Thursday, May 29, 2014
Credit Suisse Conviction Does Not Demonstrate Substantial Change In Department Of Justice Enforcement
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Attorney General Eric Holder were strutting last week over the criminal conviction by plea of guilty of Credit Suisse, a major financial institution. "This case shows that no financial institution, no matter its size or global reach, is above the law," declared the Attorney General. Recent prosecutions of major financial institutions had resulted in lesser results, "deferred prosecutions," a somewhat deceptive term for "delayed dismissals," or a guilty plea by a minor affiliate.
The Credit Suisse guilty plea does not represent a sea change in the attitude of DOJ toward major financial institutions; rather, it appears to be a small ratcheting-up of the baseline penalty for serious criminal financial acts by such institutions. Credit Suisse, despite paying a hefty $2.6 billion fine, will not suffer the severe collateral consequences that ordinary individual defendants do upon a criminal conviction. (See here, NACDL's report "Collateral Damage: America's Failure to Forgive or Forget in the War on Crime -- A Roadmap to Restore Rights and Status After Arrest or Conviction," released today, Thursday, May 29, 2014.) It will still be able to act as an investment advisor, due to waivers agreed to by federal and New York State governmental agencies. Thus, its conviction, according to its chief executive Brady Dougan, will not have "any material impact on our operational or business capabilities." In other words, for Credit Suisse, it will be business as usual.
I hold no sympathy for Credit Suisse. Its crimes, continuous and notorious, have enabled American citizens and citizens of other countries to launder and evade tax payments on billions of dollars. In effect, Credit Suisse (not alone among Swiss banks) (see here) was a criminal enterprise, for many years making huge profits from extraordinary fees for its knowing and willful provision of a presumably safe haven for untaxed income, ill-gotten or otherwise. Mr. Dougan had stated to a Senate hearing in February that the tax evasion scheme was the work of a small group of private bankers that was hidden from senior management. That hard-to-believe claim was challenged in a statement by Schweitzerisher Bankpersonalverband, the organization representing the bank's employees: "It was common knowledge that tax evasion was the strategy, a business model pursued by many banks for a long time." See here.
To be sure, Credit Suisse's crimes did not cause the vast hardship to tens of millions of Americans that the wrongs -- criminal or not -- of other major financial institutions did in the last several years. And, further, its acts -- while subject to the long-arm jurisdiction of American courts -- were apparently legal under Swiss law, and seemingly condoned by the Swiss government.
Some commentators have suggested that there is considerable unfairness in prosecuting corporations for acts of low- or mid-level employees without knowledge of corporate leaders (see here), a position with which I generally agree. The demi-prosecution of Credit Suisse, however, does not appear to fit within that category, despite Mr. Dougan's claim. I see no unfairness in the government's requiring Credit Suisse to plead guilty.
I do, however, wonder about the effectiveness of the insistence on a guilty plea if the collateral consequences are waived. The conviction of a major financial institution with a considerable financial penalty but a waiver of regulatory bars is to me little different from a civil finding of wrongdoing with such a penalty. Other than its current status as a convicted felon, Credit Suisse today is essentially in the same position it was two weeks ago.
Given the legitimate (but probably exaggerated) fear that a felony conviction of a major financial institution without regulatory waivers will have on its existence and thus on the economy and societal well-being, it may well be that guilty pleas (and trial convictions too) of such corporations should be accompanied by limited collateral consequences. Such prosecutions, however, will then serve little more than a symbolic purpose (which I accept as a legitimate purpose). Overall, DOJ's prosecution to conviction of Credit Suisse is a positive step, albeit a small one.
The resolution here suggests again that the criminal process is inadequate to prosecute large financial institutions. Society looks to the criminal law to solve far more problems than the criminal law is capable of solving. Meaningful reform of a flawed financial system will not come from criminal prosecutions of corporations, but, if at all, from strong, substantial regulatory rulemaking and non-criminal legislation.