Archive for the ‘Corporate Crime’ Category

DOJ’s Sputtering Case Against Volkswagen

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

An activist of the environmental protection organization 'Greenpeace' holds a protest poster in front of a factory gate of the German car manufacturer Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, Germany, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, where the supervisory board meet to discuss who to name as CEO after Martin Winterkorn quit the job this week over an emissions-rigging scandal that's rocking the world's top-selling automaker. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

There’s a scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street” in which a federal prosecutor tells Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) that the case against him for securities fraud was a “Grenada,” meaning that it was as unloseable as the 1983 U.S. invasion of that poorly defended Caribbean island.

The Justice Department has had another Grenada in recent months with the case against Volkswagen for systematically cheating on auto emissions tests. As the scope of the deception broadened to include millions of vehicles, VW effectively admitted guilt and put aside the equivalent of about $7 billion to resolve the issue, later acknowledging that sum would not be enough.

After three months of preparation, Justice has filed its case yet is failing to make full use of its leverage against the automaker. As a result, it could end up with only a modest win against one of the most egregious cases of corporate environmental fraud this country has ever seen.

The biggest disappointment is DOJ’s decision to forgo criminal charges and handle this solely as a civil matter. Admittedly, prosecutors were confronted with the fact that a little known loophole in the Clean Air Act exempts the auto industry from criminal penalties. Yet there appeared to be ways to get around this limitation by alleging fraud, for instance, given that there was apparently a deliberate effort to deceive the federal government about emissions. It’s not clear why DOJ rejected this approach and did not even use the frequent gambit of pursuing a criminal case and then offering the company a deferred- or non-prosecution agreement. Those options are problematic, but with them criminal charges are at least part of the picture rather than being left out entirely.

Also frustrating is the failure of Justice to bring charges (civil or criminal) against individual VW executives. This flies in the face of the department’s hyped announcement in September of a new policy of holding individuals accountable for corporate misconduct. Charging senior VW officers was all the more important in light of indications that the company has been seeking ways to place the blame on lower-level engineers.

It is disturbing to think that VW may have intimidated DOJ away from an aggressive prosecution. Although the scope of the scandal has widened, taking in more of the company’s brands in more countries, VW seems to be adopting a less conciliatory posture than it did earlier in the case. In fact, the DOJ complaint accuses the company of impeding and obstructing the investigation through “material omissions and misleading information” — accusations that make the absence of criminal charges all the more bewildering.

It is likely that VW will have to pay billions of dollars to resolve the charges against it. This is right and proper, but is it enough? Corporations from BP to Bank of America have gotten used to buying their way out of legal jeopardy, treating fines and settlements as (often tax deductible) costs of doing business. Those costs have been rising — BP has had to pay out more than $24 billion in connection with its Gulf of Mexico disaster — but there is little evidence that the penalties are having the intended deterrent effect.

Criminal charges are not a panacea. They’ve been brought against BP, several large banks and other companies yet no longer have the same bite. Several banks, for instance, have received waivers from SEC rules barring criminals from the securities business.

Yet at least there is the possibility of applying criminal penalties more aggressively. Going the purely civil route, as Justice is doing with VW, guarantees from the start that the case will be little more than a financial transaction. In a case of deliberate and widespread deception with severe environmental and health impacts, that’s simply not good enough.

The 2015 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

gotojailThe ongoing corporate crime wave showed no signs of abating in 2015. BP paid a record $20 billion to settle the remaining civil charges relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster (on top of the $4 billion in previous criminal penalties), and Volkswagen is facing perhaps even greater liability in connection with its scheme to evade emission standards.

Other automakers and suppliers were hit with large penalties for safety violations, including a $900 million fine (and deferred criminal prosecution) for General Motors, a record civil penalty of $200 million for Japanese airbag maker Takata, penalties of $105 million and $70 million for Fiat Chrysler, and $70 million for Honda.

