Archive for the ‘Auto industry’ Category

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.

Punishments that Fit the Corporate Crime

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

gm-ignition-switch-accident-victims_0Now that several large banks have pled guilty to criminal charges, the next addition to the list of corporate felons could be General Motors, which is reportedly negotiating a settlement with the Justice Department to resolve an investigation of the company’s concealment of an ignition-switch problem that has been linked to more than 100 deaths.

Another criminal investigation is targeting Takata Corp., whose defective airbags recently prompted the record recall of 34 million vehicles. Its airbags can explode violently when activated, shooting shrapnel that has been tied to six deaths and more than 100 injuries.

In reporting the possibility of a plea by GM, the New York Times said the company is likely to be hit with a record financial penalty, suggesting that this will be the main punishment faced by the automaker. Presumably, Takata will also have to fork over a substantial sum.

Federal prosecutors have been extracting larger and larger amounts from companies in settlement deals, but are monetary penalties enough when it comes to corporate misconduct that results in serious physical injuries and loss of life?

Of course, there is a long tradition in the tort system of attaching dollar amounts to victims of business negligence, but when the wrongdoing is serious enough to warrant criminal charges, the culprits should not be able to buy their way out of jeopardy.

Ideally, such cases should also include the filing of charges against individuals, especially top executives, who could face the loss of their personal liberty. In most instances, however, prosecutors say it is too difficult to prove individual culpability.

How, then, could companies be punished beyond financial penalties (which are often easily affordable and tax deductible)? Short of using the corporate death penalty (charter revocation), which in the case of a large firm such as GM would cause economic upheaval, there are other options to consider.

It’s frequently said that corporations cannot be put in prison, but there are ways of restricting their freedom to operate. These involve excluding them from certain markets or putting restrictions on the scope or size of their business. Such penalties already exist in the form of debarment from federal contracting or disqualification from certain regulated activities.

The problem is that prosecutors and regulators are wary of making full use of these sanctions, as seen in the fact that the banks that recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges of rigging the foreign currency market were promptly given waivers by the SEC from rules that would have disqualified them from the securities industry.

Perhaps the bank offenses were too abstract to engender much public anger over the way they were allowed to escape some of the more serious consequences for their crimes. But I’d like to think that companies found to have caused death and dismemberment will be expected to do more than write a check.

The 2014 Corporate Rap Sheet

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

gotojailThe bull market in corporate crime surged in 2014 as large corporations continued to pay hefty fines and settlements that seem to do little to deter misbehavior in the suites. Payouts in excess of $1 billion have become commonplace and some even reach into eleven figures, as seen in the $16.65 billion settlement Bank of America reached with the Justice Department to resolve federal and state claims relating to the practices of its Merrill Lynch and Countrywide units in the run-up to the financial meltdown.

This came in the same year in which BofA reached a $9.3 billion settlement with the Federal Housing Finance Agency concerning the sale of deficient mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and in which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered the bank to pay $727 million to compensate consumers harmed by deceptive marketing of credit card add-on products.

The BofA cases helped boost the total penalties paid by U.S. and European banks during the year to nearly $65 billion, a 40 percent increase over the previous year, according to a tally by the Boston Consulting Group reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Among the other big banking cases were the following:

  • France’s BNP Paribas pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid an $8.9 billion penalty to U.S. authorities in connection with charges that it violated financial sanctions against countries such as Sudan and Iran.
  • Citigroup paid $7 billion to settle federal charges relating to the packaging and sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities.
  • U.S. and European regulators fined five banks — JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS — a total of more than $4 billion after accusing them of conspiring to manipulate the foreign currency market.
  • Credit Suisse pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiring to aid tax evasion by U.S. customers and paid a penalty of $2.6 billion.
  • JPMorgan Chase paid $1.7 billion to victims of the Ponzi scheme perpetuated by Bernard Madoff to settle civil and criminal charges that it failed to alert authorities about large numbers of suspicious transactions made by Madoff while it was his banker.

