Corporate Rap Sheets

October 4th, 2012 by Phil Mattera

American Express is penalized $85 million for deceptive credit card practices. The Bear Stearns unit of JPMorgan Chase is sued for defrauding purchasers of mortgage-backed securities. These are just a single recent day’s contribution to the never-ending wave of corporate malfeasance—bribery, tax evasion, price-fixing, defrauding of government or consumers, environmental violations, unfair labor practices and much more. Given the frequency of these scandals, it is difficult to remember which corporation has done what.

A new feature of the Dirt Diggers Digest site (and that of the Corporate Research Project) will make it easier to keep track of these misdeeds. Corporate Rap Sheets are dossiers summarizing the most significant crimes, violations and other questionable activities of the world’s largest and most controversial companies. The rap sheets provide readable accounts of a company’s history on major accountability issues and, wherever possible, include links to key documents or other information sources.

These dossiers are not limited to formal legal actions and regulatory proceedings. They also look at the general behavior of the companies in areas such as environmental protection, labor relations, taxes and subsidies. They also list watchdog groups as well as books and reports about the company.

The Corporate Rap Sheets project is designed to contribute to the tradition of tabulating corporate misbehavior that began with Edwin Sutherland’s 1949 book White Collar Crime, resumed three decades later in works such as Everybody’s Business: The Irreverent Guide to Corporate America, and today is pursued on the web by sites such as the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. (I have prepared a fuller account of this tradition to go along with the rap sheets.)

I am launching the project with a set of 20 dossiers that focus on four industries known for their checkered accountability record: automobiles (General Motors, Ford Motor and the major Japanese and German producers); military contracting (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and the like); mining (the big global resource companies such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American); and petroleum (the four remaining members of what used to be called the Seven Sisters: Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell).

In the months to come, I plan to add more rap sheets for the giants of other controversial industries such as pharmaceuticals, tobacco, agribusiness and banking. New rap sheets will be announced at the end of Dirt Diggers Digest weekly posts.

Here are some tidbits from the first batch of rap sheets:

HONDA. The company’s more fuel efficient cars have given it a relatively benign environmental reputation, yet in 1998 Honda had to pay up to $267 million to settle U.S. government allegations that it programmed millions of its cars to ignore spark-plug failures that could result in much higher emission levels. The company paid a civil fine of $12.6 million and $4.5 million to fund environmental projects, while spending up to $250 million to serve and repair the vehicles involved.

NORTHROP GRUMMAN. In April 2009 the company agreed to pay $325 million to settle federal charges that TRW, prior to its acquisition by Northrop, had failed to properly test parts (which turned out to be defective) used in spy satellites built for the National Reconnaissance Office.

ROYAL DUTCH SHELL. In 2004 the company admitted that it had overstated its proven oil and natural gas reserves by 20 percent. It later came out that top executives knew of the deception about the reserves back in 2002. The company ended up paying penalties of about $150 million to U.S. and British authorities.

GENERAL MOTORS. In 2011 workers at GM’s subsidiary in India went on strike to protest a speed-up and unsafe conditions. In 2012 GM was confronted with worker protests over its move to eliminate jobs and cut costs at some of its operations in South America. In Colombia, a group of former workers staged a hunger strike, alleging that they were fired after sustaining serious injuries resulting from unsafe conditions on GM assembly lines.

BOEING. In 1999 the U.S. Labor Department accused Boeing of impeding an investigation into racial discrimination at the company. Boeing later agreed to pay $4.5 million to settle claims of both racial and gender discrimination involving more than 4,000 women and 1,600 minority employees in six locations. The settlement with the U.S. Labor Department was the first in which a firm committed to a company-wide program to eliminate discriminatory pay disparities. Nonetheless, Boeing was hit with a class action sex discrimination lawsuit that was settled in 2004 when the company agreed to pay up to $72.5 million in damages and to revamp many of its personnel practices. The settlement was preceded by reports that Boeing had suppressed evidence in the case.

BHP BILLITON. The company has been a frequent target of criticism over its treatment of communities displaced or otherwise affected by its mining operations. For example, in 2005 Survival International accused the company of exploring for diamonds in the Gana and Gwi Bushmen’s reserve in Botswana without their consent. In 2007 a complaint was filed with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development accusing BHP of using forced eviction and destruction of a town in Colombia to provide land for the company’s Cerrejon open-cut coal mine. To resolve the dispute, the company agreed to consult more closely with local communities and to spend more on local sustainability projects.

Read more at the Corporate Rap Sheets page.

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