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Legal Experts Deride ‘Lenient’ 47-Month Sentence For Manafort

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

Despite a federal guideline recommending a sentence of between 19 and 24 years of imprisonment for Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chair, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III issued a surprisingly light sentence  Thursday of just under four years, stunning many observers.

Ellis had been consistently hostile to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team throughout the case, even as he repeatedly found that the prosecutors’ legal arguments had merit. He once suggested that Mueller’s team didn’t really care about Manafort’s crimes but only wanted to use him to get to Trump.

Prosecutors had argued in their sentencing memo that there was scant reason to go easy on Manafort. He continued to commit crimes even after being indicted, he lied to investigators during a cooperation agreement, and he showed no remorse for his crimes. The judge himself even noted that when Manafort addressed the court Thursday, he didn’t express any regret for his crimes. Nevertheless, Ellis said that aside from his crimes, Manafort has led an “otherwise blameless life” and that he had a good relationship with others. This is flatly false — Manafort made a career out of supporting brutal dictators.

Many legal experts noted that Ellis’ sentence seemed wildly out of touch with typical practice:


Campaigning In Ohio, Clinton Promises To Hold Wells Fargo Accountable

 By Amanda Becker | TOLEDO, OHIO

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Monday vowed to hold Wells Fargo accountable for “egregious corporate behavior” in a scandal over employees’ opening millions of accounts without customers’ knowledge.

“Really shocking isn’t it? One of the nations’ biggest banks bullying thousands of employees into committing fraud against unsuspecting customers,” Clinton told a crowd in Ohio, a crucial battleground in the Nov. 8 presidential election against Republican Donald Trump.

“To understand why this is so important, consider the recent examples we’ve seen of egregious corporate behavior,” she said, citing Wells Fargo.

Ahead of Clinton’s speech, her campaign released a plan to help consumers to sue corporations in court instead of being forced to take disputes to private arbitration. Mandatory arbitration clauses make class action suits difficult or impossible to bring.

Clinton said the Wells Fargo case shed light on how such agreements harm consumers.

“We are not going to let companies like Wells Fargo use these fine print gotchas to escape accountability,” Clinton added.

Consumer advocates say mandatory individual arbitration makes it prohibitively expensive to take legal action and does not set a legal precedent to help other affected individuals.

In Toledo, an area that has lost manufacturing jobs, Clinton said she wanted to “send a clear message to every boardroom and executive suite” that they companies will be held accountable if they “scam” customers, “exploit” employees and “rip off” tax payers.

 Wells Fargo has come under fire for using arbitration clauses after it came to light that the bank’s employees opened as many as 2 million checking, savings and credit card accounts without the customers’ permission in order to meet sales quotas.

Wells Fargo reached a $190 million settlement with federal regulators last month. Its customers have been unable to sue because their contracts said they would arbitrate disputes instead of suing Wells Fargo in court.

Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf recently said he did not expect the bank to waive the clauses. Democratic lawmakers in Congress, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have called on Wells Fargo to allow customers to sue.

“They are forced into a closed-door arbitration process without the important protections you get in a court of law,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s plan calls on Congress to give agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission and Department of Labor the authority to restrict arbitration clauses in consumer, employment and antitrust agreements.

(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Cynthia Osterman)

Bank-Fraud Scheme Used Homeless People To Cash Checks

By Mark Morris, The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. –– Some Atlanta gang members had no clue in October 2011 that their future freedom rested on a routine chore performed by an convenience store employee in Olathe, Kan.
Cleaning up his trash bins about 6 a.m., the QuikTrip manager noticed that someone had dumped a large amount of what appeared to be stolen mail.

The resulting investigation into mail thefts at 20 Johnson County businesses pushed Kansas City area investigators and federal prosecutors into the forefront of a national bank-fraud investigation that has touched nearly all of the 48 continental United States.

About half of the 60 people prosecuted nationwide for hiring homeless people to pass electronically “cloned” — or counterfeit — business checks have been charged in Kansas City and Springfield, Mo.

“This is a huge problem for our service,” said postal inspector Steve Ryan.

The scheme has cost Kansas City area banks about $1 million in recent years, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Cowles said. He calculated the loss nationwide at more than $10 million.

That amount is even more significant when you realize it’s all headed to a fairly small place. Almost everybody prosecuted for this crime has ties to, or is a member of, a Bloods street gang that works two neighborhoods in one Atlanta ZIP code, 30317, Cowles said.

“They’re all from Atlanta, and they’re all doing the scheme the same way,” Cowles said. “Some of them are related to each other. Some live in the same neighborhood.”

Details of the scam came to light last week at the federal trial of Marion Norwood, a 46-year-old check printer from Atlanta who led crews into Kansas City in late 2012 and early 2013.
The jury took less than an hour of deliberations Wednesday to convict Norwood.

The tools of this bank fraud are relatively high tech: computers, printers, scanners, magnetic printer ink, and authentic paper stock used to print checks.

But none of it happens without a crowbar.

With it, criminals peel off the backs of those big shared mailboxes common outside business and industrial parks. They rifle through the letters looking for payroll checks or payments to vendors.

With checks in hand, printers like Norwood go to work on the computers, exactly duplicating the checks, down to signatures and the critical bank routing numbers.

Two other crew members, designated as the driver and the recruiter, then cruise homeless shelters, looking for someone interested in acquiring more money than they may have seen in the past six months, Ryan said.

Often, the driver and recruiter take the homeless people to a motel for a shower, a shave, and a change of clothes, because, as Ryan told jurors last week, “they look like homeless people.”

Gary Merritt, who has pleaded guilty in a related case and testified against Norwood, described the job this way:

“You pick up homeless people, dress them up, and take them to cash checks.”

First, however, the printer must put the homeless person’s name on the check as the payee. So the driver and the recruiter text the names of the homeless people to the printer.

Once the checks are cashed, the homeless person generally receives 10 percent of the face value, or $200 for a $2,000 payroll check.

Cuts for the drivers and recruiters are more substantial. Markus Bryant, who also testified against Norwood, said he and a recruiter once split $10,000 for two days of work in Kansas City.

Another associate recalled how Bryant described his time in Kansas City.

“He told me, ‘We’re eating good,’ ” testified DeMario Mormon, who is serving time for his role in an Alabama check scheme. “He said every time they went, it was good.”

Nobody at the trial last week could say how much the check printers made from a successful three or four days in Kansas City.

Ryan, the postal inspector, acknowledged that bank fraud might seem an odd career choice for gang members and street toughs. But the upside is that stealing with a computer carries less risk than running drugs and guns, he said.

Still, that doesn’t mean the participants like being associated with such a crime. Bryant testified that he once was questioned by Georgia authorities when a check scheme there went bust. Here’s how he remembered denying his role:

“Passing checks is for girls,” he said. “I’m a drug dealer.”

After waves of bogus business checks swept through the area in the last three years, local banks have taken steps to make it easier for firms to approve who cashes their large checks, Cowles said.

That’s been a welcome, if hard-learned, lesson for businesses, too.

Roger Manning, who owns an Independence promotional products company, saw his firm’s bank account cleaned out by Norwood’s scheme. Fortunately, the account had a relatively small amount of money in it, and the bank covered the loss once the checks were determined to be counterfeit.

Now Manning’s checks are loaded with more security features, and he’s using more Internet banking.

“It forced us to change with the times,” Manning said. “It’s a little scary. You’ve been doing this for 20 years, and then you see something else. It’s a shame.”

Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis via Flickr

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