Wednesday, August 29, 2018

When Prisoners Put A Hit On Me


I was given lots of advice before I went into prison. The most important piece of advice I was given was remain innocuous and do not get into any conflict. I was told to keep my head down and it would be better if no one knew I was even there. This is good advice. Unfortunately, that is advice that also goes against my very being. I don't know why, but sometimes I cannot help myself.

We used to joke around that there is a saying that goes something like "Be all you can be....in prison." And indeed, people made themselves out to be much more than they actually were. At times, it seemed I was the only one in the entire prison who did not own either a Lamborghini, Ferrari or a Bentley. It also seemed that I was one of the only people from Miami who did not own a house on Star Island. I think there were actually more people at the Miami prison camp that owned houses on Star Island than there are houses on Star Island!  For the most part I just laughed at most of these fictional tales. I someone wanted to make themselves seem rich, fine by me. For the most part I kept my mouth shut. Of course, like I said sometimes, I cannot help myself. 

There were two individuals within our little Jewish community that just annoyed me with some of the nonsense that came out of their mouths. One of them, we will call him Myles, I met the day I arrived at the camp. Myles could not keep his mouth shut. At first, he was nice to me. I think it was because he thought I was a somebody. He routinely mentioned that there was a bulletin on radio 610 AM the day that I was sentenced. He mentioned this over and over and over. Over time this story morphed into that there was a breaking news interruption to regular programming that I was sentenced. To say this was annoying is an understatement. However, Myles was willing to cook for me and arrange for different foods to be smuggled for himself which he would share with me, so I let it go.

Myles had been originally sentenced to 24 years in some telephone billing scam. He managed to get that reduced to 12 years somehow. He routinely told us that he had $20 million stashed away in untraceable Swiss bank accounts. Of course, given today's banking secrecy laws that is impossible. He claimed that the Feds told him if he gives up the money he could go home but he refused. Myles also said that Alan Dershowitz was representing him on appeal and that he was going to be getting out soon. Myles claimed had twin 14-year-old daughters studying in Switzerland and because they were so far away they could rarely visit him. In short Myles did not shut up. Little of this was true.

Myles could not help himself but run his mouth all the time. When someone did something he did not like he would simply spread lies about them. In one instance he claimed that a prisoner had snitched on 32 defendants. Another time, when he got word that someone had received contraband tuna that he felt belonged to him he made sure that the prison staff found out. Myles was nothing short of a weasel. He also had no pictured of his daughters which was very suspicious. Myles even tried to have me branded as a snitch. By the time June of 2016 rolled around I was totally sick of the guy. 

While no one really believed much of Myles's tale, we all pretty much believed the story about the kids. We always asked him when they were going to visit. Finally, during June, they were coming for a visit on a Friday evening. So of course, Myles got dressed in his nicest prison uniform that Friday and while many of us attended services he was scheduled for a visit. That evening, I asked him how his visit was, and he said it went well. Something however seemed off. A few of us, suspicious as we were asked the other inmates what the twins were like. The response was very odd. No one had even seen Myles in the visiting room that night. We asked the inmate whose job it was to work in the visiting room if Myles had a visit and he informed us that Myles had not been called to the visiting room that Friday evening. We asked him to check the list the next day and he confirmed that no visit had taken place. Myles had fabricated the entire episode. This was bizarre.

Now in prison, when someone is caught in a lie, someone is going to do some digging through a source outside of prison. What we found out was that there were no twin daughters living in Switzerland. There was one daughter. She was living in New Jersey with her mother who was never actually married to Myles. The daughter had recently been taken into Child Protective services. So, Myles was a liar. No real surprise there. 

One day Myles crossed the line with me. He went to one of the members of the community and claimed that I said something about a third person and he felt I was being divisive. Oh, the irony. Basically, game on. I let it be known to someone who had breakfast with Myles every day that there were no two daughters, and there was no visit. The next day at breakfast, which I never attended, this person was all too happy to announce, "hey Myles, Szafranski said your two daughters don't exist!” And just like that Myles was caught in his own web of lies.

