WASHINGTON, D.C. – In response to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and President Joe Biden’s rollback of Trump administration policies that would lock in abysmally low numbers of polluter prosecutions, Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, released the following statement:
“This action is a welcome and crucial step to enable the Biden administration to hold corporate polluters accountable. Under Trump, corporate prosecutions fell to their lowest level in decades, including a 70% decrease in Clean Water Act prosecutions and a 50% decrease in Clean Air Act prosecutions. Corporate enforcement fell by at least 90% at the DOJ and EPA, according to Public Citizen research.
“This policy change is a necessary and vital step forward, but not sufficient on its own. We look forward to new enforcement policies that reflect the administration’s stated goal of holding polluters accountable – and to the eventual prosecutions of corporate criminals and executives that break the law by poisoning Americans’ air, water, and environment. Strong enforcement not only will hold wrongdoers accountable, it will deter lawbreaking in the first place, protecting Americans and our planet.”
The Trump policies at the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) that the Biden memo withdraws include:
- A last-minute policy memo by former Assistant Attorney General Clark that instructs prosecutors to apply a heightened “mens rea” (or “guilty mind”) standard to environmental crimes, a policy long championed by the Koch brothers and Koch-backed groups that would make it harder to prosecute polluters essentially by allowing them to claim ignorance of anti-pollution laws. Clark infamously assisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, according to The New York Times reporting.
- The reduction of corporate penalties by eliminating payments to third parties that help right corporate wrongs. One example of the practical result: Trump’s DOJ reduced Harley Davidson’s penalty for alleged emissions cheating violations by $3 million because the funds would have gone to a third party: the American Lung Association.
- Limiting 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 – a policy enshrined by ENRD in a subsequent memo. Although guidance documents by definition cannot create new rights and obligations, their clarifying role can provide the certainty that makes it possible to hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing.