At some point during the next year, the United States Supreme Court is expected, for the first time, to grapple with the issue of what constitutes "honest services" mail fraud. In May, 2009, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the appeal by a business man of his conviction under the statute. (Black v. United States). His defense attorneys claim the statute is too vague.
In 1988, Congress enacted this statute, (18 U.S.C. 1346), which essentially makes it a federal crime for either a politician or a business executive to use the mails in furtherance of a scheme to "deprive another of their intangible right to [the politician's, or business executive's] honest services.
The "honest services" mail fraud statute is a popular prosecutorial tool used by federal prosecutors everywhere! As a former federal prosecutor, I often utilized this statute to charge corruption cases, too!
Frankly, it is easier to see what this "honest services" statute means when it is applied in the public sector, i.e. to politicians. For example, it is clear to see that a politican has deprived the public of their right to his "honest services" when he uses his public office for private gain and secretly lines his pockets with money. Whether or not he is guilty or innocent, that is the type of case which former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich faces.
But applying the "honest services" statute to the private (business) sector presents some tougher questions about what the mail fraud statute really means. The issue in the pending appeal before the Supreme Court involves trickier questions about whether the statute, (and the meaning of "honest services"), is too vague, including issues about how far does the statute go in criminalizing business deals, and does it criminalize mere ethical violations. It also raises questions about to whom does a business executive owe a duty of "honest services," and is that duty based upon state or federal law? In other words, the Supreme Court must decide, in this new case, whether or not the "honest services" mail fraud statute is too vague, because it fails to give adequate notice to the average person as to what constitutes a crime.
Just as you never know what a jury will do, you also can never fully guess what the Supreme Court may do! But it will be interesting to see what happens! And I suspect former Governor Blagojevich and his defense attorneys will be watching, too!