A key figure in the Justice Department’s campaign to crack down on white-collar crime is looking to use a tool he brought to bear both as a prosecutor fighting gang violence in New Orleans and as a lawyer for the city’s sole Fortune 500 company.
Stopping crime before it happens should be a central goal of the more than 1,150 employees of the department’s criminal division, said Assistant Attorney General
who took charge of it last year. For Mr. Polite, prevention is crucial to the department’s efforts to fight both violent crime as well as corporate misconduct such as bribes paid by companies overseas, he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
“Even if we tried to prosecute every instance of corporate wrongdoing that we can possibly achieve, it still wouldn’t be enough,” he said. “We have to invest in prevention as a department, and, frankly, as a society.”
Federal prosecutors dealing with gangs and gun violence have experimented with community outreach, youth mentorship programs and other strategies to prevent crime before it happens. They are now looking to do something similar in the cubicles and boardrooms of American corporations through a focus on compliance.
Over the last two decades, compliance has become a common specialization in corporate legal departments, thanks in part to the Justice Department’s aggressive marshaling of far-reaching statutes like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, an antibribery law Mr. Polite’s division enforces along with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In a sign of the times, Mr. Polite [pronounced po-LEET] is the first in his role to have worked as a chief compliance officer at a major company. Between stints in public service, Mr. Polite spent a year at
, where his job was to ensure the utility’s 12,500 employees didn’t fall afoul of state and federal rules on fair trade and government contracting.
In recent years, the Justice Department has launched and reworked a number of policies on how it prosecutes companies, in part to encourage those that aren’t strictly required to have a compliance program to invest in one anyway. Mr. Polite has said he sees room to expand that work. Outside the department, his background has added a new degree of credibility to the Justice Department’s efforts to strike to the right tone on corporate accountability.
“A lot of people who talk that talk are just mouthing platitudes. In Kenneth’s case, he takes the compliance stuff very, very seriously, because he’s sat in that chair and understands the relationship between tone-at-the-top and corporate culture.”
“A lot of people who talk that talk are just mouthing platitudes,” said
a long-time corporate defense lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who mentored Mr. Polite as an associate there.
“In Kenneth’s case, he takes the compliance stuff very, very seriously, because he’s sat in that chair and understands the relationship between tone-at-the-top and corporate culture,” Mr. Zornow said.
Mr. Polite was raised by a single mother in public housing in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. His father was a 37-year veteran of the city’s police force. Top of his high school class, he went on to attend Harvard University and Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
In 2004, his half-brother was fatally shot on the streets of New Orleans. That tragedy was the singular event that inspired him to become a prosecutor, he has said, joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan in 2007.
Several years later, he left New York with his family to return to New Orleans, where he was nominated by President
in 2013 to take over the U.S. attorney’s office there in the aftermath of a scandal involving online posts by two of the office’s senior members.
His tenure came in the midst of rising national protests over the killing by police of Black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. As a U.S. attorney, Mr. Polite both increased the number of prosecutors handling cases of violent crime and launched initiatives aimed at proactively reducing gun violence and helping formerly incarcerated persons re-enter society.
Critics of the Justice Department’s approach to white-collar crime argue that corporations and their executives are accorded considerations not typically given to street-level offenders. Companies often resolve misconduct by paying fines, and prosecutors don’t always bring cases against the executives responsible for their employer’s violations.
Now at the helm of the criminal division, Mr. Polite says the Justice Department’s policies on white-collar crime should be “seamlessly analogous” with the rest of its wide-ranging brief. “All of my experiences as a prosecutor, and outside of DOJ, inform the way that I think about all of these types of cases,” he said.
To illustrate the importance of prevention, Mr. Polite pointed to his work prosecuting gangs in New Orleans. “Within months, unless we invest in that community, or we invest in the young people to make sure that they are not engaging in that criminality…very quickly, we see replication of that entire [gang] organization back in that neighborhood.”
Under Attorney General
the Justice Department has said it would surge resources to fight white-collar crime and review the way it handles cases involving companies with long rap sheets. Some of the proposed changes have met with skepticism from defense lawyers and compliance officers.
One such policy announced by Mr. Polite requires chief compliance officers to personally certify their company’s program is “reasonably designed” to prevent future violations at the end of a settlement agreement with prosecutors. Lawyers have said the policy, which in theory carries the threat of criminal prosecution, is well-intentioned, but misguided.
But Mr. Polite has defended the certifications, saying the point isn’t to prosecute compliance officers, but to empower them. The policy is designed to give them “the ability to go anywhere within that enterprise and ask the questions that they need to ask and demand answers to ensure that they feel confident to put their name on [the certification],” he said.
To bolster the division’s credibility on compliance matters, he has recruited others with similar expertise. Last month, he announced the hiring of
head of compliance for
Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co.
, to lead the criminal division’s fraud section. The division will increase the attention it places on finding and assisting victims of white-collar crime, Mr. Polite has said.
“We are trying to emphasize to our corporate community how important it is to us that they invest in these, to be preventative,” he said. “Like any other area of criminality, we can’t prosecute our way to a fully compliant corporate culture.”
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8