Nocera and Collins

In “Of Peanuts and Prosecutions” Mr. Nocera says that prosecuting corporate executives for wrongdoing is the single most powerful deterrent imaginable.  Ms. Collins says “Bye, Bye, John Boehner” and tells us that there are reasons no child should want to grow up to be speaker of the House.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Salmonella poisoning is an awful affliction. It is marked by diarrhea, abdominal cramps, dehydration and fever that can last as long as a week. Many people wind up in the hospital. Others develop something called reactive arthritis. And in a small number of cases, the victims die.

A major outbreak of salmonella poisoning took place in America in 2008 and 2009, when nine people died and over 700 others were reported ill. The outbreak was traced to a peanut processing plant in Georgia, owned by the Peanut Corporation of America, a $30 million company whose chief executive was a man named Stewart Parnell.

The plant was soon shuttered and the company liquidated. Eventually, Parnell, 61, was indicted and prosecuted. Found guilty, the former C.E.O. received a stunning sentence earlier this week: 28 years in prison.

A serious auto accident is also a terrible thing to endure. We know now that the faulty ignition switch installed in General Motors-made Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars manufactured between 2003 and 2007 resulted in at least 124 deaths. In addition, 275 people were injured badly enough to be awarded compensation — some in the millions — by Kenneth Feinberg, the well-known lawyer G.M. hired to run its victims’ compensation fund. At least 20 of the injured, including a young boy, will require 24-hour care for the rest of their lives.

And yet, a few days before Parnell’s sentencing, Preet Bharara, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, announced a settlement with G.M. that included a $900 million fine and a three-year deferred prosecution agreement — but not a single indictment of a G.M. employee. (Several remain under investigation.)

How can this be? How is it possible that the executive of a company whose product killed nine people gets a lengthy jail sentence yet the executives of a company whose product killed 124 people get off scot free?

Bharara’s explanation — and there is some truth to it — is that it is unusually difficult to prosecute auto industry executives. It is not a crime “to put into the stream of commerce a defective automobile that might kill people,” he said during his briefing with the media. What’s more, thanks to auto industry lobbying, the nation’s auto safety laws generally call for punishing corporate, rather than individual, malfeasance.

Another reason is specific to the ignition issue: For years, G.M. executives didn’t realize that when the ignition shut down, the airbags also lost power. Thus, G.M. officials didn’t view the problem as a safety issue. In winning cases against individuals, prosecutors have to show criminal intent.

But here’s one of the big surprises about the Parnell case, which was brought by Mike Moore, a federal prosecutor in Georgia. Moore relied as much or more on plain old fraud charges as he did on food safety laws, which do allow for individual prosecutions. The fact that the salmonella outbreak caused nine deaths wasn’t even part of the trial. Instead, the focus was on whether Parnell committed fraud by knowingly introducing tainted peanut butter paste into interstate commerce. The fraud conviction is what brought that eye-popping sentence.

There are plenty of people — people who genuinely understand the law — who believe that Bharara could have done the same thing with G.M. executives who knew about the faulty ignition but said nothing to the government, even though they were required to do so within five days of learning about a safety problem. In their view, Bharara’s cautious reading of the law is far too narrow.

“The fraud in the peanut butter case is that it was contaminated and they knew it,” said Clarence Ditlow, who runs the Center for Auto Safety. “What did G.M. executives do? They knowingly sold a defective car.” Rena Steinzor, a law professor and author of “Why Not Jail?,” about the legal consequences of industrial mishaps, said that in the prosecutors’ statement of fact they specifically noted that G.M. was assuring the public that the cars were safe when people inside the company knew they weren’t.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and a former attorney general of that state, has co-authored a bill that would make it easier to prosecute auto executives. But he also had little patience with Bharara’s explanation.

“It’s a crime to make a false statement to the government,” Blumenthal said. “18USC1001,” he added, citing the law. “If you submit a false statement to a federally insured bank in connection with a $500 loan, prosecutors can go after you. G.M.’s false statements are just as much a violation of the law.”

