On ‘Outrageous’ Government Conduct

I read the news that Judge Lewis A. Kaplan dismissed the criminal tax case against 13 KPMG defendants with a little bit of bemusement.

Judge Kaplan has a reputation as a fine judge, and I have no reason to question his decision…but it does make for an odd juxtaposition with the Padilla case, in which Judge Cooke denied Jose Padilla’s motion to dismiss for outrageous government conduct.

Here's a snippet on the KPMG decision:

A judge threw out charges Monday against 13 former KPMG employees who were accused of participating in a fraud that helped the wealthy escape $2.5 billion in taxes. The ruling essentially guts what the government once called the largest criminal tax case in U.S. history.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan said he dismissed the charges because prosecutors blocked the defendants from putting on a defense. He said the government coerced KPMG to limit and then cut off its payment of the employees' legal fees, meaning the defendants were effectively stripped of their constitutional right to legal representation in what was sure to be a long, expensive trial.

The harshly worded decision also amounted to a stinging rebuke of the Justice Department in its prosecution of KPMG, a global tax firm.

“Their deliberate interference with the defendants' rights was outrageous and shocking in the constitutional sense because it was fundamentally at odds with two of our most basic constitutional values – the right to counsel and the right to fair criminal proceedings,” Kaplan wrote.

Sounds plausible. And not having followed the case with great care, I'm prepared to accept this ruling until someone explains to me what is wrong with it.

But it sure seems odd that denying the lawyer of their choice to bunch of rich professionals is outrageous government conduct sufficient to get a criminal charge dismissed, but the same does not apply to holding a guy in solitary for years under conditions that may amount to torture.

I am sure someone will reply that in the KPMG case the government action directly impacted the trial, while in the Padilla case the judge has ruled that nothing learned during his confinement in a military brig can be introduced at trial. Furthermore, government experts testified that despite the years of isolation and sensory deprivation Padilla is competent to stand trial. But — based only on the news reports of the KPMG decision — that misses the point of comparison. The KPMG defendants had access to lawyers, just not the very most expensive ones they wanted. (And in case you had doubts, there's some evidence that those public defenders are pretty good…) Padilla may be functional, maybe, but does anyone seriously believe he is unscathed and as able to participate in his defense as he would have been but for the government's conduct? If so, I have a portfolio of bridges to sell you…tax free…

(I'm always a bit nervous posting about cases based only on news reports. If there's something in the text of the KPMG decision which explains this disjunction, I will welcome corrections and amplifications.)

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