Fighting Fraud Following Disaster: What to Watch out for

The waters recede, the winds calm, the storm passes. Finally, power returns to homes and neighborhoods, and the cleanup begins.

But as community members come together during the days following the storm to rebuild their city, clean up their parks, and feed their neighbors, scammers wait in the wings.  

The rush to provide aid to those in need following a disaster creates an ideal environment for fraudsters.  According to a report in The Washington Post, “In Baton Rouge, where the National Disaster Fraud Center is located, the number of fraud reports went from 79 the week before Hurricane Harvey to 425 in the week after the storm hit,” center director and U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson said.

One such fraud is the too-familiar business practice of price gouging. In fact, following Hurricane Harvey, Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton told CNBC of “reports of $99 cases of water, doubling and tripling of hotel room prices.”

Similarly, in the recent wake of Hurricane Irma, Floridians took to social media to complain about various airlines escalating their flight prices thousands of dollars for those trying to evacuate before the storm hit. Florida Attorney General, Pam Bondi, Bondi told The New York Times that Floridians logged more than 7,000 price-gouging complaints with her office.

Most states have laws against these unscrupulous practices, resulting in stiff penalties with high fines.

Other immediate fraud practices that may impact storm survivors:

  • The Better Business Bureau warns – beware of unlicensed contractors looking to rip-off homeowners.
  • Be on the lookout for robocalls. According to NPR, some reports from Florida claim that callers are posing as insurance agents demanding immediate payment for continuation of policies.
  • Watch out for charity scammers. Seemingly well-meaning people set up fake GoFundMe donation accounts to rake in money for themselves. Instead, if you wish donate to victims, find a reputable organization that can put your money to work.

Finally, following a declaration of a state of emergency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a federal agency dedicated to helping individuals, businesses, and communities recover and rebuild following a natural disaster, may step in. Unfortunately, according to The Washington Post, this phase of recovery often “brings the largest amount of fraud.”

According to Don Cazayoux, Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm Partner and former U.S. attorney and director of the National Disaster Fraud Center, “Scammers will often steal the identities of others who were actually affected by the disaster, file a claim for relief and divert the funds to themselves instead of the person who actually needs the assistance.”  

And because of the increased cases of identity fraud, federal agencies are “more aggressive in fighting disaster fraud related to identity theft,” Cazayoux said.  These cases often bring stiffer penalties including mandatory minimum sentences.  

People should be vigilant of price gouging, identity theft, and scammers.  If you feel that you are a victim of a scam, you should contact the National Disaster Fraud Center hotline at 866-720-5721 or email disaster@leo.gov.  


Public Corruption Crimes: Charges You Can’t Afford

For most people, the term “public corruption” probably conjures up images of pinstriped politicians in a dimly-lit, smoke-filled room, exchanging promises in exchange for money (more commonly referred to as “bribes”). But public corruption encompasses a broad array of activities, including fraud, bribery and racketeering to name a few, which ultimately pose a threat to our security or way of life. Thus, Congress has passed many statutes to punish and deter corruption of public officials.[1]

And while understanding these statutes is essential to understanding your duties and responsibilities as a person of public trust or as a person or organization that regularly deals with public officials, because the laws are so complex, it is fundamental that you consult with knowledgeable and experienced defense attorneys to protect your rights and interests as well.

Generally, most public corruption crimes are prosecuted by U. S. attorneys’ offices and the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section. These offices are armed with a wide net to catch—and ultimately charge—both high-profile defendants (like members of Congress and governors) and more innocuous, career-level government or public employees. Courts have broadly construed the title of “public official” to include: an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)[2]; a postal employee who had the responsibility of ensuring that bulk mail had the appropriate charge[3]; and a Private in the Army[4]. Thus, it is critical that all public officials and employees remain cognizant of both ethical and legal “red lines.”

