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United States v. Pisani

September 12, 1985


Defendant appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (David N. Edelstein, Judge) convicting him of ten counts of mail fraud, four counts of income tax evasion, and four counts of filing false income tax returns. Affirmed in part, reversed in part.

Author: Pratt

Before: NEWMAN, KEARSE, and PRATT, Circuit Judges.


GEORGE C. PRATT, Circuit Judge:

Joseph R. Pisani appeals from a judgment of conviction entered on jury verdicts after a five-week trial before Hon. David N. Edelstein in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. The jury acquitted Pisani on eleven counts of mail fraud, and could not agree on ten counts relating to a real estate transaction, but convinced him on ten other counts of mail fraud, four counts of income tax evasion, and four counts of filing false income tax returns. Judge Edelstein sentenced Pisani to a total of four years' imprisonment followed by four years' probation, imposed fines totaling $69,000, and, on one of the mail fraud counts, required restitution to a former law client of defendant in the amount of $3,604.

On appeal Pisani raises numerous issues, of which the following require discussion: (1) whether Judge Edelstein's conduct deprived Pisani of a fair trial; (2) whether the grand jury that returned the indictment was lawfully constituted; (3) the trial court erred in instructing the jury that political contributions used for personal purposes constituted taxable income; and (4) whether Pisani's conduct in using campaign funds for personal expenses as campaign expenditures violated the federal mail fraud statute.

We reverse and dismiss the nine mail fraud counts that are based on filing false reports of campaign expenditures (counts 12, 13, 15, 16, 18, 22, 23, 25, and 26), and we reverse and remand for a new trial on the income tax charges (counts 32 through 39). We affirm the conviction on the mail fraud charge that involved funds of one of Pisani's former clients (count 28).


Pisani was originally elected to the New York State Senate for the 62nd District in Westchester County in 1972 and was reelected to that position every two years up through 1982. During that ten-year period Pisani also campaigned for the offices of New York State Attorney General, Westchester County Executive, and Governor of New York State.

In addition to his public activities, Pisani maintained an active law practice in association with two other lawyers in Westchester County, first as a partner from 1976 to 1980, and thereafter until 1983, as counsel to the firm.


On March 8, 1984, the government filed a 39-count indictment against defendant and one Kathryn Godfrey. For discussion purposes, the charges of the indictment can be viewed in four groups:

1. Mallon real estate transaction.

Counts 1 through 10 focused on an alleged transaction by which Pisani purchased a summer home from Joseph and Roberta Mallon, and compensated them by providing Joseph Mallon with a no-show job in a state agency. Included in these counts were charges of mail fraud against the state agency, perjury, obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury, and conspiracy to commit mail fraud and perjury and to obstruct justice. Godfrey was named as a codefendant on two counts of perjury (counts 6 and 7), and one count of obstruction of justice (count 9). In all other counts of the indictment Pisani was the only defendant.

2. Campaign fund mail fraud.

Counts 11 through 26 charged defendant with mail fraud based on his use of campaign funds for personal purposes and filing false reports of his campaign expenditures.

3. Law practice mail fraud.

Counts 27 through 31 charged Pisani with mail fraud in his dealings with his law partners and clients.

4. Tax violations.

Counts 32 through 39 charged Pisani with four years of income tax violations.

After a one-month trial and 3 1/2 days of deliberations the jury could not agree on any of the ten counts relating to the Mallon real estate transaction; it found him guilty on nine and acquitted him on seven of the campaign fund mail fraud counts; it found him guilty on one and acquitted him on four of the law practice mail fraud counts; and it found him guilty on all eight of the income tax counts.

As to defendants Godfrey, who is not a party to this appeal, the jury acquitted her on one count of perjury, and could not agree on the other two charges brought against her.

On the nine campaign fund mail fraud convictions Judge Edelstein sentenced Pisani to nine concurrent three-year prison terms and nine $1000 fines. On the law practice mail fraud conviction, which involved a client's escrow account, Judge Edelstein sentenced Pisani to three-year prison term, but suspended execution of sentence and imposed probation of four years to commence on his release from prison, on condition that Pisani pay restitution of $3,604 to the defrauded former client. On the four income tax evasion convictions, Judge Edelstein sentenced Pisani to four three-year prison terms to run concurrently with each other and with the nine mail fraud jail sentences, plus four $10,000 fines. On the four convictions for filing false income tax returns, Judge Edelstein sentenced Pisani to four one-year prison terms, to run concurrently with each other, but consecutively to the other sentences, plus four $5,000 fines. Overall, therefore, Pisani was sentenced to four years in prison to be followed by four years' probation, fined a total of $69,000, and required to pay restitution of $3,604.


On appeal Pisani raises a variety of claims. Some of them are rendered moot by our conclusions on other issues; others have been carefully reviewed and found to be lacking both in merit and jurisprudential significance. Of the claims discussed below two are directed at all counts on which Pisani was convicted: (1) that the trial judge's misconduct deprived him of a fair trial, and (2) that the indicting grand jury was not legally constituted. In addition, Pisani attacks his convictions of mail fraud by use of the mails to embezzle, divert, and convert money from his campaign funds and concealment of the diversions and embezzlement on the ground that his conduct as proved is not proscribed by the federal mail fraud statute. He attacks all of his tax convictions, on the ground that the trial court erred in removing from the jury the issue of whether or not his campaign contributions were gifts and therefore not includable in gross income. Pisani raises no argument on appeal, however, that is directed particularly at his conviction on count 28 of mail fraud with respect to the client's escrow account.


