Federal white-collar prosecutions have declined by nearly 50 percent since the peak years of President Barak Obama’s administration, according to figures compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
In the first 11 months of FY 2019,the government launched 4,973 prosecutions—most of them cases of fraud by wire, radio or television—a drop of 8.5 percent since the previous year.
Compared to eight years ago, the 2019 figures so far represented a drop of 46.6 percent, TRAC said.
The decline was particularly notable since it covered a period that included the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown and the opioid crisis, both of which have fueled allegations of serious wrongdoing by major corporations and business leaders.
And the continuing low level of white-collar prosecutions represents a stark contrast to the “wide range of corporate, securities, health care, procurement, telemarketing, computer, consumer and other serious frauds that are believed to be perpetrated each year,” TRAC said.
Federal white-collar prosecutions amounted to just 3.3 percent of the 170,487 new prosecutions launched so far this year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service and other major federal agencies. The FBI alone accounted for a third of the white-collar cases.
Although the decline actually started in 2012, in Obama’s second term, following a peak of nearly 10,000 cases in 2011, the administration of President Donald Trump has accelerated the downward trend to the lowest number of recorded cases since at least 1999.
An earlier TRAC report, in March, found that fraud and other white-collar cases had dipped by 37.5 per cent in the previous five years.
But the newest report made clear how dramatically priorities have changed in the past two decades. Under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations between 1999 and 2007, white-collar crime cases rarely fell below 8,000 each year.
The business-friendly policies of the Trump administration are the most common explanation for the continued drop, but one financial journalist says the real culprit is the change in “culture” among federal agencies investigating corruption.
In a 2017 interview with The Crime Report, Jesse Eisinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter, argued that ambitious government attorneys were going after fewer cases in order not to alienate future employers in the private sector, in what has become a “revolving door” between the Department of Justice and private corporations.
Speaking about his pungently titled book published in 2017, The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives, Eisinger described a “seamless world, where prosecutors– mostly young— in the Southern District and Main Justice, the hottest shots from the Department of Justice (DOJ), almost all go to white collar criminal defense work after their stint at the DOJ.”
He added: “Essentially, the DOJ is being treated like a training ground for future criminal defense lawyers.”
Editor’s Note: Read the full TCR interview here.
According to TRAC, bank fraud and mail fraud represented the second and third, respectively, most frequent charges so far this year. But those two charges—once the most common sources of federal white-collar prosecutions—each amounted to half of the cases in what was now the biggest category: wire, TV and radio fraud.
The largest number of white-collar prosecutions in 2019 was recorded in the district of Rhode Island, followed by the Southern District of New York and the Southern District of Florida.
New York South, once one of the most active districts, recorded the largest single drop in the country compared to the previous year: 38.8 percent.
The other most active districts in the country pursuing white-collar investigations during 2019 included the Middle District of Louisiana, which covers Baton Rouge; the Western District of Tennessee, which covers Memphis; and the Northern District of Oklahoma, which covers Tulsa.
The full TRAC report and tables can be downloaded here.