Clinton: A Corporation’s Best Friend

The Justice Department’s new hard line on corporate crime sounds swell. Too bad the Clinton Administration isn’t walking the walk.


Earlier this year, the Justice Department put out a 15-page memo encouraging federal prosecutors to prosecute corrupt corporations.

“Vigorous enforcement of the criminal laws against corporate wrongdoers, where appropriate, results in great benefits for law enforcement and the public, particularly in the area of white collar crime,” notes the memo, written by Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.

When indicted for criminal conduct that is pervasive throughout the industry, corporations are likely to take remedial action. Thus, “an indictment often provides a unique opportunity for deterrence on a massive scale.”

The memo is well written, and a good guide for prosecutors. The Justice Department should have put out a press release announcing the memo to the world, instead of sitting on it until someone on the inside leaked it.

Perhaps one reason Janet Reno’s people didn’t want it public is that the Justice Department isn’t walking the talk — especially in the environmental crimes arena.

Prosecution of environmental crimes has sharply fallen during the Clinton Administration, according to a compilation of court records released last week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Comparing statistics from a three-year period in the Bush Administration (1989-91) with a similar period in the Clinton Administration (1996-98), the PEER review shows dramatic declines in criminal referrals, prosecutions, and convictions:

  • a more than one-quarter decrease in prosecutions;

  • a greater than one-third drop in convictions;

  • and a nearly 10-percent decline in the conviction rate.

The Justice Department is not only pursuing fewer cases, it is also refusing to investigate 26 percent more cases brought to it by referring agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Fish & Wildlife Service.

“The criminal environmental enforcement record of the previous incumbent was clearly better by virtually every measure of prosecutorial effort,” commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, a former state prosecutor. “Maybe George Bush really was the Environmental President.”

The statistics also reinforce the results of PEER employee surveys and interviews with federal prosecutors and law enforcement officers about the de-emphasis of environmental enforcement within their agencies.

For example, PEER is defending Gregory Sasse, an Assistant United States Attorney in Cleveland, who says he has suffered retaliation for pursuing pollution prosecutions under the Clinton Administration.

Sasse is probably one of the more aggressive prosecutors of environmental crimes in the country. And because of it, it appears, he has been isolated and discriminated against.

In a complaint filed in 1996, Sasse says that his superiors within the Department punished him for prosecuting polluters.

In one case, reported on recently by the Boston Globe‘s David Armstrong, Sasse was briefing a supervisor about a steel company that was illegally releasing toxic pollutants into the air and sickening nearby residents.

According to Sasse, the supervisor asked him — “If the neighbors don’t like it, why don’t they move?”

When Sasse insisted that the pollution was making the neighbors sick, Sasse says the supervisor told him, “people get sick all the time.”

“I was sick last month and nobody opened a criminal investigation,” the supervisor said, according to Sasse.

Sometimes, line prosecutors rebel against their superiors. That has been the case in New England recently, where for four years, line prosecutors have been complaining about EPA New England enforcement chief John DeVillars.

In a 1998 letter to EPA Administrator Carol Browner, PEER alleged that DeVillars “has engaged in a pattern of activity which has undermined environmental enforcement, given a distinct impression of favoritism within certain segments of the regulated community, and constrained regional enforcement staff from properly carrying out their duties.”

Earlier this month, under pressure from PEER, DeVillars abruptly resigned his position, saying that he was leaving the EPA to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to pursue an unspecified “business venture.”

Unfortunately, in our society, dominated as it is by the corporate criminal elite, line prosecutors like Sasse are left fighting for their professional lives, while political operatives like DeVillars get plum jobs at top-flight universities.

Not exactly what Eric Holder recommended in his memo.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of “Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy” (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).