A. Judge Edelstein's Conduct.

Pisani contends that Judge Edelstein's "hostile and disparging" treatment of defendant, defense counsel, and defense witnesses during the trial, combined with his "coercive and demeaning" treatment of the jurors, deprived Pisani of his constitutional rights to a fair trial, due process, and the effective representation of counsel. This alleged judicial misconduct, he claims, entitles him to a new trial.

Reviewing Pisani's claim is difficult because, of course, we are unable to observe directly the interaction of personalities during trial; our review is necessarily limited to "the cold black and white of a printed record'". United States v. Grunberger, 431 F.2d 1062, 1067 (2d Cir. 1970) (quoting United States v. Ah Kee Eng, 241 F.2d 157, 161 (2d Cir. 1957)). For this reason, we have no handy tool with which to gauge automatically whether the trial judge's conduct was improperly tipped the balance of the trial against the defendant. United States v. Nazzaro, 472 F.2d 302, 304 (2d Cir. 1973). Our disposition of the claim must flow from careful deliberation after close scrutiny of the record. Our role, however, is not to determine whether the trial judge's conduct left something to be desired, or even whether some comments would have been better left unsaid. Rather, we must determine whether the judge's behavior was so prejudicial that it denied Pisani a fair, as opposed to a perfect, trial. United States v. Robinson, 635 F.2d 981, 984 (2d Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 992, 68 L. Ed. 2d 852, 101 S. Ct. 2333 (1981). If we conclude that the conduct of the trial had so impressed the jury with the trial judge's partiality to the prosecution that this became a factor in determining the defendant's guilt, then the convictions should be reversed. United States v. Guglielmini, 384 F.2d 602, 604 (2d Cir. 1967). In light of these general standards we turn to Pisani's various complaints about Judge Edelstein's conduct.

1. Rulings on objections.

Pisani first objects throughout the trial, emphasizing that Pisani's counsel usually came out on the losing side. Of course, a trial judge must be ever conscious of the special attention and respect he commands from the jury and must exercise caution to maintain an appearance of impartiality. United States v. Vega, 589 F.2d 1147, 1153 (2d Cir. 1978). But a trial judge must rule on countless objections, and a simple numerical tally of those sustained and overruled, one which here favors the government, is not enough to establish that the scales of justice were tipped against a defendant. Of far greater importance is the correctness and fairness of the judge's evidentiary rulings.

After carefully reviewing the trial transcript we conclude that Judge Edelstein's rulings on objections from both sides were generally sound. Pisani has not pointed to any prejudicially erroneous rulings, and lacking such support, we will not fault the trial judge simply because defense counsel would have preferred a more favorable scorecard. There were numerous instances when the trial judge did sustain defense objections. Moreover, if defense counsel objects when objections are unwarranted-as he did on numerous occasions-he can hardly complain that "it is hard to find a defense objection that was sustained." Similarly, if defense counsel pursues an objectionable line of questioning, he can hardly cry "foul" when the judge sustains a government objection or even excludes the testimony sua sponte.

2. Requiring written argument on objections.

Defendant next complains that "the most shocking illustration of the trial court's prejudicial partiality was his imposition on defense counsel- and only defense counsel -of the novel and totally unfair procedural requirement that objections be made by means of written notes." In the first place, this assertion is untrue; Judge Edelstein also required the government to write out its objections on occasion. Second, Judge Edelstein required written submissions only with respect to extended arguments; as the record shows, he entertained repeated oral objections from both sides, and allowed brief side bar conferences at the request of either party. Third, Judge Edelstein adopted this procedure to avoid distracting the court and jury from the examination of witnesses, and we have long recognized that a trial judge has wide discretion to adopt methods designed to expedite a trial. United States v. Dardi, 330 F.2d 316, 330 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 379 U.S. 845, 13 L. Ed. 2d 50, 85 S. Ct. 50 (1964). This procedure effectively served that end.

Finally, Pisani claims prejudice because the practice allowed evidence to be received and absorbed by the jury before the court could make a considered ruling on the objection. Aside from the fact that the trial judge could have cured most prejudicial effects by proper instructions to the jury, the defendant points to no instance, nor do we find any, where prejudicial evidence was erroneously revealed to the jury under this practice and then later excluded.

3. Questioning defense witnesses.

Pisani also contends that Judge Edelstein exceeded the proper scope of his duties by interrupting defense counsel to ask questions of both Pisani and the other defense witnesses. But as Judge Edelstein colorfully informed this jury, a trial judge need not sit like "a bump on a log" throughout the trial. He has an active responsibility to insure that issues are clearly presented to the jury. Vega, 589 F.2d at 1152. Thus, the questioning of witnesses by a trial judge, it for a proper purpose such as clarifying ambiguities, correcting misstatements, or obtaining information needed to make rulings, is well within that responsibility. United States v. Bronston, 658 F.2d 920, 930 (2d Cir. 1981), cert. denied, 456 U.S. 915, 72 L. Ed. 2d 174, 102 S. Ct. 1769 (1982). Here, some of the interruptions were invited by defense counsel's often ambiguous or repetitive questions. See United States v. Pellegrino, 470 F.2d 1205, 1207 (2d Cir. 1972), cert. denied, 411 U.S. 918, 36 L. Ed. 2d 310, 93 S. Ct. 1556 (1973). Even though it is sometimes difficult to tell from the written record whether a judge's questions unfairly disparaged the defense, see Grunberger, 431 F.2d at 1067, it ...

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