Banks were not the only large corporations that found themselves in legal trouble during the year. The auto industry faced a never-ending storm of controversy over its safety practices. Toyota was hit with a $1.2 billion criminal penalty by U.S. authorities for concealing defects from customers and regulators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined General Motors $35 million (the maximum allowable) for failing to promptly report an ignition switch defect that has been linked to numerous deaths. Hyundai and its subsidiary Kia paid $300 million to settle allegations that they misstated the greenhouse gas emissions of their vehicles.

Toxic dumping. Anadarko Petroleum paid $5.1 billion to resolve federal charges that had been brought in connection with the clean-up of thousands of toxic waste sites around the country resulting from decades of questionable practices by Kerr-McGee, now a subsidiary of Anadarko.

Pipeline safety. The California Public Utilities Commission proposed that $1.4 billion in penalties and fined be imposed on Pacific Gas & Electric in connection with allegations that the company violated federal and state pipeline safety rules before a 2010 natural gas explosion that killed eight people.

Contractor fraud. Supreme Group BV had to pay $288 million in criminal fines and a $146 million civil settlement in connection with allegations that it grossly overcharged the federal government while supplying food and bottled water to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

Bribery. The French industrial group Alstom consented to pay $772 million to settle U.S. government charges that it bribed officials in Indonesia and other countries to win power contracts. Earlier in the year, Alcoa paid $384 million to resolve federal charges that it used a middleman to bribe members of Bahrain’s royal family and other officials to win lucrative contracts from the Bahraini government.

Price-fixing. Japan’s Bridgestone Corporation pleaded guilty to charges that it conspired to fix prices of anti-vibration rubber auto parts and had to pay a criminal fine of $425 million.

Defrauding consumers. AT&T Mobility had to pay $105 million to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission that it unlawfully billed customers for services without their prior knowledge or consent.

The list goes on. Whether the economy is strong or weak, many corporative executives cannot resist the temptation to break the law in the pursuit of profit.

Note: For fuller dossiers on some of the companies listed here, see my Corporate Rap Sheets.

Getting Even Tougher on Corporate Crime

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

blankenshipWest Virginia’s coal country is not very fond of the Environmental Protection Agency these days, but another part of the federal government — the Justice Department — is viewed more sympathetically.

The reason is that Don Blankenship, the most reviled man in the state, is being prosecuted. A federal grand jury recently handed up an indictment with four criminal counts against Blankenship (photo), the former CEO of Massey Energy, for conspiring with other managers to violate safety laws on a massive scale, thereby creating the conditions that led to the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster, in which 29 miners were killed.

It is a rarity for criminal charges to reach the CEO level, and if any chief executive deserves such special treatment, Blankenship is the one. The indictment paints a picture of a manager who was utterly contemptuous of federal safety regulations and thus of the safety and well being of his employees. He is said to have called the use of workers for safety compliance “ridiculous” and “crazy.”

What’s really crazy is that Blankenship is not facing even more serious charges. He could theoretically spend as much as 31 years in prison, but if convicted he would likely serve much less time. The indictment makes a compelling case for the conspiracy charges, but they also detail activity that could easily be construed as homicide or at least negligent homicide. In fact, back in 2010 there were calls for Blankenship to be charged with murder.

Blankenship is emblematic of a type of business misconduct that brings about serious harm or even death to workers, consumers or the general public. This kind of brazen corporate behavior originated in the 19th Century and persisted in the 20th, especially in industries such as tobacco and asbestos. A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity documents steps by the petroleum industry beginning in the late 1940s to suppress evidence linking benzene, an ingredient in gasoline, to leukemia.

It was not long ago that business apologists were claiming that such egregious cases of corporate irresponsibility were a thing of the past. We were made to believe that Big Business had cleaned up its act and was now taking the lead in promoting ethical and sustainable practices.

That notion took a beating in 2010, which saw not only the Upper Big Branch explosion but also the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico brought about by the negligence of BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

This year corporate wrong-doing is once again in full bloom. At the center of it has been General Motors, the company whose dangerous Corvair compact gave rise to the modern public interest movement. Fifty years later, the new, post-bankruptcy GM is again facing charges of endangering lives through foolish cost-cutting measures.

