Here’s the transcript from Body Language Expert Traci Brown’s chat with top White Collar Crime Attorney Sara Azari.
White collar defense attorney, Sara Azari, visits Fraud Busting today. We met while filming a new TV show on the Fox Crime Channel called The Criminal Mind. She was such a powerhouse there, I had to have her on the show. She’ll reveal her methodology in successfully defending white collar fraud cases and also getting plenty of clients out of jail. She’ll talk mitigating and aggravating factors, interrogation techniques, and even the rise in PPP loan fraud. Don’t miss this episode. It could keep you out of jail.
If you’d like to listen here’s the link on Apple Podcasts:
Traci Brown: Sara, thank you so much for coming on Fraud Busting! I am so excited to meet you!
Sara Azari: Likewise, likewise.
Traci Brown: Let’s tell about how we actually didn’t meet before. So, we were both on a new TV show for the Fox Crime Network, and it’s called The Criminal Mind, at least that is the working title. Everybody got to be in studio, except for me, where I was . . .
Sara Azari: And for a period of time, we couldn’t even hear you, and then finally we were able to hear your wisdom, which was nice.
Traci Brown: (Laughing). I was asking ya’ll questions, and you were just sitting there, like blanking me out. I’m like, what is wrong with these people? I’m not that bad! You couldn’t even hardly see me the way the studio was arranged either. Anyway, we made it work, and I’m glad we get to talk a little bit now. Let’s get to know you a little bit. You’re out in LA?
Sara Azari: Yea, I’m an Angelina . . . I wasn’t born here, but I’ve been here all my life pretty much.
Traci Brown: Oh.
Sara Azari: I went to college, went to law school here locally. I didn’t really move out of southern California until after law school. I got a job at a big fancy law firm in South America, in Brazil.
Traci Brown: Oh.
Sara Azari: I spent a few years there, and I very quickly realized that my passion was not for sitting behind a desk or in a conference room and doing mergers and acquisitions and international corporate work. I came back to the U.S. to pursue my passion for criminal defense. After a few years of doing, not to minimize any type of crime, but I did a lot of misdemeanors and little things, I began to expand my practice into more complex criminal cases in the white-collar area. I do take cases from time to time in state court, you know, street crimes, but my specialty is really in white collar, and most of my work is in federal court. I handle cases in, not just LA, but pretty much all over the nation. Often, I have cases in New York. I’ve had cases in Florida, New Mexico, I mean anywhere where someone has trouble under federal, I can pretty much appear and defend them and work on their case.
Traci Brown: Okay.
Sara Azari: Yea.
Traci Brown: The biggest question I think that anyone is going to have who is listening to this: Did you run out of toilet paper during the pandemic last year when everything went wrong?
Sara Azari: (Laughing). I actually didn’t. I was pretty stocked up until it was back in stock, so I was good. But you know what, I was confined to my dining room. My practice changed drastically. Clients that were being billed were suddenly out of resources and out of jobs and not able to really pay for their defense, and frankly, courts closed down, so nothing was really moving along. But what was interesting about the pandemic, and I think all of us should look at it, unfortunately, some of us have experienced loss and grief and horrible things, but to the extent we haven’t, we need to look back and find the silver lining. Because for me, it was the ability to quickly focus on what I normally don’t do, which is post conviction. I got news. I remember I was watching CNN, and I heard about Paul Manafort getting out. He’d only served a fraction of his sentence, and then Michael Cohen getting out. And I thought, what the hell is going on? I’m going to look into this, and I’m going to focus on getting the non corrupt politicians, other people that have been convicted, and I very quickly brushed up on 18 United States Code 3582 which is the Compassionate Relief statute.
Traci Brown: Oh.
Sara Azari: I got one guy out of prison, and when you do that, the word gets around very quickly in the prison, and so all of the family members, wives, girlfriends, sisters, parents of other inmates began to call me. For that entire year, my practice became compassionate release of inmates. These are people that mostly got convicted of nonviolent fraud. Some of it was drugs, but again nothing drastically violent. I filed 10 motions. These motions were extremely detailed. Each of them was on average 40 pages, and then with exhibits. I had to set forth risk factors, medical reasons, then I had to look into their underlying case, I had to argue their mitigating factors and that they had serve enough time already, even though it was a fraction of their total sentence. And so, out of 10 motions that I filed up until just recently, I got 5 people out.
Traci Brown: Wow!
