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:
- Honest Services Fraud
- Hobbs Act
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.
What is Honest Services Fraud?
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:
- a duty of honest services was owed to someone;
- mail or wire fraud was committed as part of the scheme;
- there was a bribe or kickback;
- there was intent to deceive someone for personal gain;
- someone was harmed;
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.
What is the The Hobbs Act?
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 corruption in state and local government.
This is because extortion is defined as “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear or under color of official right.” It’s the last part of the definition – “under color of official right” – that federal prosecutors focus on when prosecuting public officials.
To secure a conviction, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a public official or employee used the power and authority of his or her office in order to obtain money, property or something of value to which they had no right. This can include accepting gifts in exchange for something.
Conviction of a Hobbs Act violation carries a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.
What is the RICO Act?
The RICO Act – which is an acronym for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations – is codified under 18 USC 1962 and was intended to prosecute mob bosses back in the 1970s. These days, it is used by federal authorities to prosecute a broad range of criminal activity that is tied to, related to, or performed on behalf of an enterprise. This can include public or political corruption.
To successfully prosecute, the federal government must prove that the defendant:
- engaged in two or more instances of racketeering activity within 10 years of each other;
- invested, maintained or participated in a criminal enterprise;
- effected interstate commerce
It’s important to point out that a Hobbs Act violation can also 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 carries a potential 20-year sentence.
What are some Examples of Public Corruption?
Public corruption can take many forms, including border corruption, prison corruption and political corruption. Here’s a look at some examples:
- Public officials accepting bribes to allow illegal drugs, undocumented migrants or undeclared goods into the U.S.
- Prison guards taking payment to allow illegal activity to occur behind bars
- Politicians accepting in exchange for providing insider information or voting in favor of certain contracts
- A government officials who awards contracts to an immediate family member without disclosing a conflict of interest
Defending Against Charges of Federal Public Corruption in Fort Worth
The laws surrounding public corruption can be complex. If you are charged with or being investigated for federal public corruption, it’s imperative to reach out to an experienced federal criminal defense attorneys today. Call 817-203-2220 for a free consultation.