Archive for the ‘Business and politics’ Category

Will DOJ Give a Deep Discount to Wal-Mart?

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

The Justice Department has a lot on its plate these days, but it has apparently found time to cook up a deal that would save Wal-Mart hundreds of millions of dollars. According to Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, DOJ is offering the giant retailer the chance to settle a foreign bribery case for $300 million, an amount far less than the penalty of up to $1 billion the Obama Administration was seeking in the long-running negotiations to resolve the matter.

I suppose we should be grateful that DOJ is not letting Wal-Mart off the hook entirely, given that Donald Trump once described the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as a “horrible law.” Moreover, there has been speculation that Trump’s own business dealings may be vulnerable to FCPA prosecution in places such as Azerbaijan.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has gone out of his way to affirm the commitment of his department to enforcing the FCPA, yet this is the same person who just involved himself in the firing of FBI Director James Comey after promising to recuse himself from the probe of the Trump campaign’s Russian ties.

It could be that Sessions intends to go on bringing FCPA cases but with reduced settlement amounts. That would be at least a partial victory for companies like Wal-Mart, whose FCPA problems first gained widespread attention after the New York Times published a 2012 investigation of widespread bribery in the company’s Mexican operations. In response, the company launched its own examination of possible misconduct in countries such as Brazil, India and China.

Given Wal-Mart’s size and prominence, a large penalty would be appropriate to send a message to the corporate world about the consequences of corrupt practices. The $1 billion amount reportedly sought by the Obama Administration would have been the largest single FCPA penalty ever imposed.

Instead, the reported $300 million settlement amount would not even rank among the top ten, according to the list maintained by the FCPA Professor blog. That list, topped by Siemens at $800 million and Alstom at $772 million, is dominated by foreign companies, including some such as VimpelCom (now known as Veon) and Snamprogetti (now part of Italy’s Saipem) that are hardly household names.

Giving a deep discount to a domestic behemoth would raise questions about the enforcement of a law that is meant to fight corruption worldwide.

DOJ’s decision on what to do about the Wal-Mart FCPA case will provide an important clue about how it intends to deal with corporate crime in general. The Obama Administration struggled to find the best way to deter business misconduct, and if nothing else increased penalties in major cases to unprecedented levels. Imposing a relatively small penalty on Wal-Mart would reverse that trend and signal to corporations that they have less to worry about from the Trump Justice Department.

Another Form of Denial

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

Lurking behind the assault on regulation being carried out by the Trump Administration and its Congressional allies is the assumption that corporations, freed from bureaucratic meddling, will tend to do the right thing. That assumption is belied by a mountain of evidence that companies, if allowed to pursue profit without restraint, will act in ways that harm workers, consumers and communities. In fact, they will do so even when those restraints are theoretically in effect.

The latest indication of the true proclivities of big business comes in a report just released by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board on a 2015 explosion at the Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance, California. That accident spewed toxic debris and kept the facility at limited capacity for a year, boosting gasoline prices in the region and costing drivers in the state an estimated $2.4 billion.

According to the safety board, the accident was not an act of god but rather the result of substandard practices on the part of Exxon. The report states:

The CSB found that this incident occurred due to weaknesses in the ExxonMobil Torrance refinery’s process safety management system.  These weaknesses led to operation of the FCC [fluid catalytic cracking] unit without pre-established safe operating limits and criteria for unit shutdown, reliance on safeguards that could not be verified, the degradation of a safety-critical safeguard,  and the re-use of a previous procedure deviation without a sufficient hazard analysis that confirmed that the assumed process conditions were still valid.

Exxon was also found to have used critical equipment beyond its expected safe operating life. The CSB investigation also discovered that a large piece of debris from the explosion narrowly missed hitting a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of highly toxic modified hydrofluoric acid. Exxon refused to respond to the agency’s request for information detailing the safeguards it had (or did not have) in place to prevent or mitigate a release of the acid. The agency has gone to court to try to get the information.

