Columns » Hightower

Break for corporate crooks


If you got caught robbing a bank, chances are excellent that you'd be facing some serious time in the pokey. But what if a bank robs you?

Corporate executives and their lawyers like to claim that a corporation is a "person" with all of the rights of an actual human being. Yet, when one of these outfits goes bad and gets caught violating laws, then the lawyers drop the pretense of personhood, insisting that while this entity might be fined, it can't be put in jail or given a death sentence, because ... well, because it's a financial entity.

Embracing this game of now-you-see-us-now-you-don't, the Bushites have devised a neat way to go soft on corporate criminals. "Deferred prosecution agreements" or "DPAs" allow corporations and banks that are guilty of everything from robbery to bribery to be given a get-out-of-jail-free card. Monsanto, Merrill Lynch and some 50 other corporations have recently been allowed to pay a relatively cheap fine and agree to certain internal reforms rather than be prosecuted for their crimes. Under this scheme, even the big mortgage hucksters who have defrauded so many home buyers and wrecked our housing market could end up writing a check and walking away.

DPAs were originally meant to help real people (usually first offenders) get a second chance, but they've become the favorite wrist-slap of Bush prosecutors and corporate violators. They argue that full prosecution could be "a corporate death sentence" with "catastrophic collateral consequences," so these criminals shouldn't be treated like mere people.

Of course, such judicial favoritism creates an incentive for criminal behavior, since corporations now know that they can likely avoid prosecution if caught. And fines are no deterrent multibillion dollar corporations can simply absorb them as a necessary cost of doing business.

Jim Hightower is the author of Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow. For more, visit

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