Archive for the ‘Auto industry’ Category

The Real Crime Wave

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

Donald Trump’s recent economic policy address portrayed an economy crippled by “overregulation.” This came on the heels of his convention acceptance speech depicting a country afflicted by a wave of street crime perpetrated by “illegal immigrants.”

As with most of Trump’s statements, these comments took real issues and distorted them to the point that that they no longer had much resemblance to reality. There is a regulation crisis in the United States, but the problem is inadequate business oversight, not an excess. And there is a crime wave taking place, but the culprits are not immigrants but rather rogue corporations.

It was particularly odd that Trump chose to mention the auto industry in his rant on regulation. It has apparently not come to his attention that just about all the major carmakers are embroiled in some of the biggest safety and compliance scandals in the industry’s history.

Volkswagen exhibited contempt for the law in its long-standing scheme to circumvent auto emission standards. Since the brazen cheating came to light the company has been scrambling to make amends. It had to agree to spend nearly $15 billion (mostly to compensate customers) to resolve some of its legal entanglements, and it may still face criminal charges with larger potential penalties. While the amounts may seem high, VW is lucky it is being allowed to remain in business.

Then there’s the Japanese company Takata, whose airbags have turned out to be deadly and now is reported to have routinely manipulated test results of its products. General Motors had to pay a $900 million fine and Toyota $1.2 billion, both for safety reporting deficiencies. Electric car producer Tesla, which has taken advantage of a lax regulatory regarding self-driving technology, now faces scrutiny in the wake of several serious accidents involving vehicles operating on autopilot.

Automobiles are far from the only industry with serious regulatory compliance problems. In case we had forgotten the severity of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, BP provided a reminder recently when it estimated that its legal and clean-up costs will reach more than $61 billion.

And we must not leave out the banks. In a report I put out in June to accompany the expansion of Violation Tracker, I found that since the beginning of 2010 there have been 144 cases settled against major banks with penalties in excess of $100 million each. In all, the banks have had to pay $160 billion in these cases to resolve allegations relating to a wide range of misconduct: mortgage abuses, defrauding of investors, manipulation of foreign exchange markets and interest rate benchmarks, assisting tax evasion, and much more.

Rampant corporate misconduct is one of the missing issues of the presidential race, especially since Bernie Sanders dropped out. Hillary Clinton’s website has some decent language on the subject but she has hardly made it a central issue in her campaign. In her convention acceptance speech she presented an upbeat picture of American business, and her reference to the auto industry was not to criticize its misconduct but to celebrate that it “just had its best year ever.”

Neither Clinton nor Trump can be expected to be a crusader for corporate accountability, but we need to make sure that whoever is the next occupant of the White House feels pressure to rein in and not unleash big business.

Manufacturing McJobs at Nissan and Elsewhere

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Bring back manufacturing jobs: For years this has been put forth as the silver bullet that would reverse the decline in U.S. living standards and put the economy back on a fast track. The only problem is that today’s production positions are not our grandparents’ factory jobs. In fact, they are often as substandard as the much reviled McJobs of the service sector.

The latest evidence of this comes in a report by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, which has issued a series of studies on how the growth of poorly paid jobs in retailing and fast food have burdened government with ever-rising social safety net costs. Now the Center shows how the same problem arises from the deterioration of job quality in manufacturing.  The study estimates that one-third of the families of frontline production workers have to resort to one or more safety net program and that the federal government and the states have been spending about $10 billion a year on their benefits.

What makes these hidden taxpayer costs all the more galling is that manufacturing companies enjoy special benefits in the federal tax code and receive lavish state and local economic development subsidies, the rationale for which is that the financial assistance supposedly helps create high-quality jobs.

The Center’s analysis deals in aggregates and thus does not single out individual companies, but it is not difficult to think of specific firms that contribute to the vicious cycle. A suitable poster child, it seems to me, is Nissan. It is one of those foreign carmakers credited with investing in U.S. manufacturing, though like the other transplants it did so in a pernicious way.

