Since the presidential election, the Justice Department reached more than a dozen business-related settlements. There are also more in the pipeline for this month (January 2009), which prompted interest groups and lawyers to claim that companies were rushing to seek more favorable outcomes before the new administration took over. Corporate lawyers say the climate for business settlements is to be much more harsh under President Obama’s appointees as they take charge of the Justice Department. For example, the Attorney General-designate told an audience he would expand the concentration of federal prosecutors into corporate suites.
Three lawyers, who regularly represent companies before the Justice Department, began to take notice of the increase after the November 4 election. An examination of fifteen agreements involving corporations since early November alleges that a majority of the misconduct dates back five years or more. This makes many wonder why the cases took so long to mature and why resolutions were finally being made only weeks before the Bush administration was out of office. They assume companies were trying to take advantage of an administration that was more favorable to business, and push the settlements through between Christmas and New Years while no one noticed. Siemens, for example, decided to pay $450 million in criminal fines, which would allow it to still be eligible to bid on and win U.S. government contracts.
The Justice Department, however, claims there is nothing unusual about end-of-year settlements. A spokesman asserts the department makes its enforcement decisions solely on the facts of the investigation and the law; an examination of previous months and years shows a steady stream of cases that have been resolved through a settlement or plea agreement and that it is not unusual for parties to resolve their matters before the end of the year. Since November, the Justice Department has announced nineteen settlements or plea deals with companies, compared with sixteen in the same time frame during this time period in 2007 and five in 2006.
Two other explanations for the spike, pointed out by corporate attorneys and interest groups, were companies not wanting to ruin their reputation during the holiday season and government attorneys wanting to complete big cases before they left for private-sector work.