Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, law enforcement officials throughout the country have publicly committed to aggressively combatting pandemic-related fraud. Those pronouncements have translated into action focused, at least at this early stage, upon frauds which might impact consumers’ health and safety. The first federal civil enforcement action took place on Saturday, March 21, 2020. On that date, the U.S. Department of Justice, in coordination with the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, filed the first civil enforcement action against a COVID-19 related fraud. Prosecutors sought an injunction shutting down a website, which purportedly offered to provide “free” coronavirus “vaccine kits” for a $4.95 shipping and handling fee. This request for injunctive relief, which resulted in a temporary restraining order pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1345, is likely an omen of more to come. Continue reading U.S. Department of Justice Files Civil Complaint for COVID-19-Related Fraud
Sheldon Silver, former speaker of the New York State Assembly, was convicted of a number of political corruption crimes in 2015, namely accepting bribes in exchange for favorable “official acts” that benefited some bribe payors. He appealed his conviction to the Second Circuit on two grounds: first, that the trial court erred by failing to require that the prosecution establish that he and the bribe payor had a “meeting of the minds” on the specific official act to be performed in exchange for the bribes; and second, that the trial court erred by allowing the prosecution to proceed on a theory that allowed conviction based on a “nonspecific promise to undertake official action on any future matter beneficial to the payor.” (Emphasis added.)
On January 21, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit partially reversed Silver’s conviction and remanded the case for resentencing. The court’s logic and findings are significant and merit close attention.
In an October 2016 guidance document, the United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission alerted human resources professionals to potential violations of the antitrust laws in hiring and compensation decisions. The guidance included the announcement that, “Going forward, the DOJ intends to proceed criminally against naked wage-fixing or no-poaching agreements.” A naked agreement is one that is not ancillary to a broader, legitimate collaboration between businesses.
The DOJ’s decision to proceed criminally against such agreements is significant. Although the Sherman Act allows the DOJ to proceed either criminally or civilly against antitrust violators, before the guidance was issued the DOJ had treated agreements between competitors not to solicit each other’s employees as merely civil violations. Following the guidance, companies and individuals suddenly had to worry about criminal fines and potential jail sentences for entering into such agreements. Nevertheless, three years have now passed without a single such indictment being filed.
In a concise, six-page discovery order, a federal judge in Minneapolis may have just started the proverbial shifting of tectonic plates undergirding routine defense procedures in False Claims Act (FCA) litigation by requiring a defendant in an FCA lawsuit to produce the information provided to the Department of Justice (DOJ) during the DOJ’s process of determining whether to pursue the matter.
The FCA creates liability for persons or entities found to have knowingly submitted false claims to the government or having caused others to do so. Like some other federal laws, the FCA creates a private right of action; under the act, a private party—a whistleblower or “relator”—may bring a qui tam action on behalf of the government. When initially filed, the court seals the complaint pending the government’s investigation of the case. If the government chooses, it may intervene and pursue the matter. If not, the relator may pursue the case on its own. (In either case, the relator is entitled to a percentage of the government’s recovery.)
Genetic testing and telemedicine targeting senior citizens and individuals with disabilities have been the subject of growing government scrutiny. Most recently, on September 27, 2019, the United States Department of Justice announced charges against nearly three-dozen individuals—across numerous federal judicial districts—allegedly responsible for more than $2.1 billion in Medicare billing losses, all of which stem from misconduct in the provision of genetic testing and telemedicine services.
According to the DOJ’s press release, the federal investigation uncovered a scheme in which cancer genetic testing laboratories paid kickbacks and bribes to healthcare providers in exchange for the referral of medically unnecessary services for Medicare beneficiaries. The government alleges that, in many instances, the tests were ordered by physicians who had no treating relationship with the patients and the results of the unnecessary tests were often withheld from the beneficiaries or their actual treating physicians. The DOJ also alleges that the defendants targeted seniors and individuals with disabilities. According to the government, the patients often received scripts for genetic testing from physicians with whom they had never interacted or had had only brief telephone conversations.
In early 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a new policy encouraging prosecutors handling False Claims Act (FCA) cases to seek dismissal of qui tam complaints that threaten the government’s interests. However, it was unclear how and to what extent prosecutors would carry out that directive. Now a year later, federal prosecutors appear to be embracing the new policy—and it is already having an effect on one case involving a drug manufacturer.
The January 2018 Granston memorandum outlined the Department’s new approach to handling FCA prosecutions in “in light of the government’s limited resources.” Under the new policy, prosecutors are encouraged to move to dismiss qui tam claims as a way to “advance the government’s interests, preserve limited resources, and avoid adverse precedent.” This marked a departure from the Department’s previous policy of rarely exercising its statutory authority to dismiss such claims. To guide prosecutors, the memorandum offered a nonexhaustive list of factors as to when a motion to dismiss a qui tam claim is proper. Those factors include: (1) “curbing meritless qui tams”; (2) “preventing parasitic or opportunistic qui tam actions”; (3) “preventing interference with agency policies and programs”; (4) “controlling litigation brought on behalf of the United States”; (5) “safeguarding classified information and national security interests”; (6) “preserving government resources”; and (7) “addressing egregious procedural errors.” Overall, the memorandum instructed prosecutors to seek dismissal when the litigation does not serve the government’s interests.
On November 29, 2018, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) much-anticipated revisions to the September 2015 Memorandum on “Individual Accountability for Corporate Wrongdoing,” commonly known as the “Yates Memo” and named for Rosenstein’s predecessor, Sally Q. Yates. The Yates Memo emphasized the importance of holding individuals accountable for corporate misconduct, and set forth principles for DOJ prosecutors to follow in determining when corporations would qualify for “cooperation credit” in corporate criminal and civil investigations. The most significant—and controversial—provision in the Yates Memo required that “in order to qualify for any cooperation credit, corporations must provide to the Department all relevant facts relating to the individuals responsible for the misconduct.” The new policy announced by Rosenstein modifies this “all or nothing” approach to cooperation credit by giving DOJ prosecutors and civil attorneys more flexibility.
In announcing the new policy, Rosenstein reaffirmed the Department’s commitment to prosecuting individual wrongdoers, stating that, “The most effective deterrent to corporate criminal misconduct is identifying and punishing the people who committed the crimes.” However, he stated that the lack of flexibility in the Yates Memo’s approach impeded resolutions and wasted resources, and in some cases was not strictly enforced.
On October 11, 2018, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division of the U. S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Brian A. Benczkowski issued new guidance on the selection of corporate compliance monitors in Criminal Division matters. The Benczkowski Memorandum signals a shift toward a more business-friendly approach to the imposition and use of monitors by the DOJ. Among other new provisions, the guidance directs prosecutors to weigh the potential benefits of a monitor against the costs and burdens on the company, and to consider whether the company’s existing compliance program and controls obviate the need for a monitor.
Read the full Alert on the Duane Morris LLP website.
The clash between state and federal law regarding the use of medical marijuana continues to present an ongoing dilemma for courts around the country, as illustrated by a recent decision by the Eighth Circuit. In the United States v. Schostag, the Eighth Circuit affirmed a decision by the District Court of Minnesota barring a felon from using state-legal medical marijuana while he is on supervised release.
To read the full text of this blog post, please visit the Duane Morris Cannabis Industry blog.
Duane Morris partners Christopher Casey and Damon Vocke will present a complimentary Directors Roundtable program, “Dealing with Corporate Crisis,” on Thursday, June 28, 2018, from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the Deloitte Conference Center in New York City. For more information or to register, please visit the Directors Roundtable website.