Remembering Fallen Workers and Negligent Corporations

April 28th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

workers memorialWorkers Memorial Day (April 28) is not one of those holidays on which to give thanks and feel good. It is a time to be angry about the fact that nearly 5,000 people each year are killed on the job in the United States in accidents that in many cases were the result of management negligence. Millions more are injured or contract occupational illnesses. The just-published 25th edition of the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job annual report makes for sobering reading.

While this day is a time to “remember those who have suffered and died on the job,” it should also be an occasion to point the finger at those corporations which have done the most to cause those outcomes. A list can be found by consulting Violation Tracker, the database my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First introduced last fall.

We identified thousands of individual companies that have been hit with serious, willful and repeated violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since the beginning of 2010, and we linked many of those to parent companies. These large firms, which have the resources to ensure safe conditions, probably bear the most responsibility for workplace harms. Here’s a dishonor roll of big business occupational safety culprits.

BP. The British oil giant with extensive U.S. operations is a poster boy for safety lapses. Since the beginning of 2010 it has had to pay more than $60 million to settlement OSHA cases — an amazing amount given the pitifully low levels at which the agency’s standard penalties have been kept by Congress. Most of the penalty total derived from an explosion at the company’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others.

Louis Dreyfus Group. This French conglomerate is on the list because of its ownership of Imperial Sugar, which in 2010 had to pay OSHA $6 million to settle more than 120 violations linked to a 2008 explosion at its plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia.

Tesoro. Criticized by the United Steelworkers for its safety shortcomings, the oil refiner has accumulated some $2.5 million in OSHA penalties since 2010. A report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board cited “safety culture deficiencies” as among the causes of a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers.

Dollar Tree. This deep-discount retailer has racked up more than $2 million in OSHA penalties since 2010 because of repeated violations for piling boxes in storage areas of its stores to dangerous heights and blocking emergency exits.

Ashley Furniture. This retailer and manufacturer was fined $1.8 million last year for 38 willful, serious or repeated violations at a plant in Wisconsin stemming from the company’s failure to protect workers from moving equipment parts. One worker lost three fingers while operating a woodworking machine lacking required safety protections. OSHA later proposed another $431,000 in fines for similar problems at another Ashley facility.

Chevron. The petroleum giant has been hit with more than $1 million in OSHA fines since 2010, most of that amount coming from a slew of serious violations relating to a 2012 fire at the company’s refinery in Richmond, California.

While remembering fallen workers let’s not forget these companies and others whose negligence was often to blame.

Emission Cheating and Lead Poisoning

April 21st, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announces Flint charges

Two legal cases involving egregious harm to public health have moved forward in recent days, though in very different ways. In one case an aggressive prosecutor, defying expectations, filed criminal charges against three individuals and vowed that they “are only the beginning. There will be more to come — that I can guarantee you.” In the other case, a large company reached a deal in which it will pay to modify or buy back hundreds of thousands of defective products.

The case in which the culprits are deservedly having the book thrown at them is the Flint water crisis, while in the other the boom is not yet being lowered on Volkswagen. The first involves misconduct by public officials, the second is a case of brazen corporate crime.

Admittedly, the settlement framework announced in the VW case does not necessarily reflect the full scope of the legal issues facing the automaker in connection with its systematic cheating in auto emission testing. It is not yet known whether the Justice Department’s reported criminal investigation of the matter will result in the filing of charges, nor is it clear whether the civil penalties that may be imposed on VW will come close to the theoretical maximum of $18 billion.

Yet the decision to announce the tentative buyback deal by itself creates the impression that it is the centerpiece of the resolution of the VW case. It’s being estimated that the U.S. buyback would cost the company about $7 billion. If that turns out to be the main cost imposed on VW, the automaker would be getting a bargain.

