Wednesday, December 9, 2015

No. 131: Stranger-Originated Life Insurance—A Federal Appellate Court Affirms the Conviction and Sentencing of Three Promoters on Criminal Charges

On October 26, 2015, a three-judge appellate court panel unanimously affirmed the criminal conviction and sentencing of Michael Binday, James Kevin Kergil, and Mark Resnick on federal criminal charges related to a fraudulent stranger-originated life insurance (STOLI) scheme. The panel consisted of Circuit Court Judges Gerard Lynch, José Cabranes, and Robert Sack. Judge Lynch wrote the 97-page opinion. (See U.S. v. Binday, U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, No. 14-2809-cr.)

In February 2012 the government filed charges and the case was assigned to District Court Judge Colleen McMahon. The government charged each defendant with mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud. The government also charged Kergil and Resnick with conspiracy to destroy records and obstruct justice. The government initially charged Binday with obstruction of justice, but Judge McMahon later dismissed that charge. (See U.S. v. Binday, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 1:12-cr-152.)

In September and October 2013 Judge McMahon presided over an 11-day trial. The jury found the defendants guilty on all counts.

In July 2014 Judge McMahon sentenced Binday to 12 years, Kergil to nine years, and Resnick to six years, in each instance followed by three years of supervised release. She also ordered the defendants to pay a total of $39.3 million in restitution to eight life insurance companies.

In November 2015, after the appellate ruling, Judge McMahon assigned Binday and Resnick to a minimum-security facility in Pennsylvania, and Kergil to a minimum-security facility in New York. She ordered them to report on January 5, 2016.

I wrote about the case in the May 2012 and April 2013 issues of The Insurance Forum. I also discussed the case in No. 5 (October 30, 2013) and No. 60 (August 6, 2014).

The Appellate Opinion
The introductory section of the appellate opinion includes a summary. It reads in part:
The convictions arise from an insurance fraud scheme whereby defendants, who were insurance brokers, induced insurers to issue life insurance policies that defendants sold to third-party investors, by submitting fraudulent applications indicating that the policies were for the applicants' personal estate planning. Defendants argue primarily that the government did not prove that they contemplated harm to the insurers that is cognizable under the mail and wire fraud statutes. That basic argument takes several forms, including a sufficiency of the evidence challenge, a constructive amendment claim, and a jury instruction challenge. Defendants also contend that their sentences are procedurally unreasonable because the district court used an erroneous loss amount in calculating their Guidelines sentence ranges. Additionally, Resnick and Kergil challenge their obstruction convictions on various grounds.
We conclude that there was sufficient evidence that defendants contemplated a cognizable harm under the mail and wire fraud statutes; that the indictment was not constructively amended because the allegations in the indictment and the government's proof at trial substantially correspond; and that some aspects of the defendants' challenge to the jury instruction are waived, while the remainder fail on the merits. We reject defendants' challenges to their sentences, and Kergil's and Resnick's challenges to their obstruction of justice convictions.
Accordingly, for the reasons given herein, we affirm the judgments of conviction and remand the case for the limited purpose of revising the restitution amount as agreed by the parties.
Structure of the Opinion
The background section of the opinion describes the defendants' scheme, the indictment, the trial, and the sentencing. The discussion section of the opinion examines mail and wire fraud, comments on Resnick's challenges to the obstruction of justice charges, and explores the defendants' challenges to the sentencing.

The opinion notes that, after the district court's judgment had been entered, the parties agreed the total restitution should be reduced from $39.3 million to $37.4 million. That is why the appellate court sent the case back to the district court for the limited purpose of revising the restitution order to reflect the amount agreed upon by the parties.

The Deterrence Issue
Near the end of the discussion section of the opinion is a review of the deterrence issue. Here, with citations omitted, are two paragraphs on this subject from the opinion and an important footnote:
Kergil, alone among the defendants, challenges his sentence as substantively unreasonable. He contends that his sentence is excessive because at the time of defendants' conduct fraudulent STOLI policies were "a matter for civil litigation rather than criminal indictment," and because his sentence of nine years' imprisonment far exceeds what was necessary to deter similar fraud among other brokers. We reject those arguments....
Kergil cannot meet our high bar for vacating a sentence as substantively unreasonable. He took part in a sophisticated, multi-million dollar fraud scheme. And when the FBI began investigating the scheme, he directed co-conspirators to obstruct justice by destroying incriminating documents. Notably, Kergil's sentence fell below his Guidelines range (even when adjusting the loss amount to include only commissions).* Given Kergil's culpability and the district court's reasonable determination that the sentence should serve as a deterrent to other brokers, the 108-month sentence does not shock the conscience. 
*As evidence that addressing frauds of this sort was previously left to civil litigation, Kergil cites as examples nine civil cases in which insurers sought to rescind STOLI policies based on fraudulent applications. But that STOLI frauds continued despite repeated civil enforcement supports the district court's conclusion that more significant deterrence was appropriate.
General Observations
Kergil is correct about STOLI fraud usually being handled through civil rather than criminal litigation. However, this is not the first criminal case. As examples, see the case of Robert Wertheim and two associates discussed in the October 2013 issue of The Insurance Forum, and the case of Vincent Bazemore discussed in No. 96 (April 29, 2015). There is also the case of Joseph Caramadre discussed most recently in No. 17 (January 2, 2014), although that case dealt with stranger-originated annuities rather than STOLI.

Judge McMahon and the appellate court judges are also correct about the need for strong deterrence to discourage insurance agents and brokers from fleecing insurance companies through brazen STOLI schemes. But deterrence cannot occur when there is no publicity about the criminal cases. For example, there has been no prominent media coverage of the Binday, Wertheim, and Bazemore cases. Indeed, it is inexplicable that there has been virtually nothing about those cases even in the insurance press. I would be interested in hearing from readers about the extent to which insurance companies inform their agents and brokers about STOLI criminal litigation, or even about STOLI civil litigation.

Available Material
Anyone interested in the Binday case should read the opinion from the Second Circuit. I am making it available as a complimentary 97-page PDF. E-mail and ask for the October 2015 appellate opinion in the Binday case.