First NBC CEO Ashton Ryan trial to feature competing stories | courts
There will be two very different stories spun out over the next several weeks in the federal fraud trial of former First NBC chief Ashton Ryan, Jr., as lawyers for the prosecution and defense each try to win over a jury of 12 ordinary Louisianans, legal experts say.
Ryan’s trial on 49 federal charges is the first in the long running, multi-agency federal investigation into the $1 billion collapse of the New Orleans bank in 2017. The local US Attorney’s Office has so far charged 14 with bank fraud and related crimes, including Ryan. It has secured guilty pleas from three former bank officers and six borrowers.
“It will be about finding the simplest storyline through a complex set of facts and hoping yours resonates more with the jury,” said Herbert Larson, senior professor of practice at Tulane University Law School and an expert in white collar crime.
“It will be, ‘Once upon a time there was this banker who thought he ran his own personal kingdom,’ versus, ‘Once upon a time there was this struggling banker who wanted to help Louisiana in whichever way he could,'” Larson added.
A complex case
As much as the prosecution and defense teams will want to keep their narratives simple, there is no getting around the fact that the trial will involve many days of complex presentations and thousands of documents.
Matthew Payne will lead a prosecution team that includes two other assistant US attorneys, Nicholas Moses and Ryan McLaren. Payne prosecuted retired Air Force Col. Timothy Milbrath and William Hungerford, who were convicted in 2019 of scamming foreign investors out of $15.5 million meant for post-Hurricane Katrina development projects.
Ryan is represented by Eddie Castaing, Jr., a criminal defense attorney with more than 40 years of experience. Among his high-profile trials he was representing one of the defendants in the 2000 corruption trial of former Gov. Edwin Edwards. He also defended Lori Budo, one of the nurses accused in the deaths of patients at Memorial Medical Center in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Castaing is joined by his son, Peter, who was a corporate lawyer and civil litigator at big law firms locally for two decades before joining his father’s criminal practice three years ago. Ryan also has on his bench Deborah Pearce, an adjunct professor at Tulane University Law School who has litigated complex federal cases for more than 20 years.
For the prosecutors, the trial will represent the “culmination of multiple years of investigation and document-intensive analysis, in addition to dozens and dozens of witness interviews, grand jury presentations, and preparation for the presentation at trial itself,” said Matt Coman, a former federal prosecutor and New Orleans-based private litigator.
It’s going to be a complex trial without much light relief, said Pat Fanning, a former federal prosecutor turned defense attorney.
“This isn’t sex, drugs and rock and roll. This is all about bank practices,” Fanning said.
Big fish, little fish
Fred Beebe, 64, a relatively junior former First NBC manager, who had cooperated with federal agencies since the bank’s collapse, is a co-defendant. Beebe is the only one of the former bank officials not to have taken a plea.
Ryan is the “big fish” while Beebe is the “littlest fish” in the case, Larson said.
“The government gets to pick who they lump together, and it is impossible once they do to get a severance,” Larson said. “But each defendant has a different task when conspiracy is alleged.”
Beebe’s defense, which is led by Sara Johnson, a litigator who has taught at Tulane University, will likely aim to chip away at the theory of conspiracy. That strategy could either help undermine the prosecution’s entire case, or it could bolster the case against Ryan.
“There is no ‘scene of the crime’ in these cases, no high-tech forensics, no DNA, no smoking gun,” said Larson. “They’re just boring. You see jurors nodding off all the time.”
Shaun Clarke, a former federal prosecutor now specializing in white-collar criminal defense, said prosecutors will try to keep it streamlined, possibly using graphics. “At the end of the day, a prosecutor needs to show that someone lied and that someone else was hurt by that lie,” he said.
Lawyers familiar with pre-trial proceedings said the prosecution’s potential witness list has between 100 and 200 names, though they will call far fewer than that. Likely among the key witnesses to testify will be the nine men who’ve pleaded guilty, all of whom are yet to be sentenced.
“Sometimes it’s better to have one good witness than seven of them,” said Clarke.
Jury selection is the first order of business for both sides on Monday. Questions for potential jurors — chosen from the 13 parishes that make up the Eastern District of Louisiana — will include the extent to which they’ve paid attention to what’s happened in the case so far, or if they have been affected by its fallout.
“One of the defendants, Ashton Ryan, was a visible public figure with whom they may be familiar,” Clarke said. “All of those things will require a very careful jury selection process.”