Sara Azari: To me, it was amazing because in my entire career, almost 20 years, I’ve never gotten anybody out because I was still in conviction. I tried to keep people from going in, but I don’t really get anybody out, and so it was really nice to get that sort of justice and something that I really never thought of doing. I don’t like writing. I like to go and perform in court. So, my practice drastically changed during that year because that is really all I could do. I couldn’t go to court. I couldn’t pick up new cases. There weren’t any new investigations. But that is the good that came out of it. These were all people that really did deserve to get out, and I would have never really thought about doing anything like that. It’s not what I do normally. I leave the post conviction appellate things to other lawyers, and so suddenly I became a law and motion attorney at my computer. I actually had to get new glasses. Everything sort of . . .
Traci Brown: Yea, I can see you have the . . .
Sara Azari: It changed my eyes and everything.
Traci Brown: Yea, yea.
Sara Azari: But it was worth it. It was worth it. I got these people out and so that was nice.
Traci Brown: Now, okay, here’s a question that you can answer however you want to. If people are in prison, because you’re like a big deal lawyer, how do they afford you? How does that really work?
Sara Azari: So, these individuals, you know I did get calls from people who just did not have support, did not have resources, but these are people that had family and friends on the outside that were willing to what I called a gamble. They would say to me, what is the percentage that you might prevail?
I was like, listen, 50/50 because I have not even looked at what the underlying risk factors are, what the health conditions are. I don’t know your brother or your husband’s underlying case. I have to get all those records. But I always told these people, if you can come up – obviously, if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money, but if you can come up with this money, it’s not like we get a pandemic every day. It’s worth the gamble. Those of them that got out, they keep telling me, I’m so glad I did this. It’s the best money I ever spent.
Yea, unfortunately, there were people who couldn’t afford trying this route, but those that could, it was through family and friends that were willing to support them.
Traci Brown: Got it, got it. Okay, you are probably, of all of my podcasts interviewees, or guests, let’s say, you are the most prepared out of any of them, just because of the conversations that we’ve had and exactly how we want to go through things to showcase your brilliance here. I think that shows in the statutes that you just named off for compassionate release, but there was another one that we talked about, 3553(a), which is factors in mitigation. Why don’t – I don’t even want to try to describe it more than that. I know you know a lot about it because you’re the white-collar defense attorney. So, why don’t you take that on.
Sara Azari: Sure.
Traci Brown: Tell us what it’s about, how you’ve been able to use it, and how it relates back to white-collar crime and fraud.
Sara Azari: Right. So, 3553(a) factors, under 18 United States Code 3553, are known as individual characteristics, either in mitigation or aggravation of a particular individual’s sentence. They are absolutely critical in federal court. These types of individual characteristics might not matter as much under the various state laws, but under federal the judge must consider these factors. For example, many years ago, I represented a guy. At the time I took the case I didn’t know this, but later, very soon thereafter, I realized that he was a big white supremacist leader in the Nevada area. His case was a minor passport fraud charge, however, at his sentencing all of his racist tattoos, all of these previous riots that he had led and that were white supremacist riots, etc., all of those came in as aggravating factors to the point where this was normally an offense where he should have been sentenced to probation or a maximum of six months. The judge gave him four years.
Traci Brown: Really?
Sara Azari: On the flip side, 3553(a) factors can also be mitigating factors. The reason it is so important, and why I’m so passionate about what I do, is because everybody has got something going on. You and I have stuff going on, but we may not commit a crime because of it. But a lot of my clients become my clients and are in the system because of this other stuff that they have going on, whether it is drug abuse, mental illness, loss, grief, it can be anything, and sometimes it is just straight up criminality, and that is not a mitigating factor, but these other things that humanize the defendant before a sentencing judge are absolutely critical because even with a plea agreement where you agree with the government as to a particular sentence or a sentence range, when you go before the sentencing judge, the judge has to look at your aggravating and mitigating factors in order to fashion the right sentence. So, by humanizing your client and using their background, their childhood, their addictions, their development, their education, their charitable contributions to the community, you suddenly show the judge who this person really is other than someone who committed the crime that is before the court.
Traci Brown: Ah, yea, yea.
Sara Azari: That is why it is so critical. When I get a case, I immediately begin digging for that information. I don’t wait until whether or not the client is being sentenced, whether they get convicted. This is a long, drawn-out investigation that requires interviewing family members, gathering records, and all of it towards sort of a nice presentation at sentencing because that allows the judge to go even below what you may have agreed with the government in terms of the sentence, so it is really critical.
Traci Brown: You said, because you have people visit psychologists and do all kinds of things that may seem unnecessary through this. You mentioned one case where I think you were able to use this where there was fraud going on and someone actually did not know they were involved. Can you speak – I’m just so curious as to what happened.
Sara Azari: He knew he was involved but . . .
Traci Brown: What was going on?
