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Konopacki 9/12/18

A book by investigative journalist Jesse Eisinger with a slightly vulgar title that tends to raise eyebrows in polite company should have been a sensation when it was released last year.

Instead, "The Chickenshit Club," while it did fairly well in sales, got a lot of ho-hums from a public that's apparently become inoculated to corporate shenanigans and a weak government financial regulatory system. When the financial giants do wrong and get away with it, as they did after the 2007-08 Great Recession, most people are tempted to ask, "So, what else is new?"

I had read a review of the book, but never got a copy until my longtime friend, retired Memorial High School history teacher Bruce Gregg, dropped one off at my house while I was recuperating from surgery earlier this year.

"This will explain a lot," he told me — and he was right.

"The Chickenshit Club" is a name coined by none other than Donald Trump-fired FBI Director James Comey. He coined it when he was the U.S. attorney for New York City's acclaimed Southern District, which once was a leader in prosecuting white-collar crime.

On the first day he assumed the duties of U.S. attorney, Comey gathered the 100 or so assistant U.S. attorneys for a meeting and asked for a show of hands from those who had never lost a case they had prosecuted. Dozens of hands went up, prompting Comey to declare, "Welcome to the Chickenshit Club" — meaning that the reason many had never lost a case was because they never took a difficult one to trial.

Comey declared that was about to change and that he wanted his prosecutors not to skip the "tough" cases against corporate execs and their high-priced lawyers but, in the name of justice, to take them on, even at the risk of losing.

Well, that was 2002, and as Eisinger so aptly points out, "The Chickenshit Club" today is brimming with members. Prosecutors have little taste for bringing top corporate execs whose companies break the law to account, settling instead for a far safer route — charging the corporation itself and settling for what appears to be a substantial fine.

Trouble is, of course, to the corporate giants like those who brought the nation's economy to its knees in 2007-08, fines are simply the cost of doing business.

Eisinger explains in the book how this has all come about. He spent years following the merry-go-round that serves as white-collar justice these days. The lawyers who make fortunes are the ones employed by big law firms in New York and Washington who specialize in defending corporate America — the Chase Banks,  Wells Fargos, Bank of Americas and the like.

The lawyers on the other end, the ones employed by the U.S. attorneys offices, Securities and Exchange Commission and other governmental regulatory agencies, don't become rich on government salaries. (Donald Trump, of course, doesn't want to give them any raises, either.)

Eisinger describes how those government lawyers are regularly offered jobs by the big firms. Those wanting to get ahead, as is naturally the case, realize those job offers might not be forthcoming if they're too hard on their corporate clients.

That's not the only cause, of course. The political pressures against charging big shots who know full well how laws are being violated are enormous, especially when so many of them are major campaign contributors. Thus, even if government lawyers want to move against individuals, their bosses ask for more modest prosecutions.

Eisinger points out that this has been so whether it was the waning days of the George W. Bush administration or during the term of Barack Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder.

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Eisinger wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times late last month in which he commented on the crimes of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, two of Donald Trump's henchmen. They did what they did because they were sure they could get away with, Eisinger wrote.

In other words, that's what happens when regulators become hamstrung by those with wealth and power.

"Which shall rule," Wisconsin's legendary Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Ryan famously asked back in 1873. "Wealth or man?"

Guess we now know the answer.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. 

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.