White Collar Criminal Law Explained

Course No. 2080
Professor Randall D. Eliason, JD
The George Washington University Law School
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Course No. 2080
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Unpack the eight common characteristics of white collar crimes and investigations
  • numbers Go inside the highly secretive inner workings of the federal grand jury process
  • numbers Examine how federal prosecutors prove cases involving conspiracy and obstruction of justice
  • numbers Discover the Supreme Court cases that shaped our understanding of white collar crimes
  • numbers Learn how a federal defense attorney protects clients from a white collar criminal charge

Course Overview

White collar crime is, by all accounts, a booming industry. Even pop culture crams its movies and television shows with stories of fraud, insider trading, and political corruption. We are fascinated by—and seemingly surrounded by—white collar crime and white collar criminals.

Consider the rash of white collar crimes we are experiencing today, with

  • Titans of Wall Street prosecuted for insider trading and securities fraud;
  • Parents and coaches indicted for bribery in connection with college admissions; and
  • Senior government officials charged with political corruption.

Located at the intersection of law, business, and politics, white collar crime is a critical area of criminal law in the United States. Yet despite how prevalent it is, one of the most surprising aspects of white collar crime is just how legally uncertain its boundaries are. Unlike more clear-cut crimes such as robbery, burglary, or homicide, white collar crimes often raise difficult issues about where to draw the lines between conduct that is merely sleazy or unethical and conduct that is truly criminal. A lot of actions may look like white collar crimes, but are not prosecuted because they are, in fact, not crimes at all. This constant process of definition—and redefinition—is one thing that makes white collar criminal law so fascinating and challenging for prosecutors, defense attorneys, law students, and even laypeople just trying to make sense of major criminal cases in the media.

In White Collar Criminal Law Explained, join former federal prosecutor and law professor Randall D. Eliason of The George Washington University Law School for an in-depth investigation of how federal white collar crime prosecutions work—and why they sometimes don’t. Over 24 lessons, you’ll consider the characteristics of white collar crime that set it apart from other areas of criminal law. You will also study the federal criminal justice system, the federal grand jury, and the tools prosecutors use to pursue these cases. Along the way, examine leading white collar criminal statutes such as mail and wire fraud, bribery, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and money laundering; and go inside landmark cases involving infamous figures such as financial fraudster Bernie Madoff and former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. Accessible, insightful, and eye-opening, this course is a first-rate legal education into an area of criminal law that reveals uncomfortable truths about human nature.

The Nature of White Collar Crime

Search the US Criminal Code for a section titled “white collar crimes,” and you’ll come up empty. If you look there for a definition of white collar crime, you won’t have any luck either. So, what exactly is it?

One of the first things Professor Eliason tells students in his classes is that the term “white collar crime” is something of a misnomer. While it sounds like it refers to the nature of the offender (a “white collar” executive of high social status), its focus actually is on the nature of the offense. White collar crime refers to a category of criminal offenses that share certain characteristics.

While there’s no “official” definition of a white collar crime, legal experts tend to define it as a non-violent illegal activity that principally uses deceit, fraud, deception, or misrepresentation to obtain money, property, or some other advantage, or to conceal other wrongdoing. The central issue is frequently intent: What was going on in the minds of the actors at the time of the alleged crime. Criminal intent may transform many otherwise lawful acts into white collar crimes.

Get Detailed Looks at White Collar Investigations

So how does a federal criminal prosecution begin and how is it conducted? How does a particular case work its way through the federal criminal justice system and what are the roles of the different players involved?

White collar Criminal Law Explained offers a detailed look at the legal proceedings involved in the very same cases that capture national—and sometimes international—attention. Early lessons offer you a foundational understanding of the nature and tools of federal white collar prosecutions, including:

  • Federal Prosecutors, who, unlike most lawyers, aren’t working just to “win” but have a higher obligation to seek justice, embodied in the maxim that the “United States wins its point whenever justice is done its citizens in the courts”;
  • Federal Grand Juries, which operate in secrecy, and whose role is to determine whether probable cause exists to justify criminal charges—in other words, not to determine how a criminal story ends but whether the story should be told at all;
  • Subpoenas and Search Warrants, powerful investigative tools that allow the government to compel the production of evidence from corporations and individuals who won’t voluntarily surrender it;
  • Federal Criminal Justice System, including the structure of the federal courts, the Department of Justice, and how a white collar case proceeds through that system.

Examine Major Types of White Collar Crimes

Federal prosecutors of white collar crime have a vast array of federal criminal statutes at their disposal. At the heart of White Collar Criminal Law Explained are in-depth lessons that cover the leading white collar statutes, what it takes for the government to prove a violation, and the legal issues they raise—all brought to life by the stories behind the leading cases interpreting those laws.

