Archive for the ‘Corporate Crime’ Category

Getting Even Tougher on Corporate Crime

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bankers Gone Wild (Again)

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

get_out_of_jail_freeThere seems to be no end to the chutzpah of the big banks. They brazenly break the law and then pay growing but still quite affordable penalties to get out of their legal jeopardy.

The latest examples have just been reported by the New York Times. The front page of the newspaper has a blood-boiling story on how the likes of JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup intimidate people who have gone through personal bankruptcy into paying back debts that have been discharged in court. Although the debts are not legally collectable, the banks keep the obligations alive on credit reports, meaning that borrowers are faced with a choice between paying and having their credit rating ruined. Such a tactic makes loan sharks look good by comparison.

According to the Times, the practice is being investigated by the Justice Department. Before long we will read of a settlement, and the banks will move on to a new way of cheating their customers.

JPMorgan and Citi are also involved in a settlement just announced by U.S. and European regulators involving another sleazy banking practice: the manipulation of foreign currency markets. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission ordered five banks to pay more than $1.4 billion in penalties, including $310 million each from JPMorgan and Citi. Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority fined the five banks (which also include HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) another $1.7 billion, including around $350 million each for JPMorgan and Citi. Swiss regulators hit UBS with an additional $138 million penalty.

In foreign exchange markets, the daily setting of rates is known as the fix. Evidence released by regulators made it abundantly clear that traders at the five banks saw to it that the fix was fixed (i.e. manipulated) by colluding rather than competing.

These settlements involved civil charges. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating criminal misconduct by the banks. That’s good news, but there is a strong possibility that these probes will result in something disappointing.

The Justice Department has a long track record of allowing large corporations to evade serious criminal charges by offering miscreants the option to enter into deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements that amount to get-out-of-jail-free cards. And even when token criminal charges are enforced, as happened in the Credit Suisse tax case last May and the UBS interest-rate-manipulation case before that, the consequences are hardly devastating.

This failure of corporate prosecution is the subject of a new book called Too Big to Jail by Brandon Garrett, a professor of the University of Virginia School of Law. In an interview with the Corporate Crime Reporter, Garrett says: “There are a number of ways to punish a company. The concern is that none of those ways are being taken seriously enough.” Garrett proposes a system in which corporations plead guilty and are put on probation – hopefully a more rigorous form than the probation BP was on (because of its 2007 case involving an explosion at its Texas City refinery) at the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Garrett’s notion that having a judge (rather than just a monitor) involved in these cases is laudable, but it is not clear that would be enough to rein in corporate lawlessness.

Note: Garrett has posted a handy list of more than 300 deferred and non-prosecution agreements on his website.

 

The Environmental Prosecution Gap

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

With reports of a $16 billion Justice Department settlement with Bank of America following on the heels of other big payouts by misbehaving banks, it may seem that corporate crime these days is mainly an issue for the financial sector. The big banks have plenty of blemishes on their record, but then again so do other large corporations when it comes to areas such as environmental compliance.

After all, it was only four months ago that Anadarko Petroleum had to pay $5.1 billion to resolve federal charges that had been brought in connection with the clean-up of thousands of toxic waste sites around the country resulting from decades of questionable practices by Kerr-McGee, now a subsidiary of Anadarko. This settlement set a record for an environmental case, surpassing the $4 billion in penalties BP had to pay in 2012 as part of its guilty plea on criminal charges relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite high-profile cases such as these, environmental offenses are being prosecuted in a less than vigorous manner. This problem is brought home in a recent analysis by The Crime Report website produced at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

In a review of enforcement data in the EPA’s ECHO database, The Crime Report found that the agency has become increasingly disinclined to bring criminal rather than civil charges against violators. In recent years, the report notes, fewer than one-half of one percent of violations trigger criminal investigations, which require the involvement of the Justice Department to proceed in court.

Part of the problem is that criminal cases are much more difficult to pursue. The Crime Report quotes attorney Mark Roberts of the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency as saying: “I think a criminal prosecution will be defended much harder … If you’re in that tiny percentage that gets charged criminally, you want to win.”

While delivering the bad news about weak prosecution, The Crime Report makes it easier for researchers and activists to access data about environmental violations. It took data from ECHO and created an interactive map that provides summaries by EPA region and by urban area, and also allows zooming in on specific facilities. When an urban area is chosen on the map, a table appears below showing the largest penalties overall, with breakdowns by categories such as Clean Air Act violations and Clean Water Act violations.

