In court filings late Friday, federal prosecutors in Manhattan indicated they planned to take the unusual step of appealing as too lenient the prison sentences imposed on five former aides to Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff in December.
The government had previously complained about the short sentences U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain imposed, all of them less than half of the time prosecutors requested on convictions of conspiracy in a $20 billion scam that was one of the largest financial frauds ever.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office declined to comment Friday about its filing of notices of appeal to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the government's dismay was signaled in December when a prosecutor criticized the judge during the sentencing hearings.
"Your honor has shown extraordinary mercy," prosecutor Matthew Schwartz told the judge. "But we ask, on behalf of the victims of this fraud, for justice."
Swain sentenced former Madoff secretary Annette Bongiorno of Manhasset to 6 years instead of the 20-plus called for by the government for putting made-up trades on customer account statements for decades.
Former computer programmers Jerome O'Hara of Malverne and George Perez of East Brunswick, New Jersey, got only 2 1/2 years instead of 8 sought by prosecutors for helping produce reports that fooled regulators and auditors.
Former Madoff director of operations Daniel Bonventre of Manhattan got 10 years instead of 20 sought by prosecutors, and former account manager Joann Crupi of Westfield, New Jersey, got 6 years instead of 14.
Federal sentencing guidelines called for all of them to get life sentences. Defense lawyers said they were all fooled by Madoff, and Swain said that while the five helped Madoff cut corners they didn't know it was all a Ponzi scheme that would deplete the life savings of investors.
Defense lawyers at the time praised Swain's courage. Roland Riopelle, Bongiorno's lawyer, said last night that he would vigorously oppose the government's appeal. "They are angry at Judge Swain for doing what she thought was right," he said.
"The government has no respect for Judge Swain," Riopelle added in a statement. "This appeal is simply a bullying tactic, meant to gain a litigation advantage and garner press for the government."
Legal experts have said that sentencing appeals by the government are unusual and challenging, because appeals courts tend to give a trial judge discretion on sentencing.
The Madoff defendants have indicated they are appealing their convictions.