Sara Azari: He was a C-suite officer, and I can say this because it was written up in the papers and everything, of the Screen Actors Guild Pension Health Plan. He was in charge of getting subcontractors to do work for primarily computer security and things of that nature for the organization. The allegations in the case were that in the process of paying these subcontractors, the bills were inflated, so fraud, and some of the money were kickbacks paid to my client. There was a sham company that alleged that my client had set up with his wife to receive those kickback monies. This was a case of wire fraud because computers were used to send emails, etc. about the fraud and apparently tax fraud because of the deductions and the income that was not reported, or the over reporting of deductions, etc. Interestingly, something that does not happen that often, but does happen sometimes, is the government blew the five-year statute on the mail fraud and they tied to argue no, it is extended because of this, this, and that, and they failed. I mean, I showed them that they failed. So, the only thing that they could really proceed on was the tax fraud because tax fraud carries a six-year statute of limitations as opposed to five, so they were within that statute. So, they proceed on the tax fraud. Nonetheless, my client was easily facing, I think from what I remember, about four years according to the plea agreement, based on the loss amount, which fraud cases, just like drug cases, generally the exposure is based on the drug quantity, and fraud cases the exposure is based on the loss amount.
Traci Brown: Um-hum.
Sara Azari: So, he was facing about four years. The 3553(a) factors were great. He had never been arrested before. He had great depression and mental issues and was sort of in a bad time in his life where he was doing all kinds of weird things that just were not normal for him. We put together a great package. I had him evaluated by a forensic psychologist. He was going to counseling. I had him do a lot of charitable work. I mean look, a lot of defendants find faith in Christ and all that, and he did too, but I think he really was genuine about it. He needed that structure in his life, and he found it in church. All of that came in, and throughout this whole process, initially, him included, everybody that was working with me, my co-counsel who was doing the employment issues in the case, the guy’s wife, his family, everyone is like, what the hell is going on? Why are you . . . everyday you are sending him to a new expert, a new appointment, we have got to pay for this, we have got to pay for that. I kept saying, listen, I need this stuff. I am not trying to waste your money. None of these people are giving me kickbacks for these referrals, trust me. This is because I really need the workup in the case. Fast forward to sentencing, the judge gave him probation, which was unreal because also this judge was not – sometimes we have judges that are very defense oriented, they are very liberal. He is sort of middle of the road. He was not someone I expected probation from. But nonetheless he sentenced my client to probation and everybody’s jaw dropped. My colleague who was working on the employment issues said, okay, now it all makes sense to me that this was not some crazy path that you were sending this guy down and this was all for a good reason and this was a creative strategy.
It really is creative strategy and your ability to see through the end of the case, and this can only come from experience. When I first started doing federal cases, I was just doing the best I can in the present moment. I really did not have much insight on what it could look like at the end, but with experience you start to kind of be able to write the script. I was able to go right to the future and go, this is what I need it to look like, and for me to get to point A to Z, these are the things that need to happen. It was a perfect example of how it works out when you have a client who cooperates, when you know your client needs to do, and it all worked beautifully.
Traci Brown: How does that work for you when you know your client is guilty? Is it at that point, okay, I just need to get them the smallest sentence that I can? What is the thought in your mind and what is your methodology? We talked a little bit about it here, but is there anything else that you are thinking, like going down the path here with these white-collar criminal folks?
Sara Azari: I really don’t care if my client is factually guilty. I care if the government can prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt under the law. My job is to hold the government accountable, not really to determine if my client did it or not. Of course, I expect my client to be honest because the investigation I do, not because I am going to fight less for them if they really were guilty of the crime, but just because I don’t want to be sent down the wrong path.
I’ll give you a perfect example right now. I am representing a client in federal court for an older fraud case that they just recently unsealed the indictment from a few years: Multidefendant, bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, money laundering, all kinds of stuff. The client is really down at the bottom of the list of defendants. He was an employee of the business, nothing major. I think the allegations are that he deposited 15 checks, so the question is: How the hell did he know what these checks were? He was working for the guy that was his boss at a store, and he was told to go to the bank. Does he break the law? Yea. I mean, he is a heroin addict. He has had multiple identity theft cases in state court. He has had drug cases. He has problems trying to stay out of trouble, but in this particular case with the fraud and all that, I’m looking at the evidence. The guy has broken the law in various ways. He is not perfect. He has a drug addiction. But even without the drug addiction, I am looking at this particular case and I am looking at whether the government can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. From what I am seeing right now, I don’t see anything except for one video of him in a bank and a copy of the check because he endorses it in the back to deposit it. But multiple people that the government interviewed in their investigation, people that were cooperating, nobody knows my guy. Nobody knows who he is. It’s like, I can’t let them get away with that. They have a job to do, and their job is to have evidence for every conviction that they get, and so I really don’t care that my client has been a bum and a derelict and a drug addict and stole identify, theft, or whatever. I can about whether they can prove their case and whether they are upholding the Constitution because my job is to uphold the Constitution.
