Archive for the ‘Corporate Crime’ Category

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That felon was Carl Lemley Kennedy II, who was apparently no longer active in the company by the time the spill occurred.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.

Toshiba’s Not-Quite-Spotless Track Record

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

toshibaJournalists have traditionally been taught to avoid superlatives and other sweeping statements. Yet the New York Times just made that rookie mistake and ended up publishing an erroneous description of the track record of Toshiba prior to the recently disclosed accounting scandal that has led to the resignation of the top executives of the Japanese electronics giant.

“Toshiba Quickly Loses a Spotless Reputation” was the headline of the print version of the flawed effort by the Times to put the revelations in context. This may be the first case of extensive accounting fraud at the company, but Toshiba’s track record is far from spotless.

For example, like numerous other Japanese manufacturers, Toshiba has been the subject of price-fixing allegations. In 2012 the company paid $21 million to settle a U.S. class action case involving LCD flat panel screens after a jury ruled against the company and awarded $87 million to the plaintiffs. In 2010 Toshiba was fined 17.6 million euros for its role in a case brought by the European Union charging ten producers of memory chips with anti-competitive behavior.

In 1999 Toshiba committed to spend up to $2.1 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company had sold millions of defective laptop computers in the United States. The following year it agreed to pay $33 million to settle claims that it sold substandard equipment to federal agencies.

Going back further, Toshiba was involved in a scandal in 1987 over allegations that one of its subsidiaries violated Western export controls by selling submarine sound-dampening equipment to the Soviet Union. The incident led to resignations of top executives and temporary restrictions on U.S. imports of certain Toshiba products.

The lesson that the Times failed to grasp is that corporate misconduct rarely emerges out of nowhere. In fact, the 300-page report on the accounting scandal prepared by outside lawyers and accountants (the English version of which as of this writing has not been made public) charges that improprieties such as the overstatement of profits had been going on for at least seven years. Given what came to light in the Olympus scandal of a few years back, it is possible that subsequent revelations will show that Toshiba was cooking the books for a much longer period.

One thing that can be said about Japanese corporate scandals is that they usually lead to rapid resignations of top executives. Toshiba is also replacing half the members on its board of directors. Such house cleaning does not always occur at U.S. corporations involved in misconduct cases.

We have examples such as JPMorgan Chase, which has had to pay out billions of dollars to settle a variety of lawsuits and regulatory actions, including a recent one involving manipulation of foreign exchange markets that required the bank to plead guilty to a criminal charge. Throughout this all, Jamie Dimon had remained in place as CEO and, unlike apologetic Japanese executives, has loudly denounced regulators and prosecutors. American business does not believe in shame.

Getting Tough with El Corpo

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

get_out_of_jail_freeAs part of my summer reading I’ve been taking another look at some of the key works of the past on corporate crime to consider their relevance for today.

One of the titles on my list is Russell Mokhiber’s Corporate Crime and Violence, which profiled three dozen of the most egregious cases of environmental, workplace hazard and defective product abuses that had occurred in the years leading up to the publication of the book in 1988. Among the culprits were Dow Chemical (Agent Orange), Occidental Petroleum (Love Canal), Johns Manville (asbestos), General Electric (PCBs) and Ford Motor (exploding Pintos).

Mokhiber, editor of the excellent newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter, also reviewed the debates on how to define and how to address corporate misconduct and presented his own “50-Point Law & Order Program to Curb Corporate Crime.”

What strikes me is how little has changed in the past 27 years. Now, as then, we are faced with a seemingly endless series of incidents in which large corporations have caused serious harm to communities, the environment, workers and consumers. BP has had to pay around $20 billion to settle the many charges and claims brought against it in connection with the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. An ignition switch defect that General Motors failed to correct has been linked to more than 100 deaths. Safety lapses by coal miner Massey Energy (now part of Alpha Natural Resources) allegedly led to a methane explosion that killed 29 workers.

One difference is that we now also have an epidemic of serious financial crimes by major banks. Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have each had to pay billions to settle allegations relating to the sale of toxic securities in the period leading up to the financial, foreclosure abuses and other issues. European banks such as Credit Suisse, HSBC and UBS have paid billions more to U.S. and European regulators to settle issues such as tax evasion, violations of economic sanctions and manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index.

As in 1988, there is little consensus these days on what to do about corporate miscreants. Mokhiber focused on the debate between two camps. On the one side were those who wanted to exempt corporations from criminal charges (because these non-human persons supposedly could not exhibit criminal intent or have a criminal state of mind) and instead use exclusively civil cases to extract more burdensome financial penalties.

