Friday, May 23, 2014

U.S. v. Ezeta (9th Cir. - May 23, 2014)

When we think about criminal statutes that governing obtaining money by fraud, we generally have an idea that they cover someone getting money for themselves.  But I think the Ninth Circuit is correct in this case when it holds that "obtain" doesn't necessarily mean "obtain for yourself".  It can also mean obtain for a third party.  Accordingly, the district court's dismissal of the indictment here was indeed erroneous.

That said, Carlos Ezeta is not your "usual" criminal.  He's a professor at the College of Southern Nevada, a community college.  Various students would come into his office for help getting registered for classes.  At which point he would occasionally, without their knowledge, fill out fraudulent FAFSA forms on their behalf so that they could get federal financial aid.  The students were eligible because they hadn't graduated from high school or gotten a GED.  But Professor Ezeta filled out forms on their behalf that said otherwise.

That's fraud.  It's (rightly) illegal.  Ezeta should be punished.

But, come sentencing time, the fact that Professor Ezeta had good motives -- and was trying to help others (rather than himself) -- seems exceptionally relevant to me.

But that's at sentencing.  Not at the indictment stage.  The guy's got to face a trial.  Or simply plead guilty.  Which I'd strongly recommend.

While the Ninth Circuit gets the right result, I think it goes too far, and Judge Tallman's opinion reads a little bit too much like an advocate's brief once you hit the last couple of pages.  Particularly weak, in my view, is Judge Tallman's tangential -- and unnecessary -- claim in the penultimate paragraph of the opinion that Professor Ezeta purportedly "benefit[ted]" from his misconduct because it resulted in the payment of money to the college that employed him and allegedly "enhanced his reputation" because he was a popular teacher at the school.

Not.  The school would be paid either way; the only question is whether the student would pay it out of pocket or get a loan.  Plus, even if the money did matter, it's just silly to say that Professor Ezeta would personally benefit from the fact that the school got another $8,000 (or even $37,000) in tuition.  It's not like the money's going to him (either directly or indirectly), nor would such trivial funds stop him from being laid off, nor would the silent receipt of such aid enhance his reputation.  It's not for him.  He did it to help people he thought needed help.  That's criminal, but that's where the opinion should stop.  It's not necessary to "backstop" this argument by saying that, in any event, Ezeta did in fact benefit from these funds.  He didn't.  He might have felt better because he thought he was doing good, and hence maybe slept better at night.  (At least until he was caught.)  But that's it.  The opinion's unnecessary argument to the contrary just makes the otherwise entirely reasonable and moderate opinion seem like it's desperate to justify its result.

So I think this opinion gets it right.  But should have stopped before it tried way too hard.