Archive for the ‘Corporate Crime’ Category

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.

Serial Corporate Offenders

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The vast majority of regulatory enforcement cases end with an agreement by the corporation to correct its behavior in the future. Monetary penalties are meant to reinforce the lesson and act as a further deterrent.

If only it worked that way. Most large companies are, in fact, repeat offenders. In the recently expanded Violation Tracker database, the 2,000 parent companies account for nearly 30,000 individual cases, an average of 15 each. And that’s only since the beginning of 2010.

Such recidivism is all the more troubling when a company has faced criminal rather than civil charges and been allowed to evade serious consequences through a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) or a non-prosecution agreement (NPA). The Justice Department uses these gimmicks to allow corporations to resolve criminal matters by paying a fine while avoiding a guilty plea. The theory is that this brush with the law will prompt the company to come into full compliance. If that does not happen, it faces the threat of a real prosecution.

Of the 80 parent companies in Violation Tracker that have signed a DPA or NPA, about half have subsequently had no other reported offenses. Maybe the Justice Department system does work — in some cases.

Yet the other half includes companies that continued to rack up numerous violations from agencies such as EPA and OSHA with seemingly no concern that this would jeopardize their agreement with DOJ. These serial offenders include some of the world’s largest banks, both those based in the United States and those doing substantial business here.

The track records of nine of these banks contain serious cases that were resolved following a DPA or NPA. In some instances, these subsequent matters involved behavior that completely pre-dated the signing of the agreement with DOJ, but not always.

Take Bank of America, which has the dubious distinction of being the most penalized corporation in Violation Tracker, with a total of $56 billion in fines and settlements. In 2010 it signed an NPA and paid $137 million to resolve civil and criminal charges of conspiring to rig bids in the municipal bond derivatives market. Yet in 2014 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that BofA would pay a $20 million penalty and some $700 million in consumer relief to resolve allegations that it engage in abusive marketing of credit-card add-on products during a period that continued after 2010. The CFPB did not refer to the earlier bid rigging case and there was no indication that BofA’s NPA was a factor in how the credit-card case was handled.

Several banks have managed to follow one DPA or NPA with another. Deutsche Bank has been allowed to sign three such agreements: one in 2010 relating to fraudulent tax shelters, one in 2015 for manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate benchmark, and another that year by its Swiss subsidiary in a tax case related to undeclared accounts held by U.S. citizens.

In other cases, a DPA or NPA was followed by a guilty plea in another criminal matter. After signing an NPA in 2011 in a municipal bond case and a DPA in 2014 for its relationship to the Madoff Ponzi scheme, JPMorgan Chase went on to plead guilty on a foreign exchange market manipulation charge in 2015.

It seems that previous DPAs or NPAs mean little to subsequent cases unless the offense is exactly the same. In 2015, for instance, Justice rebuked UBS for violating its 2012 NPA relating to LIBOR manipulation and terminated the agreement, forcing the Swiss bank to enter a guilty plea.

These various outcomes seem to make little difference to the banks. They continue to break the law in one way or another while paying affordable penalties and being allowed to go on operating as usual. Life is good for career corporate criminals.

The Amazing Variety of Bank Misconduct

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

vt_logo-full_1Since the beginning of 2010 major U.S. and foreign-based banks have paid more than $160 billion in penalties (fines and settlements) to resolve cases brought against them by the Justice Department and federal regulatory agencies. Bank of America alone accounts for $56 billion of the total and JPMorgan Chase another $28 billion. Fourteen banks have each accumulated penalty amounts in excess of $1 billion, and five of those are in excess of $10 billion.

These are among the key findings revealed by Violation Tracker 2.0, the second iteration of an online database produced by the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First. The database, which initially focused on environmental and safety cases, has now been expanded to include a wide variety of offenses relating to the financial sector along with cases against companies of all kinds involving price-fixing, defrauding of consumers and foreign bribery. Banks and other financial companies account for about half of the new cases but more than 90 percent of the penalties.

With the expansion Violation Tracker now covers 110,000 cases from 27 regulatory agencies and the DOJ with total penalties of some $270 billion.