First, it tried to avoid being unionized by locating its facilities in states such as Mississippi and Tennessee that are known to be unfriendly to organized labor. After the United Auto Workers nonetheless launched an organizing drive, the company has done everything possible to thwart the union.

Second, while boasting that its hourly wage rates for permanent, full-time workers are close to those of the Big Three domestic automakers, Nissan has denied those pay levels to large chunks of its workforce. Roughly half of those working at the company’s plant in Canton, Mississippi are temps or leased workers with much lower pay and little in the way of benefits.

It is significant that in the Center’s report, Mississippi — which has also attracted manufacturing investments from other foreign firms such as Toyota and Yokohama Rubber — has the highest rate of participation (59 percent) in safety net programs by families of production workers. The Magnolia State may have experienced a manufacturing revival, but many of those new jobs are so poorly paid that they are creating a burden for taxpayers.

At the same time, Mississippi is among the more generous states in dishing out the subsidies to those foreign investors. My colleague Kasia Tarczynska and I discovered that the value of the incentive package given to Nissan in 2000 will turn out to cost $1.3 billion — far more than was originally reported. Toyota got a $354 million deal in 2007, and Yokohama Rubber got a $130 million one in 2013.

There’s a lot of talk these days about bad trade deals and resulting job losses. We also need to worry about what happens when we gain employment from international investment but the jobs turn out to be lousy ones.

Emission Cheating and Lead Poisoning

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

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.

Why Don’t More Corporate Executives Commit Suicide?

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

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.

Business Fights FASB on Corporate Welfare Disclosure

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

Time Magazine

Large corporations spend a lot of time complaining about their obligations to government, such as paying taxes and complying with regulations, while saying very little about what they get from taxpayers in the form of financial assistance. The organization that sets corporate accounting standards now wants to see the magnitude of that assistance disclosed in financial statements, and the business world is howling in protest.

In November, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) issued a proposal that would require publicly traded corporations to disclose details on a wide range of government assistance — such as tax incentives, cash grants, and low-interest loans — when that help is the result of an agreement between a public agency and a specific firm, as opposed to provisions in tax codes that any business can claim. The proposal mirrors the one adopted by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) that will require state and local government agencies to disclose the amount of revenue they are losing as a result of tax incentive deals.

The FASB proposal has some flaws, such as the decision not to require companies to provide estimates of the value of multi-year subsidy deals and a lack of clarity on the degree to which the information would have to be disaggregated. Still, it would be a major advance in financial transparency, giving investors and others important information on the extent to which companies are dependent on the public sector.

The business world sees it differently. During a recently completed three-month comment period, about two dozen trade associations and large corporations submitted statements on the proposal that were overwhelmingly negative.

At the center of the backlash are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, which submitted joint comments arguing that the scope of the accounting standard is “overly broad,” that compliance costs would be “significant,” and that companies could place themselves in “legal jeopardy” by disclosing the information proposed by FASB.

The big-business-sponsored Council on State Taxation also invoked the privacy rights of corporate taxpayers and warned that the disclosures would “assist those who wish to harass a company regarding credits or incentives received pursuant to an economic development agreement.” Similar objections were presented by the American Banking Association, which represents entities that received trillions of dollars in assistance from the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury in the wake of the financial meltdown that some of those same entities brought about.

Perhaps most infuriating are the negative comments submitted by large companies that are among the biggest recipients of public assistance. We know who they are because numerous government agencies already reveal a substantial amount of company-specific subsidy data, which my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have collected for our Subsidy Tracker search engine. Although we’ve gotten a lot from the agency disclosure, having more information in the financial reports of all public companies would allow us to make Subsidy Tracker even more complete.

Several of the corporations commenting against the FASB rule have received more than $1 billion each in federal, state and local subsidies, including two whose totals put them among the top ten recipients: General Motors ($5.7 billion) and Ford Motor ($4 billion). These totals do not include the tens of billions they received in loans and loan guarantees, whose value after repayments is difficult to calculate.

