(CN) - A lawyer convicted of trying to extort a rabbi suspected of immigration fraud failed to persuade the 9th Circuit that he deserves a new trial because of improper jury instructions.
The dispute stems from a federal investigation of Rabbi Amitai Yemeni, who, as director of the Los Angeles Chabad Israel Center, purportedly employed Israelis on religious work visas.
Investigators suspected that the immigrants did not actually work at the center, but instead returned their so-called wages to Yemeni.
When the center fired one such Israeli, Orit Anjel, in 2009, her husband Avraham "Avi" Anjel, hired an attorney, Alfred Nash Villalobos, to help recoup her back wages.
After learning that the government wanted to interview Orit about Yemeni's alleged scheme, Villalobos allegedly demanded that Yemeni pay him Orit's back wages.
Prosecutors said this demand was extortionate and that Villalobos had promised Yemeni that Orit would do "whatever it is we need her to do," including lying to Assistant U.S. Attorney Keri Axel and the grand jury.
Yemeni's lawyer, Benjamin Gluck, informed Axel about Villalobos' demands, and agreed to start recording his conversations with Villalobos.
Villalobos was arrested after Gluck paid him in cash shortly before Orit's scheduled meeting with Axel.
After he was convicted of attempted extortion and obstruction of justice, Villalobos appealed on the basis of improper instructions given to the federal jury in Los Angeles.
He said the jury was essentially told that all threats are wrongful in that the court said all threats to testify or provide information are "wrongful" under the Hobbs Act if made with the intent to induce or take advantage of fear.
Though the 9th Circuit found Friday that the instruction was improper, it affirmed Villalobos' conviction.
"The evidence is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that any rational jury would have found Villalobos guilty absent the erroneous jury instruction because Villalobos's 'means' to obtain the property - his threats to have his client Orit cooperate with, or alternatively, impede, the ongoing investigation, contingent upon payment - were unlawful, and therefore clearly wrongful under the circumstances," Judge Milan Smith Jr. wrote for a three-judge panel. "The evidence overwhelmingly shows that Villalobos threatened to have Orit change the story she would provide to the investigating authorities, depending on whether Rabbi Yemeni paid him.
"For example, Villalobos repeatedly promised to influence Orit to have her 'shade' things as necessary and to 'do whatever it is [they] need her to do' during her interview with Axel if Rabbi Yemeni paid him. Villalobos made clear through his conversations with Gluck that what Orit would tell government agents and the grand jury depended on whether Rabbi Yemeni acceded to his demands."
Villalobos' threats clearly violated the Hobbs Act, so the Pasadena-based court declined to consider "whether a claim of right defense is available in this context."
"Even if available, such a claim would do nothing to shield Villalobos from conviction of attempted extortion," Smith wrote. "The District Court did not err by not providing a claim of right instruction."
Concurring in the judgment, Judge Paul Watford held that Villalobos could not assert a claim-of-right defense because there was no arguable nexus between the subject of the threat and a legitimate claim to the property demanded.
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