Causing financial harm to car owners is far from the only sin for which VW has to be held accountable, and it is probably not the most serious one. Of far more consequence are the environmental and public health impacts of the enormous amount of additional pollution that the VW engines have been spewing into the air. What started out as an effort to circumvent regulations will end up causing an unknown number of cases of asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly lung cancer.

There’s also the issue of deterrence. If VW and its relevant officials do not face serious consequences for their actions, people at other corporations may think they can also flout vital regulations. It’s already clear that VW’s emission fraud was not an anomaly. Mitsubishi just admitted it has been doing the same thing in Japan for at least one of its vehicles.

We don’t yet know the full story of what happened at VW much less Mitsubishi, yet it is likely that flagrant emissions deception arose out of a corporate mindset that sees regulations as obstacles to be overcome rather than legitimate rules designed to protect the public. That mindset will not change until corporations and individuals within them pay as heavy a price for their transgressions as that facing the public officials who poisoned the children of Flint.

The Wrongs of States’ Rights

April 14th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

The publication of the Panama Papers is a bombshell, though the fallout is being felt much more in countries such as Iceland than in the United States. It’s true that the revelations about offshore tax havens have mentioned domestic counterparts such as Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming, but officials in those states don’t seem to think that any action needs to be taken. As the headline of an article in the BNA Daily Tax Report put it: STATES GIVE GROUP SHRUG TO PANAMA PAPERS.

One reason for the tepid reaction is that the criticisms have been heard before. As BNA points out, a 2006 report from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) listed the three states as being especially appealing to those seeking to create shell companies.

Another basis for complacency by the states is that their practices are part of a long and unfortunate tradition in the United States politely called federalism, but which is really a race to the bottom when it comes to oversight of corporations and the wealthy.

This trend dates back to the 19th Century, when the efforts of tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller to create vast industrial empires came up against the fact that state laws governing corporate charters put restrictions on the size and scope of a corporation’s activities, including the ownership of out-of-state companies. Rockefeller’s flagship firm Standard Oil of Ohio tried to get around this by creating the Standard Oil trust, in which affiliates were nominally independent but were actually controlled by a centralized board chosen by Rockefeller. Similar trusts were created in a variety of other industries.

Standard Oil’s transparent effort to circumvent state law was eventually struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court, but by that time Rockefeller and other robber barons had a new tool at their disposal: the willingness of some states to water down their chartering regulations to make them more attractive to big business.

The pioneer of this practice was New Jersey, which adopted a series of legislative measures from the 1870s through the 1890s to make its regulations more business-friendly. During this period, New Jersey became the destination of choice for trusts looking to legitimize themselves by reincorporating in a state that had no problem with bigness. That position was reinforced after Standard Oil made the Garden State its new base of operations. Muckraker Lincoln Steffens took to calling New Jersey the “traitor state.”

Other states sought to get in on this action. In 1899 Delaware adopted a corporation law that was even looser than New Jersey’s and had lower incorporation fees and franchise taxes. After New Jersey later changed course and went back to stricter corporation laws, it was Delaware that became the new mecca of corporations and has remained so to the present day.

Looser chartering procedures not only helped large corporations get larger but also made it easier for both businesses and wealthy individuals to set up the kind of shell companies highlighted in the Panama Papers. The ability and willingness of states to compete with one another to offer the most corporate-friendly practices goes well beyond company formation and governance.

Two areas in which the effects have been most pernicious are economic development and labor relations. Starting in the 1930s but especially during the past few decades, states have been willing to hand over larger and larger “incentive” packages to corporations to lure investments.  For example, in 2014, following a multi-state competition, tax haven Nevada gave away nearly $1.3 billion in taxpayer revenue to get Tesla Motors to locate an electric-car battery plant in the state.

Some states also lure companies with the promise of weak or non-existent labor unions. Ever since the Tart-Hartley Act of 1947, states have had the right to enact laws outlawing union security provisions in collective bargaining agreements. These so-called right-to-work laws tend to weaken the ability of unions to organize while saddling existing unions with lots of free riders who don’t contribute to the cost of running the organization.