GM, which survived only after being taken over by the federal government, whines that the FASB disclosure proposal “would be costly and difficult to prepare given the complexity of global entities and the wide variations of such arrangements” and claims that the information could be “misleading” or could benefit “special interest groups questioning tax incentives offered by governments as perceived abuses of the current taxation system.”

In what might be a dig at its competitor, Ford Motor, which did not require a federal takeover, suggests that FASB limit its disclosure requirement to bailouts and exclude “incentives” that are offered in exchange for a commitment to invest or create jobs.

IBM, which has been awarded some $1.4 billion in subsidies, asserts that the costs of the disclosure would outweigh the benefits and says that if FASB moves ahead with the new standard it should “not require disclosure of specific terms and conditions, which may include confidential or proprietary information for both governments and entities.” In other words, make it as vague as possible.

In case there was any doubt, these comments confirm that big business is in favor of transparency only when what is to be disclosed puts a company in a favorable light. Let’s hope FASB stands fast and joins with GASB in bringing corporate welfare out of the shadows.

DOJ’s Sputtering Case Against Volkswagen

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

An activist of the environmental protection organization 'Greenpeace' holds a protest poster in front of a factory gate of the German car manufacturer Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, where the supervisory board meet to discuss who to name as CEO after Martin Winterkorn quit the job this week over an emissions-rigging scandal that's rocking the world's top-selling automaker. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

There’s a scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street” in which a federal prosecutor tells Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) that the case against him for securities fraud was a “Grenada,” meaning that it was as unloseable as the 1983 U.S. invasion of that poorly defended Caribbean island.

The Justice Department has had another Grenada in recent months with the case against Volkswagen for systematically cheating on auto emissions tests. As the scope of the deception broadened to include millions of vehicles, VW effectively admitted guilt and put aside the equivalent of about $7 billion to resolve the issue, later acknowledging that sum would not be enough.

After three months of preparation, Justice has filed its case yet is failing to make full use of its leverage against the automaker. As a result, it could end up with only a modest win against one of the most egregious cases of corporate environmental fraud this country has ever seen.

The biggest disappointment is DOJ’s decision to forgo criminal charges and handle this solely as a civil matter. Admittedly, prosecutors were confronted with the fact that a little known loophole in the Clean Air Act exempts the auto industry from criminal penalties. Yet there appeared to be ways to get around this limitation by alleging fraud, for instance, given that there was apparently a deliberate effort to deceive the federal government about emissions. It’s not clear why DOJ rejected this approach and did not even use the frequent gambit of pursuing a criminal case and then offering the company a deferred- or non-prosecution agreement. Those options are problematic, but with them criminal charges are at least part of the picture rather than being left out entirely.

Also frustrating is the failure of Justice to bring charges (civil or criminal) against individual VW executives. This flies in the face of the department’s hyped announcement in September of a new policy of holding individuals accountable for corporate misconduct. Charging senior VW officers was all the more important in light of indications that the company has been seeking ways to place the blame on lower-level engineers.

It is disturbing to think that VW may have intimidated DOJ away from an aggressive prosecution. Although the scope of the scandal has widened, taking in more of the company’s brands in more countries, VW seems to be adopting a less conciliatory posture than it did earlier in the case. In fact, the DOJ complaint accuses the company of impeding and obstructing the investigation through “material omissions and misleading information” — accusations that make the absence of criminal charges all the more bewildering.

It is likely that VW will have to pay billions of dollars to resolve the charges against it. This is right and proper, but is it enough? Corporations from BP to Bank of America have gotten used to buying their way out of legal jeopardy, treating fines and settlements as (often tax deductible) costs of doing business. Those costs have been rising — BP has had to pay out more than $24 billion in connection with its Gulf of Mexico disaster — but there is little evidence that the penalties are having the intended deterrent effect.

Criminal charges are not a panacea. They’ve been brought against BP, several large banks and other companies yet no longer have the same bite. Several banks, for instance, have received waivers from SEC rules barring criminals from the securities business.

