The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives

Jesse Eisinger

Book cover

Interesting subject, but I didn’t like the writing. The book explores why the Justice Department has moved away from individual prosecutions of executives in favor of cash settlements with corporations. The Enron and Arthur Andersen cases play a pivotal role in this story, and I enjoyed reading a fairly deep exploration of an event that has largely been eclipsed in the public mind (or mine anyway) by the financial crisis. Eisinger describes the painstaking legal and investigative work involved in successfully prosecuting Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, flipping low-level footsoldiers and working up the ladder, much like a mafia case. Eisinger shows how the complete takedown of Arthur Andersen was successfully portrayed as an overreach by people on the right, even though it didn’t have any meaningful impact on the economy. From that point, the JD started focusing more on settlements without admission of wrongdoing, which both take less resources to achieve and end up being more of a cost of doing business than an existential threat to companies.

There is a lot here that I feel could have been made more engaging by a more polemical writer such as Matt Taibbi. It seems clear that Eisinger considers these changes to be for the worse, but he maintains a measured, journalistic tone throughout. One very striking item to me was the frequent mention of “recidivism” by companies; i.e. being fined or reaching settlements again and again, and contrasting the kid-glove treatment of same with the treatment of repeat human offenders. I feel like Taibbi could have done a lot more with that! Overall, the writing style just seems to me like bland and dutiful standard journo-nonfiction, where the story is “enlivened” by picking a specific individual in each section as the profile focus, telling about their upbringing, etc. This worked in a couple of cases where the people really were interesting (Jed Rakoff, Paul Pelletier), but for the most part I didn’t care (and can’t even remember the names of the other profilees several weeks later). I guess I would have been happier either with a more gonzo treatment or a drier academic treatment; the middle ground just didn’t work for me.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars