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Uptick in Biden DOJ’s Corporate Prosecutions Is Encouraging but Insufficient

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) efforts to ramp up corporate crime enforcement remain insufficient, as the DOJ prosecuted only 113 corporate offenders in 2023, an uptick from the previous year’s 99 prosecutions, according to a new report from Public Citizen. 

Federal corporate prosecutions have been trending downward since 2000, when the DOJ prosecuted triple the number of corporations that it does today (304). The number of corporate prosecutions has remained far below the agency’s 25-year average (172) since the end of the Obama administration.  

The report shows that large corporations that break the law continue to receive more lenient treatment – and that small businesses are likelier to face prosecution. According to U.S. Sentencing Commission data, about 76% of the corporations that the DOJ prosecuted in 2023 had 50 employees or less, while only about 12% had 1,000 employees or more. Meanwhile, the majority of corporations that were able to avoid prosecution for criminal misconduct through leniency deals with the DOJ (10 out of 14) had 5,000 employees or more.

“The increase in corporate prosecutions is a welcome shift from the previous decline, and the new policy of rewarding corporate crime whistleblowers could go further toward restoring enforcement,” said Rick Claypool, a research director for Public Citizen and author of the report. “But prosecutions remain far too few, and the ongoing overuse of leniency deals for big corporations that break the law continues to undermine deterrence.”

The report notes that the DOJ’s newly strengthened policies for punishing corporate recidivists is currently facing a critical test: Boeing.

The 2021 deal Trump’s DOJ struck with Boeing over misconduct related to the 737 Max crashes, which claimed 346 lives, expired in January, just days before the Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 door plug failure. Prosecutors have until June to determine whether Boeing abided by the deal. If Boeing violated its deal with the DOJ, the deal states that the corporation can be prosecuted for any federal criminal violation that prosecutors know about related to the 737 Max crashes. This is separate from any criminal charges that the DOJ might bring related to the Alaska Airlines flight.

Public Citizen sent a letter in February to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, and other top officials urging the DOJ to initiate an investigation to assess whether Boeing violated the 2021 deal. A criminal investigation is now underway, according to news reports.

“If the DOJ finds that Boeing again violated the law, Boeing should be prosecuted both for its original and its subsequent misconduct,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen and co-author of the letter. “Boeing should be charged as aggressively as the facts and the law support, including possibly with multiple counts and manslaughter charges.”