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Fines for corporations by federal agencies down under Trump administration, with penalties falling as much as 94 percent

PollutionWhen Donald Trump was elected president, I strongly suspected that he would be soft on his big corporation buddies. Now we have details on just how bad it is.

During President Donald Trump’s first year in office, enforcement against corporate crime and wrongdoing declined dramatically, with total penalties for such violations dropping from the final year of the Obama administration, according to a report from Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization.

In almost every federal agency under the control of a Trump appointee – and most significantly at the Department of Justice, the nation’s lead law enforcement agency – enforcement against corporations dropped, often plunging to just a small fraction of what it had been.

Public Citizen’s report “Corporate Impunity” tracked enforcement activities against corporate violators by 12 federal agencies overseen by a Trump administration official for the majority of Trump’s first year in office. The report was co-released with Violation Tracker, a corporate enforcement database produced by the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First.

In 11 of the 12 agencies, the number of penalties for corporate violators declined, in many cases drastically. In 10 of the 12 agencies, the number of individual enforcement actions against corporate violators also declined significantly.

“When it comes to large corporations, the supposedly ‘tough-on-crime’ Trump administration is undertaking an epic retreat from law enforcement – slashing fines, declining to bring cases against corporate wrongdoers, and cutting enforcement programs,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “The message to big business couldn’t be clearer: Feel free to run roughshod over rules that protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat as well as ensure the safety of the cars we drive and protect us against bank rip-offs and consumer fraud.”

Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, total DOJ penalties against corporations fell 90 percent from $51.5 billion in President Barack Obama’s last year to $4.9 billion in Trump’s first year, and the number of enforcement actions against corporations fell by 22 percent from the Obama’s last year. Plea deals dropped to 50 compared to 117 in Obama’s last year.

In Trump’s first year, Environmental Protection Agency penalties dropped 94 percent – the most of any of the federal agencies analyzed in the report. Public Citizen’s analysis of EPA enforcement includes actions against corporations, municipalities, and individuals. Under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency decreased penalty sums against polluters from $23 billion in Obama’s last year to $1.4 billion in Trump’s first.

In one of the cases, the EPA announced five weeks before Trump’s inauguration that it was seeking $4.8 million in penalties against the pesticide manufacturer Syngenta Seeds for violating safety rules that protect workers from being poisoned. Trump’s EPA cut the penalty a year later to $550,000 – just 11 percent of the original fine.

The sharp decline in overall penalties still stands, even excluding the extraordinary enforcement orders issued in the final years of the Obama administration, during which the government fined oil giant BP over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and automaker Volkswagen for cheating emissions tests. Even leaving out those cases, which were completed under Obama, total penalties under Pruitt still fell by 84 percent in Trump’s first year.

Because enforcement actions can take years to complete, the steep declines at the agencies are significant, considering most of the investigations would have begun under Obama and the agencies’ career staff remain mostly unchanged.

“Trump’s 'zero-tolerance' enforcement policy against first-time border crossings and street crimes has rightly grabbed headlines,” said Rick Claypool, a Public Citizen research director. “But what makes this even more shocking is how these so-called tough on crime policies coincide with policies that decrease prosecutions and penalties for giant lawbreaking corporations.”

The agencies included in the report are the Transportation Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division, total penalties down 11 percent; Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, down 13 percent; Commodity Futures Trading Commission, down 80 percent; Consumer Product Safety Commission, down 43 percent; DOJ, down 90 percent; Environmental Protection Agency, down 94 percent; Labor Department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, down 19 percent; Federal Communications Commission, down 85 percent; Federal Trade Commission, down 65 percent; Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, down 53 percent, and Office of Foreign Assets Control, up 465 percent; and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, down 68 percent.

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