White-Collar Crime

9th Circuit affirms lawyer's conviction for attempting to extort rabbi by threat of court testimony

A suspended California lawyer serving a federal three-year sentence for attempted extortion and trying to obstruct a grand jury investigation has lost his bid to overturn his conviction.

Although a federal appeals court agreed with Alfred Nash Villalobos that a jury instruction concerning what threats are “wrongful” had been improper, it said the error was harmless and affirmed his 2011 conviction. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel also found that the trial court had correctly refused to allow Villalobos to assert a claim of right in defending the case, Courthouse News and the National Law Journal (sub. req.) report.

At issue in the case was the representation by Villalobos of a woman who had come to the U.S. from Israel with her husband and purportedly worked at the Los Angeles Chabad Israel Center under a religious visa. When Orit Anjel got her paychecks, her husband, Avi Anjel, cashed them and gave the money to Rabbi Amitai Yemeni, who served as the center’s director, the 9th Circuit recounts in its Friday opinion (PDF).

After Yemeni fired Orit Anjel in 2009, she retained Villalobos to try to get back the money her husband had paid the rabbi. Once he learned from Avi Anjel that the feds wanted to interview Orit as part of an investigation of a possible immigration scheme by the rabbi, Villalobos approached Yemeni and his lawyer, Benjamin Gluck.

Villalobos said he simply demanded repayment of his client’s wages, as he had a right to do. But the government said Villalobos made a threat that Orit would do “whatever it is we need her to do,” including lying to a grand jury, which constituted an extortion attempt, the opinion explains.

Gluck sought help from the government and recorded conversations with Villalobos, and Villalobos was arrested shortly after he accepted an envelope containing $50,000 in cash from Gluck.

He was convicted under the Hobbs Act, and the jury instruction challenged in his appeal concerned statutory language requiring a “wrongful” threat. Threatening to provide court testimony is wrongful, according to the instruction given the jury hearing the Villalobos case, if it is made “with the intent to induce or take advantage of fear.”

That broad definition includes virtually all threats, the 9th Circuit panel held, finding the instruction erroneous “because it essentially read the ‘wrongful’ element out of the Hobbs Act.” However, the error was harmless, the court said, because “the record makes clear beyond a reasonable doubt that any rational jury would have found that Villalobos’ threats were wrongful because they were unlawful.”

Villalobos is scheduled for release in December, the NLJ article notes.

Charges against Yemeni were dropped, as an earlier National Law Journal (sub. req.) article details.

A California State Bar Web page lists Villalobos as currently ineligible to practice law following a 2011 interim suspension in the wake of a criminal conviction.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Lawyer Convicted of Extortion for Allegedly Offering False Client Testimony for $107K”

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