This is especially useful for clusters of heavily polluting facilities such as those in what is informally known as Cancer Alley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Yet a look at the data for this area shows the limitations not only of the EPA’s criminal prosecutions but its enforcement activity in general. Drilling down shows dozens of facilities that were often found to be in non-compliance yet were hit with little or nothing in the way of penalties during the past five years.

There are some fairly significant fines, such as the $198,000 paid by PCS Nitrogen in Geismar and the $84,000 paid by the Total Petroleum Styrene Monomer Plant in Carville. Yet, for the most part, the data paint a picture that is a far cry from the right’s depiction of the EPA as a tyrannical force preying on defenseless businesses.

Whether it is in banking or petrochemicals, aggressive prosecutions are the only way to get large corporations to clean up their act.

 

Real Abuses, Sham Reforms

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inverted Values

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

medtronic-headquartersConservatives are up in arms about the surge of undocumented women and children coming across the border from Mexico. So great a threat is purportedly being caused by this influx that Republican members of Congress are clamoring for legislation that would allow faster deportations. Even President Obama seems to agree.

Much less urgency is being expressed about another sort of immigration crisis: the presence of a growing number of foreign-based corporations masquerading as American companies. Large-scale tax dodging by these firms does much more harm to the United States than the modest impact of those desperate Central Americans.

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service describes a new wave of companies going through a process politely known as “inversions.” What’s really happened is that these firms have renounced their U.S. “citizenship” and reincorporated themselves in tax haven countries in order to escape federal taxes.

Yet these companies go on operating as before, keeping their U.S. offices, their U.S. sales and all the other benefits of doing business here but not paying their fair share of the cost of government. They are the real illegitimate aliens.

While a few members of Congress have spoken out against this corporate treason, many adhere to the idea that the companies are blameless — that it is the supposedly oppressive tax system that is to blame. The editorialists at the Wall Street Journal, who can always be counted on to go to any length to defend corporate avarice, recently began a piece on inversions by writing: “What kind of country does this to itself?”

This is typical of the pro-corporate mindset: Big business, apparently, can do no wrong, so if a company does something controversial, it is the rest of us who are to blame.

In reality, many of the companies that have turned to inversions are not only tax dodgers; they are bad actors in other respects. Take the case of Medtronic, which is involved in the most recent re-registration deal involving a plan to merge with Covidien, a competitor in the medical devices industry that earlier turned itself into an “Irish” company.

Only a couple of weeks before the Covidien deal became public, the U.S. Justice Department announced that Medtronic would pay $9.9 million to resolve allegations under the False Claims Act that it made improper payments to physicians to get them to implant the company’s pacemakers and defibrillators in Medicare and Medicaid patients. The settlement came less than three years after Medtronic had to pay $23.5 million to resolve another False Claims Act case involving other kinds of improper inducements to physicians.

And five years before that, Medtronic paid $40 million to settle yet another kickback case. In 2010 the company had to pay $268 million to settle lawsuits claiming that defective wires in its defibrillators caused at least 13 deaths.

An even worse track record belongs to Pfizer, which attempted an inversion a couple of months ago by seeking to acquire Britain’s AstraZeneca but has backed off for now. In 2009 Pfizer agreed to pay $2.3 billion to resolve criminal and civil charges relating to the  improper marketing of Bextra and three other medications. The amount was a record for a healthcare fraud settlement. John Kopchinski, a former Pfizer sales representative whose complaint helped bring about the federal investigation, told the New York Times: “The whole culture of Pfizer is driven by sales, and if you didn’t sell drugs illegally, you were not seen as a team player.”

Like Medtronic, Pfizer has had problems with questionable payments. In August 2012 the SEC announced that it had reached a $45 million settlement with the company to resolve charges that its subsidiaries, especially Wyeth, had bribed overseas doctors and other healthcare professionals to increase foreign sales.

Or take the case of Walgreen, which is reported to be planning an inversion of its own. In 2008 it had to pay $35 million to settle claims that it defrauded the federal government by improperly switching patients to different version of three prescription drugs in order to increase its reimbursements from Medicaid. Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that the giant pharmacy chain would pay a record $80 million in civil penalties to resolve charges that it failed to properly control the sales of narcotic painkillers at some of its stores.

