Archive for the ‘Corporate Crime’ Category

Introducing Violation Tracker

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Violation TrackerViolationTracker_Logo_Development_R3, the first national database on corporate crime, has arrived. For me it is the culmination of nine months of work collecting enforcement data, matching some 25,000 companies in the agency records to their corporate parents and designing the site, all of this done with the help of Rich Puchalsky of Grassroots Connection.

My involvement in this kind of project actually goes back 35 years. While a young researcher for Fortune magazine, I was assigned to a story whose dubious premise was that lawbreaking was a lot more common among small businesses than large corporations. I had serious doubts about that notion and set out to collect as much information as I could about wrongdoing by the Fortune 500.

Even with a narrow definition of misconduct, I found that 117 of the companies that had appeared on the 500 list during the previous decade–including Fortune’s parent company Time Inc.–had been convicted (or signed a consent decree) for bribery, criminal fraud, illegal political contributions, tax evasion or criminal antitrust violations. My editors were not happy, but to their credit they published the full list (as part of an article written by Irwin Ross) in the December 1, 1980 issue of the magazine.

The urge to document and tabulate corporate crime has been with me ever since. I’ve given in to that urge numerous times, most notably in 2012, when I began producing Corporate Rap Sheets on many of the worst violators under the auspices of the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First.

Now I’m able to take it to the next step with Violation Tracker, a database that in its initial form covers all environmental, health and safety cases with penalties of $5,000 or more brought since the beginning of 2010 by 13 federal regulatory agencies, including those they referred to the Justice Department. Additional violation categories (bribery, price-fixing, financial offenses, wage & hour infractions, etc.) will be added in the future.

Violation Tracker uses the same parent-subsidiary matching system my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First created for our Subsidy Tracker database. In Violation Tracker the companies named in the individual violations are linked to more than 1,600 parent companies. The site has summary pages for each of the parents (along with the individual entries) as well as overviews by industry, agency and parent headquarters location.

Along with the database the Corporate Research Project is releasing a report entitled BP and Its Brethren summarizing what the information in Violation Tracker shows about the biggest violators (using a broad definition of penalties that includes both fines and other mandatory outlays such as supplementary environmental projects that are often part of settlements). Here are some highlights from the report:

  • The corporations with the most penalties are: BP ($25.4 billion), Anadarko Petroleum ($5.2 billion), GlaxoSmithKline ($3.8 billion), Johnson & Johnson ($2.4 billion), Abbott Laboratories ($1.5 billion), Transocean ($1.4 billion), Toyota ($1.3 billion) and Alliant Energy ($1.0 billion). The penalty total of all entries in Violation Tracker is about $60 billion.
  • BP’s $25 billion puts oil and gas at the top of the ranking of industries by total penalties. The pharmaceutical industry is second, due to a series of major cases involving the promotion of medications for uses not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. Utilities rank third, due to cases involving power plant emissions. In fourth place is the auto industry, thanks mainly to a $1.2 billion penalty paid by Toyota and a $900 million fine against General Motors, both for safety issues. The chemical industry, with a wide range of violations, is fifth.
  • Large corporations are responsible for the vast majority of the penalties. Companies on the Fortune 500 and the non-U.S. portion of the Fortune Global 500 together account for 81 percent of Violation Tracker’s total penalty universe.
  • Foreign companies operating in the United States represent a large share of the violations. In fact, given that BP is one of those foreign parents, the penalty total for that group is larger than for U.S.-based firms: $34 billion vs. $21 billion. Even without BP, foreign parents account for $9 billion in penalties. Companies that have reincorporated abroad for tax reasons are excluded from this breakdown.
  • There are substantial overlaps between the companies penalized by the different agencies, especially between EPA and OSHA. Some companies show up on more than one of the lists of top-ten penalized firms by agency. BP shows up on four: EPA, OSHA, the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and multi-agency cases handled by the Justice Department.
  • A comparison of the 100 parents with the most penalties in Violation Tracker to the 100 most-subsidized in Subsidy Tracker finds 16 overlaps, mainly automakers such as Toyota and General Motors.
  • Along with actual foreign companies, the most penalized parents include some companies that have “inverted” (reincorporated or merged abroad) and thus claim to be foreign to dodge U.S. taxes. The tax runaway with the largest penalty total is Transocean, which leased the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to BP and which was fined a total of $1.4 billion in connection with the accident. “Inverted” firms have $2.9 billion in penalties.
  • Leading federal contractors are among the most-penalized companies. Of the 100 largest contractors in FY2014, ten are also among the biggest penalty parents in Violation Tracker, including: four pharmaceutical producers (GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi); two oil giants (Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil) and three military contractors (Honeywell, General Electric and Boeing). Conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway is also on the list.

