Archive for the ‘Corporate Crime’ Category

Obama’s Final Blows Against Corporate Crime

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

$335 billion: that’s what has been paid by companies in fines or settlements in cases brought by federal agencies and the Justice Department during the Obama Administration. The estimate comes from the amounts associated with entries already in Violation Tracker and an update that is in the works.

Preparing that update has proven to be a challenge because of the remarkable flurry of cases that the Obama Administration has resolved in the waning days of its existence. Since the election the penalty tally has risen by more than $30 billion, much of that coming this month alone. The past ten days have seen four ten-figure settlements: Deutsche Bank’s $7.2 billion toxic securities case; Credit Suisse’s $5.3 billion case in the same category; Volkswagen’s $4.3 billion case relating to emissions fraud; and Takata’s $1 billion case relating to defective airbag inflators.

Here are some of the next-tier cases that would normally get significant coverage but may have gotten lost in the stream of announcements:

  • Moody’s agreed to pay $864 million to resolve allegations relating to flawed credit ratings provided for mortgage-backed securities during the run-up to the financial crisis.
  • Western Union agreed to pay $586 million to settle charges that it failed to guard against the use of its system for money laundering.
  • Shire Pharmaceuticals agreed to pay $350 million to settle allegations that one of its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by paying kickbacks to healthcare providers.
  • Rolls-Royce agreed to pay $170 million to resolve foreign bribery criminal charges; the military contractor was offered a deferred prosecution agreement.
  • McKesson, a large pharmaceutical distribution, was fined $150 million by the Drug Enforcement Administration for failing to report suspicious bulk purchases of opioids.

Although a few of these cases — including Volkswagen, Takata and Western Union– have involved criminal charges, for the most part the Obama Justice Department has kept its focus on extracting substantial monetary penalties from corporate wrongdoers.

While this approach has served the purpose of highlighting the magnitude of business misconduct, it remains unclear whether it has done much to deter such behavior. One of the aims of Violation Tracker is to document the problem of ongoing recidivism among corporate offenders by listing their repeated transgressions. JPMorgan Chase, for example, has racked up $28 billion in penalties in more than 40 cases resolved since the beginning of 2010. The list is likely to continue growing.

The steady stream of big-ticket cases has provided a constant source of new content for Violation Tracker, but it would have been preferable if federal prosecutors and regulators had figured out a way to get the bank and others like it to behave properly.

The Obama Justice Department’s rush to complete the recent settlements seems to be based in part on uncertainty as to whether the Trump Administration will continue to give priority to the prosecution of corporate crime. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions has not said much on the subject, while the President-elect has been uncharacteristically silent — both during his campaign and since the election — about corporate scandals such as the Wells Fargo bogus-account case while being outspoken in his critique of regulation.

We may soon look back fondly at the Obama approach as the new administration takes an even weaker posture toward the ongoing corporate crime wave.

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 2016 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

The two biggest corporate crime stories of 2016 were cases not just of technical lawbreaking but also remarkable chutzpah. It was bad enough, as first came to light in 2015, that Volkswagen for years installed “cheat devices” in many of its cars to give deceptively low readings on emissions testing.

Earlier this year it came out that the company continued to mislead U.S. regulators after they discovered the fraud. VW has agreed to pay out more than $15 billion in civil settlements but it is not yet clear what is going to happen in the ongoing criminal investigation.

Brazenness was also at the center of the revelation in August that employees at Wells Fargo, presumably under pressure from managers, created more than one million bogus accounts in order to generate fees from customers who had no idea what was going on. The story came out when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that the bank would pay $100 million to settle with the agency and another $85 million in related cases.

But that was just the beginning of the consequences for Wells. CEO John Stumpf was raked over the coals in House and Senate hearings, and he subsequently had to resign. Criminal charges remain a possibility.

The other biggest corporate scandal of the year involved drugmaker Mylan, which imposed steep price increases for its EpiPens, which deliver lifesaving treatment in severe allergy attacks. The increases had nothing to do with rising production costs and everything to do with boosting profits. The company’s CEO was also grilled by Congress, which however could do little about the price gouging.

