Where's the accountability? [Commentary]

Among the many repugnant aspects of the news that Baltimore has spent millions to settle charges of police brutality and civil rights violations, this may be the most troublesome: A clause in the city's settlement agreements prohibits victims from making any public statements. The city pays, but it refuses to admit guilt. If victims talk, the city threatens to claw back half or more of the settlement money.

It's hard to avoid concluding that the confidentiality clause is meant to protect those who govern the city rather than those in whose name the city is governed. And in this regard — as, alas, in so many others — Baltimore embodies in an acute form one of the country's broader failures: the lack of accountability among our leaders for their extensive misbehavior.

President Barack Obama recently acknowledged that, in the years after September 11, 2001, U.S. officials "tortured some folks." Torture is against both U.S. and international law, so one might imagine that those who authorized it and who committed it would be investigated and prosecuted.

But even before he confirmed the illegal acts, President Obama and his administration had essentially ruled out prosecuting such crimes. "We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards," the president said shortly after his election.

Last year, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lied under oath to Congress about the extent of the National Security Agency's spying efforts. Although that is a federal crime, he was not prosecuted. He was not even fired.

More recently, we learned that the C.I.A. spied on a Senate investigations committee. Although one senator described this espionage as "illegal" and a grave violation of the Constitution's separation of powers, C.I.A. Director John Brennan — who indignantly denied that the C.I.A. would ever do such a thing before admitting that it did — retains his job, too.

In the 21st century United States, accountability is for little people. Citizens who commit crimes — and many who don't — get arrested, charged, and prosecuted (and in Baltimore, they sometimes get beaten). Government and corporate officials who commit crimes, meanwhile, rarely face consequences.

The same is true of the nation's financial elite. After the 2008 financial collapse, the Treasury Department rushed in to buttress the country's financial institutions, funneling billions of dollars to Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and Bank of America among others. At only one company were executives forced out and shareholders punished; and the former executive of that rescued company, A.I.G., is now suing the government for the insult.

During the housing bubble, financial institutions committed, among other known acts: fraudulent robo-signing of mortgage documents, foreclosure fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud. No executive has been criminally prosecuted. Indeed, the settlements between banks and the Justice Department specifically granted releases for the banks' illegal evictions and fraudulent robo-signing — in exchange for a fine, of course — thus precluding any further investigations. Shareholders pay the fines; bank executives keep their bonuses and their jobs.

So if you recognize those Baltimore settlement clauses refusing admission of guilt, that is because they are common in settlements with powerful individuals and corporations. When regular people settle charges, a criminal record follows them for life; when the powerful settle charges, they keep the ugly details hidden and avoid any prison time.

It was not always thus. After the 1929 stock market crash in the United States, the federal government established the Pecora Commission, which revealed extensive wrongdoing by financial elites, led to many prosecutions and to fundamental reforms of Wall Street.

Today, by contrast, political and economic elites cover up their misbehavior — and they often do it with our money.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the situation is that, even as our elites hide behind veils of secrecy, regular Americans lose their last patina of privacy. Google reads our emails, Facebook monitors our likes and dislikes, telephone companies track our calls — and the government keeps all of that information and more on their vast and ever-growing servers.

We have become a country in which those endowed with public trust lack any transparency, while private citizens lack any opacity. It is precisely the opposite of how a democracy should function.

Changing that can begin right here. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she wants to make the Baltimore police force more transparent. "We have nothing to hide," Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts says. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

They can live up to their rhetoric by abolishing the confidentially clause in the city's settlement agreements. And they can do it today — assuming Baltimore's leaders mean what they say.

François Furstenberg teaches history at Johns Hopkins University. His email is f.furstenberg@jhu.edu.

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