More news about how the Justice Department, you know, isn't seeking justice. In a major shift of policy, the Justice Department, once known for taking down giant corporations, including the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, has put off prosecuting more than 50 companies suspected of wrongdoing over the last three years. Instead, many companies, from boutique outfits to immense corporations like American Express, have avoided the cost and stigma of defending themselves against criminal charges with a so-called deferred prosecution agreement, which allows the government to collect fines and appoint an outside monitor to impose internal reforms without going through a trial. In many cases, the name of the monitor and the details of the agreement are kept secret. So why is Justice giving corporations get-out-of-jail free cards? Cue John Ashcroft. At a Congressional hearing last month, Mr. Ashcroft defended the agreements, saying that they avoided “destroying entire corporations” through criminal indictments. “Prosecutors understand that a corporate indictment can be a corporate death sentence,” he said. “A deferred prosecution can avoid the catastrophic collateral consequences and costs that are associated with corporate conviction.” Problem is, they don't seem to be deterrents at all. But critics of the agreements question that assertion. Charles Intriago, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who specializes in money-laundering issues, said that huge penalties, like the $65 million fine for American Express Bank International in 2007, were “peanuts” compared with the damage posed by a criminal conviction. The company was accused of failing to enact internal controls to guard against laundering of drug money and other reporting problems. As Scott Horton has written about with clarity, Republicans only understand the Justice Department as a machine employable for partisan or ideological gain. That needs to change in 2009.
Adam Doster, a contributing editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.