The CSB is an investigatory and not a regulatory body, so it does not have the power to penalize Exxon for its role in bringing about what the agency called a “preventable” incident. Yet its report adds another entry to Exxon’s dismal corporate rap sheet. The Torrance refinery itself, which came from the Mobil side of the family, has a long history of fires, explosions and leaks. The rest of Exxon has a track record that includes the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, numerous pipeline accidents and much more, including many years of climate denial. This tainted record did not prevent the company’s CEO from being the U.S. Secretary of State.

Last year, the Torrance refinery was sold by Exxon to PBF Energy, which has subsequently experienced “multiple incidents,” as the CSB diplomatically put it.

No matter how many instances of corporate negligence are brought to light, there are always business apologists ready to point the finger at regulators instead. The gospel of deregulation is now the state religion of the Trump Administration. How many preventable disasters will it take to share that belief?

Grand Theft Wage

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Several weeks ago, in one of his few legislative successes, President Trump signed a bill rescinding the Obama Administration’s executive order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces. The order, designed to promote better employment practices by companies doing business with the federal government, instructed procurement officials to consider the labor track record of contractors, which were required to disclose their recent violations.

Business groups, which had attacked the order as a form of blacklisting, have gotten their way, but it is still possible for a federal procurement officer to determine whether a bidder is a rogue employer. It’s simply a matter of plugging the company’s name into Violation Tracker, the free database on corporate crime and misconduct I have assembled with my colleagues at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First.

We’ve just announced the latest expansion of the database: 34,000 Fair Labor Standards Act cases brought since the beginning of 2010 by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Labor Department. The dataset, covering cases with back pay and penalties of $5,000 or more, represents the recovery of more than $1.2 billion by WHD investigators.

Many of the offending employers are smaller businesses, but wage theft is far from unknown among large corporations. The biggest cumulative amounts collected by the WHD since 2010 came from oilfield services company Halliburton, which in 2015 agreed to an $18 million settlement of alleged overtime violations, and CoreCivic (the new name of private prison operator Corrections Corporation of America), which in 2014 agreed to an $8 million settlement. Also among the top ten are Walt Disney ($4.2 million) and Royal Dutch Shell ($2.6 million).

The wage and hour cases supplement existing Violation Tracker data in two other key areas that had been included in the executive order: workplace safety (OSHA cases) and employment discrimination (cases brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs). We are now in the process of obtaining data on the remaining category — unfair labor practice cases — from the National Labor Relations Board.

DOL administrative actions are not the only game in town when it comes to challenging wage theft, which a 2014 Economic Policy Institute report estimated could be costing U.S. workers as much as $50 billion a year. Some of the biggest recoveries come in lawsuits known as collective actions that are brought in federal court on behalf of groups of workers and often result in multi-million-dollar settlements. Unfortunately, there is no central information source on these settlements. The Corporate Research Project is in the process of piecing together the data from multiple sources and will add it to Violation Tracker later this year.

The issues covered by the Obama executive order are just a portion of what can be found in Violation Tracker. We now have 158,000 cases brought by 42 federal regulatory agencies and all divisions of the Justice Department. The fines and settlement amounts in these cases total more than $320 billion.

Violation Tracker data is now current through late March of this year, but for some agencies there was not a lot of case information to collect for the first two months of the Trump Administration. For example, the Wage and Hour Division, which in recent years usually announced numerous case resolutions each month via press releases, has posted only a handful of such releases since Inauguration Day. There’s no indication that the work of the division has stopped, but it appears that the Trump appointees now running the Labor Department are not eager to publicize enforcement activities.

The Tainted Reverse Revolving Door

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Given his own string of business controversies, it perhaps should come as no surprise that Donald Trump does not seem to worry much about the accountability track record of the companies from which he has recruited key members of his administration.

It’s well known that he chose as his Secretary of State the chief executive of environmental culprit Exxon Mobil, that he brought in a slew of people from controversial investment house Goldman Sachs, that his Treasury Secretary had operated a bank notorious for foreclosures, and that his first pick for Labor Secretary had run a fast-food company with numerous wage and hour violations.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that those were not anomalies. Research being carried out in collaboration with independent investigator Don Wiener shows that the administration also has a tendency in its second-tier White House and subcabinet appointees to select people associated with companies that have a checkered reputation.

