Archive for the ‘Auto industry’ Category

The Other Trump Collusion Scandal

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

For months the news has been filled with reports of suspicious meetings between Trump associates and Russian officials. Another category of meetings also deserves closer scrutiny: the encounters between Trump himself and top executives of scores of major corporations since Election Day. What do these companies want from the new administration?

During the presidential campaign, Trump often hinted that he would be tough on corporate misconduct — especially the offshoring of jobs — and this won him a significant number of votes. After taking office, however, much of the economic populism has disappeared in favor of a shamelessly pro-corporate approach, especially when it comes to regulation. Big business has put aside whatever misgivings it had about Trump and now seeks favors from him.

There is always a fine line between deregulation and the encouragement of corporate crime and misconduct. We should be concerned about the latter, given the roster of executives who have made pilgrimages to the White House.

Public Citizen has just published a report looking at the track record of the roughly 120 companies whose executives have met publicly with Trump since November 8 and finds that many of them “are far from upstanding corporate citizens.”

Using data from Violation Tracker (which I and my colleagues produce at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First), Public Citizen finds that more than 100 of the visitors were from companies that appear in the database as having paid a federal fine or settlement since the beginning of 2010.

In its tally of these penalties, which includes those associated with companies such as Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil whose executives were brought right into the administration, Public Citizen finds that the total is about $90 billion.

At the top of the list are companies from the two sectors that have been at the forefront of the corporate crime wave of recent years: banks and automakers. JPMorgan Chase, with penalties of almost $29 billion, is in first place. Also in the top dozen are Citigroup ($15 billion), Goldman Sachs ($9 billion), HSBC ($4 billion) and BNY Mellon ($741 million). Volkswagen, still embroiled in the emissions cheating scandal, has the second highest penalty total ($19 billion). Two other automakers make the dirty dozen: Toyota ($1.3 billion) and General Motors ($936 million).

The rest of the dirty dozen are companies from another notorious industry: pharmaceuticals. These include Johnson & Johnson ($2.5 billion),  Merck ($957 million), Novartis ($938 million) and Amgen ($786 million).

All these companies have a lot to gain from a relaxation of federal oversight of their operations. While it remains unclear whether the Trump campaign used its meetings with Russian officials to plan election collusion, there is no doubt that the administration has been using its meetings with corporate executives to plan regulatory rollbacks that will have disastrous financial, safety and health consequences.

The Emissions Scandal Widens

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

Big business would have us believe that it is on the side of the angels when it comes to the Paris climate agreement. A group of large companies just published full-page ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal urging (unsuccessfully, it turned out) President Trump to remain in the accord.

Not included in the list of blue chip signatories were the big auto producers, which may reflect the realization among those companies that it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to present themselves as defenders of the environment.

On the contrary, recent developments could cause them to be regarded as among the worst environmental criminals. That’s because evidence is growing that the kind of emissions cheating associated with Volkswagen is more pervasive in the industry.

Recently, the Justice Department, acting on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, filed a civil complaint against Fiat Chrysler alleging that the company produced more than 100,000 diesel vehicles with systems designed to evade federal emission standards. As a result, those vehicles end up producing pollutants (especially oxides of nitrogen or NOx) well above the acceptable levels set by EPA. In its announcement of the case, DOJ noted: “NOx pollution contributes to the formation of harmful smog and soot, exposure to which is linked to a number of respiratory- and cardiovascular-related health effects as well as premature death.” This is a polite way of accusing the company of homicide.

Around the same time, a class action lawsuit was filed against General Motors accusing the company of programming some of its heavy-duty pickup trucks to cheat on diesel emissions tests.

The two companies are responding differently. GM is denying the allegations, calling them “baseless” and vowing to defend itself “vigorously.” Fiat Chrysler tried to ward off the federal lawsuit by promising to modify the vehicles. It expressed disappointment at the DOJ filing but is still vowing to work with regulators to resolve the issue. Fiat Chrysler is also maintaining that its systems are different from those used by Volkswagen, which has had to pay out billions in settlements and criminal fines; several of its executives are facing individual criminal charges.

Whether the response involves stonewalling, remediation or splitting hairs, the emergence of these new cases turns the emissions scandal from one involving a single rogue corporation to a pattern of misconduct that may turn out to be standard practice throughout the auto sector.

This in turn raises broader issues about deregulation. The Trump Administration and its Republican allies in Congress try to depict corporations as helpless victims of regulatory overreach in need of relief. What the widening emissions scandal shows is that large companies are often instead flagrantly violating the rules and in doing so are putting public health at risk. Rather than relaxing regulation, policymakers should be intensifying oversight to make it harder for cheating to occur.

The car industry would be a good place to start. Misconduct among automakers dates back decades. It was GM’s resistance to safety improvements that inspired Ralph Nader to launch the modern public interest movement in the 1960’s, and it was Ford’s negligence in the deadly Pinto scandal of the 1970s that gave new meaning to corporate greed and irresponsibility. It’s time for these companies to clean up their act once and for all.