It’s widely understood that the notion of states’ rights is often a smokescreen for racial discrimination, but it’s also part of what enables other retrograde practices such as union-busting, corporate welfare and tax dodging.

Trump’s Corporate Rap Sheet

April 7th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

For more than 30 years, Donald Trump has been almost continuously in the public eye, portraying himself as the epitome of business success and shrewd dealmaking.

He took a business founded by his father to build modest middle-class housing in the outer boroughs of New York City and transformed it into a high-profile operation focused on glitzy luxury condominiums, hotels, casinos and golf courses around the world. Operating through the Trump Organization, his family holding company, Trump also capitalized on his reality-TV-enhanced name recognition in a wide range of licensing deals.

Trump’s decision to enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015 has brought a great deal of new attention to his wide range of business activities and the controversies associated with many of them.  Those controversies — involving issues such as alleged racial discrimination, lobbying violations, investor and consumer deception, tax abatements, workplace safety violations, union avoidance and environmental harm — are summarized in my new Corporate Rap Sheet on the Trump Organization. Here are some highlights:

  • In 1973 the Justice Department filed a suit in federal court accusing Donald Trump and his father Fred Trump of discriminating against African-Americans in apartment rentals, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens. Donald Trump vigorously disputed the charges and filed a $100 million countersuit while complaining that the government was trying to pressure him to rent to “welfare clients.” Trump claimed that doing so would be unfair to other tenants and warned that it would result in “massive fleeing.” In 1975 the Trumps signed an agreement with the Justice Department in which they did not admit to past discrimination but promised not to discriminate against African-Americans and other minorities in the future.
  • In 1991 the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement announced that the Trump Castle Casino Resort, then owned by Donald Trump, would pay $30,000 as part of a settlement of a case in which Trump’s father was found to have improperly lent $3.5 million to the Atlantic City casino by purchasing gambling chips not intended to be used for bets. The transaction, designed to help the casino’s cash-flow problems, was allowed to proceed when Fred Trump agreed to apply for a license allowing him to lend money to the business.
  • In 1998 the Trump Taj Mahal, then still controlled by Trump, was fined $477,000 for currency transaction reporting violations. The Taj Mahal subsequently received numerous warnings about such issues, and in 2015, by which time it was controlled by Carl Icahn, the Atlantic City casino was fined $10 million for “willful and repeated violations of the Bank Secrecy Act.”
  • In 2000 Trump and some of his associates had to pay $250,000 and issue a public apology to resolve a case brought by the New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying over the failure to disclose that they had secretly financed newspaper advertisements opposing casino gambling in the Catskills. Trump was said to have been concerned that Catskills casinos would siphon business from the Atlantic City casinos he owned at the time.
  • In 2002 the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts had “recklessly” misled investors in a 1999 earnings release that used pro forma figures to tout the company’s purportedly positive results but failed to disclose that they were primarily attributable to an unusual one-time gain rather than ongoing operations. No penalty was imposed on the company, which consented to the SEC’s cease-and-desist order.
  • In 2013 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a civil lawsuit against the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative (formerly known as Trump University), its former president and Donald Trump personally “for engaging in persistent fraudulent, illegal and deceptive conduct.” Schneiderman alleged that the business “misled consumers into paying for a series of expensive courses that did not deliver on their promises.” The suit asked for “full restitution for the more than 5,000 consumers nationwide who were defrauded of over $40 million in the scheme, disgorgement of profits, as well as costs and penalties and injunctive relief prohibiting these types of illegal practices going forward.” The case is pending.
  • In 2006 Donald Trump and the Los Angeles developer Irongate announced plans for a luxury condominium  and hotel project in North Baja, Mexico, south of San Diego. Two years later, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the project still had not received all of its required permits and was falling behind schedule. In 2009, as the delayed continued, Trump removed his name from the project, which soon failed. Purchasers sued Trump, saying they were misled into thinking they were buying into a Trump development rather than one that simply licensed his name. In 2013 Trump reached a settlement with the plaintiffs; the details were not disclosed.
  • After dealers at the Trump Plaza voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers union in 2007, the management of the casino filed a challenge with the National Labor Relations Board. The UAW called the move an effort to delay collective bargaining. The stance of Trump management may have been a factor in the UAW’s narrow loss in a subsequent representation election at the Trump Marina. The vote at Trump Plaza was certified, but the UAW had difficulty negotiating a contract, even after the NLRB ordered the company to bargain in good faith. It appears that Trump managers dragged out the legal dispute until the Trump Plaza closed in 2014. In December 2015 the management of the non-casino Trump International Hotel Las Vegas challenged a vote by workers to be represented by the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and the Bartenders Union Local 165 (photo). A hearing officer for the NLRB rejected the challenge, and the unions were certified in April 2016.
  • In April 2016 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that about 20,000 Ivanka Trump-branded women’s scarves made in China were being recalled because they did not meet federal flammability standards for clothing textiles, thus posing a burn risk. The importer of the scarves, GBG Accessories, has a licensing arrangement with Ivanka Trump, daughter of Donald Trump and an executive at the Trump Organization.

