August 16, 2022

Behind the Gentler Approach to Banks by U.S.

Federal prosecutors officially adopted new guidelines about charging corporations with crimes — a softer approach that, longtime white-collar lawyers and former federal prosecutors say, helps explain the dearth of criminal cases despite a raft of inquiries into the financial crisis.

Though little noticed outside legal circles, the guidelines were welcomed by firms representing banks. The Justice Department’s directive, involving a process known as deferred prosecutions, signaled “an important step away from the more aggressive prosecutorial practices seen in some cases under their predecessors,” Sullivan Cromwell, a prominent Wall Street law firm, told clients in a memo that September.

The guidelines left open a possibility other than guilty or not guilty, giving leniency often if companies investigated and reported their own wrongdoing. In return, the government could enter into agreements to delay or cancel the prosecution if the companies promised to change their behavior.

But this approach, critics maintain, runs the risk of letting companies off too easily.

“If you do not punish crimes, there’s really no reason they won’t happen again,” said Mary Ramirez, a professor at Washburn University School of Law and a former assistant United States attorney. “I worry and so do a lot of economists that we have created no disincentives for committing fraud or white-collar crime, in particular in the financial space.”

While “deferred prosecution agreements” were used before the financial crisis, the Justice Department made them an official alternative in 2008, according to the Sullivan Cromwell note.

It is among a number of signs, white-collar crime experts say, that the government seems to be taking a gentler approach.

The Securities and Exchange Commission also added deferred prosecution as a tool last year and has embraced another alternative to litigation — reports that chronicle wrongdoing at institutions like Moody’s Investors Service, often without punishing anyone. The financial crisis cases brought by the S.E.C. — like a recent settlement with JPMorgan Chase for selling a mortgage security that soured — have rarely named executives as defendants.

Defending the department’s approach, Alisa Finelli, a spokeswoman, said deferred prosecution agreements “achieve these results without causing the loss of jobs, the loss of pensions and other significant negative consequences to innocent parties who played no role in the criminal conduct, were unaware of it or were unable to prevent it.”

The department began pulling back from a more aggressive pursuit of white-collar crime around 2005, say defense lawyers and former prosecutors, after the Supreme Court overturned a conviction it won against the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. That ended an era of brass-knuckle prosecutions related to fraud at companies like Enron.

Another example of this more cautious prosecutorial strategy: Government lawyers now go to companies earlier in an inquiry, and often tell companies to figure out whether improper activities occurred. Then those companies hire law firms to investigate and report back to the government. The practice was criticized last year when the Justice Department struck a settlement with Beazer Homes USA, a home builder accused of mortgage fraud.

This “outsourcing” of investigations — as some lawyers call it — has led to increased coziness between the government and companies, some critics say.

In banking, the collaboration is even stronger, dating to the mid-1990s when banks were asked to regularly report suspicious activities to the Treasury Department, an effort that aimed at relieving regulators of some of their enforcement loads. But it gave regulators a false assurance that banks would spot and report all wrongdoing, former investigators say. Moreover, companies are not as likely to come forward with evidence related to senior executives or to widespread patterns of misbehavior, some academics say.

Intended to make the most of the government’s limited investigative resources, the government’s cooperation with corporations and industry groups can work well and save money when business hums along as usual. But some veterans of government prosecutions question such collaboration in financial crisis cases, and contend they should have been pursued more aggressively.

“Traditionally, a bank would tell the Department of Justice when an employee engaged in crimes, but what do you do when the bank itself is run by a criminal enterprise?” said Solomon L. Wisenberg, former chief of the financial institutions fraud unit for the United States attorney in the Western District of Texas in the early 1990s. “You have to be able to investigate without just waiting for the bank to give you the referral. The people running the institutions are not going to come to the D.O.J. and tell them about themselves.”

A Clash of Agencies

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=363bdd3067a16b3da1879e448d0bb4df

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