Archive for the ‘Corporate Crime’ Category

DOJ is also Defying Trump on Foreign Bribery

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Millions of words have been published about Donald Trump’s feud with the Justice Department over the Mueller investigation. Little is being written about another way in which DOJ is thwarting the president’s will: the ongoing prosecution of foreign bribery.

Starting before he became a candidate for the White House, Trump has railed against the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the 1977 law that allows for both civil and criminal cases to be brought against officials that engage in bribery and related practices committed anywhere in the world as long as their company does business in or has securities trading in the United States. He continued to complain about FCPA’s supposed unfairness after taking office.

These complaints seem to have had little effect on DOJ or on the Securities and Exchange Commission, which enforces the civil side of the law. Data collected for Violation Tracker, including a forthcoming update, show that since Trump took office DOJ and SEC have announced more than a dozen case resolutions with total penalties of more than $1.5 billion.

Several of those resolutions have been announced during the past two months. In early July DOJ and SEC each announced cases with combined penalties of $76 million against Credit Suisse and one of its subsidiaries for improperly winning banking business by giving jobs to family members and friends of Chinese government officials. Just the other day, the SEC announced that the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi would pay $25 million to resolve allegations that its subsidiaries in Kazakhstan and the Middle East made corrupt payments to win business.

It is true that many of the cases announced under Trump have involved foreign companies. Others include Japan’s Panasonic, Sweden’s Telia, and Canada’s Kinross Gold. Yet the culprits have also included some U.S.-based companies. Last year, for example, Halliburton had to pay $29 million to resolve allegations relating to its actions in Angola. Earlier this year, Dun & Bradstreet paid $9 million in connection with two of its subsidiaries in China. Most recently, investment manager Legg Mason agreed to pay more than $34 million to settle allegations that one of its subsidiaries was involved in a scheme to bribe officials in Libya.

While DOJ and SEC seem to be carrying out their mission of investigating FCPA violations by a wide range of companies, it remains to be seen whether that includes the Trump Organization, which according to various media reports may have corrupt practices act liability in a variety of countries (see, for example, The New Yorker piece on Azerbaijan).

This may be another test of whether Trump – and his business interests – are exempt from the law, but for now it is good to see that Trump has not succeeded in undermining an important tool in prosecuting other corporate bad actors.

A Brazen Corporate Miscreant

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

The Justice Department and the federal regulatory agencies have been less than energetic in prosecuting corporate crime and misconduct lately, so it was interesting to see the DOJ announcement that it had gotten Wells Fargo to fork over $2 billion to resolve a case involving mortgage-backed securities.

Before thinking that the Trump Justice Department is getting tougher on business offenders, it is important to keep in mind that this is a holdover matter from the prosecution of the big banks by the Obama DOJ in the wake of the financial meltdown. Most of the other banks settled their toxic securities cases long ago.

Wells held out and has now been rewarded by the Trump DOJ with a settlement that is substantially smaller than the ones that preceded it. JPMorgan Chase settled for $13 billion in 2013 and Bank of America for $16 billion the following year.

If anything, Wells should have been forced to pay out more to penalize it for its resistance. Moreover, during the years since its competitors resolved their cases, a tsunami of negative revelations have occurred regarding the other misconduct of Wells.

In fact, it has almost seemed that Wells was in a contest with Volkswagen to be crowned the most brazen corporate miscreant. Nearly two years ago, the scandal erupted regarding the bank’s widespread practice of secretly opening vast numbers of unauthorized customer accounts in order to generate illicit fees (the number of bogus accounts would turn out to be several million). This was followed by a series of other allegations such as charging 800,000 car loan customers for insurance they did not need.

Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve took the unprecedented step of barring Wells Fargo from growing any larger until it cleaned up its business practices. The agency also announced that the bank had been pressured to replace four members of its board of directors.

The actions of Wells were so egregious that even Mick Mulvaney, who took over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with the aim of defanging it, agreed in April to have the agency join with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to fine the bank a total of $1 billion for selling unnecessary products to customers and other improper practices.

The recent misdeeds of Wells share characteristics with the behavior outlined in the DOJ’s case. The bank appears to have been just as systematic and shameless in its deceptive mortgage practices as it was in generating bogus accounts. It seems that Wells managed to incorporate fraud into its business model in a seamless manner.