Yet at least there is the possibility of applying criminal penalties more aggressively. Going the purely civil route, as Justice is doing with VW, guarantees from the start that the case will be little more than a financial transaction. In a case of deliberate and widespread deception with severe environmental and health impacts, that’s simply not good enough.

The 2015 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

gotojailThe ongoing corporate crime wave showed no signs of abating in 2015. BP paid a record $20 billion to settle the remaining civil charges relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster (on top of the $4 billion in previous criminal penalties), and Volkswagen is facing perhaps even greater liability in connection with its scheme to evade emission standards.

Other automakers and suppliers were hit with large penalties for safety violations, including a $900 million fine (and deferred criminal prosecution) for General Motors, a record civil penalty of $200 million for Japanese airbag maker Takata, penalties of $105 million and $70 million for Fiat Chrysler, and $70 million for Honda.

Major banks continued to pay large penalties to resolve a variety of legal entanglements. Five banks (Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) had to pay a total of $2.5 billion to the Justice Department and $1.8 billion to the Federal Reserve in connection with charges that they conspired to manipulate foreign exchange markets. The DOJ case was unusual in that the banks had to enter guilty pleas, but it is unclear that this hampered their ability to conduct business as usual.

Anadarko Petroleum agreed to pay more than $5 billion to resolve charges relating to toxic dumping by Kerr-McGee, which was acquired by Anadarko in 2006. In another major environmental case, fertilizer company Mosaic agreed to resolve hazardous waste allegations at eight facilities by creating a $630 million trust fund and spending $170 million on mitigation projects.

These examples and the additional ones below were assembled with the help of Violation Tracker, the new database of corporate misconduct my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First introduced this year. The database currently covers environmental, health and safety cases from 13 federal agencies, but we will be adding other violation categories in 2016.

Deceptive financial practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined Citibank $700 million for the deceptive marketing of credit card add-on products.

Cheating depositors. Citizens Bank was fined $18.5 million by the CFPB for pocketing the difference when customers mistakenly filled out deposit slips for amounts lower than the sums actually transferred.

Overcharging customers. An investigation by officials in New York City found that pre-packaged products at Whole Foods had mislabeled weights, resulting in grossly inflated unit prices.

Food contamination. In a rare financial penalty in a food safety case, a subsidiary of ConAgra was fined $11.2 million for distributing salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

Adulterated medication. Johnson & Johnson subsidiary McNeill-PPC entered a guilty plea and paid $25 million in fines and forfeiture in connection with charges that it sold adulterated children’s over-the-counter medications.

Illegal marketing. Sanofi subsidiary Genzyme Corporation entered into a deferred prosecution agreement and paid a penalty of $32.6 million in connection with charges that it promoted its Seprafilm devices for uses not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Failure to report safety defects. Among the companies hit this year with civil penalties by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for failing to promptly report safety hazards were: General Electric ($3.5 million fine), Office Depot ($3.4 million) and LG Electronics ($1.8 million).

Workplace hazards. Tuna producer Bumble Bee agreed to pay $6 million to settle state charges that it willfully violated worker safety rules in connection with the death of an employee who was trapped in an industrial oven at the company’s plant in Southern California.

Sanctions violations. Deutsche Bank was fined $258 million for violations in connection with transactions on behalf of countries (such as Iran and Syria) and entities subject to U.S. economic sanctions.

Air pollution. Glass manufacturer Guardian Industries settled Clean Air Act violations brought by the EPA by agreeing to spend $70 million on new emission controls.

Ocean dumping. An Italian company called Carbofin was hit with a $2.75 million criminal fine for falsifying its records to hide the fact that it was using a device known as a “magic hose” to dispose of sludge, waste oil and oil-contaminated bilge water directly into the sea rather than using required pollution prevention equipment.

Climate denial. The New York Attorney General is investigating whether Exxon Mobil deliberately deceived shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change.

False claims. Millennium Health agreed to pay $256 million to resolve allegations that it billed Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health programs for unnecessary tests.

