Articles Posted in Federal Crimes

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keyboard-453795_1280-300x200A Baltimore County man was recently sentenced to 4 years in federal prison followed by 3 years of probation for his role in an Internet dating scam that cost numerous victims millions. The defendant, who hails from Owings Mills, pled guilty back in February to conspiracy to commit money laundering after he was indicted back in the spring of 2015 on numerous charges including wire fraud. According to the terms of the plea and the indictment the co-conspirators scoured numerous online dating websites in search of vulnerable victims, many of whom were elderly singles. The co-conspirators would then form romantic relationships with these unsuspecting victims over email, online chatting, and eventually phone calls. When the relationship had built up the co-conspirators would use fake stories to induce the victims to send money. These stories were elaborate and included tales of medical hardships that were bolstered by fake medical bills, tales of businesses on the verge of going bankrupt and non-existent foreign tax liens that needed to be settled.

The co-conspirators would receive money in numerous ways including wire transfers or bank deposits ranging from $1,700 to $30,000. Money was sent to drop accounts, which are designed to make it difficult to trace to the account holder (but clearly not too difficult for the FBI in this case). The money would not sit long in the drop accounts, as it was withdrawn and dispersed to the co-conspirators in a variety of ways in order to attempt to conceal the source of the funds. This is where the money laundering charges came from, as the co-conspirators would transfer money from the drop accounts to their own personal accounts online or they would write each other multiple checks for small amounts. Court documents also state that the defendants would purchase cashiers checks in order to conceal the source of all the income. All told the ten co-conspirators, most of whom are from the Laurel area of Prince George’s County, initially got away with scamming both male and female victims out of millions. Ultimately it was the attempt to funnel this money into usable accounts that brought this particular 26-year old defendant down.

The facts of this case do not clearly support a strong case for proving the existence of a theft scheme or a fraud scheme, as the victims appeared to hand over the money willingly, and often out of sympathy with no expectation of getting something in return. Regardless, the government always had the trump card of a money laundering charge in its back pocket. Even if federal prosecutors couldn’t prove fraud there was no bulletproof defense to the act of attempting to conceal the illegitimate funds flowing in from the dating scam. As they do in many conspiracy cases prosecutors likely followed the money straight to a conviction, and now it is the defendant that are going to have to pay up. This young defendant from Baltimore County has a hefty restitution payment of $375,000 bearing down on him once he is released from prison. Paying this restitution is likely a condition of probation, and if it is not paid the defendant could be back in court on a violation of probation. Failure to pay restitution might be a technical violation, but it is not a violation that judges take lightly. The Blog will continue to follow this case and other federal conspiracy cases, and may post a follow up article in the future so stay tuned.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169A federal judge recently sentenced a 24-year old Prince George’s County man to 16 years in prison after he pled guilty to a botched robbery that occurred back in September. The young man from Bowie was convicted of commercial robbery and brandishing and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence, which carries a mandatory minimum jail term. This means the defendant will not be eligible for parole for at least 5 years, and he will be on supervised probation when he does get released. The robbery took place at the University of Maryland University College Inn and Conference center located in Adelphi, just outside of College Park.

The plea agreement described a frantic few minutes that began with the armed defendant approaching a security guard at the inn and stating he was on the premises to make a delivery. As the two men walked toward the loading dock the defendant grabbed the security guard and a struggle ensued. During the struggle the defendant’s gun was discharged but did not strike anyone. Around the same time the masked and also armed co-conspirator entered building’s security office with his gun drawn and ordered all occupants to the ground while demanding money. Around the same time the security guard at the loading dock managed to break free from the defendant and made it back to the security office to seek help, only to come face to face with the gun brandishing co-conspirator. The co-conspirator shot in the direction of the guard and the bullet struck him in the arm and came to rest near his spine. Seconds later the defendant appeared at the security office and joined up with his co-conspirator to steal three safes. Both fled the scene, but one did not get very far.