If any defendant was undeserving of preferential treatment, Wells Fargo is it.

Corporate Impunity

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

In the early days of the Trump era, there was speculation that the new administration would be tough on corporate crime. Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech in April 2017 in which he vowed that his Justice Department “will continue to investigate and prosecute corporate fraud and misconduct; bribery; public corruption; organized crime; trade-secret theft; money laundering; securities fraud; government fraud; health care fraud; and Internet fraud, among others.’ He added that DOJ has “a responsibility to protect American consumers.”

A new report from Public Citizen and the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First called Corporate Impunity shows just how hollow that promise was. Based on data from Violation Tracker, it shows that during the first year of the Trump Administration there was a substantial drop in regulatory enforcement and prosecution of corporate criminal offenses. In contrast to the zero-tolerance attitude toward migrants and refugees, the administration is showing considerable indulgence when it comes to corporate offenders.

In making a comparison to the previous administration, it is worth recalling the mixed record of the Obama years. That administration had a poor record with regard to holding top corporate executives personally responsible for serious offenses such as the abuses leading to the financial meltdown and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It continued the misguided policy of offering corporate miscreants deferred-prosecution and non-prosecution agreements.

Yet at least the Obama Administration took steps to increase the financial penalties levied on corporations for their misdeeds. For the first time, billion-dollar fines and settlements became a common occurrence.

Corporate Impunity judges the Trump Administration by that same measure—the level of monetary penalties imposed on companies. It finds, for example, that such penalties imposed by the Trump DOJ in its first year were less than one-tenth the level in each of the last two years of Obama.

The report limits its analysis of regulatory agencies to those which were headed by a Trump appointee for most of 2017. Of the 12 agencies examined, ten showed a decline in the number of enforcement actions. In some cases, those drops were steep. The Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission had decreases of more than 40 percent, and five others dropped more than 25 percent.

For some agencies, the decline in the number of cases was much less severe than the drop in penalty amounts. At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, the caseload in Trump’s first year was down 12 percent while the penalty total plunged more than 90 percent.

The results for Trump’s second year are likely to be even more dismal once results are tabulated for agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which racked up an impressive record during the Obama years and attempted to do the same under Trump until the agency was captured in late 2017 by the White House and subsequently neutered.

Trump’s enforcement record shows that he really is a populist—a corporate populist creating a society in which large companies reign supreme and in many ways are above the law.

Getting the Feds to Pay Statistical Attention to Corporate Crime

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

For more than 80 years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has collected and published wide-ranging data on criminal activity in the United States. The bureau’s annual compilations provide exhaustive statistics on murder, rape, robbery, arson, motor vehicle theft and other forms of violent and property crimes reported by state and local law enforcement agencies across the country.

Implicit in the FBI’s methodology is the idea that crimes are only committed by individuals, whether alone or in gangs or Mafia families. The compilations give no indication that there is such a thing as corporate crime.

Ralph Nader has long been on a mission to get the federal government to pay statistical attention to crime in the suites. In a recent open letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he renewed his call for an official database “including but not limited to antitrust and price-fixing, environmental crimes, financial crimes, overseas bribery, health care fraud, trade violations, labor and employment-related violations (discrimination and occupational injuries and deaths), consumer fraud and damage to consumer health and safety, and corporate tax fraud onshore and offshore.”

The letter argues that such a database would help deter corporate crime by giving prosecutors, regulators and judges information to assess appropriate sanctions, especially for recidivist companies. It also notes that the data would help federal procurement officials identify companies that fail to meet the “responsible contractor” standard in the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

I’m proud to say that I am not only one of the co-signers of the letter but that the document cites Violation Tracker as an example, along with the University of Virginia Law School’s Corporate Prosecution Registry, of non-governmental efforts to fill the federal void.

Violation Tracker attempts to meet a number of the criteria set forth in the open letter, including the collection of data on a wide range of corporate misconduct categories, the ability to search by company name, links to ultimate parents, and compilations of the cases associated with each parent and each agency.

We also include links to the official source documents from which we derive the data. This is worth noting: federal agencies and the Justice Department already publish information on individual cases, whether in the form of press releases or periodic reports. The PACER database provides online access to dockets and documents in federal lawsuits of all kinds.

