1933 double eagle trial: Sides finish their cases
- Published: Jul 19, 2011, 8 PM
A federal jury will likely begin deliberations today in Philadelphia to decide who owns 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 gold double eagle coins, allegedly discovered in a family safe deposit box in 2003.
The only procedure that remains before the jury begins work behind closed doors is receiving instructions from U.S. District Court Judge Legrome D. Davis.
Attorneys for the Langbord family and the government presented final arguments on July 19 — the ninth day of the trial — with both sides agreeing that nobody will likely ever know exactly how these 10 coins left the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.
Burdette continues to defend his research
The ninth day started with the continued cross examination of the Langbord’s numismatic expert witness, Roger W. Burdette, by Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Rue. She asked Burdette for the specific language in the contemporary Treasury Regulations that authorized “gold coin for gold coin” exchanges. For several long minutes, Burdette read through the regulations before retorting that “payments for bullion” essentially meant the same thing.
She then turned to Burdette’s more than 8,000 postings to the Collector’s Universe U.S. Coin Forum — the prior day’s hot topic — reading to him a post in which he coined the term “Numismyth” to describe longstanding and unsubstantiated material such as opinions, guesses and rumors that are accepted until they’re true. Burdette’s participation and comments in the forums came into play several times throughout his July 18 testimony. Rue used various of his posts to show examples in which his statements in the forums — often posted years before Burdette was retained as an expert witness — conflicted with his expert report submitted to the jury.
As an expert, Burdette was asked to provide a complete list of publications with his report. Rue questioned him about an article published in Coin World under his byline titled “Documents help reconstruct 1929 half eagle distribution,” which was absent from his list. Burdette said at first that he had written it a “long time ago” but Rue alerted Burdette that it was published less than a year ago, in the Aug. 30, 2010, issue.
The last paragraph of the Coin World article cited many of the same Mint records as sources that are used in the current litigation, and Rue pointed out that the article’s assumption that coins leaving the Mint in 1929 were dated 1929 would contradict Burdette’s theory as to how 1933 double eagles could have left the mint lawfully with 1932 coins. She further pointed out that Burdette stated multiple times in the forums that 1933 double eagles were “nothing special” — implying that his research on the 1929 half eagles would have similar applications to the 1933 double eagle. She suggested that Burdette intentionally left this article off of his list of publications as it could be considered contradictory with his expert report.
Private little world brought into the light
Barry Berke, the Langbords’ attorney, wanted to begin his redirect by addressing Burdette’s Feb. 10, 2009, statement in the online forum, which threatened his credibility as an expert witness the prior day. The posting stated, “I can muster all the hearsay, innuendo, assumption, gossip, rumor, allusion and insinuation you want to obfuscate the facts … and, I can do it at only $300 an hour, too!” In a conversation between the attorneys and Judge Davis, Berke said he wanted to bring it back up to show that Burdette was making a joke in writing in order to put the statement into context.
Judge Davis warned that such a technique could be ill-advised, adding that there were some “extremely offensive comments in the post.” Judge Davis added that the dialogue from which the Feb. 10, 2009, comment came was a “remarkable document” that included comments from the “2009 Numismatist of the Year,” providing a window into “their private little world which they never thought would come to light.”
Berke began by pointing out that the posting was written nearly two years before January of this year, when Burdette became an expert in this case and referred to David Enders Tripp, who was getting paid $300 an hour by the government. Burdette revealed that he was charging $154 an hour and that he had researched the 1933 double eagle prior to being retained as a witness. Rue declined to ask Burdette any more questions and with that, Burdette’s service was completed.
‘Looks like a junk shop, but expensive junk’
A soft-voiced Joan Langbord took the stand next with at times teary testimony in which she said she had no idea how her father — dealer Israel “Izzy” Switt — got the 10 1933 double eagles that were allegedly found in 2003. She shared that she was born in Philadelphia in 1930, started working at her family shop at age 9, and was married 56 years to her husband Stanton, who died in 2007. In describing her family store, she said that it “looks like a junk shop, but expensive junk.”
She added that she was a salesperson and as such, was not involved in the purchasing of coins, but remembered that her father collected coins and loved them. She stated again that she did not know of the coins in the safe deposit boxes or how they got there, but that she would visit the box each year to pick out a piece of jewelry for a client’s wife’s birthday.