Illegal lobbying. Lockheed Martin paid $4.7 million to settle charges that it illegally used government money to lobby federal officials for an extension of its contract to run the Sandia nuclear weapons lab.

Price-fixing. German auto parts maker Robert Bosch was fined $57.8 million after pleading guilty to Justice Department charges of conspiring to fix prices and rig bids for spark plugs, oxygen sensors and starter motors sold to automakers in the United States and elsewhere.

Foreign bribery. Goodyear Tire & Rubber paid $16 million to resolve Securities and Exchange Commission allegations that company subsidiaries paid bribes to obtain sales in Kenya and Angola.

Wage theft. Oilfield services company Halliburton paid $18 million to resolve Labor Department allegations that it improperly categorized more than 1,000 workers to deny them overtime pay.

Volkswagen Deserves Its Day in Criminal Court

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Volkswagen’s scheme to circumvent federal emissions regulations for millions of its cars cries out for tough prosecution. Yet it turns out that a little known loophole in the Clean Air Act exempts the automobile industry from criminal penalties.

EPA and Justice Department prosecutors are apparently considering whether criminal charges can be brought under other statutes, but it remains to be seen whether they will be successful. An inability to do so would be a major embarrassment for DOJ, which recently proclaimed its intention to move away from deferred prosecution agreements and get tougher with corporate culprits.

In case anyone questions the appropriateness of criminal charges in environmental cases, it is worth recalling that this approach has ample precedents. While it is true that many of the cases in the EPA’s criminal docket involve individuals at fly-by-night firms, that’s not always the case.

In fact, as part of the preparation for the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First will release later this month, I’ve been going through the records. Here are some of the highlights:

The granddaddy of criminal environmental cases was the prosecution of BP for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people and did untold damage to the Gulf of Mexico. In November 2012 BP pled guilty to environmental crimes (involving the Clean Water and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts) as well as felony manslaughter and obstruction of Congress. It was required to pay criminal fines and penalties of $4 billion.

In February 2013 Transocean, the company from which BP leased the ill-fated drilling rig, pleaded guilty to charges of violating the Clean Water Act in the period leading up to the accident and was sentenced to pay $400 million in criminal fines and penalties. Halliburton, which was responsible for cement work at the site, pleaded guilty to a charge of destroying evidence.

Oil companies are not the only defendants. In 2013 Wal-Mart Stores pleaded guilty to six counts of violating the Clean Water Act by illegally handling and disposing of hazardous materials at its retail outlets across the country. It had to pay $81 million in penalties.

This year, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act at several of its facilities in North Carolina and paid a $68 million criminal fine and was required to spend $34 million on environmental projects.

Volkswagen certainly belongs on this dishonor roll of environmental culprits. In fact, it probably deserves harsher punishment than even BP, given the brazen and intentional aspects of its behavior.

In reporting on the auto industry loophole, the Wall Street Journal quoted former Michigan Rep. John Dingell as justifying the provision by saying that civil penalties were “easier, speedier quicker” than criminal sanctions and warning regarding the latter: “The risk of them going out of business is very real.”

In cases such as this one, the convenience of prosecutors should not be a priority, and there are many people who may think that VW’s disappearance would not be a bad thing.

Think Irresponsible

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

volkswagen-clean-diesel-ad.w529.h352In the competition among industries to see which can act in the most irresponsible manner, we have a new winner. After nearly a decade during which banks and oil giants like BP were the epitome of corporate misconduct, the big automakers are now on top.

The news that Volkswagen inserted devices in millions of its “clean diesel” cars to disguise their pollution levels is the latest in a series of major scandals involving car companies. It comes on the heels of criminal charges against General Motors for failing to report a safety defect linked to more than 100 deaths. The Justice Department, unfortunately, deferred prosecution of those charges in a deal that required GM to pay $900 million. That looks like a bargain compared to the possibility that the EPA could sock Volkswagen, which once employed an ad campaign called Think Small, with penalties of some $18 billion.

