Part 1 of this series – The Other Side of the Appeal – By the Man Who Most Wanted to See Raniere Convicted dealt with my impressions of Nicholas G. Garaufis, the US district court judge for the Eastern District of NY who presided over the trial of Keith Alan Raniere.
Part 2 is the first of three about the prosecution, starting with Moira Kim Penza, the lead attorney for the government in the Raniere case.
The trio of Assistant US attorneys who prosecuted Raniere were Moira Kim Penza, Tanya Hajjar and Mark Lesko.
Moira Kim Penza
Lead prosecutor Moira Kim Penza did well in putting this high-profile case together. The investigation of Raniere began in November 2017. He was arrested in March 2018. He went to trial in May 2019 and was convicted on all counts on June 19, 2019.
Raniere was found guilty of racketeering, and racketeering conspiracy; sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking, and sex trafficking conspiracy; forced labor conspiracy; and wire fraud conspiracy. The racketeering offense included predicate acts of extortion, identity theft, and the production and possession of child pornography.
He was sentenced to 120 years in prison, though his sentencing took place after Penza left the DOJ.
After Penza won her famous and, as some declare, groundbreaking or precedent-setting prosecution, she landed a job in the private sector as a law partner with Wilkinson Stekloff, a litigation firm headquartered in Washington, DC, with offices in Los Angeles and New York City. Penza works in its New York City office.
In addition to civil litigation, Penza is free to do criminal defense work as well. As a defense attorney, she might be quite good as an equalizer for defendants up against the tremendous power and resources of the government – and help offset the disadvantage which accused citizens face in a labyrinthic federal system that vastly favors the prosecution.
She might be a weight on the side of the fortunate.
Her Prosecution of Raniere
During the Raniere trial, I and others could not help but notice the irony of the slender, long-haired Kim Penza – the exact type of woman Raniere would have eagerly sought to ensnare and enslave – being his lead prosecutor.
A beautiful, highly intelligent female was not fawning over him. She was out to destroy him.
There were times when she captivatingly stole the show in court with her charismatic presence and modern-glamorous appearance – in stiletto high heels and smart, almost too fashionable outfits. If lookism has impact on juries, as it does with every other group, she destroyed Raniere with it, a man whose appearance is far from prepossessing.
I remember one prominent reporter from a large publication describing to me privately and with great enthusiasm his fascination with her and her attire, going on at length about how one particular outfit she wore was the absolutely most ironical attire for a woman prosecutor in a sex trafficking/sex cult prosecution.
He thought she had worn the four-inch heels and the too-sheer slacks on purpose. I argued that he may have been seeing things or that if true, it was inadvertence on her part. In any event, he insisted that everyone was riveted – even the judge.
As a powerful mind, Penza was sharp, precise, focused, and concentrated and possesses a stupendous memory.
She is now in private practice and, if I am not mistaken, the Raniere trial was her last for the government.
Her law firm, founded by Beth Wilkinson and Brian Stekloff in 2016, is a “high-stakes” firm, handling litigation in civil cases with big money at stake. The firm handles antitrust, class actions, product liability, and sports matters with clients like Bayer, Facebook, FedEx, George-Pacific, Monsanto, the NCAA, the NFL and Pfizer. So she has billion-dollar clients now and famous [or if you’re a Trump fan] notorious ones too.
According to her profile on Wilkinson Stekloff, which uses this photo of her:
“Moira has been a key member of some of the firm’s most high profile cases. Recently, Wilkinson Stekloff, led by Moira, was retained to serve as co-lead trial counsel for defendants Warner Chilcott and Watson (then-owned by Allergan) in a federal antitrust class action arising out of allegations of anticompetitive conduct related to Loestrin 24, a popular oral contraceptive. The case, which involved approximately $8 billion in trebled damages, settled days before Moira was set to deliver the opening statement, for less than 5% of that amount.”
Summer Zervos is suing President Trump for defamation. Penza represents Summer Zervos in her defamation lawsuit against President Trump based on his public denials of a 2007 sexual assault.
On Penza’s law firm’s profile page, while mentioning she was an Assistant United States Attorney, only one of her government prosecutions is mentioned — Raniere’s.
It reads, “Notably, Moira’s groundbreaking prosecution and trial conviction of Keith Raniere—the leader of a purported self-help group—generated worldwide media attention and has been credited with paving the way for other sex trafficking prosecutions against powerful individuals.”
While it’s a fairly subjective ranking, City and State [For New York State] lists Penza as # 76 in the Law and Power 100 list, which is not a bad achievement for a woman only two years into private practice. In fact, a quick glance at the other 99 suggests that almost all of them have been at their positions for much longer than she.
City and State writes about Penza as “a rising star in New York’s legal world. She recently took a lead role in an antitrust case involving Allergan and is currently representing Summer Zervos in her defamation lawsuit against Donald Trump. Penza previously served as assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she notably prosecuted Keith Raniere, the founder of an Albany-area self-help group who was convicted of multiple crimes including sex trafficking.”
Ironically, she is ranked behind Raniere second lead defense attorney Paul DerOhannesian II, who is #51. Raniere lead attorney, Marc Agnifilo, does not appear on the list.
As per the argument that the Raniere case expanded conduct covered by federal sex trafficking charges, that seems clear.
The sex trafficking of Nicole, a White, American, approximately 30-year-old aspiring actress, was based on the argument that even though she consented at the time to the sex act, she could not legally consent because of embarrassing photos and videos possessed and solicited by conspirators of Raniere, through deception, even though she originally voluntarily submitted the photos and videos.
Unlike other instances of sex trafficking where money is exchanged, no money was exchanged for the sex, no one paid for the sex act and unlike other cases where sex acts are coercive and numerous, Nicole had a single sexual encounter that was alleged as sex trafficking and repeatedly told Raniere that she consented to the activity before and during the act.
Whether this precedent will be used by future government prosecutors for good or ill or a mixture of both remains to be seen.
It also remains to be seen if the case expands the boundaries of racketeering, which almost certainly will have some unintended consequences — particularly if it is used, as it has been argued it was in the Raniere case, to eliminate the statute of limitations.