Here are some of the other major cases of the year:

Toxic Securities. There is still fallout from the reckless behavior of the banks leading up to the 2008 financial meltdown. Goldman Sachs paid more than $5 billion to settle a case involving the packaging and sale of toxic securities, while Morgan Stanley paid $2.6 billion in a similar case.

Mortgage Fraud. Wells Fargo had to pay $1.2 billion to settle allegations that during the early 2000s it falsely certified that certain residential home mortgage loans were eligible for Federal Housing Administration insurance. Many of those loans later defaulted.

False Claims Act. Wyeth and Pfizer agreed to pay $784 million to resolve allegations that Wyeth (later acquired by Pfizer) knowingly reported to the government false and fraudulent prices on two of its proton pump inhibitor drugs.

Kickbacks. Olympus Corp. of the Americas, the largest U.S. distributor of endoscopes and related equipment, agreed to pay $623 million to resolve criminal charges and civil claims relating to a scheme to pay kickbacks to doctors and hospitals in the United States and Latin America.

Misuse of customer funds. Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of Bank of America, agreed to pay $415 million to settle Securities and Exchange Commission allegations that it misused customer cash to generate profits for the firm and failed to safeguard customer securities from the claims of its creditors.

Price-fixing. Japan’s Nishikawa Rubber Co. agreed to plead guilty and pay a $130 million criminal fine for its role in a conspiracy to fix the prices of and rig the bids for automotive body sealing products installed in cars sold to U.S. consumers.

Accounting fraud. Monsanto agreed to pay an $80 million penalty and retain an independent compliance consultant to settle allegations that it violated accounting rules and misstated company earnings pertaining to its flagship product Roundup.

Consumer deception. Herbalife agreed to fully restructure its U.S. business operations and pay $200 million to compensate consumers to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that the company deceived customers into believing they could earn substantial money selling diet, nutritional supplement, and personal care products.

Discriminatory practices. To resolve a federal discrimination case, Toyota Motor Credit Corp. agreed to pay $21.9 million in restitution to thousands of African-American and Asian and Pacific Islander borrowers who were charged higher interest rates than white borrowers for their auto loans, without regard to their creditworthiness.

Sale of contaminated products. B. Braun Medical Inc. agreed to pay $4.8 million in penalties and forfeiture and up to an additional $3 million in restitution to resolve its criminal liability for selling contaminated pre-filled saline flush syringes in 2007.

Pipeline spills. To resolve allegations relating to pipeline oil spills in Michigan and Illinois and 2010, Enbridge agreed to pay Clean Water Act civil penalties totaling $62 million and spend at least $110 million on a series of measures to prevent spills and improve operations across nearly 2,000 miles of its pipeline system in the Great Lakes region.

Mine safety. Donald Blankenship, former chief executive of Massey Energy, was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards in a case stemming from the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners.

Wage theft. A Labor Department investigation found that Restaurant Associates and a subcontractor operating Capitol Hill cafeterias violated the Service Contract Act by misclassifying employees and paying them for lower-wage work than they actually performed. The workers were awarded more than $1 million in back pay.

False advertising. For-profit DeVry University agreed to pay $100 million to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that it misled prospective students in ads touting the success of graduates.

Trump University. Shortly after being elected president, Donald Trump agreed to pay $25 million to settle fraud allegations made by the New York State Attorney General and others concerning a real estate investment training course.

Remember: thousands of such cases can be found in the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First produce. Look for expanded coverage in 2017.

A Mandate for Corporate Misconduct?

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

Many analysts of the presidential election are depicting it as a victory for workers, at least the disaffected white portion of the labor force. It remains to be seen whether Trump can deliver much in the way of concrete economic benefits for them.

Trump’s triumph may actually turn out to be a bigger boon for corporations. Although his candidacy was not actively supported by much of big business, which remains nervous about his posture on trade, Trump put forth other arguments that evoke less a populist uprising than the lobbying agenda of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce , which has just issued a statement embracing the election results for preserving “pro-business majorities” in the Senate and the House.

Trump’s position on big business has been difficult to pin down. He has often criticized crony capitalism but it has usually been part of attacks on Hillary Clinton or the Obama Administration. He has criticized some companies for sending jobs offshore yet has made tax proposals that would be a windfall for Corporate America.

