By Aruna Viswanatha
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Justice Department plans to take action in the coming months against individuals involved in corporate fraud, Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday, adding that fines against companies are not enough of a deterrent.
"We're gonna make some news with regard to holding individuals responsible for things we tend to think of as corporate crimes," Holder said at a meeting of state attorneys general in Washington.
The comments came in response to a question from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli about individual prosecutions in Medicare fraud cases, but Holder said the remarks applied "more generally" to corporate fraud.
In the corporate fraud area, the Justice Department has received especially sharp criticism for not bringing more cases against entities and individuals who played a role in the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
Federal judges in recent months have also criticized other enforcement agencies for bringing cases against corporations while limiting any action against individual employees who may have been responsible for the conduct.
In the most notable example, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in November threw out Citigroup's proposed $285 million settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over the sale of toxic mortgage debt, and called the fine "pocket change" for the company.
Holder echoed that sentiment on Tuesday and said: "Especially when you look at the securities field, there have been far too many repeat offenders."
"It can't simply be that you make billions of dollars and then you pay hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties. That's not a disincentive," he said.
The remarks come as a new federal-state working group gets under way to investigate the pooling and sale of home loans that contributed to the financial crisis.
The group, which President Barack Obama announced during his State of the Union address in January, has held meetings and is moving forward with its investigations, Holder said.
The department has sent 16 civil subpoenas in its investigation, Holder said, five more than had been revealed during a January press conference.
Reuters reported last week those subpoenas appeared to overlap with previous investigations undertaken by the SEC, suggesting that the Justice Department was treading on cases the SEC has struggled to bring for years.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said last week the working group is "marshaling parallel efforts" and "pooling resources" to investigate those responsible for misconduct.
(Reporting By Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)