The “chickenshit club” is the name former FBI director James Comey, back when he was a U.S. Attorney, bestowed on prosecutors who had never lost in court. The epithet implied that such lawyers lacked the tenacity and courage to roll the dice on tough cases and stick their neck out if they believed someone had broken the law.
Today, everyone is in the Chickenshit Club. That’s the conclusion of journalist Jesse Eisinger, who uses the phrase to title his investigation into a recent mystery of the criminal justice system: Why does the Justice Department appear to have given up on putting white-collar criminals in jail?
It’s been nearly a decade since the financial crisis, and yet no big-company executives are behind bars. One reason, says Eisinger, is that court rulings have taken away tactics that prosecutors had used to pressure defendants, such as restricting attorney-client privilege and preventing their companies from bankrolling sky-high legal bills.
Read Fortune‘s seminal 2002 investigation on white-collar criminals—and why so few go to jail—HERE.
But Eisinger reserves his sharpest barbs for what he sees as the clubby culture that has emerged between the top levels of the Justice Department and white-collar defense lawyers. In recent years, such work has become a lucrative gig that many prosecutors hope to perform someday. The resulting revolving-door culture has made it tempting for government lawyers, law firms, and corporations to take it easy on people who perpetrate boondoggles at major companies.
The Chickenshit Club is not exactly beach reading. But it is smart, deeply sourced, and full of insider tidbits about legal stars like Comey, judge Jed Rakoff, and former SEC chair Mary Jo White. If copies of the book start to appear in the Justice Department and on law school syllabi, Eisinger could spark important debate about why—at a time when so many people struggle to obtain basic procedural rights in the criminal justice system—white-collar defendants manage to consistently evade its grasp.
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A version of this article appears in the July 1, 2017 issue of Fortune. We’ve included affiliate links in this article. Click here to learn what those are.