One area in which Trump’s position has been unambiguously pro-corporate is the issue of regulation, where his stance has been indistinguishable from the Chamber and its allies. Trump has expressed a broad-brush condemnation of federal rules as job-killing, using the usual bogus numbers on their economic costs while ignoring the benefits. He has vowed both to eliminate many of the Obama Administration’s initiatives and to put a moratorium on most new rules. Trump has called for slashing the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency and for repealing much of Dodd-Frank, which could mean the demise of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Trump’s embrace of traditional Republican regulation bashing is all the more troubling as it comes at a time when corporate misconduct remains rampant. It is remarkable that so little attention was paid during the campaign to the scandals involving companies such as Volkswagen, whose emissions fraud has been pursued by the EPA, and Wells Fargo, which was fined $100 million by the CFPB for creating millions of bogus accounts. By threatening these agencies , Trump is undermining future cases against other corporate miscreants.

It’s possible that Trump’s attacks on regulation are nothing more than campaign rhetoric, but he is now allied with those pro-business majorities in Congress that are dead serious about dismantling as much of the federal regulatory framework as possible. Corporate lobbyists must be salivating at what lies ahead.

Is that what Trump supporters signed up for? Do residents of oil and gas states whose water supplies have been contaminated want the EPA to dwindle? Do blue collar workers confronted by predatory lending practices want the CFPB to disappear? Do families with serious health problems want to go back to a system in which insurance companies can discontinue their coverage? Do victims of wage theft want to see funding cut for the Wage & Hour Division of the Labor Department?

Trump has promised to drain the swamp in Washington, yet when it comes to regulation at least he has jumped into the muck feet first and is already becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.

Note: For a reminder of the myriad ways in which the Trump Organization itself has run afoul of federal, state and local regulations, see my Corporate Rap Sheet on the company.

Criminal Enterprises

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

Most cases of corporate misconduct are forgotten soon after a fine or settlement is announced, but the Wells Fargo phony account scandal seems to have real staying power. The company had to pay $185 million in penalties. CEO John Stumpf was forced to resign and pay back $41 million in compensation after being lacerated in two Congressional hearings. The city of Chicago and the California Treasurer cut some business ties with the bank.

Now Wells is facing a more serious legal challenge. It’s been reported that California Attorney General Kamala Harris is considering criminal identity theft charges against the bank over the millions of bogus accounts and the related fees that were improperly charged to customers. The AG’s office has demanded that Wells turn over a mountain of documents about accounts created not only in California but also in other states when California employees were involved.

It’s too soon to say for sure, but this case and other potential criminal actions could have a catastrophic effort on Wells. Criminal cases against major banks are rare, and most of those are resolved through deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements that allow the corporation to avoid a conviction. An exception came last year when Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase and two foreign banks pleaded guilty to charges of manipulating the foreign exchange market. They had to get special waivers to continue operating in certain areas that normally exclude felons.

The Wells case may do more damage, given the scope of the misconduct and the fact that it involves the bank’s core business. In this way it is comparable to the scandal surrounding Volkswagen and its systematic fraud concerning emissions testing.

These two situations pose a challenging question: What should be done about a large corporation engaged in flagrant misconduct? Another monetary penalty is not going to make much difference. As Violation Tracker shows, even before the recent case Wells had paid out more than $10 billion in fines and settlements in some two dozen cases involving a variety of abuses.

Stumpf’s ouster was an important step, but is there any reason to think that the executives who remain are all that different? A boycott of the company’s services is merited, but it would have to be much bigger in scope to have a real impact.

The usual way that regulators and prosecutors handle criminal enterprises is to force them out of business, but these are usually relatively small operations. What should be done with an institution such as Wells, which has more than 260,000 employees, some 8,600 branches and offices, and 70 million (presumably real) customers?

The answer for dealing with Wells Fargo might be to break it up into a number of smaller companies that are kept under close supervision and barred from operating in riskier areas. In other words: use a variation of Glass-Steagall as a way of discouraging fraudulent behavior. Even better would be if these smaller institutions operated under employee ownership.

My point is that we need to get more creative in dealing with systemic corporate crime so we’re not forced to endure an endless series of scandals.