Along with the new database, we are releasing a report called The $160 Billion Bank Fee that focuses on a subset of the data: mega-cases — those with penalties of $100 million or more — brought against major banks by the Justice Department and agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Private litigation is not included.

We found 144 of these mega-cases that had been brought against 26 large U.S. and foreign banks. Along with Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, those banks with $10 billion or more in penalties include: Citigroup ($15.4 billion), Wells Fargo ($10.9 billion), and Paris-based BNP Paribas ($10.5 billion).

Many of the mega-cases address the toxic securities and mortgage abuses that gave rise to the 2008-2009 financial meltdown but there are also numerous other offenses that have received less attention. The cases and penalties break down as follows:

  • Toxic securities and mortgage abuses: $118 billion
  • Violations of rules prohibiting business with enemy countries: $15 billion
  • Manipulation of foreign exchange markets; $7 billion
  • Manipulation of interest rates: $5 billion
  • Assisting tax evasion: $2.4 billion
  • Credit card abuses: $2.2 billion
  • Failure to report suspicious behavior by Bernard Madoff: $2.2 billion
  • Inadequate money-laundering controls: $1.3 billion
  • Discriminatory practices: $939 million
  • Manipulation of energy markets: $898 million
  • Other major cases: $3.8 billion
  • TOTAL: $160 billion

Of the 144 mega-cases, 120 were brought solely as civil matters. The other 24 involve criminal charges, though in two-thirds of those cases the banks were able to avoid prosecution. The latter include 10 cases with deferred prosecution agreements and six with non-prosecution agreements. The banks that have pleaded guilty to criminal charges include: Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse and Royal Bank of Scotland.

While these cases serve to illustrate the magnitude and amazing variety of bank misconduct, it remains to be seen whether they have succeeded in their intended purpose: to get the banks to clean up their act.

The Lax Prosecution of Corporate Crime

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

vt_logo-full_1When an individual commits a serious offense, chances are that he or she is going to face a criminal charge. When a corporation breaks the law in a significant way, in most cases it faces a civil penalty.

This disparity between the treatment of human persons and corporate ones became increasingly apparent to me as I finished processing the data for the expansion of the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First are releasing on June 28.

Violation Tracker 2.0 adds data on some 700 cases involving banks and other financial services companies brought by the Justice Department and ten federal regulatory agencies as well as 600 involving non-financial firms in areas such as price-fixing and foreign bribery. These 1,300 cases account for well over $100 billion in fines and settlements.

These plus the environmental, safety and health cases that made up the initial version of Violation Tracker bring the total number of entries in the database to 110,000 for the period since the beginning of 2010. Of that number, only 473 — less than one half of one percent — involve criminal charges.

It may come as a surprise that the largest portion of the criminal cases involve serious environmental matters referred to the Justice Department by the Environmental Protection Agency and a few from agencies such as the Coast Guard. The largest of these was a $400 million settlement with Transocean in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico but most have penalties below $1 million.

The next most common category is price-fixing, with 99 cases that imposed penalties ranging up to the $500 million paid by the Taiwanese company AU Optronics. There are 82 tax cases, most of which involve charges against Swiss banks for helping U.S. taxpayers keep their offshore accounts hidden from the IRS. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases brought by the Justice Department account for 53 cases, with the biggest penalty, $772 million, paid by the French company Alstom.

Other categories include serious food safety violations, market manipulation and failure to adhere to rules against doing business with countries deemed to be enemies of the United States.

The significance of the 473 cases is diminished by the fact that in 35 percent of them the companies weren’t really prosecuted. Instead, they paid a penalty and signed either a non-prosecution agreement or a deferred prosecution agreement. These are gimmicks that allow companies to avoid the consequences of a criminal conviction.

Of the 308 cases in which there was an actual guilty plea or verdict, 161 were environmental matters, many of which were brought against small companies for things such as toxic dumping. Relatively few large corporations were targeted.