On the other side were those, including Mokhiber, who called for applying criminal law more aggressively, arguing, among other things, that the stigma of a criminal conviction would serve as a powerful deterrent against corporate misconduct.

While the debate was never resolved, a quarter of a century later the remedies proposed by both camps have come to pass. Civil penalties have risen to unprecedented levels. Billion-dollar settlements are now commonplace in cases involving large corporations, and in a few cases such as BP, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, the payouts have reached eleven figures.

At the same time, settlements in which major corporations plead guilty to criminal charges are becoming more common. Responding to public pressure, the Justice Department first extracted such pleas from subsidiaries of foreign banks UBS and Credit Suisse; this year it got Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase to do the same in a case involving manipulation of foreign exchange markets.

The sad reality is that the application of penalties that seemed so bold in the 1980s seem to be doing little to chasten big business.

Corporations have adjusted to the big penalties, which in some cases are not as large as they seem because they may be tax deductible. The payments are seen as a cost of doing business, and even at their unprecedented levels, the costs are usually well below the financial benefits the culprit companies enjoyed from the illicit activity.

Being convicted felons has not changed things much for banks such as Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. There is no sign that this stigma has cost them many customers, and their ability to continue to operate in regulated areas has been assisted by special waivers given to them by agencies such as the SEC.

Like the escaped Mexican drug lord called El Chapo, large corporations – El Corpo, so to speak – have an extraordinary and frustrating ability to neutralize measures designed to punish them for their misdeeds. If we are ever going to get corporate crime under control, we’ll have to get a lot more creative. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 27 years to figure it out.

Punishments that Fit the Corporate Crime

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

gm-ignition-switch-accident-victims_0Now that several large banks have pled guilty to criminal charges, the next addition to the list of corporate felons could be General Motors, which is reportedly negotiating a settlement with the Justice Department to resolve an investigation of the company’s concealment of an ignition-switch problem that has been linked to more than 100 deaths.

Another criminal investigation is targeting Takata Corp., whose defective airbags recently prompted the record recall of 34 million vehicles. Its airbags can explode violently when activated, shooting shrapnel that has been tied to six deaths and more than 100 injuries.

In reporting the possibility of a plea by GM, the New York Times said the company is likely to be hit with a record financial penalty, suggesting that this will be the main punishment faced by the automaker. Presumably, Takata will also have to fork over a substantial sum.

Federal prosecutors have been extracting larger and larger amounts from companies in settlement deals, but are monetary penalties enough when it comes to corporate misconduct that results in serious physical injuries and loss of life?

Of course, there is a long tradition in the tort system of attaching dollar amounts to victims of business negligence, but when the wrongdoing is serious enough to warrant criminal charges, the culprits should not be able to buy their way out of jeopardy.

Ideally, such cases should also include the filing of charges against individuals, especially top executives, who could face the loss of their personal liberty. In most instances, however, prosecutors say it is too difficult to prove individual culpability.

How, then, could companies be punished beyond financial penalties (which are often easily affordable and tax deductible)? Short of using the corporate death penalty (charter revocation), which in the case of a large firm such as GM would cause economic upheaval, there are other options to consider.

It’s frequently said that corporations cannot be put in prison, but there are ways of restricting their freedom to operate. These involve excluding them from certain markets or putting restrictions on the scope or size of their business. Such penalties already exist in the form of debarment from federal contracting or disqualification from certain regulated activities.

The problem is that prosecutors and regulators are wary of making full use of these sanctions, as seen in the fact that the banks that recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges of rigging the foreign currency market were promptly given waivers by the SEC from rules that would have disqualified them from the securities industry.

Perhaps the bank offenses were too abstract to engender much public anger over the way they were allowed to escape some of the more serious consequences for their crimes. But I’d like to think that companies found to have caused death and dismemberment will be expected to do more than write a check.

Convictions Without Consequences

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

get_out_of_jail_freeIn the years following the financial meltdown, corporate critics complained that the big banks were not facing serious legal consequences for their misconduct. They were being allowed to essentially buy their way out of jeopardy through financial settlements under which they admitted no wrongdoing.

In 2012 the Justice Department gave in to the pressure and extracted a guilty plea, but it was made by an obscure subsidiary of a foreign bank, Switzerland’s UBS, to resolve a charge of felony wire fraud in connection with the long-running manipulation of LIBOR benchmark interest rates. The plea seemed to do little to impede UBS’s operations. The bank dodged one serious consequence when it received an exemption from the Labor Department from a rule that should have disqualified it from continuing to serve as an investment advisor for pension funds.

