Beating their chests and breathing fire to rouse the polity, the Department of Justice recently came out with an announcement as earth shattering as the sun rising. The DOJ proclaimed it has adopted new policies to prioritize the prosecution of individuals for white-collar crime.
Deputy Attorney General, Sally Q. Yates, was quoted in the New York Times: “It’s only fair that the people who are responsible for committing those crimes be held accountable. The public needs to have confidence that there is one system of justice and it applies equally regardless of whether that crime occurs on a street corner or in a boardroom.”
What’s the hoped-for public response? Probably something like this: “And the crowd goes wild. Finally, after years of corporate executives sporting Teflon and sliding past investigators, the government is going to put its fist down and make the wrongly rich execs pay for their nefarious acts of fraud, insider trading, embezzling, racketeering, and tax evasion! “
But things look a little different in the actual world of white-collar criminal investigations and defense. In fact, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York and across the country are zealously prosecuting employees accused of white-collar offenses, and their companies are never shy about providing the backup data regulators request.. What’s more, convicted offenders are often subject to penalties far exceeding their crimes, as U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff noted in the 2012 sentencing of Rajat Gupta.
The fact of the matter is that the DOJ doesn’t need to announce a new policy to go after individuals for white-collar crimes. The reality on the ground is we deal with employees being investigated and indicted all the time.
So why did Washington make the announcement? It sounds more like a PR stunt than anything else. Perhaps the Administration is gearing up for the next election cycle, which includes some obvious key elections. The DOJ wants to have a strong response to public outcries for accountability at the opportune time of impending regime change. In prior election cycles, administrations have taken some sort of hard stance on crime and punishment, whether it is increasing sentencing guidelines or messaging prosecutors about white-collar plea agreements.
From our viewpoint, it’s a little hard to take the DOJ’s new policy announcement at face value. We don’t see any recent motivation (outside PR). However, it’s also true that the wheels of Justice move slowly and this may just be a reflection from public dissatisfaction after the 2008 economic crisis, which saw corporations, but few Wall Street execs, held accountable. Regardless, we see the DOJ’s announcement much ado about nothing.