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The Shadow Lengthens: The Continuing Threat of Regulation by Prosecution

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The Shadow Lengthens: The Continuing Threat of Regulation by Prosecution

February 25, 2014
Legal ReformOther

The last ten years have seen the emergence of a new approach to business regulation and prosecution of wrongdoing in the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice now regularly enters into “deferred prosecution” or “non-prosecution” agreements (DPAs or NPAs) with large corporations, in which companies are paying billions of dollars in fines annually without trial. These agreements are presented as steps short of prosecution of corporations, a step that might drive firms into bankruptcy and disrupt their economic sectors. At the same time, a good case can be made that these agreements suffer from a lack of transparency. Questions naturally arise as to whether attorneys working for the federal government, with minimal to no judicial oversight, are best positioned to change significantly the business practices of individual companies and, indeed, entire industries.

Businesses prefer to enter into DPAs or NPAs rather than face trial, even when the costs of such arrangements are severe, because of the significant capital-market pressures stemming from criminal inquiries (including depressed stock prices and impaired credit) as well as the statutory and regulatory consequences flowing from indictment or conviction—for example, exclusion from government reimbursement or contracts, or the retraction of government licenses vital to a company’s operation. Prosecutors, in turn, prefer to avoid the risk and cost of trial as well as the potentially severe collateral consequences that indictment or conviction can impose on corporate stakeholders, including employees and creditors, as witnessed in the collapse of the large accounting firm Arthur Andersen following its 2002 federal indictment—which was ultimately set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thus, such arrangements have become commonplace, so much so that they might be characterized as a “shadow regulatory state” over business. The federal government has reached 278 DPAs and NPAs with businesses since 2004, with ten of the Fortune 100 companies operating under such agreements just since 2010. Although the federal government entered into only 17 DPAs and NPAs from 1993 through 2003, it entered into 66 in just the last two years, in which almost $12 billion in total fines and penalties were imposed. Companies in the finance and health-care sectors have been particularly likely to wind up under such agreements, with the finance sector accounting for 13 DPAs and NPAs and the health-care sector accounting for 8 of them in 2012–13. The reach of federal prosecutorial agreements has not stopped at America’s shores: the Department of Justice has asserted authority over hosts of foreign businesses—in some cases, for alleged conduct occurring completely outside the United States.

DPAs and NPAs are notable in that they impose terms on companies that go beyond the fines or incarceration normally associated with criminal punishment and because they go beyond requiring that the companies correct the specific practices alleged to be violations of the law. Instead, these agreements often call for major changes in firms’ internal processes of many types—from training to human resources—based on the apparent assumption that absent such changes, wrongdoing will be more likely to recur. Under DPAs and NPAs, companies have agreed to modify preexisting business practices significantly, by:

  • Implementing training and reporting programs;
  • Changing compensation schemes;
  • Modifying sales and marketing plans;
  • Hiring new, senior “compliance officers” as well as independent “monitors” reporting to the prosecutor; and
  • Firing key personnel, including directors or chief executives.

In many cases, the alleged predicate offenses underlying DPAs or NPAs involve ambiguous facts or strained or novel interpretations of law—interpretations that have remained untested in court, given companies’ pronounced pressure to settle. In addition, DPAs and NPAs regularly cede to prosecutors the sole discretion to determine whether companies are in breach of the agreement’s terms, without judicial oversight or the possibility of appeal.

This report focuses on DPAs and NPAs reached in 2012 and 2013 between prosecutors and four companies: Ralph Lauren, GlaxoSmithKline, Royal Bank of Scotland, and HSBC. These arrangements highlight companies’ difficulty in avoiding potential prosecution, even when they self-report potential violations discovered through robust internal compliance programs. They also highlight the broad social consequences of federal prosecutors’ quasi-regulatory decisions, which include:

  • Limiting companies’ ability to communicate truthful information to the public about pharmaceuticals, with potential life-or-death consequences;
  • Directly influencing trading practices and corporate speech relating to key interest rates and other global financial variables; and
  • Prompting companies to withdraw from developing countries, thus reducing capital formation and opportunity for the world’s poorest populations.

The U.S. practice of entering into DPAs and NPAs with corporations remains anomalous: corporate prosecutions are disfavored or impermissible in other developed nations. In 2013, however, the United Kingdom passed new legislation—the Crime and Courts Act, which introduced DPAs to the British criminal justice system beginning in February 2014. In contrast to U.S. practice, the U.K. rules limit the scope of corporate conduct subject to such arrangements and clearly delineate a transparent process that prosecutors must follow in pursuing DPAs, with significant judicial oversight. The new British rules bear watching as they are implemented, and they offer a potential blueprint for reforming American practice.