Things would be different, critics said, when a criminal conviction involved a parent company. Last year, that happened when another Swiss bank, Credit Suisse, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges of assisting U.S. taxpayers in dodging taxes by filing false returns with the Internal Revenue Service. Subsequently, Credit Suisse applied for its own exemption from the Labor Department; a decision is pending but is likely to go in the bank’s favor.

Now, at last, the Justice Department has gotten major two major U.S. banks — Citicorp and JPMorgan Chase — to plead guilty to something, which turned out to be felony charges of conspiring to manipulate foreign exchange markets. Two foreign banks — Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland — also agreed to guilty pleas in the case.

The four financial institutions will together pay criminal fines of just over $2.5 billion. Additional fines were assessed by their regulator, the Federal Reserve.

It’s not clear they will suffer much more than those easily affordable financial penalties. Along with likely exemptions from the Labor Department, the banks have already been granted waivers from SEC rules barring criminals from engaging in the securities business. The banks will be on probation for three years, but keep in mind that BP was on probation at the time of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

A somewhat higher hurdle may be faced by UBS, which the Justice Department announced has entered a new guilty plea (this time by the parent company) after being found to be in breach of the 2012 non-prosecution agreement it signed when the Japanese subsidiary pleaded guilty.

While newly designated criminals such as Citibank and JPMorgan can claim they will never break the law again, UBS is already found to have violated its commitment to be law-abiding by participating in the foreign exchange conspiracy and engaging in other forms of misconduct.

Taken together, all these developments illustrate the farce that is law enforcement when large corporations are involved. For years they were freed from serious consequences through the use of deferred- and non-prosecution agreements. The size of the financial settlements they had to pay rose into the billions, but these were still affordable costs of doing business.

Now corporations are starting to plead guilty to felony charges, but the practical implications of those convictions are being undermined by regulatory agencies. Having a criminal record is not pleasing to corporations, but if they can continue to do business as usual, they will learn to live with that stigma.

When street crime was on the rise a few decades ago, public officials fell over themselves to enact harsh punishments. Now is the time for a serious discussion of how to get tough on crime in the suites.

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New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Peabody Energy. The “Exxon of Coal” fights CO2 regulation and pushes climate denial.

Uncle Sam’s Favorite Corporations

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

UncleSam_WebTeaserIt’s said that the partisan divide is wider than ever, but there is one subject that unites the Left and the Right: opposition to the federal business giveaway programs popularly known as corporate welfare.

These programs include cash grants that underwrite corporate R&D, special tax credits allocated to specific firms, loan guarantees that help companies such as Boeing sell their big-ticket items to foreign customers, and of course the huge amounts of bailout assistance provided by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to major banks during the financial meltdown. The costs to taxpayers is tens of billions of dollars a year.

Back in 1994 then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich gave a speech arguing that it was unfair to cut financial assistance to the poor while ignoring special tax breaks and other benefits enjoyed by business. Reich inspired a strange bedfellows coalition led by public interest advocate Ralph Nader and then-House Budget chair John Kasich (now governor of Ohio). Ultimately, the effort was stymied, as every business subsidy’s entrenched interests lobbied back. The subsidy-industrial complex emerged largely unscathed.

Nonetheless, the anti-corporate welfare movement has continued up to the present, with the latest battled being waged mainly by some Tea Party types against the Export-Import Bank.

Throughout these two decades of subsidy analysis and debate, the focus has been on aggregate costs, either by program, by industry or by type of company. Except for bailouts, very little analysis has been done of which specific corporations benefit the most from federal largesse.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just completed a project which will allow those on all sides of the debate to identify the companies enjoying corporate welfare. Today we are releasing Subsidy Tracker 3.0, a expansion to the federal level of our database which since 2010 has provided information on the recipients of state and local economic development subsidy awards.

We have collected data on 164,000 awards from 137 federal programs run by 11 cabinet departments and six independent agencies. Much of the data, covering the period from FY 2000 to the present, is extracted from the wider range of content on USA Spending, which also covers non-corporate-welfare money flows such as federal grants to state and local governments and federal contracts. We also tracked down about 40 other sources from a variety of lesser known reports and webpages. Farm subsidies are excluded as they are already ably covered by the Environmental Working Group’s agriculture database.

Our data does not cover the full range of federal business assistance, given that most tax breaks are offered as provisions of the Internal Revenue Code that any qualifying firm can claim. We include only the small number of tax credits (mostly in the energy areas) that are allocated to specific firms. But we’ve got plenty of company-specific grants, loans, loan guarantees and bailouts.

