Source: Los Angeles Times
An essay by U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff of New York has been published in the current issue of the New York Review of Books. In his essay Rakoff takes particular aim at the government's habit of prosecuting corporations, but not their executives.
He's a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, where he handled business and securities fraud. A Clinton appointee, he's been on the bench for more than 17 years.
In 2009, he tossed a $33-million SEC settlement of a white-collar case with Bank of America, calling it "a contrivance designed to provide the S.E.C. with the facade of enforcement and the management of the Bank with a quick resolution of an embarrassing inquiry." The parties later agreed to a higher fine and stricter terms. And in 2011 he rejected a $285-million consent decree Citigroup entered with the SEC. That rejection is still being pondered by a federal appeals court.
"Companies do not commit crimes," Rakoff observes; "only their agents do...So why not prosecute the agent who actually committed the crime?" He's witheringly skeptical of prosecutions of corporations, which usually yield some nominal fines and an agreement that the company set up an internal "compliance" department. "The future deterrent value of successfully prosecuting individuals far outweighs the prophylactic benefits of imposing internal compliance measures that are often little more than window-dressing."
He notes ... in the 1980s, the government convicted more than 800 individuals, including top executives, in the savings-and-loan scandal, and a decade later successfully prosecuted the top executives of Enron and WorldCom.
He dismisses the Department of Justice rationale that proving "intent" to defraud in the financial crisis cases is difficult: There's plenty of evidence in the public record that banking executives knew the mortgage securities they were hawking as AAA were junk.
Rakoff posits that there are several reasons for the lack of prosecutions. One is that the FBI and SEC are both understaffed because of budget cuts, and in the FBI's case with the diversion of much of its workforce to anti-terrorism efforts after 9/11. And he speculates that the government may feel abashed at its own complicity in the crisis, arising from the easing of financial and mortgage regulations over the years.
What's been lacking, Rakoff finds, is the political will and government resources to bring individuals before the bar of justice. Although millions of Americans are still suffering the financial consequences of the crisis, Rakoff suggests that the failure of the justice system may do even more lasting damage to the fabric of American society. His warning should be heeded, before it's too late.