Source – huffpost.com
– “…Urska Velikonja discovered that while the SEC reported a steady rise in prosecutions between 2002 and 2014, most of the increase was statistical padding. When a trader was charged with fraud and then lost her license to trade securities, for example, the SEC logged the sanctions as two separate cases. When the agency was in danger of posting sluggish performance stats for the year, investigators filed dozens of slam-dunk cases in September to catch up. As Velikonja put it, “they’re engaging in their own version of accounting fraud.”
The Golden Age Of White Collar Crime – By Michael Hobbes
Elite lawbreaking is out of control. This is the grotesque story of an existential threat to American society.
A Slow-Motion Looting
OVER THE LAST TWO YEARS, nearly every institution of American life has taken on the unmistakable stench of moral rot. Corporate behemoths like Boeing and Wells Fargo have traded blue-chip credibility for white-collar callousness. Elite universities are selling admission spots to the highest Hollywood bidder. Silicon Valley unicorns have revealed themselves as long cons (Theranos), venture-capital cremation devices (Uber, WeWork) or straightforward comic book supervillains (Facebook). Every week unearths a cabinet-level political scandal that would have defined any other presidency. From the blackouts in California to the bloated bonuses on Wall Street to the entire biography of Jeffrey Epstein, it is impossible to look around the country and not get the feeling that elites are slowly looting it.
And why wouldn’t they? The criminal justice system has given up all pretense that the crimes of the wealthy are worth taking seriously. In January 2019, white-collar prosecutions fell to their lowest level since researchers started tracking them in 1998. Even within the dwindling number of prosecutions, most are cases against low-level con artists and small-fry financial schemes. Since 2015, criminal penalties levied by the Justice Department have fallen from $3.6 billion to roughly $110 million. Illicit profits seized by the Securities and Exchange Commission have reportedly dropped by more than half. In 2018, a year when nearly 19,000 people were sentenced in federal court for drug crimes alone, prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals who worked at firms with more than 50 employees.
With few exceptions, the only rich people America prosecutes anymore are those who victimize their fellow elites. Pharma frat boy Martin Shkreli, to pick just one example, wasn’t prosecuted for hiking the price of a drug used to treat HIV from $13.50 to $750 per pill. He went to prison for scamming investors in a hedge fund scheme years before. Meanwhile, in 2016, the CEO whose company experienced the deadliest mining disaster since 1970 served less than one year in prison and paid a fine of 1.4 percent of his salary and stock bonuses the previous year. Why? Because overseeing a company that ignores warnings and causes the deaths of workers, even 29 of them, is a misdemeanor.
Construction magnate Bruce Karatz provides an infuriating case study of how the criminal justice system treats wealthy defendants. In 2010, Karatz was convicted of failing to disclose in a financial statement that he had secretly “backdated” his stock options (think Biff with the Sports Almanac in “Back to the Future II”) to boost his pay by more than $6 million. Prior to his sentencing hearing, his lawyer submitted letters of support from former mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Prosecutors recommended six-and-a-half-years in prison; the judge gave Karatz five years’ probation and eight months of house arrest in his Bel Air mansion. After two years, the judge terminated the remainder of the sentence. Karatz later received a civic award from The Malibu Times for volunteer work he did to make a good impression for his sentencing hearing.
Country-club nepotism and Gilded Age avarice are nothing new in America, of course. But the rich are enjoying a golden age of impunity unprecedented in modern history. “American elites have become more brazen than they were even five years ago,” said Matthew Robinson, a professor at Appalachian State University and the author of several books on “elite deviance”— all the legal and illegal social harms caused by the wealthy.
Elite deviance has become the dark matter of American life, the invisible force around which the country’s most powerful legal and political systems have set their orbit. Four members of the Sackler family, the owners of Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma, have retained the services of former SEC head Mary Jo White as their personal lawyer. Epstein’s dinner party guest lists included Harvard professors, billionaire philanthropists and members of political dynasties in at least two countries. In 2017, the pharmaceutical company Novartis spent about 14 percent of its annual lobbying budget on payments to a shell company controlled by ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.
Tax evasion siphons 10,000 times more money out of the U.S. economy every year than bank robberies. SOURCE: FBI; IRS.
