“The public has every right to wonder how it can be that the government brings no charges against individuals in the wake of [corporate criminal settlements]. Companies act only through the conduct of individuals—if the conduct is as egregious as portrayed in these settlements, and if the massive penalties are appropriate, how is it that so often the government charges no individuals?
Prosecutors’ increasing appreciation of the leverage they enjoy over corporate entities, coupled with companies’ determinations that a “bad” settlement is likely better than a “good” litigation, has resulted in a greater number of corporate settlements in cases where the government would be unlikely to prevail if forced to prove its case in court. The result, increasingly common over the last 20 years, is that prosecutors can obtain what appears to be a monumental victory without needing to develop a theory, supported by evidence, that could survive a legal challenge or prevail before a jury.
Prosecutors have far less leverage over individuals. People, unlike corporations, often face the prospect of incarceration and financial ruin in the event of a criminal conviction. As a result, individuals are more likely to test the government’s legal theories and version of the facts. Of course, the government often does pursue complex cases against individuals where the legal theory is clear and the facts compelling (for example, the recent wave of insider trading cases). But in many of the recent settlements, prosecutors know from their interactions with lawyers for individuals that, unlike with the corporation, they are likely to have a fight on their hands if they bring charges. Prosecutors are under enormous pressure from Congress and the public to pursue cases against senior executives who are thought to have caused the financial crisis. If they thought they would prevail, is there any doubt that they would bring these cases?
As NPAs and DPAs have become increasingly common, the government’s leverage over corporations in negotiating these settlements has become more apparent. In addition to the tremendous risks associated with an indictment, prosecutors have several other powerful sources of negotiating leverage. These include: government suspension and debarment; the loss of key licenses, such as banking licenses; the drain on the time and energy of corporate executives and other witnesses; legal costs; and costs associated with the uncertainty of a criminal investigation and potential indictment.
Corporations are also reluctant to go to trial because they are risk averse. Regardless of the strength of the government’s case, the facts in corporate criminal cases are often complex or esoteric, and there is always a chance that a jury may not understand why a few problematic documents do not add up to criminal liability.
In light of these factors, companies often may view an admission of criminal conduct as preferable to a legal victory that clears the company’s name but requires years of uncertainty. By entering into a settlement, a company often confines its exposure to a press conference followed by writing a large check, after which the incident may be relegated to a paragraph in a 10-Q filing. By contrast, a company that goes to trial may receive negative—and unpredictable—news coverage for years.
From a business perspective, the preference to settle appears to be prudent: Even though DPAs often involve damaging admissions and massive fines, such negotiated resolutions tend to lead to an immediate increase in a company’s stock price. [...] The increase of a company’s stock price after it admits to often egregious criminal conduct and pays a multimillion dollar fine reflects the strong desire of shareholders and the market—and the consequent pressure on corporate executives—to resolve investigations by entering into settlements. The market appears to value the certainty of a resolution more than it is concerned by admissions of criminal conduct.
The above factors all contribute to an environment in which the government can test the limits of its leverage in negotiating corporate settlements. In recent years, prosecutors have pushed those limits further, knowing that they often need not develop a theory of criminal liability that would likely survive a court challenge. A December 2013 NPA that Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) entered into to settle FCPA charges provides a telling example. Under the NPA, ADM agreed to pay $54 million in penalties for bribing foreign government officials. Although it was undisputed that officials of ADM indirect subsidiary ACTI Ukraine paid off foreign officials, they did so in order to receive tax refunds owed by the Ukrainian government.
According to FCPA expert and Southern Illinois University School of Law Professor Michael Koehler, “it is difficult to square [the elements of the FCPA] with the facts alleged in the [ACTI] Ukraine information, and anyone who values the rule of law should be alarmed by it.” The FCPA was designed to prevent companies from “corruptly” acquiring “business”—not receiving owed tax refunds. Moreover, the statute specifically exempts from its anti-bribery provisions “payments to a foreign official…the purpose of which is to expedite or to secure the performance of a routine government action by a foreign official.”
The ADM NPA appears to reflect what Mark Mendelsohn, former head of the Justice Department’s FCPA Unit, has described as the “danger” of NPAs and DPAs: “it is tempting for the [Justice Department] or the SEC…to seek to resolve cases through DPAs or NPAs that don’t actually constitute violations of the law.” But if a case turns out to be marginal, why would a prosecutor pursue it? My experience as a former prosecutor and current defense lawyer suggests that there are at least three reasons for this phenomenon.
First, competition between prosecutors’ offices and public demands for immediate investigations in the wake of high-profile stories place substantial pressure on prosecutors to investigate companies quickly and to pursue cases without having necessarily vetted their appropriateness for criminal charges.
Second, many of the subjects of corporate investigations are complicated, esoteric, and place a substantial burden on the limited resources of prosecutors’ offices. After a lengthy investigation, a prosecutors’ office may not be inclined to simply close a case, especially if it can induce the company to enter into a settlement.
Third, as a result of the leverage discussed above, prosecutors can obtain settlements and massive payments in even marginal cases. Corporate prosecutions represent a low-risk, high-reward opportunity: The risk inherent in pursuing a marginal case is blunted by the high likelihood that a corporation will settle because of the prosecutor’s superior leverage and the corporate defendant’s rational risk aversion. And as settlements increase and monetary penalties skyrocket, the government accumulates and issues press releases reporting record amounts in fines and forfeitures.
[F]ew prosecutions of individuals actually occur. The reason is simple: Prosecutors do not possess the same kind of leverage over individuals that they do over companies. Because an admission of wrongdoing by an individual has far greater consequences, individuals are more likely to test the prosecution’s case. In cases where the evidence of criminal conduct is weak, prosecutors may well succeed in inducing the corporation to settle, but fail to convince individuals to do the same. Consequently, we see DPAs, often accompanied by inflammatory statements of fact (drafted by prosecutors) documenting outrageous criminal conduct by the company through its employees, without any follow-up prosecution of individuals.
Prosecutors have long been able to charge companies for the criminal conduct of their employees. And in the appropriate case, it makes sense that the corporation, which is created by the laws of the state, should be held accountable to ensure that its employees follow the law. But it follows that if criminal conduct has occurred, the individuals responsible should also be pursued.
The leverage the government can exercise over companies has tipped the scales to a troubling degree. By using their considerable leverage to induce companies to enter into settlements in increasingly marginal cases and forcing them to admit to egregious conduct to settle charges that likely would not survive a legal challenge or be proved to a jury, prosecutors have created a situation where the public is deceived into thinking that the individuals involved in corporate criminal conduct are receiving a free pass.
If these cases were exposed to the light of day by the adversarial system, the public would learn that they are often far murkier than they appear in the DPA’s statement of facts. Instead, however, the public sees a fundamental disconnect between the prosecution of corporations and the prosecution of individuals—and is justifiably left to wonder why prosecutors do not pursue the individuals through whom all corporations must act.”