Sean Nevins: Justice Is Blind To Those Who Can’t Afford It

MintPress explores the two vastly different prosecutory worlds available to those with money, power and influence, and those without it, finding discrepancies between how the U.S. justice system handles corporate and street crimes.

By   MintPressNews.com  

Wall Street protesters denouncing the taxpayer bailout of "too-big-to-fail" banks. (Photo: A. Golden/ Creative Commons/ Flickr)
Wall Street protesters denouncing the taxpayer bailout of “too-big-to-fail” banks.
(Photo: A. Golden/ Creative Commons/ Flickr)

WASHINGTON — Two days after a Staten Island grand jury acquitted NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, banking and financial services giant BNP Paribas S.A. (BNPP) was able to delay sentencing that would force it to pay $8.9 billion for pleading guilty to violating U.S. sanctions regulations.

Nobody at the global banking giant is likely to be prosecuted, and nobody will serve time.


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Cases such as this reflect the starkly different prosecutory worlds available to those with money, influence and privilege, and those without, such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

With over $2.5 trillion in assets, BNPP is the fourth largest bank in the world in terms of assets. The closest comparable U.S. bank in terms of size is Bank of America, which is the 12th largest bank in the world.

BNPP was charged with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) for conspiring with other banks and banking institutions that are located within or controlled by Cuba, Iran or Sudan — countries currently subject to U.S. economic sanctions. The Justice Department has stated that over the course of eight years, the bank “knowingly and willfully” moved more than $8.8 billion through the U.S. financial system on behalf of those countries. The bank pleaded guilty to concealing the sanctioned countries’ involvement in the movement of money through the United States, as well as concealing its own role in those economic transactions.

The forfeiture of almost $9 billion has created a budget surplus for New York state, which will receive more than $5 billion from the settlement, along with a settlement from the Credit Suisse Group AG, which pleaded guilty to helping Americans evade taxes.

While BNPP has yet to be sentenced for crimes involving billions of dollars, thousands of people across the U.S. are subject to a radically different set of standards with regards to the law. Eric Garner is one such example.

Garner was approached by five New York City police officers on July 17, thrown on the ground, and put in a banned chokehold which ended his life. The officers merely suspected Garner was selling single untaxed cigarettes, a misdemeanor in the state. One New York City medical examiner listed “homicide” as Garner’s cause of death, yet his death has also been called a “summary execution,” as the suspect was not even given the chance to defend himself.

Michael Brown, of Ferguson, Missouri, was also suspected of robbery and killed by a police officer. Like Pantaleo, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was acquitted of any wrongdoing by a grand jury.

Another case that captured the world’s attention for its perceived superfluity is that of Arnold Abbott. Abbott is a 90-year-old World War II veteran and civil rights activist who faces up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine for feeding the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

“Too Big to Jail”

According to Brandon L. Garrett, author of “Too Big to Jail,” a book about criminal prosecutions of large corporations, cases like the BNPP settlement represent blatant hypocrisy in the U.S. justice system when compared to street and individual crime.

“You have to judge a criminal justice system based on how it treats the most privileged offenders to the way it treats the least privileged,” he told MintPress News.

Garrett, who is a professor of law at the University of Virginia, says that when it comes to the justice system, so much depends on money. For example, in terms of corporate crime, it’s impossible to put an entire company in jail, so the power of the business comes to its defense in the form of hiring an entire law firm to litigate for only that business. Further, the cases are often negotiated for years, there is substantial leniency, and employees are often insulated from prosecution entirely.

However, it is not only the corporation that enables a better-negotiated settlement. The DOJ also often sends detailed guidelines on how to approach a case when dealing with a corporation, Garrett says. He detailed his findings at recent panel discussion held by the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

“That’s just a completely different world than in regular criminal cases where tens of thousands of people are sitting in federal prisons for crimes that were also regulatory, that were not violent, where they pleaded guilty without the assistance of particularly good lawyers,” Garrett said.

There is a massive imbalance that needs to be remedied. Garrett told MintPress that corporate cases often involve the same kinds of elements involved in street crime, such as violence and death. “Think of the BP Gulf explosion!” he quipped.

“There are environmental disasters. There was the mining disaster in West Virginia where just a couple of weeks ago the former CEO was charged, people had wondered whether anybody high up would be held accountable. And that may happen, but there will be a trial and a very expensive and complex defense.”

Garrett was referencing the 2010 blast at Upper Big Branch coal mine, which resulted in the deaths of 29 miners. Donald Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine, was charged with violating laws relating to mine safety in the case. He has pleaded not guilty. While Blankenship’s trial is set to open on Jan. 26, former mine superintendent Gary May has been sentenced to 21 months in prison on conspiracy charges related to the blast.

Also in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed 11 people and resulted in an unprecedented environmental disaster, as well as health and economic problems for the U.S. Gulf Coast. Criminal charges were filed against Kurt Mix, a BP engineer, but those charges were dropped earlier this year. The other three BP employees charged in the case for manslaughter, negligence and obstructing Congress are still under investigation and have already had some of their charges dropped.

“These are really, really, really serious crimes,” Garrett said. “Corporate crimes can involve loss of life, destruction, corruption or destruction of economies. Corporate crime can involve a lot of the same harms that street crime and individual crime involves. It just gets handled completely differently.”

One of the most notorious corporate criminal cases filed in recent years was the HSBC Holdings case, in which the bank made a plea bargain for $1.9 billion, which many saw as just a “slap on the wrist,” Garrett said. In that case, violations were on an extremely grand scale. The Senate had reported about the case, and how the bank violated sanctions, laundered money for Mexican drug cartels and terrorists, yet nobody was convicted. “It was just a deferred prosecution agreement with no conviction,” said Garrett.

Another infamous incident that involved corporate criminal acts in which few, if any, high-ranking officials or employees were prosecuted was the subprime mortgage crisis, which wreaked havoc on the global economy and led to the recession from 2007 to 2009. In this case, the FBI had warned in 2004 that wide-scale mortgage fraud was becoming endemic and could lead to an insurmountable economic crisis. Not only were such warnings not heeded, but the Bush administration protected predatory lenders from prosecution by states.

Limited options

Meanwhile, people across the U.S. are actively protesting and demanding justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others who have faced similar fates. Unlike large corporations, they received no trial, no lengthy sentencing postponements, no plea bargains, nor detailed guidelines about how to handle their cases.

A recent ProPublica analysis of data on police shootings in the U.S. found that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than whites. The report stated: “Blacks are being killed at disturbing rates when set against the rest of the American population.” Black people are being killed by white police officers nearly twice a week.

Hundreds of these protesters have been arrested. Reuters reported late last month that more than 400 arrests had been made in Ferguson and around the country. Thousands of National Guard troops were dispersed in and around Ferguson to quell what many are calling an uprising, following the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson, who has since resigned from the Ferguson Police Department.

Unlike the wealthy elite who are able to make plea bargains and walk away from their legal issues, the options are more limited for everyday people around the country speaking out against injustice at the hands of the state.

Sean Nevins is a Washington DC based staff writer for MintPress focusing on foreign affairs, and the intersection of politics and policy. His work has appeared on Link TV, Inter Press Service, and The Real News Network. He has lived and reported from all over the world and holds a Master’s in Asian Studies (focus: Pakistan) from Lund University in Sweden.

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