Steven provides counsel and guidance to emerging companies, small businesses and tech startups in the e-commerce and government subcontracting industries. Clients appreciate Steven’s thorough understanding of the law and his straightforward assessment of their issues and rights under the law. Since many of his clients are small businesses, they also turn to him to manage their general legal matters, such as corporate formation documents, operation agreements and employee contracts. In all of these areas, Steven excels at resolving his clients’ various legal challenges and surpassing their expectations.
Steven has significant experience in the investigative domain of the government. He has a clear understanding of how these proceedings work and how to best represent his clients to obtain the best possible result. His successes include drafting the operating documents for a joint venture that successfully bid on a government contract worth over $10 billion, and prevailing on behalf of a government contractor in a size protest before the U.S. Small Business Administration. He has also enjoyed considerable success for clients in debarment proceedings before the DOD and EPA, achieving decisions of no debarment period for government contractors that were subject to a suspension and debarment proceeding.
Clients in the e-commerce and online advertising sphere turn to Steven for his familiarity with the nuances of their industry. First and foremost, he helps protect clients from legal liability from both consumers and contracting parties. This is achieved through thoughtfully prepared privacy policies, terms and conditions, end user license agreements and online distribution agreements. Beyond immediate industry-related concerns, Steven also provides guidance on legal needs such as product manufacturing agreements, creating LLCs, and writing bylaws.
Steven extends his legal skills in the community by assisting individuals in pro bono matters, including providing legal advice in landlord-tenant disputes and uncontested divorce proceedings. Steven has also served on the boards of a number of community organizations.
Professional + Community
- Bancroft Village Homeowner’s Association, Treasurer
- DC Bar, Member
- KAYTT, Board Member
Successfully Obtaining a Preliminary Injunction at the Court of Federal Claims
Our client, a long-time government contractor, rightly turned to Ifrah Law when it suspected a competitor had violated FAR regulations. Our client submitted a proposal in response to a government RFP to provide seminars and library services to detainees at the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. The RFP stated that this would be a “lowest price technically available” (LPTA) contract.
Our client’s proposal was unsuccessful, and they moved to challenge the award. Our critical review of the record revealed that the successful bidder may have utilized unbalanced pricing. We successfully argued that our client’s pricing was balanced and potentially fairer to the government – a difficult argument to make in LPTA solicitations because of the discretion granted to contracting officers. Our challenge was successful and following the court’s order granting a preliminary injunction, the government was forced to take corrective action.
(Torres AES v. United States, 1:13-cv-00898 (Damich, J.))
Successfully Defending a Government Contractor Against a Terminated Employee’s Health Care Claim
Ifrah Law successfully defended a government contractor against claims by a terminated company employee. Our client, a health care professional supplier, faced allegations that it failed to offer the former employee COBRA insurance coverage, as required under the COBRA statute.
Ifrah Law conducted a bench trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in January 2012. The judge sustained minimal claims and awarded the plaintiff a mere $500.
(Middlebrooks v. Godwin Corporation, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, No. 1:10CV1306))
Prevailing in a Government Contractor’s Debarment Proceeding
How long should your past haunt you? A client of Ifrah Law faced that question when it was confronted with a potentially crippling debarment from a federal agency.
The government contractor had participated in a conspiracy to bribe a public official for a contract award. However, it was the first to cooperate in the resulting federal investigation, which led to a successful conviction. Fast forward four years, and the Department of Defense moved to debar our client. The DoD had already placed the contractor on the Excluded Parties List System (EPLS) but wanted to go a step further. Debarment would have been devastating for our client’s business, resulting in an almost complete loss of revenue.
Presenting the client’s strong performance record since the bribery incident (we even got the prosecutor from the contract bribery case to write a letter to the court on our client’s behalf), Ifrah Lawyers successfully represented the contractor in the debarment proceeding. We obtained a decision of no debarment period at all.
Protesting Procurement Irregularities to Keep a Client in Competition
A client contractor participated in a procurement competition over a multi-award contract with the Department of the Army that was valued at almost half a billion dollars. After submitting a proposal, our client (along with other bidders) was excluded from the competition because of a deficiency in a proposed labor rate. The other excluded parties protested to the Government Accountability Office, and the Army permitted five of the protesting parties to rejoin the bidding process.
