Get the DealBook newsletter to make sense of major business and policy headlines — and the power-brokers who shape them.
Prosecutions of finance executives related to the 2008 financial crisis were few and far between — and that has remained a persistent complaint about the government’s response to the meltdown.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has offered legislation that would make it easier to prosecute them with the Corporate Executive Accountability Act.
The challenge with charging corporate executives is that they are often insulated from the decisions that violate the law. That can make it difficult, if not impossible, for prosecutors to prove they have the requisite intent. The former head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, Lanny A. Breuer, has defended the lack of prosecutions. In a PBS “Frontline” special, he said, “When we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was criminal intent, then we have a constitutional duty not to bring those cases.” Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a Senate committee that some banks had become so big that prosecuting them would have negatively affected the economy. In other words, they had become “too big to jail.”
Ms. Warren’s bill would make it easier for federal prosecutors to pursue charges against individuals by holding executives liable if they “negligently permit or fail to prevent a violation of law.” The government often uses statutes like mail and wire fraud to pursue criminal cases. Those laws, however, require proving the defendant’s intent to defraud, which is unlikely when a senior executive has little to do with the actual misconduct. The new provision would allow punishment if the executive were merely negligent in overseeing the enterprise, which means the person acted in an objectively unreasonable manner.
The legislation has already drawn criticism. An article in Slate argued that “the proposal to put corporate executives in jail for acting negligently is a very bad idea.” The authors’ main objection is that negligence is a far lower standard, so executives with minimal culpability could end up in prison.
Holding business executives criminally responsible for violations by the company is not a new concept. In United States v. Park, decided in 1975, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the chief executive of Acme Markets for violating a provision of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which makes it a crime to ship adulterated or misbranded food. The court found that the statute imposed strict liability on the executive, which “reflected the view both that knowledge or intent were not required to be proved in prosecutions under its criminal provisions, and that responsible corporate agents could be subjected to the liability thereby imposed.”
In both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, Congress provided that a person who violates the law can include “any responsible corporate officer.” In United States v. Iverson, the federal appeals court in San Francisco held that a corporate officer can be held liable “only when the officer in fact exercises control over the activity causing the discharge or has an express corporate duty to oversee the activity.”
Ms. Warren’s proposal is much broader than the food and environmental laws, however. It would apply to any company with more than $1 billion in annual revenue, and the punishment for an executive would be up to one year in prison for a first violation, and as much as three years for a second offense. Those are much more severe penalties than typically imposed for crimes resulting from a lack of adequate oversight.
In addition, the proposal would apply if a company engaged in a civil violation of federal or state law that affected the “health, safety, finances or personal data” of 1 percent of the population of the United States or any individual state, including entering into a settlement agreement with regulators. That provision could encourage companies to fight regulatory claims rather than settling them, ratcheting up the cost of pursuing cases by civil regulators.
One potential limitation in the law is that it refers specifically to a Securities and Exchange Commission rule that defines an “executive officer” as the president of a company or any vice president in charge of a principal business unit or subsidiary. But that rule applies only to companies that have securities registered with the S.E.C., which means that privately held corporations could avoid the strictures of the new negligence standard by not selling securities to the general public. By using the S.E.C.’s definition of executive, the law would not apply to private companies. That may discourage companies from going public to avoid coming under the provision.
The proposal would add a powerful tool to the arsenal of federal prosecutors to pursue cases against corporate executives. But the key question is whether using negligence as the standard for criminal liability is the best means to police corporate leaders.
Proving negligence is a far lower bar than proving intent. If it is too low, then companies may do everything to fight any claims of a violation. Executives may even cover up violations rather than reporting them if they are more worried about personal exposure to a prison term than ensuring their companies are in compliance with the law.
And that would end up reducing compliance with the law.