Prince George’s County Police responded to the scene immediately and dispatched a K9 unit and a helicopter to locate the suspects. Eventually the police K9 located the defendant hiding in an area of overgrown trees and shrubs right near the loading dock where the doomed heist began. A search of the area turned up all three safes and a .40 caliber semi automatic pistol loaded with 7 rounds of ammunition. Forensic evidence revealed that the fingerprints taken from the gun’s magazine matched the defendant’s, and ballistics matched the .40 caliber shell casing with the gun that was found. Police later recovered clear surveillance footage of the unmasked defendant carrying out the robbery, and also recovered recorded PG county jail phone calls where the defendant admitted to firing his gun, but stated he did not hit anyone. Needless to say federal prosecutors had more than enough evidence at their disposal if the defendant had elected to reject the guilty plea and take his case to trial in the Greenbelt federal courthouse.

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heroinbust-300x198The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York recently announced indictments of ten individuals for their roles in an East Coast heroin trafficking ring. Three of the defendants hail from Annapolis, which officials allege is where the heroin began the journey to its final destination in Schenectady, NY. After arriving in this suburb of Albany various New York based co-conspirators allegedly packaged the drugs and sold them in the Plattsburgh area, just a few hours drive from the Canadian border. The defendants vary in age, but each is under 35, and one was actually a state corrections officer until his arrest back in June. The three Maryland based defendants are all under the age of 30, with the youngest being just 19. This teenage defendant now faces between 5 and 40 years in federal prison, with the 5-year number representing the minimum mandatory sentence that must be imposed should he be convicted.

The other local co-conspirators include a 24-year old male who is facing a drug trafficking sentence of 10 years to life, and a 28-year old female who is facing up to 20 years for conspiracy to distribute narcotics. The 24-year old defendant is no stranger to the Maryland state judicial system, as he pled guilty to CDS possession with intent to distribute in Anne Arundel County back in 2012. His probation was violated shortly thereafter and an 18-month jail sentence followed. In addition to the federal indictment, the 24-year old is also set for an August trial date in Annapolis for numerous drug charges stemming from two separate state court cases. These charges are all drug related, and include distribution of narcotics and CDS possession of a large amount. The other Annapolis based defendants have relatively minor criminal records, which include two cases where each charged the other for assault. Prosecutors will likely end up dropping these cases, as the pair could assert their mutual 5th Amendment rights and choose not to testify. Regardless of what happens in these assault cases the defendants clearly have bigger issues to deal with up north.

The announcement by the Northern District of New York that a large heroin trafficking ring originated right here in Anne Arundel County came just as the governor announced 2018 allotments for the emergency opioid abuse funds. Last year the governor pledged $50 million to battle the record breaking heroin and fentanyl overdoses, and the money will be dispersed over the course of 5 years to various state and local agencies. The majority of the cash next year is going to inpatient treatment programs, naloxone supplies, public awareness platforms for opioid abuse and law enforcement efforts to dismantle drug trafficking rings. Baltimore City has been hit especially hard by drug overdoses, and the state has responded by allocating $2 million for a city crisis center. The Blog will continue to monitor this federal case and other state cases related to drug trafficking. We anticipate more drug busts making news headlines in the coming months as law enforcement agencies will be eager to show the governor the funding is being put to good use. However, it remains to be seen whether the emergency funding will begin to reverse the overdose numbers that are sadly trending in the wrong direction.

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police-224426__180Back in February seven Baltimore Police officers from the department’s gun task force were indicted on federal racketeering charges with allegations that the officers extorted and stole money from citizens, falsified police reports and collected fraudulent overtime payments. While all of the cases are still pending, it is now expected that four of the officers will enter guilty pleas sometime in the near future. The other three officers though appear to be in more hot water after the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced a federal grand jury returned a new indictment last week. The superseding indictment charges the three officers with additional counts of robbery, conspiracy, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. All told the offers were implicated in as many as 13 robberies that yielded over $280,000 in cash, firearms and 2 kilograms of cocaine, and now the details of some of these criminal acts are coming to light.

