Declining Prosecution

Three attorneys at Covington & Burling recently received a letter that could be seen as the ultimate achievement of a corporate lawyer. The U.S. Justice Department wrote to inform them that, although fraud was committed by employees of their client, Proterial Cable America, no charges would be filed against the firm.

Proterial, formerly known as Hitachi Cable America, is the latest recipient of a DOJ leniency practice known as declination. The Department has frequently been criticized for its extensive use of deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements. These arrangements allow companies involved in criminal misconduct to avoid having to enter a plea, though they must pay a penalty. DOJ holds open the possibility of an actual prosecution at a later date if the company does not change its behavior.

In a declination, prosecution is in effect taken off the table entirely. The only real consequence for the company is having to disgorge the profits it earned as a result of the fraudulent behavior. In the case of Proterial, that amount is about $15 million. This is a far cry from the amounts companies pay in deferred and non-prosecution agreements, which for firms such as Wells Fargo and Boeing have been several billion dollars.

Proterial’s fraud consisted of misrepresenting to customers that the motorcycle brake hose assemblies it sold met federal safety performance standards. The problem was not that the company failed to test the assemblies. It did the tests but lied to customers about the results, claiming that the assemblies had passed when in fact they had failed.

The Justice Department justified its declination in various ways. It said Proterial self-reported the misconduct; it cooperated with the investigation; it terminated the employees; and it agreed to the disgorgement. DOJ’s declination letter does not, however, explain how the misconduct came about—specifically, the issue of whether the employees who lied about the test results were acting at the direction of supervisors or managers.

It is difficult to believe that low-level employees would decide on their own to engage in the deception. It may very well be that they were pressured, whether explicitly or implicitly, by their bosses to do so. This is what happened, for example, at Wells Fargo, where employees facing impossible demands from managers to increase revenue resorted to the creation of bogus accounts, unbeknownst to customers.

Proterial’s parent, Hitachi Metals Ltd., does not have a spotless record. In 2014 it pled guilty and paid a $1.25 million criminal fine to the DOJ for its role in a conspiracy to fix prices and rig bids for automotive brake hoses installed in cars sold in the United States and elsewhere. This prior offense should have made the company ineligible for the declination.

Since the Biden Administration took office, the DOJ has carried out half a dozen declinations, according to a list published on the Department’s website. It is unclear how many other leniency agreements contain the additional benefit of remaining anonymous.

The DOJ seems wedded to the idea that leniency provides an effective incentive for companies to self-report misconduct, but it may also be a way for rogue companies to take themselves off the hook.