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U.S. v. Bennett

November 16, 1998

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JOHN G. BENNETT, JR., APPELLANT



Before: Scirica, Nygaard and SEITZ,*fn*Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scirica, Circuit Judge.

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Criminal No. 96-cr-00503)

Argued June 4, 1998

OPINION OF THE COURT

This is an appeal from a judgment of sentence and certain pretrial rulings on a nolo contendere plea entered by defendant John G. Bennett, Jr., President of New Era Philanthropy. Bennett was sentenced to 144 months in prison for perpetrating the largest charity fraud in history, a six-year scheme in which he solicited over $350 million in contributions for a bogus "matching" program. We will affirm.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEEDINGS

In 1989, Bennett encountered financial difficulties in connection with several of his businesses. As a consequence, he devised a check-kiting scheme using his bank accounts at Philadelphia National Bank and Merrill Lynch, writing checks from one account to another on insufficient funds and creating false balances reflecting fictitious amounts. To cover the overdrafts, Bennett solicited participation in a new program called the New Concepts in Philanthropy Program, using the initial checks received from New Concepts donors to pay down the overdrafts at Merrill Lynch and the Philadelphia National Bank.

Under the New Concepts Program, individual donors gave money for charitable purposes to be held for several months by another Bennett organization, the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy. Bennett told potential investors that a wealthy donor, who wished to remain anonymous, would match their contributions at the end of the holding period. The doubled funds would then be transferred to a charity of the donor's choice.*fn1 In reality, there was no anonymous donor. Bennett used the donations of subsequent investors to "double" the deposits of the original investors, and he routinely invaded the held funds to benefit his for-profit businesses.

The "ponzi" scheme grew into a pyramid scheme as the base of investors grew. Bennett expanded the New Concepts Program to allow nonprofit organizations to participate.*fn2 Eventually, the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy received both tax-exempt status and a license to act as a charity in Pennsylvania. Bennett established and maintained these licenses through a series of falsehoods. For example, he omitted any mention of the matching program from all documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service or state authorities. In these submissions, Bennett also listed a nonexistent board of directors consisting of prominent individuals and he significantly underestimated New Era's liabilities. During a subsequent I.R.S. audit, Bennett provided fabricated board-of-directors minutes, again failed to disclose the existence of the New Concepts Program, and misrepresented the true condition of New Era's assets. As a result, New Era received a favorable audit letter from the I.R.S.

In response to due diligence inquiries by potential donors, Bennett made additional false representations:

"a) The anonymous donors had signed trust agreement s pledging to match contributions made through New Era."

"b) The anonymous donors matched the funds deposited with New Era."

"c) Bennett received no compensation from New Era."

"d) New Era had a board of directors made up of prominent individuals."

"e) Funds deposited with New Era were held in escro w or `quasi-escrow' accounts."

'f) The expense of running New Era was paid from th e interest earned by deposited funds during the holding period."

Having satisfied investors and auditors that New Era was a legitimate charity, Bennett then systematically transferred New Era funds to his struggling for-profit businesses through loans and stock purchases.

By 1994, Bennett could no longer cover the "doubled" funds solely through new donations. Consequently, he obtained a loan from a brokerage account at Prudential Securities to cover the shortfall. The loan was secured by United States treasury bills that Bennett had purchased with funds donated to New Era by charitable organizations. Bennett informed several of these organizations their money was invested in United States treasury bills and they could call Prudential to confirm that a treasury bill had been purchased in the name of the organization. But instead of revealing the treasury bills were serving as collateral for a loan, Bennett told the organizations their money was being held in low-risk, interest-bearing accounts and escrow or "quasi-escrow" accounts at major financial institutions. The Prudential loan eventually totaled $50 million.

In the final nine months before New Era's collapse, Bennett drew increasingly larger margin loans on his account at Prudential. In May 1995 Prudential called the loan. Unable to meet his obligations, Bennett agreed to place New Era into bankruptcy and then revealed the anonymous donors had never existed.