And this clubbiness has human costs. Tax evasion, to pick just one crime concentrated among the wealthy, already siphons up to 10,000 times more money out of the U.S. economy every year than bank robberies. In 2017, researchers estimated that fraud by America’s largest corporations cost Americans up to $360 billion annually between 1996 and 2004. That’s roughly two decades’ worth of street crime every single year. As the links between corporations and regulators become increasingly incestuous, the future will bring more crude-soaked coastlines, price-gouging corporate behemoths and Madoff-style Ponzi schemes. More hurdles to suing companies for poisoning their customers or letting bosses harass their employees. And more uniquely American catastrophes like the opioid crisis and the price of insulin.
Perhaps the greatest myth about white-collar crime is that Americans struggle to understand it—as if chemical companies toxifying rivers or insurance executives gouging their customers fail to stimulate our moral intuitions. In fact, surveys consistently show that the vast majority of the population considers white-collar crime more harmful than street crime and powerful offenders more odious than common criminals.
Those intuitions are correct: An entrenched, unfettered class of superpredators is wreaking havoc on American society. And in the process, they’ve broken the only systems capable of stopping them.
An Increasingly Desperate Pantomime Of Legal Enforcement
EVERY YEAR, AT BRANDED COCKTAIL receptions and bloated buffet breakfasts, government agents spend two days hobnobbing with the tax-haven attorneys they spend the rest of the year investigating.
The Offshore Alert conference takes place in Miami each spring, in London each fall and in “key offshore jurisdictions” all year round. Officially, participants come to discuss “wealth creation, preservation and recovery.” Less officially, the tax lawyers come to learn what the feds will crack down on next year. The government investigators come to fish for future jobs. Imagine a yearly picnic where sheriffs give drug dealers tips on hiding baggies from pat-downs and leave with a new set of endorsements on LinkedIn.
In person, the conference is even more surreal than it sounds. From across a cologne-scented hotel lobby, I watched tanned attorneys fresh off flights from the Caribbean mingle with ashen IRS agents who bring business cards from Kinko’s because the agency won’t pay to get them printed anymore. I listened to officials from the FBI and SEC lay out enforcement priorities as cryptocurrency investors and Russian bankers took notes. At lunch, I talked “Game of Thrones” with a Senate advisor, a government auditor and a Bahamanian lawyer who later offered to set me up a shell corporation for $5,000.
“We killed a generation of agents,” said Arthur VanDesande, a former IRS investigator. “If you investigate mom and pop grocery stores for 20 years, you lose the ability to do Bernie Madoffs.”
The finance types were frosty during the day—an investor who appeared to be wearing monogrammed slacks wouldn’t tell me his first name—but they loosened up at the happy hours. An offshore tax advisor bragged that he could take his clients’ tax rates from 49 percent to 15 percent and complained that they were constantly pushing him to go lower. Another told me that most of his clients aren’t trying to hide money from the government but from their second or third wives. “The first one raised their kids so they feel like she’s entitled to something,” he explained. “It’s the trophy wives they want to lock out.”
Jack Albertson is a government investigator—that’s not his real name and he won’t let me get more specific about his job description—who has been coming to Offshore Alert for years. When I ask him how this cops-and-robbers conflagration even exists, he tells me I’m thinking about it the wrong way. He, like all the other investigators here, knows that many of the lawyers who attend are hiding their clients’ money sketchily or outright illegally. He even knows how they’re doing it. The tactics for hiding money from tax authorities are not particularly sophisticated and have barely changed in the last 50 years. Set up a shell company and buy an appreciating asset—Iowa farmland, a London apartment, a New York pizzeria, something common enough that it won’t attract attention.
Contrary to the “Catch Me If You Can” myth, Albertson said, solving financial crimes is not a cat-and-mouse game between cunning investigators and slippery con artists. Most of the time it is simply the blunt application of resources to a series of unimaginably tedious tasks. “Investigators can already crack almost any offshore account if they have enough time and money,” he said. “The problem is that they only get that for a few cases a year.”
Over the last four decades, the agencies responsible for investigating elite and white-collar crime—roughly speaking, the IRS, SEC, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and FBI—have seen their enforcement divisions starved into irrelevance. More than a third of the FBI investigators who patrol Wall Street were reassigned between 2001 and 2008. Enforcement funding at the IRS has fallen by 23 percent over the last decade. And, worst of all, every time a scandal exposes the government’s inadequacy, Congress steps in to squeeze the regulators even harder.
