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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Life imitating art imitating life...

A vice president of a multimillion dollar company turns informant to avoid liability, surreptitiously taping his high-level colleagues who are eventually charged with corporate fraud. If this sounds like the plot of the movie "The Informant" (reviewed here), it is. But it is also the plot of this news story about the theft of $2 million worth of fuel from the Mexican oil company Petroleos Mexicanos: "Ex-Bush aide tied to stolen oil case." Here's an excerpt:
Josh Crescenzi of Houston, former vice president for Continental Fuels of San Antonio, has been cooperating with agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for several months, helping them secretly record conversations that have resulted in the conviction of a Houston oil industry executive, another one from San Antonio and the president of a small oil and gas company in Edinburg.
Stories like this (and this) suggest that the use of active informants in white collar investigations, i.e. using cooperating suspects to actively snare high-level corporate offenders in ongoing wrongdoing, is on the rise, although since the whole arena is shrouded in secrecy it's hard to say if the practice is now more prevalent or we are just hearing more about it. In any event, because white collar informants and defendants are better resourced and represented than your typical street or drug snitch, we should expect such cases to improve the overall visibility and accountability of informant practices. As sociology professor Gary Marx wrote 20 years ago in his landmark book "Undercover: Police Surveillance in America":
When lower-status drug dealers and users or prostitutes were the main targets of covert operations, the tactic tended to be ignored, but when congressmen and business executives who can afford the best legal counsel became targets, congressional inquiries and editorials urging caution appeared.