With just a week left before the final proposal revisions were due, our client asked us for help. We filed a U.S. Court of Federal Claims protest asking to reverse the exclusion based on irregularities in the procurement process. We also asked for an injunction to prevent the bidding process from ending.
As a result of our filing and subsequent negotiations with the Department of Justice, our client was permitted to rejoin the bidding and to submit a revised bid.
(Platinum Business Corporation, et al. v. United States, 1:12-cv-00001, Court of Federal Claims, Bid Protest (2012))
Effectively Advocating for a Government Contractor Facing Debarment
Having spent over 30 years in the environmental and renewable energy industry, our client was dismayed when he received a Notice of Suspension and Proposed Debarment (the Notice) from the EPA. Facing the possibility of a three-year debarment, our client knew that such a black mark would mean not only the end of his company, but also the end of his career.
Ifrah Law set to work on contesting the Notice and addressing the mitigating and aggravating factors. While our written response was strong, the bold and clearly reasoned advocacy we provided during the oral argument had the biggest impact on the case. Ifrah argued that this was a one-time oversight during an alleged emergency situation, for which our client was truly remorseful. But we took the additional step of arguing that that our client never should have been prosecuted in the first place, and that he was the victim of an overzealous prosecutor.
After the record closed, we were told that a settlement of two years was feasible, but we refused to settle. When the decision was rendered, our client faced no debarment whatsoever, allowing him to resume his government contracting business immediately. The EPA legal counsel involved in this matter told us that the advocating we did on our client’s behalf was one of the best she has ever seen.
When it comes to a conviction, or even an arrest, the collateral consequences that are sometimes overlooked by client and counsel can be extremely damaging, especially when dealing with government agencies and programs.
One such set of consequences is unique to contractors who do business with federal or state governments. Because even a plea to a criminal conviction represents a person’s affirmative statement of the underlying facts, that can lead to a proceeding to suspend or debar (that is, prohibit) the contractor from federal or state business. A government agency may issue a notice of suspension or debarment based on the criminal conviction alone, if the statute provides for such a basis of debarment. Moreover, in some circumstances, a government agency may issue a notice of suspension or debarment based on the underlying conduct (which the plea or conviction affirms as true) that poses a risk to the integrity of government contractors. Thus, even if a government contractor facing serious charges and a lengthy trial enters a plea to a less serious charge, that plea may cause the debarment of the government contractor and possibly deal a fatal blow to its business based on the conduct on which it was based.
Another example of an unforeseen consequence is when a person applies for one of the various government programs that are a “privilege” and not a right. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has implemented Trusted Traveler Programs, such as the Global Entry program, which allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. There is no right to participate in that program; rather, it is a privilege granted to individuals upon acceptance by the CBP. There is an application process for entry into the program, and, the CBP explicitly warns that applicants may not qualify if they have been convicted of any criminal offense or have pending criminal charges or outstanding warrants. Notably, as with similar statutes or prohibitions, there is no end date for when the CBP will stop considering the criminal conviction. Therefore, the criminal conviction will likely act as a lifetime bar to gaining acceptance into this program and into similar types of programs.
Collateral consequences are increasingly becoming an important area of law due to the fact that the total number of collateral consequences has increased tremendously in recent years. This requires a broad understanding of many areas, which is contrary to the trend in law practice of specialization in niche practice areas. Unfortunately, counsel are often completely unaware of the potential collateral consequences in practice areas outside their scope of practice. With funding provided by a DOJ grant and other sources, the ABA has developed an interactive tool called the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (available at www.abacollateralconsequences.org), which provides a database of the sanctions and restrictions in each state. This is a useful tool for both counsel and client in understanding the full gamut of collateral consequences resulting from a criminal conviction.
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Prosecutors and often even judges do not appreciate the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction, regardless of whether it results from a trial or a plea agreement. While the direct consequences of conviction are obvious – such as jail time, probation requirements, and fines – the collateral consequences are more insidious. Yet sometimes those consequences can have an even greater impact on a person’s life than the sentence meted out by the court. These consequences may be difficult to identify, though they may be mandated by statutes and regulations scattered throughout state and federal law, and may arise from a misdemeanor conviction, or even a simple arrest.