We’re living in an age of widespread corporate misconduct, illustrated most recently by the Volkswagen scandal. Violation Tracker is designed not only to help people keep track of which company was involved in which wrongdoing but also to serve as a tool for a wide range of campaigns promoting corporate accountability.

Reining in the Beltway Bandits

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

moneybagsontherunA New York Times op-ed by lawyer Eric Havian argues that the best way to punish corporate fraudsters is to bar them from government contracts. Debarment of companies is an established practice, but it’s usually been employed in a half-hearted way such as the temporary exclusion of BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Havian, however, highlights the little known power of federal agencies to exclude individual executives from working in regulated industries, sometimes for life, if they are shown to have engaged in unsavory practices. He argues that bringing about such exclusions is much easier than prosecuting executives on criminal charges, as the Justice Department says it plans to do more often.

This is an intriguing idea but the problem is always the uncertainty as to whether getting tough with executives, even high-level ones, will succeed in changing corporate behavior. Ultimately, all individuals are expendable in large corporations, so the desire to boost profits by breaking the rules is likely to trump any inclination to behave properly to protect those in the executive suite.

The need to do something to prevent rogue companies from getting or keeping government contracts is highlighted in some of the data my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First have collected for our Violation Tracker database, which will be released next week.

Following the path blazed by the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, we found that ten of the 100 largest federal contractors are also among the 100 companies accounting for the most environmental, health and safety violations since 2010 (the scope of the initial version of Violation Tracker).

Four of the group are pharmaceutical manufacturers (GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi); two are oil and gas giants (Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil) and three are big military contractors (Honeywell, General Electric and Boeing). Conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway is also on the list.

The drug company penalties stem mainly from cases in which they had to pay big settlements to resolve cases in which they were accused of marketing medications for uses not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. GlaxoSmithKline, for instance, pled guilty to three criminal counts in 2012 and had to pay $3 billion to resolve allegations concerning the unlawful promotion of Paxil and Wellbutrin, failure to report certain safety data to the FDA, and false price reporting. That marketing allegedly included kickbacks paid to doctors and other health professionals to get them to prescribe and promote the drugs for those unauthorized uses.

In FY2014 GSK was awarded federal contracts worth more than $780 million, mostly from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Pentagon. Those agencies apparently had no problems dealing with a corporate criminal.

The penalty amounts attributable to federal contractors are likely to be much greater when we expand Violation Tracker to include other offenses such as false claims against government agencies. Such fraud is pretty much the basic business model of many of the large military contractors, for example.

Federal agencies need to use Havian’s exclusion idea, criminal prosecutions and all other tools at their disposal to rein in the Beltway Bandits.

Tracking and Trouncing Corporate Crime

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

If there were any question as to which corporation has racked up the largest quantity of business penalties, the issue has been resolved with the announcement that BP will pay more than $20 billion to resolve the outstanding federal and state civil claims connected to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

While the true cost to the company is lessened by the fact that it will be able to deduct about three-quarters of the total, the after-tax bite will still be in the billions. This is on top of the $4 billion BP had to pay in 2012 to resolve related criminal charges plus billions more in fines and settlements relating to the company’s other environmental and workplace safety sins.

All these amounts will be tallied in the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First will release later this month.

BP’s reign as the penalty “leader” will soon face a new challenge from Volkswagen, which is looking at massive payouts in connection with its scheme to circumvent federal emissions regulations. VW’s new chief executive Matthias Muller just admitted that the $7 billion the company has set aside to deal with the problem “will not be enough.”

Although it is difficult to avoid a feeling of schadenfreude in light of the German company’s apparently unscrupulous behavior, Muller’s statement that employment cuts may be necessary is troubling. Those who lose their jobs at VW’s operations, perhaps including the plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will undoubtedly be workers who had nothing to do with the emissions cheating.

A broader question raised by Muller’s comment is that of what will be enough to get big business to stop behaving badly. At one time, the notion of extracting billions of dollars in payments from a large corporation was seen as a radical idea, something akin to appropriation. Now it is commonplace.

Yet has this done more than allow prosecutors to give the impression they are tough on corporate crime? I’m as fond as the next corporate critic of seeing corporate miscreants pay heavily for their misdeeds — after all, I’ve been spending months preparing a database on that very subject — but the ultimate goal is to prevent the wicked behavior.