Traci Brown: Right. That’s real interesting because that is the first thing I got about you when we sort of met on that TV show because we got asked to review . . .
Sara Azari: At some point, I thought everyone was going to beat me up. At some point, everyone got really quiet and started rolling their eyes, and I thought, oh Lord!
Traci Brown: Well, yea. Let’s frame this up a little bit. They told us, the producer, Joy, who was awesome, she was like, I want you to argue. I’m thinking, oh boy, here we go. We had to watch this video. Viewers can go watch it on YouTube. It’s the Michael Rafferty- is his name – interrogation. You can find it. It is several hours long, and I watched most of it, but I had to turn it off, and we’ll get into why. Now he has been convicted, a child rapist/killer. Now when I look at that video, I thought, oh my gosh, this guy is a complete liar, totally did this, and you’re arguing what you just argued right now about proving the case. I’m like, oh my gosh, who is this woman? How am I going to get around this?
Sara Azari: In that case, I think your listeners, your audience should definitely . . . it’s painful to watch. I watched all four hours, but it is the worst interrogation I’ve ever seen, almost worse than Making a Murderer, the documentary.
Traci Brown: Oh, wow.
Sara Azari: That was a coercive interrogation, kind of a different issue. This was like an epic failed Reid technique. The Reid technique goes back to the 1940s. It’s a classic interrogation technique where law enforcement is trained to put the suspect in a very uncomfortable situation, sort of a windowless, cold, very sterile type of environment with no food, no water, nothing, and then they start interrogating them. They do the isolation and then they do the maximization which is the officer starts out by basically working off the premise that the suspect is already guilty. Everything is pointing to guilt. You’re done. You’re done, so the best thing you can do for yourself is to tell me that you did it. That’s the premise, and then the minimization comes last, which is sort of the good cop portion of the interview which is, don’t you feel better now that you have confessed? Isn’t this better? This is better for everybody. Everybody wants to know the truth from you. But this guy in the Rafferty case it was a painful monologue, with no offense to Canadians because I love Canadians and I have a lot of Canadian friends, but really sort of, it was the accent within the context of this interrogation that was just so painful, so I, of course, and our panel was saying, maybe he did it, maybe he is good for this crime, but he should not have been interrogated in that way. Then they brought his co-defendant in who was his drug-addicted girlfriend.
Traci Brown: Yea, they brought her in.
Sara Azari: He did this confrontation, and all of these absolutely – I was cringing, I was jumping out of my chair – things that are not supposed to be done, and therefore, he was convicted. A lot of it turned on that girlfriend’s testimony which I saw as very problematic in terms of her credibility, so my point was not that this guy is an angel or that this guy is innocent, but that this guy, his case presented some huge evidentiary problems and some huge missteps by the prosecution and law enforcement. I felt strongly about the conviction being based on some really unethical and unkosher processes.
Traci Brown: Well, yea, I could tell you did because I was sitting here at home on Zoom going, oh my gosh! But I wanted to understand your thought process behind it, right, because me, as a body language expert, I’m looking at that and I’m going, okay, this interrogation is horrible. It’s worth a watch if you’re interested in interrogations at all, or interviews as they call them. Again, that case is Michael Rafferty. This interviewer . . . well, Michael Rafferty decided not to talk very much. But you know what, he didn’t have time to talk because the interview was . . .
Sara Azari: He did all the talking.
Traci Brown: He did all the talking. He would not pause at all, and he just kept talking and talking. The number one rule in interrogations is silence. Just be quiet, and you’ll be shocked at what people say.
Sara Azari: Right.
Traci Brown: Definitely worth a watch. Some of his logic on confessing and did he do it or not was the same logic that they use in hotels to get you to not launder your towels, which is everybody in that chair today has confessed, you might as well just make it easy. What do they say in hotels?, 85% of the people in this room do not wash their towels so you feel like a schmuck if you want to do it.
Sara Azari: Yea.
Traci Brown: Yea, totally worth a watch. Okay, let’s switch. Because you said you knew, and I think this is super relevant to what is going on right, you said you knew a little bit about the rise in PPP fraud, which is Paycheck Protection Program. What do you know about that? What is going on? What is the latest because I am sure these fraud schemes kind of shift and twist as we get further into things? What are you seeing out there?
