The Supreme Court's unanimous decision Tuesday to overturn the 2002 conviction of Arthur Andersen for obstruction of justice could be good news for another fallen giant, investment banker Frank Quattrone.
Credit Suisse First Boston
banker was convicted last year on three counts of obstruction, including the same witness-tampering offense of which Andersen was found guilty in the wake of Enron's bankruptcy.
Currently, Quattrone is appealing the verdict to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In an initial brief filed with the appellate court in February, his lawyers noted the Supreme Court had agreed to hear Andersen's appeal and that the ruling could have a bearing on Quattrone's conviction.
In the Andersen case, the Supreme Court said the trial court's instructions to the jury were too vague when it came to explaining whether Andersen had acted "corruptly" in destroying documents that might have been helpful to Enron investigators.
The court, in a 13-page opinion written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said it isn't "wrongful for a manager to instruct his employees to comply with a valid document retention policy under ordinary circumstances." The trial court erred when its instructions "failed to convey the requisite consciousness of wrongdoing" needed to violate the law against obstruction of justice.
Rehnquist said the trial court's ruling "diluted the meaning of 'corruptly' so that it covered innocent conduct."
"Based on this opinion, it looks the jury instructions allowed the jury to convict based on conduct that Andersen employees believed was lawful," says Jill Fisch, a securities law professor at Fordham University School of Law.
Quattrone's legal team didn't comment on the Supreme Court decision. It did, however, file a motion Tuesday seeking to extend a deadline for filing in the case in light of the Supreme Court ruling. Late Tuesday, the appellate granted the request, giving Quattrone's lawyers until the end of the week to file their final brief.
Quattrone's lawyers said: "Quattrone presented an argument addressed to the propriety of the jury instruction below that is directly supported by the Supreme Court's Andersen decision.'' The lawyers also said the Andersen decision may have "important bearing on Quattrone's argument that the evidence against him at trial was legally insufficient.''
Stephen Ryan, a partner with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and a former federal prosecutor, says the Supreme Court's ruling potentially is good news for Quattrone and other corporate defendants charged solely with an obstruction offense.
"Every single white-collar guy convicted of obstruction or tampering is going to be looking through every sentence of this opinion for a get-out-of-jail-free card," says Ryan. "There is a lot in there for anyone who has been convicted in that area."
A little over a year ago, a federal jury in Manhattan convicted Quattrone on charges of obstructing a grand jury, obstructing federal regulators and witness tampering. The jury took just seven hours of deliberation to convict Quattrone. An earlier trial had ended with a hung jury.
The case against Quattrone stemmed from a single email in which Quattrone recommended that his staff members clean out their files and destroy documents. Quattrone and his lawyers portrayed the email as a routine Wall Street housekeeping move. But prosecutors said Quattrone had a more sinister motive, because he had just become aware of a federal investigation into CFSB's IPO practices.
In the Andersen case, no formal investigation had been started when the company sent its emails.
U.S. District Judge Richard Owen, rejecting Quattrone's plea for lenience, sentenced the former star banker in September to serve 18 months in a federal prison.
For Andersen, the obstruction conviction was a death sentence. The accounting firm, which at one time was the nation's largest, all but closed its doors after the verdict, laying off 30,000 people.
The prosecution of Andersen was a cornerstone of the Bush administration's effort to go after corporate scoundrels. The audit firm's conviction, coupled with the accounting scandals at Enron and WorldCom, ushered in the federal Sarbanes-Oxley laws governing how public companies communicate with shareholders and the
Securities and Exchange Commission.
At the time, many on Wall Street and in the legal profession were critical of the government's decision to prosecute Andersen as a criminal defendant because a conviction would mean the end of the firm. Critics said it was unfair to punish the thousand of Andersen employees who had nothing to do with Andersen's audits of Enron.
The Supreme Court decision is too late to save Andersen, which effectively ceased operating after being sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to pay a $500,000 fine in October 2002. But legal experts say the ruling could make it more difficult for prosecutors to pursue obstruction cases when a company has a document-destruction policy in place.
"The implication of the Andersen reversal goes far beyond the accounting profession to any business organization that has to retain records -- which is virtually all of them," says Michael Young, a partner with the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, who specializes in accounting litigation.
For Supreme Court watchers, the ruling wasn't a surprise. In oral arguments last month, the nine justices on the nation's highest court appeared to take a dim view of the government's theory of the crime. Prosecutors maintained that Andersen managers had tampered with witnesses by urging employees to selectively preserve documents in the wake of Enron's bankruptcy.
"Just because something is Enron-related doesn't mean draconian sanctions should be instituted," says Ira Lee Sorkin, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer with Carter Ledyard & Milburn in New York. "Prosecutors have to be very circumspect before they bring cases."