That is going to require aggressive new measures, though it is difficult to say exactly what those should be. Those angry French workers who stormed a boardroom and ripped the clothes off executives had an intriguing approach.

The first step is to acknowledge the extent of the corporate crime problem and focus more public attention on the issue. That won’t be easy, given that all too many policymakers in this country are adherents of the Reaganite notion that government is always the problem.

But I’d like to believe that at some point the accumulation of corporate mayhem and harm it causes will change enough minds that strong action is inevitable. Then all unethical executives will have to hold on tightly to their shirts.

Volkswagen Deserves Its Day in Criminal Court

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Volkswagen’s scheme to circumvent federal emissions regulations for millions of its cars cries out for tough prosecution. Yet it turns out that a little known loophole in the Clean Air Act exempts the automobile industry from criminal penalties.

EPA and Justice Department prosecutors are apparently considering whether criminal charges can be brought under other statutes, but it remains to be seen whether they will be successful. An inability to do so would be a major embarrassment for DOJ, which recently proclaimed its intention to move away from deferred prosecution agreements and get tougher with corporate culprits.

In case anyone questions the appropriateness of criminal charges in environmental cases, it is worth recalling that this approach has ample precedents. While it is true that many of the cases in the EPA’s criminal docket involve individuals at fly-by-night firms, that’s not always the case.

In fact, as part of the preparation for the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First will release later this month, I’ve been going through the records. Here are some of the highlights:

The granddaddy of criminal environmental cases was the prosecution of BP for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people and did untold damage to the Gulf of Mexico. In November 2012 BP pled guilty to environmental crimes (involving the Clean Water and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts) as well as felony manslaughter and obstruction of Congress. It was required to pay criminal fines and penalties of $4 billion.

In February 2013 Transocean, the company from which BP leased the ill-fated drilling rig, pleaded guilty to charges of violating the Clean Water Act in the period leading up to the accident and was sentenced to pay $400 million in criminal fines and penalties. Halliburton, which was responsible for cement work at the site, pleaded guilty to a charge of destroying evidence.

Oil companies are not the only defendants. In 2013 Wal-Mart Stores pleaded guilty to six counts of violating the Clean Water Act by illegally handling and disposing of hazardous materials at its retail outlets across the country. It had to pay $81 million in penalties.

This year, Duke Energy pleaded guilty to nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act at several of its facilities in North Carolina and paid a $68 million criminal fine and was required to spend $34 million on environmental projects.

Volkswagen certainly belongs on this dishonor roll of environmental culprits. In fact, it probably deserves harsher punishment than even BP, given the brazen and intentional aspects of its behavior.

In reporting on the auto industry loophole, the Wall Street Journal quoted former Michigan Rep. John Dingell as justifying the provision by saying that civil penalties were “easier, speedier quicker” than criminal sanctions and warning regarding the latter: “The risk of them going out of business is very real.”

In cases such as this one, the convenience of prosecutors should not be a priority, and there are many people who may think that VW’s disappearance would not be a bad thing.

Think Irresponsible

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

volkswagen-clean-diesel-ad.w529.h352In the competition among industries to see which can act in the most irresponsible manner, we have a new winner. After nearly a decade during which banks and oil giants like BP were the epitome of corporate misconduct, the big automakers are now on top.

The news that Volkswagen inserted devices in millions of its “clean diesel” cars to disguise their pollution levels is the latest in a series of major scandals involving car companies. It comes on the heels of criminal charges against General Motors for failing to report a safety defect linked to more than 100 deaths. The Justice Department, unfortunately, deferred prosecution of those charges in a deal that required GM to pay $900 million. That looks like a bargain compared to the possibility that the EPA could sock Volkswagen, which once employed an ad campaign called Think Small, with penalties of some $18 billion.

Last year, Justice announced a deferred prosecution agreement with Toyota that required the Japanese company to pay $1.2 billion to settle charges that it tried to cover up the causes of a sudden acceleration problem. Later that year, Hyundai and Kia had to pay $100 million to settle DOJ and EPA allegations that they understated greenhouse gas emissions from more than 1 million cars and trucks.

This past July, Fiat Chrysler was hit with by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with a fine of $105 million — a record for that agency, which long had a cozy relationship with the industry — for deficiencies in its recall of defective vehicles.

