Supreme Court to hear arguments againt "honest-services fraud", threatening case against Rod Blagojevich

The nation's most potent law against public corruption could be in danger of being scaled back or struck down by the Supreme Court, threatening a series of high-profile cases, including those of former Gov.

Rod Blagojevich, the Washington lobbyists who worked for Jack Abramoff and several jailed corporate chiefs.

At issue in court arguments in early December is a ban on "honest-services fraud," often used against public officials who accept money, free tickets or well-paying jobs for their spouses and children in cases where bribery cannot be proved.

"In Chicago, this was our go-to statute. Every major public corruption case in the last 10 years relied heavily on an honest-services charge," said Patrick Collins, formerly a top anti-corruption prosecutor for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago. These cases include the conviction of former Gov. George Ryan.

The trial of Blagojevich is set to begin in June, but Collins said it could be derailed by a high court decision. "If the court were to gut the statute, the prosecution would have to think long and hard about how to restructure the case. (Honest-services fraud) is the core operating theory of the case," he said.

In Washington, anti-corruption activists fear the court's ruling could take away from prosecutors their best tool for combating the culture of gift giving and cozy deals between lobbyists and members of Congress and their staffs.

"It would undercut public corruption cases across the board," if the court struck down the law against honest-services fraud, said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The U.S. Supreme Court today will hear arguments to dismantle a potent and controversial law federal prosecutors nationwide have used to convict public officials of corruption, including former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and former New Jersey state Senator Wayne Bryant.

Authorities have long heralded the honest-services statute as one of their most flexible and powerful tools to charge those who abuse their positions to steer favors to friends, relatives or themselves. Prosecutors used it to convict former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and to charge the ex-governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich.

The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear three cases in its current term examining a controversial federal statute that makes it a crime "to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services."

The law is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of prosecutors seeking to root out all forms of public and private corruption. But the statute, critics say, fails to give fair warning of precisely which conduct violates the law.

On Tuesday, two of the cases arrive at the high court for oral argument, and the justices will confront a murky issue: What is an intangible right of honest services, and when does its absence rise to the level of a federal crime?

It is not exactly a new question. In 1987, the Supreme Court struck down a similar "honest services" law, saying the outer boundaries of the statute were too ambiguous. The court said that federal prosecutors seeking to prove mail fraud would have to show a deprivation of actual physical property. In other words, it wasn't enough to provide evidence that a defendant had infringed "the intangible right of the citizenry to good government."

The anti-fraud law at the heart of three disputes before the Supreme Court has been used against such high-profile defendants as lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Illinois governor George Ryan and his successor, Rod Blagojevich.

Now the law — which makes it a crime for public officials and corporate executives to deprive citizens or shareholders of their "right of honest services" — faces a trial of sorts itself.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, backing defendants in the new cases, says the "honest services" provision of U.S. fraud law is unconstitutionally vague and gives prosecutors unbridled discretion to enforce their own views of what's illegal. On the other side, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington deems the law an invaluable prosecutorial tool against corruption.