Last year, Justice announced a deferred prosecution agreement with Toyota that required the Japanese company to pay $1.2 billion to settle charges that it tried to cover up the causes of a sudden acceleration problem. Later that year, Hyundai and Kia had to pay $100 million to settle DOJ and EPA allegations that they understated greenhouse gas emissions from more than 1 million cars and trucks.

This past July, Fiat Chrysler was hit with by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with a fine of $105 million — a record for that agency, which long had a cozy relationship with the industry — for deficiencies in its recall of defective vehicles.

Even Honda, which once had a squeaky clean reputation, was fined $70 million earlier this year by NHTSA for underreporting deaths and injuries relating to defective airbags. Those airbags were produced by the Japanese company Takata, which resisted making changes in its production process despite incidents in which the devices exploded violently, sending shrapnel flying into drivers and passengers.

The ascendance of the auto industry to the top of the corporate wrongdoing charts is actually an encore for what was a long-running performance. During the 1960s, GM inadvertently gave rise to the modern public interest movement in its ham-handed response to the issues raised by a young Ralph Nader about the safety problems of its Corvair compact. The 1970s were the era of the Ford Pinto with its fragile fuel tanks that blew up in even mild rear-end collisions. The 1990s were marked by the scandal over defective tires produced by Bridgestone/Firestone.

Although carmakers were not in the forefront of corporate misbehavior during the past decade, the industry’s record was far from unblemished. In 2005 VW presaged its current problems when it paid $1.1 million to the Justice Department to settle allegations that it failed to notify regulators and correct a defective oxygen sensor in more than 300,000 Golfs, Jettas and New Beetles.

And to make matters worse, through these decades the auto giants kept up a drumbeat of criticism of supposed regulatory excesses and, in the cases of GM and Chrysler, did not hesitate to ask for large bailouts when their markets collapsed.

The American love affair with the automobile has also put us in bed with corporate irresponsibility on a major scale.

What’s Good for GM is Good for GM’s Executives

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

gm-ignition-switch-accident-victims_0The famous statement from the 1950s to the effect that what was good for General Motors was good for the country needs to be updated.

Based on a settlement just announced by the Justice Department, we should be saying: what is good for GM is good for Mary Barra and bad for the country.

Barra, the chief executive of the automaker, and the company’s other top executives are celebrating the fact that they were able to negotiate a deal with federal prosecutors that contains no charges against individuals in connection with the failure to disclose a safety defect that has been linked to more than 120 deaths.

This came just a week after the adoption of a new policy by Justice that was supposedly going to make sure that individuals, including high-level executives, are targeted in major cases of corporate misconduct. That policy states that companies are not supposed to receive cooperation credit (lighter penalties) unless they hand over evidence relating to actual persons. Yet GM apparently got such credit.

What’s even more shocking about the GM deal is that the company did not have to enter a guilty plea on the criminal charges that had been brought against it. Instead, it was given the opportunity to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement — the widely criticized practice of letting a company buy its way out of legal jeopardy by promising to be good in the future.

The Justice Department was supposedly moving away from what had become virtually automatic use of this device in cases involving large corporations. The GM deal diverges from the guilty pleas that had been extracted in several cases such as those involving major banks such as Citi and JPMorgan Chase.

Finally, the settlement is a disappointment because the amount of the penalty extracted, $900 million, is hardly punitive for a company of GM’s size and is well below the $1.2 billion Toyota had to pay to resolve similar charges last year.

An unwillingness to come down hard on large corporate malefactors is all too common, but what sets the GM case apart is that it is one of those rare instances in which the misconduct has been directly linked to many deaths. The automaker was, in a sense, being accused of murder — actually, of being a serial killer. And real people were involved in the irresponsible decisions that led to those deaths.

Yet GM was offered a deal that is the equivalent of probation and a fine, while its executives did not even get a slap on the wrist. If a street murder case were resolved with such light punishment, the prosecutor would be tarred and feathered. But when it comes to corporate crimes — and crimes involving corporate executives — the rules are very different.