What Violation Tracker does – and what the open letter says the federal government should do – is to compile that disparate information and make it easy to learn the track record of individual corporations. The open letter also calls for an official database that also does something that Violation Tracker currently provides in a limited way: “analysis of trends in corporate crime and an explanation of the relative effectiveness of various conventional sanctions, and the potential of new sanctions.”

Although a DOJ spokesperson told Corporate Crime Reporter that it is reviewing the open letter, it is unlikely that the federal database will appear anytime soon. But it is worth remembering that there is a precedent for turning a non-profit database into a federal resource. The FedSpending database of federal contracts and grants created by OMB Watch served as the basis for the official USAspending resource.

I would be happy to see Violation Tracker used in the same way, but for now I will go on collecting data so there is at least an unofficial way to research corporate crime and misconduct.

The Real Law and Order Solution

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

Large banks have paid out more than $87 billion in fines and settlements to resolve allegations about the sale of toxic securities in the period leading up to the financial meltdown a decade ago. Another $43 billion was paid out in connection with mortgage abuses.

It’s unclear whether these unprecedented penalties had any lasting deterrent effect. As has been made clear in the Wells Fargo scandal, bad bank behavior has hardly disappeared. And now the financial services industry is pushing to weaken the modest restrictions implemented under the Dodd-Frank Act.

Imagine how different things might be if the federal government had the tools and the inclination to hold top bank executives personally responsible for the reckless and fraudulent behavior of their institutions. What if, instead of making payouts that they regarded as a tolerable cost of doing business, financial CEOs found themselves behind bars?

This tantalizing prospect is made a bit more real in legislation recently introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren: The Ending Too Big to Jail Act.

One component of the bill would require top executives of banks with more than $10 billion in assets to certify annually that they have conducted due diligence and found no criminal conduct or civil fraud within their institution. This would make it easier to bring individual prosecutions when it turns out that such certifications were false.

Another portion of the bill would create a permanent investigative unit for financial crimes. Designed along the lines of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which brought successful cases against executives at smaller banks, it would be known as the Special Inspector General for Financial Institution Crime. Properly funded, this unit could take on expensive and complicated cases.

Finally, the bill would mandate judicial oversight of deferred prosecution agreements, or DPAs. Along with the failure to prosecute top executives, the Obama Justice Department also continued the dubious practice that started under Bush of making numerous deals with large corporations by which they escaped prosecution for their transgressions, on the condition that they paid a financial penalty and promised to end the offending behavior. Since 2003 about 140 DPAs have been created, along with a larger number of cases involving a variant, the non-prosecution agreement.

It is unclear how much effort the Justice Department put into enforcing the DPAs. Warren’s bill would give the courts the power to oversee compliance with these agreements. In fact, it would require courts to determine whether a proposed DPA is in the public interest.

Finally, the legislation would require the Justice Department to establish a searchable database of DPAs. Until that comes into existence, you can use Violation Tracker to find information on more than 300 DPAs and NPAs.

Warren’s bill would greatly advance the kind of law and order the country truly needs.

Trump Goes Easy on Major Corporate Offenders

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

It’s unclear to what extent the Obama Administration’s practice of extracting unprecedented monetary penalties on miscreant companies proved to be an effective deterrent, but at least the billion-dollar fines and settlements served to highlight the ongoing problem of corporate crime.

The Trump Administration seems to be a lot less interested in cracking down on the most egregious corporate offenders. Although the enforcement arms of agencies such as OSHA and EPA are still operating along normal lines, there has been a sharp decline in the number of mega-penalty cases announced by the Justice Department.

This conclusion emerges from an analysis of the data recently added to the Violation Tracker database covering cases through the end of the Trump Administration’s first year in office on January 19.

Since the largest penalties are normally imposed on the largest corporations, I did an analysis focusing on the Fortune 100 list of the very largest U.S. publicly traded companies. I found that overall federal penalties imposed on these firms during Trump’s first 12 months totaled $1.1 billion, compared to an annual average of more than $17 billion during the Obama years.

The Obama totals, of course, reflected extraordinary settlements with the largest banks to resolve allegations relating to their role in bringing about the financial meltdown of a decade ago. These included, for example, the $16 billion settlement with Bank of America in 2014 and the $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase the year before.

Those financial services sector settlements peaked during the middle years of the Obama era. Yet Trump’s $1.1 billion first-year total is still far below the annual average of more than $9 billion for the Fortune 100 during Obama’s final two years in office. It also trails behind the $3 billion total during Obama’s first year.