The full Corporate Rap Sheet on the Trump Organization can be found here.

Trump and Workplace Safety

March 31st, 2016 by Phil Mattera

trump_sohoLike the other Republican candidates, Donald Trump bashes federal regulation of business. He’s called the Environmental Protection Agency “a disgrace,” saying it is “making it impossible” for companies to function. Yet it’s difficult to find any statements by Trump on another favorite regulatory whipping boy for conservatives: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Trump’s silence on the subject is all the more significant given that in his business career he has had personal experience with workplace safety issues. Those dealings have not always put him in the best light.

The biggest controversy he has faced in this area involves the Trump SoHo New York. During construction of the high-rise hotel in January 2008, a portion of the top two floors buckled while concrete was being poured, sending one worker, Yurly Yanchytsky, plummeting 42 stories to his death and injuring three others, one of whom survived only because he fell into protective netting (photo).

All of the workers were employees of DiFama Concrete, a subcontractor which was charged by OSHA with various violations of regulations relating to cast-in-place concrete and fall protection. The agency initially imposed 10 violations with total penalties of $104,000. The company negotiated those down to five violations and penalties of $44,000.

This was not the first blemish on DiFama’s safety record. According to the OSHA inspection database, during the previous four years the company had been cited by OSHA for about a dozen serious violations and initially penalized $97,000 (negotiated down to about $67,000). One of those cases also involved a fatality. DiFama, by the way, was founded by Joseph Fama, who had been identified as an associate of the Lucchese organized crime family. In 2005 he divested his interest in the firm because he was being imprisoned after pleading guilty to federal racketeering and extortion charges.

Trump initially distanced himself from the accident, saying that he had simply licensed his name to the project. Yet the New York Daily News reported last year that a top official at Bovis Lend Lease, the general contractor for the project, stated in a deposition that Trump had personally reviewed the agreements with the subcontractors, including the one with DiFama. The Trump SoHo is currently listed on the Trump Organization website as part of its real estate portfolio and its hotel collection.

The SoHo hotel is not the only Trump-related property to have had problems with workplace safety. The OSHA inspection database lists other violations at places such as the Trump International Hotel & Tower Las Vegas. Undoubtedly, there are many more listed under the names of the contractors and subcontractors hired on the various projects. Inspection records from the 1980s show numerous violations at the Atlantic City casinos Trump owned at the time but subsequently had to sell.

Trump has boasted that he would be “the greatest jobs president that God has ever created.” It remains unclear how important it is to him that those jobs be free from undue safety and health risks.

