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The People of the State of Illinois v. Irit Gutman

December 1, 2011

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS,
APPELLANT,
v.
IRIT GUTMAN,
APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Thomas

JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Freeman, Garman, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 Following a bench trial in the circuit court of Cook County, defendant, Irit Gutman, was convicted of theft (720 ILCS 5/16-1 (West 2000)), vendor fraud (305 ILCS 5/8A-3 (West 2000)), and money laundering (720 ILCS 5/29B-1 (West 2000)). The trial court sentenced defendant to 66 months' imprisonment and ordered her to pay $1.2 million in restitution. The appellate court upheld defendant's theft and vendor fraud convictions, but reversed her money laundering conviction and remanded for a new trial. 401 Ill. App. 3d 199. The State appeals the appellate court's reversal of the money laundering conviction, and we now reverse the appellate court.

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 The facts, including a complete summary of the trial testimony, are set forth fully in the appellate court opinion. Id. at 201-08. The issues are far narrower before this court than they were before the appellate court, and we summarize here only those facts that are necessary to an understanding of our decision.

¶ 4 The Illinois Medical Assistance Program (the program) pays for medical services provided to low-income individuals. The program hires private companies to transport patients to and from medical appointments. When a patient needs transportation, the program contacts a transportation company and explains what service is needed. After the transportation company provides the service, it submits a bill to the program. Different categories of service are paid at different rates. For instance, transporting a person in a wheelchair pays twice as much as transporting a person not in a wheelchair.

¶ 5 Defendant and Iyla Lubenskiy formed one of these companies,

Egra Medical Transportation, in 1995. On one occasion, the program accidently sent Egra a form with an incorrect service code, and this gave defendant an idea. Defendant suggested that they begin purposely changing the codes on approval forms. For example, they could increase their billings by changing the category of service, altering the destination, or increasing the number of miles. According to Lubenskiy, they began to submit false bills, but initially did so infrequently. On December 1, 1999, defendant and Lubenskiy entered into an agreement with the federal government in which they agreed to be permanently barred from participating in the Medicare program, all other federal health-care programs, and the Illinois Medical Assistance Program.

¶ 6 Defendant, Lubenskiy, and Mike Tishel later reformed the company as Universal Transportation Company (UPT). Because Lubenskiy and defendant had been barred from participating in the program, they needed a third person to appear to be the sole owner of the company. Under this arrangement, defendant and Lubenskiy ran the company, but Tishel received a salary and appeared to be the owner. UPT commenced doing business on January 16, 2001. The business operated as it always had, with the same drivers, vehicles, employees, and office space. Lubenskiy continued to do the bookkeeping, and defendant used an alias when she spoke with the public aid office. As Egra had done earlier, UPT submitted false billings and overbilled for mileage. Checks that UPT received from the State of Illinois were deposited into an account on which only Tishel and his son appeared as authorized signatories.

¶ 7 Money that was deposited into UPT's account was later transferred into Tishel's personal account, and from here it was transferred to defendant's account. Defendant used these funds to purchase single family homes in her own name. At least one property was transferred to defendant's son, and Lubenskiy testified that this was done to hide the property. Defendant and Lubenskiy also used UPT funds to purchase cars for themselves. Between January 16, 2001, and February 2002, UPT billed the State of Illinois approximately $6 million and received approximately $3 million. An auditor provided evidence of the extent to which UPT provided false billings to the state and overbilled for mileage.

¶ 8 The State charged defendant, Lubenskiy, Tishel, and UPT with vendor fraud, theft, and money laundering. Lubenskiy pleaded guilty to vendor fraud and testified against the other three defendants. Defendant, Tishel, and UPT were tried in severed but simultaneous bench trials. The trial court found defendant guilty on all counts. The court later merged the vendor fraud and theft counts, sentenced defendant to 66 months' imprisonment, and ordered her to pay $1.2 million in restitution.

¶ 9 Defendant appealed, arguing that: (1) the trial court erred in allowing the State to establish her guilt of money laundering with evidence of UPT's gross receipts rather than its profits; (2) the State knowingly used perjured testimony; (3) she received the ineffective assistance of counsel; and (4) she was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of any of the charges. The appellate court rejected all of defendant's arguments except for the first one. The court held that this argument was forfeited because defendant failed to raise it in the trial court. However, the court elected to review the issue under the plain-error doctrine. 401 Ill. App. 3d at 211-12. Based largely on a misreading of the Supreme Court's opinion in United States v. Santos, 553 U.S. 507 (2008), the appellate court concluded that the word "proceeds" in the Illinois money laundering statute (720 ILCS 5/29B-1(b)(4) (West 2000)) should be read as "profits" rather than "receipts." Id. at 212-13. Because the State failed to provide evidence that the funds defendant was accused of laundering represented UPT's profits, the appellate court reversed defendant's money laundering conviction and remanded the matter for a new trial.*fn1 Id. at 225-26. We allowed the State's petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S. Ct. R. 315 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010).

¶ 10 ANALYSIS

¶ 11 The State makes two arguments on appeal: (1) that the term "proceeds" in the money laundering statute means "gross receipts" rather than "profits" and therefore the appellate court erred in vacating defendant's money laundering conviction; and (2) that even if the trial court erred in allowing the State to establish defendant's guilt through the use of gross receipts, any error was not "clear or obvious" and thus plain-error review was not available to the defendant. We agree with the State's first point that no error occurred, and we thus do not need to determine whether plain-error review is available to defendant.

¶ 12 The principal issue before the court is one of statutory construction, and the principles guiding our review are familiar. The primary objective of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent. The most reliable indicator of legislative intent is the language of the statute, given its plain and ordinary meaning. People v. Garcia, 241 Ill. 2d 416, 421 (2011). We view the statute as a whole, construing words and phrases in light of other relevant statutory provisions and not in isolation. Each word, clause, and sentence of a statute must be given a reasonable meaning, if possible, and should not be rendered superfluous. People ex rel. Sherman v. Cryns, 203 Ill. 2d 264, 279-80 (2003). The court may consider the reason for the law, the problems sought to be remedied, the purposes to be achieved, and the consequences of construing the statute one way or another. Garcia, 241 Ill. 2d at 421. Also, a court presumes that the legislature did not intend to create absurd, inconvenient, or unjust results. People v. Christopherson, 231 Ill. 2d 449, 454 (2008). Pursuant to the rule of lenity, ambiguous criminal statutes will generally be construed in the defendant's favor. People v. Jones, 223 Ill. 2d 569, 581 (2006). However, the rule of lenity is subordinate to our obligation to determine legislative intent, and the rule of lenity will not be construed so rigidly as to defeat legislative intent. Garcia, 241 Ill. 2d at 427. Statutory construction is a question of law, and our review is de novo. Id. at 421.

¶ 13 At the relevant time, section 29B-1 of the Criminal Code of 1961 provided that a person commits money laundering:

"when he knowingly engages or attempts to engage in a financial transaction in criminally derived property with either the intent to promote the carrying on of the unlawful activity from which the criminally derived property was obtained or where he knows or reasonably should know that the financial transaction is designed in whole or in part to conceal or disguise the nature, the location, the ...


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