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Executives on notice: The Justice Department is watching

There's been a lot of media attention on the high-profile arrests of executives for a variety of white collar crimes, including securities violations, tax evasion and violating laws regarding United States sanctions.

What's happening? Has the executive class of some of the world's biggest corporations suddenly gone rogue?

Not exactly. Instead, there's simply been a shift in the way that the government is approaching white collar crime in general. Since 2015, the United States government has been stressing the need for "individual accountability for corporate wrongdoing." The change in focus is largely a response to the excesses and illegal behavior that led to the economic crisis that took over much of 2008-2009. Numerous large banks were involved in suspect or outright outrageous behavior -- but there was very little personal accountability to be found among corporate leaders.

Essentially, the Justice Department decided that enough was enough. Sanctions against corporations that violate the law are not enough of a deterrent against criminal activity. Until the executive branches of those corporations were worried about their personal liabilities -- and liberties -- there wasn't going to be a change for the better.

In the past, being a top-level executive of a corporation offered a lot of insulation against prosecution. That's because corporations have always been viewed as legal entities in their own right. A corporation might commit a crime -- but you couldn't put it in jail. The corporate structure, however, kept those in charge of the corporation immune from charges.

That's all changed. While there have been fewer arrests than many people feared back in 2015 when the Justice Department's "Yates Memo" came out, detailing the new way of operating, there have been enough that executives should take notice: They're no longer safe from charges. If the company breaks the law -- they may be held accountable.

Are you concerned about your personal liability for a company action? It might be wise to talk to an attorney with experience handling white collar cases.

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