By Ralph Nader
Yes, it’s official. General Motors engaged in criminal wrongdoing for long knowing about the lethal defect in its ignition switch that took at least 174 lives and counting, plus serious injuries. At least 1.6 million GM cars – Chevrolet Cobalt and other models – hid this danger to trusting drivers, according to the Center for Auto Safety (http://www.autosafety.org/). Corporation executives who lie to or mislead the federal government violate Title 18 of the federal code, and risk criminal penalties.
But, the long-mismanaged automaker was not required by the Justice Department to plead guilty at all. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney from New York, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch did not bring an indictment against either General Motors or known culpable officials in GM, including top GM lawyers and safety directors, who participated in the cover-up year after year, while lying to federal officials and not reporting these defects.
The Justice Department fined GM a modest $900 million, which the Wall Street Journal called a “lower-than-expected financial penalty.” The government also agreed to a notorious three year “deferred prosecution” deal, which corporate crime expert, Law Professor Rena Steinzor, called “a toothless way of approaching a very serious problem.” Three years of compliance, watched by a federal monitor and then the Justice Department dismisses the charges.
The “problem” is a fast maturing enforcement doctrine – under George W. Bush and Barack Obama – that can be called crimes without criminals. This turns criminal jurisprudence on its head. One standard for big corporations shielding their individual criminals with immunity. There is another standard for street criminals who can be imprisoned for many years for forging checks or burglarizing buildings without harm to humans.
At a press conference to announce the hoisting of this sweetheart deal, U.S. attorney Preet Bharara weakly excused the absence of indictments by asserting: “We apply the laws as we find them, not the way we wish they might be.” Former NHTSA Administraor Joan Claybrook asked Mr. Bharara whether he would urge Congress to meet his wishes. Mr. Bharara dodged the question. He argues that his prosecution was restricted because of “complex structures” in corporations. A multi-million dollar prosecution budget, with many subpoenas, interviews with GM officials and engineers should have penetrated the “corporate veil,” especially since Mr. Bharara waxed eloquent about how GM cooperated and opened itself up for inquiry.
Professor Steinzor, author of Why Not Jail?: Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction, rebutted, saying these excuses “are contradicted by their own creative and aggressive behavior in other cases,” involving some small, criminal companies. In one case, against a peanut company, DOJ got felony convictions and a former owner is facing a life sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines.
University of Virginia law Professor Brandon Garrett, author of Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations, pointed out that “individuals were even wrongly convicted of vehicular manslaughter, having been driving defective [GM] cars. A case this serious should result in a criminal conviction for the company, and many criminal convictions for the individuals involved.”
In short, as noted by the Corporate Crime Reporter: “GM did the crime, the drivers do the time.” A former top Justice Department prosecutor, Michigan Law Professor, David Uhlmann, said that the deferred prosecution agreement with GM “demonstrated how badly the Justice Department has lost its way with regard to corporate crime…There is no excuse for the Department agreeing to dismiss its criminal case against GM if the company pays a large fine and cleans up its act.”
The industry is now heavily lobbying the House and Senate to keep a provision for criminal penalties out of the pending highway bill being championed by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Senator Edward Markey (D-MA). But since 1966, brazen GM and the auto industry have spent millions of dollars to make sure there is no specific criminal penalty, even for willful violation of safety standards that take lives, in the auto safety law.
Unfortunately, these giant companies have Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Senator John Thune (R-SD), the respective committee chairs wrapped around their dollar-spinning fingers.
Senator Blumenthal and Markey severely criticized the Justice Department’s concession: “Knowing and willful violations of the vehicle safety statutes – deception that literally kill American consumers – should be a criminal violation, as we have proposed in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2015 and in the Hide No Harm Act.” They should also demand no more deferred prosecution malarkey in dealing with corporate crime generally.
The mass media has given significant lots of coverage to the 64 million cars recalled by the likes of Toyota, Honda, GM, Chrysler, and other auto manufacturers, along with the huge debacle by Takata over its air bag cost cutting. So the politicians on Capitol Hill, having conducted tough talk public hearings in the past two years, know they are in the spotlight.
Please help the hundreds of victims and their families such as Laura Christian, who lost her 16-year-old daughter, Amber Marie Rose, and is still fighting to bring GM and its culpable officials to justice.
Call Senator Blumenthal’s office at 202-224-0335 or Senator Markey’s office at 202-224-2742 for further information.