Well an hour later, as I was going for my morning run, I see Myles on the track and he charges at me yelling "come here you pussy!!!!!!!" he knocks off my hat and proceeds to chase me, presumably with the intent of provoking me into a fight; something that could have delayed my release day that was less that 90 days away. So, I ran on to the track. To give an appropriate visualization, Myles is a few inches shy of 5 feet tall and weighs around 225 pounds with John Lennon glasses. He looks like a little elf. So here we are about 830 in the morning and this little elf is chasing me, in the peak shape of my adult life, around the track yelling "come back here you pussy!!!" Finally, someone got in his way and restrained him while his little arms flailed in the wind. Finally, as he calmed down I yelled, hey Myles, don't forget I'm getting out in 3 months while you will be here until 2023! To which he responded, "I am getting out a lot sooner than that!". Another lie. Victory, me.

The next person, we will call him Mark was actually from Miami. He was in prison for Mortgage fraud. He was actually known as the foreclosure king of Miami because of all of the properties that he lost. Mark made the mistake on day one of telling me that he knew some of the people that I knew and said negative things about them. The truth was that he had committed adultery with the wife of someone who was deathly ill, and ultimately raided the kid's trust fund. Mark also thought he was a somebody. He came to us from the higher security prison where he was able to convince people he was someone of importance. He had a business there in selling porn and cigarettes. In the camp, however, those items were much easier to come by so Mark did not really have anything to offer. Within a month he was in debt to the tune of $500. He also claimed his wife never came to see him because she is so beautiful that the other inmates could not help but stare at her whenever she came. Mark was far from Prince Charming. He was a pathological liar who also could not keep his mouth shut.

So, Mark and I did not get along. That's fine, it isn't as though I planned on developing long term relationships in prison. Over time however, he started stealing from the Jewish community and would try to get himself jobs where he would have access to certain items, all the while claiming he was all pious. Not good. Finally, one Friday night he made a derogatory comment about my wife. Bad move. As he was heading back to his dorm, I yelled at him, Hey Mark, do everyone a favor and try not to bang anyone’s wife on the way back! He lost it! I exposed him as the low life he was, and he was not happy. He was going to try and get revenge. He and Myles that it.

One would not believe it, but I actually got along with most of the people I met. I had friends in the Black community, the Puerto Rican community and even the white community. I figured it was good to have some manner of protection. I also employed members of each community to do my laundry, make my bed and clean for me. One day I got word that Myles and Mark had put a hit on me. Now this is a camp, so putting a hit does not mean that I was at risk of getting beat up. No, what they planned to do was plant cigarettes in my area and under my blanket. Well as luck would have it, the go to guy for this was the person who I was paying to do my laundry! The one thing that prisoners hate is the idea of losing income. My laundry man viewed their hit as an attempt to lower his prison income! This did not make him happy. So instead of going along with their plan, he simply pretended that he would help them out all the while getting word to me that they had made me a target. 

I simply went to my counselor, with whom I also got along for an entirely different reason and let her know what was going on and that if they did find any cigarettes in my area that they were not mine. In the end the next two months were uneventful. Those tow idiots managed to spread a rumor that I was a bully which made for some comic relief, but I managed to leave prison in September while they sat there mystified how their hit failed. So, while it is certainly important to try and remain innocuous as possible in prison, it is equally important to make sure that you have enough communication with the other inmates to know what is happening around you.



Thursday, August 23, 2018

Pleading Guilty To Something That Is Not A Crime: Is Donald Trump Right?


As predicted in my last blog, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty this week. This was not a shock. What did come as a shock was that he pleaded guilty violating campaign finance laws and even claimed that he did so at the direction of then-candidate Donald Trump. For those anti-Trumpers out there, this was a watershed moment; finally, someone in Trump’s inner circle had confirmed that Trump "stole" the election. It may not be Russia, but it is at least something. The Trump defenders took the opposite approach. They simply said that Cohen is lying to save his own skin. In either case, as I wrote last month, Cohen is going to be labeled a government snitch and that stigma will make life unpleasant in prison.

The President took another approach. As usual he took to Twitter and wrote:

"Michael Cohen plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime."

Well that is certainly confusing! How could someone plead guilty to something that is not a crime? How could a prosecutor allow someone to plead guilty if what he did was not a crime? How could a judge allow someone to plead guilty to something that is not a crime? On the surface, the President seemed to be tweeting total nonsense!