Looking at all corporate offenders, there were 44 cases with penalties of $1 billion or more during the Obama era yet only two during Trump’s first year, and he doesn’t really deserve credit for those. One is the $5.5 billion settlement reached by the Federal Housing Finance Agency with the Royal Bank of Scotland relating to the sale of toxic securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That case had been filed in 2008, and the settlement had been negotiated under Obama. The other is the a $1.4 billion penalty against Volkswagen for its emissions cheating that appears in EPA records with a date of May 17, 2017 but was actually part of a larger $4.3 billion settlement announced by the Justice Department during the last days of the Obama Administration.

There is also an interesting pattern among Trump Administration penalties in the next tier down—those of $100 million or more. The parent companies involved in about two-thirds of these cases are foreign, especially those with the largest penalty totals. They include the Chinese telecom company ZTE, which was penalized for export control violations, and the Swedish telecom Telia, which was punished under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

It appears that the Trump Administration is more likely to get tough with a corporate violator if the company is not based in the United States, while domestic companies get treated more leniently. I guess the slogan is: Make Domestic Corporate Criminals Great Again.

Note: you can do analyses of your own on Violation Tracker using our new feature allowing search results to be filtered by presidential administration.

Stopping the Growth of Rogue Corporations

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

The federal response to corporate misconduct over the past two decades has alternated between tougher monetary penalties and the promotion of voluntary measures to lure companies into behaving better. Neither has worked very well.

Companies came to saw the increased fines as a tolerable cost of doing business (especially when they were tax deductible), while voluntarism was never a match for corporate greed.

It was thus intriguing when the Federal Reserve recently adopted a new approach in dealing with Wells Fargo. That bank, of course, has become notorious for its brazen scheme of creating millions of accounts not requested by customers, in order to generate illicit fees. It paid a fine of $100 million, with a lot more expected to follow. This came after a series of other scandals, including mortgage abuses that resulted in a $5.3 billion settlement in 2012.

The Fed, on Chair Janet Yellen’s final working day in office, issued an unusually blunt press release saying that the board was taking steps in response to “widespread consumer abuses and other compliance breakdowns” at Wells.

In an unprecedented step, the Fed imposed a restriction on the bank’s ability to grow “until it sufficiently improves its governance and controls.” In an industry for which getting larger is the guiding principle, Wells will feel intense pressure to satisfy the Fed’s demands. In fact, concurrently with the Fed’s action Wells announced that it would replace one-quarter of its 16-person board of directors by the end of the year.

Bank-friendly politicians have not had much to say about the Fed’s action, but it is clear that the restriction placed on Wells represents a forceful rebuttal to those pressing for a weakening of financial industry regulation. The ouster of Yellen by President Trump was a coup for the deregulation crowd, but we can take some solace in reports that her successor Jerome Powell oversaw the Fed’s negotiations with Wells.

The Fed’s action should be promoted as an example of how regulatory agencies and the Justice Department need to get more creative in dealing with egregious and repeat violators. Rogue corporations will only change their behavior if the penalties really sting.

The restriction on growth begins to meet this requirement because it makes Wells more vulnerable. An inability to become larger through acquisitions means that the bank will lose ground to its big competitors. Wells is probably too big to be a potential takeover target itself, but it could come under pressure from activist investors to restructure or even sell off portions of itself.

Moreover, the restrictions will probably depress the bank’s stock price, and that will be felt personally by the executives who encouraged or overlooked the misconduct.

At the same time, the house-cleaning among directors is an important message to send to board members at other misbehaving companies. That message would be even more effective if directors are not just removed but held personally liable for allowing the corrupt practices to happen.

The Fed has not always been the most aggressive of regulators. Let’s hope its action on Wells inspires other agencies to get tougher with corporate miscreants.

The 2017 Corporate Rap Sheet

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

The year began with a burst of announcements by the Obama Administration of cases it rushed to resolve before leaving office. In the period between election day and the inauguration, the Justice Department and various agencies announced more than $30 billion in fines and settlements.

