecution of Mr. Rajaratnam are sentenced. Anil Kumar and Rajiv Goel testified at his trial, and prosecutors are likely to recommend substantially lower sentences than those received by other defendants who pleaded guilty but did not cooperate, like the 30-month sentence given to Danielle Chiesi.

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April 27, 2011

New Yorker article on out-of-control FBI informant

Great article in this week's New Yorker by Evan Ratcliff, entitled The Mark: The FBI needs informants, but what happens when they go too far? It's about a longtime FBI/DEA informant named Josef Meyers who worked under the name Josef Franz Prach von Habsburg-Lothringen, claiming to be descended from Austrian royalty, who early in life was diagnosed with a violent "unspecified psychosis" and "latent schizophrenia."

The story focuses on one particular 'mark,' a former district attorney named Albert Santoro, who eventually pled guilty to "operating an unlicenced money-transmitting business," and who maintains that he was entrapped by von Habsburg into appearing as if he was engaged in money laundering. The piece includes jaw-dropping details about von Habsburg's operations, such as thousand dollar dinners at fancy restaurants designed to lure investors, and how he and his wife lived lives of staggering luxury and excess. The story also details the FBI's efforts over the years to protect its informant, including tens of thousands of dollars in payments, helping him avoid punishment for his own drug dealing and fraud, and even arresting a defense team's investigator when he got too close. Von Habsburg is currently in prison for failure to pay child support. A classic tale of a criminal informant who took the system for a wild ride, much like this one.

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May 24, 2010

Cycling world grapples with "snitching"

Lest you think that "stop snitching" is confined to inner-city neighborhoods plagued by drug violence, check out this San Diego Union Tribune story, "Whistle Blower or Snitch?", in which the sports world reacts to Floyd Landis's doping allegations against other cyclists. The New York Times a few days ago reported that Landis "has agreed to cooperate with authorities in the United States." The debate is raging over whether Landis did a good thing (exposed illegal doping) or a shabby thing (sold out his colleagues to evade responsibility for his own wrongdoing).

Although criminal charges have not been filed against Landis, he may still benefit in that regard. Offenders routinely cooperate in order to stave off criminal charges. Indeed, according to renowned white collar defense attorney Kenneth Mann, one of the biggest benefits of cooperation is the ability to shape the pre-indictment process. Landis's new status as potential witness rather than target may be one of his biggest gains.

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February 07, 2010

The criminal informant model spreads to the SEC

The Los Angeles Times reports that the SEC wants to emulate the IRS's bounty program for rewarding criminal informants: SEC chief wants to catch investment scammers in the act. I posted about the IRS program here: IRS expands use of informants. This trend towards courting criminal informants in white collar investigations, as opposed to innocent whistleblowers, is part of a larger systemic culture in which guilt has become completely negotiable. The IRS, for example, used to balk at rewarding offending informants who actually participated in the wrongdoing, but its new rules make it easier to do. To be sure, there are immense informational benefits to using offenders as snitches--they tend to have more information than innocent bystanders. But it squarely raises one of the central compromises that has dogged criminal snitching in drug and mafia investigations, which is that the process can forgive and even reward serious wrongdoers. The IRS and SEC should think carefully about the extent to which they are willing to emulate the world of drug enforcement, in which guilt and punishment have become percevied as commodities, in which cooperation can become a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, and in which law enforcement is too often seen as tolerating crime and even violence from its informants in order to secure information.

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December 14, 2009

IRS expands use of informants

Two fascinating stories from Forbes on the IRS's expanded Whistleblower Office: Tax Informants are on the Loose, and IRS Ordered to Surrender Informant Documents. In 2006, Congress told the IRS to start paying informants as much as 30% of delinquent taxes collected in big cases, and the scale of snitching has skyrocketed. As Forbes puts it:

The gambit seems to be working very well. The IRS continues to get thousands of small case tips a year. But in fiscal 2009, ended Oct. 30, the IRS Whistleblower Office also logged big case leads on 1,900 taxpayers, up from 1,246 in fiscal 2008, the first full year the new law was in effect. Dozens of these tips involve purported tax losses of $100 million or more. Sure, those are just allegations. But informants "often provide extensive documentation to support their claims,"' the Whistleblower Office noted in a report. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, in a separate report, added up all the 2008 tips and found that $65 billion in unreported income was alleged.