The new six-count indictment alleges that as far back as 2011 the officers illegally detained or entered the homes of suspected drug dealers with the intent to steal their narcotics and money. The officers allegedly conducted traffic stops without probable cause and even went as far as swearing to made up search warrant affidavits to gain access to suspects’ homes and vehicles. There are also allegations of burglarizing a storage unit to carry out a cocaine theft, stealing 20 pounds of marijuana during a drug deal and robbing a stripper. The incident that is gaining the most media attention though was a brazen home invasion robbery where the officers hired two civilians to steal a large amount of cash from the owner of a pigeon store in the southern Baltimore neighborhood of Brooklyn. While conducting a search warrant on the store the gun task force officers learned that the owner was in possession of $20,000 cash that was to be used to pay off a tax debt to the IRS. The officers left the store without taking any money, but later conspired with two civilians to steal the cash at a later date. After locating the store owner’s home address using a law enforcement database the officers provided the address as well as tactical gear including bullet proof vests and weapons to the civilians. The two civilians then robbed the store owner at gunpoint after posing as cops attempting to execute a search warrant.

The store owner reported the incident to the Baltimore Police several times, and filed an internal affairs complaint to no avail. While there was no official word from BPD on what exactly happened with the IA report, it is now assumed that the investigation was turned over to the feds in order to continue to build a case against the corrupt city cops. All seven of the officers face up to 20 years in prison for the racketeering and conspiracy charges and some may face additional penalties for robbery and felony firearms offenses. The firearm offenses could trigger mandatory minimum sentences as well, so it will be interesting to see what type of plea deals the first four officers agree to accept. The Blog will continue to follow all of these cases and may post a follow up article in the near future with an update. If you or a loved one is facing state or federal criminal charges contact Benjamin Herbst. He has represented hundreds of defendants charged with gun crimes, robbery, theft and drug trafficking and is available anytime for a free consultation.

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handgun-231699_640-300x169Federal law enforcement officers from agencies such as the FBI, DEA and ATF rarely patrol our streets, and they have far less contact with the public than state and local officers. As a result, common firearms crimes such as possession of a handgun are typically handled in state court, as local police officers are usually the ones making the arrests on these cases. A typical federal firearms case could involve the ATF busting an illegal gun trafficking ring or the DEA making a drug bust and seizing firearms in the process. Each of these examples usually involves a formal investigation possibly including confidential informants, wiretaps and search warrants where the feds continue to build a case as the crime is ongoing. In contrast a state firearms case typically starts as a traffic stop or a call to investigate a completed crime. This type of case rarely ends up in U.S. court, but federal prosecutors in Baltimore are trying to get the word out that no gun case is too trivial for their caseload.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland recently announced that five men have been found guilty of federal firearms crimes that originated in state court. Four were Baltimore City cases and one was an Anne Arundel County case. The men were originally facing charges in the respective state circuit courts, but these cases were all closed after the assistant state’s attorneys announced them as nolle prosequi and forwarded the files over to their federal counterparts. The charges the men are facing vary, as two are charged with illegal gun possession, two are charged in relation to drug trafficking and one in relation to an assault. But the one constant is that all five of the defendants were convicted of a felony prior to being arrested on the current charges. Federal prosecutors in Baltimore are taking affirmative measures to let state prosecutors know they will gladly take any case that involves possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. With resources that dwarf its state court neighbors, the Baltimore federal court has a much higher conviction rate for gun crimes, and the  criminal code may provide higher penalties in some cases. Currently a defendant in U.S. court for illegal possession of a handgun faces up to 10 years in prison. A defendant who carries a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence or a drug trafficking crime faces an additional 5-year mandatory sentence. If the gun is brandished the mandatory sentence increases to 7 years, and if it is fired it increases yet again to 10 years. There are also mandatory penalties for crimes involving assault weapons and short-barreled shotguns and rifles.