When we initially embarked on this effort we expected to have to look into hundreds of names, primarily by checking their affiliated companies in our Violation Tracker. So far, whether by design or disorganization, the Trump Administration has announced nominees for only a few dozen of the hundreds of positions in the various departments and agencies, though things have been moving somewhat faster for White House staffers who do not require Senate confirmation. Within both of these groups there have been some questionable choices. Here are some initial examples; more will come in later posts.

Kenneth Juster and Bridgepoint Education. In February Trump chose Kenneth Juster, a partner at the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, to be Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Policy.  Prior to his appointment Juster was a member of the board of directors of Bridgepoint Education, an operator of for-profit colleges. He was a board representative for Warburg, which was an early backer of the company and which controls one-third of the firm’s shares.

As shown in Violation Tracker, in 2016 the Consumer Financial Protection Board alleged that Bridgepoint deceived students into taking out private loans that cost more than advertised. The agency fined the company $8 million and ordered it to provide $23.5 million in relief and refunds to clients.

Michael Brown and Chesapeake Energy. Brown, an executive assistant to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, previously worked for Chesapeake Energy, the controversial fracking company based in Oklahoma. In 2013 the Environmental Protection Agency announced that a subsidiary of the company was being fined $3.2 million and would spend $6.5 million on site restoration to settle allegations that it violated the Clean Water Act through improper discharges into streams and wetlands.

Drew Maloney and Hess Corporation. Maloney, chosen to be the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs at the Treasury Department, previously worked at the oil company Hess. In 2012 the EPA announced that Hess would pay a penalty of $850,000 and spend more than $45 million on pollution control equipment to settle Clean Air Act allegations at its refinery in New Jersey.

These are but a few examples of the what might be called the tainted reverse revolving door. The term “revolving door” is used to refer to the movement of government officials into lobbying and other private sector jobs where they exploit connections made in their public positions. The reverse revolving door is the process by which private sector people take government posts in which they are likely to promote the priorities of their previous (and likely future) employers.

Not only is Trump filling his administration with people with a business background, but he’s selecting people from some of the worst companies the private sector has to offer.

The Junk Insurance Lobby

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

The ACA repeal-and-replace effort, given up for dead two weeks ago, may or may not be getting resurrected. Whether that happens seems to depend on satisfying the desire of Tea Party Republicans to grant Americans the right to purchase the crappiest health coverage possible.

Whereas Paul Ryan and President Trump initially wanted to retain the ACA’s popular provisions on essential benefits and pre-existing conditions, they now seem open to trading them away to win over the Freedom Caucus.

The position of the hardliners is often dismissed as some kind of bizarre misanthropy, but it is actually the logical conclusion of the mainstream Republican notion that deregulation is the solution to all problems. That notion has been embraced by Trump, who repeatedly bashes agencies such as the EPA and claims that weakening business oversight is the key to job growth.

The members of the Freedom Caucus seem to believe that removing all restrictions on insurance companies will result in lower premium costs. That may be true but only because the insurance that people would be purchasing would cover as little as possible.

While the Freedom Caucus presents this as a bold new approach, it is really nothing more than a return to the situation before the enactment of the ACA. Republicans of all stripes would have us forget how awful and oppressive health insurance used to be.

Thirty years ago, the House Select Committee on Aging was warning that, in addition to the millions of Americans who were uninsured, millions more were underinsured. As traditional insurance was increasingly replaced by health maintenance organizations — whose business model was to deny as much coverage as possible — subscribers had to fight constantly to get prior approval for many procedures and to get reimbursed for medical fees already paid.

Even worse than the HMOs were the individual plans labeled as “limited benefit” or “mini-medical.” Targeted to lower-income people who were self-employed or had jobs that provided no coverage, these policies could cost as little as $40 a month but they had strict limits on both routine expenses and hospitalization costs. These plans existed for a long time on the fringes of the health insurance world, but eventually large companies such as Aetna, Cigna and UnitedHealth Group entered the market with their own bare-bones offerings.

