This month, the Supreme Court issued two noteworthy opinions limiting the scope of federal fraud statutes, specifically those that prohibit “honest services fraud.” Under 18 USC 1346, a “scheme or artifice to defraud includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”
In Ciminelli v. United States, the Court unanimously invalidated the conviction of a construction company owner who had engaged in bid rigging for government contracts, which deprived the government of “potentially valuable economic information necessary to make discretionary economic decisions.” As a result, the trial court instructed the jury that “property” as defined under the fraud statute, included “intangible interests such as the right to control the use of one’s assets.”
The Court held that this was error, as the right to such intangible but “valuable economic information” was not a “traditional property interest” protected by the statute. The Court’s holding will likely be used to challenge future fraud prosecutions involving intangible losses.
In Percoco v. United States, the Court invalidated another defendant’s conviction, this time that of a former official in the Governor’s office in New York who, while on hiatus from his official role to assist in the governor’s campaign, accepted money to advise a real estate development company in its dealings with a state agency. Specifically, Percoco had lobbied internally to urge other officials to ease certain work requirements for the company, which received government funding.
The Court held that the trial court erred in instructing the jury that it could convict Percoco of honest services fraud, even while not serving as a public official, if it found that he “dominated and controlled any government business” and that “people working in the government actually relied on him because of a special relationship he had with the government.” The Court held these instructions were too vague and swept too broadly. However, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument that a private citizen cannot be convicted of depriving the public of honest services, reserving the question whether some private citizens could have the “necessary fiduciary duty to the public.”