An 11-year effort to make businesses and executives criminally liable for life-endangering actions ended this week when the Senate Judiciary Committee, at the urging of the Reagan administration, rejected attempts to include such a provision in a comprehensive revision of Federal criminal law.
Rejected was an agreement worked out two years ago between the Carter administration and the industrialists of the Business Roundtable that would have made it a federal felony for businesses and corporate executives to knowingly endanger human life by violating regulatory and environmental laws. The compromise appeared at the time to end an impasse with the business community that began in 1970 when the penalty idea first was proposed by a blue-ribbon panel on reform of the federal criminal code.
The penalties were tossed aside this week as the committee's Republican majority and the Justice Department decided their inclusion might jeopardize enactment of the overall criminal law revision.
Senate sources said the deal accepted in 1979 by Irving Shapiro, then chairman of the Du Pont Co. and of the influential Business Roundtable, an elite group of major corporations, was undone by the opposition of other business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and of the Reagan administration.
The penalty provision was included in the comprehensive criminal code a year ago by the Judiciary Commiittee's Democratic majority. That bill never came to a vote of the full Senate, and this year, with the Republicans in control, the provision was omitted.
On Wednesday, the committee brushed aside an effort by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) to restore it. It was one of several controversial measures dealing with such volatile issues as capital punishment and spousal immunity rape prosecutions that were excluded lest they tie up passage of the comprehensive criminal law reform.
The business-penalty measure "has no future as part of the overall code," said a satisfied Ronald Gaynor, of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, who urged that the committee fend off the controversial items.
"The feeling was that it should be dealt with separately, in special legislation, after hearings to focus on the need," he said. "It was the feeling of the sponsors, and of the Attorney General, that it should be set aside. We did not want to see people frightened off from voting on the full code by something they did not understand."
Shapiro, who had personally hammered out the language of the measure in a long meeting with Philip B. Heymann, head of the Justice Department's criminal division under Carter, said yesterday that he was less than dismayed to see it discarded.
"It was already a compromise which we accepted as a price for eliminating other provisions that were really impossible," he said. "It made sense to me, and I thought the business community could live with it, but others thought we gave away more than we should." He accepted it because the Carter administration was demanding some kind of criminal provisions, he said, but "we have come a couple of hundred years without a provision of this kind, and the world has survived. It's not life or death. Business management in general is more responsible than it has been in the past, so the need is not as great as it was."
Stiff criminal penalties for corporate executives found to have acted recklessly or irresponsibly were first proposed in 1970 by a blue-ribbon commission on Federal criminal code reform headed by former California Gov. Edumund G. Brown Sr. Consumer groups and officials of the Carter administration argued that the criminal provisions would give the government a necessary tool to prevent repetition of such incidents as the chemical dumping at Love Canal in upstate New York.
The amendment proposed by Metzenbaum was identical to the language accepted by Shapiro and Heymann and included in last year's version of the code revision bill. It would have made it a felony, punishable by imprisonment up to seven years, for a business executive to "engage in conduct that he knows places another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury" or conduct that "manifests an unjustified disregard for human life" while violating Federal regulations governing air and water quality, mine safety, or food purity.
"It was already watered down," an aide to Metzenbaum said, "but why should the business community now go along with a deal they made three years ago? Why should they give anything when they don't have to?" The amendment was rejected on a voice vote, with only Metzenbaum and the hospitalized Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), whose proxy Metzenbaum held, supporting it.