Even Honda, which once had a squeaky clean reputation, was fined $70 million earlier this year by NHTSA for underreporting deaths and injuries relating to defective airbags. Those airbags were produced by the Japanese company Takata, which resisted making changes in its production process despite incidents in which the devices exploded violently, sending shrapnel flying into drivers and passengers.

The ascendance of the auto industry to the top of the corporate wrongdoing charts is actually an encore for what was a long-running performance. During the 1960s, GM inadvertently gave rise to the modern public interest movement in its ham-handed response to the issues raised by a young Ralph Nader about the safety problems of its Corvair compact. The 1970s were the era of the Ford Pinto with its fragile fuel tanks that blew up in even mild rear-end collisions. The 1990s were marked by the scandal over defective tires produced by Bridgestone/Firestone.

Although carmakers were not in the forefront of corporate misbehavior during the past decade, the industry’s record was far from unblemished. In 2005 VW presaged its current problems when it paid $1.1 million to the Justice Department to settle allegations that it failed to notify regulators and correct a defective oxygen sensor in more than 300,000 Golfs, Jettas and New Beetles.

And to make matters worse, through these decades the auto giants kept up a drumbeat of criticism of supposed regulatory excesses and, in the cases of GM and Chrysler, did not hesitate to ask for large bailouts when their markets collapsed.

The American love affair with the automobile has also put us in bed with corporate irresponsibility on a major scale.

What’s Good for GM is Good for GM’s Executives

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

gm-ignition-switch-accident-victims_0The famous statement from the 1950s to the effect that what was good for General Motors was good for the country needs to be updated.

Based on a settlement just announced by the Justice Department, we should be saying: what is good for GM is good for Mary Barra and bad for the country.

Barra, the chief executive of the automaker, and the company’s other top executives are celebrating the fact that they were able to negotiate a deal with federal prosecutors that contains no charges against individuals in connection with the failure to disclose a safety defect that has been linked to more than 120 deaths.

This came just a week after the adoption of a new policy by Justice that was supposedly going to make sure that individuals, including high-level executives, are targeted in major cases of corporate misconduct. That policy states that companies are not supposed to receive cooperation credit (lighter penalties) unless they hand over evidence relating to actual persons. Yet GM apparently got such credit.

What’s even more shocking about the GM deal is that the company did not have to enter a guilty plea on the criminal charges that had been brought against it. Instead, it was given the opportunity to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement — the widely criticized practice of letting a company buy its way out of legal jeopardy by promising to be good in the future.

The Justice Department was supposedly moving away from what had become virtually automatic use of this device in cases involving large corporations. The GM deal diverges from the guilty pleas that had been extracted in several cases such as those involving major banks such as Citi and JPMorgan Chase.

Finally, the settlement is a disappointment because the amount of the penalty extracted, $900 million, is hardly punitive for a company of GM’s size and is well below the $1.2 billion Toyota had to pay to resolve similar charges last year.

An unwillingness to come down hard on large corporate malefactors is all too common, but what sets the GM case apart is that it is one of those rare instances in which the misconduct has been directly linked to many deaths. The automaker was, in a sense, being accused of murder — actually, of being a serial killer. And real people were involved in the irresponsible decisions that led to those deaths.

Yet GM was offered a deal that is the equivalent of probation and a fine, while its executives did not even get a slap on the wrist. If a street murder case were resolved with such light punishment, the prosecutor would be tarred and feathered. But when it comes to corporate crimes — and crimes involving corporate executives — the rules are very different.

Justice Talks Tough on Prosecuting Crime in the Suites

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

averyThe Justice Department is trying to get more serious about prosecuting corporate crime. It has just taken what could be a significant step in that direction.

According to an internal memo written by Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and leaked to the New York Times, the department will now be pressing companies under investigation to identify the individuals involved in the misconduct, no matter how high they are in the firm’s organizational chart, and hand over evidence that may aid in the prosecution of those individuals.

Rejecting the all-too-frequent practice of treating business misconduct as an abstraction, Yates told The Times: “Corporations can only commit crimes through flesh-and-blood people.”

While it is likely, as The Times points out, that the memo is to some extent “an exercise in public messaging,” Yates does lay out some rigorous guidelines. For example, the provision of information on individuals is made a prerequisite for any company seeking “cooperation credit,” a kind of plea bargaining in which the firm gets lighter penalties for voluntarily disclosing relevant facts to prosecutors.

A company cannot, the memo says, pick and choose what facts to disclose, and those facts must relate to all individuals “involved in or responsible for the misconduct at issue, regardless of their position, status or seniority” (emphasis added). Depending on how strictly that phrase is interpreted, it could open the door to more charges against top-level executives.

