NEW YORK, Feb 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department team tasked with rooting out corporate crime secured $690 million in penalties in 2023, its lowest tally in at least eight years, according to new DOJ data released Thursday.

The department's Washington D.C. Fraud Section, which focuses on corporate wrongdoing related to healthcare, securities, and foreign bribery, last year brought eight resolutions to settle probes into companies, working with other overseas regulators.

While that was one more settlement than in 2022, total fines plunged 68%, falling below $1 billion for the first time since at least 2015, according to a Reuters analysis of data from the agency's annual report.

The fall was partly due to a pandemic trial backlog that has diverted resources from settlement negotiations, while the bribery unit, historically a driver of record fines, brought fewer large cases, according to officials.

It will disappoint progressive groups and lawmakers who had high hopes that Democratic President Joe Biden's DOJ would make good on a promised corporate crackdown, which has included policy changes aimed at tougher stance toward executives and recidivist companies.

Progressives have long argued that big companies are allowed to repeatedly flout the law and that the only way to deter corporate misconduct is by pursuing individual executives. They lauded the Biden administration's initial tough talk, but have grown critical of new policies that they see as too lax.

"We are focused on holding culpable individuals accountable, including corporate executives and gatekeepers, and pursuing the most impactful cases," Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole Argentieri said in a statement to Reuters.

"Our trial attorneys are trying complex financial cases in courtrooms across the country and obtaining convictions."


Fraud Section prosecutors secured convictions at trial for 47 defendants in 2023 compared with 56 in 2022 -- although that's still a historically high level, the analysis showed.

A guilty plea and $206.7 million in penalties against Ericsson for breaching a previous bribery-related resolution, and insider trading charges against a healthcare company CEO were among the notable cases.

About a quarter of the individuals charged in 2023 were executives, lawyers or medical professionals, the DOJ said. Among the notable convictions was the former head of a Chicago-based healthcare tech start-up accused of a $1 billion fraud.

"Declining penalties for corporate crime sends exactly the wrong message to businesses that break the law," said Rick Claypool, research director at advocacy group Public Citizen.

"Deterring corporate crime means holding accountable both individuals and the corporations themselves."

The Fraud Section has published annual reports since 2015. For years, it had booked ever-bigger penalties for foreign bribery against companies, including Ericsson, Goldman Sachs, and Airbus, and gone after traders at big banks accused of manipulating commodities and treasuries markets. Some of those initiatives have waned as the prosecutors in charge left the agency.

Much of prosecutors' work takes place behind-the-scenes. Due to the complex and global nature of the probes, settlements can take years to come to fruition, said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Lisa Miller.

"We are confident in our pipeline, and we are using data in innovative ways to identify, dismantle, and prosecute wide-ranging fraud and foreign bribery schemes as quickly as possible."

The data does not include all major DOJ settlements, including a $4.3 billion settlement with Binance, the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange, which was led by a different unit.

(Reporting by Chris Prentice; editing by Michelle Price and Aurora Ellis)