Closer to home, recently the Attorney General for the state of Louisiana, Jeff Landry, “has vowed to make ending public corruption a priority statewide as part of his new Administration and to work closely with the FBI and other officials on these efforts moving forward.” And true to word, most recently is the guilty plea of former Homer Mayor on charges of malfeasance, the arrest of former Angola Mayor for misuse of public funds, arrest of former manager of Lafayette non-profit apartment complex for theft of public funds, the arrest of former Pointe Coupee Parish sheriff’s deputy for payroll fraud, and the arrest of former coroner for East Feliciana Parish for conspiracy. According to Attorney General Landry’s website (https://www.ag.state.la.us/Corruption), all aforementioned arrests, charges and indictments have occurred since March 2017. Convictions would mean possible job loss, restitution, probation and/or imprisonment.

While public corruption charges carry significant legal implications, they may also cause a very serious and damaging impact to your reputation as a public servant or politician; therefore, it is imperative that you have experienced and professional advocates on your side to defend your rights.

 

This article is intended for information only and should not be considered legal advice.

[1] Ashley Kircher et. al., Public Corruption, 45 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 825, 826 (2008).

[2] United States v. Gjieli, 717 F.2d 968 (6th Cir. 1983) (holding that an ATF agent was within the statutory definition of “public official” even though he did not have the ability to carry out the target action of the bribe).

[3] United States v. Gelb, 881 F.2d 1155 (2d Cir. 1989) (holding that a postal worker that was responsible for ensuring that bulk mail had the appropriate postage was a “public official” within the meaning of the federal bribery statute).

[4] United States. v. Kidd, 734 F.2d 409 (9th Cir. 1984) (dismissing defendant’s argument that Army Private was not a “public official” because she was an enlisted soldier, rather than an officer).


Queen For a Day: The Risks of Proffer Agreements

A “Proffer agreement,” more informally known as “queen-for-a-day” agreement, is a routine tool used in federal criminal practice.[1] However, before you decide to enter into a proffer agreement with the government, you should take a careful look at some of the hidden pitfalls and perils associated with these agreements and weigh your options carefully.

What exactly is a proffer agreement?

A proffer agreement is a written agreement between federal prosecutors and an individual (usually the target of an investigation or a defendant), in which the individual agrees to provide information to the prosecution at an informal debriefing (also known as a “proffer session”). In return, the government promises not to use the proffer statements against the individual at any subsequent trial.[2] However, if the individual lies during a proffer session, the government may offer those statements against him or her. More about this “impeachment” catch is discussed below. Often times, the government also reserves the right to use the information to further its investigation.

Typically, it’s understood that one enters into a proffer agreement with the hope that it will later lead to an immunity agreement or plea bargain if the government is satisfied with the information provided.

What are the risks associated with proffer agreements?

Proffer agreements carry with them unique and inherent risks that require serious consideration. Because proffer agreements are not formal immunity agreements or plea bargains, they do not offer the same protections if the government decides to act on the information turned over to them. While the government may not use proffer session statements against the individual in its case-in-chief, the government can use the information provided to follow leads and conduct further investigation. If those leads and further investigations lead to new evidence, the new evidence can be used to indict and convict the individual who gave the information in the proffer session[3]—a particularly dangerous pitfall.

Additionally, as previously mentioned, nearly all proffer agreements contain clauses that allow the government to use false or misleading statements made during proffer sessions for impeachment purposes (that is, to discredit the witness’s testimony). Thus, if any part of the testimony or information provided during a proffer session is deemed to be misleading or outright untruthful, the entire proffer agreement can be admitted against you at trial. This can put you and your defense in an uncomfortably compromised position, all in an effort to keep the damaging proffer statements away from the ears and eyes of the jury.

What factors should you consider before entering into a proffer agreement?

