Justice Dept: Vote won't alter crimefighting

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The big Republican gains during the midterm elections will not change the Obama administration’s approach to prosecuting crime, a top Justice Department official said on Thursday, amid criticism the department has been slow to prosecute Wall Street.

“We’re going to do nothing differently,” Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s criminal division, said on the sidelines of a Practising Law Institute conference on enforcement and the financial crisis.

“What we’re doing is absolutely apolitical,” he continued. “The prosecution of crimes is apolitical. That has zero to do with the composition of Congress.”

Lawmakers and others have questioned the lack of prosecution of top Wall Street executives who many Americans believe deserve to be held more responsible for the financial crisis.

Breuer acknowledged the clamor, saying “our citizenry has a right” to vigorous enforcement against financial fraud. But he said it takes time to gather evidence to sustain a criminal prosecution.

And while the department has added prosecutors, including many who focus on such areas as health care and public official misconduct, the scope of frauds has also grown, Breuer said.

“It is nothing any more for a U.S. attorney to prosecute a $10 million fraud, a $20 million fraud, a $200 million fraud,” he said. “The numbers are simply staggering.”

The Justice Department in May dropped a probe of former American International Group Inc executives over the insurer’s use of credit default swaps, which led to $182 billion of government bailouts.

Individual prosecutions remain possible, as in June when the department accused the former chairman of the now-bankrupt Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp of orchestrating a multibillion-dollar mortgage fraud.

Breuer said he spoke recently to 500 bank executives, including some who “were upset that I made it clear in that speech that we would hold people personally accountable.”

Criticism persists, though. In August, for example, a federal judge called the department’s $298 million settlement with Barclays Plc, resolving criminal charges over dealings with banks in Cuba, Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Sudan, a “sweetheart deal.” The judge later approved that accord.

Breuer said the penalty might have been more severe had Barclays not cooperated. “It is a huge priority of this department and of our division that when you’re aware of criminal conduct, that you self-report,” he said. “You will be treated significantly and materially differently.”

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Derek Caney and John Wallace