Businesses Seek Protection on Legal Front

Now that corruption cases like Enron and WorldCom are falling out of the news, two influential industry groups with close ties to administration officials are hoping to swing the regulatory pendulum in the opposite direction. The groups are drafting proposals to provide broad new protections to corporations and accounting firms from criminal cases brought by federal and state prosecutors as well as a stronger shield against civil lawsuits from investors.

Although the details are still being worked out, the groups’ proposals aim to limit the liability of accounting firms for the work they do on behalf of clients, to force prosecutors to target individual wrongdoers rather than entire companies, and to scale back shareholder lawsuits.

The groups hope to reduce what they see as some burdens imposed by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, landmark post-Enron legislation adopted in 2002. The law, which placed significant new auditing and governance requirements on companies, gave broad discretion for interpretation to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The groups are also interested in rolling back rules and policies that have been on the books for decades.

Moreover, committee members say that they expect many of their recommendations will be used as part of an overall administration effort to limit what they see as overzealous state prosecutions by such figures as the New York State attorney general Elliot Spitzer and abusive class action lawsuits by investors. The groups will also attempt to lower what they see as the excessive costs associated with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Their critics, however, see the effort as part of a plan to cater to the most well-heeled constituents of the administration and insulate politically connected companies from prosecution at the expense of investors.

One consideration in drafting the proposals has been the chain of events at Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that was convicted in 2002 of obstruction of justice for shredding Enron-related documents; the conviction was overturned in 2005 by the Supreme Court. The proposals being drafted would aim to limit the liability of auditing firms and include a policy shift to make it harder for prosecutors to bring cases against individuals and companies.

Even though Arthur Andersen played a prominent role in various corporate scandals, some business and legal experts have criticized the decision by the Bush administration to bring a criminal case that had the effect of shutting the firm down.

The proposed policies would emphasize the prosecution of culpable individuals rather than corporations and auditing firms. That shift could prove difficult for prosecutors because it is often harder to find sufficient evidence to show that specific people at a company were the ones who knowingly violated a law.

One proposal would recommend that the Justice Department sharply curtail its policy of forcing companies under investigation to withhold paying the legal fees of executives suspected of violating the law. Another one would require some investor lawsuits to be handled by arbitration panels, which are traditionally friendlier to defendants.

“This is an escalation of the culture war against regulation,” said James D. Cox, a securities and corporate law professor at Duke Law School. He said many of the proposals, if adopted, “would be a dark day for investors.”

Professor Cox, who has studied 600 class action lawsuits over the last decade, said it was difficult to find “abusive or malicious” cases, particularly in light of new laws and court decisions that had made it more difficult to file such suits.

[thanks to stephen labaton]