Friday, March 7, 2014

Where do I go to get my money back?

There was a Reagan administration official in the 1980s who got acquitted from a corruption charge and asked what he had to do to get his reputation back. I can't answer that one. But another question following acquittal is where do you go to get your money back. Sometimes the government has to reimburse you.

The case is Guertin v. United States, decided on February 26. Guertin was the City of Middletown Corporation Counsel who was brought up on corruption charges in 2004. The allegation was that he conspired with the Mayor to misuse money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Guertin was acquitted following a bench trial. One of the allegations was that the Mayor benefited personally from a HUD loan. However, the judge that acquitted Guertin was troubled by one of the loans, which had created a prohibited conflict for which there was no mens rea, or intent to commit a crime. The Judge said that Guertin had worn "two hats" for this transaction, finding that he had negotiated it in his private capacity as the Mayor's personal lawyer.

After Guertin was acquitted, he asked the government to reimburse him for the legal expenses from the criminal trial. In cases like this, the government has to reimburse you if the criminal proceedings arose from the administration of a federal program. The government told Guertin to take a hike, noting that the criminal court judge said that Guertin had done what he did as the Mayor's private lawyer, not as the Corporation Counsel. The district court said this determination was not an arbitrary and capricious. The Court of Appeals (Walker, Cabranes and Lohier) reverses.

The arbitrary and capricious standard is nearly impossible to overcome when challenging unfair government actions. But here the government's refusal to pay Guertin for his legal expenses was arbitrary. HUD had incorrectly determined that Guertin's legal fees were the result of his acting solely as the Mayor's private counsel. Careful review of the criminal trial record shows that Guertin was not really acting as the Mayor's private lawyer; he was acting as in his public role as the Corporation Counsel. While the district court ruled otherwise in denying Guertin the money, the Court of Appeals says the lower court got it wrong: it was not enough for HUD to rely on the verdict transcript to determine the nature of the criminal action if the relevant evidence, including the indictment, shows otherwise.

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