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Following criticism and public concern over the lack of prosecutions against individuals involved in the financial crisis, the Department of Justice recently released guidance that underscores a renewed effort to charge individuals in corporate wrongdoing. The memo, which sets forth best practices for federal prosecutors, makes clear that a company should be considered cooperative in an investigation only if it offers information about the individual employees involved in wrongdoing.
The policy memo arrives amidst recent public dispute among SEC directors regarding investigating and prosecuting individuals involved in financial fraud. Given the slew of multi—billion dollar settlements involving nearly all of Wall Street’s major firms in the last few years, concern has grown that financial penalties are viewed as a tax write-off, not a powerful deterrent to misconduct. As SEC Chairman White stated in a speech last year, “A company, after all, can only act through its employees and if an enforcement program is to have a strong deterrent effect, it is critical that responsible individuals be charged, as high up as the evidence takes us.”
The reality is, finding and building cases against individuals is incredibly difficult. These cases are hampered by corporations utilizing massive financial resources to defend executives, the difficulties of gathering evidence from multiple, sometimes foreign, jurisdictions, and corporate structures themselves which are often designed to protect senior officials. Indeed, just last year, while French banking giant BNP Paribas was fined nearly $9 billion for processing financial transactions through countries subject to U.S. sanctions, the Justice Department maintained that the bank withheld records that might have implicated individual employees until after the deadline to file individual charges had passed. The odds are seemingly stacked in favor of corporations.
Whistleblowers fundamentally alter these odds.
As federal law enforcement renews its efforts to bring down the bad actors behind these devastating frauds, we must keep in mind that whistleblowers may be the sharpest tool in the enforcement arsenal. By exposing high-level insiders with detailed accounts of wrongdoing, whistleblowers can provide authorities with early and actionable intelligence. Dodd-Frank has deputized us all to act as the government’s eyes and ears. Empowered with an army of courageous witnesses, federal prosecutors and enforcement lawyers will build formidable cases that ferret out wrongdoing and promote a corporate marketplace where integrity is the price of admission.