The category with the largest number of big business convictions is price-fixing, which in recent times has often meant Asian automotive parts companies. Seven big U.S. and foreign banks (or their subsidiaries) have had to enter guilty pleas. In just two cases did U.S.  bank parent companies — Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase  — enter those pleas. These were in a case involving manipulation of the foreign exchange market. After their pleas, they and the foreign banks also charged got waivers from SEC rules that bar firms with felony convictions from operating in the securities business.

So here’s what it comes down to: Apart from when they engage in price-fixing, large corporations rarely face criminal charges. When they do, they are often allowed to settle without a formal prosecution. And when they do plead guilty, these can get waivers from the consequences of their conviction.

Keep this in mind the next time a corporate lobbyist complains about excessive regulation.

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Note:  Violation Tracker 2.0 will be released on June 28.

Emission Cheating and Lead Poisoning

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announces Flint charges

Two legal cases involving egregious harm to public health have moved forward in recent days, though in very different ways. In one case an aggressive prosecutor, defying expectations, filed criminal charges against three individuals and vowed that they “are only the beginning. There will be more to come — that I can guarantee you.” In the other case, a large company reached a deal in which it will pay to modify or buy back hundreds of thousands of defective products.

The case in which the culprits are deservedly having the book thrown at them is the Flint water crisis, while in the other the boom is not yet being lowered on Volkswagen. The first involves misconduct by public officials, the second is a case of brazen corporate crime.

Admittedly, the settlement framework announced in the VW case does not necessarily reflect the full scope of the legal issues facing the automaker in connection with its systematic cheating in auto emission testing. It is not yet known whether the Justice Department’s reported criminal investigation of the matter will result in the filing of charges, nor is it clear whether the civil penalties that may be imposed on VW will come close to the theoretical maximum of $18 billion.

Yet the decision to announce the tentative buyback deal by itself creates the impression that it is the centerpiece of the resolution of the VW case. It’s being estimated that the U.S. buyback would cost the company about $7 billion. If that turns out to be the main cost imposed on VW, the automaker would be getting a bargain.

Causing financial harm to car owners is far from the only sin for which VW has to be held accountable, and it is probably not the most serious one. Of far more consequence are the environmental and public health impacts of the enormous amount of additional pollution that the VW engines have been spewing into the air. What started out as an effort to circumvent regulations will end up causing an unknown number of cases of asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly lung cancer.

There’s also the issue of deterrence. If VW and its relevant officials do not face serious consequences for their actions, people at other corporations may think they can also flout vital regulations. It’s already clear that VW’s emission fraud was not an anomaly. Mitsubishi just admitted it has been doing the same thing in Japan for at least one of its vehicles.

We don’t yet know the full story of what happened at VW much less Mitsubishi, yet it is likely that flagrant emissions deception arose out of a corporate mindset that sees regulations as obstacles to be overcome rather than legitimate rules designed to protect the public. That mindset will not change until corporations and individuals within them pay as heavy a price for their transgressions as that facing the public officials who poisoned the children of Flint.

What was Done with the Banks’ $110 Billion?

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

Over the past few years, the Justice Department and state prosecutors have collected tens of billions of dollars in fines and settlements from large banks in a series of cases stemming from fraudulent practices in the period leading up to the financial meltdown of 2008.

Much of the debate on these cases has focused on whether the financial penalties, pursued in lieu of criminal charges against bank executives, were the most appropriate response to widespread bank misconduct. Or else the issue was whether the penalties, especially after accounting for the fact that they were in part tax-deductible, were big enough.

The Wall Street Journal has just published a front-page story addressing yet another facet: what was done with the money, which totaled some $110 billion in cases relating to toxic mortgage-backed securities, foreclosure abuses and related issues. The largest of the cases involved nearly $17 billion from Bank of America in 2014.

Roughly half of the overall total stayed with the federal government, with little disclosure of how it is being used. It appears that most of the roughly $50 billion has simply gone into the Treasury and was comingled with other federal funds.

The Journal states: “Bank executives grumble privately about the opaque process and are critical the government didn’t ensure more money went to housing-related issues.” Opinions of the culprits should not count for much in this discussion. The fact that the Journal cites them adds to the suspicion that paper is in some way trying to discredit the feds for their handling of the cases.