Those subscribing to such plans were gambling they would remain healthy. If instead someone had a serious accident or illness, the plans were useless and often pushed people into personal bankruptcy.

Junk policies are the healthcare analogue to payday loans and other forms of predatory lending. They appear to serve a need and initially appear to be inexpensive, but they can have disastrous consequences.

The ACA was designed to protect people from those consequences, but the Obama Administration did not do enough to explain the change. In a climate of rightwing demagoguery, many people who had to give up their low-cost junk insurance were led to think they were losing something valuable. Moreover, Medicaid expansion, which provided free, decent coverage for low-wage workers who might otherwise have had to depend on junk policies, was blocked in many states for ideological reasons.

Now the Freedom Caucus would have us believe that bare-bones coverage is the way forward for the individual marketplace. That might be the case if we want a society in which those few people with no significant health needs get a bargain while everyone else has to risk financial ruin.

The Corporate War on Coal Miners Continues

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

The signing ceremony for Donald Trump’s executive order nullifying the climate initiatives of the Obama Administration was staged so that about two dozen miners looked on adoringly as the president claimed to be ending the so-called war on coal. Trump then repeated his promise that the regulatory rollbacks would “put our miners back to work.”

Just about every analysis concludes this is a hollow promise. Trump’s action will have little impact on the long-term decline of coal industry jobs. Even industry figures such as Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, are warning: “He can’t bring them back.”

And even if there is a modest improvement, it won’t include the kind of well-paying jobs that used to characterize coal mining. According to the latest annual report on coal from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, unionized underground mining jobs are now outnumbered three to one by non-union surface mining jobs. The executive order’s lifting of the freeze on federal coal leasing, which is concentrated in Western surface mines, will increase the gap.

This did not happen by accident. The coal industry has been seeking for years to weaken the United Mine Workers by shifting work to non-union operations or by spinning off UMW-represented mines as weak stand-alone companies. The industry’s biggest producer, Peabody Energy, did this in 2007 when it shed Patriot Coal, which subsequently declared bankruptcy and was given court approval to slash wages, pensions and healthcare benefits of its workers and retirees. Today Peabody has only one operation left with a UMW presence. Anti-union animus was pronounced at various companies — especially Pittston and Massey Energy — that merged into what is now called Alpha Natural Resources.

One consequence of de-unionization is that coal managers can more easily cut corners on safety. This was seen at Peabody more than three decades ago. In 1982 the company pleaded no contest and paid a penalty of $130,000 to settle federal charges that it falsified dust-sampling reports submitted to the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) as part of the monitoring of conditions that can cause black lung disease. In 1991, after a year-long investigation by MSHA, Peabody once again stood accused of tampering with coal-dust test results. It pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was fined $500,000, the largest penalty that had ever been assessed for a non-fatal violation of federal mine safety regulations.

In 2006 a dozen miners died in a methane gas explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia operation, which had been cited by MSHA for “combustible conditions” and “a high degree of negligence.” During 2005 the mine (then run by International Coal Group, which later merged into Arch Coal) had received more than 200 violations, nearly half of which were serious and substantial.

Allegations of poor safety practices at a non-union mine surrounded an even worse disaster — the death of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch operation in West Virginia in 2010. The mine had been cited more than 50 times by MSHA in the month before the explosion and had racked up 1,342 violations over the previous five years. In 2011 Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey after the accident, had to pay $209 million to settle federal criminal charges.

If Trump really wanted to do something to help coal miners, he would beef up MSHA’s enforcement capacity and embrace labor law reforms that would help the UMW regain lost ground. Instead, he is proposing a 21 percent cut in the budget of the Labor Department, of which MSHA is a part, and staying silent on the anti-worker practices of the coal companies he is so eager to assist.

Regulation is Not Dead Yet

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Donald Trump tries to give the impression that his crusade against business regulation is moving ahead rapidly. While several rules have been rescinded and more are threatened, it turns out that for now the enforcement systems at most agencies are functioning normally.

