Supreme Court Update: Honest Services Fraud Cases

Last Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Black v. U.S. and Weyhrauch v. U.S., two of the three federal honest services fraud cases currently before the Court. On Friday, lawyers for Jeffrey Skilling submitted their brief in the third, Skilling v. U.S. This Monday, the Court set oral arguments for Skilling for March 1, 2010, at least three weeks before it would normally be heard. We have previously discussed these cases here, here, here, and here.

Background

For many years, federal prosecutors successfully argued that the mail fraud and wire fraud laws covered schemes to defraud the people of the “intangible right” to have affairs conducted honestly. Now referred to as “pre-McNally caselaw” this body of law was not uniform; the circuits disagreed on exactly what conduct constituted the illegal conduct at the boundaries of the law. In McNally v. U.S. in 1987, the Supreme Court held:

Rather than construe the statute in a manner that leaves its outer boundaries ambiguous and involves the Federal Government in setting standards of disclosure and good government for local and state officials, we read [the mail fraud statute] as limited in scope to the protection of property rights. If Congress desires to go further, it must speak more clearly than it has.

Congress reacted by passing 18 U.S.C. § 1346, which states: “For the purposes of this chapter, the term ‘scheme or artifice to defraud’ includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” Everyone agrees that Congress intended to overrule McNally and most seem to agree that the statute covers bribery and kickbacks, but because Congress failed to speak clearly, many issues at the borders of the law remain unresolved.

Since 1987, prosecutors have attempted to extend “honest services fraud” to many situations that would be less-than-obvious to readers of the statute. In Black, Conrad Black was convicted of honest services fraud in a private setting for use of a scheme to increase his own compensation that caused no harm to the corporation. In Skilling, Jeffrey Skilling was convicted in a private setting (Enron) in which the scheme involved no personal gain. In Weyhrauch, an Alaska legislator was convicted for failure to disclose a conflict of interest, even though Alaska law imposes no duty to disclose. When the Supreme Court denied certiorari in Sorich v. U.S. this year, Justice Scalia dissented, saying that it seemed irresponsible “to let the current chaos prevail” in this area of law. The Court will finally take on the responsibility with Black, Weyhrauch, and Skilling.

Oral Arguments in Black and Weyhrauch

At the oral argument in Black last week, the Court seemed eager to determine whether the constitutionality of § 1346 was properly before them in these two cases. Many of the Justices asked about a constitutional argument. Black’s lawyer asserted that he was presenting the constitutional question of vagueness (both notice and prosecutorial discretion) as a predicate for the logical disposition of the question presented. The government’s lawyer asserted that the constitutional question had not been posed in Black, but that Skilling, which had not yet been briefed, may present the issue. Chief Justice Roberts responded by asking, “you agree it would be very unusual if in June we announced the opinion in your case agreeing with you and then the next case announced that the statute is unconstitutional?”

The Court asked the government’s lawyer about the ins and outs of what is covered by honest services fraud, particularly what the lawyer called “undisclosed conflicts of interest by an agent or fiduciary who takes action to further that interest.” Justice Breyer worried that “perhaps there are 150 million workers in the United States. I think possibly 140 of them would flunk [the government’s] test.” The government’s explanation was that materiality and intent to defraud would exclude such employees, but Justice Scalia wasn’t satisfied with the government’s circular reasoning, asking, “I’m still waiting to hear what materiality consists. Is it just – de minimus doesn’t count?” and later remarking that nothing in the government’s brief or argument had “eliminate[d] these de minimus kind of … misrepresentations to the employer.”

The Court spent the next hour on oral arguments in Weyhrauch. Weyhrauch’s counsel argued primarily about the duties enforced by the honest serviced statute. When the government lawyer returned, however, the Justices turned back to the constitutional issues. The Court contemplated the ability of the average citizen to understand the law, with Justice Scalia asking at one point, “What is the citizen supposed to do? He is supposed to go back and read all those pre-McNally cases?” The government lawyer eventually assured the Court that vagueness is a legitimate concern that the government would not shy away from once raised in Skilling.

The Court has not asked the parties to brief the constitutional vagueness issue in Black or Weyhrauch, but the Skilling brief addresses it directly. Because oral arguments in Skilling have been pushed forward since that brief was filed, the Court will likely tackle the constitutional issue before announcing opinions in Black or Weyhrauch.

Skilling Brief

Filed on Friday, Skilling’s brief focuses on two issues: the constitutionality of honest services fraud, particularly where no private gain was intended, and whether the Government may rebut the presumption of jury prejudice. Regarding honest services fraud, Skilling set forth the following arguments.

