There is a lot of loose talk these days about the supposed weaponization of the Justice Department in regard to a certain former president. Yet no one on any part of the political spectrum can claim that DOJ is being overly aggressive in prosecuting corporate defendants.
Despite promises early in the Biden Administration, DOJ has not carried out a serious crackdown on the most serious business offenders. There have been some major prosecutions, but they tend to focus on foreign-based companies (as I discussed in an April post) and the overall volume of cases has not surpassed the dismal record of the Trump years.
Instead, DOJ has devoted much of its energy to creating incentives for companies to report their own misconduct. This carrot-rather-than-stick approach may work in cases of transgressions by lower-level employees, but it is ineffective when the rot reaches all the way to the top.
Recently, DOJ rolled out its latest initiative. Unfortunately, it seems to focus mostly on image-burnishing. The department has created a webpage titled Corporate Crime summarizing all the ways in which it goes after business miscreants. It is a helpful list, but it does not include anything new in the way of enforcement—though DOJ’s self-reporting efforts are prominently featured.
There is one interesting feature on the page: a link to a new Corporate Crime Case Database. At the moment, it is a very modest resource consisting of links to 13 press releases issued recently by various branches of DOJ. The page states: “While it is still in the process of being populated, it will eventually contain the significant, relevant cases from each component and U.S. Attorney’s Office, resolved since the end of April 2023.”
We don’t know more about plans for the database because DOJ chose to roll it out with no fanfare—not even a press release. A department spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that the scope might be widened to include cases resolved in the last several years.
Even with that addition, the database would be a less-than-robust response to the long-standing efforts by Ralph Nader and corporate accountability groups to get the federal government to produce a resource on white-collar offenses comparable to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which has been assembling detailed data on street crime since the 1930s. It also does not appear to satisfy the proposal put forth by Senators Dick Durbin and Richard Blumenthal, along with Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, in the Corporate Crime Database Act they introduced in Congress last year.
Since DOJ has been so reserved about the project, it is not clear whether the new database is meant to be its complete response to the proposals by Nader, Durbin et al. Those proposals envision something a lot more ambitious. The Corporate Crime Database Act would require the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics to create a resource that collects comprehensive information from every federal agency that carries out enforcement actions with respect to corporate offenses.
That sounds like something more akin to what my colleagues and I have been doing with Violation Tracker, which also covers state and local enforcement activity and which extends back to 2000. Our aim has been to provide a repository of both civil and criminal actions in which corporations have been fined or reached settlements for a wide range of offenses.
DOJ, with resources much greater than ours, should be able to create something a lot more substantial than a list of links to its recent press releases.