There is a broad class of individuals that are prohibited from possessing a firearm under U.S. law; if you think only convicted felons are prohibited then think again. In reality any person convicted of a crime that carries a maximum penalty of more than a year, anyone who is an unlawful user of a controlled substance and anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence could face federal firearms charges for possessing a gun. Each of the five men currently in custody and awaiting sentencing has learned the hard way that the feds are not messing around when it comes to gun possession in Baltimore. However it remains to be seen whether these efforts will serve as a deterrent to future offenders. The Blog will continue to follow these five cases as well as other state cases that are picked up by the feds. We may post a follow up article in the future so stay tuned. Benjamin Herbst is a state and federal gun lawyer that handles illegal possession by a convicted felon and transportation cases in all Maryland courts. Contact Benjamin for a free consultation about your case anytime at 410-207-2598.

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firearm-409000__480-200x300A Prince George’s County man was recently sentenced to just over ten years in prison followed by three years of probation for robbing a fast food restaurant in Hyattsville. The sentencing occurred last week at the United States District Court of Maryland in Greenbelt after the man pled guilty back in December. According to facts stated in the plea agreement the defendant, who was once an employee at the restaurant, entered wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a mask of the popular Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man. Upon entering the restaurant the masked robber brandished a revolver type handgun at one of the store employees and demanded access to the safe. After realizing the employee did not have access to the safe the robber could have fled the scene, but instead hid behind a wall and waited for the manager to return. The defendant later used his gun to corral the manager and other employees into the manager’s office, where he stole cash from the safe and then from a register on his way out. Before leaving the restaurant the defendant also sprayed and lit lighter fluid on the wall and floor, and fired multiple rounds from his revolver that struck the building. Prince George’s County Police were alerted to the scene during the robbery and located the defendant as he was attempting to flee in his vehicle. Rather than surrender, the masked robber led cops on a high speed chase. The chase did not last long, as the defendant eventually stopped his vehicle and was taken into custody without any further violence. Police ultimately recovered and entered into evidence over $2,000 cash and a revolver with three live rounds and three spent cartridges.

The defendant was charged with numerous offenses, but ultimately pled guilty to robbery and using, brandishing and discharging a firearm. The plea agreement called for a sentence of between 121 months and 14 years prison under the federal guidelines, and the judge ended up going with the lower end. While this case certainly had some terrible facts, the defense probably provided mitigation to offer to the judge on sentencing. It does not appear that the defendant has a prior criminal record in Maryland, and there may have been some mental health issues involved with the case, as the defendant apparently decided to rob the restaurant because he was upset over being fired.

The robbery actually occurred on Christmas Eve of 2014, which is a relatively long period of time for a case of this magnitude. There are several reasons why a case that seems open and shut could last over two years. Cases where the defendant has or is suspected to have a mental health disorder often taken longer to settle due to the need for professional evaluations and treatment prior to plea or trial. Despite an arrest by county officers, this particular case did not appear to originate in state court before the feds took over. Some cases, especially cases involving robbery and firearm use, are filed in state court and then later dismissed and refiled in federal court. This process can cause delays, although a 2+ year gap between arrest and sentencing is still high.

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police-224426__180The U.S. Attorney recently announced that seven Baltimore City police officers have been indicted on numerous felony charges, and the fallout has already extended beyond the cops’ alleged criminal acts. A federal grand jury returned the indictment back in February, but it was sealed until agents had the opportunity to execute search and arrest warrants. All seven have been arrested and remain in custody after a judge denied bail pending trial. While bail is typically granted for a defendant with no prior criminal record that is not facing a capital offense or violent life felony, prosecutors made the argument that these defendants, who served on the gun trace task force together, were especially dangerous to the public and possessed unique training that would make them flight risks. Defense lawyers for the accused countered by arguing that the charges were blown out of proportion, but the federal magistrate judge was not convinced and stated that no conditions of bail or supervised release would be enough to protect the public.

The charges returned by the grand jury were numerous, and included offenses such as wire fraud, robbery, conspiracy and extortion by a state or government employee. These charges were bundled in one racketeering indictment, which alleged the defendants stole money and drugs from civilians they detained or arrested and submitted fraudulent overtime reports. One of the defendants also allegedly posed as federal prosecutor in order to get more information out of a victim, which the officers subsequently burglarized and stole $20,000 from. Six of the defendants were also charged in a separate seven-count indictment for drug charges including conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine, and officer is charged with distribution of heroin resulting in death.

