(Wavebreak Media LTD)

A California attorney serving prison time for attempting to extort money from the lawyer representing a rabbi in an immigration visa fraud investigation has failed to convince a federal appeals court to reverse his conviction.

In 2011, a jury found Alfred Nash Villalobos of West Hills, Calif., guilty of attempted extortion and endeavoring to obstruct a grand jury investigation. Specifically, Villalobos was convicted of accepting an envelope containing $50,000 in cash from an attorney for Rabbi Amitai Yemini, executive director of the Chabad Israel Center in Los Angeles, who federal prosecutors were investigating for allegedly obtaining fraudulent religious worker visas.

Prosecutors eventually dropped charges against Yemini but alleged that Villalobos, armed with the bribe, had planned to tell his client’s wife, who obtained one of the visas, to lie to the grand jury.

Villalobos was sentenced to three years in prison. He is scheduled for release on Dec. 17.

On appeal, Villalobos challenged an instruction to the jury regarding extortion under the Hobbs Act: That all threats to testify are “wrongful” if they were made to induce fear. He said his client’s wife was merely attempting to recover $120,000 in wages she had earned as a preschool teacher at the center. As a result, he argued, Chief Judge George King of the Central District of California also should have allowed him to present a “claim of right” defense to the extortion charge.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Friday concluded that the judge’s instruction was wrong but that the error would not have persuaded the jury to reach a different outcome. Circuit Judge Milan Smith’s opinion noted that Villalobos’s actions were not violent and that, by their very nature, threats are intended to induce fear.

“Accordingly, an instruction that threats are wrongful if intended to induce or take advantage of fear would necessarily lead a jury to conclude that all threats are wrongful,” Smith wrote. “The district court’s instruction was thus erroneous because it essentially read the ‘wrongful’ element out of the Hobbs Act.”

But the error, Smith wrote, was harmless because Villalobos’s plans to accept the bribe and impede the investigation were unlawful.

An attorney for Villalobos, Rebecca Jones, a solo practitioner in San Diego, did not return a call for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, Thom Mrozek, did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.