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United States v. Keresty

decided: July 12, 1972.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
BELMONT KERESTY, APPELLANT IN NO. 72-1002. APPEAL OF THOMAS EARL PHILLIPS, IN NO. 72-1001



Seitz, Chief Judge, and Adams and Hunter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Hunter

Opinion OF THE COURT

JAMES HUNTER III, Circuit Judge.

We have before us the consolidated appeals of Belmont Keresty and Thomas Phillips who were found guilty by a jury in the Western District of Pennsylvania of violations of Title II -- the Extortionate Extension of Credit Provisions -- of the Consumer Credit Protection Act ("Act"), 18 U.S.C. ยง 891 et seq.*fn1 Appellants' motions for judgment of acquittal and alternatively for a new trial were denied, United States v. Keresty, 334 F. Supp. 461 (W.D.Pa.1971), and this appeal followed. The question presented is whether the Act as construed and applied to appellants is a permissible exercise by Congress of its powers under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

I

Appellants were convicted for engaging in extortionate credit activities subsequent to a gambling incident.*fn2 Although the facts are in some dispute, the following appears to have transpired. On August 18, 1969, appellant Keresty and one Louis Capo were engaged in a game of dice in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. At the end of the game, Keresty claimed that Capo owed him $8,000 and demanded payment. Capo disputed the debt*fn3 and indicated that in any event he did not have such a sum on hand. No threats were made at this time. Keresty made the demand again the next day, was similarly rebuffed and thereafter resorted to a series of rather bizarre strategies to secure payment. Thus, four days later, he arrived at Capo's used car dealership and introduced appellant Phillips as "Tony from the syndicate," "Tony from Chicago" and "a syndicate enforcer," although the record indicates that Phillips was neither a representative of any "syndicate" nor from Chicago.*fn4 Demands for payment, coupled with blatant threats were then made, but to no avail, and appellants departed empty-handed. Keresty appeared a few days after this incident driving a car with Ohio license plates and promptly informed Capo that "this [was] a syndicate car."*fn5 He again demanded payment, making further references to "syndicate" involvement in financing his stake in the crap game as well as its "displeasure" that he (Capo) had not as yet been particularly cooperative. Capo again stated that he was unable to settle the debt without additional time and the debt was deferred to allow Capo sufficient time to raise the money.

In order to settle the debt, sundry arrangements were entered into by the parties with Capo finally agreeing, inter alia, to pay Keresty $2,000 in cash. A scheme of payment was outlined involving a fourth individual, whereby Keresty permitted Capo to repay part of the debt, while "extending credit" for the remainder. Although no interest payments were involved, the unpaid portion was apparently to be paid in specified amounts and at stated intervals.*fn6 After the agreement was finalized, appellants departed, warning Capo in no uncertain terms what would happen if he did not live up to his bargain.*fn7 Although Capo was able to meet the first few installments he subsequently was unable to continue the payments and his life was once again threatened.

Against the background of this unsavory conduct appellants wisely do not argue insufficiency of the evidence. Rather, they contend that in enacting the Extortionate Extension of Credit Provisions, Congress simply did not intend to cover this type of "local gambling debt" and that the Act's proscription should be interpreted as extending only to transactions involving that class of underworld species colloquially referred to as "loan sharks." Specifically, they argue that the Act should be held inapplicable to the facts at hand since there was allegedly no "extension of credit" as contemplated by the Act, that a "debt" rather than a "loan" was at issue and that there were no interest payments ever added to the amount claimed due. Alternatively, they contend that if their activities were covered by the Act, the Act must be held unconstitutional as applied.

II

We conclude that the credit transactions here at issue were, in fact, violative of Title II of the Act. The plain language of Section 891(1) defines an "extension of credit" as "to make or renew any loan, or to enter into any agreement, tacit or express, whereby the repayment or satisfaction of any debt or claim, whether acknowledged or disputed, valid or invalid, and however arising, may or will be deferred."*fn8 Further, Section 891(6) defines an "extortionate extension of credit" as " any extension of credit with respect to which it is the understanding of the creditor and the debtor at the time it is made that delay in making repayment or failure to make repayment could result in the use of violence or other criminal means to cause harm to the person, reputation, or property of any person."*fn9 Finally, Section 892 states that its terms encompass " whoever makes any extortionate extension of credit. . . ."*fn10

Our reading of the legislative history*fn11 supports the conclusion that Congress intended to attack the economic base of organized crime and therefore did not restrict its efforts to those financial dealings which necessarily included each of the various attributes of a loan shark transaction. In a section entitled "General Applicability" Congress stated:

"The full utility of chapter 42 as a weapon in the war on organized crime obviously cannot be assessed until it has been tested in battle. Some general observations, however, appear to be in order at this point. As noted above, it is not, and is not intended to be, a Federal usury law, nor does it have anything to do with interest rates as such. It is, rather, a deliberate legislative attack on the economic foundations of organized crime. Most of the business of the underworld, whether in loan sharking, gambling, drugs, 'protection,' or other activities, involves extensions of credit as refined in section 891 at one or more stages. The methods used in the enforcement of such obligations are notorious. Thus, a very large proportion of underworld financial transactions fall within the ban of one or more of the provisions of chapter 42. It may very well develop that this chapter will find as much usefulness in the investigation and prosecution of transactions entirely within the world of organized crime as it does in connection with transactions between those within that world and those who are otherwise outside it. Be that as it may, the conferees wish to leave no doubt of the congressional intention that chapter 42 is a weapon to be used with vigor and imagination against every activity of organized crime that falls within its terms." 1968 U.S.Cong. & Adm.News, p. 2029. (emphasis added).*fn12

Finally, had Congress intended to limit the Act to loan sharks, it could have easily so provided. For example, loan sharking has often been considered solely in terms of the interest rates charged -- namely, "vigorish" -- as in the report of a New York State Commission which defined the practice as "the charge of unconscionably high and onerous rates of interest on loans of money."*fn13 However, after extensive hearings, Congress did not choose to attack the problem as so defined. Rather, the federal crime relates to "extortionate credit transactions," "however they may arise," supra n. 1, and the Act recites express congressional findings that " extortionate credit transactions are characterized by the use, or the express or implicit threat of the use, of violence or other criminal means to cause harm to person, reputation, or property as a means of enforcing repayment."*fn14 Thus, the very approach of the Act is to define extortionate credit transactions in terms of this express finding rather than imposing a requirement that the prosecution prove each of the elements of a loan shark transaction qua loan shark transaction.

In brief, both the statutory language and legislative history support a broad interpretation of "extortionate extension of credit." While Congress was perhaps primarily concerned with the loan shark threat, we can conclude "with certainty sufficient to justify a criminal conviction" that Congress intended to proscribe the conduct here in issue. Cf. ...


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