One of the most serious collateral consequences of a criminal conviction is its effect on a person’s immigration status, and thanks to the United States Supreme Court, it is now one that has great visibility for most defense counsel. In Padilla v. Kentucky (130 S. Ct. 1473 (2010)), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of effective assistance of counsel requires that a defendant must be provided with notice of deportation consequences of a guilty plea he or she is considering. This issue arises most frequently in the context of drug cases because of the draconian treatment of such conduct under U.S. law for non-citizens. Since the Supreme Court’s opinion in Padilla, many courts now specifically include in their allocution during guilty pleas a specific notice regarding the possibility that a guilty plea may result in immigration consequences for the, including deportation, reversal of naturalization and non-admission.
But there are many other collateral consequences that are routine, but are not always referenced in a plea agreement and are often not recognized by defendants. Under federal law, a person convicted of a felony may not possess a firearm – indeed, possession of a firearm by a felon constitutes a felony violation itself. And many state laws require that defendants who commit sex crimes register with local authorities. A conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs may result in the administrative loss of driving privileges for a period of time.
There are even more serious collateral consequences that persist for long periods of time involving exclusion from employment prospects, eligibility for professional licensing and access to government benefits. For instance, employees in the nursing care industry are generally subject to background checks by their employer and are required to maintain certain licensing in their individual capacity as a condition to working in the industry. But even a relatively minor criminal conviction will raise a red flag on the background check and foil any chance of receiving a license. Similarly, a state agency may refuse to issue a business an operating license if some of its higher level employees have criminal convictions. Not only does this restriction limit a person’s employment prospects, but more broadly, they also harm the person’s chances of earning any livelihood because this person will also be prevented from owning any business that required such a state license.
For these reasons, it is absolutely essential that when considering whether to accept a plea agreement that both counsel and the client understand the consequences of the guilty plea in order to properly evaluate the benefits and the collateral damage of accepting a guilty plea versus proceeding to trial. And it is essential that counsel advise their clients in an effective manner of the consequences of a conviction that may persist long after the clients leave the courthouse or the jail.
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Severely ill patients in New York State are celebrating Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature of a bill that legalized medical marijuana in New York for many severely ill patients. As noted by Assembly Speaker Silver in his remarks, “With this agreement, we are assuring access to that much-needed relief while ensuring the tightest possible regulation and state supervision.” Indeed, the New York bill does contain many restrictions on the use of medical marijuana, which were necessary in order to gain the agreement of Governor Cuomo for the passage of the bill.
For instance, the bill’s coverage is limited to “certified patients” that submit an application and receive their “registry identification card.” The requirements are extensive and include: patients are residents of New York, are receiving care and treatment in New York, and have a “serious condition”, which is limited to “severe debilitating or life-threatening conditions” like cancer, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, HIV/AIDS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Huntington’s disease, epilepsy, neuropathic diseases, and multiple sclerosis or as determined by the commissioner of public health. A certified patient is also required to “possess his or her registry identification card at all times when in immediate possession of marijuana.”
Additionally, the final bill included a compromise provision, again on Gov. Cuomo’s insistence, that prohibits the possession of medical marijuana “if it is smoked, consumed, vaporized, or grown in a public place.” Instead, patients will take medical marijuana through an oil-based vaporizer, edible, or otherwise ingest the drug like any other pill.
Further, medical marijuana can only be administered by “practitioners”- i.e. doctors who are registered with the NYS Health Department to issue a patient certification, and, “no person may be a designated caregiver for more than five certified patients at one time.”
There are also restrictions on the manufacturers. Medical marijuana can only be sold by a “registered organization” that manufactures and dispenses in “an indoor, enclosed, secure facility located in New York state.” In addition to future regulations to be issued by the commissioner, a registered organization must possess “good moral character”, “sufficient land, buildings, … and equipment to properly carry on the activity described in the application”, or, post a $2M bond. Interestingly, the per dose price is also set by the commissioner so that this enterprise may not become some profit-making engine.
As a necessary assurance, the bill provides that certified patients, practitioners, and registered organizations are not subject to civil, criminal, or disciplinary proceedings because of their practices in accordance with the bill.
Finally, there is a seven year sunset provision in the bill, which essentially means the bill would need to be reauthorized, meaning that if it is not, medical marijuana will no longer be legal. The bill also contains a provision that authorizes the governor to terminate the medical marijuana program at any time if it is deemed to pose a public safety issue.
