Friday, November 2, 2007

The Decline in Corporate Fraud Prosecutions

The American Lawyer has a detailed article (here) What's Behind the Drop in Corporate Fraud Indictments describing what it calls the decline in prosecutions of corporations and senior officers for fraud since the heyday of the President's Corporate Fraud Task Force.  The article and a supporting spreadsheet (here) provides a detailed look at corporate prosecutions since 2002, when the Task Force came into existence shortly before Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the symbol of the government's response to the collapse of Enron, WorldCom, and Adelphia Communications amidst allegations of accounting fraud.  The analysis provides the most comprehensive listing of prosecutions of companies and their executives that I have seen, including information about sentencing and appellate dispositions of cases.

One of the core findings is the drop in corporate fraud prosecutions, particularly since 2004:

Perhaps the most curious of our findings -- and one not highlighted by the Department of Justice -- is the precipitous decline in the number of major corporate fraud indictments in the two years since the re-election of President Bush. After issuing detailed reports in 2003 and 2004, the task force stopped reporting on its efforts in 2005, just as corporate fraud indictments slowed to a trickle. Our analysis shows 357 indictments in major corporate fraud cases between 2002 and 2005. But only 14 indictments were identified by the Justice Department as significant corporate fraud cases in 2006. There have been only 12 major corporate fraud cases indicted so far in 2007.

There are any number of reasons for the decline, and I doubt there is one single "cause" for the slowdown in these types of cases.  One explanation offered by the former U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California takes the "when life gives you lemons make lemonade" approach: the Task Force was so successful that there is no more corporate fraud, at least not on the scale seen a few years earlier.  A more plausible explanation is the almost natural ebb-and-flow to cases in a particular area, be it corporate fraud or drug prosecutions.  Companies change in response to the marketplace, be it products or prosecutors, and so are acting differently.  That doesn't mean they will stay out of trouble forever. 

Perhaps more imporant is the decline in the number of federal prosecutors devoted to corporate crime investigations, which place significant demands on the resources of U.S. Attorney's offices.  With budget resources devoted to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan crimping other departments, and the focus on new prosecutorial initiatives, such as child pornography and terrorism, something has to give and corporate crime is an easy place to cut back when there are no spectacular bankruptcies grabbing the media's attention.  Without the manpower, cases can languish, which is especially difficult in this area because corporate fraud cases are not known for their timeliness.  Filing a case about transactions involving technical accounting issues that occurred in a few years earlier just doesn't leap off the page and demand attention. 

When there are fewer resources committed to the area, the pressure to bring cases may actually decrease because it is not as stylish or important to an assessment of an office's effectiveness.  Moreover, the cases remaining from a few years ago are no longer the "low-hanging fruit" and may be just too difficult to prove without a commitment of significant resources.  Recent media reports indicate that a criminal investigation of accounting fraud at bankrupt auto parts maker Delphi ended with no criminal charges, a result that might not have occurred a few years ago when there was much more pressure to bring cases.

While the American Lawyer focuses on the decline in corporate fraud prosecutions, that does not mean there is a decrease in cases in other areas that fall within the "big tent" of white collar crime -- we are a welcoming niche.  Prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act are increasing, not declining, and the globalization trend probably means this will be a growth area.  [NB: For those interested in the FCPA, please be sure to check out the FCPA Blog (here), which provides outstanding coverage in this area.]   Antitrust prosecutions, especially for international price fixing, have not slowed over the past couple years, and the Antitrust Division's corporate amnesty policy -- first company in the door gets immunity -- seems to work in this area.  The FBI has announced that public corruptioin is a top priority, and the number of Congressmen and Senators under investigation, indictment, or imprisoned recently is staggering.  I doubt anyone is predicting a decline in healthcare fraud investigations, as the recent search at WellCare shows, and the Milberg Weiss prosecution may portend further scrutiny of class action law firms.

Finally, CEOs remain the target of government investigations, and I think that will continue in the future, even if prosecutions of corporations declines.  Former Collins & Aikman CEO David Stockman, former ESS Inc. CEO Michael Shanahan, and former Comverse CEO Kobi Alexander are among the corporate chiefs facing charges -- maybe not Alexander if he can avoid extradition from Namibia.  Regardless of priorities, a case involving the CEO of a public company will be a focus for the Department of Justice, and the resources necessary will be committed to these cases, in all likelihood.

Having seen the aftermath of the collapse of the banking industry up close in the early 1990s, and watching the corporate accounting and backdating cases develop over the past few years, I believe we will see another round of corporate scandals and prosecutions in the next few years.  I wish I knew where it would come from, and the continuing collapse of housing prices may give us a hint. (ph)

Enron, Fraud, HealthSouth, Prosecutions, WorldCom | Permalink

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