Federal Embezzlement Laws

Embezzling federal money or property is a specific crime, charged in federal district court.

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Embezzlement is a kind of property theft.  It occurs when a defendant, who was entrusted to manage or monitor someone else’s money or property, steals all or part of that money or property  for the defendant’s personal gain. The key is that the defendant had legal access to another’s money or property, but not legal ownership of it.  Taking the money or property for the defendant’s own gain is stealing; when combined with the fact that this stealing was also a violation of a special position of trust, you have the unique crime of embezzlement.

Offenses Charged Under Federal Law

Federal embezzlement laws target theft from the federal government, such as the theft of property from a national park by a park ranger. Federal laws also cover theft of property that is owned by a private entity but, pursuant to a contract, the government has paid for it. For example, an employee of a construction firm hired by the government to work on a government building would be subject to federal charges of embezzlement if he stole building materials that the government had paid for as part of its bid.

By contrast, state embezzlement laws cover not only thefts by public officials employed by the state and municipalities, but embezzlement by non-public individuals from other private people or entities. For instance, employees who steal from their companies, and people who embezzle property that others have entrusted to them, are charged under state law.

To learn more about state laws covering embezzlement, see our topic area on embezzlement laws. To learn about your state’s specific embezzlement laws (including punishments), click the link to your state under the section in that article entitled "Embezzlement Laws by State."

Offenses That Can Be Charged Under State or Federal Law

In some areas, state and federal embezzlement laws overlap, as in embezzlement by a bank employee. This crime is often included within state embezzlement laws, but it’s also a federal offense (see" Embezzlement by employees of a bank, lending, credit, or insurance institution," below). When an incident can be charged by either the federal prosecutor or the state prosecutor, usually only one charge is brought. But it is possible for each prosecuting office involved to charge the case.

Federal Embezzlement Categories and Punishments

Federal embezzlement laws are broken down by the type of money or property stolen. Here’s a short description of each category, and the associated penalties. Convictions whose fines are $250,000 are felonies; convictions with fines of up to $100,000 are misdemeanors.

These penalties are for individual defendants (and when the crime did not result in death). See "Fines for Organizations," below, for fines specified for organizations; and "Alternate Fines" for fines the judge may choose instead.

Public money, property, or records

Any person who embezzles money, property, records, or anything else of value that belongs to the U.S. government (or one of its agencies, or property being made under contract for the U.S. government), that is worth more than $1,000 will be fined $250,000, imprisoned for up to ten years, or both.  If the value is $1,000 or less, penalties include a fine of up to $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both.  (U.S.C.A. § 641.)

Tools and materials for counterfeiting purposes

This category includes embezzlement of tools, stamps, printing devices, or other implements used to create federal bonds, currency notes, certificates, coupons, postage stamps, or other item authorized to be put into circulation by the federal government. Penalties for embezzling these items –regardless of the item’s value—include a fine of $250,000, up to ten years in prison, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 642.)

Accounting generally for public money

This category addresses embezzlement of public money by federal officers, employees, or agents. Penalties are based on the amount of money embezzled. For amounts of $1,000 or more, penalties include a $250,000 fine or a sum equal to the amount embezzled (whichever is greater); up to ten years in prison, or both. For amounts less than $1,000, penalties include a fine up to $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 643.)

Receiving unauthorized deposit of public money

This section applies to embezzlement by someone who receives and keeps public funds that are not owed to that person. If the amount embezzled is more than $1,000, penalties include a fine up to $250,000, or up to the amount embezzled (whichever is greater); up to ten years in prison, or both. If the amount is $1,000 or less, penalties include a fine of up to $1,000, up to one year in jail, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 644.)

Court officers

Any employee of a U.S. federal court convicted of embezzling more than $1,000 will face a fine up to $250,000 or double the money embezzled (whichever is greater); up to ten years in prison; or both. Penalties for amounts less than $1,000, penalties include a fine up to $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both.

Similarly, failing to promptly deposit money received in a government employee’s official capacity can also lead to an embezzlement conviction. Knowingly receiving a deposit, loan, or other money belonging to the court from a court employee, is also grounds for an embezzlement conviction. Penalties for embezzling more than $1,000 include a fine up to $250,000, or up to the amount embezzled (whichever is greater); up to ten years in prison, or both. Penalties for embezzled amounts less than $1,000 include a fine up to $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 645, 646, & 647.)

Custodians misusing public funds

This section addresses embezzlement (either by keeping or failing to promptly deposit federal money) by any person charged with the safe keeping of federal money. Penalties for embezzling more than $1,000 include a fine up to $250,000 or up to the amount embezzled (whichever is greater); up to ten years in prison, or both. Penalties for amounts less than $1,000 include a fine of up to $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both. (U.S.C.A. §§ 648 & 649.)

See this Q&A on Embezzling Public Funds for more information.