Today we are also releasing a report, Uncle Sam’s Favorite Corporations, that analyzes the federal data. While we don’t endorse or critique any of the wide-ranging programs themselves, we do find some remarkable patterns among the recipients.

The degree of big business dominance of grants and allocated tax credits is comparable to what we previously found for state and local subsidies. A group of 582 large companies account for 67 percent of the $68 billion total, with six companies receiving $1 billion or more.

At the top of the list with $2.2 billion in grants and allocated tax credits is the Spanish energy company Iberdrola, whose U.S. wind farms have made extensive use of a Recovery Act program designed to subsidize renewable energy.

Mainly as a result of the massive rescue programs launched by the Federal Reserve in 2008 to buy up toxic securities and provide liquidity in the wake of the financial meltdown, the totals for loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance run into the trillions of dollars. These include numerous short-term rollover loans, so the actual amounts outstanding at any given time, which are not readily available, were substantially lower but likely amounted to hundreds of billions of dollars. Since most of these loans were repaid, and in some cases the government made a profit on the lending, we tally the loan and bailout amounts separately from grants and allocated tax credits.

The biggest aggregate bailout recipient is Bank of America, whose gross borrowing (excluding repayments) is just under $3.5 trillion (including the amounts for its Merrill Lynch and Countrywide Financial acquisitions). Three other banks are in the trillion-dollar club: Citigroup ($2.6 trillion), Morgan Stanley ($2.1 trillion) and JPMorgan Chase ($1.3 trillion, including Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual). A dozen U.S. and foreign banks account for 78 percent of total face value of loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance.

Other key findings:

  • Foreign direct investment accounts for a substantial portion of subsidies. Ten of the 50 parent companies receiving the most in federal grants and allocated tax credits are foreign-based; most of their subsidies were linked to their energy facilities in the United States. Twenty-seven of the 50 biggest recipients of federal loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance were foreign banks and other financial companies, including Barclays with $943 billion, Royal Bank of Scotland with $652 billion and Credit Suisse with $532 billion. In all cases these amounts involve rollover loans and exclude repayments.
  • A significant share of companies that sell goods and services to the U.S. government also get subsidized by it. Of the 100 largest for-profit federal contractors in FY2014 (excluding joint ventures), 49 have received federal grants or allocated tax credits and 30 have received loans, loan guarantees or bailout assistance. Two dozen have received both forms of assistance. The federal contractor with the most grants and allocated tax credits is General Electric, with $836 million, mostly from the Energy and Defense Departments; the one with the most loans and loan guarantees is Boeing, with $64 billion in assistance from the Export-Import Bank.
  • Federal subsidies have gone to several companies that have reincorporated abroad to avoid U.S. taxes. For example, power equipment producer Eaton (reincorporated in Ireland but actually based in Ohio) has received $32 million in grants and allocated tax credits as well as $7 million in loans and loan guarantees from the Export-Import Bank and other agencies. Oilfield services company Ensco (reincorporated in Britain but really based in Texas) has received $1 billion in support from the Export-Import Bank.
  • Finally, some highly subsidized banks have been involved in cases of misconduct. In the years since receiving their bailouts, several at the top of the recipient list for loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance have paid hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars to U.S. and European regulators to settle allegations such as investor deception, interest rate manipulation, foreign exchange market manipulation, facilitation of tax evasion by clients, and sanctions violations.

 

Bailouts and Bad Actors

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

moneybagsontherunNewly released transcripts of the 2009 meetings of the Federal Reserve’s open market committee show that monetary policymakers were still agonizing over whether they were doing enough to stabilize the teetering global financial system.

These documents have a special interest for me because, as I discussed in last week’s Digest, my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First recently collected a great deal of data about the Fed’s special bailout programs in 2008 and 2009 as part of the extension of our Subsidy Tracker database into the federal realm. The Fed’s info is part of the more than 160,000 entries we have amassed from 137 federal programs of various kinds. Subsidy Tracker 3.0 will go public on March 17.

In last week’s post I mentioned that the Fed programs involved the outlay of some $29 trillion (yes, trillion) and that the totals for several large banks (Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase ) each exceeded $1 trillion. I pointed out that these totals referred to loan principal and did not reflect repayments (information on which is not readily available).

What I also should have pointed out is that some of the Fed lending consisted of relatively short-term loans that were often rolled over. In other words, the actual amount outstanding at any given time was considerably lower than the eye-popping trillion dollar figures. That’s not to say that the amounts were chicken feed. It’s safe to say that the loan totals were in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and here again company-specific amounts are not available.

