CORPORATE FOCUS: Environmental Justice
Earlier this year, the Justice Department put out a fifteen-page memo titled "Federal Prosecutions of Corporations."The purpose of the memo was to help federal prosecutors decide when to prosecute -- and not prosecute -- corporations.It's a great little memo. Written by Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, the memo makes the point right up front that "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."According to the memo, "prosecutors should be aware of the important public benefits that may flow from indicting a corporation in appropriate cases."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." In addition, an indictment may result in specific deterrence by the culture of the indicted corporation and its employees.In corporate crime cases that carry with them a substantial risk of great public harm -- like environmental crime cases -- there is a "substantial federal interest in indicting the corporation."That's what we thought. 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 out to us.Perhaps one reason Janet Reno's people didn't want it to go 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:* more than a one-quarter (27 percent) decrease in prosecutions;* a greater than one-third (38 percent) drop in convictions; and* a nearly 10 percent decline in the conviction rate.Even though the Justice Department is pursuing fewer cases, it is also declining more cases (26 percent more) brought by referring agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 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," Sasse reports the supervisor saying.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 May 13, 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.