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Business  

Soft on corporate crime?

A federal proposal that would allow prosecutors to suspend criminal charges against companies in certain cases of corporate wrongdoing has been quietly included in the Trudeau government's 582-page budget legislation.

Its inclusion was so discreet, even one Liberal MP studying the legislation was caught by surprise.

The government intends to move forward with an amendment to the Criminal Code to create an optional tool for prosecutors that's sometimes referred to as a "deferred prosecution agreement."

Such agreements are designed to encourage more companies to come forward to self-report corporate crimes and to identify individuals for prosecution. If it lives up to its end of the bargain, the company as a whole would avoid facing serious criminal charges, which could include bribery, corruption and insider trading.

The change, however, has raised concerns among lawmakers, including Liberals, on the House of Commons finance committee, which has been analyzing the broader budget bill.

A few members of the all-party committee said they were first made aware of the change only after it was brought to their attention during the testimony of a senior Justice Department late last Tuesday night.

The explanation by Ann Sheppard, a senior counsel in the criminal law policy section, prompted questions from members who recommended the provision on the deferred prosecution agreement be removed from the legislation because it was such a significant change that they thought it warranted more thorough study.

Some also called for the provision to be studied by the House of Commons justice committee, which they argued has more expertise when it comes to changes to the Criminal Code.

Liberal MP Greg Fergus told the committee at last Tuesday's hearing that he was concerned the change appeared to be designed to give those implicated in white-collar crimes "a little slap on the wrist."

"I do have some serious questions about this," said Fergus, who said while he had read through most of the large budget bill before the committee hearing, he hadn't seen the deferred prosecution provision.

"It seems we're letting those with the means have an easier time of it than those who don't have the means."

In her explanation, Sheppard described the regime as a new tool that would give prosecutors discretionary power to seek an agreement with a company accused of economic crimes when it's in the public interest. The charges against the firm would be stayed pending the successful completion of the agreement, she said.

The legislation lists 31 qualifying offences, including bribery of a foreign public official, municipal corruption, fraud, theft, forgery and insider trading. The government calls the proposed system the "remediation agreement regime."

An agreement would still compel a company to co-operate by, among other things, admitting responsibility and paying monetary penalties.

However, by avoiding criminal prosecution, the company would still be eligible to compete for sometimes-lucrative public contracts in Canada and abroad.



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