In preparing a forthcoming update of the Violation Tracker database, I’ve found that since the inauguration federal regulatory agencies have announced more than 160 case resolutions with fines and settlements totaling more than $1.6 billion. This two-month dollar amount does not compare to the $20 billion collected by the Obama Administration during its final tens weeks in office. Yet it does show that the so-called administrative state is not dead yet.

A large portion of the Trump collections come from enforcement actions against a single company that are in line with the new president’s views. The Chinese telecommunications company ZTE was penalized $1.2 billion for violating economic sanctions against Iran and North Korea by supplying them with prohibited items. The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security imposed a $661 million civil penalty and the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control collected another $106 million while the Justice Department got ZTE to plead guilty and pay $430 million in fines and criminal forfeiture.

The remaining $422 million was collected in cases brought by 21 different agencies and four divisions of the Justice Department. Among the larger actions:

  • The Commodity Futures Trading Commission reached an $85 million settlement with the Royal Bank of Scotland to resolve allegations that it attempted to manipulate interest-rate benchmarks.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reached an $81 million settlement with GDF Suez to resolve allegations that it manipulated energy markets.
  • TeamHealth Holdings agreed to pay $60 million to settle Justice Department allegations that its subsidiary IPC Healthcare Inc. violated the False Claims Act by overbilling Medicare, Medicaid, the Defense Health Agency and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
  • Offshore oil driller Wood Group PSN was ordered to pay a total of $9.5 million to resolve criminal charges that it falsely reported over several years that its personnel had performed safety inspections on offshore facilities and that it negligently discharged oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Keurig Green Mountain agreed to pay $5.8 million to settle allegations by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that it failed to report a defect in its Mini Plus Brewing System that had caused scores of serious burn injuries.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau imposed a $3 million penalty on Experian for deceptively marketing credit scores.

The list also includes: 14 settlements with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by employers in cases involving gender, pregnancy and disability discrimination; six cases in which private sponsors of Medicare Advantage plans violated consumer protection rules; two cases in which companies were charged with violating the Controlled Substances Act by failing to properly monitor opioid prescriptions; and much more.

On the other hand, the situation remains puzzling at the Labor Department, where agencies such as OSHA have not announced a single enforcement action since Trump took office. [UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that despite the absence of OSHA press releases the agency is still posting enforcement actions on its website on this page, which shows numerous cases since Inauguration Day.]

It is likely that most of the 160 cases were initiated while the Obama Administration was in office, but it is heartening that they have gotten resolved under the new management. The career officials in the various agencies should be commended for continuing to do their job in difficult circumstances. Let’s hope they can convince their new bosses that there is a value to protecting consumers, workers and the public against corporate misconduct in its many forms.

Labor Unenforcement

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Once upon a time, a key component of American populism was the demand for stricter controls over big business: in other words, regulation. Today, the country’s purported populist in chief is instead promoting the dubious claim that deregulation is what will benefit the masses. Through executive orders and now with his administration’s budget blueprint, Donald Trump is seeking an unprecedented rollback of workplace, environmental and consumer protections.

There are signs that at least one agency in the Trump Administration may not waiting for the legal changes to take effect before providing relief to business. In the eight weeks since the inauguration, the regulatory arms of the Labor Department appear to have been in a near state of suspended animation, at least in terms of their announced enforcement activity.

Take the case of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since the inauguration it has not posted a single press release about an enforcement matter on the DOL website. This compares to more than 70 releases — about the filing of cases or the imposition of penalties — posted during the same period last year.

This can’t be explained by delays in a new administration getting up and running. During the comparable time period for the newly installed Obama Administration in 2009, OSHA made more than 30 enforcement announcements.

A similar pattern can be seen at DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, which under the Obama Administration aggressively pursued employers that violated minimum wage, overtime and other provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Since January 20, the WHD has made only one case announcement. By contrast, during the same period last year WHD announced 35 cases in which an employer was being sued or had settled allegations by agreeing to pay back wages and sometimes a monetary penalty. In 2009, right after Obama took office, the WHD announced 14 cases in the same period.