Whether you should ultimately enter into a proffer agreement is not a light decision. However, some factors to consider in making the decision include:

  • Likelihood of indictment;
  • Strength of defense;
  • Willingness to disclose the whole truth;
  • Timing;
  • Financial ability; and
  • Effect of an indictment.[4]

Ultimately, the decision to proffer or not is up to you, but it should not be made without the assistance of a qualified and experienced white collar criminal defense attorney. If you have been contacted by a law enforcement agency about an interview, a qualified white collar criminal defense attorney can help you decide if entering into a proffer agreement is a good option.

 

[1] Richard B. Zabel, James J. Benjamin Jr., ‘Queen for A Day’ or ‘Courtesan for A Day’: The Sixth Amendment Limits to Proffer Agreements, 15 White-Collar Crime Rep. 1 (2001).

[2] Id.

[3] Proffer Agreement Law and Legal Definition, USLegal, Inc., https://definitions.uslegal.com/p/proffer-agreement/.

[4] Kenneth C. Picking, The Risks and Benefits of Proffer Agreements in Parallel Proceedings, A.B.A., April 4, 2012, http://apps.americanbar.org/litigation/committees/criminal/email/winter2012/winter2012-0402-risks-benefits-proffer-agreements-parallel-proceedings.html.


Cazayoux Ewing Represents Case Against the Federal Government


Original post: Louisiana Record on March 10, 2017 by Michael Abella

LAFAYETTE – A Lafayette Parish resident alleges she was injured in a motor vehicle accident with a federal employee.

Crystal Gerard filed a complaint on March 3 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, Lafayette Division against the United States of America alleging that the government entity failed to perform its obligations.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff alleges that on Jan. 29, 2015, she filed a Federal Tort Claim Act claim against defendant due to an injury she allegedly sustained in a vehicular accident caused by Robert Bannon, an employee of defendant’s Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. As a result of the accident, she alleges she has suffered physical and mental pain, lost wages and medical expenses.

The plaintiff holds United States of America responsible because on Sept. 26, 2016, the Office of the General Counsel for the Department of Agriculture allegedly denied to pay her claim.

The plaintiff requests a trial by jury and seeks judgment against defendant in an amount which is just and reasonable in the premises, plus interest, all costs of these proceedings and all other relief that may be just and equitable. She is represented by Donald J. Cazayoux Jr. and J. Lane Ewing Jr. of Cazayoux Ewing LLC in Baton Rouge and Yul D. Lorio and Kevin P. Tauzin of Tauzin & Lorio, Attorney at Law in Lafayette.

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, Lafayette Division Case number 6:17-cv-00348


Best Practices with Email Policies

Remember the 2014 movie “The Interview”? Not so much the movie itself but the fact that hackers apparently unhappy with the comedic film’s unflattering portrayal of North Korea retaliated by breaking into film distributor Sony Corp.’s email servers and releasing embarrassing private messages.

The case was such a public relations and electronic security nightmare that it marked a shift in the mindset over corporate email systems. While inboxes provide a convenient filing cabinet, maybe it’s not such a good idea to keep messages over the long term.

Ironically, many U.S. companies have had policies that require email deletion after a certain period. Those policies typically were established to protect businesses in legal cases. Yet companies often rely on employees’ voluntary compliance without any sufficient checks on whether messages are actually handled in accordance with policy – a worst-case scenario.

What is your email policy, and how do you ensure it passes legal muster? It’s too late to decide after you learn of an investigation. At that point, deleting even what seems like a mundane message can escalate into obstruction of justice charges.

The Cazayoux Ewing law firm has expertise with helping clients establish email policies that offer maximum protection while meeting legal requirements. With former federal prosecutors Don Cazayoux, Lane Ewing and Stan Lemelle, our staff can provide invaluable assistance.

This article is intended for information only and should not be considered legal advice.


Officer injured while responding to a hit-and-run

A deadly hit-and run severely injured a Pomona police officer on North Garey Avenue, Tuesday.

At approximately 6:35 a.m., a police officer was dispatched to the 2200 block of North Garey Avenue following a call reporting a hit-and-run involving a pedestrian and a vehicle. As the officer headed to the scene, he was hit by a Ford Explorer.