In September 1996, Bennett was charged in an eighty-two-count indictment for offenses committed in connection with the Merrill Lynch and Philadelphia National Bank accounts. The indictment charged Bennett with one count of bank fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1344), sixteen counts of mail fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1341), eighteen counts of wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343), one count of making false statements to the government (18 U.S.C. § 1001), three counts offiling false tax returns (26 U.S.C. § 7206), one count of impeding the administration of revenue laws (26 U.S.C. § 7212), fifteen counts of money laundering (18 U.S.C. § 1957), and twenty-seven counts of money laundering to promote unlawful activity (18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(A)(1)). Bennett originally pleaded not guilty and prepared for trial. Before trial, the District Court ruled to exclude certain questions that Bennett proposed to ask of his expert witness regarding Bennett's mental capacity.

In March 1997, Bennett decided to enter a conditional plea of nolo contendere to all the charges.*fn3 In an accompanying press release, Bennett emphasized he did not admit guilt or "adopt as true the government's version of the facts, insofar as those facts relate in any way to the issue of his intent to commit the crimes alleged in the indictment." Following Bennett's entry of the nolo contendere plea, the Probation Office compiled its Presentence Investigation Report in anticipation of the sentencing hearing.

A. The Presentence Investigation Report

The presentence report grouped the charges as follows: (1) bank fraud; (2) mail fraud; (3) wire fra ud; (4) false statements; (5) false tax returns; and (6) impe ding the administration of revenue laws. It then calculated Bennett's adjusted offense level beginning with a base offense level of six under U.S.S.G. § 2F1.1. The presentence report recommended against a reduction in the base offense level for acceptance of responsibility under U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1:

"The defendant has entered a plea of nolo contendere in this case. However, he continues to deny any factual guilt and criminal intent for his actions. In his press release dated March 26, 1997, announcing his plea of nolo contendere, the defendant stated that he does not admit or adopt as true, the government's version of the facts, insofar as those facts relate in any way to the issue of his intent to commit the crimes alleged in the Indictment. The defendant further stated in his press release that he believes that his choice to cooperate with the bankruptcy trustee by surrendering substantially all of his assets to the trustee, which he claims had no relation to New Era, and to cooperate with the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the United States Securities and Exchange Commission regarding civil enforcement activities brought by those entities regarding the collapse of New Era, indicates that he has accepted responsibility. It appears that his choice to cooperate with the bankruptcy trustee and the other parties bringing civil action against him benefits him in the same way as his plea of nolo contendere in the criminal matter. In other words, the defendant arrives at an outcome which may have been inevitable anyway, but with much less negative publicity and stress to himself and his family. His cooperation is not an indication that he admits wrongdoing. In fact, he stated as much in his press release. Furthermore, the defendant's for profit companies received approximately $7 million as a result of his fraudulent activities, which ultimately resulted in benefit to him."

The presentence report also called for an eighteen-level increase for the loss caused by Bennett's conduct, suggesting "[t]he loss in this case at the time the offense was discovered was approximately $135,000,000; although the total amount of funds taken from the victims was approximately $354 million. Pursuant to § 2F1.1(b)(1)(S), because the loss in this case was over $80 million, 18 levels are added." It also recommended that two levels be added because the offense involved "more than minimal planning" under § 2F1.1(2)(A) and (B): "[T]he defendant committed repeated fraudulent acts over a period of time, and . . . this offense involved a scheme to defraud more than one victim."

The report suggested an additional two-level increase because the criminal conduct involved the misrepresentation that Bennett was acting on behalf of a charitable, educational, religious, or political organization:

"The misrepresentation took place in three ways. First, the defendant was able to secure a favorable rating from the Internal Revenue Service for the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy as a charitable organization, by submitting fraudulent documentation to the IRS, and by failing to disclose information regarding the New Concepts program to the IRS. The defendant did this knowing that the New Concepts program was in fact, a fraudulent scheme. The second aspect of the misrepresentation was the New Concept program itself, wherein the defendant told the victims of non-existent anonymous donors, in an effort to solicit contributions from them. In addition, the defendant used the favorable rating that he fraudulently received from the IRS to solicit funds from the victims. The third aspect to the misrepresentation is that the defendant used the charitable image of New Era to divert several million dollars to his for profit companies, which ultimately benefitted the defendant personally. Pursuant to § 2F1.1(b)(3)(A), two levels are added."

