Imposing the Ultimate Punishment

September 8th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

The outcome of most cases of serious corporate misconduct is the same: the company pays a fine that is not too onerous and no one ends up behind bars. That’s what makes the fate of ITT Educational Services all the more significant.

This for-profit educational outfit just shut down pretty much all its facilities in the wake of a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that the company would no longer be able to enroll new students using federal financial aid funds. In other words, the feds effectively put ITT out of business.

Before anyone begins complaining about overreaching bureaucrats, keep in mind that the company has a dismal track record. It faced accusations from state regulators of misleading students about the quality of its programs and their prospects for employment after graduation. In 2014 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued ITT for predatory lending. CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated at the time: “We believe ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many consumers into expensive loans destined to default. Today’s action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics.”

ITT is not the first dubious for-profit educator to be pushed into oblivion. In 2015 Corinthian Colleges announced the cessation of operations amid a spate of state and federal investigations, including a CFPB case that resulted in a default judgment of $530 million.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has stood fast in its tough treatment of scam schools, building on the 2010 move by Congress to push commercial banks out of the federal student loan business.

The willingness to put sleazy operators out of business is seen little outside the educational sector. It’s true that the Bureau of Prisons announced plans to phase out the use of private prison operators, but the likes of CCA will be kept alive by their state government customers.

Among federal regulators, the one agency that focuses more on shutting down rogue operators rather than imposing monetary fines is the Food and Drug Administration. It must be noted, however, that the shutdowns are often temporary (remaining in effect only while the company corrects unsafe processing plant conditions) and usually involve smaller firms. Other agencies may take action that results in the closing of fly-by-night firms, but it is rare for regulators or prosecutors to take steps that could end up in the demise of an established company, no matter how corrupt it may have become.

This hesitation seems to stem from backlash against the Justice Department’s case against accounting firm Arthur Andersen for its role in the Enron accounting scandal. In the wake of its 2002 conviction for obstruction of justice, the firm had to dismantle its auditing business and was unable to resurrect it after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction three years later. Nonetheless, the Enron accounting fraud was real, and Arthur Andersen enabled it in some way.

It is time for the DOJ and other regulatory agencies to follow the Education Department’s lead in taking the most aggressive kind of action against big companies that misbehave in a major way. A prime candidate for such treatment is Volkswagen, which engaged in a brazen scheme to cheat auto emissions tests and thus exacerbated air pollution to a shocking extent. The company is paying billions in settlement costs but apparently will remain in business. In fact, it just announced a substantial investment in Navistar to boost its position in the U.S. truck business.

A move to mandate the shutdown of a large company like VW should include arrangements for the sale of its assets and other protections for its workers. There would still be disruptions but it would send a strong signal to other large corporations that they should not expect to buy their way out of severe legal liability.

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