The examples could continue. Corporations resorting to extreme measures such as foreign re-incorporations are not innocent victims. Their tax dodging is just another symptom of corporate cultures that put profit maximization above loyalty to country and adherence to the law.

Subsidizing Corporate Offenders

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

moneybagsontherunIt’s been clear for a long time now that, despite recurring calls to get tough on corporate crime, companies can essentially buy their way out of legal entanglements. In most cases this has come about through the U.S. Justice Department’s willingness to offer companies deferred prosecution agreements. The recent Credit Suisse guilty plea, which is not doing much to impair the bank’s operations, shows that big companies can even go about their business with a criminal conviction.

That’s not the worst of it. It turns out that many of these corporate offenders have received tax breaks and other forms of financial assistance from state and local governments around the country. This does not come as a complete surprise, but it is now possible to quantify the extent to which this unfortunate practice is taking place.

This estimate comes from mashing up two datasets. The first is the Subsidy Tracker I and my colleagues at Good Jobs First have compiled. In recent months we have enhanced the database by matching many of the individual entries to their corporate parents. For 1,294 large companies we now have summary pages that provide a full picture of the subsidies they and their subsidiaries have received.

The other data source is a list of the companies that have entered into deferred-prosecution and non-prosecution agreements with the Justice Department to settle a variety of criminal charges. (Although I refer to these firms as corporate miscreants or offenders, it must be pointed out that they were never formally convicted.)

The list appeared in the May 26, 2014 issue (print version only) of Russell Mokhiber’s excellent Corporate Crime Reporter. Mokhiber obtained it from University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett, author of a forthcoming book on corporate crime prosecution, and used it for an article showing that the bulk of those agreements are negotiated by a small number of law firms.

I took the liberty of using the list for another purpose: determining how many of the companies also appear in Subsidy Tracker. The results are striking: more than half of the miscreants (146 of 269, or 54 percent) have received state and local subsidies. These include cases in which the awards went to the firm’s parent or a “sibling” firm.

Even more remarkable are the dollar amounts involved. The total value of the awards comes to more than $25 billion. A large portion of that total ($13 billion) comes from a single company — Boeing, which is not only the largest recipient of subsidies among corporate miscreants but is also the largest recipient among all firms. Boeing made the Justice Department list by virtue of a 2006 non-prosecution agreement under which it paid $615 million to settle criminal and civil charges that it improperly used competitors’ information to procure contracts for launch services worth billions of dollars from the U.S. Air Force and NASA.

To be fair, I should point out that not all the subsidies came after that case was announced. In the period since 2006, Boeing has received “only” about $9.8 billion.

The other biggest subsidy recipients on the list are as follows:

  • Fiat (parent of Chrysler): $2.1 billion
  • Royal Dutch Shell (parent of Shell Nigeria): $2.0 billion
  • Toyota: $1.1 billion
  • Google: $751 million
  • JPMorgan Chase: $653 million
  • Daimler: $545 million
  • Sears: $536 million

Altogether, there are 26 parents on the DOJ list that have received $100 million or more in subsidies. As with Boeing’s $13 billion figure, the amounts for many of the companies include subsidies received before as well as after their settlement.

These results suggest two conclusions. The first is that state and local governments might want to pay more attention to the legal record of the companies to which they award large subsidy packages. A company that ran afoul of federal law might not be punctilious about living up to its job-creation commitments.

More broadly, the ability of companies caught up in criminal cases to go on getting subsidies suggests that there is insufficient stigma attached to involvement in such cases. If companies know that they can not only avoid serious punishment but still qualify for rewards such as tax breaks and cash grants, they are more likely to give in to temptations such as fraud, bribery, tax evasion, price-fixing and the like. Without real deterrents, the corporate crime wave will continue.

Too Big to Punish

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

get_out_of_jail_freeEver since the financial meltdown, corporate critics have been clamoring for criminal charges to be brought against major financial institutions. With the exception of the guilty plea extracted from an obscure subsidiary of UBS in a case involving manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index, the Obama Administration long resisted these calls, continuing the dubious practice of offering corporate miscreants deferred prosecution agreements and escalating but still affordable fines.

The Justice Department has now given in to the pressure, forcing Credit Suisse’s parent company to plead guilty to a criminal charge of conspiring to aid tax evasion by helping American citizens conceal their wealth through secret offshore accounts. Yet what should be a watershed moment in corporate accountability is starting to feel like a big letdown.

