Virginia Law School Breaks Through in Secret Corporate Crime Settlement Case

Why is the Justice Department not making public certain corporate crime settlement agreements? Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Law wanted to know. The Justice Department wouldn’t release certain corporate crime settlement agreements. So researchers at the school sued the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

And last week, the Department released a corporate non-prosecution agreement.

UVA Law business research librarian Jon Ashley, sued the Department last year, seeking details of a $2 million settlement between the Department and Houston-based ABC Professional Tree Services Inc. over the company’s use of undocumented workers.

Ashley was conducting research in association with Virginia Law professor Brandon Garrett, a criminal justice expert who has been compiling non-prosecution agreements online to further his research on corporate crime.

“After more than a year of litigation by clinic students, the Department of Justice’s final response was, ‘never mind,’ and they readily shared the agreement,” Garrett said. “It is a totally unremarkable non-prosecution agreement, raising the question why it was ever sealed in the first place.”

Ashley agreed that the difficulty involved in his information request was “baffling.”

He said the request was the first time he has ever invoked FOIA, the federal law which requires its agencies to publicly disclose the documents it generates in the course of doing business — unless a legally exempted reason, such as a secret in the interest of national security, dictates otherwise.

Ashley argued for a “strong public interest in understanding the judicial system and why admitted wrongdoers are not criminally prosecuted.”

Ashley and Garrett’s collection of non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements already include deals made with Boeing Co., Google Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, Halliburton Co. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., among others, that were not sealed by the government.

The clinic will now likely file one all-encompassing request for the outstanding documents.

“I hope that the Department of Justice agrees to promptly release the other agreements that have not been disclosed to date,” Garrett said. “There is enormous public interest in the resolution of corporate prosecutions, and the public and the press will only continue to wonder why some of these deals have been kept under wraps.”

Garrett is the author of a forthcoming book, Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations, which bases many of its findings on public records compiled with Ashley, including additional plea agreements.

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