Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Will the Citigroup Ruling Challenge Health Care Leaders' Impunity?

A federal judge's refusal to approve yet another cozy settlement that was supposed to resolve allegations of wrong-doing by a giant corporation has left the financial world atwitter.  It may be that this ruling will also affect the coziness between giant health care corporations and government regulators. 

Summary of the Citigroup Case

We first discussed this case twp weeks ago here.  Here is a summary of the government's (in this case, the Securities and Exchange Commision's) original allegations from the New York Times.
According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Citigroup stuffed a $1 billion mortgage fund that it sold to investors in 2007 with securities that it believed would fail so that it could bet against its customers and profit when values declined. The fraud, the agency said, was in Citigroup’s falsely telling investors that an independent party was choosing the portfolio’s investments. Citigroup made $160 million from the deal and investors lost $700 million.
The Problems with the Proposed Settlement
Judge Jed Rakoff refused to approve the settlement because of a series of problems, listed below as summarized by the Schumpeter columnist in the Economist.
Mr Rakoff faulted the SEC for prosecuting Citigroup for negligence when a fraud prosecution was warranted; for failing to provide the court with 'any proven or admitted facts upon which to exercise even a modest degree of independent judgment'; for erroneously contending that 'public interest…is not part of [the] applicable standard of judicial review'; and for wrongly arguing that 'if the public interest must be taken into account, the SEC is the sole determiner'.
Mr Rakoff also attacked a second condition of the settlement. Citigroup had agreed to operate under a court injunction if it ever violated the deal, which could lead to contempt charges. Whatever threat this carried, Mr Rackoff wrote, it was mitigated because Citigroup, as other financial firms, had been cited similarly over the past decade—and never faced any consequences.
The Parallels with Legal Settlements Made by Health Care Organizations

Several of the features of the settlement that the Judge found so objectionable are commonly also features of the settlements we have seen involving health care organizations. Government regulators often seem to make much milder charges that were warranted by the apparent facts. They make the organizations party to corporate integrity or deferred prosecution agreements, even though sometimes the same corporations were already subject to such agreements when they appeared to misbehave again. The agreements often allow the organizations to neither admit to or deny any charges, leaving the facts of the case forever in doubt.

Matt Taibi in the Rolling Stone provided some pithy comments on these commonly seen features of legal settlements.
By accepting hundred-million-dollar fines without a full public venting of the facts, the SEC is leveling seemingly significant punishments without telling the public what the defendant is being punished for. This has essentially created a parallel or secret criminal justice system, in which both crime and punishment are adjudicated behind closed doors.

This system allows for ugly consequences in both directions. Imagine if normal criminal defendants were treated this way. Say a prosecutor and street criminal come into a judge’s chamber and explain they’ve cooked up a deal, that the criminal doesn’t have to admit to anything or plead to any crime, but has to spend 18 months in house arrest nonetheless.

What sane judge would sign off on a deal like that without knowing exactly what the facts are? Did the criminal shoot up a nightclub and paralyze someone, or did he just sell a dimebag on the street? Is 18 months a tough sentence or a slap on the wrist? And how is it legally possible for someone to deserve an 18-month sentence without being guilty of anything?

Such deals are logical and legal absurdities, but judges have been signing off on settlements like this with Wall Street defendants for years.
As we have said numerous times before, (starting here in 2008) the current manner of regulation, in which organizations pay fines (and sometimes submit to corporate integrity or deferred prosecution agreements), rarely admit any guilt, but in which individuals who directed, authorized or implemented the alleged misbehavior almost never suffer any negative consequences, fails to deter future bad behavior. We have noted that the costs of the settlements are paid by the organization as a whole, and thus simply regarded as costs of doing business by executives. The leaders' impunity will allow the bad behavior to be repeated again and again.

Here is how Taibbi and Rakoff put it:
these crappy settlements have evolved into a kind of cheap payoff system, in which crimes may be committed over and over again, and the SEC’s only role is to take a bribe each time the offenders slip up and get caught.

If you never have to worry about serious punishments, or court findings of criminal guilt (which would leave you exposed to crippling lawsuits), then there’s simply no incentive to stop committing fraud. These SEC settlements simply become part of the cost of doing business, as Rakoff notes:
As for common experience, a consent judgment that does not involve any admissions and that results in only very modest penalties is just as frequently viewed, particularly in the business community, as a cost of doing business imposed by having to maintain a working relationship with a regulatory agency, rather than as any indication of where the real truth lies. This, indeed, is Citigroup's position in this very case.

That line, 'a cost of doing business imposed by having to maintain a working relationship with a regulatory agency,' is one of the more brutally damning things you’ll ever see a judge write. Rakoff is essentially saying that these fines are payoffs to keep the SEC off the banks’ backs. They’re like the pad that numbers-runners or drug dealers pay to urban precinct-houses every month to keep cops from making real arrests. That's what he means when he refers to 'maintaning a working relationship.' It's heavy stuff.

What the Judge appears to be saying is that the whole system stinks of regulatory capture, and that the settlements paid by the organizations are the moral equivalent of bribes paid to government officials. That is indeed "heavy stuff."

Now that Occupy Wall Street has made it socially acceptable to discuss the economic dysfunction that lead to the great recession or global financial collapse, I can only hope that this discussion will lead to a parallel discussion about health care dysfunction. It certainly seems that the regulatory capture that seems to be part of the dismantling of regulation of finance is similar to regulatory capture affecting health care. But I await someone beyond us few lonely bloggers to take up this topic.

I might as well end with this sentiment from 2009 regarding another case over which Judge Rakoff presided:
Again, in my humble opinion, until the people responsible for the bad behavior experience negative consequences from that behavior, they will continue to perform, direct, and condone bad behavior. We will not achieve real health care reform in the US until we effectively deter unethical, self-serving behavior by leaders of health care organizations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As usual, this too shall pass:

See "SEC Cops Want to Fight U.S. Judge

Agency's Enforcement Unit Expected to Recommend That Commissioners Appeal Citigroup Ruling"