Despite weeks of handwringing by corporate apologists about the risks for a bank of having a criminal conviction, along with impassioned pleas for mercy by Credit Suisse lawyers, the world has hardly come tumbling down for the Swiss financial giant since Attorney General Eric Holder announced the plea.

Particularly unsatisfying is the fact that no top executives at the bank were charged, meaning that we were prevented from seeing any high-level perp walks. While some lower level bank employees were prosecuted, CEO Brady Dougan is getting off scot free. Even the Financial Times found this unseemly, suggesting that he should have had the good manners to resign. Dougan, instead, handled things in classic damage-control mode, treating the matter as over and done, stating: “We can now focus on the future and give our full attention to executing our strategy.”

The Justice Department is bragging about the plea and the $2.6 billion in penalties, but it is downplaying the failure to achieve one of the main objectives of the case. Credit Suisse is not being compelled to turn over the names of the holders of the secret accounts.

Other parts of the federal government seem to be doing everything possible to cushion the impact of the plea. The SEC has decided, at least for the time being, to exempt Credit Suisse from a law that requires a bank to relinquish its investment-advisor license in the event of a guilty plea. The Federal Reserve, which received $100 million of the penalties, issued a “cease and desist order requiring Credit Suisse promptly to address deficiencies in its oversight, management, and controls governing compliance with U.S. laws,” but it has given no indication that the bank’s activities will be restricted.

There are also no signs that the private sector will punish Credit Suisse. Customers do not appear to be shunning the bank, and the stock market has reacted to the plea with equanimity. The company’s stock price has fallen only a few points since the reports of a possible conviction emerged in recent weeks, and in the wake of the actual plea it has held steady.

When an individual is convicted of a crime, his or her life is usually thrown into disarray. Along with a possible loss of liberty, there may be a forfeiture of assets and a loss of livelihood. Especially for white-collar offenders, there is likely to be ostracism.

For corporate offenders, we’ve long seen how companies can buy their way out of serious consequences through non-prosecution and deferred prosecution deals. Now that get-out-of-jail-free card seems to be available to a company with an actual conviction.

Why, then, did the Justice Department bother pursuing criminal charges? It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the prosecution was meant solely as a symbolic gesture—a political move to quiet criticism of the administration’s treatment of corporate misconduct.

The handling of the Credit Suisse case may end up doing more harm than good, both in symbolic and substantive terms. The moves to mitigate the impact on the bank neutralize the administration’s effort to appear tough on corporate crime. They also undermine whatever deterrent effect the prosecution was supposed to achieve.

Large corporations may no longer be too big to convict, but they are still regarded as too big to punish.

Note: For details on the sins of Credit Suisse, see its updated Corporate Rap Sheet.

Slapping Corporate Wrists a Little Harder

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

moneybagsontherunGovernments will go to ridiculous lengths to punish criminals. States that cling to the death penalty now resort to back-alley methods for obtaining the drugs used in lethal injections, leading to grotesque results such as the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

When it comes to corporate crime, a very different standard is applied. Prosecutors go out of their way to soften the impact on offenders. Criminal charges are often not filed, and when they are companies are offered deferred prosecution agreements that allow them to pay fines and make promises not to sin again.

Federal prosecutors are now feeling pressure to take a harder line, especially with global banks that may have flouted U.S. laws relating to tax evasion and international sanctions. The New York Times reports that the Justice Department is pushing to get guilty pleas from Credit Suisse, which has faced charges of helping wealthy Americans dodge taxes through secret bank accounts, and BNP Paribas, which is being investigated for violating U.S. economic sanctions against countries such as Sudan and Iran.

Getting a guilty plea from a major bank (rather than from one of its obscure subsidiaries, as happened in the LIBOR-manipulation case involving UBS) would be an important step in affirming that these institutions are not above the law. The problem is that the Justice Department does not seem to want to impose the kind of penalties that normally go along with a criminal conviction.

According to the Times, prosecutors are meeting with banking regulators “about how to criminally punish banks without putting them out of business and damaging the economy.”

We would never hear such a statement made about, say, an illegal gambling ring. There is no concern that going after such an operation would eliminate jobs and harm the economy.

As for banks, even when they are found to have engaged in egregious behavior, they are treated as legitimate institutions that must be preserved. It is true that not every employee may have been involved in criminal misconduct, but that is no reason why the continued survival of the bank in its existing form has to be regarded as an essential component of any resolution of criminal charges.

