Posts Tagged ‘jeffrey skilling’

Skilling Decision: Good for Justice, Bad for Jurisprudence

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

jeff skilling

It looks like we spotted the trend.  Unfortunately.

Last week we noted that, when faced with an ambiguous statute, some on the Supreme Court are now willing to read new language into the statute, rather than toss it back to Congress to do it right.  And we wondered if that might be a harbinger of what was to come in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach and Skilling.

Well, those cases came down this morning, and sure enough the majority decided to read in new language, rather than toss out the statute for being vague.

It’s great for the defendants, whose honest-services convictions got tossed.  But to get there the Court had to change the rules.  Now, judicial invention is a perfectly acceptable method of statutory interpretation… so long as the new language is what “everybody knows” the statute really meant to say.  And that’s bloody dangerous. 

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We’ve been paying close attention to this issue (see other posts here, here, here and here), as have many others, because the feds love charging people with honest services fraud.  It’s so vague and open-ended, that it potentially criminalizes any activity that’s outside one’s job description.  That makes it a great catchall when you can’t prove something more substantive.  But it’s also not at all what Congress intended.

“Honest services” fraud was originally a judge-created law.  There wasn’t any statute criminalizing it, it just sort evolved via common law, accepted in all the Circuits.  But we don’t do common-law crimes in this country, for one thing, and the mail fraud statute didn’t say anything about intangible rights, so in 1987 the Supreme Court threw out the common-law version of honest services fraud.  If Congress wanted to criminalize it, then that was up to Congress.

The idea was pretty simple: If you had a position of trust, and you abused that position for private gain (say, by taking bribes or kickbacks), then you were depriving people of the services you ought to have been giving them had you been honest.  You were getting paid under the table to do your job wrong.  So in 1988 Congress came up with 18 U.S.C. § 1346.

But the language didn’t say anything about abusing a position of trust.  Instead, it just said that (more…)

Criminalizing the Contractual: Have We Finally Seen the End of “Honest Services” Fraud?

Monday, March 1st, 2010

enron annual report 2000

Try this on for size:

For the purposes of this chapter, the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” includes:

(1) a scheme or artifice by a government official whereby the government official’s position is used for the private gain of any person or entity; or

(2) a scheme or artifice by an officer of a corporation, partnership, nonprofit organization or labor union, whereby the officer’s position is used for the private gain of any person or entity and not for the benefit of the officer’s shareholders or members.

If Congress had half a brain, this is what 18 U.S.C. § 1346 would look like. The whole point of the section is to prevent official corruption. A politician or bureaucrat who steers a contract to a buddy, or a corporate CEO who enriches himself instead of his shareholders, or a union boss who mismanages the pension fund — basically anyone who breaches a trust to act on behalf of those he represents.

But instead, Congress wrote this nonsense:

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.

For one thing, anyone can commit this crime, not just people who owe a duty to a constituency. Moreover, instead of a straightforward definition, this is hopelessly vague. Nobody knows what “the intangible right of honest services” means. Does it include an employee who’s playing solitaire instead of reviewing a file? Does it include a politician making promises he can’t keep?

Nobody knows.

And that’s just how federal prosecutors like it. Actual corruption charges, like bribery and extortion, are notoriously difficult to prove. But a mail/wire fraud charge, based on deprivation of “honest services” — that could mean anything, and so anything they can prove could count. Actions that don’t fit any particular category get to be called “fraud.”

Unethical behavior is now criminal. Contractual breaches, especially in the employment arena, also seem to count.

The courts have had a hard time applying this statute, differing widely on what counts and on how to instruct juries. Earlier this term, the Justices on the Supreme Court sounded like they have real problems with the statute. They seem even to wonder whether it’s void for vagueness. Criminal laws have to be specific enough to put you on notice that certain conduct could land you in jail, and a law where nobody even knows what it means certainly could be unconstitutionally vague. The Court hasn’t decided those open cases yet, presumably because they were waiting for one more to be argued.

And that gets us to today’s Supreme Court arguments in the case of Enron’s former CEO, Jeff Skilling.

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Enron was the nation’s 7th-largest company in 2001, when it suddenly came to light that its net worth was zilch. Bright people who had no clue what they were doing had created a bizarre house of cards that came tumbling down in an instant. The city of Houston, Enron’s headquarters, was devastated for years to come. Some people had clearly done wrong — CFO Andy Fastow and friends had profited hugely from schemes that broke the rules. It was less clear, however, whether CEO Jeff Skilling had acted improperly, or whether he even knew of any shenanigans. It was hard to say that he or the directors misrepresented anything to investors, as the company’s activities were pretty well documented. (For an excellent account of what happened and didn’t happen, see Kurt Eichenwald’s definitive “Conspiracy of Fools.” Malcolm Gladwell did an excellent piece in the New Yorker, as well, called “The Talent Myth,” about the culture there, and another one called “Open Secrets,” about the paradox of too much disclosure.)

Jeff Skilling was convicted in 2006 by a federal (more…)