All seven of the accused officers face up to 20 years in prison for the racketeering and conspiracy charges. The six defendants in the drug indictment face even more exposure as antiquated federal drug laws still provide harsher punishments for those that sell drugs than for those that rob, steal from or assault others. Three defendants face conspiracy to distribute more than a kilogram of heroin, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison with a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. The other three are charged with selling slightly less heroin, but still face up to 40 years with a 5-year mandatory minimum. One of the soon to be ex cops faces an additional 20 years in jail for distributing heroin that results in death.

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money-941228__340-300x225Over the last decade law enforcement agencies around the country have increased efforts to curb the illegal sale of prescription medications. There has been increased governmental oversight starting from the drug manufacturers and trickling all the way down to the patient who fills a single prescription. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are required by law to report large and unusual orders for narcotics to the DEA and pharmacies are required to keep strict inventory of these highly addictive drugs. Doctors who prescribe the drugs face tighter regulations from their state medical boards, and pain management clinics or “pill mills” that were once untouchable are being shut down and prosecuted at a higher rate. Local police have also targeted prescription fraud and doctor shopping cases, and the word is out that pharmacies won’t hesitate to call the cops at the sign of foul play. The law enforcement community has achieved some success in limiting the amount of dangerous prescription drugs such as oxycodone on the streets, but their success has come with a price.

Heroin is now as popular and as cheap as ever, and filled the void left by the shortage of street level prescription drugs without so much as a hiccup. And despite the short supply of prescription narcotics on the street, the demand is still there. Users and dealers have not simply forgotten about oxycontin, morphine and fentanyl. But the shortage of theses drugs has driven up the price and made them more attractive to the dealers who do manage to get their hands on the product. This has left pharmacies, especially the smaller independent type, extremely vulnerable to theft by way of burglary and robbery. Most pharmacy thefts occur at night when the businesses are closed.  The thieves are well versed with all drugs that can be sold on the street for a profit, and know that the narcotics are often locked away in another location. Though burglars will often break in to the pharmacies equipped with crowbars and lock cutters, these tools are ineffective if the high margin narcotics are locked up in a safe overnight. Unfortunately the only way to steal these drugs is to rob the pharmacies during business hours, which is a terrifying and dangerous alternative to nighttime burglary. It is also comes with a greater risk of serious prison time upon begin caught, as one man from Washington D.C. recently found out.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the D.C. man linked to a series of pharmacy robberies in Prince George’s County has been sentenced to 150 months in federal prison where he will join his two other co-conspirators. The conspiracy included as many as four separate armed robberies that netted in excess of $20,000 worth of oxycodone. The defendants wore ski masks and at least one brandished a handgun, while another used pepper spray on two customers at a Hyattsville pharmacy. In one of the robberies in Berwyn Heights, Maryland the defendants stole an employee’s cell phone and wallet that included credit cards and identification cards. The FBI and the Prince George’s County Police Department cleared the cases, which landed all three defendants lengthy prison terms.

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elections-1527438_1280-300x300The 2017 Maryland legislative session began this week, and one former delegate probably wishes he took part in the opening day festivities. But instead of shaking hands and schmoozing in Annapolis, a former lawmaker from Prince George’s County spent the first part of his New Year inside a Greenbelt courtroom. This week federal prosecutors announced a recently unsealed guilty plea by a former state and local politician who served 10 years as a PG county councilman before being elected to his most recent position as a state delegate in 2014. His stint as a state lawmaker didn’t last long after he unexpectedly resigned just one year after taking office, and now there is a good explanation for the sudden resignation. It turns out that the feds had been investigating the 42-year old Hyattsville man for a few years, and their investigation culminated in the recent guilty plea to conspiracy and bribery. Federal prosecutors revealed that the man had accepted an estimated $40,000 in return for political favors, most of which had to do with his power over the allocation of public funds earmarked for his district. The illegal activity was not confined to one or even a couple transactions, but rather a course of conduct that was anything but isolated. The multi year public corruption probe that uncovered the former delegate’s misdoings also implicated two members of the county’s liquor board and two local businessmen. Undercover FBI agents made numerous deals with the politicians that included cash payments for the promise of favorable treatment.

