Immunity was once a term used mainly in discussing medical conditions, but Donald Trump and his defenders have seized on it as an all-purpose defense in dealing with the Mueller investigation and now the Ukraine probe. Trump’s lawyers just made preposterous claims about the scope of Presidential immunity in appellate court arguments seeking to block a subpoena for Trump Organization business records.
The claim is based on the dubious argument that having to respond to a criminal case would unduly distract the president from his duties. Given that Trump seems to relish doing battle with those who dare to investigate him, it is unlikely that an indictment would change his behavior much. If Trump is successful in his immunity claims, that would go a long way in putting the presidency above the law.
At least the debate on presidential immunity is being conducted in the open. There is another form of effective immunity that is rarely described as such but is also dangerous to our society.
That is the de facto immunity that chief executives of large companies enjoy in cases of egregious corporate misconduct. Consider some of the issues that dominate the business news these days.
- Large pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors stand accused of fostering an opioid epidemic that has resulted in tens of thousands of overdose deaths.
- Johnson & Johnson is involved in a series of controversies about asbestos in baby powder, dangerous pelvic mesh and improper marketing of an anti-psychotic drug.
- Boeing is facing allegations that it covered up serious safety hazards in a new jetliner that was involved in two fatal crashes before being taken out of service.
- Exxon Mobil is facing lawsuits accusing it of suppressing for many years internal evidence of the costs and consequences of climate change exacerbated by its own operations.
- PG&E is alleged to be responsible for wildfires in California that took scores and lives and destroyed thousands of homes.
What all these situations have in common is that the defendants are the corporations themselves rather than the individual executives ultimately responsible for the actions or policies that created the harms. We have come to take it for granted that corporations can shield their officers and board members from liability and use the company’s coffers to buy their way out of legal jeopardy.
This is, of course, nothing new. Top executives of the big banks escaped individual prosecution for their role in the financial meltdown, as did CEOs in many other scandals.
There have been a few exceptions. Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in prison for his role in that company’s giant fraud, but he used his resources to fight the sentence and ended up spending only half that amount of time behind bars.
In Violation Tracker we have 380,000 cases of corporate misconduct, including 84 in which a company paid a penalty of $1 billion or more. If we had chosen to compile data on convictions of corporate executives rather than companies, the list would fit on a single page.
If we are lucky, the courts will strike down the spurious claims of presidential immunity. Yet we must also find ways to make sure that rogue chief executives also remain within the reach of the law.