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The Paradox of Equal Justice

Almost every day, entertainment, sports, media, political and even some business organizations are jettisoning their top officials and incumbents after reported accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assaults of their subordinates. They’re not waiting for prosecutors, courts or regulators to take action. “Get out now” is the first punishing order. Then the work product of these asserted offenders—whether music, comedy shows, etc.—are often scrubbed, and recipients of political contributions are under pressure to give these sums to charity. In addition a wider arc of resignations by the heads and Boards of Directors, accused of lax monitoring is emerging.

The speed of punishment is unprecedented. One day millions of people watched Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and others. The next day they were vanished. Although this is only the tip of the iceberg—and there is more to come—the velocity of expulsions coming from these accusations—even when they are denied—is unprecedented. (A major exception, however, are the escapades of Donald Trump over the years.)

What do the expellers know that spurs them to make these instant decisions often to the detriment of their own economic interest, such as Fox, PBS, NBC or NPR evicting their four, lucrative star performers?

Could it be that the media was quick to report these abuses and that more was coming to produce even more damaging publicity to their brand? Could it be that they wanted to avoid their companies being stigmatized as a perilous or toxic workplace for future talent considering careers there? Were they trying to avoid potential lawsuits? Could it be that some of these executives wanted to get rid of the spotlight that might reach their own transgressions, even though they think they were of lesser seriousness?

To all of these the answer is probably, “partly.” But it is also important for the media outlets, political parties, and Hollywood studios to react in the most responsible manner: that is, when abuses come to light, they may not need to wait for due process; they should react in order to protect their employees, who could become victims, as well as their reputation and their sizeable audience/constituency. While many of these organizations waited far too long to remove abusers, as in the case of Michigan State University and the United States Olympic Committee, the act of removing serial predators from their powerful positions signals a degree of belated resolve and compassion, and is in line with their responsibility to protect their workplace.

So why is it that when corporations and financial institutions commit broad-scale crimes that endanger or take the lives of millions of people, they receive absolute impunity? Indeed, their executives are rewarded for their own chronic, dangerous lawlessness. When their numerous crimes or criminogenic actions come to light, why are these bosses not immediately removed from their positions, in the manner of the many powerful men who have fallen as the #MeToo movement gains momentum?

Who knows? Time will tell perhaps. What is known is that corporations get away with very serious crimes—deaths, lifetime injuries, massive assaults on the economic necessities of millions of innocent people, the sickening of children and loss of their lives, the poisoning of water, air, land, food, perilous workplaces—all while paying off the political system that would have exacted punishment—and without appropriate sanctions.

None of the bailed-out Wall Street bosses who crashed the economy in 2008-2009 were prosecuted. These repeat-offenders took 8 million jobs away from the American people with their crimes, deceptions, cover-ups and rampant speculation with the very pensions and mutual funds that had been entrusted to them by their clients. Some Wall Street predators retired with huge severance packages—worth many millions of dollars—while others stayed put and resumed their roles as people of influential status and approbation.

Look at George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who together initiated a criminal war of aggression that sent tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to death, illness and permanent disability while destroying the lives of over a million Iraqis and leaving the country and its impoverished survivors devastated. They left public office in January 2009, above the laws they broke, and the Constitution they violated, to the accolades of Republicans and some Democrats. Lucrative speeches, book advances and other goodies flooded into their “retirements.”

People like Bill Clinton helped rehabilitate Mr. Bush with collaborative projects and joint appearances. The Bush Presidential library is thriving without mention of his and Mr. Cheney’s war crimes.

Over and over again, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS’s Sixty Minutes, corporate crime, violence and fraud do not result in punishment. All too often the rewards and luxuries accorded to these powerful executives continue unabated.

Even when the Justice Department occasionally nails a big drug company for crimes costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars, “deferred prosecution agreements” let the bosses off and allow the companies themselves to get away with fines that appear large but are far less than the ill-gotten gains that finally caught the attention of the underfunded Department’s prosecutors.

In 2011 I filled a book titled Getting Steamed to Overcome Corporatism with dozens of documented corporate crimes that ultimately resulted in a little bad publicity, some fines and infrequent enforcement actions, but no real justice. But in all of the many egregious accounts detailed in Getting Steamed, did the business bosses lose their jobs, their retirement, even the esteem of their colleagues, as a result of their chronic predation? Very rarely.

With over 450,000 Americans dying every year from tobacco-related diseases and with documentation piling up on how these tobacco titans deliberately marketed cigarettes to youngsters to hook them for life, none of these company officials went to jail or were even personally fined. Remember the celebrated Congressional hearings when about a dozen tobacco executives, under oath, said they didn’t believe there was a connection between their heavily promoted products and disease? There was no prosecution for perjury then or later when it became abundantly clear these executives knew all about the health impacts from evidence inside the companies.

The same impunity and immunity attached to the asbestos and lead manufacturers whose bosses knew for decades of the lethal impacts on millions of their long suffering victims.
So why the difference? The sexual harassment reactions came because the perpetrators had done demonstrable damage—to their victims, to the cultures of their workplaces, to productivity, and, of course, to the public relations of the organizations writ large. Weren’t the companies that brought about the recession or criminally destroyed lives also afraid of losing sales and talent if they didn’t rid themselves of the culpable perpetrators?

One difference may be that the evicted sexual assaulters did their deeds personally and directly, unlike the more remote corporate bosses or even middle management, their crimes more abstract within the enormity of the bureaucratic machines that they’ve rigged to avoid accountability. The other difference is that the public outrage was more personal and intense over the high-profile victims in the Hollywood episodes, which set the level of high media visibility. But what are the other factors at work?

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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