Perhaps the most famous case to date involves Bradley Birkenfeld, an employee of the Swiss bank UBS who gave the IRS information on how wealthy Americans were hiding money with his employer. Although Birkenfeld himself faces a 40-month prison sentence, he may be able to keep millions in reward money--another new rule. Again from Forbes:
Before the new law, [IRS Whistleblower Officer Director Stephen] Whitlock notes, "if you participated in the tax noncompliance--you could have been the accountant doing the ministerial activity--you could be flat-out barred" from a reward. Now such a functionary is eligible for a full reward, even if he is convicted of, say, stealing from the company he squeals on. An informant who "planned and initiated" a tax scheme is still eligible for a reduced award--unless he's convicted for that planning role.

In other words, the IRS is moving closer to the snitching norm, in which admitted criminals reap benefits from their cooperation. At the same time, the IRS informant program may be running into resistance. In the second story, a federal judge has ordered the IRS to return documents provided by an informant who stole the documents from the company Monex. Apparently the court was not content to let the government decide which stolen Monex documents were privileged, although the government is likely to get many of the documents back in the end. As Forbes frames the problem, "How far can the government go in using information from an insider and what should be the procedures for handling that information?" As I explain in the book, this concern for the privacy and rights of criminal targets--and the concomitant restrictions on informant use--is more characteristic of white collar investigations in which defendants tend to be well-resourced and well-defended, and is notably lacking in the street- and drug-enforcement arena.

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October 29, 2009

Life imitating art imitating life...

A vice president of a multimillion dollar company turns informant to avoid liability, surreptitiously taping his high-level colleagues who are eventually charged with corporate fraud. If this sounds like the plot of the movie "The Informant" (reviewed here), it is. But it is also the plot of this news story about the theft of $2 million worth of fuel from the Mexican oil company Petroleos Mexicanos: "Ex-Bush aide tied to stolen oil case." Here's an excerpt:

Josh Crescenzi of Houston, former vice president for Continental Fuels of San Antonio, has been cooperating with agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for several months, helping them secretly record conversations that have resulted in the conviction of a Houston oil industry executive, another one from San Antonio and the president of a small oil and gas company in Edinburg.

Stories like this (and this) suggest that the use of active informants in white collar investigations, i.e. using cooperating suspects to actively snare high-level corporate offenders in ongoing wrongdoing, is on the rise, although since the whole arena is shrouded in secrecy it's hard to say if the practice is now more prevalent or we are just hearing more about it. In any event, because white collar informants and defendants are better resourced and represented than your typical street or drug snitch, we should expect such cases to improve the overall visibility and accountability of informant practices. As sociology professor Gary Marx wrote 20 years ago in his landmark book "Undercover: Police Surveillance in America":
When lower-status drug dealers and users or prostitutes were the main targets [of covert operations,] the tactic tended to be ignored, but when congressmen and business executives who can afford the best legal counsel became targets, congressional inquiries and editorials urging caution appeared.

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September 21, 2009

Movie Review--The Informant

In 1992, Mark Whitacre was vice president of operations at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, handling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts and overseeing the production of lysine, a key corn-based ingredient in animal feed. At the same time, for nearly three years Whitacre worked with the FBI to obtain evidence implicating ADM in a massive international price-fixing scheme. As do most informants, however, Whitacre had issues. He was factually unreliable, personally unstable, and--without giving away the story--engaged in a few shenanigans of his own. The New York Times calls the movie "a smart, cynical comedy" about greed and corporate malfeasance, and it certainly is. But the story of how the federal government came to believe, rely on, adore, distrust, despise, and ultimately discard Whitacre as an informant is also a whirlwind tour through many of the benefits and dangers of real-life informant use.

