Earlier this week, The Ring of Fire brought you the story of peanut magnate Stewart Parnell, who will most likely be spending the remainder of his life in prison. His crimes involved allowing his company to distribute salmonella-tainted food products that killed nine people and sickened hundreds, possibly thousands more. The trial and the sentence does credit to both the Honorable Judge W. Louis Sands and federal prosecutor Michael Moore of Georgia’s Middle District, who have been willing to do what the US Department of Justice has been unwilling to do in similar cases involving Wall Street criminals. On Tuesday, Moore said “[This case is] a landmark that will resonate not just in the food industry, but in corporate boardrooms across the country.”
We can only hope. For years, The Ring of Fire has been posting dozens of articles on corporate criminals – particularly Wall Street “banksters” – who have received little more than wrist slaps for offenses that have destroyed lives and communities, if they get punished at all. Why? Former US Attorney General Eric Holder offered this excuse:
I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.
Of course, the economy to which Mr. Holder refers is one that has worked fabulously well for 2% of us – and not so well for everyone else. Would it make a difference if he was as concerned about the 98%?
Journalist Matt Taibbi had some thoughts on that. In a May 2014 interview with Amy Goodman, he said:
This idea that some companies are too big to jail, it makes some sense in the abstract. If you have a company that may have existed for 150 years, that employs tens or maybe even 100,000 people, you may not want to criminally charge that company willy-nilly and wreck the company and cause lots of people to lose their jobs.
But Taibbi added, “There’s no reason you can’t proceed against individuals in those companies.”
Taibbi hit the proverbial nail on the head. Corporations may be “people” in the artificial sense, but they require “natural” persons in order to live and breathe. In his example, it was not HSBC Holdings that laundered $800 million for Mexican and South American drug cartels. It was the people who worked there. And yet, not one executive at that banking juggernaut even so much as paid a fine.
At the same time, individuals were being imprisoned and their lives destroyed for the possession of an ounce or two of cannabis.
There has been much discussion over the past few years about the “income” gap – but very little over the “justice” gap. So, again – why is the DoJ so reluctant to go after Wall Street criminals the way Michael Moore went after Stewart Parnell?
According to Taibbi, those responsible for meting out justice have confused “corporate persons” with the “natural persons” responsible for actions of the corporation: “It makes sense to not always destroy a company if you can avoid it. But what they’ve done is they’ve conflated that sometimes-sensible policy with a policy of not going after any individuals for any crimes.”
Of course, it doesn’t help matters that such individuals exert undue influence over lawmakers as well as jurists. The whole problem is exacerbated when corporate defense lawyers claim that such cases involving white-collar crime are simply too “complex” for the average juror to understand – and prosecutors, who may very well be in the back pocket of corporate executives, go along with such excuses.
And is it any coincidence that both Eric Holder and his colleague, Assistant AG Lanny Breuer, were (and are) employed at one of the top corporate law firms in the nation – a firm that has represented virtually every financial “services” firm on Wall Street at some point?
“Corporate Personhood” was not a result of the ill-conceived FEC v. Citizens United decision in 2010. That SCOTUS ruling simply solidified a concept that has been evolving since Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad in 1886. Over the decades, “corporate persons” have become almost indistinguishable from the natural persons who operate them.
This week, federal prosecutor Michael Moore and Judge W. Louis Sands made the distinction. It was not the Peanut Corporation of America that shipped thousands of pounds of salmonella-tainted food products. It was the people who worked there – and ultimately, it was the responsibility of CEO Stewart Parnell and his brother, the natural persons who gave life to the corporation and whose decisions determined its actions.
The US Department of Justice needs fewer Eric Holders and Lanny Breuers, and far more dedicated jurists to whom the phrase “Justice for All” is more than just a line recited by millions of school children every morning before class.
The DoJ needs more people like Michael Moore and W. Louis Sands.