The Hill Op-ed: Justice Dept's Enforcement Policies Make Change for the Worse

by Rena Steinzor

February 22, 2018

This op-ed originally ran in The Hill.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has wasted little time portraying himself as the prosecutor-in-chief of street — as opposed to white collar — crime, rejecting this month even a broadly bipartisan effort to reduce sentences for nonviolent crime supported by a coalition that spans the Koch brothers and the NAACP.

Civil enforcement has also fallen off, as documented in investigative reporting by The New York Times and others. Both trends will almost certainly continue given the more subtle sabotage of corporate enforcement implemented in a series of largely overlooked policy changes announced by memoranda and speech.

The campaign began last June, when Sessions wrote a memorandum to U.S. attorneys and DOJ senior managers instructing them not to enter into any settlements that provide for a "payment or loan to any non-governmental entity." His targets were the nonprofit groups enlisted to provide counseling of consumers in foreclosure under multi-billion dollar civil settlements with the nation's biggest banks. A small portion of the huge sums collected by these consent decrees was devoted to this grassroots work by legal aid attorneys and homeowner counseling groups.

Bank executives didn't articulate objections to this funding. But retiring House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) claims that such payments amount to a "slush fund" accumulated by the Obama administration to pay off its cronies on the left. The House has fretted over legislation to address the issue and passed the "Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act."

Also implicated in the Sessions policy change were the supplemental environmental projects embraced by successive, bipartisan generations of EPA and DOJ attorneys in settlements with polluting companies. Such agreements fund work to mitigate the harm to the environment and public health inflicted by the violations. As just one recent example, an Obama-era settlement with Harley-Davidson would have committed $3 million to a program run by the American Lung Association to pay for the change-out of dirty wood stoves in the Northeast with much cleaner models. The settlement was withdrawn because of the Sessions policy.

Read the full op-ed in The Hill.

Top image by Wikipedia user Coolcaesar, used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Also from Rena Steinzor

Rena Steinzor is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and a past president of the Center for Progressive Reform. She is the author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.

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