In his speech on fighting crime, President Reagan said that in this age of "the human predator" the "jungle is always there waiting to take us over." He listed the types of criminals lurking in the dark: "the street criminal, the drug pusher, the mobster, the corrupt policeman or public official."
Excluded from the predator list were corporate criminals, the executives and managers of some of America's most honored companies whose decisions recklessly endanger public health and safety. Excluded also were white-collar criminals, many of whom steal more in a year with pens than muggers do in a lifetime with guns.
The exclusion wasn't the mere oversight of a presidential speech-writer. It was a reflection of administration policy that finds thugs and street punks fit for punishment and presidential scorn, but not economic criminals whose predatorial drives can be just as lethal.
On the day the president was in New Orleans denouncing "common criminals," The Wall Street Journal carried a story about the administration's lack of interest in the uncommon kind. "Reagan Team Plans To Slash Efforts To Catch White-Collar Criminals," ran the headline. The Justice Department plans a 50 percent reduction in the number of white-collar crime specialists working in U.S. attorney offices around the country.
The same day also, Attorney General William French Smith, who rarely speaks in public about economic crimes, told a congressional committee that he strongly supported a new draft of the criminal code revisions. Missing from the draft, it turns out, is a provision for strict penalties for corporate felons.
In exempting crime in high places from his wrath and asking citizens to worry only about crime in low places, the president, as is customary, was taking his lead from his powerful friends in corporate America. It was the business lobby that helped delete from the proposed criminal code revisions a clause requiring prison terms for violators of certain environmental or coal mine safety laws.
Known as the "endangerment" provision -- from decisions by corporate officials who knowingly place "another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury" -- it consumed only a few lines of print in the immense bulk of legalistic prose that was produced after eight years of debating a new code. But the tiny clause was large enough to rouse the opposition of the Business Roundtable, an organization of about 200 major corporations.
With the kind of stealth that any street mugger would admire, Roundtable officials pressured the Senate Judiciary Committee to put up its hands and fork over such valuables as a strict endangerment clause. In 1978, the committee approved -- as did the full Senate later -- such a clause, on that went far beyond environmental and coal mine safety laws. But by 1979, with the Roundtable now involved, it was thinned to only those two areas.
In November 1979, a few days after the committee began adding water to the endangerment clause, Ralph Nader said that eight out of nine of the criminal code's sanctions against corporate crime were either dropped or weakened under Roundtable pressure.
Nader wasn't the only critic. Harder-line business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found the Roundtable much too reasonable for supporting the weakened 1979 clause.
The Senate, before dropping the clause altogether, which suited the wishes of the militant Chamber, had gone much farther than the House. That body never included even a weak endangerment clause. The House's reluctance to point a moral finger at big business may be understandable. Since 1976, 18 of its members have been imprisoned, convicted or eased out in disgrace.
Though locked behind bars, the criminals of Congress share with the criminals of corporations a common defense that keeps presidents from mentioning them. They are seen as men of fine character who didn't commit a crime. They merely slipped. As the judge said when issuing a light sentence to Earl Butz for tax cheating, the former Cabinet member had "a distinguished record as a gentleman and good citizen."
Street criminals -- uneducated, members of neither country clubs nor civic prayer groups -- are not gentlemen. They can be damned by Ronald Reagan as "career criminals." They are predators who prowl, not "good citizens" who slip.