Pleading for leniency in a federal courtroom Wednesday, Paul Manafort’s lawyers pointed out that he would never have been charged in the first place “but for a short stint as campaign manager in a presidential election.”
That is sadly true, and a point worthy of our attention. Manafort pled guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud and multiple counts of conspiracy after netting more than $50 million for ten years of illicit services to overseas dirtbags. And yet, had he merely resisted the temptation to offer his talents to Donald Trump in 2016, he would very probably be a free man and still in possession of most of his homes, vehicles, clothes and the other accoutrements of what Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson called an “ostentatiously opulent and extravagantly lavish” lifestyle.
The “but for” scenario failed to move Judge Jackson, who added another 43 months to Manafort’s previous (and widely decried) sentence of 47 months on weightier charges assessed by a more sympathetic jurist. Nevertheless, the defense team’s observation raises serious questions—not about Manafort’s guilt or punishment but about how many other career fraudsters are running around with impunity, because they haven’t become ensnared in an unprecedented morass of presidential corruption?
We cannot, of course, hope for a precise answer. There is, however, every reason to suppose the number is a large one. American law enforcement has a deserved reputation for going easy on the white-collar crimes of well-off white people while reserving much of its wrath for small-time thieves and drug offenders, with extra discredit awarded to people of color. The Obama Administration served up a memorable example of this double standard by failing to send a single bank executive or securities trader to prison for the massive fraud that triggered the financial and economic meltdown of 2008-09. And if you are guessing that things have only gotten much worse in the Trump years, you are guessing correctly.
In January 2019, the federal government brought a reported 337 new white-collar crime cases—a modern-day low, down 35.7 percent from the level of five years ago, according to the latest Justice Department data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University.
The Syracuse project monitors these numbers partly to call attention to performance differences among U.S. Attorney’s offices. Many of the lawyers thus employed are well-heeled folks who have revolved out of, and/or plan to revolve into, lucrative careers in private practice – a circumstance with the potential to diminish their enthusiasm for cases against rich and powerful malefactors. We should be doing everything we can to remind them of their prosecutorial duty and call out those who conspicuously evade it. As the Manafort case reminds us, however, the ranks of law enforcement include plenty of investigators, prosecutors and judges who are dedicated to their work and even take special satisfaction (as they rightly should) from assignments that give them a chance to bring down the sort of criminals who are accustomed to thinking of themselves as beyond the reach of the law.
Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against such cases by decades of legislation and court rulings that make them exceedingly hard to prove. It took a massive investment of money and investigative and prosecutorial effort to nab Paul Manafort. That kind of expenditure, alas, is the exception, not the rule.