It’s an old American saying, “If you steal a loaf of bread you’ll surely go to jail, but if you steal a railroad you’ll be made a senator.”
Or, as Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) puts it, “A hungry Negro steals a chicken, he goes to jail. A rich businessman steals bonds, he goes to Congress.”
Most recently, there’s Elizabeth Warren (pdf):
If justice means a prison sentence for a teenager who steals a car, but it means nothing more than a sideways glance at a CEO who quietly engineers the theft of billions of dollars, then the promise of equal justice under the law has turned into a lie.
Warren and her staff have issued the first in what they promise will be an annual series on enforcement. “Rigged Justice” highlights twenty criminal and civil cases in 2015 in which the federal government failed to require meaningful accountability from either large corporations or their executives involved in wrongdoing.
The purpose of this annual report is to highlight examples of the most egregious enforcement failures from the previous year. Sometimes these weak enforcement cases are the result of laws – such as OSHA, and the federal mine safety law – that give the agencies only limited authority and allow only limited punishment.
But in most instances, these cases are a result of failure by regulators to use the tools Congress has already provided to impose meaningful accountability on corporate offenders. Whether as a result of limited resources or a lack of political will, this limp approach to corporate enforcement, particularly in response to serious misconduct that cost Americans their jobs, their homes, or, in some cases, their lives, threatens the safety and security of every American.
As the examples in this report demonstrate, federal regulators regularly let big corporations and their highly paid executives off the hook when they break the law.