United States Supreme Court Limits Scope Of Federal Criminal "Honest Services" Fraud Statute

In Skilling v. United States, 2010 WL 2518587 (U.S. Jun. 24, 2010), the United States Supreme Court significantly limited the scope of a criminal statute used frequently by federal prosecutors to criminalize a wide range of behavior by business executives and public officials. The Court held that 18 U.S.C. § 1346, which makes it a federal crime to deprive another of the “intangible right of honest services,” may only be used by prosecutors in cases where the defendant has participated in conduct involving bribery or kickbacks. The justices agreed unanimously that the statute does not apply to cases where the defendant’s conduct merely entails a conflict of interest, self-dealing, breaches of fiduciary duty or unwise business decisions, and that does not include bribery or kickbacks. The Skilling case ends the long running debate between those who perceived this “statute of last resort” as a necessary tool for prosecutors to use in fighting malfeasance by corporate and public officials, and those who contended ambitious and/or unwise prosecutors were abusing the statute to target persons whose behavior may be unpopular, unethical or subject to second-guessing, but was not clearly criminal.

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