The Justice Department cannot seem to decide what stance it wants to take toward corporate criminality. After Biden came into office, DOJ initially signaled a get-tough approach, only to hedge on that last year. A new policy creates even more ambiguity.
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. just delivered a speech that lives up to his name. He insisted that DOJ is “using every tool at our disposal to combat corporate crime, including more sophisticated data analytics and other means to proactively identify criminal conduct.” Yet he put his main emphasis on the additional opportunities the department will give corporations to reduce penalties and avoid criminal prosecutions altogether. The presentation, in effect, offered a new get out of jail free card to Corporate America.
To be fair, the card is not entirely free—the price is self-reporting. DOJ has apparently decided that the silver bullet for fighting corporate crime is giving companies more incentives to snitch on themselves. Polite’s speech announced a set of enhancements designed to make self-disclosure even more appealing.
At times, the text of his talk reads like an advertisement for a going-out-of-business sale. “If a company voluntarily self-discloses misconduct, fully cooperates, and timely and appropriately remediates, but a criminal resolution is still warranted,” he states, “the Criminal Division will now accord, or recommend to a sentencing court, at least 50%, and up to 75% off of the low end of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines fine range, except in the case of a criminal recidivist.”
There were even steep penalty discounts offered to companies that don’t come forward: “The revised CEP [Corporate Enforcement Policy] provides incentives for companies that do not voluntarily self-disclose but still fully cooperate and timely and appropriately remediate. In such a case, the Criminal Division will recommend up to a 50% reduction off of the low end of the Guidelines fine range.”
Polite tried to give the impression that a stick is waiting for those who do not opt for the carrots. “The policy is sending an undeniable message: come forward, cooperate, and remediate…Failing to take these steps, a company runs the risk of increasing its criminal exposure and monetary penalties.”
Unfortunately, Justice has squandered its ability to play the bad cop. Take the issue of recidivism. The Biden DOJ initially vowed to crack down on repeat offenders, but they have been allowed to take advantage of leniency deals. This was evident in the case of ABB Ltd, the Swiss company which recently was offered a deferred prosecution agreement to resolve foreign bribery charges despite the fact that it had been involved in similar misconduct in the past. ABB itself was able to avoid criminal prosecution, though two subsidiaries had to plead guilty.
Even that kind of gesture may no longer occur. Polite announced that recidivists will not necessarily be required to plead guilty when faced with new charges and may be eligible for reduced fines even when they do not self-disclose.
There is a fundamental flaw in DOJ’s belief in the benefits of incentivizing corporate self-reporting. That faith seems to be based on the assumption that corporate crime usually involves actions by lower-level personnel. Top executives supposedly learn of the misconduct after the fact and must weigh the costs and benefits of reporting it to the authorities versus keeping quiet.
This ignores the fact that top management frequently is the source of the criminality, either directly or indirectly, as when the leadership of Wells Fargo imposed highly unrealistic revenue targets on employees, prompting them to create millions of sham fee-generating accounts. Penalty incentives will not mean much to residents of the C-suite who may be at risk of individual prosecution.
The other problem with DOJ’s approach is that it projects weakness. Its emphasis on leniency agreements, reduced fines and other incentives gives the impression the department is overwhelmed and outmatched in dealing with corporate miscreants.
Rogue corporations should have to beg for lighter penalties and be offered them only in extraordinary circumstances. Offering special deals to lawbreakers will not blunt corporate crime.