False Claims and Other Frauds

Monday, September 26th, 2016

ViolationTracker_Logo_Development_R3The False Claims Act sounds like the name of a Donald Trump comedy routine, but it is actually a 150-year-old law that is widely used to prosecute companies and individuals that seek to defraud the federal government. It is also the focus of the latest expansion of Violation Tracker, the database of corporate crime and misconduct we produce at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First. The resource now contains 112,000 entries from 30 federal regulatory agencies and all divisions of the Justice Department. The cases account for some $300 billion in fines and settlements.

Through the addition of some 750 False Claims Act and related cases resolved since the beginning of 2010, we were able to identify the biggest culprits in this category. Drug manufacturers, hospital systems, insurers and other healthcare companies have paid nearly $7 billion in fines and settlements. Banks, led by Wells Fargo, account for the second largest portion of False Claims Act penalties, with more than $3 billion in payments. More than one-third of the 100 largest federal contractors have been defendants in such cases during the seven-year period.

Among the newly added cases involving healthcare companies, the largest is the $784 million settlement the Justice Department reached last April with Pfizer and its subsidiary Wyeth to resolve allegations that they overcharged the Medicaid program. DaVita HealthCare Partners, a leading dialysis provider, was involved in the next two largest cases, in which it had to pay a total of $800 million to resolve allegations that it engaged in wasteful practices and paid referral kickbacks while providing services covered under Medicare and other federal health programs.

Wells Fargo accounts for the largest banking-related penalty and the largest False Claims Act case overall in the new data: a $1.2 billion settlement earlier this year to resolve allegations that the bank falsely certified to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that certain residential home mortgage loans were eligible for Federal Housing Administration insurance, with the result that the government had to pay FHA insurance claims when some of those loans defaulted.

Thirty-five of the 100 largest federal contractors (in FY2015) have paid fines or settlements totaling $1.8 billion in False Claims Act-related cases since the beginning of 2010. The biggest contractor, Lockheed Martin, paid a total of $50 million in four cases, while number two Boeing paid a total of $41 million in two cases.

The database has also added new search features, such as the ability to search by 49 different types of offenses, ranging from mortgage abuses to drug safety violations. Users can view summary pages for each type of offense, showing which parent companies have the most penalties in the category. Penalty summary pages for parents, industries and agencies now also contain tables showing the most common offenses. Users can add one or more offense type to other variables in their searches.

Among types of offenses, the largest penalty total comes from cases involving the packaging and sale of toxic securities in the period leading up to the financial meltdown in 2008. The top-ten primary case types are as follows:

  1. Toxic securities abuses: $68 billion
  2. Environmental violations: $63 billion
  3. Mortgage abuses: $43 billion
  4. Other banking violations: $18 billion
  5. Economic sanction violations: $14 billion
  6. Off-label/unapproved promotion of medical products: $12 billion
  7. False Claims Act cases: $11 billion
  8. Consumer protection violations: $9 billion
  9. Interest rate benchmark manipulation: $7 billion
  10. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases: $6 billion

We also added a feature allowing for searches limited to companies linked to parent companies with specific ownership structures such as publicly traded, privately held, joint venture, non-profit and employee-owned. That’s in addition to updating the data from the agencies already covered and increasing the size of the parent company universe to 2,165.

The uproar over the Wells Fargo sham accounts scandal is heightening the discussion of corporate crime. Violation Tracker hopes to be a tool in efforts to turn that discussion into lasting change.

Grandstanding Without Results

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

John Stumpf of Wells Fargo

Members of Congress subjected the CEOs of a pair of rogue corporations to much-deserved castigation in recent days, but the executives will probably turn out to be the victors. John Stumpf of Wells Fargo and Heather Bresch of Mylan endured the barbs knowing that they will not lead to any serious consequences.

The periodic grilling of business moguls amid corporate scandals is a longstanding feature of Congressional oversight. In the 1930s the Senate Banking Committee, led by investigator Ferdinand Pecora, questioned Wall Street titans such as J.P. Morgan about the causes of the stock market crash. In the late 1950s Sen. Estes Kefauver asked pharmaceutical executives about rising drug prices. In the 1960s Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, with the help of a young lawyer named Ralph Nader, interrogated auto industry executives about their seemingly cavalier attitude toward safety.

