Tuesday, May 06, 2003

John Danforth is appalled at how the federal government is bringing down its overbearing weight on people guilty of, at most, a few minor slip-ups. Like the good folks at Arthur Andersen:

About a year ago, Arthur Andersen was on the verge of meltdown because of the work it had done for Enron. Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, tried to put together a group of outsiders to take over Andersen's management and save the company from destruction. The firm's leadership appeared willing to go along, but only if the Department of Justice would forgo seeking an indictment.

The arguments against indictment were obvious: A firm of thousands should not be destroyed for the actions of a few; the country would be better off with the Big Five accounting firms than with four; a firm under the leadership of Mr. Volcker would become a model for the profession. Working with Mr. Volcker, I had the job of making these arguments to the Justice Department, along with the point that prosecutors should exercise their discretion and consider public policy rather than simply prosecute crimes to the fullest extent of the law.

I soon learned that my efforts would go nowhere. Someone very close to a top official at the department told me there was little patience for the argument that a decision to prosecute should be dictated by anything other than the facts of the case.

Danforth would rather have had the government slap Andersen on the wrist, in return for a promise that they would reform themselves internally. He neglects to mention that they'd already tried that. At the time of the indictment in the Enron case, Andersen was already under a consent decree stemming from similar malfeasance involving its work for Waste Mangement. And before that was another scandal involving the fraudulent accounting of "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap at Sunbeam.

But then again, he also considers the human cost:

Consider the "perp walk," where officers parade suspects before television cameras in handcuffs. Last July, John Rigas, the 78-year-old founder of Adelphia Communications, was led from his apartment in handcuffs -- despite his lawyer's offer that he surrender voluntarily -- as news photographers' cameras flashed. The crime with which Mr. Rigas was charged was exceptionally serious, yet to parade him before the cameras served no valid law enforcement purpose. It was not necessary to prevent an escape, nor to protect officers from attack, nor to protect the accused from harming himself. It was a humiliating punishment before conviction.

An argument which applies just as well to accused drug dealers who are subjected to this treatment on a daily basis.

Danforth actually has some reasonable things to say about how Congressional moves to strip judges of sentencing authority have increasingly left punishment decisions in the hands of inexperienced prosecutors, who effectively determine the sentence by the details of the offense they choose to charge -- but again, that argument applies a whole lot better to common crooks than misbehaving magnates.


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