As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, April 11, 2008

Justice, Bush-Style

Fresh off Eric Lichtblau's reporting on warrantless wiretapping and his new book on justice in the age of Bush (here's a great intereview with him, by the way), he has another article showing the nexus between the Justice Department and corporate power.

In a major shift of policy, the Justice Department, once known for taking down giant corporations, including the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, has put off prosecuting more than 50 companies suspected of wrongdoing over the last three years.

Instead, many companies, from boutique outfits to immense corporations like American Express, have avoided the cost and stigma of defending themselves against criminal charges with a so-called deferred prosecution agreement, which allows the government to collect fines and appoint an outside monitor to impose internal reforms without going through a trial. In many cases, the name of the monitor and the details of the agreement are kept secret.

Deferred prosecutions have become a favorite tool of the Bush administration. But some legal experts now wonder if the policy shift has led companies, in particular financial institutions now under investigation for their roles in the subprime mortgage debacle, to test the limits of corporate anti-fraud laws.

"Deferred prosecutions" is such a symbol of the Bush era, an anodyne term standing in for a much more sinister outcome. "Vanished prosecutions" is more like it. If you wonder why corporations are taking such heavy risks and edging the line of legality, like the lending industry in the mortgage mess, you can look simply to the twin engines of deregulation and deferred prosecutions. It adds up to a total lack of accountability, and a concomitant lack of responsibility. Of course, this aids those members of the White House inner circle who leave to go raid the public treasury in corporate America:

Deferred prosecution agreements, or D.P.A.’s, have become controversial because of a medical supply company’s agreement to pay up to $52 million to the consulting firm of John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, as an outside monitor to avoid criminal prosecution. That agreement has prompted Congressional inquiries and calls for stricter guidelines [...]

At a Congressional hearing last month, Mr. Ashcroft defended the agreements, saying that they avoided “destroying entire corporations” through criminal indictments. “Prosecutors understand that a corporate indictment can be a corporate death sentence,” he said. “A deferred prosecution can avoid the catastrophic collateral consequences and costs that are associated with corporate conviction.”

Yeah, that's the point. That's kind of what keeps corporations from engaging in criminal acts; the possibility of being destroyed. A world without that possibility is a world without rules.

By contrast, the real criminals from the Bush Administration's perspective, you know, Democrats, will be prosecuted for the thinnest of reasons.

Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh, has long been the subject of questions about partisan prosecutions. But in 2006, Buchanan raised more than a few eyebrows when she went after former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht, indicting him on multiple counts of various federal crimes, including theft from an organization that receives federal funds.

What, exactly, did Wecht do? Apparently, his transgressions included the improper use of the coroner’s fax machine for private work. Of course, there was no evidence “of a bribe or kickback” and no evidence that Wecht traded on a conflict of interest.

But Wecht’s a Democrat, and for a U.S. Attorney anxious to impress her superiors in the Bush administration, apparently that was enough.

Fortunately, the remaining vestiges of an independent judiciary worked in this case, which closed this week with a hung jury. Even the jury foreman had to admit that the case was politically motivated.

Wec's attorneys, among them former attorney general Dick Thornburgh, have charged that U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan pursued the case out of political motivations.

Today, the jury foreman, speaking to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was even more explicit: "[A]s the case went on my thoughts were this was being politically driven."

If Wecht had only thought to incorporate himself, he could have spared years of trials and legal fees and gooten off with a "deferred prosecution."

UPDATE: And now we have FBI agents contacting jurors in the Wecht case, just nicely asking why they didn't convict, in advance of a potential second trial, where jurors in that one would surely get the message that if they vote the wrong way FBI agents will be dispatched to their house. Classy. Wait, did I say classy, I meant STASI.

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