According to reports, the Ford Explorer veered left and onto the path of the police officer’s motorcycle, hitting him in the process. The impact of the collision left the officer with serious head injuries. He was rushed to LAC+USC Medical Center for treatment.

The driver of the Ford remained at the scene and cooperated in the investigation.

If you or someone you know has suffered an injury following an auto accident, you may be entitled to a financial claim. Our lawyers at Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm are experienced in personal injury law and can help you throughout the process. Contact us at (225) 650-7400.


One killed, five injured from a wedding party when a tree fell

Sunday, December 11, a large eucalyptus tree fell on top of a wedding party at Penn Park in Whittier, killing one person and injuring at least five others.

According to the reports, the wedding ceremony has just ended and guests were taking photos with the newly married couple when a 100-foot tall eucalyptus tree fell. At least 20 people were trapped under the tree’s branches and had to be extricated by local paramedics using chainsaws.

One person was killed as a result of the incident. No identification has been released. Five people, including a child, sustained minor to moderate injuries. They were rushed to a local hospital for treatment.

A search dog was brought to the site to help look for any remaining possible victims trapped under the tree.

Investigators were also requested to the scene to determine what caused the tree to fall.


Three Injured, One Killed Following Louisiana Crash

A fatal car accident killed one person and injured at least three people on Interstate 10, Sunday afternoon.

The Louisiana State Patrol responded to the scene after receiving a report of a multi-vehicle crash at approximately 5:30 p.m. According to a report, a Pontiac Grand was heading west of the highway when its driver suddenly lost control and crashed into the center median. It continued on and crossed through the eastbound lanes where it was struck by a passing Chevrolet Equinox.

Two passengers in the Pontiac, identified as a 25-year-old woman and a 5-year-old child, and three occupants of the Chevrolet sustained moderate to serious injuries. They were transferred to a local hospital for treatment.
Authorities later identified the 25-year-old female passenger as Ciara Lemon. She succumbed to her injuries in the hospital.

The driver of the Pontiac was identified as 24-year-old Kilian Webster. He was taken into custody and charged for reckless driving, having a child unrestrained in the vehicle, and operating with a suspended driver’s license. It was not clear if he was injured.


Driver dies after attempting to flee an officer and causing a crash

A three-vehicle collision on Wednesday, October 26th in Tickfaw injured one and killed another.

Hammond Police officers were trying to stop a vehicle driven by Darious Rashaad Ashton, 21. Ashton didn’t stop and resumed driving northward on Highway 1065. Upon reaching Sims Lane, he turned around going back to Hwy 1065. Ashton ignored a stop sign and struck a car driven by 20-year-old Trey Thomas. Shortly afterwards, a dump truck driven by 36-year-old Daniel Funderburk hit Ashton’s vehicle.

Police say that Ashton didn’t have his seat-belt fastened at the time of the accident. He was taken to North Oaks Medical Center in critical condition, but was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital. Thomas was wearing his seat belt and was brought to the hospital with minor injury.  Funderburk was not harmed in the crash.

The Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory collected blood samples for analysis.

 


Head-on crash on US 190 killed Denham Springs man

In a two-vehicle head-on accident that took place on Thursday morning, October 13, on US 190 West, two people were gravely injured—one died later.

According to a report from the Louisana State Police, one of the drivers, 68-year-old Harold Burgeron, made a questionable left turn onto Grey Eagle Road where he passed into the path of eastbound, 33-year-old Adam Andres. The two vehicles hit front-to-front.

Both operators were buckled, according to the investigation, but both suffered severe injuries and had to be taken to the hospital. Bergeron would die later that day. The investigation has not led anyone to believe that either of the two men were intoxicated at the time of the crash and toxicology samples were retrieved from the drivers.

The car accident lawyers of Cazayoux Ewing Law Firm send their thoughts to the victim and his loved ones and wish the injured party a speedy recovery.

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