Major banks continued to pay large penalties to resolve a variety of legal entanglements. Five banks (Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) had to pay a total of $2.5 billion to the Justice Department and $1.8 billion to the Federal Reserve in connection with charges that they conspired to manipulate foreign exchange markets. The DOJ case was unusual in that the banks had to enter guilty pleas, but it is unclear that this hampered their ability to conduct business as usual.

Anadarko Petroleum agreed to pay more than $5 billion to resolve charges relating to toxic dumping by Kerr-McGee, which was acquired by Anadarko in 2006. In another major environmental case, fertilizer company Mosaic agreed to resolve hazardous waste allegations at eight facilities by creating a $630 million trust fund and spending $170 million on mitigation projects.

These examples and the additional ones below were assembled with the help of Violation Tracker, the new database of corporate misconduct my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First introduced this year. The database currently covers environmental, health and safety cases from 13 federal agencies, but we will be adding other violation categories in 2016.

Deceptive financial practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined Citibank $700 million for the deceptive marketing of credit card add-on products.

Cheating depositors. Citizens Bank was fined $18.5 million by the CFPB for pocketing the difference when customers mistakenly filled out deposit slips for amounts lower than the sums actually transferred.

Overcharging customers. An investigation by officials in New York City found that pre-packaged products at Whole Foods had mislabeled weights, resulting in grossly inflated unit prices.

Food contamination. In a rare financial penalty in a food safety case, a subsidiary of ConAgra was fined $11.2 million for distributing salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

Adulterated medication. Johnson & Johnson subsidiary McNeill-PPC entered a guilty plea and paid $25 million in fines and forfeiture in connection with charges that it sold adulterated children’s over-the-counter medications.

Illegal marketing. Sanofi subsidiary Genzyme Corporation entered into a deferred prosecution agreement and paid a penalty of $32.6 million in connection with charges that it promoted its Seprafilm devices for uses not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Failure to report safety defects. Among the companies hit this year with civil penalties by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for failing to promptly report safety hazards were: General Electric ($3.5 million fine), Office Depot ($3.4 million) and LG Electronics ($1.8 million).

Workplace hazards. Tuna producer Bumble Bee agreed to pay $6 million to settle state charges that it willfully violated worker safety rules in connection with the death of an employee who was trapped in an industrial oven at the company’s plant in Southern California.

Sanctions violations. Deutsche Bank was fined $258 million for violations in connection with transactions on behalf of countries (such as Iran and Syria) and entities subject to U.S. economic sanctions.

Air pollution. Glass manufacturer Guardian Industries settled Clean Air Act violations brought by the EPA by agreeing to spend $70 million on new emission controls.

Ocean dumping. An Italian company called Carbofin was hit with a $2.75 million criminal fine for falsifying its records to hide the fact that it was using a device known as a “magic hose” to dispose of sludge, waste oil and oil-contaminated bilge water directly into the sea rather than using required pollution prevention equipment.

Climate denial. The New York Attorney General is investigating whether Exxon Mobil deliberately deceived shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change.

False claims. Millennium Health agreed to pay $256 million to resolve allegations that it billed Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health programs for unnecessary tests.

Illegal lobbying. Lockheed Martin paid $4.7 million to settle charges that it illegally used government money to lobby federal officials for an extension of its contract to run the Sandia nuclear weapons lab.

Price-fixing. German auto parts maker Robert Bosch was fined $57.8 million after pleading guilty to Justice Department charges of conspiring to fix prices and rig bids for spark plugs, oxygen sensors and starter motors sold to automakers in the United States and elsewhere.

Foreign bribery. Goodyear Tire & Rubber paid $16 million to resolve Securities and Exchange Commission allegations that company subsidiaries paid bribes to obtain sales in Kenya and Angola.

Wage theft. Oilfield services company Halliburton paid $18 million to resolve Labor Department allegations that it improperly categorized more than 1,000 workers to deny them overtime pay.

The Corporate Wrongdoers Sticking with ALEC

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

ALECexposedLogo_400x400vt_logo-full_1If a group of major drug dealers, identity thieves and bank robbers were to put out a statement calling for relaxation of the criminal code, no one would take it very seriously.