That flurry of activity disappeared once Donald Trump took office. Agency enforcement activity soon resumed,  thanks to the efforts of career officials, but it appears that the volume of cases has declined compared to previous years. The same goes for the Justice Department, where high-profile prosecutions of large companies have continued but have become less frequent. Here is a rundown of selected major cases resolved during 2017, divided between the two administrations:

Obama Cases

Sale of Toxic Securities: Two of the year’s biggest penalties came in cases stemming back to the period leading up to the financial meltdown in 2008. During its final days the Obama Justice Department got Deutsche Bank to agree to pay $7.2 billion to resolve allegations that it misled investors in the sale of mortgage-backed securities. A day later it announced that Credit Suisse would pay $5.3 billion in a similar case. Moody’s reached an $864 million settlement with the federal government and 21 states for providing flawed credit ratings on what turned out to be toxic securities.

Money Laundering. In January Western Union agreed to forfeit $586 million and entered into agreements with the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission to resolve criminal allegations that it failed to maintain an effective anti-money-laundering system and that it abetted wire fraud.

Environmental Fraud: In January the Justice Department announced that Volkswagen would plead guilty to three felony counts and pay a $2.8 billion penalty to resolve the criminal charges brought against the automaker in connection with its scheme to use a device to cheat on emissions tests.

Auto Safety Fraud: In January Takata Corporation agreed to pay a $1 billion criminal penalty in the case brought against the Japanese company for fraudulent conduct in the sale of defective airbag inflators.

Trump Cases

Sale of Toxic Securities: In July the Federal Housing Finance Agency announced that Royal Bank of Scotland would pay $5.5 billion to settle allegations relating to the sale of mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Export Control Violations: In March the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security announced that the Chinese company ZTE would pay $661 million to resolve allegations that it shipped telecommunications equipment to Iran and North Korea in violation of U.S. export restrictions.

Bribery: In September the Swedish telecommunications company Telia was fined $457 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act through illicit payments to government officials in Uzbekistan.

False Claims Act: In August the pharmaceutical company Mylan agreed to pay $465 million to settle allegations that it misclassified its EpiPen devices as generic drugs to avoid paying rebates to Medicaid.

Illegal Drug Promotion/Distribution: In July the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles announced that Celgene would pay $280 million to settle allegations that it illegally promoted two cancer medications for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In September AmeriSourceBergen pled guilty and agreed to pay a total of $260 million to resolve criminal liability for its distribution of oncology supportive-care drugs from a facility that was not registered with the FDA.

Foreign Exchange Violations: In July the Federal Reserve Board fined the French bank BNP Paribas $246 million for failing to prevent its foreign exchange traders from engaging in market manipulation. In September the Fed fined HSBC $175 million for the firm’s unsafe and unsound practices in its foreign exchange trading business.

Consumer Protection: In August the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined American Express $96 million for discriminating against consumers in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other U.S. territories by providing them with credit and charge card terms that were inferior to those available in the 50 states.

Price-Fixing: In May the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division announced that Bumble Bee Foods would pay a criminal fine of $25 million in connection with price-fixing of shelf-stable tuna.

Workplace Harassment: In August the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that Ford Motor would pay up to $10.125 million to workers affected by sexual and racial harassment at two company facilities in the Chicago area.

Fair Labor Standards Act: In March the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division announced that the Walt Disney Company would pay $3.8 million in back wages to workers affected by violations of minimum wage and overtime rules.

Environmental Violation: In October Exxon Mobil agreed to pay a penalty of $2.5 million and spend $300 million on air pollution controls to resolve allegations that it violated the Clean Air Act by failing to properly operate and monitor industrial flares at its petrochemical facilities.

Note: Additional details on all these cases can be found in Violation Tracker. During 2017 my colleagues and I expanded the database to 300,000 entries with total penalties of $400 billion. Coverage now includes cases from more than 40 federal regulatory agencies and all divisions of the Justice Department dating back to the beginning of 2000.

Tracking U.S. Attorney Prosecutions

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

When Donald Trump fired dozens of U.S. Attorneys last March, there was speculation that the main objective was to remove some, especially Preet Bharara in Manhattan, who might be investigating the president’s business interests.

It remains to be seen what will happen with such probes, but the move highlighted the importance of the more than 90 federal prosecutors around the country who pursue a wide range of matters on behalf of the Justice Department.

The vast majority of those matters involve cases against individuals, especially those accused of drug offenses. Yet there is a significant subset of cases brought against for-profit corporations and non-profit entities. The U.S. Attorney’s Offices (USAOs) are a key front in the fight against corporate crime.