Each of the dirty politicians and their private citizen cohorts are being prosecuted federally by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. While the Blog has recently published a few articles about this office pursuing relatively small time gun and drug cases, public corruption and other white collar crimes are the U.S. Attorney’s bread and butter. State law enforcement and prosecution offices simply do not have the resources and perhaps the patience to execute multiyear public corruption investigations. On top of that it may be near impossible for local law enforcement agencies to keep these kinds of complex investigations under wraps, especially when they involve politicians holding office in their own jurisdictions. After all, state’s attorneys and even police chiefs are politicians too. But these cases are right in the FBI’s wheelhouse, and the federal prosecutors who eventually take over their cases have a great deal of pride in exposing crooked state and local politicians. We only wish the two could collaborate with as much success against federal politicians, who are rarely exposed.

The Blog will continue to follow this public corruption case and other similar cases that develop in the future. It seems as if this particular defendant cooperated with federal authorities and as a result will likely receive a more lenient sentence. Authorities have not stated exactly how the defendant cooperated or whether his cooperation directly led to the charging of the liquor board members, but we will post if this information comes to light. The former delegate faces up to 15 years in prison when he goes before a federal judge at his April sentencing hearing, and he has already agreed to pay $340,000 in criminal restitution.

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hammer-719066_960_720-300x225While the U.S. Attorney’s Office is known for complex criminal prosecutions such as fraud, drug trafficking and gang activity, federal prosecutors also devote resources toward punishing corporations that stray from the law. Unlike a typical criminal prosecution where a defendant can end up in jail or on probation, when a corporation is being investigated for wrongdoing its employees and shareholders are not usually facing individual sentences. Rather, prosecutors use monetary punishments to reprimand companies and to send a message to other corporations contemplating similar wrongdoing. Any federal prosecutorial district could decide to go after a corporation conducting business in its district, and the District of Maryland recently closed up two massive investigations that resulted in fines as well as criminal sanctions for employees in one of the cases.

The first settlement was announced about a week ago at the Baltimore office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland, where the government agreed to close its investigation into a large pharmaceutical company in exchange for a $44 million dollar payment to the DOJ. This investigation centered on the company violating the Controlled Substance Act by failing to notify the DEA of large shipments of oxycodone to pharmacies in Maryland, Florida and New York. Federal law requires that pharmaceutical suppliers report all large or suspicious orders for controlled substances such as oxycodone, morphine, Xanax and fentanyl to the DEA, which is tasked with monitoring or attempting to monitor the commerce of legal drugs. 44 million dollars may seem excessive considering the company did not appear to commit any type of fraud, or conceal their wrongdoing. On the other hand, the company did over $120 billion in sales this past year and also agreed to a similar settlement with the DEA in 2008 over failing to report large shipments of hydrocodone commonly sold as Vicodin. This settlement probably angered some shareholders and cost some people their jobs, but it was merely a ding in their bottom line for 2016.

The other settlement announced by the U.S. Attorney involved a defense contracting company that was hired by the government to provide services at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County. This well known facility is shared by the Marines and the Air Force, and is home to Air Force One. The company was accused of fraudulently submitting inflated invoices to the government for services that were not actually provided or completed in fewer hours than documented. A payment of $4.535 million to the United States ended the investigation into the company, but three former employees are now facing criminal prosecution for their role in the scam. Two of the former employees pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and are awaiting sentencing, while the third faces trial later this next month. The federal government awards hundreds of defense contracts to private companies each year and it is nearly impossible to audit every possible job. Uncle Sam is an easy target for these companies because government workers are rarely held accountable for not thoroughly checking their invoices. After all, it’s the taxpayer’s money and not theirs or their company’s money.