The most instructive case of this deliberate stunting is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Founded in 1972, the CPSC’s job is to make sure the things you buy won’t pierce, poison or burn you. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan slashed its budget as part of his crusade against bureaucratic waste. In the 1990s, Clinton instructed the agency to produce more data as part of his push for government accountability. No matter which party was in power, every administration gave the CPSC more to do and less money to do it with. By 2007, it had shrunk from its initial 786 employees to just 420.
SINCE DONALD TRUMP BECAME PRESIDENT, WHITE COLLAR PROSECUTIONS HAVE FALLEN TO A RECORD LOW.
That same year, Mattel announced a recall of more than 1 million of its children’s toys that had been contaminated with lead paint. Despite the company’s sophisticated international operations and billions in revenues, it had never bothered to inspect the Chinese sub-contractors. By then, the CSPC had fewer than 100 inspectors to monitor all imports to the United States. The Los Angeles-area ports where a chunk of the tainted toys arrived was overseen by a single part-time inspector.
Congress responded to the scandal by compounding the mistakes that had caused it. Lawmakers agreed to double the CPSC’s budget and increase its staff, but also obligated the agency to carry out dozens of new activities, including the creation of a public database to track safety hazards for every single product sold in the U.S.
The new mandate swallowed up all the agency’s new funding and more. Soon, the CPSC was dedicating nearly all of its time to lead abatement in children’s toys, neglecting millions of products that posed far greater risks to children, like flammable blankets or dangerous table saws. The product database filled up with unconfirmed complaints and spammy comments. Mattel, meanwhile, faced no consequences for manufacturing the lead-tainted toys beyond a $2.3 million fine—roughly 0.006 percent of its net income. According to Rena Steinzor, the author of “Why Not Jail? Industrial Disasters, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction,” the same cycle has repeated itself across every form of elite deviance, from tax compliance to financial regulation to environmental protection. In 2010, following a series of tax-haven scandals, the IRS set up a “wealth squad” to investigate the ultra-rich —but only staffed it with enough agents to perform 36 audits in its first two years.
After the Enron-led avalanche of corporate bankruptcies in the early 2000s, Congress gave the SEC enough funding to hire 200 new auditing staff. At the same time, however, lawmakers obligated the agency to review the filings of every publicly traded U.S. financial firm every three years—a mandate far larger than the agency’s new staffing levels. Then, after the financial crisis, it happened again:
The Dodd-Frank act tasked the SEC with monitoring even more companies and trillions of new assets while increasing its enforcement staff by less than 10 percent.
This cycle has left America’s regulators with no choice but to engage in an increasingly desperate pantomime of white-collar law enforcement. On the outside, they report impressive performance statistics to avoid even more budget cuts. Behind the scenes, they’ve retreated to investigating only the defendants they know are guilty and the crimes they know where to find.
The primary beneficiaries of this shift are American elites. Rich people generate mountains of financial data. Millionaires can have over 100 bank accounts; billionaires’ tax returns run to 800 pages long. For people who earn most of their income from working (i.e. almost everyone), the IRS has an automatic system that compares individuals’ reports to the records submitted by their employers and banks. For the wealthy, who make much of their income from interest and investments, the agency has nothing to compare their reports against. The only way to tell if a rich person is cheating on their taxes is to sit down and go through them line by line.
In 2018, prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals who worked at companies with more than 50 employees. SOURCE: U.S. SENTENCING COMMISSION.
“Let’s say you get a tip that some billionaire is hiding a bunch of money offshore and not paying taxes on it,” said Arthur VanDesande, who spent 25 years as a criminal investigator for the IRS. “And you manage to narrow the tax evasion down to 20 of his bank accounts. OK, now you have to prepare 20 subpoenas, get them signed by a judge and deliver them to the banks. But when you go to Bank of America, they say, ‘We don’t accept subpoenas at this location, you have to go to our authorized representative in Orlando.’ So then you go to Orlando and and you find out the money is linked to an offshore account. So then you have to write to the embassy…’”
Due to the IRS’ lean resources, VanDesande did most of this legwork himself. “You type your own shit, you make your own copies, you write every single affidavit. Sometimes you feel like, ‘I’m a senior-level person with a college degree. Why am I calling Wells Fargo and sitting on hold for 45 minutes?’”