Trump: The Art of the Tax Deal

March 24th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Donald Trump is famous for making high-profile deals using other people’s money. Sometimes those other people are not his business partners or lenders but rather the taxpayers. For a figure who is seen to epitomize unfettered entrepreneurship, he has been relentless in his pursuit of government financial assistance.

Trump’s first major  project, the transformation of the old Commodore Hotel next to New York’s Grand Central Station into a new 1,400-room Grand Hyatt, established the pattern. Trump arranged to purchase the property from the bankrupt Penn Central railroad and sell it for $1 to the New York State Urban Development Corporation, which agreed to award Trump a 99-year lease under which he would make gradually escalating payments in lieu of property taxes. The resulting $4 million per year tax abatement was criticized as excessive but was approved by the Board of Estimate in 1976. The deal also provided for profit sharing with the city. The total value of the abatement has been estimated from $45 million (Wall Street Journal, January 14, 1982) to $56 million.

In 1981 the New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development denied Trump’s request for a ten-year property tax abatement worth up $20 million on his project that replaced the old Bonwit Teller department store building with the glitzy Trump Tower. The decision came amid an effort by the city to rein in its abatement program, especially with regard to luxury projects. Trump, who in order to qualify had to argue that the property was underutilized as of 1971, filed suit and got a state judge to overrule the city and allow the abatement.

A state appeals court reversed that decision, pointing out that in 1971 the Bonwit Teller store on the site had gross sales exceeding $30 million and thus was not underutilized. Trump did not give up. He appealed to the state’s highest court, which in 1982 ordered the city to reconsider the application.  When the city turned him down again, Trump went back to court and got a judge to order the city to grant the abatement.

Trump sought extensive tax breaks for his planned Television City mega-development on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that was designed to provide a new home for the NBC network, but in 1987 the city rejected the request. Mayor Ed Koch said: “Common sense does not allow me to give away the city’s Treasury to Donald Trump.” NBC decided to remain in Rockefeller Center.

Trump kept pushing for subsidies, and in 1993 he began withholding his tax payments to pressure officials to comply with his demands for tax breaks and state-backed financing. “I’ve always informed everyone that until such time that we get zoning and the economic development package together, to pay real-estate taxes would be foolish,” Trump told a New York Times reporter. A day later he said he had changed his mind and would pay the $4.4 million in back taxes he owed.

Trump later sought assistance for the project, renamed Riverside South, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the form of federal mortgage insurance, but he was rebuffed.

After Trump took over Washington’s Old Post Office Pavilion in 2012 to turn it into a luxury hotel, his company asked the DC government to forgo property taxes but it refused.

When Trump does not receive tax breaks he sometimes creates do-it-yourself subsidies by challenging the assessed value of his real estate holdings in order to lower his property tax bill. He has used this practice, which is employed by many other large corporations and property owners, in places such as Palm Beach. Trumped bragged that he got a great deal when he bought  the 118-room Mar-a-Lago mansion in 1986 for $10 million (but only $2,812 of his own money, according to a June 22, 1989 article in the Miami Herald), implying it was worth much more. But when Palm Beach County assessed the property at $11.5 million, Trump appealed, seeking an $81,000 reduction in his taxes. A judge ruled against him (UPI, September 28, 1989). Trump later challenged an increased assessment and got a $118,000 reduction for one year but not for the next (Palm Beach Post, December 9, 1992).

In 1990 Trump won an assessment fight with New York City concerning his then-undeveloped waterfront property on the Upper West Side. He gained a $1.2 million savings in his 1989 taxes (Newsday, July 6, 1990).

More recently, Trump has been seeking a 90 percent reduction in property taxes on his Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County, New York. Trump listed the club as having a value of more than $50 million in the financial disclosure document he released as part of his presidential bid, yet his assessment appeal claims it is worth only $1.4 million.

It’s not hard to guess which figure is used when Trump wants to justify his claim of being worth $10 billion.

