In a prior post (here), I commented on former Refco CEO Phillip Bennett’s extraordinary cooperation with the Refco class action plaintiffs, following his entry of a guilty plea in the criminal case against him. As might have been anticipated, Bennett is hoping that his cooperation with the class plaintiffs, as well as the Bankruptcy Trustee, will win him leniency in his June 19, 2008 criminal sentencing. The government opposes leniency, arguing in reliance upon, among other things, Bennett’s acceptance of D&O insurance proceeds to pay his defense expenses.
In February 2008, Bennett entered a guilty plea, without a plea agreement, to all 20 counts against him, including conspiracy, securities fraud, filing of false statements, wire fraud, bank fraud, money laundering and lying to Refco’s auditors. He faces a statutory maximum of 315 years’ imprisonment.
In Bennett’s June 1, 2008 sentencing memorandum (here), which was made public on June 12, his lawyers urged the judge to impose a sentence “for a term of years well short of the remainder of Mr. Bennett’s life.” His lawyers cited, among other reasons supposedly warranting leniency, that Bennett has “offered his cooperation to both the Litigation Trustee of the Refco Estate and the Refco Civil Class Action Plaintiffs, in their efforts to return hundreds of dollars to those who lost money in the Refco bankruptcy.” His lawyers further argued that his cooperation in those cases is “an indication of the extent to which Mr. Bennett has sought to make amends for the harm he has caused, and further reason to impose a sentence well below an actual or de facto term of life in prison.”
In its June 6, 2008 response (here), also made public on June 12, the government urged that “given the duration and intensity of the fraud, Bennett should receive no leniency.” In urging the maximum, the government pulled out all rhetorical stops; the government argued:
Bennett’s willful frauds on Refco’s investors, purchasers, customers, counterparties, banks, the public and others resulted in countless victims being defrauded of billions of dollars, causing uncompensated losses, even after the dissolution of Refco’s assets and large legal settlements of well over $1.5 billion, and of course drove Refco into bankruptcy. The defendant’s criminal conduct, motivated by greed that drove him to lie and scheme in ways previously unimaginable, brought him wealth that has scarcely been seen before in a … fraud case, launching Bennett into the rarefied air of a billionaire. In terms of scope, length, sophistication, harm, and criminal benefit, Bennett stands on a plateau of criminality that frankly makes comparisons difficult. Accordingly, the Government respectfully submits that an appropriately stiff term of imprisonment, consistent with the sentences imposed in the similar cases discussed above, should be imposed in order to reflect the seriousness of the offense, promote respect for the law, provide just and fair punishment, and deter potential corporate criminals.
In this same vein, the government showed little respect for Bennett’s plea for leniency made in reliance on his cooperation with the civil claimants (or at least “some” of the civil claimants, as the government emphasizes). The government said only that while the Court is not prohibited from considering such putative cooperation, “that does not mean that the Court necessarily should give the defendant credit for such cooperation.”
Among other reasons why it contends Bennett should received no leniency, the government specifically argued that “rather than limit the impact of his fraud, he knowingly accepted millions of dollars from Refco’s directors and officers insurance (the premiums for which, of course, were paid with fraud proceeds) to pay his legal bills, money that Bennett knew he had no right to claim.” The government added in a footnote that Bennett was also aware that in light of the government’s asset forfeiture case “there would be no money left to repay the insurance company upon his conviction. In substance, at the same time that Bennett was supposedly accepting full responsibility for his actions, he was in fact, taking millions of dollars from insurance companies under false pretenses. Notably, Bennett has not offered to cooperate with these civil litigants.”
Bennett may well deserve the maximum sentence as a result of his wrongdoing. The government may persuasively argue that Bennett only belatedly acknowledged his guilt, and that his late-arriving contrition ought not to be the basis of leniency, particularly where the delay exacerbated the harm he caused. But I wonder about the government’s attempt to bootstrap this argument by citing Bennett’s use of the D&O insurance proceeds to finance his defense.
Let me just say as a preliminary matter that in expressing the views below, I am expressing no opinions about the carriers’ rights or interests. I am unfamiliar with the specifics of Refco’s D&O insurance coverage and none of the opinions below should be taken as opinion about Refco’s carriers’ coverage positions in this case. The carriers certainly have their own grievances based on these circumstances, but I am not addressing those grievances here. My opinions here relate solely to the government’s arguments against leniency based on Bennett’s use of the D&O policy proceeds.
My first concern with the government’s argument is the general principle it represents. The government may be justified in arguing that Bennett knew all along that his conduct was fraudulent. But take the principle on which the government seeks to rely outside the context of this specific case. Defending against a criminal charge is extraordinarily expensive, and one of the purposes of D&O insurance is to provide for the advancement of post-indictment criminal defense expense. For many criminally accused corporate officials, particularly those whose former company is bankrupt, the D&O insurance may be their only means of defending themselves. An insured forced to rely on this last line of defense should not be have to be concerned that accepting these contractual rights will put them at hazard that it might later be used against them if they ultimately face a criminal sentencing.
My second concern is that the circumstances Bennett’s case presents arguably are a product of the structure of D&O policies. The policies of course preclude coverage for loss based on criminal misconduct. But at the same time, the policies provide for the advancement of post-indictment criminal defense expense, subject only to an unsecured obligation to repay in the event a coverage preclusion is triggered.
In the course of events, it is inevitable that some insurance proceeds will be advanced in defense of insureds whose guilt is later established. The carrier can then seek to recover the advanced expense, which the insured is obliged to repay. But as an unsecured creditor, the carrier may not be able to recoup its costs in many instances. Bennett may well have known he would never be able to repay the amounts advanced, but I suspect that most criminal defendants know that, if called upon, they too could never hope to repay the amounts advanced in their defense. If awareness of an inability to repay is bar to seeking leniency, the ability to seek leniency would be unavailable to many corporate criminal defendants.
Carriers could refuse to cover criminal defense expenses or require more security before advancing criminal defense expense. Of course, any carrier trying to do either of these things would sell no more policies. D&O policies are structured as they are because that is what the marketplace requires for the policies to be commercially competitive. Presumably the carriers believe they are adequately compensated for the risks inherent in the structure.
The government may well be justified overall in arguing that Bennett should receive the maximum sentence. But I wonder: should an insurance outcome made possible as a result of the requirements of commercial competition really serve as a factor in the length of someone’s criminal sentence?
I suspect that some readers may have strong views on this topic. I hope readers will be willing to publish their views using the blog’s comment feature.
Hat tip to the White Collar Crime Prof Blog (here) for the links to the sentencing memoranda.
Speakers’ Corner: On June 17, 2008, I will be in Quebec City at the spring meeting of the Casualty Actuarial Society, speaking on a panel entitled “Subprime Issues for D&O.” The conference sessions agenda can be found here. My fellow panelists include Stephanie Plancich of NERA Economic Consulting and David Bradford of Advisen.