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Reframing the Right: Using Theories of Intangible Property to Target Honest Services Fraud After Skilling

45 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2012 Last revised: 14 Mar 2012

Brette M. Tannenbaum

Columbia University - Law Review

Date Written: February 18, 2012


Few federal criminal statutes have been as widely charged --- and widely criticized --- as the honest services statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1346. Primarily, this is because federal prosecutors have used the statute to charge corrupt officials with mail or wire fraud for denying citizens the intangible right to their impartial services, regardless of whether those citizens suffered any financial or proprietary loss --- an element typically required under the traditional mail and wire fraud statutes. Recently, in Skilling v. United States, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the honest services theory when it interpreted § 1346 to reach only bribery or kickback schemes. Scholars and commentators predict the decision will mark the end of federal prosecutions for more inchoate forms of fraud, such as undisclosed self-dealing and hidden conflicts of interest. Fearing as much, members of Congress have proposed legislation to criminalize undisclosed self-dealing expressly and thereby retain the full anti-corruption enforcement power of the mail and wire fraud statutes. In response, this Note argues that initial reactions to Skilling have overstated the extent to which federal prosecutors are now hindered in their ability to prosecute honest services misconduct. Just as they have done for decades, prosecutors can and should continue to target honest services misconduct using the traditional mail and wire fraud statutes, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341 and 1343, by reframing the victim’s right as an intangible property right. This Note provides a framework for how prosecutors can do so while largely replicating the sweep and targets of pre-Skilling § 1346 honest services prosecutions and concludes that such an exercise of prosecutorial discretion is both appropriate and desirable.

Keywords: Skilling, McNally, honest services, honest services fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, intangible property, prosecutorial discretion

Suggested Citation

Tannenbaum, Brette M., Reframing the Right: Using Theories of Intangible Property to Target Honest Services Fraud After Skilling (February 18, 2012). Columbia Law Review, Vol. 112, No. 2, March 2012. Available at SSRN: or

Brette Tannenbaum (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law Review ( email )

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