Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed Monday that the Trump administration would vigorously prosecute white-collar crime amid concerns that such cases would fall by the wayside in favor of high-profile priorities such as violent crime and illegal immigration.
Sessions affirmed the department’s commitment to prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars corporations from bribing foreign officials to gain a business advantage. President Donald Trump once called it a “horrible law.”
“We will continue to enforce the FCPA and other anti-corruption laws,” Sessions said. “Companies should succeed because they provide superior products and services, not because they pay off the right people.”
Sessions wanted to ensure no uncertainty
He made his remarks at the annual conference of the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, a gathering of lawyers who internally police corporate misconduct. He acknowledged that it was unusual for an attorney general to appear before such a group, but said he wanted to send a message because, “I understand there can be some uncertainty when a new administration or new leadership occurs at the Justice Department.”
Paul Pelletier, a former deputy chief of the Fraud Section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said Sessions’ remarks were important because of speculation that the Trump administration would ease enforcement of the anti-bribery law.
Initially, enforcement lagged
Enacted in 1977, the act was little invoked for years. But in about 2005, the Fraud Section began enforcing it much more vigorously. It has rapidly become a major factor in business decisions about overseas operations, generating large fees for law firms and large fines for the federal government.
As the Justice Department stepped up enforcement, some business leaders argued that prosecutors were overreaching and putting U.S. companies and exporters at a competitive disadvantage.
Among them was Trump, who said on CNBC in 2012 that “the world is laughing at us” for enforcing the anti-bribery law. And as president, he nominated Jay Clayton, a lawyer who has expressed skeptical views about the act, to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission, which also investigates violations of it.
In that context, Rachel Brewster, a Duke University law professor, said Sessions’ declaration that he is “keeping the same policy is itself news.”
“Whenever the president says a law is horrible, you get worried about enforcement,” she said, and “the combination of a Trump administration and the new SEC chair has made people concerned.”
Hiring freeze at Justice Department
Sessions’ speech came 10 days after the Justice Department imposed a hiring freeze on the Fraud Section, along with most of the rest of the Criminal Division and the 93 U.S. attorney’s offices. An April 14 internal department email announcing that policy, obtained by The New York Times, justified it as a step that would help the administration “focus on hiring on our most priority needs” as it prepares to restructure.
The Criminal Division and the federal prosecutors’ offices, which have largely been without Senate-confirmed heads since the Trump administration fired most of the remaining Obama-era U.S. attorneys last month, had generally been spared from an earlier hiring freeze that remains in effect for much of the rest of the Justice Department.
Jobs at risk by foreign competitors
A few parts of the department that focus on national security, drugs and immigration have been exempted. Their missions dovetail with themes Sessions has emphasized, including reducing violent crime and cracking down on transnational drug cartels and illegal immigration.
On Monday, in a Q&A session after his address to the lawyers group, Sessions sounded a somewhat more reassuring tone.
He spoke of the importance of U.S. manufacturing jobs put at risk by foreign competitors that are not bound by the same laws, asked for suggestions about how to stop that, and said “good companies” should not be unduly punished if an employee goes awry.