People rarely think about their conduct at work as being potentially illegal, or that jail time could result from poor workplace decisions. However, this fact is the reality. Organizations are fined, and executives are sentenced to jail, when business laws are broken. Many of the workplace violations are nonviolent crimes, such as fraud, property crimes, or drug- or alcohol-related infractions. Regardless of the level of violence or the employee’s motivation for committing the crime, breaking the law can lead to negative consequences for the business, its employees, and its customers.
Constitutional Authority to Regulate Business
Congress is given the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” Our forefathers wanted to facilitate easier trade among the states by allowing Congress to adopt rules that could be uniformly applied. The theory was that if commercial enterprises knew that they would be dealing with essentially the same rules across the nation, it would be much easier to run their businesses and keep commerce flowing more efficiently.
While federal courts initially interpreted the commerce power narrowly, over time, the federal courts have decided that the commerce clause gives the federal government broad powers to regulate commerce, not only on an interstate (between the states) level, but also on an intrastate (within each state) level, as long as some economic transaction is involved. The federal government does not usually exceed its regulatory powers.
White Collar Crime
White collar crimes are characterized by deceit, concealment, or violation of trust. They are committed by business professionals. They generally involve fraud, and the employees committing the crimes are motivated by the desire for financial gains or fear of losing business standing, money, or property. Fraud is the intentional misrepresentation of material facts for monetary gain. This type of crime is not dependent on threats or violence.
White collar crimes tend to violate state laws, and sometimes federal laws. The violation depends on what is involved in the crime. For instance, criminal acts involving the United States postal system or interstate commerce violate federal law.
Although white collar crimes do not need to include physical violence, these types of crimes can destroy companies, the environment, and the financial stability of clients, employees, and communities. In 2018, Jeremiah Hand and his brothers, Jehu Hand and Adam Hand, were convicted and sentenced to between 9 and 30 months in prison for their respective roles in a pump-and-dump scheme. In this scheme, they were dishonest about control over their company’s stock, and even went as far as filing false forms in an effort to raise the value of the stock. Once the value of the stock was raised, they released their shares into the market.
Types of Business Crimes
Business crimes or white collar crimes are not limited to pump-and-dump schemes; they come in many different forms. As previously stated, these crimes often involve deceit, fraud, or misinformation. The types of high-profile crimes include Ponzi schemes, embezzlement, and crimes that intentionally violate environmental laws and regulations. This section will explore these three types of crimes and provide examples from the 2000s.
Ponzi schemes (also known as pyramid schemes) are investing scams that promise investors low-risk investment opportunities with a high rate of return. The high rates are paid to old investors with money acquired from the acquisition of new investors. The performance of the market is not a factor in the investors' rate of return.
Bernie Madoff operated a 20-year Ponzi scheme through his company. He paid high returns (above average) using the investments of new clients (investors). In 2008, investors attempted to withdraw funds, but the Madoff organization was not able to provide the reimbursement. Madoff is currently serving a more than 100-year sentence in prison.
Larceny and Embezzlement
Larceny and embezzlement are two forms of theft that can occur within a business. Larceny occurs when a person unlawfully takes the personal property of another person or a business. For example, if an employee takes another employee’s computer with the intent of stealing it, he or she may be guilty of larceny. In contrast, embezzlement occurs when a person has been entrusted with an item of value and then refuses to return it or does not return the item. For example, if an employee is entrusted with the petty cash at his or her office and that person purposefully takes some of the money for himself or herself, this would be embezzlement.
One high-profile example of embezzlement occurred at Koss Corporation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sujata “Sue” Sachdeva was a Vice President of Finance and Principal Accounting Officer at Koss Corporation. Sachdeva was convicted of embezzling $34 million over a 5-year period and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison, as well as restitution to Koss Corporation. Sachdeva was entrusted with the company’s funds and did not utilize the funds as intended.
Many federal statutes regulate the environment. Many of these laws carry both civil and criminal penalties for violations.
The following federal laws can carry criminal penalties:
- Clean Air Act
- Clean Water Act
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act
- Endangered Species Act
The International Petroleum Corporation of Delaware (IPC) is paying restitution for environmental crimes, which included a scheme to violate the Clean Water Act. From 1992 to 2012, IPC processed oil and wastewater. The company admitted to altering required water test samples so they met the limits set by their permit before releasing the waste into the city’s sewer system. The company also admitted to transporting waste that contained benzene, barium, chromium, cadmium, lead, PCE, and trichloroethene for disposal in South Carolina without the required reporting of the information, which also violated environmental laws.
Other Types of Business Crime
The business environment is complex, and some crimes are less common or receive less media attention. These types of crimes include those that violate antitrust laws, racketeering, bribery, money laundering, and spamming.
Violations of Antitrust Laws
Antitrust laws do not allow activities that restrain trade or promote market domination. These laws are in place to provide guidance and supervision of mergers and acquisitions of companies to prevent market abuse. The goal is to avoid monopolies, or the control of one organization over a specific market. Monopolies reduce competition and, as a result, can have a detrimental impact on consumer prices. Since the United States is founded on capitalist principles, anti-competitive business conduct is prohibited by law, and some of those laws, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act, do include provisions about criminal punishment.
Racketeering activities include loan-sharking, money laundering, and blackmailing. In the past, the term has been used to describe organized crime. The term is now applied to other entities, as well. RICO, or the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, is a federal law aimed at preventing and prosecuting by both businesses and organized crime syndicates. “RICO is now used against insurance companies, stock brokerages, tobacco companies, banks, and other large commercial enterprises.” (Schodolski, 2018). Racketeering is no longer limited to organized crime. Health insurance companies and other legitimate businesses are being accused of pressure tactics similar to those used in organized crime racketeering. These claims involve allegations of lying about the actual cost of care, damaging the business for physicians, bullying patients, and attempting to control the doctor-patient relationship through lies and pressure tactics.
Bribery occurs when monetary payments, goods, services, information, or anything of value is exchanged for favorable or desired actions. You can be charged with bribery for offering a bribe, or taking a bribe. Bribery is illegal within the United States and outside of it. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits bribery payments by U.S. companies to foreign government officials with an intent to influence foreign business results. One example of bribery would be a situation in which a pharmaceutical company offers special benefits to individuals who agree to prescribe their medications.
Money laundering refers to taking “dirty”money, or money obtained through criminal activities, and passing it through otherwise legitimate businesses so that it appears “clean.” The money cannot be tied back to the illegal acts. Clean money is money that was obtained through legitimate business functions.
Sending unsolicited commercial email, or spam, is illegal. While the onus is on consumers to avail themselves of whatever programs they can to block spam, laws are in place to discourage the sending of spam. The following points are outlined in the anti-spam legislation in Washington state and are similar to other legislation:
- Individuals may not initiate the sending or plan the sending of an email that misrepresents the sender as someone he or she is not, represents the sender as being associated with an organization that he or she has no association, or otherwise hides the identity of the sender or origin of the email. Email messages may not have false or misleading information in the subject line of the message.
- Commercial emails must include the contact information of the sender and the receiver must be aware that the message is from a commercial source.
States like Washington are putting legislation in place to reduce spam and asking consumers to take an active role in addressing spam. In general, legislators realize that spam is a nuisance and are finding ways to hold companies liable for sending spam messages.
It is important to know that not all people charged with business crimes or white collar crimes are necessarily guilty. A person must be found guilty of the crime before he or she is convicted. Regardless, business crimes and white collar crimes negatively impact the individual, the organization he or she worked for, the community, and customers.