Other parts of the Labor Department are also quiet. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which makes sure government contractors comply with anti-discrimination laws, has not issued a single press release since inauguration day — on enforcement matters or anything else.

Enforcement is handled by career employees of the DOL, whose activities should not be affected by the delays in filling the Labor Secretary’s job, unless their work is being impeded by Trump’s appointed “beachhead” officials now running the department.

There are no indications that the work of DOL agencies has been suspended. Yet the almost complete disappearance of enforcement announcements may indicate that the Trump appointees have been holding up case resolutions or are choosing not to publicize those matters that have been resolved.

In any event, this enforcement lethargy may be a rehearsal for things to come. The Trump budget blueprint calls for a 21 percent reduction in DOL funding, and while the document provides limited details on what would be targeted, a cut of that size is bound to impair enforcement. How many workers who voted for Trump were seeking more dangerous conditions on the job and greater vulnerability to wage theft?

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that despite the absence of OSHA press releases the agency is still posting enforcement actions on its website on this page, which shows numerous cases since Inauguration Day.

Catastrophic Plans

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

During his private-sector career Donald Trump floated many dubious business ventures, and now as president he is pushing his biggest bait-and-switch scheme yet. Having run for office on promises that he would improve healthcare and protect safety net programs such as Medicaid, he is now embracing and promoting a Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act that would do exactly the opposite.

Throughout the campaign, Trump made it abundantly clear that he wanted to repeal the ACA, which he repeatedly described as a disaster, and with his typical hyperbole promised voters: “You’re going to have such great healthcare at a tiny fraction of the cost, and it is going to be so easy.” During the transition he said that the replacement plan would seek to provide “insurance for everybody.”

Trump exploited the real frustrations of many people with the ACA — frustrations that were largely the result of Republican intransigence that prevented the inclusion of a public option, blocked any legislative fixes and precluded Medicaid expansion in many states. He implicitly promised that a replacement plan would do more.

When Trump stated on February 27 that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he was in effect signaling that the bait phase of his con was over and he was moving on to the switch. Now he has dropped the extravagant promises and has joined the House Republican rush to enact a repeal and replace plan supposedly made urgent by the imminent collapse of Obamacare.

The House legislation has not yet been officially scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but it is widely anticipated that it will result in a loss of coverage for millions of people and sharp increases in premiums for many of those who hold onto their plans.

Yet there is another issue that is receiving less attention: the quality of coverage for those who remain in the individual marketplace. For now, the Republican plan retains the ACA’s list of essential benefits (preventive care, etc.) that must be included in any individual or small group plan, but it is possible that could be bargained away to placate social conservatives who don’t like the provisions relating to reproductive health.

Trumpcare does not, however, include the ACA’s cost-sharing provisions that cap out-of-pocket expenses in plans obtained through the exchanges by persons with income below 250 percent of the federal poverty line. As a result, these people could very well be subjected to sharply higher deductibles and co-pays.

This points to the little-acknowledged aspect of the assault on the ACA: at the heart of the Republican “solution” to rising premiums is giving people the ability to purchase lower-cost but substandard coverage. In other words, they want to return to the pre-ACA situation in which insurers could sell bare-bones policies that provided little or no cost reimbursement except in cases of major illnesses or accidents — and might be skimpy in those situations as well.

It is significant that Republicans keep quoting Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini in perpetuating the bogus claim that the ACA is in a “death spiral.” Bertolini is hardly an objective observer. He used misleading negative comments about the ACA to try to deter the Obama Administration from its opposition to Aetna’s anti-competitive acquisition of its rival Humana, which was recently blocked by a federal judge who accused the company of dropping out of the ACA marketplace in several states to “improve its litigation position” in the merger dispute.

Aetna is also the company that was one of the biggest promoters of bare-bones policies in the pre-ACA period. It got into the business, also known as junk health insurance, two decades ago through the purchase of U.S. Healthcare, an HMO whose bare-knuckles practices Aetna adopted in full and thus found itself the target of a series of class-action lawsuits brought by patients as well as providers.