Despite these restrictions, Governor Cuomo stated: “Medical marijuana has the capacity to do a lot of good for a lot of people.” We wholeheartedly concur and feel there is no more appropriate ending than with the words of Assembly Speaker Silver: “This is a great day for New Yorkers.”
 Note: The New York bill refers to “marihuana”, but we have used the commonly known “marijuana” throughout for ease of reading.
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Last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC”) Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) formally announced its cybersecurity initiative in a Risk Alert. The initiative followed up on OCIE’s announced prioritization of cybersecurity preparedness as part of its 2014 Examination Priorities. The initiative is also timely because the general public is becoming more conscious of cybersecurity risks and its dangers as they learn of major breaches at Target Corp., Neiman Marcus, Michaels Stores Inc., and other companies. The security of personal information is even more important at financial services companies, which often have a large amount of sensitive personal information about their customers.
The OCIE’s approach is refreshingly proactive: “OCIE’s cybersecurity initiative is designed to assess cybersecurity preparedness in the securities industry and to obtain information about the industry’s recent experiences with certain types of cyber threats.” Further, the areas of cybersecurity assessment are quite broad and they cover “the entity’s cybersecurity governance, identification and assessment of cybersecurity risks, protection of networks and information, risks associated with remote customer access and funds transfer requests, risks associated with vendors and other third parties, detection of unauthorized activity, and experiences with certain cybersecurity threats.”
Importantly, the OCIE examination is detailed and specific about ensuring the adequacy and efficacy of cybersecurity measures. For example, the list of questions regarding identification of cybersecurity risks requires exact dates and times and is prefaced with “please provide the month and year in which the noted action was last taken; the frequency with which such practices are conducted; the group with responsibility for conducting the practice…”.
Further, the OCIE examination questions require naming the person(s) conducting the cybersecurity measures and when those measures were last checked or implemented. For example, the questions on identification of risks/cybersecurity governance include:
- Who (business group/title) conducts periodic risk assessments to identify cybersecurity threats, vulnerabilities, and potential business consequences, and in what month and year was the most recent assessment completed?
- Please describe any findings from the most recent risk assessment that were deemed to be potentially moderate or high risk and have not yet been fully remediated.
Similarly, the questions regarding a written cybersecurity incident response policy seeks a copy of the policy, the year it was most recently updated, whether there are tests to assess the policy, who conducts the tests, and when and by whom the last test was conducted. Likewise, the questions on event detection processes seek the month and year of the most recent test.
The examination questions also seek a summary of any actual cybersecurity incidents, the services affected, nature of the breach, the availability of services during the breach, and number of other questions about each cybersecurity incident. Notably, although the examination requires companies to provide a large amount of information, the SEC explicitly issued a disclaimer that the “factors are not exhaustive, nor will they constitute a safe harbor.”
Nonetheless, it is good to see the SEC take a proactive approach to the cybersecurity risks posed to financial institutions. Hopefully, this will flow down to other companies because cybersecurity is a hot-button topic that is very concerning to customers and unlikely to be fully resolved soon. With cooperation between government agencies and the private industry, we can be hopeful that cybersecurity risks can be mitigated. As SEC Chair White has noted, there is a “compelling need for stronger partnerships between the government and private sector” to address cybersecurity threats.
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Last Friday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Treasury, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen), both published new guidance in connection with the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado. Because marijuana use remains illegal under federal law, the banking industry is prohibited from servicing any marijuana-related bank accounts. This forces the recreational marijuana industry to operate on an all-cash basis, which increases public safety risks (both to retailers and to customers) and is a great inconvenience to the industry (which is required to take extreme measures such as hiring armed guards, installing very high tech security measures, and the businesses are unable to obtain bank loans or credit).
In response, FinCen’s guidance, along with the DOJ memo, was supposed to enable marijuana-related banking and eliminate the public safety concerns, as it clearly stated: “This FinCEN guidance should enhance the availability of financial services for, and the financial transparency of, marijuana-related businesses.” Although the guidance pursued an admirable goal, it fell remarkably short.
The DOJ memo states:
“The provisions of the money laundering statutes, the unlicensed money remitter statute, and the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) remain in effect with respect to marijuana-related conduct. Financial transactions involving proceeds generated by marijuana-related conduct can form the basis for prosecution under the money laundering statutes (18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 and 1957), the unlicensed money transmitter statute (18 U.S.C. § 1960), and the BSA. … Notably for these purposes, prosecution under these offenses based on transactions involving marijuana proceeds does not require an underlying marijuana-related conviction under federal or state law.”
