The Justice Department issued new guidance to its prosecutors Wednesday, aimed at encouraging more white-collar criminal and civil cases against corporate executives.
The new policies come amid persistent criticism that the Justice Department, even while negotiating multi-billion-dollar settlements with large banks, has not been aggressive enough in prosecuting individuals for financial misconduct — including after the mortgage crisis that devastated the U.S. economy.
The directives were outlined in a memo issued to Justice Department attorneys and to the FBI. Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates was expected to lay out the policy changes in a speech Thursday at New York University's law school.
“Crime is crime,” Yates planned to say in her address, according to excerpts released by the Justice Department.
“And it is our obligation at the Justice Department to ensure that we are holding lawbreakers accountable regardless of whether they commit their crimes on the street corner or in the board room,” she added. “In the white-collar context, that means pursuing not just corporate entities but also the individuals through which these corporations act.”
Though it's not clear whether the new policies will actually result in additional prosecutions, they are intended to address concerns that the department could be doing more to hold individual, high-level executives accountable for corporate fraud.
The new guidance, which emerged from a Justice Department working group, includes some new measures as well as others that are regarded as best practices already used by some federal prosecutors.
It mandates that corporations turn over evidence of wrongdoing against individuals if they want credit for cooperating with the government, and says prosecutors should get as much information as possible about executives before finishing up their corporate investigation.
In addition, the department is directing its civil and criminal lawyers to work together in all corporate matters, and says corporate investigations must begin with a focus on individuals. The Justice Department will also generally not agree during corporate settlements to protect individuals from either criminal or civil liability.
The guidance, issued a few months into the tenure of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, appears aimed at turning the page from some of the criticism that dogged her predecessor, Eric Holder, in the aftermath of the largest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Public advocacy groups and other watchdogs expressed frustration that the Justice Department did not do more to hold individual executives to account for the mortgage crisis, though Holder sought to assuage those concerns in the last two years with a series of multi-billion-dollar settlements with Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.
The department's signature criminal case against a financial institution in the last year or so, an $8.9 billion penalty against French bank BNP Paribas for sanctions violations, did not result in criminal charges against individual executives.
Justice Department officials, including Holder, spoke often about the challenges in prosecuting large corporations and their executives.
The memo issued to prosecutors concedes those challenges, including in cases involving millions of pages of documents and where high-level executives are insulated from day-to-day activities. But, Yates said, individual accountability can deter future crimes, ensure that the right person is punished and promote “the public's confidence in our justice system.”