The substandard policies sold by Aetna made up a substantial portion of the plans that were banned by the ACA. The people who had to give up that “coverage” became symbols of the supposed oppression of Obamacare.

Although they try hard to hide the fact, Republicans — and now Trump — are setting the stage for a resurgence of the bare-bones policies under the banner of affordability. That will be catastrophic coverage in every sense of the word.

Trump’s Misguided Crusade Against the EPA

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Executives at Volkswagen must be cursing the bad timing. If only they had been able to keep their emissions cheating scheme quiet for a while longer, they could have avoided a lot of grief. That’s because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement capacity may soon be crippled.

This is a likely consequence of the Trump Administration’s plans, just reported by the Washington Post, to cut the staff of the agency by one-fifth and eliminate dozens of programs. It’s not yet known exactly what functions are being targeted, but cuts of this magnitude will certainly make it more difficult for the EPA to pursue the kind of investigations that led to the filing of civil and criminal charges against VW.

In January, shortly before Trump took office, the company agreed to plead guilty to three federal felony counts and pay a criminal penalty of $2.8 billion along with another $1.5 billion to settle civil claims. VW previously reached a settlement with the EPA and other agencies under which it committed to spend more than $14 billion to buy back cars containing “defeat devices” and undertake projects to mitigate the extra pollution generated by those vehicles.

VW is one of the thousands of polluters whose activities have been thwarted by the EPA. As shown in Violation Tracker, since the beginning of 2010 the agency (on its own or with the Justice Department) has collected more than $43 billion in fines and settlements in more than 15,000 cases. That does not include billions more from companies such as BP in cases in which the EPA joined with other agencies in joint referrals to the DOJ. Apart from VW and BP, here are the biggest EPA penalty cases over the past seven years:

In 2015 a $5 billion settlement with the EPA and the DOJ went into effect under which Anadarko Petroleum agreed to pay for the clean-up of toxic waste sites across the country linked to Tronox Inc., a spinoff of Anadarko’s subsidiary Kerr-McGee.

In 2013 Wisconsin Power and Light Company, a subsidiary of Alliant Energy, agreed to spend over $1 billion on new equipment to substantially reduce air pollution generated by three coal-fired power plants.

In 2013 Transocean agreed to pay a $1 billion civil penalty to the EPA in connection with its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico three years earlier.

In a 2015 settlement with the EPA, fertilizer giant Mosaic agreed to establish a $630 million trust fund to pay for the future closure of and treatment of hazardous wastewater at four facilities in Florida and Louisiana. The company also agreed to spend $170 million on environmental mitigation at its operations.

In 2011 Hovensa, now owned by ArcLight Capital, agreed to spend more than $700 million on new air pollution controls at its massive petroleum refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Not all the companies are from the industrial and energy sectors. Retail behemoth Wal-Mart Stores has had to pay more than $90 million in EPA fines and settlements to resolve cases involving improper disposal of hazardous waste and other violations.

Data collected for an extension of Violation Tracker coverage back an additional ten years to 2000 includes EPA cases with total fines and settlements of more than $20 billion. Among these are a 2007 agreement by utility giant American Electric Power to spend an estimated $4.6 billion to reduce toxic air emissions at its power plants and a $50 million criminal penalty BP paid for environmental violations at its refinery in Texas City, Texas (now owned by Marathon Petroleum) where 15 workers were killed in an explosion in 2005.

These various examples do not include the many Superfund cases brought by EPA against multiple parties in connection with long-term toxic dumping or cases brought against government entities; nor do they include all the work EPA does apart from enforcement.

Trump’s assault on the EPA is based on the once common but now widely debunked notion that there is an inherent conflict between jobs and environmental protection. Today there is greater recognition that workers also need to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and that there are many business and employment opportunities associated with environmental clean-up and sustainable practices.

Decimating the EPA will serve only to empower rogue corporations such as Volkswagen. There is nothing to be gained from making polluters great again.