In a recent appearance before Congress, Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates declared that the US Department of Justice is going to ratchet up its prosecution of individuals employed in corporations as part of a larger push against “white collar crime.” There is no doubt that such prosecutions will be very popular to a large section of voters, given that presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley, along with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren pretty much have declared that nearly all American businesses are part of a massive criminal conspiracy that must be brought down by federal authorities.
Within the next year, we should expect to see mid-level business and finance executives doing “perp walks” in front of the news media, as federal prosecutors will charge them with various “economic crimes” in hopes that they will implicate their superiors. All of us by now know the drill and in a time of anemic economic growth complete with business failures, it won’t be hard to find scapegoats.
Everyone Is “Guilty”
When famed civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate published his now-famous book, Three Felonies a Day, it caused quite a stir. Going through a number of very disturbing cases, Silverglate made clear that if federal prosecutors want to target an individual, it is very easy to fashion criminal charges against them.
To prove his point, he noted how the federal prosecutors in New York when Rudy Giuliani was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York regularly played a game in which they would see if various celebrities and others, including Mother Theresa, had broken federal criminal law. The result, unfortunately, was that for each person no matter how good his or her public character, a federal statue existed that would place them in prison.
Being that Giuliani’s prosecutors — and Giuliani himself — regularly committed felonies by selectively leaking grand jury information to favored journalists in order to damage the ability of accused people to defend themselves. He also did it to stoke the fires of the anti-business mobs, and these prosecutors were quite familiar with how to fashion the ever-malleable federal statutes to turn ordinary acts into crimes. During the 1980s, when Giuliani was at DOJ, the New York office engaged in a massive show of force against Wall Street firms and other business enterprises in large part to enhance the coming political careers of Giuliani and others who worked under him, and to appease the anti-business Democrats and Republicans who were anxious to declare to roll back what they called the “Decade of Greed.”
Is a New Wave of Crackdowns Coming?
Federal prosecution of business figures tend to come in waves. During the Great Depression, prosecutors tried to claim criminal behavior by businessmen was responsible for the lengthy economic downturn. During the 1980s, Wall Street rivals of Michael Milken and others who challenged the established financial firms were the quiet-but-effective engine of prosecution, combining their political connections with Giuliani’s ambition to nearly destroy the alternative capital funding machine that was overturning the corporate status quo with new startups and shakeups of existing firms.
Because Milken had become wealthy through his financial dealings, he became the symbol of “greed” by the Democratic Left, which at that time was facing a loss of influence during the Ronald Reagan years and was desperate to regain its former status of America’s “conscience.” Going after Milken mollified both the Left andthe Republican establishment on Wall Street, as the “old money” firms were happy to see Giuliani eliminate the competition.
After the spectacular failure of Enron and other firms that depended upon Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve System policies of easy money, policies that ended in the Tech Bubble meltdown in 2000 and 2001, the George W. Bush administration went after people like Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron and others who had high-profile CEO jobs. In the lynch-mob atmosphere that inevitably follows the bust cycle of Fed-induced business cycles, it was not hard to convince Americans that the corporate bankruptcies and the subsequent recession were the handiwork of criminal executives.
I have written about federal criminal law and its abuses for more than a decade and have not changed my viewpoint. No matter how often writers and activists expose the consequences of expanding federal criminal law, the law expands anyway. People are elected to Congress on platforms of “being tough on crime,” and large crowds heartily approve when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren call for more business executives to be thrown into prison for unspecified “crimes.” (They demand the Beria approach. Beria, who was the head of the original KGB, famously stated: “You bring me the man, I’ll find you the crime.”)
A Winning Political Strategy
The current public mood is ugly, and perhaps for good reason. Although the official rates of unemployment are relatively low, statistics clearly show that huge numbers of potentially-employable people have left the job market altogether because they know that finding meaningful employment is highly unlikely. We know that in percentage terms, labor participation in the workplace is at near-record lows. We also know that, economically speaking, the economy is stagnating and that individuals continue to be squeezed as real pay fails to keep up with creeping-but-real inflation. In short, people are angry, and they want someone to pay.
Many angry people have found a political home with candidates like Sanders and Donald Trump, both of whom speak to voter frustrations and who also find perfect scapegoats for vengeful Americans. Bernie Sanders blames businesses and entrepreneurs for “greed,” while Trump blames immigrants. Economically speaking, neither Sanders nor Trump is correct, but it doesn’t matter; angry voters don’t want facts, they want scalps.
Ever since sociologist Edwin Sutherland during the 1930s came up with the term, “white collar crime,”politicians and the media have claimed that businesses often are little more than criminal enterprises. Certainly the current political climate reflects that sentiment and more. Furthermore, politicians are appealing to voters with proposals that would destroy capital formation, criminalize much of entrepreneurship, and make it much more difficult for business firms to engage in normal activities.
In a recent campaign speech, Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton declared, “We’re going to go back to enforcing labor laws. I’m going to make sure that some employers go to jail for wage theft and all the other abuses that they engage in.” Few candidates of either party are willing to stand up for businesses and entrepreneurs, and as the campaign rhetoric becomes more inflammatory, federal prosecutors are going to find it increasingly easier to charge business owners and employers for law “violations” that might be called “criminal” even if they never were intentional, according to law professor John Baker.
Selective and Politically-Motivated Prosecution
Because there are so many business owners and executives, and because federal prosecutors cannot go after everyone, it will be a crapshoot as to whom prosecutors select for “the treatment.” For the most part, those targeted will not have political connections (such as many Wall Street executives), nor will they be people involved in “green energy” ventures, such as those businesses tied to people like Al Gore.
When people think of so-called business crimes, they think of embezzlement, firms falsifying information, tax evasion, or to engage