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Bribery, Kickbacks, and Self-Dealing: An Overview of Honest Services Fraud and Issues for Congress

CRS report via FAS – Bribery, Kickbacks, and Self-Dealing: An Overview of Honest Services Fraud and Issues for Congress, January 30. 2019.

“As the trials of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos illustrate, corruption among high-profile public officials continues to be a concern in the United States. Likewise, recent examples abound of powerful executives in the private sector abusing positions of trust for personal gain. Faced with this reality, Congress has shown consistent interest in policing public- and privatesector corruption, enacting a number of criminal provisions aimed at holding corrupt officials accountable for their actions under federal law. However, one of federal prosecutors’ most potent existing tools for combating such corruption—18 U.S.C. § 1346, which defines the crimes of mail and wire fraud as including so-called “honest services” fraud—has been a source of contention between the courts and Congress for years. 18 U.S.C. § 1346 defines the term “scheme or artifice to defraud,” as used in the general statutes prohibiting use of the mails or wires to commit fraud, to include a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services. Congress enacted this provision in the late 1980s in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in McNally v. United States that the mail fraud statute was limited in scope to only the protection of tangible property rights. The McNally decision was grounded in concerns that a broader construction of the statute could leave its outer boundaries ambiguous and unjustifiably involve the federal government in setting standards for good government at the local level. Nevertheless, Section 1346 abrogates McNally’s holding, codifying the understanding of some of the lower federal courts that the mail and wire fraud statutes extend to conduct that deprives a person or group of the right to have another act in accordance with some externally imposed duty or obligation, regardless of whether the victim so deprived has suffered or would suffer a pecuniary harm..”

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