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Justice Department Details New Focus On Wall Street Executives

In what is the first major policy announcement by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the Justice Department has asked civil and criminal investigators to focus on individuals instead of corporations when looking into white-collar crime.

In prepared remarks obtained by NPR's Carrie Johnson, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates will say later today that a "crime is crime."

"Americans should never believe, even incorrectly, that one's criminal activity will go unpunished simply because it was committed on behalf of a corporation," she said. "We could be doing a bang-up job in every facet of the Department's operations – we could be bringing all the right cases and making all the right decisions. But if the citizens of this country don't have confidence that the criminal justice system operates fairly and applies equally — regardless of who commits the crime or where it is committed — then we're in trouble."

The New York Times, which first reported the story, says the policy comes after years of criticism that the Justice Department went too soft on big companies and their executives following the financial collapse of 2008.

The Times reports:

"... In many ways, the new rules are an exercise in public messaging, substantive in some respects but symbolic in others. Because the memo lays out guidelines, not laws, its effect will be determined largely by how Justice Department officials interpret it. And several of the points in the memo merely codify policy that is already in place.

"'It's a good memo, but it states what should have been the policy for years,' said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor and the author of the book 'Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise With Corporations.' 'And without more resources, how are prosecutors going to know whether companies are still burying information about their employees?'

"It is also unknown whether the rules will encourage companies to turn in their executives, but Ms. Yates said the Justice Department would not allow companies to foist the blame onto low-level officials."

In the memo sent out yesterday, Yates explains the importance of holding individuals accountable for white-collar crime.

"It deters future illegal activity, it incentivizes changes in corporate behavior, it ensures that the proper parties are held responsible for their actions, and it promotes the public's confidence in our justice system," she wrote.

In the past, Yates explained in her prepared remarks, investigators have prioritized going after corporations because of "the likelihood of financial recovery from their investigative targets."

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