That posture is more explicit when it comes to the share of the money that ended up with the states. The Journal implies there is something wrong with New York’s decision to use some of its settlement funds to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City and to provide high-speed internet access in rural communities — or the decision of other states to direct settlement funds into state pension funds. One can disagree with the particular uses, but they are all valid public purposes.

After devoting most of the article to these imaginary scandals, the Journal finally gets to what is really the most important issue: what the banks themselves are doing with the roughly $45 billion of the total that was supposed to be devoted to consumer relief. It’s important to realize that the banks were not required to simply distribute these funds to abused customers in the form of reparations (which might have been a good idea).

Instead, the banks get credit toward the consumer relief settlement portions ($7 billion in the case of BofA) when they modify existing mortgages or make new loans to low-income consumers who lost their homes to foreclosure. In other words, they are being credited for restoring loans to more reasonable terms and thereby increasing the chances that the homeowners will avoid default. This is good for the homeowners but it also benefits the banks.

The Journal article describes the case of one homeowner who did not benefit much from her mortgage modification. On the other hand, Eric Green, the monitor of the BofA settlement has glowing words for the program in his most recent report. He says that first lien principal reductions have averaged 51 percent, that the average loan-to-value ratio has been brought down from 179 percent to 75 percent, that the average interest rate has been cut in half, and that the average monthly payment has been reduced 38 percent, or more than $600.

There may be more to the story, but this is what the Journal should be investigating rather than implying that it was a mistake to extract large sums from banks to pay for their sins.

Why Don’t More Corporate Executives Commit Suicide?

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

The business news is abuzz with reports that the fatal car crash of fracking executive Aubrey McClendon a day after he was indicted on federal bid-rigging charges may have been intentional. The high speed at which McClendon’s SUV was apparently travelling at the time of the collision and the absence of skid marks are generating speculation that he deliberately drove into a bridge support.

If McClendon did indeed take his own life for reasons connected to his indictment, it would not be the first case of scandal-induced corporate suicide. In 2002, for instance, J. Clifford Baxter, former vice chairman of the notorious energy company Enron, was reported to have shot himself in the head, leaving a note saying “where there was once great pride now it’s gone.”

Yet in comparison to the high degree of corporate misconduct, executive suicides are quite rare. Part of the reason is that so few executives are prosecuted individually, as was McClendon, and thus are less likely to feel the intense shame that usually prompts acts of self-destruction. And when those prosecutions do occur, some executives remain defiant, depicting themselves of victims of overzealous prosecutors.

A prime example of such defiance was former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who insisted he was targeted for political reasons despite the extensive evidence against him in a case stemming from the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010. Blankenship was convicted of conspiracy to violate federal mine safety laws but acquitted of lying to regulators.

It’s significant that McClendon’s possible suicide occurred after he was indicted on the relatively abstract charge of conspiring to rig bids for oil and natural gas leases in Oklahoma. While the charges are serious, they do not directly involve harm to people and the environment.

On the other hand, Chesapeake Energy, which McClendon co-founded in 1989 and ran until 2013, has been involved in numerous cases involving allegations of such harm in the course of fracking. In the Violation Tracker my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First created, we found more than 30 cases since 2010 in which the company has paid more than $10 million in EPA fines and settlements. Apparently, there was no shame in that.

Although it would be ghoulish to suggest that anyone commit suicide, there is no shortage of other executives who should also at least be feeling more intense shame for their actions. A number of them are at companies in the business of producing vehicles like the one in which McClendon was driving at the time of his death. McClendon’s Chevrolet Tahoe is produced by General Motors, which had to pay a fine of $900 million to resolve criminal charges in connection with an ignition switch defect linked to more than a dozen deaths.

Then there’s the case of Japan’s Takata, which is embroiled in a controversy over the production of millions of defective airbags that in some cases ruptured and sent shrapnel flying at drivers and passengers. Or else Volkswagen, which has admitted wholesale cheating on auto emissions tests, leading to untold additional amounts of air pollution.

There are plenty of additional past and present examples from industries such as chemicals, mining, tobacco and asbestos. The answer is not for more top executives to take their own lives, but for them to end their reckless behavior to protect the lives of the rest of us.