The Rules Are Different for the Rich

What do Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr., Harvey Weinstein, and the fine people of JPMorgan Chase have in common? None of them are in prison, nor have they been charged with a crime. That’s not because they haven’t done things that seem to be potentially criminal—it’s because in America, it’s better to be rich than innocent.

According to an investigation from the New Yorker, ProPublica, and WNYC, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. lied to potential buyers of condos in one of the Trump Organization’s properties, only escaping prosecution after their dad’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, intervened with Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance, to whom he had donated $25,000. (Vance returned that donation before meeting with Kasowitz, but then Kasowitz raised another $50,000 for Vance, which the DA now plans to return as well.) On Thursday, one day after that report dropped, the New York Times published an article detailing decades of sexual harassment allegations against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who both apologized for his behaviour and threatened to sue the paper for revealing it. Weinstein has never been charged with a crime—though in a sort of small-world coincidence, his lawyer reportedly donated $10,000 to Vance after the DA declined to bring charges relating to the producer allegedly groping a model in 2015.

The Weinstein bombshell came just hours after VICE contributor David Dayen published an exposé at the Nation about how JPMorgan Chase paid off a massive fine incurred for shady business practices in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis in part by forgiving mortgages it doesn’t seem to have actually owned, apparently deceiving not just the government but homeowners and investors in the process.

That wealth protects people who might otherwise be called “criminals” from consequences shouldn’t be a controversial idea but a simple statement of fact. Thanks to America’s perverse cash bail system, money can literally get you out of jail in most cases. Beyond that, the rich can afford high-priced defense lawyers where the poor have to rely on public defenders—in Louisiana, indigent defendants are lucky if they even get that.

But a week’s worth of stories about the alleged misdeeds of the powerful shows the subtler ways money acts as a shield. The Trump kids (who were both in their 20s at the time they were reportedly misleading would-be customers) didn’t need to bribe anyone. It was enough that their dad’s lawyer could get a meeting with Manhattan’s top prosecutor. Weinstein’s behavior—an open secret in his industry for years—was never reported on in part because, like other powerful people, he was able to pay settlements to accusers in order to keep them silent. And as JPMorgan Chase’s example shows, it’s not enough for the government to demand that a powerful corporation do something—it has to monitor them carefully, or they’ll simply go back to the same bad practices, even kicking sand in the taxpayers’ eye for good measure.

It seems impossible to imagine any reform that would level the playing field when it comes to the ability of the rich to escape consequences in the United States. The federal government could try to abolish the cash bail system and work to make sure all defendants had proper representation regardless of income—but wealthy people would always afford better lawyers, and always have the social status that serves as an invisible protective coating. Prosecutors are always going to tread more carefully when going after a Trump than a low-level drug dealer or mugger. By a similar token, banks—even obviously crooked ones—never face the same level of scrutiny as your everyday scammer.

On the other hand, it doesn’t take formal changes to the law to bring justice to America’s rich and heinous—it just takes prosecutors willing to target them. In his book The Chickenshit Club, journalist Jesse Eisinger documented how the US Justice Department has moved away from prosecuting corporate criminals; instead of jail time for misdeeds, executives like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon face fines and a few days of bad press, at most. Would it really be shocking if his employees felt empowered to engage in fraudulent practices so soon after being fined for almost the exact same sort of wrongdoing?

The Trump administration, it goes without saying, is not interested in fixing any of this stuff. Donald Trump himself sent $25,000 (through his charity) to Florida district attorney Pam Bondi while she was in a position to level charges against Trump University, which took thousands in tuition from students and offered little in return. He ended up paying out $25 million in a settlement to end a civil suit against his university, and he’s still facing a lawsuit from one of the many women who have accused him of sexual harassment. The same cocoon that shelters bankers from prison also shelters the president (Trump also enjoys the special perk of presidential immunity in many cases). Investigative journalism may allow us to see that cocoon more clearly, but it doesn’t seem capable of shattering it.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.

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