"If you steal a penny in America, you are a criminal," said the watchdog group Public Citizen. "If you steal millions, you are a multinational corporation."
An analysis released Monday shows that the Biden Justice Department prosecuted just 99 corporate offenders last year, despite pledging to crack down on white-collar crime following years of lax enforcement during former President Donald Trump's White House term.
During Biden's first year in office, corporate prosecutions fell to 90, just below the 94 that the Trump administration recorded in 2020 and far below the 304 prosecutions in 2000.
The slight rise to 99 prosecutions in 2022—the fifth-lowest on record—matches the second-lowest number of corporate prosecutions during Trump's four years in the White House.
"The Biden Justice Department's light-touch approach to enforcement encourages corporate scofflaws to push the limits of what's legally allowed to maximize their profits—risking our health and safety, our environment, our finances, and our communities," Rick Claypool, a research director for Public Citizen and author of the new report, said in a statement.
"The Justice Department is still bending over backwards to protect corporate offenders from the consequences of their lawbreaking, and it's creating ideal conditions for the next corporate catastrophe," Claypool warned. "The worst corporate-caused crises of the 21st Century—the 2008 financial crisis and the opioid epidemic—are stories about enforcement agencies failing to fight systemic criminal misconduct before it was too late."
"A society that punishes the crimes of the poor while permitting the crimes of the powerful is not a just society."
The Biden administration's rhetoric on corporate crime and the policies it has implemented in a purported attempt to deter wrongdoing and hold bad actors to account have not translated into much, if any, measurable progress.
Public Citizen found that corporate leniency agreements—deals that companies reach with the Justice Department to avoid or defer prosecution—fell to just 11 last year, the lowest level since 2004.
"But whether the shift can be seen as a sign of strengthened corporate enforcement is a separate question," the group said. "If the DOJ's interest in prosecuting corporate crime was truly waxing, one would expect to see increasing prosecutions accompany the decreasing leniency agreements."
"Instead," Public Citizen added, "the near-record low number of corporate prosecutions combined with plunging corporate leniency agreements means the federal government concluded 110 criminal cases against corporations in fiscal year 2022—fewer than any previous year since 1994, when it concluded 106."
"A society that punishes the crimes of the poor while permitting the crimes of the powerful is not a just society," Public Citizen's report says. "The principle that no one should be above the law includes corporations."
The report was published weeks after the Biden Justice Department faced backlash for announcing that it would not pursue charges against companies that voluntarily disclose wrongdoing committed by businesses they are acquiring.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco earlier this month that the policy "would incentivize corporations to engage in illegal activity of all kinds—knowing that they could simply wipe the slate clean during a merger."
More than a dozen progressive advocacy groups, including Public Citizen, echoed that warning last week and urged the Justice Department to reverse the so-called "safe harbor" policy.