U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff has given a speech worth reading about why no high-level executives have been prosecuted in relation to the financial crisis. One thing he suggests is that the insider trading cases have distracted prosecutors:
As for the Department of Justice proper, a decision was made around 2009 to spread the investigation of these financial fraud cases among numerous U.S. Attorney's Offices, many of which had little or no prior experience in investigating and prosecuting sophisticated financial frauds. At the same time, the U.S. Attorney's Office with the greatest expertise in these kinds of cases, the Southern District of New York, was just embarking on its prosecution of insider trading cases arising from the Rajaratnam tapes, which soon proved a gold mine of good cases that absorbed a huge amount of the attention of the securities fraud unit of that office. While I want to stress again that I have no inside information, as a former chief of that unit I would venture to guess that the cases involving the financial crisis were parceled out to Assistants who also had insider trading cases. Which do you think an Assistant would devote most of her attention to: an insider trading case that was already nearly ready to go to indictment and that might lead to a high visibility trial, or a financial crisis case that was just getting started, would take years to complete, and had no guarantee of even leading to an indictment? Of course, she would put her energy into the insider trading case, and if she was lucky, it would go to trial, she would win, and she would then take a job with a large law firm. And in the process, the financial fraud case would get lost in the shuffle.
Judge Rakoff also gets into some of the problems with "deferred prosecution agreements":
If you are a prosecutor attempting to discover the individuals responsible for an apparent financial fraud, you go about your business in much the same way you go after mobsters or drug kingpins: you start at the bottom and, over many months or years, slowly work your way up. Specifically, you start by "flipping" some lower or mid-level participant in the fraud whom you can show was directly responsible for making one or more false material misrepresentations but who is willing to cooperate, and maybe even "wear a wire" (i.e. secretly record his colleagues), in order to reduce his sentence. With his help, and aided by the substantial prison penalties now available in white collar cases, you go up the ladder. For a detailed example of how this works, I recommend Kurt Eichenwald's well-known book The Informant, which describes how FBI agents, over a period of three years, uncovered the huge price-fixing conspiracy involving high-level executives at Archer Daniels, all of whom were successfully prosecuted.
But if your priority is prosecuting the company, a different scenario takes place. Early in the investigation, you invite in counsel to the company and explain to him or her why you suspect fraud. He or she responds by assuring you that the company wants to cooperate and do the right thing, and to that end the company has hired a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, now a partner at a respected law firm, to do an internal investigation. The company's counsel asks you to defer your investigation until the company's own internal investigation is completed, on the condition that the company will share its results with you. In order to save time and resources, you agree. Six months later the company's counsel returns, with a detailed report showing that mistakes were made but that the company is now intent on correcting them. You and the company then agree that the company will enter into a deferred prosecution agreement that couples some immediate fines with the imposition of expensive but internal prophylactic measures. For all practical purposes the case is now over. You are happy because you believe that you have helped prevent future crimes; the company is happy because it has avoided a devastating indictment; and perhaps the happiest of all are the executives, or former executives, who actually committed the underlying misconduct, for they are left untouched.
I suggest that this is not the best way to proceed. Although it is supposedly justified in terms of preventing future crimes, I suggest that the future deterrent value of successfully prosecuting individuals far outweighs the prophylactic benefits of imposing internal compliance measures that are often little more than window-dressing. Just going after the company is also both technically and morally suspect. It is technically suspect because, under the law, you should not indict or threaten to indict a company unless you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that some managerial agent of the company committed the alleged crime; and if you can prove that, why not indict the manager? And from a moral standpoint, punishing a company and its many innocent employees and shareholders for the crimes committed by some unprosecuted individuals seems contrary to elementary notions of moral responsibility.