Simply stated, the DOJ memo confirms that recreational marijuana use remains illegal under federal law and could serve as the basis of prosecution against banks (or individuals), but that the DOJ will probably not enforce the applicable federal statutes against banks for processing marijuana-related accounts, provided that the banks follow certain guidelines that are outlined in the DOJ memo.
These wishy-washy “promises” of non-enforcement are extremely unlikely to sway banks from their decision not to permit marijuana-related accounts. Banks are naturally conservative and also have a huge self-interest to be 100% compliant with federal law because of the highly regulated banking industry; therefore, banks are only likely to permit marijuana-related accounts if it was legal under federal law, or if there were some form of safe harbor for the banks. However, there is clearly no safe harbor with the recent regulations and guidance.
For instance, the DOJ memo explicitly states: “Neither the guidance herein nor any state or local law provides a legal defense to a violation of federal law, including any civil or criminal violation of the CSA, the money laundering and unlicensed money transmitter statutes, or the BSA, including the obligation of financial institutions to conduct customer due diligence.”. The FinCen memo also repeats “that the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime…” Thus, although the guidance issued by DOJ and FinCen on the surface appear to be helpful, they are ultimately toothless.
Further, the ultimate decision (and the inherent risk and liability) remains with the banks, as also noted in the FinCen memo: “In general, the decision to open, close, or refuse any particular account or relationship should be made by each financial institution based on a number of factors specific to that institution.” Therefore, in the absence of any safe harbor and the illegal status of marijuana under federal law, banks will likely pursue the safe option of refusing to process marijuana-related accounts.
This scenario is quite similar to the recent aftermath in New Jersey when it legalized online gaming for intrastate users. Although New Jersey declared online gaming legal under New Jersey state law, banks generally refused and continue to refuse to process online gaming accounts. Banks deemed these accounts too risky because their internal regulations dictate that they would not process payments for accounts related to online gaming for real money when it was still prohibited in other states and would be an unwanted burden on their compliance checks. Similarly, the ultimate conclusion of banks considering marijuana-related accounts is likely to refuse to allow such accounts because they are still illegal under federal law and permitting those accounts presents an unwelcome risk for the banks.
Another significant hurdle that may cause banks to refuse marijuana-related accounts is the significant disclosure requirements applicable to the banking industry that are mandated by federal agencies like the FDIC and Federal Reserve. Banks, particularly banks that are publicly traded entities, have many filings and disclosures that they are required to make on a consistent basis. Therefore, the banks would presumably have to disclose that they are currently violating federal law by processing marijuana-related transactions and permitting marijuana-related accounts (and anticipate continuing to violate the federal laws). Regarding disclosure requirements, it should make no difference whether the DOJ presently anticipates prosecuting those crimes or how much of a priority they are in accordance with the DOJ memo – the fact remains that the bank is violating the federal law and that must be disclosed. Indeed, the DOJ could decide to prosecute these crimes at any time in the future. Furthermore, that disclosure (i.e. that they are currently violating the law) would likely trigger a host of regulatory issues that require banks to comply with all federal laws.
Yet, the banking market for marijuana-related accounts remains lucrative and underserved. The million dollar question is which bank will take the leap of faith to enter the marijuana industry?
One possibility is a Colorado bank that only has Colorado branches may be willing to permit marijuana-related accounts. Obviously, the potential reward is great because of the lucrative and underserved marijuana industry market. More importantly, the risk to Colorado banks is lower because they only operate in Colorado and can legitimately claim they are complying with all laws because Colorado state law permits recreational marijuana use, so they can be more confident that the DOJ will not prosecute them. More importantly, even if the DOJ decides to prosecute them, the state of Colorado will likely defend them and throw their weight behind the local bank, because if Colorado did not, then the whole recreational marijuana law and industry would quickly collapse.
Consequently, the risk-reward equation for a local Colorado bank is tilted more favorably toward permitting marijuana-related accounts because there is less risk to a Colorado-only bank, and the reward would be given more weight because the value of the marijuana accounts would mean much more to a smaller Colorado bank than to a larger national one. In the meantime, one would hope that the federal agencies would issue guidance that provides more clarity and real solutions to this issue, rather than just discouraging banks from this industry by issuing vague guidance.
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