Invoking § 2F1.1(b)(6)(B), the report also recommended a four-level increase because Bennett derived more than one million dollars in gross receipts from an offense affecting a financial institution. Specifically, the report noted Bennett "used a brokerage account at Prudential Securities to obtain sufficient funds to facilitate this offense. Overall, the loan from Prudential to New Era was approximately $50 million."

The report also recommended upward adjustments for Bennett's "aggravating role" in the offense and for his abuse of a position of trust. First, it described Bennett's role in the offense:

"[Bennett] was the organizer and leader of New Era, which was used in the commission of an extremely extensive fraud. Several employees carried out the defendant's orders which served to facilitate this offense. Most of the employees were unaware of the defendant's fraudulent activities; however, to date the defendant's accountant has entered a plea of guilty to charges related to this offense. In addition, the defendant utilized the services of many other innocent individuals to promote the goals of New Era. Pursuant to § 3B1.1(a), the offense level is increased by four levels."

Next, the report discussed the position of trust Bennett occupied: "[Bennett] was entrusted as a fiduciary by the victim organizations. The defendant abused the trust placed in him by these organizations by diverting money to his for profit companies, which had been entrusted to him for charitable purposes."

These enhancements created a subtotal adjusted base offense level of thirty-eight for the first group of closely related counts. The second group of closely related counts consisted of money laundering and money laundering to promote unlawful activity. Under U.S.S.G. § 2S1.1(a)(1), Bennett had a base offense level of twenty-three. The presentence report called for a three-level enhancement based on the amount of money laundered: "approximately $528,016. Pursuant to § 2S1.1(b)(2)(D), since the value of the funds was more than $350,000, but less than $600,001, the base offense level is increased by three levels." The District Court explicitly adopted the factual findings and guideline application of the presentence report in its judgment and commitment order.

B. The Sentencing Hearing

In September 1997 the District Court held a four-day sentencing hearing. At the close of testimony, the court commented on the burden of proof: "[T]he defense's position is that the government must meet its burden of proof by clear and convincing evidence. While I believe the correct standard is a preponderance of the evidence, the evidence presented is sufficient to meet the higher standard." The court then made several findings with respect to enhancements to the base offense level:

"[F]or the amount of the loss 18 levels are added because the loss was more than $80 million, in this case at least $100 million. Next, two levels are added for more than minimal planning, which is not in dispute. Next, two levels are added because the offense involved misrepresentation that the defendant was acting on behalf of a charity. Next, two levels are added because the offense affected a financial institution and the defendant derived more than $1 million in gross receipts from the offense."

"Next, four levels are added because of the defendant's role in the offense as an organizer or leader of a criminal activity that involved five or more participants or was otherwise extensive. And next, two levels are added because defendant abused a position of trust in a manner that significantly facilitated the commission or concealment of the offense."

"Correction as to the specific offense characteristic involving a financial institution and that defendant derived more than a $1 million in gross receipts from the offense, it should be four levels are added, not two as I mis-spoke."

"After I ruled that certain testimony from his mental health experts would be inadmissible at trial, Mr. Bennett entered a conditional nolo contendere plea, conditional in that he reserved the right to appeal my ruling."

"* * *"

"The request by the defense for a decrease based on acceptance of responsibility must be denied. To obtain this decrease the guidelines require that the defendant clearly demonstrates acceptance of responsibility for the offense, which did not occur in this case."

At the close of sentencing, the District Court made additional remarks addressing the "aggravating role" and "abuse of a position of trust" enhancements:

"Moreover, the argument that others, such as Prudential, Andrew Cunningham and the lawyers helped walk Mr. Bennett down the garden path must also be rejected. Whether or not anyone whose services he utilized assisted him in his request in carrying out these offenses does not diminish his role in it. It can well be argued to the contrary. Unfortunately, a person's conduct often differs from what one says or professes to believe in."

"* * *"

"In addition to misapplying funds that were entrusted to him, he also obtained very large amounts of money for his personal benefit. He had total control over both New Era and his for profit corporation and thereby channeled money that came into New Era to pay himself, while maintaining that he was serving New Era without charge."