Using the bank safe deposit visitor log as a guide, she recalled that she visited the box on June 27, 2003, couldn’t get into the box because it had warped, and had the box drilled Aug. 14, 2003. It was then that she presumably found the coins, and called her husband and son Roy to come to the store. She told them, “Do what you feel is right” with the coins. Earlier in the day Berke read into evidence an affidavit of a Wachovia bank representative who stated that records don’t exist to make it possible to know if Joan Langbord leased a safe deposit box at the bank before 1996.
The cross examination by the government focused on Joan Langbord visiting the box regularly, going through the box to select jewelry, yet never noticing the coins, adding that the contents of the boxes were never probated for estate or gift tax. When asked why not, Mrs. Langbord replied that the boxes were a gift from her mother, adding, “We had lawyers; they would have told me if I had to.”
Another forensic accountant
Next up was Joseph B. Nelson, the expert forensic accountant hired by Berke to use his “professional skepticism” to investigate certain accounting facts. He said that there was not sufficient data via the Mint cashier records, daily statements and settlements to substantiate the government’s position that every movement of 1933 double eagles can be accounted for from creation to destruction.
He described the two-part test to use to analyze the data: First, look at the environment in which data is prepared through an understanding of the Mint cashier’s record keeping procedures, and second, to test the accuracy of the records. Based on his review of the documents, he found that they could not be relied upon because there is no ability to test the truthfulness and reliability of the underlying data.
During the government’s cross examination, Rue immediately termed Nelson a “professional expert witness” as evidenced by his $495 an hour charge. She asked if he employed his “professional skepticism” in reviewing Burdette’s report, asking if he’d want to know if Burdette’s work may have been biased. Again the Feb. 10, 2009, message board comment about hearsay and innuendo was read, and Rue asked Nelson if Burdette shared that he published an article in Coin World reconstructing the distribution of 1929 half eagles using records that Nelson had called unreliable.
Nelson was then asked if 458.1 ounces could equal just 43 coins — a key premise of Burdette’s theory described to the jury the prior day — to which Nelson replied, “most likely not.” Nelson characterized the government’s forensic accounting as preparing a “simple regurgitation” of the data, adding that the 1933 ledgers add up using the year of the coin — 1933 — as the identifier. Rue then asked him if information on a contemporary coin bag would be specific identification and presented to him an empty canvas 1930s coin bag, individually numbered, stating that it contained $5,000 in 1931 double eagles.
The government concluded by having Nelson confirm that he saw no evidence in his review of the records to show that 1933 double eagles were released by the cashier. Berke declined to ask further questions and with that, the Langbord family rested its case at 2:47 p.m.
Romero: Don’t fall victim to a ‘Houdini’
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero began her closing statement by thanking the jury for being patient and focused, stating that the United States has, too, been patient for about 80 years to put this crime to rest, “waiting to be here to present this case to you.”
The government’s key premise: that Israel Switt and his friends stole coins.
She explained that as a civil forfeiture action, the government doesn’t have to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, does not need clear and convincing evidence, but rather, a preponderance of evidence — in other words, more likely than not. She asked, “Have we just tipped that scale ever so slightly?” urging the jurors to use their common sense to see if the evidence and experts “pass the sniff test.”
Romero reviewed the evidence that showed that all 1933 double eagles were accounted for, before characterizing Berke as a “Houdini” who used smoke and mirrors to confuse the jury with facts, so that they couldn’t make heads or tails of it. She then dismissed Burdette as a “gentleman trained in music who’s an IT person” asking the jury if they thought if an argument based on fudging official records was credible, adding, “There was no window of opportunity for 1933 double eagles … Anything else is wrong and meant to confuse you.”
She said every piece of evidence pointed the finger at Israel Switt as the source of 1933 double eagles and characterized Switt as someone who “saw the opportunity for a lottery-sized profit.” She noted the total absence of contemporary records discussing the coins going out legally and reminded the jury that in 1937, when Switt charged $500 for the coins, they were priced on par with top rarities in a secret market where dealers were encouraged to shoot far and wide, “as far as King Farouk of Egypt.”
