The chiefs of three local federal law enforcement offices say their approach to charging and prosecuting white collar cases has changed little under the Trump administration.
Alex Tse, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, Jina Choi, director of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s San Francisco regional office, and Kate Patchen, chief of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division’s San Francisco office, spoke Wednesday night as part of a Views from the Top panel discussion in the ceremonial courtroom of the San Francisco federal courthouse.
The program, presented by the Northern District of California Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, its Criminal Law Section and the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Criminal Justice Section, usually occurs annually but went on hiatus last year during the transition between administrations.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who moderated Wednesday’s panel as well as the most recent prior edition, quipped at the top of the program: “Welcome back to find out what your government is about to do to you.”
Although two of the faces were new—Tse took over for Brian Stretch earlier this year and Patchen for Marc Siegel in 2016—they had familiar themes. Choi, the lone holdover from the last panel, noted that the SEC during the past year has added two commissioners and a new chair, former Sullivan & Cromwell partner Jay Clayton.
“Our chairman has been very explicit about making sure we are out to protect the retail investor … ‘Mr. and Mrs. 401(k),’” she said. Internally, she pointed out that the SEC now has a dedicated cyber unit with staff in San Francisco focusing on things such as trading on hacked information and manipulating the market via social media.
Patchen, meanwhile, said the bulk of the work of the 25-lawyer local antitrust office has been trial-related. The Antitrust Division, she said, tried a record nine trials nationwide last year, six of which were handled by the San Francisco office. The office tried six cases related to bid-rigging at foreclosure auctions in the wake of the recession, which resulted in nine of the 10 individuals charged being convicted.
Overall, the office has gotten convictions or guilty pleas from 84 investors as part of the investigation into widespread collusion among bidders to drive down prices at auctions across the Bay area. Patchen said her office has a “very narrow” mission to enforce the federal antitrust laws. “That mission doesn’t change between administrations,” she said.
Tse took his brief opening remarks to introduce himself to the crowd. Tse, who served as Stretch’s top assistant since 2016 and as the office’s civil chief for three years prior to that, is about 90 days into a 210-day term as acting U.S. attorney. It will be up to the district court’s chief judge to choose the U.S. attorney, unless the president nominates someone and the Senate confirms them. “There’s no indication when that will happen,” Tse said.
Tse noted that audience members had no doubt read of the administration’s and the DOJ’s increased focus on violent crime, the opioid epidemic, and illegal immigration.
“Those are indeed priorities,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that white collar remains a priority. … Know that the U.S. Attorney’s Office remains committed to prosecuting economic crime in all forms,” said Tse, pointing in particular to the ongoing fraud trial against Autonomy’s former CFO.
When Alsup asked whether to expect the office to charge more illegal re-entry or marijuana cases, Tse said that was unlikely. The message he and other U.S. attorneys have been told by Main Justice, Tse said, is to know their district and their constituents.
Tse said that where marijuana cases overlap with violent crime and money laundering, they remain viable federal charges. But he also pointed out that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions himself has said the department doesn’t have the resources to charge routine marijuana cases.
Wednesday night’s panel comes as The Recorder’s colleagues at The American Lawyer reported federal prosecutions of white collar crime recently hit 20-year lows following the change in administrations. White collar prosecutions during the most recent fiscal year fell below 6,000 for the first time in two decades, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization at Syracuse University. Year-over-year federal white-collar prosecutions were down 6.8 percent in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2017, according to the TRAC data.