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LA Businessman Says Jury's Conviction Was Virus-Driven

By Cara Salvatore · March 23, 2020, 11:17 PM EDT

The Utah jury that convicted Los Angeles businessman Lev Dermen in a $511 million tax fraud last Monday appeared to have been in the grip of a coronavirus panic, Dermen's lawyers told a federal court Monday, emphatically renewing the camp's pre-verdict request for a mistrial.

Dermen's lawyer, Mark Geragos, said in a filing that the jury's March 16 conviction appeared to be tainted by mounting concerns over the virus's spread. Dermen was convicted of money laundering-related offenses in a sprawling case accusing him of masterminding a multistate fraud to pass off fake biofuels to reap federal incentives. 

"Instead of inquiring of the jury as to how they were being impacted by the unprecedented pandemic or staying the deliberations pending review and a ruling on Mr. Dermen's mistrial motion, and despite national directives to socially distance and stay at least six feet away from others, the jury was remanded into the small jury room on Monday morning to resume deliberations," Geragos wrote.

Some jurors had by that point been put into hotels and were eating restaurant meals — behaviors now broadly recognized as risky, Geragos siad. One juror was elderly. Another allegedly "demonstrated her willingness and ability to 'Google' and search the internet from the jury room," he said.

In that context, the timing of the verdict, which came within hours of President Donald Trump's warning to people to avoid gathering in groups of 10 or more, "suggests outside influence," the filing said.

In a filing responding to Derman's initial mistrial bid, prosecutors called the request "excessive and unwarranted," saying all the jurors in the case were present and apparently healthy.

Federal prosecutors from Main Justice's tax division as well as the District of Utah had been squaring off with Dermen since opening arguments on Jan. 30 over charges he led a massive scheme to obtain per-gallon credits for green fuel by rotating biofuel "precursors" around the country, putting them down on paper as the real thing at each step of the way to reap the federal incentives.

The verdict came as some courts had already taken strict measures to cancel trials and other courts were in the process of doing so. Minutes after the verdict, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the  Tenth Circuit announced that its doors would be closed to the public beginning the next morning.

Dermen was the last defendant in the case after four others, members of a fundamentalist, polygamist Mormon sect, pled guilty over the summer. The leader of that quartet, Jacob Kingston, who copped a plea along with his brother, his mother and one of his wives, was a star government witness against Dermen.

Prosecutors were given permission by U.S. District Judge Jill Parrish to introduce allegations of a dark 25-year history between Dermen and California law enforcement and corrupt dealings with foreign officials. Multiple Los Angeles-area law enforcement officials who were allegedly corrupt were named before trial.

Representatives for Dermen and the DOJ were not immediately available for comment.

The U.S. is represented by John Sullivan, Richard Rolwing, Leslie Goemaat and Arthur Ewenczyk of the U.S. Department of Justice Tax Division.

Dermen is represented by Mark Geragos and Setara Qassim of Geragos & Geragos.

The case is U.S. v. Kingston et al., case number 2:18-cr-00365, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah.

—Additional reporting by Jody Godoy, Yvonne Juris, Christopher Cole, and Mike LaSusa. Editing by Michael Watanabe.

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