Judge Sullivan Calls Out the DOJ: What Corporate Settlements Reflect About The Broader Criminal Justice System

After the DOJ released the Yates Memo last September, I suggested that the DOJ was probably very serious about focusing attention on prosecuting individuals involved in corporate misconduct (including FCPA violations). This would constitute a significant shift away from the DOJ’s recent practice of resolving most allegations of corporate wrongdoing through deferred or non-prosecution agreements (known as DPAs and NPAs). Some proponents of DPAs and NPAs claim that such settlements—which allow companies to avoid formal legal charges if they cooperate with a DOJ investigation, disclose desired information, improve compliance measures, and perhaps pay a fine—are actually a “a more powerful tool” than convictions in changing corporate behavior. But many critics—such as Judge Rakoff—have argued that settlements usually obscure who is actually responsible for the misconduct, and “ever more expensive” compliance programs may do little to prevent future misconduct. As Judge Rakoff suggested:

“[T]he impact of sending a few guilty executives to prison for orchestrating corporate crimes might have a far greater effect than any compliance program in discouraging misconduct, at far less expense and without the unwanted collateral consequences of punishing innocent employees and shareholders.”

Federal judges, including Judge Rakoff, are responsible for approving the DOJ’s settlements with corporations. The scope of their review is quite limited, and they are required to defer to the prosecution decisions of the DOJ. But even before the Yates Memo, judges had begun reviewing settlements more carefully when individuals were not charged. At least one federal judge is still dissatisfied with the DOJ’s enforcement strategy, and recently took the opportunity—in a corruption case—to urge the DOJ to adhere to the Yates Memo and deal directly with individual wrongdoers. Moreover, he suggested this could have broader significance for how we think about the rest of the criminal justice system.

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