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United States of America v. Juan Colon-Rodriguez

October 2, 2012

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE,
v.
JUAN COLON-RODRIGUEZ, DEFENDANT, APPELLANT.



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Carmen Consuelo Cerezo, U.S. District Judge]

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lipez, Circuit Judge.

Before Torruella, Selya and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

Hurricane Georges struck Puerto Rico on September 21, 1998. In the storm's wake, the island was declared a "major disaster" area eligible for various federal aid programs. See United States v. Alfonzo-Reyes, 592 F.3d 280, 284 (1st Cir. 2010). One such program, administered by the Farm Service Agency ("FSA"), offered low-interest emergency loans to qualified farmers to help restore farming operations or rebuild structures damaged by the hurricane. See id.

Because of the complexity of the loan application process, the FSA trained a number of independent contractors to assist farmers in preparing and filing the necessary documentation. Among these contractors was appellant Juan Colon-Rodriguez ("Colon"), an agronomist with a degree in agricultural sciences. In all, Colon submitted successful loan applications on behalf of at least eight farmers, earning approximately $45,000 in commissions. During a 2002 audit, however, the FSA discovered a series of irregularities in these applications. Colon was indicted in late 2007 and convicted in 2009 in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico on twelve counts of making false statements on FSA loan applications in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1014 and one count of defrauding a financial institution in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344. He was found not guilty on five other counts.

After the verdict, Colon moved for a judgment of acquittal, contesting the sufficiency of the evidence against him. The district court summarily denied the motion. The court then sentenced Colon to thirty-seven months' imprisonment on each count, to be served concurrently. On appeal, Colon challenges the sufficiency of the evidence for three of his convictions and his sentence as substantively unreasonable. For the reasons described below, we affirm two of the challenged convictions, vacate the third, and affirm the sentence.

I.

We begin with Colon's motion for a judgment of acquittal, the denial of which we review de novo. See United States v. Rodriguez-Velez, 597 F.3d 32, 38 (1st Cir. 2010). Colon argued to the district court that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction on any count. His focus on appeal is narrower. He takes aim only at Counts Three, Ten, and Eighteen. We scrutinize the relevant evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, which "must stand unless the evidence is so scant that a rational factfinder could not conclude that the government proved all the essential elements of the charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. at 39 (emphasis omitted).

A. Counts Three and Ten

Count Three charged Colon with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1014 by making a false statement on an FSA loan application he filed on behalf of Jose Aponte-Diaz ("Aponte"), a poultry farmer.*fn1 Count Ten charged the same conduct with respect to another farmer, Adalberto Flores-Zayas ("Flores"). "To establish a violation of § 1014, the government must prove that (1) the defendant made a false statement; (2) the defendant acted knowingly; and (3) the false statement was made for the purpose of influencing action on the loan." Alfonzo-Reyes, 592 F.3d at 291. It is undisputed that the government introduced sufficient evidence as to the third of these elements. In our view, there also was sufficient evidence of the other two elements on both counts.

1. Count Three

The evidence showed that Colon helped Aponte apply for and obtain a $305,015 emergency loan from the FSA shortly after Hurricane Georges, charging a two-percent commission for his services. However, some of the statements made by Colon in filling out Aponte's loan application were false.*fn2 Contrary to Colon's assertions, the record discloses more than sufficient evidence to support his conviction. For example, the application stated that the storm had caused $115,950 of damage to four poultry barns belonging to Aponte. During trial, Aponte testified that he had only owned two barns at the time of the storm. The other two barns were purchased later, long after the storm, with proceeds from the FSA loan. What is more, Aponte testified that he had informed Colon that he planned to spend some of the loan proceeds on the new barns. While the government may have lacked other forms of direct evidence that demonstrated the falsity of Aponte's statements, a rational jury easily could have relied on the trial testimony, as well as reasonable inferences drawn from that testimony, to conclude that Colon knew the amount of damages claimed on the application to be false. See Alfonzo-Reyes, 592 F.3d at 291 ("Direct evidence is not required to find [a defendant] guilty, and juries are entitled to draw reasonable inferences at trial based on circumstantial evidence.").

Colon attempts to explain Aponte's testimony by characterizing it as a mere failure to recall the specific number of barns he owned, and points to evidence corroborating the amount of loss documented in the application. "[T]he possibility of innocuous explanations for [a defendant's] behavior does not foreclose the jury's contrary inferences," however. United States v. Ortiz, 447 F.3d 28, 33 (1st Cir. 2006). While Colon was certainly entitled to make these arguments to the trier of fact, the jury had a more than sufficient basis for rejecting his explanations and returning a verdict against him. Consequently, Colon's motion as to Count Three was correctly denied.

2. Count Ten

The same is true of Count Ten. The government proved that, hoping to restore his farm to working order, Flores hired Colon to prepare his FSA loan application. Lillian Mateo, Flores's wife and business partner, testified that she and her husband had signed blank paperwork for Colon to complete.*fn3 According to Mateo, however, when the application was approved, she and Flores were "surprised" to receive a loan of $250,000, since they had only been expecting $150,000. When showed a copy of the loan application during trial, Mateo said that several of the claimed items of damage had been exaggerated. For example, the application listed ...


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