Image credit: Steve Brodner
In the “tough on crime” story President Donald Trump likes to tell about himself, he’s a “law and order” tough guy fighting to save “the forgotten men and women” from the scourge of “American carnage.”
But even as the Trump administration ramps up “zero-tolerance” policies against street crimes and immigration, it has gone soft on enforcement policies that protect Americans from lawbreaking corporations.
“Corporate Impunity,” a new Public Citizen report, finds that in 11 of 12 agencies led by a Trump administration official for most of 2017, total monetary penalties imposed on corporate violators plummeted.
At the Department of Justice (DOJ), penalties against corporate offenders plunged by 90 percent.
At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all civil penalties plunged more than 94 percent.
Similarly, in 10 out of the 12 agencies Public Citizen analyzed, the number of enforcement actions against corporate violators declined – in many cases quite dramatically. At the Transportation Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission, the total number of enforcement actions brought against corporate wrongdoers declined by a third or more.
The only one of these agencies at which penalties increased was the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is responsible for blocking corporations from doing business with sanctioned countries, businesses and individuals.
The report was released in partnership with the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First, whose Violation Tracker database documents penalties the federal government imposes on corporate offenders.
As the federal government’s chief law enforcement agency, the DOJ is especially powerful when it comes to setting enforcement policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” approach to immigration and street crimes has been widely reported. What has garnered less scrutiny is the DOJ’s maximum permissiveness policy toward corporate offenders.
Under Trump, the DOJ has:
- Allowed corporations that engage in illegal bribery abroad to completely avoid prosecution. As long as they meet certain DOJ conditions, corporations that violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act never have to enter a plea, and their penalties are reduced by 50 percent.
- Reduced corporate penalties by eliminating payments to third parties that help right corporate wrongs. In the past, corporate settlements often included payments to nonprofit organizations that repair corporate harms. For example, a penalty against Harley Davidson for alleged emissions cheating violations was reduced by $3 million because the funds would have gone to the American Lung Association.
- Reduced corporate penalties by limiting how much a single corporate violation can trigger penalties from multiple enforcement agencies. The policy led to a bank accused of anti-money laundering deficiencies seeing its penalty reduced by $50 million.
- Limited the DOJ’s power to bring charges against corporations that defraud the government. Former Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand instructed DOJ lawyers to stop citing noncompliance with “guidance documents” as evidence that a violation has been committed. Guidance documents are interpretations of regulations that federal agencies provide to the industries they oversee to facilitate compliance. This change severely restricts the DOJ’s power to bring cases against corporations, especially for False Claims Act violations of defrauding the government. Brand’s former employer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, celebrated the policy memo. Brand resigned shortly after releasing the memo to take the top legal post at Walmart.
The impact of these policies is predictable: The longer they are in place, the fewer corporate criminals and wrongdoers will be held accountable.
The rampant corporate crimes and wrongdoing cause real harm to Americans who are ripped off by banks, poisoned by polluters, deceived by drugmakers and have their data stolen and exploited by tech monopolies.
Public Citizen aims to amplify these concerns and ensure that corporations that put profits over people are held accountable.
Rick Claypool is a research director for Public Citizen’s president’s office.