Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Africa Sting Update

The Africa Sting case is surely one to watch in 2011.

Recently, certain defendants filed a motion (here) "for an evidentiary hearing requiring the testimony of Richard Bistrong and federal law enforcement agents responsible for managing him in connection with the investigation resulting in the indictment." The defense claims that Bistrong (see here for a prior post) assured various defendants that the fake Gabon deal had been approved by the U.S. State Department, was not illegal, was not in violation of the FCPA, and that Bistrong "angrily admonished one Defendant who indicated that he was going to tell other defendants that his lawyer had advised that the Gabon deals might be illegal."

The DOJ response brief is here. The DOJ says that the defense has "presented the Court with selective and misleading facts about this case" and that many of the defendants, wholly apart from the Gabon deal, were involved in paying bribes to foreign officials in other countries. Further, the DOJ argues, pretrial resolution of factual issues is not warranted.

So what does this all mean for the defendants' entrapment defense?

As entrapment issues are a bit outside my strike zone, I once again go to the bullpen and call upon Dru Stevenson (here) a Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law.

In this guest post, Professor Stevenson analyzes the issues presented in the above briefs.


"The defendants in the pending FCPA “Africa Sting” case have moved for a pretrial evidentiary hearing, insisting that the government has refused to produce – or perhaps destroyed – potentially exculpatory evidence in the case. The defendant’s allegations of Brady violations (failure to turn over evidence) are serious, but seems based on serious misunderstandings of federal entrapment law.

All of the items alleged to be missing relate to the FBI’s instructions to Bistrong, its undercover informant in the sting operation – a turncoat FCPA violator who offered to set up others as part of his “deal” with the government. The problem is that such information could not be exculpatory under the federal rules for the entrapment defense, which appears to be the defendants’ only theory of the case. Federal courts use only the “subjective test” for entrapment claims, a test that focuses exclusively on the defendant’s own predisposition to commit the crime, NOT the government’s conduct or intentions in the sting operation. It may strike us as upsetting to read about FBI handlers coaching their field operative on lying and deception of the potential felons, but this is legally immaterial for the entrapment defense, because it does not relate to the defendant’s predisposition to commit the crime. If the missing evidence is not “material evidence” for the defense, there is no Brady violation.

Surprisingly, the government’s response brief does not emphasize this issue, but focuses instead on the inappropriateness of a pre-trial hearing when the issues will get full airing at trial. This is probably true, but a court might feel there is no harm in allowing evidentiary hearings before trial, which is rather commonplace.

The defendants advance two points in their brief that, if successful, would dramatically change the law of entrapment in the United States. First, there is a recurring theme throughout the brief that evidence of outright lying by the undercover operative in a sting operation is exculpatory. It is not. All entrapment claims involve sting operations; all sting operations involve some deception and lying to ensnare the defendant; and nearly all entrapment claims fail. Deceiving the defendant may reach a level where it negates the required mens rea for the crime – but this is a mistake of fact defense, a derivative defense that refutes an element of the crime charged, not entrapment, which is an affirmative defense. The defendants in this case do not appear to be raising a derivative defense related to the scienter requirement for FCPA – their case centers on claims of entrapment. Intentional deception is immaterial for the defendant’s predisposition, which is the issue at stake for entrapment in the federal system. Nor does it matter that the undercover operate gave false assurances that the proposed transaction was legal (which the defendants allege happened, and the government denies). This is presumably a common feature of sting operations as well – blithe reassurances that the deal is “completely legal” – just as it is a common feature of conspiracies and recruitment by real criminals, not just undercover agents. In the United States, ignorance of the law is no excuse. There is a seldom-used, and even more seldom-successful, defense of “entrapment by estoppel,” not at issue in this case, for instances where the defendant receives official assurances of legality directly from a government authority, such as an opinion letter from the Attorney General. Yet this would not apply to situations where the co-conspirator merely asserts that he “checked it out” or got “clearance” from the State Department.

A second innovation in the defendant’s brief, which would mark a sea change in entrapment law if successful, is the assertion that dismissal of the charges is an appropriate remedy for “entrapment as a matter of law.” There is no such thing as “entrapment as a matter of law” in the federal system – no Supreme Court cases have ever recognized an entrapment scenario that would need no adjudication or factual determinations. The Supreme Court has been very clear, in every entrapment case, that federal courts should use the “subjective test” for entrapment, which requires a full factual inquiry into the defendant’s predisposition to commit the crime. This is really a two-pronged innovation – one part focused on changing the test used, and the other focused on the procedural juncture for rendering a decision on such claims. “Entrapment as a matter of law” is really another name for the rival version of the entrapment test, usually called the “objective test” (which evaluates what the outrageousness of the government’s conduct rather than the defendant’s subjective predisposition) – a test that the Supreme Court has rejected every time it decided an entrapment case. Essentially, the defendants are asking the court to change the entrapment test used in the federal system from the subjective to the objective test, contrary to long-settled precedent. Further, positioning this decision within a Motion to Dismiss is particularly unprecedented, even for the objective test. Entrapment cases are heavily fact-specific under either test, because they all involve sting operations that included some inducement – and usually a fair amount of false reassurances and even badgering by the agents. Dismissal is generally a remedy for legal problems with the prosecution’s case, not factual problems. Again, it may be troubling to read of the FBI’s undercover operative lying, badgering, and bribing a defendant to commit a crime, but this is a matter for the jury to decide – and, from a policy standpoint, is no different from what would happen in a “true” criminal enterprise. In other words, a defendant who falls for halfhearted, unsupported reassurances by the undercover – or who succumbs to a monetary inducement or mild badgering – would presumably also fall for the same tactics by a criminal organizer."


For Professor Stevenson's other guest posts on the Africa Sting case see here and here.

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