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One for the Corporate Class; One for the Rest of Us

Two Systems of Justice

by RUSSELL MOKHIBER

Leandro Andrade, 52, sits in Ironwood State Prison, about 200 miles east of Los Angeles, California.

He’s there for life.

What did Leandro do wrong?

In 1995, he stole five videotapes from a K-Mart in Ontario, California.

Under the state’s three strikes law, Andrade was sentenced to life in prison.

The first two offenses were for non violent home burglaries.

In 2003, 60 Minutes ran a profile of the Andrade case.

Andrade appealed his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2003, in a 5-4 decision, the Court decided that the sentence wasn’t cruel and unusual.

And upheld the sentence.

Okay, let’s give the justice system it’s due.

Let’s say you can be sent away for life for stealing $153.54 worth of videotapes – a misdemeanor – if your first two convictions were felonies.

Question – what about the individual CEOs who headed the nation’s largest Wall Street firms and banks?

The ones involved in tanking the country’s economy and sending it into the great recession? What about them?

Leandro Adrade is in prison for life for stealing five videotapes.

What about the CEOs of the big Wall Street firms?

Why do they go free?

To find out, I went down to George Washington University this morning.

There, the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States was holding a press conference to release its final report.

Throughout the presentation, the members of the Commission were using words like – reckless, irresponsible, risky, and imprudent – to describe the actions of these Wall Street firms and their CEOs.

But nothing about crime.

Nothing about corporate crime.

A bit strange, wouldn’t you say?

Especially since the 10 member Commission was created by the aptly named Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009.

So, we asked – why no talk about corporate crime?

Didn’t you find corporate criminal activity?

“Our mandate was to refer to the Attorney General or to the state authorities any individual that our individual our investigations showed may have violated U.S. laws – whether civil or criminal,” said Commissioner Brooksley Born. “We did make several of those referrals. But we are not going to talk about any of the details of those referrals.”

Okay, so the Commission believed there were crimes committed.

Otherwise, why would they refer cases for criminal prosecution?

If the Commission believed there were crimes committed, why didn’t they put this in their report?

Why all the talk about recklessness, and irresponsibility, and risky and imprudent behavior – but no talk about corporate criminal activity?

Why not?

Because we live a country with two systems of justice.

One for the Leandro Andrades of this world.

And one for the Wall Street banks and their executives.

And the oil companies and their executives.

A similar report was released two weeks ago about the BP oil spill.

Leading authorities on the Clean Water Act predict that the companies involved with the Gulf Oil Spill will soon be criminally charged.

But the BP Oil Spill Commission also refused to talk in the words of crime and punishment.

That kind of talk is reserved for street criminals.

Former Senator Bob Graham sat on both Commissions.

Two weeks ago, when I asked Graham whether “there should be increased resources to criminal environmental enforcement to help deter this kind of behavior,” Graham answered this way:

“When we first met with the president and he gave us our assignment, there was an understanding that our purpose was to develop the factual record upon which this event occurred, that it would be for others, specifically the Department of Justice, to determine if those facts constituted a criminal act, and if so, for what specific purpose.”

“So we did not undertake the issue of attempting to determine criminal liability. I will leave it to the readers of the report as to whether they believe they can find it in our factual program. Nor did we look specifically at the question of the resources necessary to reach a judgment as to whether a crime had been committed.”

As of this writing – in both the BP oil spill and the financial meltdown cases – no high level executives have been held responsible.

Neither Commission addressed the question of corporate criminal liability.

Or resources necessary to prosecute these corporate crimes.

Meanwhile, Leandro Andrade sits in prison for life.

I’m okay with disparities in our justice system.

We are, after all, imperfect beings.

But I’m not okay with bright, gifted people laying out the details of arguably the two largest corporate criminal cases of our times.

And not at least acknowledging the obvious.

That we have two systems of justice.

One for the corporate class from which the commissioners came.

And one for the rest of us.

RUSSELL MOKHIBER edits the Corporate Crime Reporter.