Depositaries failing to safeguard deposits

This section is aimed at embezzlement by the U.S. Treasurer, or any employee of the treasury or other public federal depository. Penalties for embezzling more than $1,000 include a fine up to $250,000, or up to the amount embezzled (whichever is greater); up to ten years in prison, or both. Penalties for amounts less than $1,000, penalties include a fine up to $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 650.)

Disbursing officer

This section covers embezzlement by any federal officer or employee who is charged with disbursing public money. An employee convicted of keeping part or all of the money that is supposed to be dispersed, when that amount is more than $1,000, will face a fine up to $250,000 or the amount embezzled (whichever is more); up to ten years in prison; or both. Penalties for amounts less than $1,000 include a specified fine up to $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 653.)

Theft by a bank examiner

This section addresses embezzlement by bank examiners and assistant bank examiners, when the money embezzled is taken from any banking institution that is a member of the Federal Reserve System, insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, is a branch or agency of a foreign bank, or from any safety deposit box. This section applies only to federal public bank examiners and assistant examiners. State and other law addresses embezzlement by public state examiners, and private examiners.

Penalties for embezzling more than $1,000 include a fine up to $250,000, to five years in prison, or both. Penalties for amounts of $1,000 or less include a fine up to $100,000, up to a year in jail, or both. Regardless of amount embezzled, the convicted defendant will also be permanently ineligible to hold the positions of national bank examiner or Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation examiner. (U.S.C.A. § 655.)

Embezzlement by employees of a bank, lending, credit, or insurance institution

The following penalties apply to embezzlement by an employee of any banking institution operating under the Federal Reserve Act, or by a Federal Reserve employee.  (U.S.C.A. § 656.) They also apply to employees of lending, credit, or insurance institutions. (U.S.C.A. § 657.)

Penalties for embezzling more than $1,000 from one of these institutions include a fine of up to $1,000,000, up to 30 years in prison, or both. Penalties for amounts less than $1,000 include a fine up to $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both.

Property mortgaged or pledged to farm credit agencies

It is a federal crime to embezzle money or property pledged to or held by a farm credit agency as security for a farm loan. Penalties include a fine of up to $250,000, up to five years in prison, or both. However, penalties for embezzling money or property worth $1,000 or less include a fine up to $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 658.)

Solicitation or use of gifts

Someone who solicits a gift of money or other property on behalf of the U.S. Federal government (or one of its agencies) with the intention of keeping that gift, or who embezzles donated money or property, will face a fine up to $250,000, up to five years in prison, or both.  (U.S.C.A. § 663.)

Embezzlement from an employee benefit plan

Embezzling from any employee benefit plan incurs a fine up to $250,000, up to five years in prison, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 664.)

Programs receiving federal funds

This section addresses embezzlement by employees of organizations receiving $10,000 or more in federal grants, contracts, subsidies, loans, guarantees, insurance, or other form of federal assistance in one year. Embezzlement of money or property owned by the organization that is worth $5,000 or more will be fined up to $250,000, imprisoned for up to ten years, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 666.)

Theft of livestock

This section addresses the embezzlement of livestock, money, or other property worth $10,000 or more, that is connected with marketing or selling livestock in interstate or foreign commerce. Penalties include a fine up to $250,000, up to five years in prison, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 667.)

Theft of major artwork

It is a federal embezzlement crime to steal or obtain by fraud artwork or other items from a museum, when the art is worth at least $100,000 or is worth at least $5,000 and is over 100 years old. Penalties include a fine of up to $250,000, up to ten years in prison, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 668.)

Embezzlement in connection with health care

Embezzling $100 or more from a health care benefit plan incurs a fine of up to $250,000, up to ten years in prison, or both. Embezzling less than $100 incurs a fine of between $5,000 and $100,000, up to one year in jail, or both. (U.S.C.A. § 669.)

Fines for Organizations

The federal embezzlement crimes summarized above specify fines that can be imposed when the defendant is an individual person. But when the crime was committed by an organization (like a corporation), the consequences are harsher. Felony convictions result in a fine that is the greater of

  • the amount specified in the law setting forth the offense (see above)
  • twice the amount gained or lost (described in the next section), or
  • $500,000.

Misdemeanor convictions carry a fine of up to $200,000.

(18 U.S.C.A § 3571.)

Fines Based on Gain or Loss

Instead of the fines listed above (and regardless of whether the defendant is an individual or an organization), a judge may decide to impose a fine of up to twice the value of what the defendant gained (or that the victim lost—whichever is greater) as a result of the embezzlement.

An Important Note on Local Legal Representation           

If you have been charged in federal court with embezzlement, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney. Be sure that the person you consult practices regularly in federal court—many criminal defense attorneys are familiar only with state court laws and procedures, and will be at a disadvantage in federal court if they are not regular practitioners there. Only a local and experienced federal criminal defense attorney can tell you how strong the case against you appears to be, and how cases like yours tend to be handled by prosecutors and judges in your federal district court. An experienced lawyer can also advise you as to possible alternatives to criminal punishment, such as paying back the money involved, along with court fees and other costs, or some other alternative that your judge might consider.

Learn more about hiring a criminal defense lawyer.

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