Yates also orders criminal and civil attorneys at Justice to “focus on individuals from the inception of the investigation.” She rightly acknowledges the connection between the investigation of the company and the investigation of its executives. Focusing on individuals from the start, she writes, “will maximize the chances that the final resolution of an investigation uncovering the misconduct will include civil or criminal charges against not just the corporation but against culpable individuals as well.”

To prevent corporations from shielding their executives, the memo states that Department attorneys should preserve the ability to pursue individuals in those instances when it first reaches a resolution of charges against the company. Prosecutors may agree to immunity for executives in “extraordinary circumstances,” but these cases have to be approved by the relevant Assistant Attorney General or United States Attorney. It remains to be seen whether this provision gets abused.

It’s interesting that the Yates memo came to light right after United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek was forced to resign amid a federal investigation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that turned up evidence suggesting that United had maintained a money-losing flight from Newark Airport to Columbia, South Carolina to curry favor with then-Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who had a vacation home in the Palmetto State.

The circumstances in that case, which stemmed from Chris Christie’s George Washington Bridge scandal, may be unusual, but it was a pleasing change of pace to see the guy at the top being held responsible. Let’s hope that the Yates memo leads to more of the same amid heightened prosecution of both rogue corporations and the executives who run them.

Bringing Regulatory Fines Into the 21st Century

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

texascityIn spite of perennial business complaints about regulatory overreach, for decades large corporations were able to break the law knowing that the potential financial penalties would inflict little pain. Typical fines were the commercial equivalent of parking tickets.

In recent years, the Justice Department has forced Corporate America to pay a higher price for its sins. Major banks, in particular, now have to consent to ten or eleven-figure settlements, such as Bank of America’s $16.7 billion payout last year.

DOJ, however, handles a limited number of cases. The question is whether the federal regulatory agencies are following suit in bringing penalty levels into the 21st Century.

I’ve been looking at the enforcement data for those agencies as part of the preparation for the Violation Tracker my colleagues and I will introduce this fall. The numbers are a mixed bag.

One agency that has apparently recognized the importance of substantial penalties is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In July it imposed a civil penalty of $105 million on Fiat Chrysler for failing to carry out a recall of 11 million defective vehicles in a complete and timely manner. The penalty, the highest in the agency’s history, followed a $70 million penalty against Honda earlier in the year. In 2000 Chrysler (then owned by Daimler) was fined only $400,000 for a deficient recall.

By contrast, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still applying laughably low penalty amounts. The list of “significant enforcement actions” on its website shows only about three dozen cases in which any penalty at all was imposed in the period since 2009, and only five of those involved amounts above $50,000.

The NRC list appears not to have been updated recently, but a look at recent press releases by the agency show that penalty amounts continue to be modest. In April of this year, the agency fined a subsidiary of Dominion Resources all of $17,500 for security violations at a facility in Wisconsin.

Despite a series of significant accidents, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is still lagging in its penalty amounts. Since 2010 it has collected fines of $1 million or more in only three cases, and it still imposes penalties below $10,000 in some instances.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has a much larger jurisdiction than these other agencies, seems to have one foot in the past and a couple of toes in the present when it comes to penalty levels. As the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report points out, the average penalty per inspection is only about $10,000.

In a limited number of high-profile cases, OSHA brings out the big guns. When BP failed to live up to the terms of a settlement stemming from a massive explosion in 2005 at its Texas City refinery (photo) that killed 15 workers, the agency proposed penalties of $87 million (though it settled for $50 million after the company appealed).

Financial penalties by themselves are not a panacea for ending the corporate crime wave, but they are certainly part of the solution. And the bigger the better.

Addendum: Upon re-reading this post I realized I should have mentioned that agencies vary in the amount of discretion they have in setting penalties. In some cases maximum fines are determined by law. My point is that regulators should make full use of the power they have to set penalties as high as possible in cases of egregious offenses.

Replacing Pinstripes with Prison Jumpsuits

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Goodwin-1-e1440025102463-225x300We’ve just been treated to the rare sight of a corporate executive pleading guilty to criminal charges stemming from actions that harmed the public. This outcome was particularly satisfying given that the case was one that symbolized much of what is wrong with U.S. business and regulatory practices.

The culprit is Gary Southern, who was at the center of an incident last year in West Virginia whose details, I wrote at the time, sounded a parody: the company responsible for a toxic chemical leak into the Elk River that contaminated the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people and sickened many turned out to be named Freedom Industries and had been cofounded by a two-time convicted felon.