She brought up confiscation of $2,000 face value of gold coins Switt held in violation of the Gold Reserve Act of 1934 as a potential motive for the theft of the 1933 double eagles, saying that Switt took a “wait and see” approach. Romero suggested that Switt was discouraged by the outcome of 1947 Barnard case, which said 1933 double eagles were not legal to own, and waited until 1977. At that time, “curiosity got the best of him” and Switt asked his son Roy to find out what the coins were worth at Stack’s, the New York City rare coin firm, even though Switt had a relationship with the firm himself and could have made a phone call to find out.
She then called out Roy Langbord — a lawyer educated at New York University and Columbia —questioning why he didn’t ask the question, “Why are they traded privately?” when told by a Stack’s representative that the coins did not trade publicly. She reminded the jury of the subsequent testimony of Philadelphia coin dealer Harry J. Forman who said Switt was looking for a buyer out of the country. Though the coins were allegedly found in 2003, Roy Langbord waited months to decide what to do, and Romero pointed out that as a lawyer, finding the case law on the 1933 double eagle would have been as easy as a quick Internet search.
Romero next addressed Joan Langbord, reminding the jury that she was intimately involved in the family business, wondering how she thought that the safe deposit box that held the 1933 double eagles was so full of jewelry that the coins could go unnoticed for so long. Romero established a timeline, showing that she visited the box right before the sale of the “Farouk” 1933 double eagle, and that records show the box appears to have been opened in 1996, right after Stephen Fenton was arrested in connection with trying to sell an example.
In closing, Romero said that the books of the Mint show no 1933 double eagles went out, reminded the jury of evidence showing that examples were impossible to get in the 1930s through legitimate channels, and that an extensive Secret Service investigation determined that they were stolen. She urged the jury to not be fooled by smoke and mirrors and to not fall victim to a Houdini.
Berke: Government brought ‘full force’ against the Langbords
Berke took a conversational tone in his closing statement to the jury, flattering them for their extraordinary attendance and telling them that he felt that for him, the “temptation is great to sit down,” as the government hadn’t shown that it had the right to take the Langbord’s property. Berke told the members of the jury that the government was powerful enough “to pull the wool over your eyes,” before reminding the jury of the evidence presented over the prior nine days.
Berke said that the government wouldn’t even have known about the coins but for the Langbords turning them in, and that the government brought its “full force” against the family. He urged the jury to consider the evidence to ask, “Could they have left lawfully?” being specific in presenting the various pieces of evidence — the March 7 telegram, the Burdette research, the counter cash evidence and the like.
He condensed the arguments down to three points, saying that the government “desperately” wanted the coins and that it failed in meeting the burden, adding that the government should “be better than that.”
First, Berke said that the government’s premise that no coins went out after March 6, 1933, is false as evidenced by the March 7 telegram stating that the Mint was able to issue gold coins or bars for gold bullion received. Second, he said that the government’s assumption that contemporary documents related to the 1933 double eagle were complete, reliable and accurate was false, citing the presence of more than 20 1933 $10 eagles available to collectors as “devastating proof” that Mint records are not correct. Third, he said that the government’s assumption that Mint policies were followed was false, citing Secret Service reports that found Mint accounting practices of the period inadequate.
He characterized Switt’s arrest and the government’s confiscation of $2,000 in gold coins under the 1934 Gold Reserve Act as a “red herring” and putty that the government used to fill holes in its case. Berke said that Forman just “got it wrong” and criticized the government for “throwing mud at the Langbords.”
Berke closed by telling the jury that the case, “should be easy for you,” as the government’s argument is based on “an illusion of the Mint running like clockwork” before concluding that the government is not entitled to the coins.
Romero: Israel Switt took the cookie
Romero spent the last five minutes of the day responding to Berke with a patriotic and common-sense-based approach. She helped clarify the jury’s task by telling them a story, placing them in a kitchen with a cookie in a jar, and a single entrance to the kitchen. Joe goes in, he leaves and there is no cookie. You don’t know how it was taken, whether Joe used his right or left hand, whether there was an “army of mice.” But, you know it’s gone. Romero tied it into the case, stating, “Israel Switt took the cookie.”
She then explained why the government cares, bringing up the certificate of monetization that came with the sale of the “Farouk” example in 2002. With the certificate, that coin was issued by the government and as Romero said, “the government protects our money” from “thieves and swindlers.”
She told members of the jury that the “fate of a national treasure is in your hand,” saying that the Langbords “want you to reward them for theft.” She concluded by stating that the coins should be in a museum, not in the pockets of the Switt-Langbord family. ¦
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