What are the major types of white collar crimes? You’ll explore these and others:

  • Mail and Wire Fraud: Two of the most important white collar statutes are also two of the simplest: mail and wire fraud. They require only proof of a scheme to defraud and the use of the U.S. Postal Service or private carriers or a wired or wireless transmission in furtherance of the scheme. Although the crimes may seem straightforward, it turns out that what constitutes fraud is not always clear, and a lot of conduct that may appear criminal is not.
  • Conspiracy: Conspiracies—partnerships in crime—are prosecuted to deter and punish joint criminal activity; criminals who pool resources can be more dangerous than those who don’t. A conspiracy may be prosecuted even if it never succeeds—and, indeed, even if it were impossible for it to succeed. The breadth of the statute raises concerns about the need for individual criminal liability and the danger of prosecuting “thought crimes.”
  • Bribery and Extortion: Much of white collar crime is concerned with public corruption; bribery is the quintessential public corruption offense. Bribery occurs when someone gives a public official anything of value to influence the performance of an official act. A related theory under a statute called the Hobbs Act is known as “extortion under color of official right.” But recent Supreme Court decisions have dramatically limited the laws against public corruption, making prosecuting such cases extremely difficult.
  • Obstruction of Justice: White collar criminal statutes on this subject protect the justice system itself by prohibiting efforts to obstruct the due administration of justice in official proceedings. Obstruction can include acts such as witness tampering and destruction of evidence. Like so much of white collar crime, this is an area where an otherwise perfectly lawful act—such as destroying your own files—can become a crime if carried out with the requisite corrupt intent.

Learn from a Razor-Sharp Legal Mind

Professor Eliason’s legal expertise in the area of white collar criminal law, combined with his background as an Assistant US Attorney for the District of Columbia, transforms White collar Criminal Law Explained from what would, in lesser hands, be dry legal lectures into eye-opening investigations into some of the most egregious crimes in the white collar field.

