Eleventh Circuit Overturns Conviction for Misuse of Federal Funds for Insufficient Evidence – United States v. Jimenez
I was very interested to see a rare Eleventh Circuit decision overturning a conviction for a Florida man accused of misusing federal funds at work. In United States v. Jimenez, Michael Jimenez was accused of failing to disclose a conflict of interests to the Head Start office where he worked. Jimenez is married to Johana Melendez Santiago, who wrote a children’s book about germs. Jimenez suggested to a colleague that Head Start purchase the book, and although many people in the office knew Melendez was married to Jimenez, the office nonetheless decided to spend $9,000 on the book. Jimenez never completed the form disclosing this conflict, and a federal jury later convicted him on criminal charges of misapplying federal funds. He argued on appeal that the evidence of his crime was insufficient, and the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Jimenez first suggested the book to peer Marie Mason, who was Deputy Director of Program Services for Hillsborough County. Mason knew Melendez had written the book. She and Jimenez brought the book to an RN at Head Start, who thought Head Start children were too young for it. She showed it to another employee, who recommended against buying it because it would be a conflict for Jimenez. The two of them brought that concern to the nurse’s supervisor, Ron Knight. But Mason, who supervised Knight, told them to order the book. In May of 2010, Head Start ordered 750 copies. Jimenez failed to fill out the conflict form. Nearly a year later, a grand jury indicted Jimenez, Melendez and Mason for fraud. Mason and Melendez were acquitted, but Jimenez was convicted of honest services fraud and intentionally misapplying funds. The judge granted a post-trial motion for acquittal on honest services fraud, but not the intentionally misapplying count, leaving Jimenez with a sentence of 36 months of probation and $9,000 in repayment.
The statute in question applies to agencies that get more than $10,000 a year in federal funding. Under the statute, an agency employee is guilty of a crime if he intentionally misapplies property worth $5,000 or more that belongs to the agency. The prosecution argued that Jimenez “intentionally misapplied” the $9,000 by causing Head Start to order his wife’s book. Jimenez argued on appeal that the evidence was insufficient to show that he broke this law, and the Eleventh Circuit agreed after consideration. It found that Jimenez never applied or directed any funds in the first place, making it impossible that he misapplied them. Mason asked the nurse to review the book and ultimately authorized its purchase. The Eleventh acknowledged that Jimenez didn’t fill out the conflict form, but said it is “reluctant to metamorphose every municipal misstep into a federal crime.” It reversed the conviction and instructed the trial court to order an acquittal.
I’ve read many appellate opinions arguing that the evidence for a conviction was insufficient, but I rarely see them succeed. Jimenez may have succeeded in his appeal partly because the statute he was supposed to have violated is so vague. As the Eleventh Circuit noted, “intentionally misapplies” is not defined, and courts have struggled to apply it properly as a result. The prosecution’s case would no doubt have been strengthened if Jimenez had done something more obviously corrupt, such as bribe Mason to order the book. But the actual circumstances of the case, without further notice, actually suggest that Jimenez might simply have forgotten to fill out a form. That’s an awfully harsh basis for felony charges.
Based in Miami, Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across south Florida who are charged with serious crimes. We know police officers don’t stop making arrests just because it’s after business hours, so we handle client calls at all times of day—24 hours a day and seven days a week. For a free, confidential consultation, send us a message online or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).
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