Yet complaints about the regulatory system coming from large corporations — including many with repeated environmental and safety violations — are regarded as important pronouncements by too many policymakers and political candidates. Corporate interests don’t simply complain. They use their money and influence to urge lawmakers to alter the rules in their favor.

One of the main vehicles by which big business pushes its deregulatory agenda is the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, which is currently holding one of its periodic gatherings of corporate lobbyists and legislators, takes aim at agencies such as the EPA, which it likes to call a “regulatory train wreck.”

Since my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First released our Violation Tracker database recently, I’ve been comparing notes with the ALEC watchers at the Center for Media and Democracy. What we’ve found is a substantial overlap between the corporations that remain loyal to ALEC (more than 100 have left in response to public pressure) and the companies in Tracker with the largest penalty totals. Mary Bottari of CMD has posted a piece that focuses on the energy companies in the two groups. Here I look at the full overlap.

The current list of ALEC corporate members includes 11 corporations that rank in the Violation Tracker top 100 (in a few cases the membership is held by a subsidiary). These parents and their subsidiaries have racked up a total of $1.7 billion in federal environmental, health and safety penalties and settlements since the beginning of 2010:

  • Pfizer: $563,357,650
  • Novartis: $422,569,368
  • WEC Energy Group: $310,621,475
  • Duke Energy: $112,150,534
  • Honeywell International: $93,641,829
  • Berkshire Hathaway: $46,810,063
  • Exxon Mobil: $46,285,706
  • Energy Transfer: $25,467,251
  • Dominion Resources: $14,168,658
  • Norfolk Southern: $11,675,325
  • Chevron: $11,373,376

Pfizer is in the news because of its deal to merge with a smaller drug company and move its legal headquarters to Ireland, all to dodge federal taxes. It has amassed more than half a billion dollars in penalties in the past five years largely because of cases involving the illegal marketing of drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. In 2009, the year before Violation Tracker’s coverage begins, Pfizer had to pay $2.3 billion to settle Justice Department civil and criminal charges relating to the illegal marketing of the painkiller Bextra and three other medications. 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.”

Novartis has also been accused of illegal marketing of drugs and has had to pay more than $400 million in penalties. Not yet included in Violation Tracker is a case in which federal prosecutors are seeking $3 billion in penalties from the company for paying illegal kickbacks to get pharmacies to encourage use of expensive drugs for kidney-transplant patients covered by Medicare and Medicaid.

WEC Energy Group, whose subsidiaries North Shore Gas and Peoples Gas are ALEC members, is on the top violators list mainly because of a $307 million settlement another subsidiary, Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, reached with the Justice Department and the EPA to resolve Clean Air Act violations at two of its power plants. Most of the settlement involves mandatory spending on new pollution control technology at the facilities.

Duke Energy earned its spot on the top violators list mainly because of a case from earlier this year in which three of its subsidiaries pled guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act and paid $102 million in penalties in connection with a massive coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina.

The largest portion of Honeywell International‘s $93 million in penalties comes from a 2013 case in which it agreed to pay a $3 million civil penalty and spend $66 million on new pollution control equipment to resolve Clean Air Act violations at its plant in Hopewell, Virginia.

Conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway is on the list because one of its major subsidiaries, BNSF Railway, is an ALEC member. While it has not been involved in any large cases like those above, since 2010 BNSF has accumulated more than 600 violations from the Federal Railroad Administration with total penalties of $7 million (the FRA’s fines tend to be less than onerous). BNSF was also pressured by OSHA to change its practices that the agency said discouraged workers from reporting on-the-job injuries.

Exxon Mobil‘s penalty total comes largely from its subsidiary XTO Energy, which focuses on fracking. For example, in 2013 XTO had to pay $20.1 million to the EPA to settle Clean Air Act violations linked to the discharge of wastewater in Pennsylvania.

These cases illustrate the track record of the companies that are sticking with ALEC, presumably with the hope that the organization can bring about policy changes that will allow them to continue business as usual and pay less in the way of penalties. ALEC may be correct that the regulatory system is a “train wreck,” but that’s because the rules are too weak, not too stringent.

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.