(CN) - The U.S. government's criminal prosecution of corporations has dropped over the last decade despite statements from top Obama administration officials about stopping corporate fraud, a new study found.
Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, found that corporate prosecutions declined by 29 percent from 2004 to 2014. TRAC's study was based on hundreds of thousands of U.S. Justice Department records obtained through a 17-year Freedom of Information legal fight, according to a press release.
The study says that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the New York University Law School last year that "instilling in others an expectation that there will be tough enforcement of all applicable laws is an essential ingredient to ensuring that corporate actors weigh their incentives properly."
Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force Director Michael Bresnickat similarly told a conference of state bank supervisors in 2013 that his task force was based on the government's obligation "to do everything we can to protect the American public from the often devastating effects of financial fraud," according to TRAC.
FBI Director James Comey also told the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee in March that corporate fraud is one of the top threats and challenges the country faces.
But TRAC's numbers actually show a drop in corporations hit with federal government prosecution. Corporations are defined in the study as businesses and organizations. Justice Department records show 335 criminal prosecutions of such entities in fiscal year 2004, compared to 237 filings a decade later.
Referrals of corporations to federal prosecutors by investigators have basically stayed the same, the study found. 2,116 referrals in 2004 compared to 2,171 in fiscal year 2014 represents just a 2 percent change.
As the number of prosecutions drops, the overall number of corporations that could be investigated for wrongdoing has grown by 24 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to TRAC's analysis of IRS records.
Syracuse's research group called for further monitoring of the issue to make more sense of the data.
"The Justice Department's own records make it clear that when it comes to criminal enforcement against corporate violators the agency is falling far short of its goals. What is far harder to determine is why," the study concludes. "To resolve that second question would require a well-functioning and principled oversight system operated by the administration itself, Congress, the news media, public interest groups and others - all under pressure from an informed public. But given the current national mood, this clearly is a tall order."
TRAC says it gave the Justice Department a copy of its corporate prosecution findings but the government declined to comment.