Members of the Supreme Court on Tuesday criticized a federal law that was used to convict former media mogul Conrad Black and others.
The honest services fraud law makes it illegal for public officials and private executives to deprive taxpayers or others of “the intangible right to honest services.”
The government used the law to prosecute Black, the former Hollinger International Inc. chairman who is serving a 6 1/2-year sentence for skimming millions of dollars from the firm.
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On Tuesday the court heard two challenges to the law, from Black and from an Alaskan public official, and “appeared to share concern that the law is too vague and has criminalized civil or ethical violations,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said the vagueness of the law “is the working problem here.”
Justice Antonin Scalia expressed concern that the law could hypothetically be used against a worker who calls in sick so he can go to a ballgame.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said skipping out of work to go to a game “could be a huge loss” to a company and thus violate the law.
And Justice Stephen Breyer said the 20-year-old statute potentially could criminalize the conduct of millions of American workers who simply goof off on the job, The Wall Street Journal reported.
One of Black’s attorneys, Miguel Estrada, said about the law: “There are any number of problems with how Congress chose to do this.”
A Supreme Court decision to revamp or strike down the law could have an impact on public corruption cases across the nation, including that of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. More than half the charges he faces deal with honest services, according to the Sun-Times.
Justice Department attorney Michael Dreeben argued that the law was focused only on corruption cases involving bribes, kickbacks and “instances where workers took actions that benefitted their personal financial interests instead of their employer’s,” The Journal reported.
But another Black lawyer, Marc Martin, said if the law is tossed out it would put “every honest services conviction in doubt.”
Hollinger was once the world’s third-largest newspaper company, with more than 300 papers including the Daily Telegraph in Britain and the Chicago Sun-Times.
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