When an individual commits a serious offense, chances are that he or she is going to face a criminal charge. When a corporation breaks the law in a significant way, in most cases it faces a civil penalty.
This disparity between the treatment of human persons and corporate ones became increasingly apparent to me as I finished processing the data for the expansion of the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First are releasing on June 28.
Violation Tracker 2.0 adds data on some 700 cases involving banks and other financial services companies brought by the Justice Department and ten federal regulatory agencies as well as 600 involving non-financial firms in areas such as price-fixing and foreign bribery. These 1,300 cases account for well over $100 billion in fines and settlements.
These plus the environmental, safety and health cases that made up the initial version of Violation Tracker bring the total number of entries in the database to 110,000 for the period since the beginning of 2010. Of that number, only 473 — less than one half of one percent — involve criminal charges.
It may come as a surprise that the largest portion of the criminal cases involve serious environmental matters referred to the Justice Department by the Environmental Protection Agency and a few from agencies such as the Coast Guard. The largest of these was a $400 million settlement with Transocean in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico but most have penalties below $1 million.
The next most common category is price-fixing, with 99 cases that imposed penalties ranging up to the $500 million paid by the Taiwanese company AU Optronics. There are 82 tax cases, most of which involve charges against Swiss banks for helping U.S. taxpayers keep their offshore accounts hidden from the IRS. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases brought by the Justice Department account for 53 cases, with the biggest penalty, $772 million, paid by the French company Alstom.
Other categories include serious food safety violations, market manipulation and failure to adhere to rules against doing business with countries deemed to be enemies of the United States.
The significance of the 473 cases is diminished by the fact that in 35 percent of them the companies weren’t really prosecuted. Instead, they paid a penalty and signed either a non-prosecution agreement or a deferred prosecution agreement. These are gimmicks that allow companies to avoid the consequences of a criminal conviction.
Of the 308 cases in which there was an actual guilty plea or verdict, 161 were environmental matters, many of which were brought against small companies for things such as toxic dumping. Relatively few large corporations were targeted.
The category with the largest number of big business convictions is price-fixing, which in recent times has often meant Asian automotive parts companies. Seven big U.S. and foreign banks (or their subsidiaries) have had to enter guilty pleas. In just two cases did U.S. bank parent companies — Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase — enter those pleas. These were in a case involving manipulation of the foreign exchange market. After their pleas, they and the foreign banks also charged got waivers from SEC rules that bar firms with felony convictions from operating in the securities business.
So here’s what it comes down to: Apart from when they engage in price-fixing, large corporations rarely face criminal charges. When they do, they are often allowed to settle without a formal prosecution. And when they do plead guilty, these can get waivers from the consequences of their conviction.
Keep this in mind the next time a corporate lobbyist complains about excessive regulation.
Note: Violation Tracker 2.0 will be released on June 28.