Professor Eliason holds an insider’s view on how the criminal justice system responds—and sometimes doesn’t respond—to powerful individuals and institutions that cross legal lines. Crafted with deep insight into the complexities of the law, these 24 lessons will leave you with a profound understanding of and appreciation for the legal and moral complexities of a field of law like no other.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Defining White Collar Crime
    There’s no section in the US criminal code captioned “white collar crimes.” So what, exactly, is a white collar crime? What sets white collar apart from other areas of criminal law? Why do these crimes—and the criminals who commit them—captivate the public? In this lecture, establish a solid legal framework for the lessons ahead. x
  • 2
    Anatomy of a Federal White Collar Case
    In this lesson, study the federal prosecution of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, as a window into how a federal white collar case works its way through the criminal justice system. Topics include the structure of the federal courts and Department of Justice and the critical role of federal prosecutors. x
  • 3
    The Power of the Federal Grand Jury
    The federal grand jury has tremendous power in the US justice system-yet for many of us, the grand jury process remains shrouded in mystery. In the first of two lessons on what a federal grand jury is and how it operates, Professor Eliason pulls back the curtain and reveals the inner workings of this important institution. x
  • 4
    Grand Jury Procedure and Search Warrants
    Continue your look at federal grand juries by considering one of their most distinctive features: secrecy. Along the way, consider why a good federal prosecutor should disclose exculpatory information to a grand jury; what information qualifies as protected grand jury material; and the importance (and practical limitations) of another investigative tool, search warrants. x
  • 5
    Mail and Wire Fraud and the Nature of Fraud
    Two of the most popular statutes that federal prosecutors of white collar crime have at their disposal are mail and wire fraud. After considering the relatively straightforward elements of mail and wire fraud, turn to the heart of both crimes: the scheme or artifice to defraud. x
  • 6
    The Limits of Mail and Wire Fraud
    One area that defines the outer boundaries of mail and wire fraud involves the definition of “property.” After examining Supreme Court cases that sought to answer the question of what qualifies as property, focus on the “in furtherance” requirement and its role in the landmark 1989 case of Schmuck v. United States. x
  • 7
    Honest Services Fraud and Its Evolution
    In an honest services fraud case, there's no need to show that victims suffered a monetary loss; instead, a prosecutor has to show they were deprived of their intangible right to honest services. As you explore the evolution of this criminal theory, learn why its most common use is to prosecute political corruption. x
  • 8
    Conspiracy: A Partnership in Crime
    Conspiracy is one of the most common types of federal crimes charged. Professor Eliason reveals the benefits of a conspiracy charge for the prosecution, the reasons why we prosecute conspiracy, the elements of a conspiracy charge, and the two prongs of the primary federal conspiracy statute: 18 U.S.C. section 371. x
  • 9
    Common Issues in Conspiracy Cases
    In this lesson, consider the elements of a criminal conspiracy in greater detail. Central to the discussion are common issues that arise in conspiracy cases, including proving the agreement, proving the scope of the conspiracy, the “overt act” requirement, and the possibility of withdrawing from a conspiracy. x
  • 10
    Public Corruption: Bribery and Gratuities
    Bribery is the quintessential public corruption offense: a public official who accepts something of personal value to be influenced in the performance of some official act. After discussing bribery and the related offense of gratuities, Professor Eliason also covers two major Supreme Court decisions that dramatically limited the scope of these statutes. x
  • 11
    Extortion by Public Officials
    The Hobbs Act defines extortion as the “obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.” What elements of extortion must prosecutors prove beyond a reasonable doubt? And why is the phrase “under color of official right” so controversial? x
  • 12
    The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act
    One of our most important laws for fighting corruption overseas was born in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. In this lesson, unpack the importance of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the basis of prosecutions (sometimes of non-US companies) that have resulted in some of the largest financial settlements in US history. x
  • 13
    Securities Fraud and Insider Trading
    To many people, insider trading is the textbook example of a white collar crime. Go inside the somewhat controversial legal theories involved in these prosecutions, which seek to maintain investor confidence in the securities market and establish (and maintain) a somewhat level playing field for investors. x
  • 14
    Perjury and the Law of Cover-Up Crimes
    In the first of several lessons on “cover-up crimes” (crimes committed to conceal other misconduct), examine the topic of perjury, or lying under oath. Unpack the two principal federal perjury statutes; learn the elements required to prove a charge of perjury; and consider the role ambiguity plays in perjury cases. x
  • 15
    False Statements and Concealment
    When you lie to the federal government, it’s not just wrong—it could land you in prison. Learn why charges of giving false statements are extremely common in white collar cases; analyze the breadth and simplicity of the federal false statements statute; and explore how this charge can help the government prove criminal intent or guilty knowledge. x
  • 16
    Obstruction of Justice
    Obstruction of justice covers a wide variety of misconduct, including tampering with witnesses, threatening jurors, and destroying evidence. After examining the primary obstruction of justice statutes, probe leading Supreme Court cases dealing with this white collar crime, including United States v. Aguilar and Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States. x
  • 17
    Money Laundering Basics
    Prosecuting money laundering continues to be a major priority for the Department of Justice. In the first of two lectures on this crime, examine the elements of domestic money laundering, then explore them in the context of two early cases: United States v. Jackson and United States v. Campbell. x
  • 18
    Laundering Money across the US Border
    Turn now to the international money laundering statute, 18 U.S.C. section 1956(a)(2), which requires that the funds in question be transported across the US border. One area of international money laundering you’ll investigate is cash purchases of US real estate by corrupt foreign officials—a primary laundering vehicle. x
  • 19
    Conspiracy on Steroids: The RICO Statute
    When Congress passed the RICO statute—short for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—it primarily had organized crime in mind. First, see the benefits and drawbacks of the statute through the eyes of a white collar prosecutor. Then, better understand the specific elements of a RICO charge. x
  • 20
    Hacking and Other Computer Crimes
    In our increasingly digital age, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is a powerful tool for federal prosecutors to combat cyberattacks against individuals, organizations, and even the entire country. Review the seven different sections of the CFAA, each of which applies to a different type of computer crime and comes with different requirements. x
  • 21
    Corporate Criminal Liability
    Today, many legal experts question the rationale for corporate criminal liability, and some even suggest it should be abolished altogether. How did a Supreme Court case over 100 years old set the standards that still govern corporate criminal liability today? And why is there a growing reluctance to indict and prosecute companies for criminal activity? x
  • 22
    Plea Bargains and Immunity Deals
    Over 95% of all criminal prosecutions, including white collar prosecutions, are resolved short of trial by way of a plea bargain. In this lesson, focus on three tools critical to the white collar prosecutor seeking to build a case involving serious criminal misconduct: plea agreements, cooperation agreements, and immunity deals. x
  • 23
    Defending the White Collar Case
    Professor Eliason sits down with Michael N. Levy for a look at white collar crime from the perspective of a defense lawyer—another critical legal player in any white collar case. It’s a chance for you to eavesdrop on an insightful, extemporaneous Q&A session that will add to your understanding of the nuances of white collar crimes. x
  • 24
    Sentencing White Collar Criminals
    Once guilt is established by a plea or a trial, the last part of the criminal process remains: sentencing. Start by examining the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which help the court fashion an appropriate sentence; then, look at United States v. Booker, the Supreme Court case that turned these guidelines from mandatory to merely advisory. x

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Your professor

Randall D. Eliason

About Your Professor

Randall D. Eliason, JD
The George Washington University Law School
Randall D. Eliason is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He received his JD cum laude from Harvard Law School and his BA summa cum laude from the University of North Dakota. He has also taught courses at the American University Washington College of Law and the Georgetown University Law Center, and he has guest lectured on white collar crime at Harvard Law School and at the New York...
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