Bennett's offense level and criminal history category targeted a guideline range of 235-293 months imprisonment. But the District Court determined a downward departure was appropriate:

"[T]he law requires that the sentence imposed reflect the seriousness of the offense. Given the enormity and gravity of this case, a guidelines range sentence on that basis could be justified. The amount of harm and the number of persons harmed and the still ongoing repercussions experienced by the charities and nonprofit organizations and those who benefit from their activities are incalculable. It may well be that any lesser sentence than within the guidelines range will be criticized as under-representing or depreciating the inordinate size and gravity of the damage done in this case."

"However, I have determined to make a downward departure from the guidelines range by reason of the presence of three factors or grounds. Each of these departure factors is found to be sufficient by itself to support the extent of the departure. But whether taken singularly or in any combination, they do not in my view justify any further departure because of the seriousness of the offense."

"Moreover, certain departure factors requested by the defense must be denied. The sentencing guidelines contain policy statements that discourage the consideration of various factors in determining whether a sentence should be outside the guidelines range. The reason is that these factors, at least to the extent that they are generally present in a case, have already been included in the sentencing guideline categories."

"The Supreme Court has said that these so-called discouraged factors may be a basis for departure only if the factor is present to an exceptional degree or in some other way makes the case different from the ordinary case where the factor is present. Discouraged factors include age, family responsibilities and community ties and employment records. And none of these factors in this case is sufficient individually or in combination to be the basis for a departure."

"One discouraged factor that is present to an exceptional degree is called military, civic, charitable or public service employment related contributions, record of prior good works. It is evident that for many years leading up to 1989 Mr. Bennett made a large number of civic, charitable and public service contributions and performed good works in the areas of substance abuse, children and youth, juvenile Justice."

"These went far beyond the community contributions generally made even by very civic minding and good-hearted people. They are the first basis for the downward departure. No credit is given for contributions and activities after 1989 because of their interrelationship with the offense conduct."

"The next separate basis for departure is extraordinary cooperation and restitution. Through the exceptional work of the trustee, the Bankruptcy Court and Judge [Dalzell] of this Court, the amount of the New Era loss was reduced from over $100 million to about $20 million. Mr. Bennett's cooperation and his turning over the bulk of his personal and company held assets greatly facilitated this process and occurred to an unusual degree. Our Court of Appeals has recognized that such efforts may distinguish a case and if so, may warrant departure."

The third basis for departure involved Bennett's mental capacity, which the District Court considered "problematical":

"On the one hand, a discouraged departure factor is called mental and emotional conditions. On the other hand, an encouraged factor is called diminished capacity."

"* * *"

"If a factor is an encouraged factor, it is a basis for departure unless the applicable guidelines already take it into account, which is not this case. The subject of Mr. Bennett's clinical condition and applicable diagnoses has been hotly debated by a number of prestigious mental health experts. While it appears unlikely that he had a delusional disorder or more than, at worst, a mild organic brain dysfunction, there is evidence of severe personality disorders, including narcissism, hypomania, obsessive-compulsive personality, at least some of which is agreed to or not contested by the government's experts."

"A complicating factor is that while personality disorders are listed in the Authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, many clinicians do not believe a personality disorder is any more than a description of one's personality. They therefore distinguish it from a mental disease or disability and reject it as a basis for legal judgment."

"Court cases, however, have not seen fit to make that distinction, particularly recently. In the present case, Mr, Bennett devised and developed and completely managed what became an extremely large financial enterprise. The evidence is that on one level he believed his work was consistent with his religious beliefs and God ordained mission. It appears that he not only was convinced himself, which usually is basic to convincing others, but he also convinced many responsible established and highly successful executives and religious, educational and other community institutions, as well as many social and political leaders."

"Here, whether this basis for departure is grounded in an extraordinary mental and emotional condition under the discouraged factors or in a diminished capacity under the encouraged factors it appears from all the evidence that Mr. Bennett's cognition of volition or both were subject to a very unusual distortion and significantly reduced mental capacity."

Therefore, the District Court departed downward 91 months and imposed a sentence of 144 months imprisonment.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Pretrial Rulings Concerning ...


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