Prompted by the (ongoing) corruption trial of former Illinois governor George Ryan and co-defendant Larry Warner, University of Chicago lawprof Albert Alschuler has written a series of posts at the Chicago Law Faculty Blog using the trial “to illustrate the unfairness of the mail fraud and RICO statutes”. He notes that “prosecutors call the federal mail fraud statute ‘our Stradivarius, our Colt 45, our Louisville Slugger, our Cuisinart’, with the closely related Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) law second on the list of favorites.
In the Ryan case, the alleged misconduct to be brought out at trial “will cover a twelve-year period and range from failing to register as a lobbyist, to accepting secret consulting fees from a presidential campaign, to giving low-number license plates to campaign contributors.” Are all those things illegal? Well, they might be, ever since Congress added a vaguely worded new section to the mail fraud statute declaring that a scheme or artifice to defraud includes a scheme ‘to deprive another of the intangible right to honest services.’” The interpretations of this language have been so broad that even an elected official’s violation of his announced personal policy on a matter, not otherwise illegal, may be construed to deprive constituents of honest services.
In the Ryan case and others, prosecutors have used the intangible rights doctrine to stand federalism on its head. In effect, federal prosecutors prosecute state officials and private individuals for state crimes in the federal courts. Worse, they use the mail fraud statute to bootstrap minor state crimes and violations of non-criminal regulations into 20-year federal felonies. … Does every broken promise by a politician (“read my lips”) now constitute mail fraud?
The mail fraud statute, Alschuler argues in a third post, encourages “kitchen-sink” proceedings in which a vast assortment of dubious actions, not in fact closely related to each other, get treated as a single vast “scheme” for purposes of prosecution. Finally, a fourth post discusses RICO charges, which prosecutors can build up on a foundation of “predicate acts” that:
may extend over two or three decades. They may include crimes on which the statute of limitations has run, crimes that could not themselves be prosecuted in a federal court, crimes that could not be joined with one another in separate prosecutions, crimes of which the defendant already has been convicted and for which he has been punished, and even crimes of which he has been acquitted in a state court. The courts, if faithful to the statute, have no way to prevent this sprawl.
For our comments on the abuse of the RICO statute by the Clinton and Bush administrations in litigation against tobacco companies, see Sept. 23, 1999 and many other posts.