One of the most potent anticorruption tools for U.S. prosecutors is the “honest services” fraud statute. In essence, the statute makes it illegal for someone to violate their fiduciary duty to the public by participating in a bribery or kickback scheme. The idea behind this law is that when someone owes a fiduciary duty to the public, engaging in corruption deprives the public of their right to “honest services” and thus constitutes a violation of that duty.
Yet while it is relatively clear what activities violate this statute, it is less clear who can violate it. Some cases are obvious: Public officials, for instance, hold a position of power that has been entrusted to them by the public, and in turn must act on behalf of the public when wielding that power. They clearly are the sorts of public fiduciaries to whom the honest services fraud statute can apply. At the other end of the spectrum are ordinary private citizens who have no connection whatsoever to government office. Such people may have a general moral responsibility to behave honestly, but they do not owe fiduciary duties to the public. But between those easy cases at either end of the spectrum are more challenging cases. Consider a person who does not formally hold office but who, by virtue of some relationship to public office or to a public official, have significant influence over government decisionmaking. Do those people owe a fiduciary duty to the public? Are they subject to conviction under the honest services fraud statute? This is the difficult problem that the U.S. Supreme Court will soon address in Percoco v. United States.