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SCOTUS to Take Up ‘Vague’ Fraud Law

The Supreme Court is set to hear three big cases charging that the anti-corruption laws are too vague and recent high-level prosecutions under them must be struck down.

The law at issue, an amendment to the Wire and Mail Fraud Act of 1988, makes it illegal for public or private employees to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”

What exactly does that mean?

The Washington Post reports today that former newspaper tycoon Conrad Black is arguing that the government should have had to prove that he caused economic harm to his company, in addition to diverting company funds to himself.

Former Republican Alaska state representative Bruce Weyhrauch, meanwhile, argues no state law required disclosure of his private communications with an oil services firm, so he shouldn’t have been prosecuted for it, even though the firm was simultaneously lobbying him on a proposed tax bill.

And former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling claims the government failed to prove that he was trying to enrich himself, rather than just save the company, by his fraudulent accounting scheme that ultimately brought Enron down.

Justice Antonin Scalia has said that the law in dispute “invites abuse by headline-grabbing prosecutors in pursuit of local officials, state legislators and corporate C.E.O.’s who engage in any manner of unappealing or ethically questionable conduct.”

If the law is struck down, it could call into question other high-profile fraud convictions. The law was key to the prosecutions of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Illinois governor George Ryan (R) and former Enron executives.

The same law is also central to the government’s plans to prosecute another former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich (D), who is accused of trying to auction off President Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat.

Black v. United States and Weyhrauch v. United States will be heard on Tuesday. Skilling v. United States is scheduled for argument in 2010.

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