Or was he? There is a belief that most trials come down to facts. It is a test of he said-she said. Did he commit murder, or did he not commit murder? Did he commit rape or was the sex consensual? The prosecution presents evidence to prove their case and the defense tries to poke holes in the story to establish reasonable doubt. Ultimately, the case comes down to who the jury believes. If they believe the prosecutor's version, then a guilty verdict is handed down. If they believe the defense, then a not guilty verdict is handed down.

White collar issues are not always so cut and dry. Sure, there can be a question if a bribe took place. Yes, there can be a question of who was involved and who was not involved in a fraud. However, very often, in white collar cases the facts are not up for debate. It is conceivable that the prosecution and the defense agree on 100% of the facts surrounding the case. They all agree a payment was made. They all agree a wire transfer took place. In that case, how is it that there can even be a trial?

White collar crimes are ambiguous. Many of the laws were written long ago before many of the advents of modern finance leaving the courts or prosecutors to interpret their application. Very often, the prosecutors apply the law to areas never intended and it can be up to the Supreme Court to be tasked with interpreting the law. In these types of situations, the trial centers around not what happened but whether if a specific action was illegal. How we can expect a jury to be tasked with interpreting a law, when even the lawyers cannot agree, is in and of itself a systematic flaw in our criminal justice system. Sure, a defendant can opt for a waiver of a jury trial and ask that the judge determine guilt or innocence but that can only be done with the permission of the prosecutor. That also adds an additional daunting prospect of having the person who actually found a defendant guilty also deciding on a sentence. 

During these trials, the prosecution presents its case and tries to show that not only were the actions committed by the defendant illegal, he also had intent to commit a crime which is necessary to be found guilty. The defense attempts to show that the actions committed were not criminal actions. The defense may even make the case that while distasteful or unethical, they were not illegal. The recent trials of Sheldon Silver, Dean Skelos and Senator Menendez were all cases where for the most part the facts were agreed on, but it was left to a jury to decide if the actions were illegal.

When it comes to Michael Cohen, there is no disputing the facts. The entire country knows that he paid off Stephanie Clifford to not speak about an affair she claims to have has with the President. There is also no disputing that he arranged a payment from the National Enquirer to a Playboy model to buy her story about an affair she claims to have had with the President. The only questions are 1. Were these payments illegal? and 2. Did Donald Trump know about these payments before they were made? Rudy Giuliani, on Fox News stated back in May that even if the President knew about it and even if he would have made the payments himself, this would not have violated campaign finance laws as no campaign funds were used for these payments. A representative of FERC even stated that these payments were not illegal irrespective of whether Donald Trump had knowledge. People have paid off women to be quiet with a lot less on the line. On the other hand, the prosecutors took the position that any payment made to attempt to influence an election is a violation of campaign finance laws. 

Michael Cohen took a plea. He did so for one reason and for one reason only: to avoid the risk of a longer sentence had he been found guilty at trial. That is the reason, aside from financial, anyone would take a plea. As a result of his plea, the prosecutors have agreed to recommend a sentence of 3-5 years, although the judge can give him significantly more. As part of that plea he had to concede that the payments made were, in-fact, in violation of US law, even if that law is ambiguous and he does not believe they were. In order to show that there was clear intent to influence an election, he had to state that these payments were made at the direction of "A candidate for federal office".  Those were the conditions of the plea. He did not have to admit to an action he did not do, as is the case in many other types of plea deals; rather, he has to concede that an action he did commit was in violation of US law. Incidentally, should that law change or be overturned, he can attempt to have his conviction vacated.

President Trump, upon seeing this took the defense position. His position, as backed up by his lawyers is that Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to something that is not a crime; the very position maintained by Cohen until he decided to accept a plea. Michael Cohen had no choice. If he wanted to avoid a trial, he had to cave to the demands of the prosecutors and even implicate ad flip on a sitting president. Often referred to as extortion, this is the justice system at its absolute worst.

So, who is right? Well since there was no trial and no jury to weigh in on the matter they both are. Michael Cohen has simply "embraced" the prosecution's application of the law. In contrast, The President refuses to accept that the campaign finance laws can be so liberally applied. But as far as the President is concerned Cohen pleaded guilty to something that is not a crime. And guess what. Cohen is not the first and certainly not the last. Sadly, this happens every single day.

Note: I am not a lawyer, and nothing here should be considered legal advice.


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