Donald Trump Corporate Raider

March 17th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

“We’re not interested in being taken over by Donald Trump.” That message, which sounds like a pronouncement by today’s Republican Party establishment, was expressed three decades ago by the board of directors of Bally Manufacturing as it sought to thwart an unwanted bid by the developer. Bally managed to escape the clutches of Trump but it had to pay a significant price.

During his recent endorsement statement, Dr. Ben Carson declared that there are two Donald Trumps running for president, one of them “cerebral.” Whether that’s true or not, there’s evidence of two Donald Trumps in the business world.

The first Trump is the one constantly promoted by the candidate — the owner and operator (or at least licensor) of a string of supposedly wildly successful business all adorned with his name. Whether Trump University or Trump Steaks, these are also the focus of his critics.

Yet Trump has another track record that involves not the running of companies but rather that of profiting by launching takeover bids that do not lead to completed transactions. During the 1980s Trump was a junior member of a fraternity of wheeler dealers known as corporate raiders. (One of the more notable members of that group, Carl Icahn, has endorsed Trump’s presidential campaign).

Among Trump’s main forays was the one involving Bally. In November 1986 Trump disclosed that he had acquired a nearly 10 percent stake in the company, then the world’s largest producer of electronic games and an operator of casinos and health clubs. Right from the beginning, analysts thought Trump was simply looking to profit from a stock price increase resulting from the bid. They pointed to an earlier investment in Holiday Corp., which Trump sold for a $30 million profit after the disclosure of his 4.9 percent stake.

Bally took poison-pill evasive action and sued Trump for what it called an “unfair and coercive” takeover attempt that could jeopardize the company’s gaming licenses in Nevada and New Jersey (Businesswire, December 5, 1986 and Chicago Sun-Times, December 6, 1986).  Trump countersued for $1 billion. The war of words and court filings ended in February 1987, when Trump agreed to sell his shares back to Bally at a premium and netted a profit of more than $31 million.

Both Trump and Bally denied that the deal constituted “greenmail,” and the company prevailed in a shareholder lawsuit challenging the arrangement, but as Gwenda Blair wrote in her book on Trump, the stock transaction was “extremely close to greenmail.”

The Bally and Holiday Corp. bids were far from unique. Trump frequently bought stakes in companies — sometimes large enough to trigger an SEC reporting requirement, sometimes not — and ended up selling at a profit after short-lived takeover moves. On October 6, 1989 the Associated Press ran a story headlined TRUMP HAS A HISTORY OF TAKEOVER FEINTS that stated: “Like a high-stakes baccarat player at one of his Atlantic City casinos, real estate tycoon Donald Trump has made some profitable bluffs to help bankroll his ambitious and splashy acquisitions.” The piece noted several examples in which he “accumulated shares in the company – sometimes indicating he might be interested in mounting a buyout – and later sold all or some of his shares at a profit after the price rose on the ensuing takeover speculation or when another bidder emerged.”

In 1988 Trump had to pay a $750,000 civil penalty to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department that he failed to comply with pre-merger notification requirements in some of these situations.

Given this track record, one has to ask which Donald Trump is mounting the current challenge to the Republican Party — the one who takes things over and runs them (sometimes well, sometimes not) or the one who engages in takeovers just to make a profit.

Trump’s behavior in the presidential race often leans toward the latter. His incessant bragging about business acumen has become routine, but the press conference in which he displayed an array of Trump-branded products reinforced the impression that he may view his campaign not so much as a political revolution as an open-ended marketing opportunity for his ventures.

One cannot help but wonder how things would be different if the Republican elite had responded to Trump the way Bally did — by buying him off rather than fighting him. It’s not clear what form greenmail would take in a presidential campaign, but Trump is always saying he is open to a good deal.

What was Done with the Banks’ $110 Billion?

March 10th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Over the past few years, the Justice Department and state prosecutors have collected tens of billions of dollars in fines and settlements from large banks in a series of cases stemming from fraudulent practices in the period leading up to the financial meltdown of 2008.

