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What's the Difference Between Embezzlement and Money Laundering?

August 24, 2023 | Posted In White Collar Defense

Embezzlement and money laundering are both serious crimes that carry serious penalties. However, while they often get lumped together as white collar crimes, they are very different—and prosecutors must prove a unique set of “elements” in order to secure a conviction for each offense. An experienced New Jersey white collar crime lawyer will be able to use the prosecution’s burden of proof to build an effective defense to each charge in light of the circumstances of your case.

Understanding the White Collar Crime of Embezzlement

The crime of embezzlement involves using a person’s access to a company’s or financial institution’s assets to engage in theft. While the New Jersey Revised Statutes do not specifically establish the crime of embezzlement, the state’s theft statute covers various crimes that broadly fall within the generally accepted definition of “embezzlement”:

  • Theft By Unlawful Taking or Disposition (N.J.R.S. Section 2C:20-3) – “A person is guilty of theft if he unlawfully takes, or exercises unlawful control over, movable property of another with the purpose to deprive him thereof . . . [or] unlawfully transfers any interest in immovable property of another with the purpose to benefit himself or another not entitled thereto.”
  • Theft By Deception (N.J.R.S. Section 3C:20-4) – “A person is guilty of theft if he purposely obtains property of another by deception. A person deceives if he purposely . . . [c]reates or reinforces a false impression; . . . [p]revents another from acquiring information which would affect his judgment of a transaction, or [f]ails to correct a false impression . . . .”
  • Theft By Extortion (N.J.R.S. Section 2C:20-5) – “A person is guilty of theft by extortion if he purposely and unlawfully obtains property of another by extortion. A person extorts if he purposely threatens to . . . publicize any secret or any asserted fact . . . [or i]nflict any other harm which would not substantially benefit the actor but which is calculated to materially harm another person.”

Depending on the amount of money involved (among other factors), these charges can carry anywhere from months to years of prison time and thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. As a result, these are serious charges that require experienced legal representation.

Embezzlement can also be prosecuted as a federal crime in some cases. The federal criminal code includes multiple embezzlement statutes, each of which applies in a specific subset of scenarios. Examples include:  

  • Public Money, Property or Records (18 U.S.C. Section 641) – Embezzlement of government funds.
  • Theft, Embezzlement, or Misapplication by Bank Officer or Employee (18 U.S.C. Section 656) – Embezzlement of financial institution’s or customer’s funds by bank personnel.
  • Theft or Embezzlement from Employee Benefit Plan (18 U.S.C. Section 664) – Embezzlement from an employee welfare benefit plan or employee pension benefit plan.
  • Theft or Embezzlement from Employment and Training Funds (18 U.S.C. Section 665) – Embezzlement from an organization receiving financial assistance under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act or Workforce Investment Act.
  • Theft or Embezzlement in Connection with Health Care (18 U.S.C. Section 669) – Embezzlement of funds received under any healthcare benefit program (i.e., Medicare or Medicaid).

Similar to state charges, federal embezzlement charges can lead to substantial fines and years of imprisonment. Additionally, while state theft charges may become eligible for expungement, federal embezzlement charges typically cannot be expunged.

Understanding the White Collar Crime of Money Laundering

In contrast to embezzlement charges, money laundering charges involve allegations of using illegal means to hide the source of funds obtained through a criminal enterprise. New Jersey’s money laundering statute (N.J.R.S. Section 2C:21-25) makes it an indictable offense to:

“[E]ngage[] in a transaction involving property known or which a reasonable person would believe to be derived from criminal activity (1) with the intent to facilitate or promote the criminal activity; or (2) knowing that the transaction is designed in whole or in part: (a) to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership or control of the property derived from criminal activity; or (b) to avoid a transaction reporting requirement under the laws of this State or any other state or of the United States.”

The statute can be used to prosecute individuals who assist with money laundering efforts as well. It also criminalizes the possession of property “which a reasonable person would believe to be derived from criminal activity,” as well as planning, directing, organizing, or financing any transaction involving such property. All crimes prosecuted under Section 2C:21-25 can carry the same potential penalties based on the value of the money or other property involved.

At the federal level, money laundering is broadly defined as conducting (or attempting to conduct) a transaction knowing that the money or other property involved represents the proceeds of “some form of unlawful activity.” Federal money laundering charges also require proof that the defendant intended to carry on “specified unlawful activity” or engage in tax fraud. Under 18 U.S.C. Section 1956, federal money laundering charges carry up to a 20-year prison term and a fine of $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved in the transaction, whichever is greater.

Defending Against Embezzlement and Money Laundering Charges in New Jersey

While embezzlement and money laundering are completely separate crimes, charges for these offenses often go hand-in-hand. This is true at both the state and federal levels. If prosecutors accuse someone of embezzling, they will often also accuse him or her of attempting to launder the proceeds of the alleged embezzlement in order to hide it.

With this in mind, individuals charged with these crimes need to work with experienced counsel to develop a comprehensive defense strategy. Successfully defending against one charge isn’t enough if a conviction for the other is still on the table. If you are facing embezzlement or money laundering charges (or both) in New Jersey, you should speak with a white collar crime lawyer as soon as possible.

Contact a New Jersey White Collar Crime Lawyer in Confidence

At Helmer, Conley & Kasselman, P.A., we handle state and federal embezzlement and money laundering cases throughout New Jersey. If you are under investigation or facing charges, you can call 877-435-6371 or contact us online to arrange a confidential consultation.

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