Obama’s Justice Department Likes Criminally Prosecuting People, But Not Corporations

From 2010 to 2014, 82 percent of individual criminal referrals by federal agencies resulted in prosecutions, while corporate prosecutions from referrals only happened at a 12 percent rate.

Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Fewer than one in eight federal agency criminal referrals of corporations led to actual criminal prosecutions between fiscal years 2010 and 2014, according to Justice Department data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.


Percent of Federal Criminal Referrals Prosecuted, FY 2010 – FY 2014

Source: Trac Report
While criminal referrals of individuals resulted in prosecutions at an 82.1 percent clip, corporate prosecutions from referrals only happened at a 12.3 percent rate.

“This meant that for incoming referrals,” according to the TRAC report, “prosecution of individual defendants was, on average, nearly seven times more likely than it was for corporations.”

The report builds upon a previous TRAC analysis showing a 29 percent drop in corporate criminal prosecutions from 2004 to 2014, suggesting that corporate crime has become a lower priority in the Obama administration. Statistics showing a significant rejection of corporate referrals for white-collar crime — only 7.4 percent of those cases led to prosecutions — further the narrative that corporations have not suffered from aggressive law enforcement over the past several years.

This report studies over 1 million criminal referrals issued over a five-year period by 146 agencies throughout the federal government — from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Bureau of Mines.

These executive branch agencies cannot prosecute criminal cases themselves: They must funnel them to one of 93 U.S. attorney’s offices across the country. Then federal prosecutors at those offices make the decision to charge individuals or corporations.

Some 999,670 of those referrals involved individuals, while only 10,670 referred corporations to the U.S. attorney for possible criminal prosecution. Over 820,000 of the individual criminal referrals were converted into actual prosecutions, compared to just 1,309 of the corporate referrals.

The data varied heavily depending on the individual U.S. attorney’s office.

Some offices, like those in North Dakota, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, prosecuted corporate cases from referrals at 40 percent rates or higher.

Others were far less successful. The U.S. attorney’s office for the southern district of New York, for example, seen as one of the “sheriffs of Wall Street,” received 179 criminal referrals from 2010 to 2014, but only brought 11 cases (a 6.1 percent conversion rate, 70th out of the 90 judicial districts studied).

The office with the most referrals, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, had an even lower conversion rate, receiving 707 referrals but bringing only 32 cases (4.5 percent).

Four offices — the middle district of Alabama, the western district of Michigan, the eastern district of New York (the former office of current Attorney General Loretta Lynch), and the northern district of Oklahoma — prosecuted none of the corporate cases handed over in criminal referrals.

Typically, the U.S. attorney is a member of the sitting president’s party, though in some cases holdovers from a previous administration run the office. They are semi-autonomous offices, though input from Main Justice on specific cases cannot be divined from the data.

Corporate crimes most commonly prosecuted after referrals include environmental and immigration offenses, from agencies like the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Of the 5,000 referrals on white-collar crime, only 371 turned into prosecutions. One hundred and eighty-seven civil rights complaints against corporations only led to one prosecution over the five-year period.

Roughly one-third of the corporate criminal referrals came from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with the Department of Health and Human Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Postal Inspection Service also making significant referrals.

The TRAC report also breaks down referrals by each agency and prosecutions by each U.S. attorney’s office within the separate categories of crimes. The report concludes that improved access to public records like these can help the public “be better informed about the thousands of important decisions made each day by federal prosecutors, federal agencies, and occasionally the attorneys general.”

The Justice Department has been criticized for pursuing deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements with corporations, waiving criminal negligence in exchange for fines and independent monitoring. Last September, a memo from top Justice Department official Sally Yates claimed that “Fighting corporate fraud and other misconduct is a top priority.” But the TRAC data suggests that they have a long way to go.

Top photo: Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Washington. 

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