The latest expansion of Violation Tracker contains more than 1,000 USAO civil and criminal case records with corporate defendants dating back to 2000. Together they account for more than $18 billion in fines and settlements.

Assembling the list involved examining the press release archives of all the USAOs to identify those that announced the resolution of relevant cases. Among these are numerous high-profile prosecutions of major corporations, including three dozen with penalties of $100 million or more. This group is dominated by banks (such as JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank) and pharmaceutical companies (such as Merck and opioid culprit Purdue Pharma).

Among the most common offenses on the full list are violations of the Controlled Substances Act (by drug wholesalers and pharmacies), the False Claims Act (by for-profit and non-profit hospitals), anti-money laundering laws (by banks and casinos), and environmental laws (by companies of many kinds).

The offenses with the biggest aggregate penalties are those involving the False Claim Act ($4.2 billion), fraud ($3.5 billion) and anti-money laundering laws ($2.7 billion).

While business cases were found at nearly all USAOs, they are far from evenly distributed. The offices with the largest number of corporate cases are: the Southern District of New York (Manhattan), the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), the District of Massachusetts and the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

In terms of penalty totals, the Southern District of New York is far and away the leader, with nearly $10 billion in fines and settlements. Massachusetts is second with $1.2 billion.

The USAO entries complement the cases already in Violation Tracker from the various divisions of Justice Department headquarters in Washington (Antitrust, Civil, Environment & Natural Resources, etc.). They also represent the last significant portion of federal enforcement activity to be added to Violation Tracker.

Our next objectives include the collection of data from state attorneys general and state regulatory agencies as well as private litigation, especially class actions (we’re already gathering information on major wage and hour collective action lawsuits).

We’ll also continue updating the data from the agencies already covered, and if any USAO (or other prosecutor) brings a successful case against the Trump Organization, we’ll be sure to add that to the Violation Tracker mix.

Who Pays the Penalties for Volkswagen’s Crimes?

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

It’s refreshing to see the book thrown at a corporate criminal, but it would have been even better if federal prosecutors had aimed higher.

Oliver Schmidt, who had once been a mid-level manager at VW’s engineering and environmental office in Michigan, was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the company’s long-running scheme to defraud the federal government in diesel emissions testing. The charges against him included conspiracy and violations of the Clean Air Act. He was also fined $400,000.

Schmidt, who was arrested when he foolishly came to the United States for a family vacation, must be pissed off at having to pay such a severe personal price while higher ranking VW officials back in Germany will probably remain unscathed. Appearing at his sentencing hearing in a prison jumpsuit with his wrists shackled, Schmidt admitted culpability and did not point the finger at any company superiors. However, he did not let VW completely off the hook.

In a letter to the judge overseeing his case, Schmidt said he felt “misused” by the company and that he was following VW talking points when he met with a California air pollution official in 2015 and concealed the existence of the software that made the cheating possible.

Schmidt could not have participated in a conspiracy all by himself. Yet the Justice Department does not appear to have tried very hard to land any bigger fish (though at least one person senior to Schmidt is being prosecuted in Germany).

Instead, the DOJ took the typical route of bringing a case against the company as a whole and letting it buy its way out of the entanglement. In 2015 the DOJ, along with the Federal Trade Commission and the State of California, agreed on a civil settlement under which VW had to spend up about $10 billion to compensate customers and $4.7 billion on pollution mitigation.

That was followed by a criminal case in which VW had to pay a $2.8 billion penalty. At least this involved a real criminal plea rather than one of those deferred-prosecution or non-prosecution shams, but it is unclear what consequences VW has faced beyond the payout.

The company is technically on probation and has a compliance monitor, but that will probably not mean much. Even before these cases, the company had already been under federal supervision because of a consent decree stemming from a 2005 case also involving emissions irregularities.

Given the severity of the VW cheating and the fact that it was in effect a repeat offense, the DOJ should have done more to prosecute top executives, and the case against the company itself should have had more than financial consequences.

Whereas strict limitations are placed on the activities of individual felons, VW has been able to go on operating as if the scandal had never happened. A case can be made that the company should have been shut out of the U.S. market, but instead it has been advertising heavily and seeking to regain market share. The main challenge is that it can no longer promote its vehicles under the banner of “clean diesel.” Presumably, VW is working on a new way to deceive the public.