Jumping to the recent past: In 2010 the CEO of BP was hauled before a House hearing to testify about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In 2013 the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations questioned Apple CEO Tim Cook about his company’s international tax avoidance. And so forth.

Yet there is a big difference between the older and the more recent hearings. In the 20th Century these events were preludes to legislative reform. The Pecora hearings led to the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act separating speculative activities from commercial banking. Kefauver tried but failed to pass price restrictions but was able to enact stricter drug manufacturing and reporting rules. The Ribicoff hearings led to the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act.

Those earlier hearings may have been political theatre, but they were followed by serious regulatory changes. Today’s hearings, on the other hand, seem to be nothing more than theatre. For many members of Congress, they are opportunities to pretend to be concerned about corporate misconduct while having no intention to do anything about it.

That’s not surprising, given that the party in control of both chambers of Congress is rabidly anti-regulation. The 2016 Republican National Platform is filled with critical comments about regulation, including an assertion that the Obama Administration “triggered an avalanche of regulation that wreaks havoc across the economy.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the lead regulator in the Wells Fargo fake accounts case, is a favorite target of conservative lawmakers. Right after the CFPB’s Wells Fargo announcement, Speaker Paul Ryan sent out a tweet claiming that the agency “tries to micromanage your everyday life.” Senate Banking Committee Chair Richard Shelby tried to block the appointment of Richard Cordray to head the CFPB and subsequently sought to weaken the agency. And during his opening statement at the hearing, he took a pot shot at CFPB for not being aggressive enough in pursuing the case.

Congressional grandstanding against corporate miscreants has been going on for decades, but what was once a device to build public support for real legislative change now serves mainly to conceal the fact that too many legislators are in office to do the bidding of corporations, even the most corrupt ones.

A Culture of Corruption

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

The chief executive of Wells Fargo would have us believe that more than 5,000 of his employees spontaneously became corrupt and decided to create bogus accounts for customers who were then charged fees for services they had not requested.

John Stumpf has earned himself a place in the corporate hall of shame for putting the blame on underlings for carrying out a fraud that must have been sanctioned by top officials at the bank, which has a reputation for pushing new products on customers. He may have been inspired by Volkswagen, whose senior people have been claiming that they knew nothing about systematic cheating on auto emissions tests.

After the announcement that Wells would pay $185 million to settle the case, Stumpf did a self-protective interview with the Wall Street Journal in which he insisted that the misconduct was in no way encouraged by management and was inconsistent with the bank’s internal culture. Few seem to be buying that argument, and Wells is facing various federal investigations.

The notion that Wells had been a paragon of virtue is preposterous. The dishonesty begins with its name, which evokes the legendary stagecoach line. The company is actually the descendant of Norwest, a bank holding company based in Minneapolis which changed its name after acquiring the old Wells Fargo in 1998.

Four years later, the combined company had to pay a penalty of $150,000 to settle SEC charges of improperly switching customers among mutual funds. In 2005 the securities industry regulator NASD (now FINRA) fined Wells $3 million for improper sales of mutual funds.

When Wells acquired Wachovia Bank amid the financial meltdown of 2008 it acquired a bunch of legal problems, including a municipal securities bid rigging case that required a $148 million settlement.

Recent years have seen a long list of additional scandals and settlements. In 2009 Wells had to agree to buy back $1.4 billion in auction-rate securities to settle allegations by the California attorney general of misleading investors. In 2011 it agreed to pay $125 million to settle a lawsuit in which a group of pension funds accused it of misrepresenting the quality of pools of mortgage-related securities. That same year, the Federal Reserve announced an $85 million civil penalty against Wells Fargo for steering customers with good qualifications into costly subprime mortgage loans during the housing boom.

In 2012 Wells Fargo was one of five large mortgage servicers that consented to a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and state attorneys general to resolve allegations of loan servicing and foreclosure abuses. Later that year, the Justice Department announced that Wells Fargo would pay $175 million to settle charges that it engaged in a pattern of discrimination against African-American and Hispanic borrowers in its mortgage lending during the period from 2004 to 2009. Also in 2012, Wells agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle SEC charges that it failed to fully research the risks associated with mortgage-backed securities before selling them to customers such as municipalities and non-profit organizations.

