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Corporate prosecutions dropped to a 25-year low during last year of Trump administration

Donald Trump Presidential Photo in Front of a FlagCorporations escaped punishment at record levels during President Trump’s last year in office, when federal prosecutions of corporate criminals fell to just 94 – the lowest on record since the government started tracking corporate prosecution statistics in 1996, a Public Citizen report found.

Corporate leniency agreements increased to 45, the highest in Trump’s four years,

The report covers the government’s 2020 fiscal year and is based on an analysis of federal corporate prosecution data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Corporate Prosecution Registry. It’s a project of Duke University and the University of Virginia, which tracks criminal enforcement actions against corporations.

“As profit-maximizing, risk-calculating organizations, big corporations are highly responsive to incentives and punishments,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

If corporations know they can commit crimes and – if caught – be required to do little more than promise not to violate the law in the future, it’s a virtual certainty they’ll break the law regularly and routinely, Weissman said.

“If we want corporations to follow the law, then it’s past time to do away with deferred and non-prosecution agreements,” he said. “Declining corporate prosecutions and increasing corporate leniency agreements can be directly attributed to the soft-on-corporate-crime policies of the Trump administration.”

Because of more declining corporate prosecutions and increasing corporate leniency agreements (for example, deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements), the agreements made up nearly one-third of all resolutions of federal cases against corporations accused of crimes.

This is the highest the percentage has been since 1996, when prosecutors entered leniency agreements with corporate criminals only about 1 percent of the time.

Corporate prosecutions have fallen by two-thirds from the peak of 296 in 2000. The previous record low was 2018, when 99 corporations were prosecuted. The decline in prosecutions means that only 94 corporations either pled or were found guilty of crimes in 2020.

Corporations whose wrongdoing was settled via leniency agreements with the Justice Department instead of prosecution include:

  • Chipotle, a national restaurant chain whose food safety violations sickened more than 1,000 customers.
  • Novartis, a pharmaceutical corporation whose subsidiaries broke antitrust and anti-corruption laws.
  • HSBC, a London-based multinational megabank whose Swiss subsidiary helped wealthy U.S. citizens evade tax obligations for a decade. This is HSBC’s third leniency agreement from the DOJ since 2012.
  • JPMorgan Chase, a New York-based multinational megabank whose precious metals traders engaged in fraudulent activity over eight years. This is JPMorgan’s fourth leniency agreement from the DOJ in less than 10 years.
  • Monsanto, a Bayer-owned agrichemical corporation that improperly stored hazardous pesticide waste.
  • Wells Fargo, whose executives over more than a decade pushed impossible sales goals on thousands of employees, who faced discipline or firing for not meeting goals, resulting in predatory and fraudulent sales practices that victimized millions of customers.

“Trump’s DOJ is infamous for pursuing a cruel ‘tough on crime’ approach to immigrants and low-level offenders,” said Rick Claypool, a Public Citizen research director and author of the report. “It also should be infamous for letting corporate criminals off the hook.”

President Biden’s DOJ should ramp up enforcement to show that corporate criminals aren’t above the law, Claypool said.

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