Public corruption occurs when authoritative figures abuse their position of power and trust for personal gain. Many federal public corruption cases stem from allegations that a public official accepted a bribe, gratuity or kickback in exchange for making an official decision or acting in a certain manner. We also often see public corruption cases when a public official embezzles or misuses funds or property from the government or its citizens.
Public corruption is a federal crime investigated by federal agents. The FBI is the lead agency for investigating allegations of federal public corruption of both state and federal officials. There are three federal statutes that are commonly used against officials accused of bribery or public corruption. They include:
In this article we will take a look at all three statutes and how the government uses them to investigate and prosecute public officials, politicians and business executives – even though these laws were never intended to be used in this manner.
Honest services fraud is defined in 18 USC 1346, and is essentially an extension of the mail and wire fraud statue (18 USC 1341, 1343). It is broadly defined as any “scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” To be convicted of honest services fraud, prosecutors must show that:
It’s important to point out that the mail, email or mailer – elements needed to show mail or wire fraud was part of the scheme – does not need to have any fraudulent information. Federal prosecutors need only show that the mailing or email was a “step” in the fraudulent scheme.
The so-called “College Admissions Scandal” – also dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” – is a high-profile example of honest services fraud. In 2019, dozens of people – including actors, lawyers, and business owners – were arrested in connection with a cheating scheme designed to help students get into elite universities. In this scandal, wealthy parents bribed and paid off third parties to get their child admitted to the elite college of their choice. In some cases, coaches were paid to admit unqualified students as recruited athletes. In other cases, ACT and SAT exam administrators were paid to fix the students’ scores. Dozens of people were convicted in the scheme, many of whom received federal prison time and steep fines.
The Hobbs Act (18 USC 1951) outlaws robbery or extortion that affects interstate or foreign commerce. It was initially enacted to combat racketeering, or organized crime, in labor-management disputes, but it has been used for years to prosecute charges of bribery and public correction in state in local government.
Among other things, the Act prohibits public officials from obtaining property “under color of official right” or using their authoritative position to extort property.
“[T]he offense is completed at the time when the public official receives a payment in return for his agreement to perform specific official acts; fulfillment of the quid pro quo is not an element of the offense.” United States v. Evans, 504 U.S. 255 (1992).
The RICO Act (18 USC 1962) makes it makes it unlawful for a public official, “employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities or which affect interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate . . . in the conduct of such enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity.” A Hobbs Act violation can become a basis for a RICO Act prosecution when there are two or more shareable or indictable or punishable predicate offenses. The RICO Act makes the public official subject to higher penalties than under the Hobbs Act. A conviction under the RICO Act (with predicate acts of bribery) carries a potential 20-year sentence.
Public corruption can take many forms, including border corruption, prison corruption and political corruption. Here’s a look at some examples:
The laws surrounding public corruption can be complex. Charges can be brought at the state or federal level. If you are charged with or investigated for public corruption, reach out to our federal criminal defense attorneys for the most up-to-date laws, their application, and a strategy session.