That felon was Carl Lemley Kennedy II, who was apparently no longer active in the company by the time the spill occurred. The man who had taken over was Southern, who is now a felon as well thanks to his plea on charges of violating the federal Clean Water Act. Five other Freedom executives had earlier admitted guilt and negligence in connection with an accident that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin (photo) called “completely preventable.” Southern faces up to three years in prison.

Goodwin had rejected calls to focus on restitution to the community and insisted on seeking prison time for Southern et al. “Executives are used to writing checks,” he said. “It sends a stronger message if they have to trade their three-piece suits for a prison jumpsuit.”

A similar get-tough-on-business-crime attitude was recently displayed by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who brought manslaughter charges against two construction managers (and the companies they worked for) in connection with the death of a worker earlier this year in an accident that occurred after the managers had, Vance alleged, ignored repeated warnings from inspectors about unsafe conditions on the site.

Let’s hope Goodwin’s message also gets through to prosecutors bringing cases against companies with a much bigger footprint than that of Freedom Industries and the New York construction firms. For a long time, large corporations and their top executives seemed to be immune from criminal prosecutions, no matter how serious the offense.

The Justice Department has started to give in to the pressure and get some big companies to plead guilty to criminal offenses, as occurred in May in a case involving allegations against Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase and other large banks in connection with the manipulation of foreign exchange markets.

Now it’s time for prosecutors to take the next step and bring individual criminal charges against Fortune 500 top executives involved in serious misconduct.

There’s no guarantee that a criminal conviction will completely reform a wayward businessperson. The Wall Street Journal has a piece about an accounting executive who, after being convicted of embezzlement and banned for life from the accounting profession, altered his name slightly (changing Stephen to Steven and adopting a different middle name) and went on providing accounting services with bogus credentials. The SEC eventually caught on and is going after him in court.

Yet we need to see whether individual prosecutions of top executives works. One way or another, we’ve got a find a way to bring an end to the corporate crime wave.

Business Crime Simple and Complex

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

thumbonscaleMuch of the corporate misconduct of the past decade has involved complicated schemes involving the likes of mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps. A recent announcement by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a reminder that old-fashioned business thievery is still very much with us.

Citizens Bank will pay $18.5 million to settle CFPB allegations that it routinely pocketed the difference when customers mistakenly filled out deposit slips for amounts lower than the sums actually transferred. Taking advantage of the carelessness of others added up for the bank: $11 million of the payment by Citizens will consist of refunds, with the rest representing penalties imposed by the CFPB under its powers granted by the industry-vilified Dodd-Frank Act.

The under-crediting attributed to Citizens is the flip side of the overcharging that is surprisingly common among large retailers. Whole Foods is facing a shareholder lawsuit and sinking sales in the wake of allegations by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs that its local stores were systematically and egregiously overcharging customers for pre-packaged foods. The agency found that: “89 percent of the packages tested did not meet the federal standard for the maximum amount that an individual package can deviate from the actual weight, which is set by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The overcharges ranged from $0.80 for a package of pecan panko to $14.84 for a package of coconut shrimp.” The company admitted it had made “mistakes.”

In February, Target paid $3.9 million to settle allegations by half a dozen district attorneys in California that prices charged at the register were higher than those posted in the aisles.

In April, Wal-Mart was hit with a proposed class action lawsuit alleging that the company overcharged customers at its vision centers by inflating insurance co-pay amounts.

Earlier this month, Genuine Parts agreed to pay $338,000 to settle allegations by the San Diego District Attorney that its several of its NAPA Auto Parts stores were overcharging customers.

Cases such as these belie the notion that “thumb on the scale” types of simple cheating are mainly to be found among small businesses. Large companies are apparently inclined to engage in both simple and complex misdeeds.

Citizens Bank symbolizes the link between the different types of misconduct. The company is a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has been deeply involved in a variety of complex financial scandals.

Earlier this year, it pleaded guilty to criminal charges of conspiring to fix foreign currency rates, along with three other major banks. RBS was fined $395 million (and another $274 million by the Federal Reserve) and put on probation for three years. The SEC gave it a waiver from a rule that would have barred it from remaining in the securities business.

In 2013 RBS had to pay $153 million to settle charges that it misled investors in a 2007 offering of subprime residential mortgage-back securities. That same year, it paid $612 million to settle civil and criminal charges that it was involved in the manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index.

Whether simple or complex, corporate wrongdoing needs to be prosecuted aggressively.