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Who Paid the Largest Criminal Fine in History and Why?

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When a company breaks the law, it can expect to face criminal and civil charges as a consequence. Civil and criminal penalties vary widely, depending on the scope of the crime. A criminal case, which can only be charged by a government, can result in either a financial penalty or limits on a person’s freedom, like disbarment or a prison sentence. A civil case — which can be brought by the government, an organization or a private individual — cannot send a person to jail, but it can result in financial penalties like a fine or the loss of property. Civil penalties can also include disbarment from a profession.

The largest criminal fines in history have been paid by corporations, not individuals. The culprits include pharmaceutical companies, oil and gas companies, and financial services companies, among others. These companies have been responsible for everything from misleading statements to financial crashes to literally the largest industrial environmental disaster in history. But, who paid the largest criminal fine in history and why?

Naming the Highest Fine Is Complicated

Coming up with the answer to this question is trickier than it may seem. That’s because the largest fines in history have often featured a blend of criminal fines, civil fines and other mandated payments.

Christopher Morvillo has been on both sides of criminal prosecutions, first as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and now as a white-collar criminal defense lawyer based in Manhattan. Morvillo cautions that when you see news of a massive criminal fine, the top-line number may be the sum of many fines. “The total damages reported can be eye-popping, but a lot of that money isn’t actually a criminal fine,” he explains. “A lot of the criminal penalties are actually governed by statute, and the total damages can include civil penalties, disgorgement (surrendering of profits), and restitution paid to victims.”

When we consider total damages — including criminal fines, civil fines, restitution and other fees — the company that paid the largest fines in history is the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). TEPCO operated the Japanese power plant that caused the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. While the nuclear crisis was initially triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) declared the disaster to be “man-made.” This opened the door to criminal liability. The utility company faced over $450 billion in compensation claims related to environmental disasters and radiation exposure, much of which appears to have been paid.

The 5 Most Expensive Criminal Fines Paid by Companies

Per Morvillo, the largest criminal fines in history may represent combinations of criminal penalties, civil penalties and other court-ordered payments. Starting with the largest sum, the companies that have been ordered to pay the largest fines are:

1. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) (2011)

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake struck northern Japan. The quake and an ensuing tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the coastal town of Okuma, causing a partial core meltdown and causing dangerous radiation exposure in the surrounding region. Japan’s parliament commissioned a review of the disaster, and inspectors concluded that the Fukushima meltdown was “a profoundly man-made disaster.” They cast partial blame on the Japanese government but turned a particularly withering eye toward the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operated the plant. Per the inspectors’ report, TEPCO administrators were blasé about safety requirements in the years leading up to the disaster. The utility was also slow to respond to local safety concerns, leading to even more radiation damage.

Initial claims against TEPCO looked to total trillions of Japanese yen (hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars) before a proposal was floated to cap the total financial liability to roughly $45 billion. Over a decade later, civil penalties continue to pile up against TEPCO. In July 2022, a Tokyo district court ordered four TEPCO executives to pay 13 trillion yen (approximately 95 billion USD) for their role in the crisis.

2. British Petroleum (2010)

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig began leaking petroleum into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The leak grew worse and eventually pumped over 210 million gallons (795 million liters) of oil into the ocean. The rig’s operator, British Petroleum (BP) needed five months to plug the oil geyser, and by that point the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the largest marine spill in history. It devastated marine and wildlife habitats and upended the local fishing industry off the gulf coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

The financial fallout for BP was massive; the fines the company paid were huge. It started in 2010 with a $20 billion payment to create a Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) that would compensate victims and reimburse governments for the cost of responding to the disaster. Then, in 2015 the company agreed to pay what was the biggest environmental fine in history, totaling $18.7 billion. In all, BP has paid over $54 billion in fines and penalties related to the Deepwater Horizon crisis, a figure that may still grow.

3. Bank of America (2014)

In 2008, the United States plunged into a financial crisis stemming from a spate of subprime mortgage lending that strapped homebuyers to adjustable rate mortgages that they could not afford. The United States Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission investigated a large number of banks and commercial lenders and ultimately punished them for their role in the financial crash. Ultimately it was Bank of America that paid the largest criminal fine in history for a financial institution.

