Wednesday, April 25, 2012
I expect that any day now one of my non-white-collar criminal clients will come to my office and ask me to incorporate him to protect him from future criminal liability. Of course, incorporation does not immunize an individual from criminal liability. Nor, generally, does it protect small corporations from prosecution.
However, it appears that just as massive corporations are "too big to fail," they are too big to prosecute. In the wake of the government's destruction of Arthur Andersen because of an ill-conceived, aggressive and ultimately unsuccessful indictment which caused the loss of thousands of jobs, DOJ has been highly reluctant to aggressively prosecute major corporations.
Although there are occasionally indictments of major corporations, most often these are disposed of by "deferred prosecutions," which are essentially delayed dismissals with financial penalties in numbers that are large in absolute terms but meager in comparison to the profits and assets of the corporation. To be sure, even when prosecuted to conviction, corporations do not go to jail and thus there may be little practical difference between a conviction of a corporation and a deferred prosecution. However, to the extent a goal of the criminal justice system is to achieve apparent fairness and equality, there is a genuine, if symbolic, reason for the prosecution of the large and powerful, whether they be individuals or corporations.
According to a thorough account in the New York Times this past Saturday, April 21, see here, Wal-Mart in Mexico, where the company has, according to the Times, one-fifth of its stores, engaged in a systemic countrywide scheme in which it spent millions of dollars to bribe hundreds of Mexican officials to gain favorable and expedited treatment and a competitive advantage. According to the Times, this conspiracy was not, as is often the case in corporate wrongdoing, the act of a rogue individual or group. Rather, it was orchestrated from the very top of the Wal-Mart Mexican hierarchy. Additionally, again according to the Times, when reports of this corruption reached Wal-Mart's U.S. headquarters, top executives took great pains to cover up the wrongdoing.
The alleged conspiracy, if the Times report is accurate, appears to be the kind of corporate crime, therefore, that deserves aggressive prosecution (not just an indictment and a deferred prosecution), especially if the government wants the Federal Corrupt Practices Act ("FCPA") to be taken seriously. Of course, there may be statute of limitations or other fact-finding or evidentiary problems involved in putting together a case involving facts from 2005, the year, according to the article, the bribe payments were made. It is far easier to write an article reporting corruption than to prove it under the rules of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, DOJ does with respect to this matter.