GM, however, is not alone this time. We’re seeing negligent behavior by other automakers, including the Japanese, and now a scandal is growing over the practices of airbag supplier Takata, which is alleged to have covered up evidence that its products were rupturing and spewing metal debris at drivers. Now the company is resisting calls in the U.S. for a nationwide recall.

For a long time, the discussion on business misconduct has focused on the need to bring criminal charges against top executives. That’s a worthy goal, but we need to give more attention to the nature of the charges. A CEO who has knowingly placed human lives in danger should be prosecuted as toughly as street criminals who do the same. Potential penalties along the lines of life imprisonment may be the only thing that can deter the Don Blankenships of the world.

The Second Coming of Henry Ford?

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

River-Rouge-PlantElon Musk apparently wants us to think of him as the second coming of Henry Ford. The CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Motors is planning to build a $5 billion, 6,500-worker battery “gigafactory” that is being likened to Ford’s legendary River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan. Musk has a group of western states desperately competing for the project.

It remains to be seen whether the Tesla plant will rise to the level of Ford’s integrated industrial wonder (photo), which in the 1920s was the largest manufacturing site in the world. Yet the two facilities will have something in common: being built in part with taxpayer money. As Robert Lacey tells it in his 1986 book Ford: The Men and the Machine, Ford arranged for the federal government to pay $3.5 million for the deepening of the Rouge River and the draining of marshes at the plant site as part of the contract Ford had been granted to produce Eagle boats for the U.S. Navy.

Tesla has also received help from Uncle Sam — in the form of a $465 million loan it repaid last year — but now the company has its hand out to those states vying to be chosen for the gigafactory. It’s been understood for months that the winner of the competition would have to put serious money on the table, but now Musk has indicated exactly how much in the way of subsidies will be required: 10 percent of the cost of the plant, or about $500 million.

The company and its apologists insist that the demand is not excessive, noting that Volkswagen got a bit more for its assembly plant in Tennessee despite the fact that it is employing a lot fewer workers than Tesla promises. That’s true. Volkswagen got $554 million from state and local agencies, and that is far from the largest subsidy package ever awarded in the United States. In the Good Jobs First Megadeals compilation, it ranks 24th.

Yet such a comparison is problematic, because it is far from clear that the $500 million figure will be the total subsidy burden the winner of the Tesla auction would take on. In all likelihood, the $500 million would be only the up-front cost, while state and local governments would also probably have to offer long-term tax benefits that would end up being much more expensive.

This happens all the time. In the case of Volkswagen, public officials were initially mum about the estimated total size of the package, and it was only through reporting by the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the real costs came to light. By the way, VW is now getting $274 million more for a plant expansion.

Another egregious case of low-balling subsidy estimates happened in Mississippi, where officials initially put the cost of the package given to Nissan in 2000 at $295 million. Yet, as my colleague Kasia Tarczynska and I showed, when all was said and done, state and local agencies in the Magnolia State gave the carmaker subsidies worth more than $1.3 billion.

The odds that Tesla will seek to maximize its subsidy payoff are increased by the fact that it just announced a partnership with Panasonic. The Japanese company managed to extract a subsidy worth more than $100 million from New Jersey to move its North American headquarters a short distance.

Along with underestimated costs, there is a chance that projections about the Tesla project are overstating potential benefits. Particularly suspicious is the claim of 6,500 jobs. Given current manufacturing practices, a workforce of that size is highly unlikely. I can’t help but suspect that the number may include temporary construction jobs or supplier jobs. It’s worth noting that the heavily subsidized advanced battery projects in Michigan mostly created jobs only in the hundreds, the best case being the 1,000 positions created at A123 Systems before it went bankrupt.