Most of Bank of America’s culpability stemmed from the actions of companies it had purchased, including Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch. The bank settled with the Department of Justice by paying a $16.6 billion fine. This was the largest criminal fine of all the culpable banks, but in total, those banks have paid over $250 billion for their role in the crisis.

4. Facebook (2019)

Facebook, the company now known as Meta Platforms, was fined $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2019 for violating a 2012 order regarding users’ ability to control their online privacy and the use of their personal information. That 2012 order stemmed from a previous settlement between Facebook and the FTC. Facebook’s fine dwarfed all previous privacy-related fines. Before 2019, the record had been a $275 million penalty paid by Equifax, although it later rose to $575 million. The 2019 settlement between Facebook and the FTC also establishes a committee tasked with protecting consumer data and ensuring transparent privacy policies.

5. GlaxoSmithKline (2012)

In 2012, the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline agreed to the largest healthcare fraud settlement in history. The company pleaded guilty to violating the Civil False Claims Act and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). This stemmed from company behaviors involving the drugs Avandia, Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Zofran, Paxil, Advair, Imitrex, Flovent, Valtrex and Lotronex. The settlement declared the company illegally promoted off-label drugs, failed to disclose safety data, made false and misleading statements, and paid kickbacks to physicians, among other crimes. When combined, GSK’s criminal and civil penalties totaled over $3 billion.

Morvillo, the prosecutor turned defense attorney, notes that the False Claims Act lays out both civil and criminal penalties for overbilling the government. “By far, the government gets more civil penalties from the False Claims Act than any other statute,” he notes. “A lot of them have to do with Medicare or Medicaid fraud.”

Which Industries Pay the Largest Fines?

Several industries appear with great frequency on the list of largest criminal fines. High on the list is the pharmaceutical industry, where many fines approach the record set by GlaxoSmithKline. For instance, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer was slapped with a $2.3 billion fine upon discovery it had paid kickbacks to physicians and illegally promoted off-label drugs including the anti-inflammatory drug Bextra, Zyvox, Lyrica and Geodon. This was the largest in pharmaceutical industry history before GlaxoSmithKline eclipsed it three years later. Other pharma companies that have paid fines over $1 billion include Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and Abbott Laboratories.

Other industries known for their exposure to the world’s largest criminal fines include the financial services industry, the energy industry and public utilities. The auto industry typically faces somewhat smaller fines, yet the automaker Volkswagen may also arguably belong on this list due to its “Dieselgate” scandal. It settled with the Department of Justice for $14.7 billion in 2016, but not all of the money was categorized as fines. Still, it remains one of the costliest settlements in history.

Are Criminal Fines Getting Larger?

One thing that stands out about the largest criminal fines in history: All have been levied during the 21st century. “The fines that we’re seeing in the past 20 years were unheard of before the dawn of the 21st century,” explains Morvillo, the prosecutor turned defense lawyer.

“The question governments face is how to deter criminal conduct,” says Morvillo. “You can’t send companies to jail. So, you impose massive fines, or you go after the individual wrongdoers within a company.” That may mean pursuing criminal charges against specific company employees and getting the company to cooperate in the investigation of those employees.

Morvillo describes the federal government’s tactics as a “swinging pendulum.” There are periods where the government has focused on eye-popping fines to scare companies into honest behavior. The massive fines paid by companies like Bank of America and Facebook have occurred during these periods. However, the pendulum may now be swinging in the opposite direction.

As of January 2023, Morvillo explains, “the Department of Justice has updated its corporate enforcement policies so as to offer incentives to companies that disclose criminal conduct. This means massive reductions in fines, provided that you self-disclose [internal wrongdoing].” In other words, if companies come clean and expose wrongdoers in their own organizations, the Department of Justice may reward them with much lower fines than they may have otherwise paid.

If the Justice Department’s recent trend holds, we may see lower criminal fines in the years to come. It also leads to potentially greater cooperation between governments and the companies they investigate. Morvillo explains, “The government dangles these deals in front of companies, and those companies’ lawyers are incentivized to go in and cooperate as soon as possible.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in a special report on the BP oil spill: “As the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of 87 days, fouling 1,300 miles of shoreline along five states … the Deepwater Horizon oil spill killed thousands of marine mammals and sea turtles, and contaminated their habitats.” Put a price on that.

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