The Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to rule on claims that “searing media attacks” on longtime Enron executive Jeffrey K. Skilling tainted his criminal trial and conviction on various fraud charges. The case of Skilling v. U.S. (08-1394) also raises an issue on the scope of the federal law punishing the failure to provide “honest services” as a corporate executive.
In his petition to the Supreme Court, Skilling argued,
In closing argument, the government declared that Skilling and Lay committed honest-services fraud because they violated a duty to Enron’s “employees”—a duty the government described as “a duty of good faith and honest services, a duty to be truthful, and a duty to do their job, ladies and gentlemen, to do their job and do it appropriately.”
Of critical importance here, the government argued that Skilling committed every alleged act of misconduct with the specific intent to advance Enron’s interests—by increasing reported earnings, maintaining an investment-grade credit rating, and improving the price of Enron’s stock. … The government did not contend, and the record did not suggest in any way, that Skilling intended to put his own interests ahead of Enron’s. To the contrary, the government’s stated theory was that its evidence needed only to show—and did only show—“a material violation of a fiduciary duty that defendants owed to Enron and its shareholders.”
The Fifth Circuit erred in holding that a conviction under § 1346 is valid even where the defendant did not seek to elevate material private interests over his employer’s. Even that limitation may not suffice to save the statute from unconstitutional vagueness, but it at least establishes some reasonably clear and intelligible boundary to the statute. It also reflects the pre-McNally understanding of honest-services fraud Congress sought to adopt in § 1346.
As Justice Scalia recently observed, the statute on its face sweeps in a breathtaking range of conduct. Sorich, 129 S.Ct. at 1310. The phrase “honest services” itself provides no clear guidance as to “how far the intangible rights theory of criminal responsibility really extends.” Bloom, 149 F.3d at 656; see Sorich, 523 F.3d at 707 (§ 1346 is “amorphous and open-ended”); Urciuoli, 513 F.3d at 294 (“the concept of ‘honest services’ is vague and undefined”); Brown, 459 F.3d at 520 (§ 1346 is a “facially vague criminal statute”); Murphy, 323 F.3d at 116 (“the plain language of § 1346 provides little guidance as to the conduct it prohibits”); U.S. v. Handakas, 286 F.3d 92, 105 (2d Cir. 2002) (“the text of § 1346 simply provides no clue to the public or the courts as to what conduct is prohibited”), overruled in part by Rybicki, 354 F.3d at 144; U.S. v. Brumley, 116 F.3d 728, 736 (5th Cir. 1997) (Jolly & DeMoss, JJ., dissenting) (§ 1346 is “general, undefined, vague, and ambiguous”). …
Several lower courts, however, have sought to resolve the problem of the statute’s facial ambiguity by reading into the text limitations on “honest services” fraud. The “private gain” requirement is among the clearest of those limitations, and it is drawn directly from the pre-McNally cases that created the concept of honest-services fraud. McNally itself stated the rule: “Under [the prior honestservices] cases, a public official owes a fiduciary duty to the public, and misuse of his office for private gain is a fraud.” Id. at 355 (emphasis added).
Applying a private-gain limitation to honest services fraud is the only way to even arguably “avoid the constitutional question” raised by the vagueness of the phrase “honest services.” Jones v. U.S., 529 U.S. 848, 858 (2000). Absent that limitation, the statute is nothing more than a common-law fiduciary-breach statute, impermissibly criminalizing whatever wrongful or unethical corporate acts a given prosecutor decides to attack. Brown, 459 F.3d at 521-22; Bloom, 149 F.3d at 654.
Here’s the whole statute at issue:
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.
It defines part of the statute for "fraud by wire, radio, or television:"
Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. …
He may be on to something.
Then again, is there really any "vagueness" to the notion that fraud is criminal? Does anyone really throw their hands up into the air and proclaim that they don’t know if it’s illegal to defraud investors for the benefit of a company that pays that person millions every year, a company of which they own millions of dollars worth of shares?