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Wednesday, May 7, 2008 01:00 pm

A special tax break for corporate criminals

How big business gets a pass from federal prosecutors

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Untitled Document If you got caught robbing a bank, the 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 the lawyers drop the pretense of personhood, insisting that although this entity might be fined, it can’t be put in jail or given a death sentence, because . . . well, because it’s a financial structure, not a human.  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. Called the “deferred prosecution agreement” — or DPA — this ploy allows 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 relatively cheap fines and agree to certain internal reforms rather than be prosecuted for their crimes. Under this scheme, even the big mortgage hucksters could end up writing checks 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, who 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, because 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 a national radio commentator, columnist, and author.
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