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DOJ Must Keep Promise to Get Tough on Corporate Repeat Offenders

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen called on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to increase prosecutions of corporate repeat offenders operating under leniency agreements in a letter sent today to Merrick Garland and Lisa Monaco. The letter follows a report Public Citizen released on Friday, which identified 20 corporate wrongdoers that warrant closer scrutiny from federal prosecutors.

“Public Citizen has long urged (and continues to urge) the DOJ to end the failed experiment of resolving criminal investigations into corporate wrongdoing through leniency agreements,” the letter reads. “Leniency agreements should be reserved for rare circumstances, if they are to be used at all. They should be the exception, and not the rule, when the DOJ brings an enforcement against big companies that break the law. Nevertheless, because the DOJ has been relying on leniency agreements for so long, and because so many major companies currently are bound by them, making sure that the corporations bound by their terms are abiding by these terms is a sensible first step.”

Deputy Attorney General Monaco’s recent declaration, “We will hold accountable any company that breaches the terms of its DPA or NPA” – paired with the department’s recent actions against Ericsson and NatWest – are signs that the DOJ is taking seriously its responsibility to protect the public from corporate crime, the letter notes.

“Recent years have tested the public’s faith in both the rule of law and the DOJ’s ability to enforce it fairly and equitably,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen and co-author of the letter. “The DOJ must demonstrate that no one is above the law – whether it’s the biggest businesses or the most well-connected CEOs. Each step away from rampant impunity among the most powerful and well-connected is a step worth celebrating. We hope the DOJ will continue matching the boldness of its rhetoric with zealous prosecutions of corporate offenders.”

The annual cost of corporate and white-collar crime to Americans is estimated at between $300 and $800 billion a year, while street crime costs about $16 billion. But U.S. Sentencing Commission data show that under the Trump administration, corporate crime enforcement plunged to a quarter-century low. At the same time, the DOJ’s overreliance on corporate leniency agreements (i.e., deferred and non-prosecution agreements) increased to the highest level in four years.

A Harvard Business School analysis recently concluded that major firms are engaging in misconduct at least twice a week. Corporate repeat offenders received 15% of all the leniency agreements that the DOJ made with companies over nearly two decades. But from 1992 to 2019, the DOJ held a corporation accountable for breaking its promise not to break the law again just seven times, and companies were prosecuted for breaching those agreements only three times.