Only some of this drudgery can be outsourced to lower-level staffers. White-collar cases involve understanding arcane laws, absorbing thousands of pages of documents, traversing international jurisdictions and coordinating a vast array of agencies from the Secret Service to the Post Office. They require investigators to be Jack Ryan, Magnum P.I. and Leslie Knope all at once. Even though auditing millionaires and billionaires is one of the most cost-effective government activities imaginable—an independent reportestimated in 2014 that it yielded up to $4,545 in recovered revenue per hour of staff time—the IRS investigated the returns of just 3 percent of American millionaires in 2017.
In addition to reducing their caseload, America’s white-collar enforcement agencies have started prioritizing crimes they can prosecute in bulk. In 2017, the Department of Justice took on 889 prosecutions for identity theft (which, according to a 2010 survey, is estimated to cost individuals $371 out-of-pocket) and just 24 for antitrust violations. According to a ProPublica report, 43 percent of all tax filers audited by the IRS earn less than $56,000 per year. Roughly one in six of the SEC’s enforcement actions in fiscal 2019 were against financial firms for filing paperwork late—a six-fold increase since 2004.
Helen Richmond, a paralegal in a white-collar prosecutor’s office (that’s not her real name), said most of the defendants her office pursues are “either dumb or unlucky.” She’s worked on cases against money launderers who named stolen items on their wire transfers and fraudsters who sent emails with recipe-like details of their schemes. Criminals with even a scrap of sophistication, Richmond said, mostly avoid detection.
Another bargain-hunting strategy is to try cases in administrative proceedings rather than civil courts, an innovation that reduces hearings from months to hours. The downside, though, is that these cases largely play out in secret, resulting in fines rather than prison time and don’t compel defendants to testify, turn over evidence or admit guilt. In 2007, the SECfiled 60 percent of its settlements in civil courts. In 2015, that proportion was 17 percent. In 2014 and 2015, the agency didn’t file a settlement against a single U.S. Wall Street firm.
One of the most conspicuous aspects of white-collar cases is the doting, near-veterinary care with which judges try to prevent defendants from facing harsh punishment.
According to former OSHA assistant secretary David Michaels, these strategies are designed to achieve the all-consuming yet unstated goal of every regulation agency in America: Make yourself look more powerful than you are. The best way to do this is to focus on the cases that will yield the maximum deterrence for the lowest cost. At OSHA, Michaels said, “we would issue press releases announcing waves of random inspections so employers would look at their hazards. We never told them we only planned to do a few inspections.”
Similarly, the IRS has explicitly instructedagents to prioritize cases likely to generate headlines. (Ever wonder why so many B-list celebrities get busted for tax evasion?). Federal investigators go after media punching bags like Martin Shkreli, Martha Stewart and Fyre Festival scammer Billy McFarland to make the public think criminal prosecutions are routine. They’re not: In a case-by-case analysis of the 216 alleged large-scale corporate frauds discovered between 1996 and 2004, researchers found that the media uncovered twice as manyas the SEC.
And so, after decades of operating in survival mode, white-collar enforcement agencies are better at reporting success than producing it. In a 2016 study, a Georgetown University School of Law professor named Urska Velikonja discovered that while the SEC reported a steady rise in prosecutions between 2002 and 2014, most of the increase was statistical padding. When a trader was charged with fraud and then lost her license to trade securities, for example, the SEC logged the sanctions as two separate cases. When the agency was in danger of posting sluggish performance stats for the year, investigators filed dozens of slam-dunk cases in September to catch up. As Velikonja put it, “they’re engaging in their own version of accounting fraud.” (The SEC declined to comment.)
For the agents charged with cracking offshore tax schemes and protecting consumers from lead-painted Elmo collectibles, this charade is profoundly demoralizing. “We killed a generation of agents,” VanDesande said. “If you investigate mom and pop grocery stores for 20 years, you lose the ability to do Bernie Madoffs.”
VanDesande has spent months building cases only to have the DOJ toss them with little explanation. Richmond, the paralegal, tells me federal and state prosecutors have been playing hot potato with one of her cases for months because they can’t justify an expensive prosecution for a fraud that adds up to the low six digits. During his first year on the job, Lewis Winters, an SEC examiner (and another government employee who couldn’t use his real name), had an investigation of a shady CEO rejected by the agency’s enforcement division. Even though he had found plenty of violations, the crimes just weren’t … grand enough for the agency to pursue.
“It felt personal,’” Winters said. “Why did I spend three months examining this guy if enforcement just goes, ‘meh’?”
Continued in Part 2…