As Congress considers overhauling the criminal justice system, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is working to show that law enforcement is “shockingly weak” when it comes to corporate crimes.
Warren’s office released a 13-page report on Friday, titled “Rigged Justice: 2016; How Weak Enforcement Lets Corporate Offenders Off Easy ,” which argues that the justice system is rigged in favor of corporations and executives who commit crimes. The report highlights 20 cases that, in Warren’s staff’s view, demonstrate how the federal government failed to hold corporations and executives accountable for breaking the law.
“When government regulators and prosecutors fail to pursue big corporations or their executives who violate the law, or when the government lets them off with a slap on the wrist, corporate criminals have free rein to operate outside the law,” according to the report. “They can game the system, cheat families, rip off taxpayers, and even take actions that result in the death of innocent victims—all with no serious consequences.”
Prosecuting corporate crimes has become a topic of discussion as Congress looks to overhaul the criminal justice system. Such overhaul efforts have become entangled over whether to change laws relating to criminal intent, also known as mens rea . Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said at a Jan. 20 Judiciary hearing, “I believe that any package of criminal justice reforms that passes Congress must include meaningful provisions to shore-up mens rea protection.”
Hatch argued that such provisions, submitted in an amendment to a bipartisan sentencing bill, would protect citizens from being prosecuted for a crime that they did not realize they were committing. But Democrats raised concern that altering such provisions would make it more difficult to prosecute corporate crimes.
The authors of Warren’s report furthered that argument, writing, “If adopted, this amendment would severely weaken the already anemic enforcement of federal white-collar criminal laws.”
As the debate continues, Warren’s report sought to demonstrate the extent to which such “anemic enforcement” exists. The cases detailed in the report grabbed headlines throughout the year, including the BP Deepwater Horizon settlement with the Justice Department and five states, where BP is required to pay nearly $21 billion, though $15 billion of that would be tax deductible.
The report also highlighted an agreement with General Motors that the company pay a $900 million fine for covering up ignition switch problems that resulted in more than 100 deaths and nearly 300 injuries. The report’s authors argued that no individual was held accountable for the cover up, or charged with a crime, and pointed out that criminal charges against GM were suspended.
In addition to these cases, the report covers settlements over violations that span such areas as the financial sector, education and student loans, automobile safety, environmental laws, trade laws and drug manufacturing. The authors noted that only one of the examples, a coal mine blast that killed 29, resulted in a trial and conviction.
Warren has worked to make corporate settlements in criminal and cases more transparent. Her “Truth in Settlements Act” won approval in the Senate in September, and has been referred to House Oversight and Government Reform. The bill would require federal agencies to release settlement agreements on their websites, and list information including payments involved in the agreements and where the payments will be collected.
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