Justice Department Sets Sights on Wall Street Criminals
WASHINGTON — Stung by years of criticism that it has coddled Wall Street criminals, the Justice Department issued new policies on Wednesday that prioritize the prosecution of individual employees — not just their companies — and put pressure on corporations to turn over evidence against their executives.
The new rules, issued in a memo to federal prosecutors nationwide, represent the first major policy announcement by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch since she took office in April. The memo is a tacit acknowledgment of criticism that despite securing record fines from major corporations, the Justice Department under President Obama has punished few executives involved in the housing crisis, the financial meltdown and corporate scandals.
Though limited in reach, the memo could erase some barriers to prosecuting corporate employees and inject new life into these high-profile investigations. The Justice Department often targets companies themselves and turns its eyes toward individuals only after negotiating a corporate settlement. In many cases, that means the offending employees go unpunished.
The memo, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times, tells civil and criminal investigators to focus on individual employees from the beginning. In settlement negotiations, companies will not be able to obtain credit for cooperating with the government unless they identify employees and turn over evidence against them, “regardless of their position, status or seniority.” Credit for cooperation can save companies billions of dollars in fines and mean the difference between a civil settlement and a criminal charge.
“We mean it when we say, ‘You have got to cough up the individuals,’ ” Ms. Yates said, a day before she was to address the policy in a speech at New York University School of Law.
But in many ways, the new rules are an exercise in public messaging, substantive in some respects but symbolic in others. Because the memo lays out guidelines, not laws, its effect will be determined largely by how Justice Department officials interpret it. And several of the points in the memo merely codify policy that is already in place.
“It’s a good memo, but it states what should have been the policy for years,” said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor and the author of the book “Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise With Corporations.” “And without more resources, how are prosecutors going to know whether companies are still burying information about their employees?”
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