SEPT. 22, 2015 — The U.S. Justice Department seems ready to conduct a criminal investigation of Volkswagen AG after the carmaker admitted to cheating on federal air-pollution tests. It’s about time that huge companies are held accountable, and if the evidence is there, criminal charges should be filed against company officials who may have perpetrated what appears to be a cynical and deceitful attempt to avoid critical U.S. regulations to limit pollution.
Volkswagen admitted last week that it had created software that allowed its diesel Golf, Jetta, Beetle and Passat models from 2009-15 to evade U.S. emissions tests meant to prevent ever more air pollution. How much does such pollution matter? An international group of scientists released a study last week that concluded air pollution kills 3.3 million people annually, worldwide, and almost 55,000 annually within the United States.
But criminal or even deadly behavior by big companies seemingly isn’t so rare. What is rare is prosecution and punishment of individuals within those companies who undertook or planned the crimes. Not only is that a failure of justice, but also nullifies any deterrent on society to avoid future malfeasance.
Over a period of a decade, General Motors hid increasing evidence of an ignition defect to which 124 deaths are now linked. It’s not unfair to say the deaths that came after GM executives learned of the defect, but before they issued a recall and shared their knowledge with customers and the government, are on their hands. But a $900 million penalty announced last week against GM allows the company to have its record wiped clean if it adheres to a new safety agreement made with the Justice Department for three years. No individuals have been charged. And statements from Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, make it sound likely none ever will be.
Last year, Toyota agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine and admit it knew about sticky accelerator pedals and defective floor mats and hid the defects from the public, lying about the problem to protect its image. This horrifying behavior coincided with numerous deaths, but if the company behaves for three years criminal charges against it will be dropped, and no individuals have been charged.
Some significant fines were levied against big banks like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America after the economic crash of 2008 that was at least partially caused by mortgage manipulations by such banks, many of which were clearly illegal. However, practically no individuals, and certainly no powerful ones, were personally punished for their behavior or leadership.
In a Sept. 9 memo, the U.S. Justice Department said it would change its approach, refocusing on individual culpability and criminal charges when it investigates and prosecutes white-collar crime. That’s long overdue, but no one’s going to believe it until we actually see white-collar criminals in jail.
Americans are sick of a system that puts harmless drug addicts away for years but lets vile corporate destroyers ride safely off into a rich retirement. And that’s a not-inconsiderable component in the anti-political-establishment disgust that is fueling the political environment.