A. To identify any meaning in § 1346, one must consult two decades of conflicting and confusing cases, so it is unconstitutionally vague.

The brief identifies five basic questions that the pre-McNally cases disagreed upon, making it “hopelessly unclear and conflicting” so as not to provide fair notice of what is criminalized by § 1346. These disagreements included: what source of law identifies the illegal conduct; whether contemplated economic harm to the employer was a necessary element; whether public and private sector standards were identical; whether duties extended beyond “official action,” and whether use of the fiduciary position was a necessary element. The brief quotes a dissenting judge from the Second Circuit as saying, “Ordinary people cannot be expected to undertake such an analysis [of the meaning of pre-McNally cases]; rare is the lawyer who could do it…”

The brief also details numerous conflicting meanings assigned to the statute by the government in the history of its prosecutions. The government has used this statute as a deus ex machina (a disgraceful literary device defined here) to proffer any meaning necessary to prosecute whichever defendant happens to be in its sights. By facilitating arbitrary prosecutions, this statute implicates “the other principle element of the vagueness doctrine.” In oral argument in Black, Justice Breyer brought up this point, joking about a criminal statute reading, “‘It is a crime to do wrong.’ sometimes adding, ‘in the opinion of the Attorney General.'” He then asked, “Now do you see the problem?”

Because of the vagueness issues and the Justices’ questions and remarks during oral argument, we are hopeful that the Court will decide that § 1346 is unconstitutional, now that the issue has been presented directly. The Court may, however, simply limit its application. Skilling argues that doing so would require creation of federal common law, which is not a part of the Court’s duty. Justice Scalia addressed this point numerous times during oral argument, saying, “[Y]ou speak as though it is up to us to write the statute… but that’s not our job.”

B. If the Court decides to uphold the statute, it should limit it to covering bribes and kickbacks, the only category of conduct unambiguously prohibited in pre-McNally caselaw.

Skilling argues that, if the Court upholds the constitutionality of § 1346, it should limit its application to the bribery and kickbacks that were paradigmatic of pre-McNally caselaw, rather than including the “self-dealing” types of cases that have garnered much of the confusion regarding this law. The bribery and kickbacks cases are what an average citizen would likely find when attempting to determine the meaning of the statute and the government has stated that Congress meant to codify the paradigm cases in enacting § 1346. The rule of lenity requires such a limitation. In addition, the pre-McNally self-dealing cases were effectively money or property fraud cases that did not need to be addressed by a new statute, so this is already-covered territory and extending honest services fraud to it would be redundant.

C. If the Court reads self-dealing into the statute, it should require private gain as an element of the offense, and disqualify normal compensation incentives established by the employer as “private gains.”

Finally, Skilling argued that even if self-dealing is covered by the statute, it should only apply in cases in which the defendant gained privately. Every circuit that addressed a private gain requirement in the pre-McNally cases enforced a requirement that the government prove that the defendant personally gained some economic benefit. Even during oral argument in Weyhrauch, the government lawyer stated that the government was after “personal conflicting financial interests.” When the Chief Justice twice repeated the word “financial,” the government lawyer responded each time with “That’s right.” If the majority of the Court follows through with these comments by the Chief Justice, then it appears that private gains will be a necessary element in an honest services fraud prosecution.

Skilling then argued that normal compensation incentives for doing a good job for the employer is not a private benefit for the purpose of § 1346. No pre-McNally cases held that normal compensation incentives qualified as private gains. In addition, since people are presumed to act in their financial self-interest and employers count on that behavior in incentivizing performance, “every salaried employee can be said to work for her own interest while purporting to act in the interests of the employer,” according to Judge Jacobs of the Second Circuit, in his dissent in U.S. v. Rybicki.

We look forward to reading the government’s reply brief, which is due January 25, 2010. We hope the Court will eventually hold that this statute is unconstitutionally vague, but, as Timothy O’Toole pointed out at the White Collar Crime Prof Blog, the Court denied certiorari in another honest services fraud case on December 7th. The case is U.S. v. Kincaid-Chauncey and the Ninth Circuit opinion is available at 556 F.3d 923. Because this case dealt with more straightforward bribery charges against a public official, the denial of cert. leads us to believe the Court may consider leaving the bribery and kickback aspects of the statute intact.

Transcripts from the oral arguments are available here
(Black) and here (Weyhrauch).
Skilling’s brief is available here.
Additional reading is available at the following locations:
ScotusBlog
White Collar Crime Prof Blog
NPR’s All Things Considered