WASHINGTON, D.C. October 30, 2023 – Despite promises to ramp up enforcement, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted only 99 corporate offenders in 2022, a small uptick from the previous year’s 90 prosecutions, according to a new report from Public Citizen. President Joe Biden’s second year is thus tied with former President Donald Trump’s second year for having the fourth lowest number of corporate prosecutions since the start of the Clinton administration.
“The Biden Justice Department’s light-touch approach to enforcement encourages corporate scofflaws to push the limits of what’s legally allowed to maximize their profits – risking our health and safety, our environment, our finances, and our communities,” said Rick Claypool, a research director for Public Citizen and author of the report.
“The Justice Department is still bending over backwards to protect corporate offenders from the consequences of their lawbreaking, and it’s creating ideal conditions for the next corporate catastrophe,” Claypool added. “The worst corporate-caused crises of the 21st century – the 2008 financial crisis and the opioid epidemic – are stories about enforcement agencies failing to fight systemic criminal misconduct before it was too late.”
The number of federal corporate prosecutions has been steadily declining since 2000, when the Justice Department prosecuted triple the number of corporations that it does today (304). The near-record low number of corporate prosecutions combined with plunging corporate leniency agreements means the federal government concluded just 110 criminal cases against corporations in 2022 – fewer than any previous year since 1994.
Biden’s Justice Department pledged in 2022 to end the era of corporate impunity. In 2021, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco urged prosecutors to “be bold” in holding corporate criminals accountable. And Attorney General Merrick Garland gave a speech in 2022, declaring, “I have […] seen the Justice Department’s interest in prosecuting corporate crime wax and wane over time. Today, it is waxing again.” But the modest enforcement policies the administration later announced were far from bold. In practice, the policies seem more likely to accelerate the crisis of corporate impunity instead of addressing it, Public Citizen argues.
The worst part of the new policy is the Justice Department’s renewed and expanded promise to reward corporate criminals that self-report misconduct with declinations. A declination is a formal guarantee that the government will not bring a criminal case. Despite a web page dedicated to posting declinations, they are not consistently disclosed. Corporate defense attorneys openly state their goal for clients subject to criminal investigations is to win a “non-public declination” – and may list the achievement on profiles they post to promote their services.