Corporate crime will not disappear until prosecutors are willing to consider truly punitive penalties for companies that engage in serious misbehavior. By this I mean consequences that go well beyond fines that a company can easily afford (and can often deduct from its taxes).

It’s often said that bringing criminal charges against corporations is pointless, since a company cannot be put in prison. Leaving aside the question of the feasibility of putting corporate executives behind bars, this view fails to acknowledge the other ways in which a firm’s liberty can be restricted.

We see such an example in the current scandal involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who is being fined $2.5 million and banned for life by the National Basketball Association for making racist statements but who also may be forced to sell the team. Why is the Justice Department not talking about forcing banks such as Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas to divest themselves of the operations in which the prohibited practices took place? I would prefer to see such criminal enterprises confiscated outright, but that may be too much to hope for.

Prosecutors have to weigh the economic impact of cases that might, for instance, lead to the revocation of a bank’s license to operate, which is considered the corporate equivalent of the death penalty. This is apparently behind the caution being exhibited in the Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas negotiations.

The lesson that prosecutors seem to have taken from the 2002 conviction of Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that abetted Enron’s frauds, is that putting a company out of business is a big mistake. I don’t understand why.

The demise of Andersen and Enron and Drexel Lambert did not bring about economic calamity. In fact, the economy was probably better off without these corrupt institutions. We might also be better off if today’s miscreants met a similar fate, or at least had to undergo radical restructuring. And that would send a clear message to other corporations that they have to clean up their act.

 

Note: For an analysis of an industry that has a lot to clean up, including widespread wage theft, see the report just issued by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United and other groups on the National Restaurant Association and its members. I contributed the Rogues Gallery section.

Still Unsafe At Any Speed

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

unsafeIn a resounding affirmation of the principle that the cover-up is worse than the crime, federal prosecutors emphasized Toyota’s deceptive practices in announcing that the carmaker will pay $1.2 billion to settle a criminal charge relating to the sudden acceleration controversy. The Justice Department press release uses just about every synonym for dishonesty in describing Toyota’s misdeeds.

“The company admits that it misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements,” the release states, adding that the company “gave inaccurate facts to Members of Congress.” Later it says that Toyota “was hiding” critical information from federal regulators and that it made public a “false timeline.” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara alleges that the company “cared more about savings than safety and more about its own brand and bottom line than the truth.”

Such strong talk is gratifying, but Toyota, like so many other corporate miscreants, was offered a deferred prosecution agreement in place of an outright conviction. This was made somewhat more palatable by the provision in the agreement that bars the company from deducting the penalty amount from its taxes.

Prosecutors used the announcement to convey a thinly veiled warning to General Motors that it too will have to pay a substantial amount to resolve its own legal entanglements on safety issues. Bharara declared: “Companies that make inherently dangerous products must be maximally transparent, not two-faced. That is why we have undertaken this landmark enforcement action. And the entire auto industry should take notice.”

GM’s announcement several weeks ago that it was recalling hundreds of thousands of its small cars because of an ignition switch problem mushroomed into a major scandal as information came to light suggesting that the company had dragged its feet in dealing with the issue, even though it was linked to 13 deaths. Federal regulators, which had received several hundred complaints relating to the problem, were also criticized for being slow to act. Both Congress and the Justice Department have launched investigations of the matter.

In recent days, GM has tried to spin the situation to its advantage, with CEO Mary Barra putting herself out front and making extravagant promises that such a safety lapse would never happen again. Living up to such a commitment will be even more difficult for GM than it was for Toyota, which used similar p.r. stratagems during earlier phases of its controversy and ultimately failed.

After all, the history of GM is filled with examples of irresponsibility on safety issues. It is now 50 years since Ralph Nader exposed the defects of GM’s Corvair, prompting the company to spy on him and thus inadvertently give a boost to the nascent corporate accountability movement.

Later, GM failed to act when presented with reports that poorly sealed panels on some of its cars could cause dangerous levels of carbon monoxide to leak into the passenger compartment. After some deaths were attributed to the problem in the late 1960s, the company finally recalled 2.5 million cars to repair the defect.

During the 1970s and 1980s the company was frequently criticized by environmentalists and consumer advocates for its efforts to weaken federal rules on emissions and for its resistance to regulations requiring passive restraints such as airbags in all automobiles. In 1990 GM finally agreed to put air bags in all of its U.S. cars starting in 1995.