And even if Tesla beats those figures, there’s the question of how good the jobs will be. The Japanese and German auto assembly transplants have had to set their wages close to those of the Detroit automakers (though benefits are substantially lower). Will Tesla feel any pressure to create decently paying jobs, or will it take advantage of a struggling area such as Reno, Nevada (one of the possible sites) or the low-wage, anti-union climate of Texas (another contender) to keep compensation levels low?

Fortunately, it is not entirely up to the company. The upside to the insistence on a big subsidy package by Tesla is that states attach some job quality standards to their awards. From this perspective, the best outcome would be for Tesla to choose Nevada, which ranked first in the rankings my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First did on state practices in this area.

Even if Elon Musk does not agree with Henry Ford’s famous wage boosting policy, he won’t be able to exploit his workers as thoroughly as he is doing to taxpayers.

Real Abuses, Sham Reforms

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

bosses_900It is now a full century since the Progressive Era ended some of the worst abuses of concentrated economic power. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act.   It is 103 years since the dissolution of the Standard Oil trust, 108 years since the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Yet even a casual reading of the business news these days suggests that we live in an economy disturbingly similar to the age of the robber barons.

Back then, the trusts shifted their incorporation to states such as New Jersey and Delaware that were willing to rewrite their business laws to accommodate the needs of oligopolies. Today large corporations are reincorporating themselves in foreign tax havens to dodge taxes. The practice is reaching epidemic proportions in the pharmaceutical industry.

Back then, unscrupulous drug companies and meatpackers sold adulterated products that could sicken or even kill their customers. Today General Motors is caught in a growing scandal about ignition switch defects that resulted in at least 13 deaths. The news about the automaker’s recklessness grows worse by the day, with the New York Times now reporting that company withheld information from federal regulators about the cause of fatal accidents.

Back then, wheeler-dealers such as James Fisk peddled dubious securities in companies that later collapsed, impoverishing investors. Today we’re still trying to get over the impact of the toxic mortgage-backed securities that the big banks packaged and sold during the housing bubble. Just the other day, Citigroup became the latest of those banks to settle charges brought by the Justice Department. Yet the $7 billion extracted from Citi, like the amounts obtained from the other banks, will cause little pain for the mammoth institution and will thus do little to deter future misconduct. The provision in the settlement for “consumer relief” is too little, too late.

And, of course, back then, the trusts got to be trusts by eliminating their competition. Today concentration is alive and well. Recently, the second largest U.S. tobacco company, Reynolds American, proposed a takeover of Lorillard, the number three in the industry. If this deal goes through, it won’t be long before Reynolds tries to marry Altria/Philip Morris, putting virtually the entire carcinogenic industry in the hands of one player, the way it was a century ago during the reign of the American Tobacco Company, aka the Tobacco Trust.

The movement toward a Media Trust just accelerated with the revelation that Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, already huge, is seeking to take over Time Warner. The deal would put a mind-boggling array of entertainment properties under one roof. Murdoch offered to sell off Time Warner’s CNN – a meaningless concession given that the news network has struggled to survive against Murdoch’s despicable Fox News. Murdoch’s move comes as another media octopus, Comcast, is awaiting approval for its deal to take over Time Warner’s previously spun off cable business.

While we have all too many indications of a new Gilded Age, still scarce are signs of an effective response. We’ve got a good amount of muckraking journalism and a fair number of people (and even a few elected officials) who calls themselves progressives. Yet somehow this does not add up to a movement that can take a real bite out of corporate crime.

Part of the problem is that many of those in power professing progressive values are not serious about challenging corporate power. Some historians argue that the original Progressives were, like the New Dealers who came later, mainly concerned with saving capitalism from itself rather than changing the system. Yet they still managed to impose significant restrictions on big business through antitrust and other forms of regulation.

Today’s progressive officials often seem to want nothing more than to give the appearance of reform. That’s the story at the Justice Department, which has raised settlement levels and extracted some token guilty pleas but still allows corporations to buy their way out of serious legal jeopardy. Meanwhile, antitrust enforcement is tepid, and as the GM case increasingly shows, regulation is often a joke.

A resurgence of robber-baron behavior requires real, not sham reform.