Sara Azari: The trends change with the times, although there is always the classic bank fraud and that kind of thing, loan fraud. When you have an event that causes despair in the population and the masses like the pandemic did where people were desperate to get by and to survive and not lose their homes, crime goes up. However, there is also a group who don’t really act out of despair but act out of criminality and are looking for the opportunity.
Traci Brown: Opportunity, yea.
Sara Azari: That will be provided by the government which gives them more opportunities, more relief, more changes to commit fraud. We have seen a lot of that all over the nation, including in my district, in the central district of California. There is so much of it that the major fraud unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the DOJ here, they have a subgroup that only is looking at COVID fraud cases, so loan fraud like SBA loans as a result of COVID because SBA created a business loan specifically related to economic disaster, and then PPP. We have a special group of prosecutors just doing those cases and not the other types of fraud cases. I have a few myself that I’m working on right now. Some of the allegations include, for example, setting up a sham business and fake payroll records just to get PPP loans. Of course, the government is angry. They are saying that is why people that legitimately qualified for the PPP loans were not able to get PPP loans, myself included.
Traci Brown: Yea, me. I was in that boat. I was stressing out because I was like, how am I going to eat?
Sara Azari: Because I’m not an employee and I was not on payroll, I’m an independent contractor, I wasn’t able to collect for myself. I was only able to collect for individuals that were on my payroll, which is not that much money. So, the government is like that’s why, because your clients are doing this and that. There is a lot of that sort of falsification of records because you have to present payroll records in order to be able to qualify for a specific loan amount. One case involves multiple defendants, multiple bank accounts where the allegations are that they set up different businesses that were nonexistent. They were just set up for the purposes of getting PPP relief, and then they applied using doctored payroll reports, and they were able to get that. What is surprising to me, and this is not a defense, or trust me, I would use it . . .
Traci Brown: I know you would too!
Sara Azari: Yea. What’s surprising to me is that they process these loans. How do you not go through the filtering and the scrutiny before you give away millions of dollars to a few different applicants for different businesses? Doesn’t that alone raise a red flag? That’s not a defense, but it’s just like the system doesn’t work. The system is not fraud proof. You know what I mean?
Traci Brown: Yea, yea.
Sara Azari: And people look for those opportunities know that. Therefore, so long as this and this and this checks out, their application is going to go through, and it sure did. Now it they’re looking at fraud to the tune of millions of dollars. Yea, that’s a huge trend right now in the DOJ amongst criminal defense attorneys who defend the cases. The other trend, of course, is political white-collar stuff is always . . .
Traci Brown: Oh, say a little bit about that. What are you seeing?
Sara Azari: Our biggest thing was recently we had a number of our LA city council people indicted and convicted by the DOJ in a federal fraud cases for bribery and public corruption.
Traci Brown: Oh really?
Sara Azari: There is always greed and opportunity in politics.
Traci Brown: Oh, yea.
Sara Azari: That’s something that’s happening. But in terms of trend, it is mostly these types of fraud. Unemployment fraud, which tends to be on the state side, but it is still white-collar fraud. There is also a huge task force across the nation for fentanyl. Obviously, this is not fraud, but a drug case with the DEA. They have a task force and this was created in 2019 because of the rise of fentanyl addiction and fentanyl deaths where distributors of drugs were making it look like oxycodone, but it really was fentanyl. Then COVID hit so a lot of these investigations were put on hold. I have a case involving a fentanyl death, and my client is addicted himself, and alleged to have provided a pill that ultimately got to a family member who then died, and so the idea is this happened in 2019, at the end of 2019, but they just did not get around to an indictment until this year because of the pandemic.
Traci Brown: Yea, yea.
Sara Azari: The pandemic also slowed – well stopped everything really – in terms of prosecutions and indictments and trials, and now it is really busy because things have happened during 2020, and then things have happened prior to that time that were due to be indicted, stopped. There were no grand juries. There was no prosecution. Anyway, it is interesting times.
Traci Brown: Isn’t it though. Isn’t it though. I tell you what, if I ever need help getting out of anything, you are my first call! How can people get a hold of you?
Sara Azari: You can follow me on Twitter. My handle is@AzariLaw and then AzariLaw.com is my website. If it is related to media, you can reach me on Twitter. If it’s related to cases, you can look me up on my website. There is a contact form that you can submit your communication and I can reply too that way.
Traci Brown: Oh good! Okay. Well, I hope people get smart and call you when they need a little help. Thank you so much for coming on Fraud Busting!
Sara Azari: It was a pleasure. It was great chatting with you, Traci.
Thanks for joining me. Make sure you subscribe to this podcast, rate and review it. I’ll see you next time.