In 1992 the New York Times published an investigation concluding that GM had recognized as early as 1983 that its pickup trucks with side-mounted gas tanks were highly dangerous but took no action until 1988, even then saying the change was for design rather than safety reasons. During that period, more than 300 people were killed in collisions in which the tanks exploded.

GM resisted recalling trucks with the side-mounted tanks even after the federal government asked it to do so. Instead, it launched a campaign against safety advocates and plaintiffs’ lawyers. In 1994 the company reached a settlement with the U.S. Transportation Department under which the federal government gave up on its effort to get GM to recall the trucks in exchange for which the company agreed to contribute $51 million to auto safety programs. GM still faced a series of personal injury lawsuits in connection with the exploding gas tanks, including one in which a Los Angeles jury awarded victims $4.9 billion in damages. GM appealed, and the case was later settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

It remains to be seen how much GM has to pay in fines and settlements for its current ignition switch scandal, but it will take a lot of punishment to get a company with such a long history of safety lapses to change its ways for good.

————

New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS: a profile of Yum Brands and its controversies relating to wage & hour violations, sanitation lapses and animal cruelty.

J. Ponzi Morgan

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

morgan_madoffIt’s bad enough that for years JPMorgan Chase failed to alert federal authorities about the suspicious transactions being conducted by its customer Madoff Securities in what would later be revealed as a massive Ponzi scheme.

What’s equally damning in the criminal case the bank just resolved with federal prosecutors is that at times JPM seemed to want to get in on Madoff’s action.

The Statement of Facts to which JPM stipulated tells an interesting story about how, beginning in 2006, the bank began investing substantial sums (initially $343 million) of its own money in Madoff feeder funds in addition to issuing derivates tied to those funds and selling them to investors. In 2007 this business seemed so appealing that JPM’s London branch sought to write more than $1 billion in Madoff-linked derivatives.

This move had to be approved by the bank’s chief risk officer, who in 2007 nixed the plan after being told by a colleague that there is a “well-known cloud over the head of Madoff and that his returns are speculated to be part of a Ponzi scheme.” While he was unwilling to risk $1.3 billion under such circumstances, the officer did allow the Madoff exposure to remain up to $250 million.

The JPM London trading desk subsequently became more uneasy about Madoff Securities. It pulled out of the Madoff feeder funds, and in 2008 it filed a report with UK regulators expressing concerns that Madoff’s returns were probably “too good to be true.” JPM failed to do the same in the United States, and that turned out to be an expensive oversight.

JPM’s messy history with Madoff illustrates an interesting point about the relationship between individual white-collar crime and collective corporate crime. There’s long been a tendency to see corruption for self-enrichment (such as embezzlement) as being separate from misconduct by groups of people to enrich corporations (for example, price-fixing conspiracies).

In the case of Madoff and JPM, the two were closely connected. Madoff, who was working through his firm but was essentially running a one-man Ponzi operation, created conditions that were exploited (up to a point) by JPM to enhance the profits of the bank’s derivatives business. Even when that opportunity was deemed too risky by JPM, the bank failed to warn U.S. regulators and went on doing profitable banking business with Madoff.

In other words, the individual fraud being committed by Madoff was a source of profit for JPM, which in a sense became his co-conspirator.

The distinction between individual crime and corporate misbehavior is also a matter of perennial debate when it comes to punishment. Business apologists like to claim that corporations cannot really commit crimes and that only individuals should be prosecuted, knowing full well that such cases are much harder to prove.

What’s needed is a more aggressive approach toward the prosecution of both corporations and the higher-level executives responsible for their misconduct.

The JPM-Madoff case shows the limitations of the current system. No individuals were charged, and the bank was able to take advantage of the kind of deferred prosecution agreement that the Justice Department uses in almost every corporate case. Neither JPM nor the stock market seems to be fazed by the $2.6 billion payout. In fact, this is just the latest in a series of large settlements that JPM has made with prosecutors. Just two months ago, it agreed to pay $13 billion to resolve a variety of federal and state charges relating to the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities.

Madoff himself was not able to buy his way out of a criminal conviction and prison time (150 years of it). There was a broad consensus that he deserved every penalty that could be imposed, to ensure that he could never defraud again.

We’re still waiting for a system of punishment that provides that kind of definitive treatment for rogue corporations such as J. Ponzi Morgan.