In 2013 Wells was one of ten major lenders that agreed to pay a total of $8.5 billion to resolve claims of foreclosure abuses; it settled a lawsuit alleging that it neglected the maintenance and marketing of foreclosed homes in black and Latino areas by agreeing to spend at least $42 million to promote home ownership and neighborhood stabilization; and it agreed to pay $869 million to Freddie Mac to repurchase home loans the bank had sold to the mortgage agency that did not conform to the latter’s guidelines.

Jumping to 2016: the Justice Department announced that Wells would pay $1.2 billion to resolve allegations that the bank certified to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that certain residential home mortgage loans were eligible for Federal Housing Administration insurance when they were not, resulting in the government having to pay FHA insurance claims when some of those loans defaulted.

And a few weeks before the CFPB revealed its sham accounts penalty against Wells, the agency fined the bank $3.6 million plus $410,000 in restitution to customers to resolve allegations that it engaged in illegal student loan servicing practices.

Contrary to Stumpf, the sham accounts were much in line with the culture of Wells, which has been corrupt for years. As long as the bank’s top management denies the reality, it seems unlikely anything will change.

Note: This post draws from my newly updated Corporate Rap Sheet on Wells Fargo.

Imposing the Ultimate Punishment

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

The outcome of most cases of serious corporate misconduct is the same: the company pays a fine that is not too onerous and no one ends up behind bars. That’s what makes the fate of ITT Educational Services all the more significant.

This for-profit educational outfit just shut down pretty much all its facilities in the wake of a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that the company would no longer be able to enroll new students using federal financial aid funds. In other words, the feds effectively put ITT out of business.

Before anyone begins complaining about overreaching bureaucrats, keep in mind that the company has a dismal track record. It faced accusations from state regulators of misleading students about the quality of its programs and their prospects for employment after graduation. In 2014 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued ITT for predatory lending. CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated at the time: “We believe ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many consumers into expensive loans destined to default. Today’s action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics.”

ITT is not the first dubious for-profit educator to be pushed into oblivion. In 2015 Corinthian Colleges announced the cessation of operations amid a spate of state and federal investigations, including a CFPB case that resulted in a default judgment of $530 million.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has stood fast in its tough treatment of scam schools, building on the 2010 move by Congress to push commercial banks out of the federal student loan business.

The willingness to put sleazy operators out of business is seen little outside the educational sector. It’s true that the Bureau of Prisons announced plans to phase out the use of private prison operators, but the likes of CCA will be kept alive by their state government customers.

Among federal regulators, the one agency that focuses more on shutting down rogue operators rather than imposing monetary fines is the Food and Drug Administration. It must be noted, however, that the shutdowns are often temporary (remaining in effect only while the company corrects unsafe processing plant conditions) and usually involve smaller firms. Other agencies may take action that results in the closing of fly-by-night firms, but it is rare for regulators or prosecutors to take steps that could end up in the demise of an established company, no matter how corrupt it may have become.

This hesitation seems to stem from backlash against the Justice Department’s case against accounting firm Arthur Andersen for its role in the Enron accounting scandal. In the wake of its 2002 conviction for obstruction of justice, the firm had to dismantle its auditing business and was unable to resurrect it after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction three years later. Nonetheless, the Enron accounting fraud was real, and Arthur Andersen enabled it in some way.

It is time for the DOJ and other regulatory agencies to follow the Education Department’s lead in taking the most aggressive kind of action against big companies that misbehave in a major way. A prime candidate for such treatment is Volkswagen, which engaged in a brazen scheme to cheat auto emissions tests and thus exacerbated air pollution to a shocking extent. The company is paying billions in settlement costs but apparently will remain in business. In fact, it just announced a substantial investment in Navistar to boost its position in the U.S. truck business.

A move to mandate the shutdown of a large company like VW should include arrangements for the sale of its assets and other protections for its workers. There would still be disruptions but it would send a strong signal to other large corporations that they should not expect to buy their way out of severe legal liability.

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.