I’ve seen it written recently that the urge to prosecute corporate executives is little more than an exercise is schadenfreude. But it’s not. It is instead the single most powerful deterrent imaginable — far more powerful than a fine, which is meaningless to a company like G.M.

“I guarantee you,” says Blumenthal, “one sentence like [Parnell’s] would change auto safety dramatically and enduringly.”

Amen.  Go get ’em…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Farewell, John Boehner, farewell.

These departures are a little wearying. It was not long ago that we said adieu to Rick Perry. And then Scott Walker. And of course we are gearing up for the moment when the political world says goodbye forever to Donald Trump.

Good times, all.

Boehner’s leave-taking is a bit more of a mixed bag. The surprise announcement came the day after he sat proudly in the background while Pope Francis gave his address to Congress. You will not be stunned to hear that crying occurred, none of it involving Francis.

And there was a private meeting, in which reliable sources said the pope admired Boehner’s tie. But there is no indication he grabbed the speaker by the shoulders and cried: “You’re surrounded by crazy people! Get out while you can, my son!”

Not that it couldn’t have happened. The pope is infallible.

Maybe Boehner fell on his sword to keep the government from being shut down. We’ll probably never figure that one out, since it’s impossible to discuss the question without using the term “continuing resolution.”

The Republicans want to defund Planned Parenthood. There are many, many reasons that idea is not going anywhere. We will not enumerate them, since it would require the mention of the term “budget reconciliation process.” However, the minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, had expressed confidence that Planned Parenthood would be safe even if the Republicans “vote their alleged hearts out.”

We should spend more time quoting Nancy Pelosi. Also noting that in recent years, the nation has avoided a raft of political cataclysms because Pelosi has delivered crucial votes whenever Boehner could not get his own majority to behave in a minimally responsible manner.

Anyway, under normal circumstances, Boehner would have used the Democratic votes to keep the government funded. Then the right wing would have descended on him like a band of vicious wombats.

No more. The speaker may still need the Democrats, but once it’s all over, it’ll be … all over. Boehner is retiring and everybody loves him. There’s nothing like an imminent departure to make a politician popular.

“A patriot,” said President Obama. “To say that I will miss John Boehner is a tremendous understatement,” said the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid.

O.K., not popular with totally everybody. The right-wing Value Voters Summit burst into applause when Senator Marco Rubio announced the resignation news. “I’m not here today to bash anyone,” Rubio said, slightly inaccurately. “But the time has come to turn the page … and allow a new generation of leadership in this country.” Rubio is always promising to usher in an era of fresh new ideas, which appear to involve lowering taxes on the wealthy.

So who would you like to see as the next speaker of the House? (Really, you don’t need a reason. People will just be impressed you have an opinion.) Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California is the favorite. Some say he’s a little dim, but there are worse things in the world.

Then there’s the majority whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana. He’s a red state guy, which seems appropriate. And he has no memory of giving a speech at that white power convention.

Or what about Paul Ryan? No, wait — take Paul Ryan back. The former vice-presidential nominee declared he was ineligible since he is the father of young children. “This is a job for an empty nester,” he told reporters.

It was a grand moment of gender progress. Someday, perhaps, ambitious women will be allowed to say stuff like that. Maybe even under circumstances that do not involve trying to dodge a politically disastrous assignment.

Boehner claimed he had always been planning to retire at the end of the year. He was going to announce it on his birthday, Nov. 17. But then he suddenly decided it might be better to do it on … Friday. To end “leadership turmoil.”

The bottom line is that the next time the Freedom Caucus decides it cannot support any legislation that fails to defund Planned Parenthood, repeal Obamacare and eliminate the Department of Homeland Security, it will be somebody else’s problem.

John Boehner won’t be around to worry about continuing resolutions. Or the coming crisis over how to keep highway construction going. Or funding the national debt. And after that it’ll be Thanksgiving and time for the next government shutdown.

Boehner won’t care. No sirree, he’ll be back in Reading, Ohio, peacefully carving the turkey. Or maybe in his Florida condo. Soon, he won’t even have to set foot in Reading, Ohio, again unless he feels like it. He hung out with the pope and now he’s hanging up his hat. Canny fellow.

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