Nobody likes to get cheated. Not seniors and not students; not professionals and not hourly workers; not Republicans and not Democrats. In fact, there are few things as universal as the sense of injustice when one side breaks the rules — and gets away with it. Yet prosecutors infrequently punish corporations that behave badly. Is this because corporate abuse is rare or because the law is inadequate?
New research commissioned by Public Rights Project sounds the alarm that corporate abuse is widespread. Even with our years of experience as consumer and family advocates, we were surprised to see how many survey respondents — 54% — said they had been victims of corporate abuse in the past decade. Citing offenses from predatory lending and debt collection to wage theft and refusal to repair unsafe housing, more than half of Americans surveyed said they were harmed by corporate misconduct.
Stress, sleepless nights, lost jobs
The research found that most people who experience this abuse don’t receive help and suffer months or years of harm as a result. Respondents described stress, sleepless nights, lost jobs and damaged relationships. The reality is that corporations get away with breaking the law while families are left holding the bag. When corporations get away with such abuse, Americans lose their trust in government as their economic security erodes.
Both of us have seen firsthand the dangers of unaddressed corporate abuse and the importance of government holding the powerful forces of big business accountable. In 2012, as a law professor at University of California, Irvine, and an attorney at the California Department of Justice, respectively, we worked together to make sure that the hard-won concessions secured by then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris in the national mortgage settlement actually reached California families.
Tenants and homeowners were suffering from the foreclosure crisis, and help from government was much slower to get to families than to the big banks. We pushed and prodded daily to make sure that the big banks kept their promises. The result was that Californians received $20 billion in relief for the harm banks had caused, helping many of these homeowners rebuild their lives. Without this enforcement, thousands more Californians would have lost their homes and savings.
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Now, as the Trump administration rolls back protections for workers and consumers across the federal government, we see a critical need to protect people at the local and state levels. One way to do that is to prosecute corporations for violating laws that aim to protect our communities. Enforcing the law not only creates a sense of justice, it also changes lives. It helps level the playing field by delivering fair wages, cleaner emissions, safer housing and honest lending practices.
In their survey responses, victims were clear that they want state and local prosecutors to prioritize holding corporations accountable for these abuses. It’s time our prosecutors and politicians listen to them.
In our experience, most prosecutors focus on criminal cases brought to them by police or on defending public agencies from liability. But many state and local governments have civil and criminal authority to address corporate abuse and enforce consumer and worker protections. This authority is vastly underused as a lever to vindicate public rights.
A recent bill that one of us (Rep. Porter) introduced with Sen. Harris offers one important step forward: Give state attorneys general more power to take on banks that cheat consumers and homeowners with predatory practices. Too often, big businesses hide their wrongdoings, distract from malfeasance with philanthropy and shut down private lawsuits with arbitration requirements. Given the prevalence of corporate abuse, we need more cops on the beat.
Existing laws can protect workers
Beyond new legislation, state and local governments must do more with their current authority. Every state in the country has a consumer protection law that protects residents from unlawful, fraudulent and deceptive business practices. Most states and many cities have minimum wage, overtime, paid leave and other workers’ rights laws that provide civil and criminal penalties against businesses that cheat workers. State attorneys general, city and county attorneys and local prosecutors already have much of the authority they need — so why don’t they use it more?
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As movements to reform prosecutors’ offices gain steam and a new wave of candidates run for local and state offices, the research outlined in the Public Rights Project’s report lays out an enormous opportunity and need for public officials and candidates to incorporate corporate accountability into their work. The majority of people who took part in the study said they would come forward to report predatory corporations if they knew their government would be an ally on these issues. People need and want their government to hold big business to the terms of the law — and we believe they will vote for candidates who deliver for them.
When prosecutors hold corporations accountable for breaking the law, Americans see that the legal system can work for them, not just against them. When people see justice in their lives, they gain trust and confidence in government. The end result is a stronger democracy and more stable economy for everyone.
Rep. Katie Porter, D-California, is a tenured law professor at the University of California, Irvine. Jill Habig is a lawyer and founder and president of Public Rights Project. Follow them on Twitter: @RepKatiePorter and @jehabig