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United States v. Zongo

United States District Court, S.D. New York

May 23, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
SANDRA ZONGO, a/k/a "Akiwa Gizzel, " a/k/a "Sandra Nelson, " Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          KIMBA M. WOOD, District Judge

         On January 27, 2017, a jury found defendant Sandra Zongo guilty on all four counts of Superseding Indictment S2 15 CR 319 (the "S2 Indictment"). The defendant now moves, pursuant to Rules 29 and 33 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, for ajudgment of acquittal and for a retrial on all counts of the S2 Indictment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES the defendant's Rule 29 motion for ajudgment of acquittal, and DENIES the defendant's Rule 33 motion for a new trial.

         I. RULE 29 MOTION FOR A JUDGMENT OF ACQUITTAL

         a. Background

         The defendant moves for a judgment of acquittal on Count Four of the S2 Indictment on the ground that the Government failed to prove each and every element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt. Count Four charged the defendant with attempted wire fraud for sending "documentation falsely representing her residence, employment, and income, in an effort to obtain benefits disbursements by means of... interstate wire transfer." (Indictment at 3-4).

         The government argued to the jury that the defendant committed attempted wire fraud when she submitted an application to the New York Human Resources Administration ("HRA") for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ("SNAP") benefits. It argued that her application contained two materially false statements relating to her employment, income, and rent payments. First, Ms. Zongo submitted a letter signed by "S. Young" claiming that she was an intern for "SDG Cluster Policy In Action 4 United Nations Implementation" and earned an income of $400 per month, which was false. (Def. Mem. at 2). Second, Ms. Zongo submitted a form signed by a person named Mawahib Mohammed, which claimed that the defendant paid $400 in rent per month to reside in "Room #2" of "Apartment #528" at 134 East 43rd Street in Manhattan, which was also false. (Id. at 3). The jury found the defendant guilty of attempted wire fraud.

         Defendant now argues that "no rational jury could render a verdict of guilty on Count Four because: (1) the government failed to prove that Ms. Zongo made a false statement regarding her employment or her rent expenses; and (2) none of the alleged false statements, individually or collectively, was material. (Id. at 5).

         b. Relevant Law

         A defendant who files a Rule 29 motion "bears a heavy burden, as the standard of review is exceedingly deferential." United States v. Brock, 789 F.3d 60, 63 (2d Cir. 2015). The Rule permits a district court to enter a judgment of acquittal on a count of conviction only if it finds that the evidence on that count is "insufficient to sustain a conviction." Fed. R. Crim. P. 29. In deciding a motion for a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29, a court must "view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, crediting every inference that could have been drawn in the government's favor, and deferring to the jury's assessment of witness credibility and its assessment of the weight of the evidence." United States v. Chavez, 549 F.3d 119, 124 (2d Cir. 2008). Thus, a jury verdict must be upheld if "any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (1979).

         Count Four of the S2 Indictment charged the defendant with attempted wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349. In order to convict on this count, the jury had to find beyond a reasonable doubt (1) that the defendant knowingly and willfully participated in a scheme to defraud by materially false and fraudulent pretenses with specific intent to defraud through the use of interstate wires, see United States v. Bouyea, 152 F.3d 192, 194 (2d Cir. 1998); and (2) that the defendant took a "substantial step" in an effort to bring about or accomplish the crime, see United States v. Farhane, 634 F.3d 127, 146 (2d Cir. 2011).

         A false statement is fraudulent if it was made with the intent to deceive. United States v. Mahaffy, 285 F.App'x 797, 799 (2d Cir. 2008). The fraud statutes are violated by both affirmative misstatements and material omissions that the defendant had a duty to disclose, United States v. Autori, 212 F.3d 105 (2d Cir. 2000), and a defendant's fraudulent intent "may be proven entirely through circumstantial evidence. ..." United States v. Romano, 794 F.3d 317, 335 (2d Cir. 2015). In order to prove that the fraudulent statements were material, the statements must have had "a natural tendency to influence, or [were] capable of influencing, the decision of the [HRA]." Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1, 16 (1999).

         c. Discussion

         The government presented extensive evidence at trial to prove that the statements at issue were both false and material. Thus, the jury's decision to convict the defendant on Count Four of the S2 Indictment was reasonable, and supported by sufficient evidence.

         i. The ...


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