Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed Monday not to diminish the Justice Department’s focus on corporate fraud, asserting that a vigorous interest in violent crime would not diminish its long-standing mission to prosecute white-collar offenders.
In a speech and question-and-answer session at the Ethics and Compliance Initiative’s annual conference, Sessions took aim at recent speculation that his Justice Department might be easier on white-collar crime, saying while there could be “some uncertainty” when administrations changed, he would “still enforce the laws that protect American consumers and ensure that honest businesses are not placed at a disadvantage to dishonest businesses.”
He acknowledged that he had been focused in his first weeks on the job on violent crime and immigration but said that did not mean he would give other criminals a pass.
“These are important priorities for our department,” Sessions said. “But focusing on these challenges does not mean we’re going to reduce our efforts in other areas.”
Sessions has made extensive public comments on violent crime and immigration, and — even at a gathering of corporate and white-collar lawyers at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Washington — he did so again Monday.
He spoke of his fear that crime, after years of declines, might now increase, and of his support of the “broken windows” philosophy of police, which has officers rigorously enforcing the laws on even minor violations in hopes of preventing more serious problems. He talked about restoring a “lawful system of immigration” and disrupting cartels and gangs.
Even with those tangents, the speech marked the first time the attorney general has addressed the topic of corporate fraud, bribery and public corruption in a significant way. Sessions was appointed attorney general by a businessman whose family is still engaged in significant financial dealings around the world, and some feared that — coupled with Sessions’s own interest in other issues — might mean a reduced commitment to investigating and prosecuting financial wrongdoing. President Trump in 2012 said a particular law governing bribery in foreign countries, which Sessions said he will enforce, was “horrible” and “should be changed” as it put American companies at a disadvantage. He called the United States “absolutely crazy” for prosecuting people for such offenses.
The Justice Department, though, in some ways is a more important player on white-collar crime than it is on violent offenses, which are typically handled at the local level.
Sessions said enforcing laws governing financial and corporate dealings was important because the frauds are “paid for by innocent people,” and not doing so can hurt businesses that act honestly.
“Companies that obey the law and do the right thing should not be at a disadvantage simply because their competitors choose to break the law,” Sessions said. He said, though, that the department would try to differentiate between an “honest mistake” and “willful misconduct.”
Sessions said the department also would continue “to emphasize the importance” of holding individuals, rather than just companies, accountable for misconduct. But he also said doing so was “not always possible” and that lawyers would take into account companies’ cooperation and self-disclosure when making charging decisions.
He said he also felt businesses should not be held responsible for isolated mistakes by employees.
In the Obama administration, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates had directed prosecutors to focus on individuals and not to agree to release such people from liability in a deal with the company “absent extraordinary circumstances or approved departmental policy.” The department under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had faced significant criticism for prosecuting or reaching deals with big banks but not going after top executives.
Sessions said the department would continue pursuing Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases, which target companies that bribe foreign officials to gain a competitive advantage, though he noted curiously that “foreign competitors often aren’t bound by these laws.” That is technically true, but if the businesses trade securities in the United States, they can be prosecuted, and federal prosecutors have made major cases against foreign-based companies.