Opinion Offers Narrow View of “Safe Harbor” Provision for Defense Attorneys Accepting Tainted Funds from Clients
Second in Series of Two Blog Posts Pertaining to Attorneys Convicted of Money Laundering
On April 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction of Baltimore defense attorney Kenneth Ravenell (“Ravenell”) for money laundering conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1956(h). Ravenell had proceeded to trial and had been acquitted of six charges, including conspiracy to distribute narcotics. However, he was convicted on the single count of money laundering conspiracy, based on his alleged assistance to two drug dealer clients, and received a sentence of 57 months of imprisonment.
The Ravenell opinion (“Opinion”) involves a splintered set of findings across the three-judge panel. It involves findings on important technical issues pertaining to the statute of limitations and the use of the conscious avoidance/willful blindness theory of prosecution, which is often critical in cases involving third-party professionals such as lawyers, accountants, and real estate agents. But, more importantly, it involves a discussion of when defense attorneys may accept illegally-obtained proceeds from their clients as payment for legal representation, and if such funds ever may be provided through third parties. As we will discuss, the Fourth Circuit interpreted very narrowly a “safe harbor” provision under 18 U.S.C. § 1957(f) for defense attorneys – and did so in a case in which the evidence, if accepted, made clear that the safe harbor did not apply. Stated otherwise, bad facts may have resulted in inappropriately broad language applicable to other cases.
As we just blogged, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York also announced on April 25 that Robert Wise (“Wise”), a New York attorney, had pled guilty to a single count of conspiring to commit money laundering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. This case arose out of the indictment of Vladimir Voronchenko, who has been charged in connection with a scheme to make payments to maintain multiple properties in New York and Florida owned by his friend and associate, sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
These two cases are very different. But they both illustrate how attorneys – either business attorneys, or criminal defense attorneys – can get caught up in the problems of their own clients, particularly given the ability of the government to pursue a theory of willful blindness.