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March 20, 2013

Corporate Crime and Punishment

Two weeks ago, a unanimous Supreme Court rebuffed the Securities and Exchange Commission in Gabelli v. SEC. The SEC maintained that its enforcement actions for fines under the Investment Advisers Act weren’t subject to the five-year statute of limitations. This wasn’t the first time the courts have pushed back a federal agency for overreaching. It won’t be the last.

But the SEC’s audacity prompts a broader policy question: What good is accomplished by imposing monetary penalties on corporations, as the agency attempted to do in Gabelli? The answer is that when such penalties are sought by the government, they probably do more harm than good.

Monetary damages, including penalties, that are awarded in private lawsuits are an attempt to compensate victims of corporate fraud and other unlawful behavior, usually shareholders or customers, making them as “whole” as the law can approximate. The SEC doesn’t seek monetary fines in most cases—it has an array of other enforcement options including injunctive or remedial relief. When it does pursue a fine, however, the purpose is solely punitive.”

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Read full Wall Street Journal article here

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