Feds Say Don't Release Crypto Fraud Suspects Due To Virus

By Jeannie O'Sullivan
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Law360 (March 25, 2020, 3:17 PM EDT) -- New Jersey's top federal prosecutor shot back at bids by two men to be sprung from a New Jersey county jail amid fears of COVID-19 spread, arguing Tuesday the global pandemic panic doesn’t minimize flight risk for the two alleged participants in a $722 million cryptocurrency scheme.

U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito acknowledged that the coronavirus has started a "national conversation" about releasing pretrial detainees accused of nonviolent crimes to lessen the risk of the virus spreading throughout inmate populations. But he said defendants like Matthew Brent Goettsche and Jobadiah Sinclair Weeks should still be subject to an individualized assessment by the court.

"The facts that compelled their detention have not changed — they maintain, among other things, unaccounted for wealth, overseas contacts, and strong incentives to flee," Carpenito said in a brief responding to their release bids. "Although the pandemic has curtailed international commercial air travel, there remain numerous flights out of the country."

The recently enacted Bail Reform Act favors pretrial release of a defendant unless the release wouldn't "reasonably assure" their appearance at trial, Carpenito noted. That determination requires courts to examine the nature of the crime, the weight of the evidence against the defendant and the "history and character" of the defendant, the brief said.

Goettsche and Weeks, who are lodged in Essex County jail, have already been declared a flight risk by courts in their districts of arrest — Colorado for Goettsche and Florida for Weeks — and by U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael A. Hammer, according to Carpenito.

After a detention hearing in federal court, Judge Hammer pointed to the government's evidence against them, such as incriminating communications, and noted that both men had access to assets that would "fund a risk of flight."

Additionally, the court found that Weeks' wife and child wouldn't deter him from fleeing "given their own extensive travel," the brief said.

Carpenito went on to say that while communities at the heart of COVID-19 outbreaks, such as New Jersey, are instituting detainee reductions, Goettsche and Weeks aren't likely candidates. For one thing, they're not at high risk for contracting COVID-19, according to the brief.

"They are not elderly and, with the exception of Weeks' asthma condition, which apparently has moderated in adulthood, they do not present with health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to COVID-19 complications," the brief said.

Further, the jail has undertaken precautions to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak, such as enhanced inmate screening measures and the suspension of in-person meetings between detainees and attorneys and visits from family and friends, Carpenito argued.

Addressing media reports that an Essex County inmate had contracted the virus, Carpenito said, "Unfortunately, there will be others. But that inevitability does not justify wholesale release."

Carpenito also rejected the case law that the defendants invoked to back their release bids, saying the decisions didn't involve detainees like Goettsche and Weeks, "who present and have adjudged as serious flight risks facing hefty potential prison sentences for their parts in an exceptionally lucrative fraud scheme."

In their release bids, Goettsche and Weeks suggested a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility is inevitable. Weeks’ attorney had also pointed to poor conditions at the jail, such as moldy walls and food, outlined in a report issued last year by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.

Goettsche, Weeks and co-defendant Joseph Frank Abel are charged with running purported cryptocurrency mining pool company BitClub Network, soliciting money from investors in exchange for shares of purported cryptocurrency mining pools and offering bonuses for the recruitment of new investors, according to prosecutors. A fourth man, Silviu Catalin Balaci, also has been charged in the scheme.

According to the indictment, the defendants solicited BitClub investments by showing investors figures that purported to show earnings from BitClub's bitcoin mining pool operations. Prosecutors claimed Goettsche and others manipulated the earnings numbers in order to promote the sale of bitcoin mining shares in BitClub and to convince members to invest additional funds in BitClub's cryptocurrency-related products.

A representative for Carpenito declined to comment. Representatives for Goettsche and Weeks did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The government is represented by David W. Feder, Anthony P. Torntore, Jamie L. Hoxie and Sarah Devlin of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey.

Goettsche is represented by Rodney Villazor of Smith Villazor LLP and Benjamin Sauter, Andrew Lourie and Hartley M.K. West of Kobre & Kim.

Weeks is represented by Simon Gaugush and Michael L. Yaeger of Carlton Fields.

The case is U.S. v. Goettsche et al., case number 2:19-cr-00877, in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

--Additional reporting by Bill Wichert. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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