Much of the debate on these cases has focused on whether the financial penalties, pursued in lieu of criminal charges against bank executives, were the most appropriate response to widespread bank misconduct. Or else the issue was whether the penalties, especially after accounting for the fact that they were in part tax-deductible, were big enough.

The Wall Street Journal has just published a front-page story addressing yet another facet: what was done with the money, which totaled some $110 billion in cases relating to toxic mortgage-backed securities, foreclosure abuses and related issues. The largest of the cases involved nearly $17 billion from Bank of America in 2014.

Roughly half of the overall total stayed with the federal government, with little disclosure of how it is being used. It appears that most of the roughly $50 billion has simply gone into the Treasury and was comingled with other federal funds.

The Journal states: “Bank executives grumble privately about the opaque process and are critical the government didn’t ensure more money went to housing-related issues.” Opinions of the culprits should not count for much in this discussion. The fact that the Journal cites them adds to the suspicion that paper is in some way trying to discredit the feds for their handling of the cases.

That posture is more explicit when it comes to the share of the money that ended up with the states. The Journal implies there is something wrong with New York’s decision to use some of its settlement funds to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City and to provide high-speed internet access in rural communities — or the decision of other states to direct settlement funds into state pension funds. One can disagree with the particular uses, but they are all valid public purposes.

After devoting most of the article to these imaginary scandals, the Journal finally gets to what is really the most important issue: what the banks themselves are doing with the roughly $45 billion of the total that was supposed to be devoted to consumer relief. It’s important to realize that the banks were not required to simply distribute these funds to abused customers in the form of reparations (which might have been a good idea).

Instead, the banks get credit toward the consumer relief settlement portions ($7 billion in the case of BofA) when they modify existing mortgages or make new loans to low-income consumers who lost their homes to foreclosure. In other words, they are being credited for restoring loans to more reasonable terms and thereby increasing the chances that the homeowners will avoid default. This is good for the homeowners but it also benefits the banks.

The Journal article describes the case of one homeowner who did not benefit much from her mortgage modification. On the other hand, Eric Green, the monitor of the BofA settlement has glowing words for the program in his most recent report. He says that first lien principal reductions have averaged 51 percent, that the average loan-to-value ratio has been brought down from 179 percent to 75 percent, that the average interest rate has been cut in half, and that the average monthly payment has been reduced 38 percent, or more than $600.

There may be more to the story, but this is what the Journal should be investigating rather than implying that it was a mistake to extract large sums from banks to pay for their sins.

Why Don’t More Corporate Executives Commit Suicide?

March 3rd, 2016 by Phil Mattera

The business news is abuzz with reports that the fatal car crash of fracking executive Aubrey McClendon a day after he was indicted on federal bid-rigging charges may have been intentional. The high speed at which McClendon’s SUV was apparently travelling at the time of the collision and the absence of skid marks are generating speculation that he deliberately drove into a bridge support.

If McClendon did indeed take his own life for reasons connected to his indictment, it would not be the first case of scandal-induced corporate suicide. In 2002, for instance, J. Clifford Baxter, former vice chairman of the notorious energy company Enron, was reported to have shot himself in the head, leaving a note saying “where there was once great pride now it’s gone.”

Yet in comparison to the high degree of corporate misconduct, executive suicides are quite rare. Part of the reason is that so few executives are prosecuted individually, as was McClendon, and thus are less likely to feel the intense shame that usually prompts acts of self-destruction. And when those prosecutions do occur, some executives remain defiant, depicting themselves of victims of overzealous prosecutors.

A prime example of such defiance was former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who insisted he was targeted for political reasons despite the extensive evidence against him in a case stemming from the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010. Blankenship was convicted of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety laws but acquitted of lying to regulators.

It’s significant that McClendon’s possible suicide occurred after he was indicted on the relatively abstract charge of conspiring to rig bids for oil and natural gas leases in Oklahoma. While the charges are serious, they do not directly involve harm to people and the environment.

