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5. White-Collar Crime: Whitewash At The Justice Department

Source: COVERTACTION QUARTERLY, Date: Summer 1996, Title: “White-Collar Crime: Whitewash at the Justice Department,” Author: David Burnham

While white-collar crime costs America 10 to 50 times more money than street crime, the Justice Department continues to show little interest in taking the problem seriously.

And while the statistics persistently underscore this contradiction, business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers continue to claim the federal government restricts business with unnecessary and heavy-handed regulations-and implore Congress to scale back environmental, health, and safety laws.

Based on the centralized records maintained by the Department of Justice (DOJ), the data shows that when it comes to white-collar crime, the federal government almost never brings criminal charges against businesses. Of the more than 51,000 federal criminal indictments in 1994, only 250—less than one-half of one percent—involved criminal violations of the nation’s environmental, occupational health and safety, and consumer product-safety laws. Given the huge number of corporations, the private admissions by business lawyers that their organizations often break the law, and a well-documented record of repeated violations, the minuscule number of federal criminal allegations hardly squares with the corporate view of business as the victim of a federal government run amok.

The small number of individuals charged with criminal violations is only one indication of the pro-business bias revealed in the DOD’s own data. Even though Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970, the actual impact of the law was greatly reduced by the insertion of hard-to-enforce regulations and insufficient funds to provide an effective force of well-trained and well-managed investigators. And in spite of the law, the DOJ has almost always protected businesses from criminal charges—even those with corporate executives who have knowingly exposed workers to conditions that resulted in death. In 1987 alone, 50-70,000 workers died prematurely from on-the-job exposure to toxins—roughly three times the 21,500 people murdered in the same year. In the years between 1970 (when OSHA was created) and 1992, 200,000 Americans died at work, a significant number from known negligence by the employer. Nonetheless, in those 22 years, OSHA has referred only 88 criminal cases to the DOJ, which prosecuted 25 and sent one executive to jail. He served 45 days.

According to Barry Hartman, who was first deputy and then acting assistant attorney general for the DOD’s environmental and natural resources division, “Environmental crimes are not like organized crimes or drugs… There you have bad people doing bad things. With environmental crimes you have decent people doing bad things. You have to look at it this way.”

SSU Censored Researchers: Brooke Hale, Deborah Udall

COMMENTS: According to author David Burnham, “The subject of my article—what the Justice Department does not do—is almost never covered by news organizations. This is partly because reporters are spoon fed so much canned information by the department’s sophisticated public relations operation about usually meaningless drug busts, etc., that they almost never even think about investigating when the department fails to act. This is a serious long term failing of Washington news coverage.

“Because the Justice Department exercises vast discretion in what laws it chooses to enforce, concrete information about its enforcement priorities can sometimes actually result in their change. A politically ambitious U.S. Attorney in Vermont or California, for example, almost certainly would respond to a well-documented article proving she had ignored the environment by refusing to prosecute such cases when sent to her by the EPA.

“The business community has long benefited by the failure of the media to examine the Justice Department’s priorities. Because of this failure, the business community has been able to convince the public that it is the poor victim of ‘over-regulation.’ In addition, a long line of attorneys general have been able to make outlandish claims about their efforts to fight white-collar crime. Both reactions have provided fuel for Congress’ anti-enforcement projects.”

Burnham says his article was taken from his 1996 book, Above The Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes and Other Misadventures of the U.S. Justice Department, which was formed from data analysis done by an organization he formed called TRAC the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. “TRAC is specifically dedicated to providing news organizations, public interest groups, and others with comprehensive data about federal agencies.” In connection with this effort, says Burnham, TRAC also has a series of sites on the World Wide Web, which have been used by hundreds of news organizations looking for information about aspects of the Justice Department that were previously not covered. TRAC can be reached at 202/544-8722.

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