Senate Urged to Fix Thompson Memo

But U.S. Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty defends the guidelines that push companies to cooperate with prosecutors. Without them, he says, companies would face a harsher, less predictable legal environment.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, witnesses ranging from corporate attorneys to U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue urged lawmakers to take action against the provisions of the Department of Justice’s so-called Thompson Memorandum.

Written in 2003, the DoJ memo says that companies accused of wrongdoing will receive more lenient treatment if they cooperate with the government. The memo has stirred controversy because it puts pressure on companies to cut off legal support to employees accused of wrongdoing. The memo has also been criticized for pushing companies to reveal the results of internal investigations — potentially compromising the company’s right to client-attorney privilege.

The Senate committee hearing — “The Thompson Memorandum’s Effect on the Right to Counsel in Corporate Investigations” — comes less than two months after U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan rebuked the government for pressuring KPMG to cut off legal services to 16 employees, including a former CFO, accused of setting up tax shelters as part of their work for the firm. Kaplan said the government’s pressure on KPMG had violated the employees’ Fifth and Sixth amendment rights.

During an interview that appears in the current issue of CFO magazine, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty told CFO that he disagreed with Kaplan’s decision. “I’m not suggesting we anticipate a revision of the Thompson memo, but I’m not saying that we’re closed to that possibility,” he told CFO. “As we speak today, the Thompson memo is the policy of this department.” (McNulty’s comments regarding the Thompson memo appear only the extended online version of the interview.)

There are nine factors outlined in the Thompson memo that prosecutors use to make a decision about whether to indict a company. Among these provisions, they consider the nature and severity of the alleged conduct, the corporation’s history of similar conduct, and whether the corporation cooperated in the government’s investigation. In evaluating the company’s cooperation, prosecutors may consider how complete a company’s disclosure was, including whether the company made witnesses available, disclosed the results of an internal investigation, and waived attorney-client and work product protections, McNulty explained during his testimony Tuesday.

McNulty has strongly defended the DoJ against suggestions that companies are forced to cooperate against their will. “I believe that the vast majority of prosecutors handle these considerations responsibly and work in a productive way with companies that want to cooperate,” McNulty told CFO. “And I wonder sometimes if companies cooperate because they realize it is in the interest of the corporation to do so, and then complain later because it may be a more popular thing to do.”

On Tuesday, McNulty continued to support the memo, calling it “superior” to any alternative guidance. Questioning whether the memo’s critics would prefer not to have any guidance for prosecutors involved in corporate cases, he claimed that could create mayhem. “The irony of the attacks on the Thompson memo is that the federal criminal justice system would be a much harsher, less predictable, and less transparent environment for corporations and their counsel in the absence of this guidance,” he testified to the committee, according to his prepared testimony.

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