Targeting Those at the Top

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

It remains to be seen how high the new special counsel Robert Mueller aims his probe of the Trump campaign, but there are reports that another prominent investigation is targeting those at the top. German prosecutors are said to be examining the role of Volkswagen chief executive Matthias Muller and his predecessor Martin Winterkorn in the emissions cheating scheme perpetrated by the automaker. They are also looking at the chairman of Porsche SE, which has a controlling interest in VW.

Mueller and Muller, by the way, have more of a connection than the similarity of their names. Last year, the former FBI director was chosen by a federal judge to serve as the “settlement master” to help resolve hundreds of lawsuits brought against VW in U.S. courts. Mueller has played a similar role regarding suits brought against Japanese airbag maker Takata.

Although Winterkorn was forced to resign after the emissions scandal erupted in 2015, he and Muller — who was VW’s head of product planning while the cheating was taking place — denied any wrongdoing, and the company sought to pin the blame on lower-level managers.

The initial U.S. Justice Department case against VW named no executives at all, though a company engineer later pleaded guilty to fraud charges and in January DOJ indicted six other VW middle managers.

There is no question that many individuals had to be involved in a scheme as widespread as the one at VW. Although it was corrupt, VW was also bureaucratic, so it is to be expected that lower-level managers either sought permission from their superiors for undertaking a risky scheme — or they were carrying out a plot that originated from above.

In fact, the New York Times reports that it has been shown internal company emails and memos suggesting that VW engineers implementing the scheme were operating with the knowledge and consent of top managers.

As the evidence mounts, the issue for German prosecutors may no longer be whether the likes of Muller and Winterkorn were involved but whether they, the prosecutors, are willing to bring charges against those at the apex of the corporate hierarchy.

In the United States, a reluctance to take that step has tainted the prosecution of business crime for more than a decade. At a time when discussion of whether anyone is above the law is the focus of discussion in the government realm, we should not forget that the principle applies in the corporate sector as well.

Corporate Crime and the Trump Administration

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

With all that’s happening in the chaotic Trump transition, less attention is being paid to the announcement that Volkswagen is pleading guilty to felony charges and paying more than $4 billion in penalties while a half dozen of its executives face individual criminal indictments.

A development of this sort should represent a turning point in the prosecutorial handling of the corporate crime wave that has afflicted the United States for years. Yet because of its timing, it may end up being no more than a parting gesture of an administration that has struggled for eight years to find an effective way of dealing with widespread and persistent misconduct by large companies. And it may be followed by a weakening of enforcement in a new administration led by a president whose attacks on regulation were a hallmark of his electoral campaign.

First, with regard to the Obama Administration: The treatment of Volkswagen is what should have been dished out against the banks that caused the financial meltdown, against BP for its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, against Takata for its production of deadly airbags, and against the other corporations involved in major misconduct ranging from large-scale oil spills and contracting fraud to market manipulation and wage theft.

Instead, the Obama Justice Department continued the Bush Administration’s practice of avoiding individual prosecutions and offering many corporations deferred and non-prosecution deals in which they essentially bought their way out of jeopardy, albeit at rising costs. These arrangements, which are catalogued in Violation Tracker, imposed a financial burden but appear to have had a limited deterrent effect.

In a few instances, companies did have to enter guilty pleas, but the impact was softened when, for examples, the large banks that had to take that step in a case involving manipulation of the foreign exchange market later got waivers from SEC rules that bar firms with felony convictions from operating in the securities business.

It remains to be seen how much VW’s guilty plea affects its ability to continue doing business as usual. Yet the bigger question is how corporate criminals will fare in the Trump Administration.

Trump the candidate said little or nothing about VW, Wells Fargo and the other big corporate scandals of the day and instead parroted Republican talking points about the supposedly intrusive nature of regulation. Corporations that have supposedly been put on notice about moving jobs offshore or seeking overly lucrative federal contracts apparently are to have a free hand when it comes to poisoning the environment, maiming their workers or defrauding customers.

Although some have speculated that Jeff Sessions will be tough on corporate crime, a Public Citizen report on his time as Alabama’s attorney general in the 1990s provides evidence strongly to the contrary.

While Sessions took pains during his confirmation testimony to claim that he would not be a “rubber stamp” for the new Administration, he has strong political ties to Trump and worked hard to legitimize some of his more extreme positions during the campaign. Trump is unlikely to pay much heed to the traditional independence of the Justice Department, and Sessions is unlikely to adopt policies that rub Trump the wrong way.

Despite the inclinations of Sessions, the appointment of anti-regulation foes to head many federal agencies will mean that fewer cases will get referred to the Justice Department. And if Trump’s deregulatory legislative agenda gets enacted, the enforcement pipeline will dry up even more.

Corporate misconduct may very well decline during the Trump era because much of that conduct will become perfectly legal.

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.