How to stop corporate lawbreaking: Prosecute people who break the law

As General Motors' recall saga continues, 15 GM employees have been fired and five others have been disciplined in light of an internal investigation of GM. But GM as a corporation shouldn't be legally responsible, writes Robert Reich – it should be the individuals who break the law.

Carlos Osorio/AP
General Motors President Dan Ammann, left, CEO Mary Barra, and Executive Vice President Mark Reuss, hold a news conference at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich., Thursday, June 5, 2014. GM as a corporation shouldn't be legally responsible, writes Robert Reich, but it should be the individuals who break the law.

General Motors announced that it has fired 15 employees and disciplined five others in the wake of an internal investigation into the company’s handling of defective ignition switches, which lead to at least 13 fatalities.

But who’s legally responsible when a big corporation breaks the law? The government thinks it’s the corporation itself.

Wrong.

"What GM did was break the law … They failed to meet their public safety obligations,” scolded Sec of Transportation Anthony Foxx a few weeks ago after imposing the largest possible penalty on the giant automaker.

Attorney General Eric Holder was even more adamant recently when he announced the guilty plea of giant bank Credit Suisse to criminal charges for aiding rich Americans avoid paying taxes. “This case shows that no financial institution, no matter its size or global reach, is above the law.” 

Tough words. But they rest on a bizarre premise. GM didn’t break the law, and Credit Suisse never acted above it. Corporations don’t do things. People do.

For a decade GM had been receiving complaints about the ignition switch but chose to do nothing. Who was at fault? Look toward the top. David Friedman, acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says those aware of the problem had ranged from engineers “all the way up through executives.”

Credit Suisse employees followed a carefully-crafted plan, even sending private bankers to visit their American clients on tourist visas to avoid detection. According to the head of New York State’s Department of Financial Services, Credit Suisse’s crime was “decidedly not the result of the conduct of just a few bad apples.”

Yet in neither of these cases have any executives been charged with violating the law. No top guns are going to jail. No one is even being fired.

Instead, the government is imposing corporate fines. The logic is that since the corporation as whole benefited from these illegal acts, the corporation as a whole should pay.

But the logic is flawed. Such fines are often treated by corporations as costs of doing business. GM was fined $35 million. That’s peanuts to a hundred-billion-dollar corporation.

Credit Suisse was fined considerably more — $2.8 billion. But even this amount was shrugged off by financial markets. In fact, the bank’s shares rose the day the plea was announced – the only big financial institution to show gains that day. Its CEO even sounded upbeat: “Our discussions with clients have been very reassuring and we haven’t seen very many issues at all.” (Credit Suisse wasn’t even required to turn over its list of tax-avoiding clients.)

Fines have no deterrent value unless the amount of the penalty multiplied by the risk of being caught is greater than the profits earned by the illegal behavior. In reality, the penalty-risk calculus rarely comes close.

Even when it does, the people hurt aren’t the shareholders who profited years before when the crimes were committed. Most current shareholders weren’t even around then.

Calling a corporation a criminal is even more absurd. Credit Suisse pleaded guilty to criminal conduct. GM may also face a criminal indictment. But what does this mean? A corporation can’t be put behind bars.

To be sure, corporations can effectively be executed. In 2002, the giant accounting firm Arthur Andersen was found guilty of obstructing justice when certain partners destroyed records of the auditing work they did for Enron. As a result, Andersen’s clients abandoned it and the firm collapsed. (Andersen’s conviction was later overturned on appeal). 

But here again, the wrong people are harmed. The vast majority of Andersen’s 28,000 employees had nothing to do with the wrongdoing yet they lost their jobs, while most of its senior partners slid easily into other accounting or consulting work.

The truth is, corporations aren’t people — despite what the Supreme Court says. Corporations don’t break laws; specific people do. In the cases of GM and Credit Suisse, the evidence points to executives at or near the top.

Conservatives are fond of talking about personal responsibility. But when it comes to white-collar crime, I haven’t heard them demand that individuals be prosecuted.

Yet the only way to deter giant corporations from harming the public is to go after people who cause the harm.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.