The Informant, starring Matt Damon, opened this weekend and it is based on Kurt Eichenwald's best-selling non-fiction book of the same name published in 2000. The book, which weighs in at a whopping 550 pages, is an exhaustively detailed journalistic expose of the seemingly incredible facts of Whitacre's cooperation with the FBI. While the movie is a comedy, with plenty of chuckles at the topsy-turvy quality of Whitacre's personality and the resulting ups and downs of the ADM investigation, the book is more disturbing than funny. It offers an up-close view of how heavily the government depended on Whitacre, its inability to control or adjust to his deviations, how ADM's money and political influence shaped the legal outcomes of the investigation, and how justice got deeply twisted along the way. As a factual matter, the film tracks the book relatively closely, and so while people may leave the movie theater shaking their heads over the craziness of it all, they would do well to take the underlying revelations of the film seriously. The Informant points to some very non-fictional truths about the productive yet dangerous marriage of convenience between the government and its informants. Here are a few take-aways:


Cracking Big Cases. If nothing else, The Informant makes abundantly clear why law enforcement goes through the trouble of cultivating informants: they are often the only way to crack big cases against politically powerful or otherwise hard-to-penetrate organizations such as corrupt corporations, drug rings, or terrorist groups. The FBI's storied history with its mafia informants is a case in point. On the one hand, informants with names like "Sammy the Bull" Gravano enabled the investigation and prosecution of some of the most powerful mafia figures in history--including John Gotti--and over the years helped the government undermine the power of the mob. On the other hand, the FBI's habit of letting its informants commit serious crimes like murder, racketeering, and money laundering has given snitching a bad name, and subjected the FBI to heightened scrutiny, congressional disapproval, and millions of dollars in civil liability.


Unreliable. At the end of the movie's preview, Mark Whitacre casually informs his lawyers (and by implication the audience) that "I haven't been telling you guys the whole truth." This might be the biggest understatement of the movie, and it reflects the more general truth that informants are deeply unreliable sources of information. For example, the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School reports that 45.9 percent of documented wrongful capital convictions have been traced to false informant testimony, making "snitches the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases." Several states, including California, New York, Texas, and Illinois, have considered or implemented new laws to restrict the use of unreliable informant witnesses.


"Falling in Love with Your Rat." This is how one federal prosecutor in New York describes the fact that law enforcement officials can become so dependent on their informant sources that they develop personal attachments to them and lose their objectivity. This attachment can impede the government's evaluation the real usefulness or reliability of their long-term sources. Mark Whitacre's FBI handlers, for example, grew so fond of him that they carried around photos of him and his family--a fondness that eventually blindsided them.


Vulnerable Informants. Like most informants, Mark Whitacre was also a vulnerable person. First and foremost, he was vulnerable to retribution from ADM--the company against which he cooperated. The threat of retribution and potential violence against cooperators is a widespread problem, particularly in gang-related cases. While the federal WITSEC program is well known and well funded, most states have few or no resources to protect or support witnesses who risk their security by cooperating.


Whitacre was also vulnerable in other ways which I won't disclose, but that, as the book describes in detail, made his FBI handlers very uncomfortable with the eventual resolution of the investigation. While Whitacre was hardly a typical snitch, his predicament reflects the widespread reality that informants, like the criminal justice population more generally, are often vulnerable people: young, frightened, undereducated, suffering from substance abuse or mental health problems. Their weaknesses make them more easily pressured into cooperating, and less able to make self-protective decisions, and the criminal system has almost no mechanisms to protect them. In recognition of this fact, Florida recently passed first-of-its-kind legislation entitled "Rachel's Law" (see previous post) which extends some much-needed protections to people who become informants.


In the end, The Informant is plain old good entertainment. But it also provides an accurate glimpse into the machinations of criminal justice, a drama that seems "unbelievable" even though it is all too real.


The Informant is rated R for occasional foul language.

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