On the other hand, Chesapeake Energy, which McClendon co-founded in 1989 and ran until 2013, has been involved in numerous cases involving allegations of such harm in the course of fracking. In the Violation Tracker my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First created, we found more than 30 cases since 2010 in which the company has paid more than $10 million in EPA fines and settlements. Apparently, there was no shame in that.

Although it would be ghoulish to suggest that anyone commit suicide, there is no shortage of other executives who should also at least be feeling more intense shame for their actions. A number of them are at companies in the business of producing vehicles like the one in which McClendon was driving at the time of his death. McClendon’s Chevrolet Tahoe is produced by General Motors, which had to pay a fine of $900 million to resolve criminal charges in connection with an ignition switch defect linked to more than a dozen deaths.

Then there’s the case of Japan’s Takata, which is embroiled in a controversy over the production of millions of defective airbags that in some cases ruptured and sent shrapnel flying at drivers and passengers. Or else Volkswagen, which has admitted wholesale cheating on auto emissions tests, leading to untold additional amounts of air pollution.

There are plenty of additional past and present examples from industries such as chemicals, mining, tobacco and asbestos. The answer is not for more top executives to take their own lives, but for them to end their reckless behavior to protect the lives of the rest of us.

Will Big Oil Survive Long Enough to Pay for Its Climate Sins?

February 25th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

“Times are tough, you’d almost call them brutal right now. But we will adapt. We will make it.” So insisted the deputy chief executive of BP at a conference in Houston where industry leaders put on a brave face amid a worsening crisis for the petroleum sector.

Other speakers were even more explicit about the Darwinian environment. “We will be one of the last guys standing,” declared the CEO of Suncor Energy, which once prospered from the tar sands boom in Alberta and is now selling off assets.

Several dozen oil and gas producers have had to file for bankruptcy protection since the beginning of last year. More such moves are expected. The business consulting firm Deloitte has issued a report estimating that more than one-third of all petroleum exploration and production companies are in precarious financial condition, with dozens likely to make the trip to bankruptcy court.

Even the oil majors are in trouble. Chevron reported a fourth-quarter loss of $588 million, while BP lost over $2 billion in the quarter and more than $5 billion for 2015 as a whole. Exxon Mobil and Shell are still in the black but their profits are down sharply. The industry’s problems are already depressing stock prices and are starting to cause heavy losses at the banks that lent extravagantly to the energy sector during the boom time.

It’s difficult to summon much sympathy for the oil companies, given the damage they have wrought. As shown in the Violation Tracker database I and my colleagues created, the petroleum industry has racked up more than $31 billion in environmental, health and safety penalties since the beginning of 2010, far more than any other industry. Much of this is the result of the massive fines and settlements paid by BP in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet there is one reason to hope for the survival of the petroleum producers: we need them to survive in some form so they can be taken to court over the role they’ve played in denying the reality of the climate crisis.

As Bill McKibben notes in a recent article, we’re now at the beginning of an investigation of what may prove to be one of the biggest corporate scandals in American history — the climate coverup.

At the center of the scandal is Exxon Mobil, the biggest fossil fuel corporation on earth and the one that is probably most culpable for suppressing evidence of the impact of its products on climate change. As path-breaking research by Inside Climate News showed, Exxon — reported to be the subject of current investigations by state prosecutors in New York and California — knew about global warming as early as the 1970s and quietly used that knowledge for its own benefit while keeping it from policymakers and the public.

Forty years later, the nature of the climate crisis is public information, but Exxon Mobil and the other oil companies continue to do business as usual. In fact, their obsession with exploration and production even at a time of softening demand has helped bring about the current price nosedive.

Exxon Mobil today has assets of more than $340 billion. Soon it may have to stop using those resources to produce more harmful fossil fuels and instead pay out substantial sums in damages to communities struggling to deal with the climate mess the industry has caused.