This is still high enough to justify the point I was making about the bailout amounts far outstripping the sums these banks have been paying out in settlements with the Justice Department to resolve allegations about investor deception in the sale of what turned out to be toxic securities in the run-up to the financial meltdown. And the amounts still justify anger at the current crusade by the big banks to weaken the Dodd-Frank regulatory safeguards adopted by the same government that bailed them out.

What is also worth pointing out is that the bad actor-bailout recipients are not limited to the big U.S. banks. Large totals also turn up for major European banks that have been involved in their own legal scandals in recent years. The biggest foreign recipient of Fed support turns out to be Barclays, which has an aggregate loan amount (including rollover loans and excluding repayments) of more than $900 billion. Next is Royal Bank of Scotland with more than $600 billion and Credit Suisse with more than $500 billion.

In 2012 Barclays had to pay $450 million to U.S. and European regulators to settle allegations that it manipulated the LIBOR interest rate index. The following year Royal Bank of Scotland had to pay $612 million to settle similar allegations. In 2014 Credit Suisse had to pay $2.6 billion in penalties to settle Justice Department charges that it conspired to help U.S. taxpayers dodge federal taxes. This was a rare instance in which a large company actually had to plead guilty to a criminal charge.

The frustrating truth is that the global financial system is dominated by big banks that seem to have little respect for the law and for financial regulation, but they do not hesitate to turn to government when they need to be rescued from their own excesses.

A Crowded Corporate Hall of Shame

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

2015_PublicEye_KeyVisual_550x275Over the past year, Chevron has had success in getting a U.S. federal judge to block enforcement of a multi-billion-dollar judgment imposed by a court in Ecuador, and the oil giant managed to pressure the U.S. law firm representing the plaintiffs to drop out of the case and pay the company $15 million in damages. Chevron has just had another significant win but of a less desirable kind.

The Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland recently announced that Chevron had received the most votes in a competition to determine the world’s most irresponsible corporation and thus was the “winner” of the Public Eye Lifetime Award.

For the past ten years, the two groups have countered the elite mutual admiration society taking place at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland by highlighting the misdeeds of large corporations. The previous awardees ranged from banks such as Citigroup to drug companies such as Novartis to Walt Disney, which was chosen because of its use of foreign sweatshop labor to produce its toys.

A few months ago, Public Eye sponsors decided to bring the project to a close but do so with a splash by naming the company that stood out as the worst. Activists from around the world promoted their choices from among six nominees: Dow Chemical, Gazprom, Glencore, Goldman Sachs and Wal-Mart Stores, along with Chevron. Amazon Watch, which led the Chevron effort, prevailed. Glencore and Wal-Mart were the runners-up.

Public Eye’s award ceremony featured the Yes Men satirical group, which in one of its rare un-ironic pronouncements stated: “Corporate Social Responsibility is like putting a bandage on a severed head – it doesn’t help”. This sentiment is especially appropriate in relation to Chevron, which has long sought to portray itself, through ads headlined WILL YOU JOIN US, as not only mindful of environmental issues but as a leader of the sustainability movement.

Given the prevalence of business misconduct, choosing the most irresponsible corporation is no easy matter. Even within the petroleum industry, Chevron’s environmental sins in Ecuador and the rest of its rap sheet must be weighed against the record of a company such as BP, infamous for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster as well as safety deficiencies at its refineries that resulted in explosions such as one in Texas that killed 15 workers in 2005. Also worthy of consideration are Royal Dutch Shell, with its human rights abuses in Nigeria, and Exxon Mobil, with its own record of oil spills as well as climate change denial.

And what about the mining giants and their notorious treatment of indigenous communities around the world. A prominent activist once called Rio Tinto “a poster child for corporate malfeasance.” Then there is Big Pharma, made up of corporations that tend toward price-gouging and product safety lapses. And we shouldn’t leave out the auto industry, which in the past year has been shown to be a lot sloppier about safety matters than we could have imagined. Also not to be forgotten are the weapon makers, whose products are inherently anti-social.

Yet perhaps the biggest disappointment for corporate critics in the United States may be the fact that the Lifetime Award did not go to Wal-Mart. For the past two decades, the Behemoth of Bentonville has epitomized corporate misbehavior in a wide variety of areas — most notably in the labor relations sphere, but also promotion of foreign sweatshops, gender discrimination, destruction of small business, tax dodging, bribery (especially in Mexico) and the spread of suburban sprawl with its attendant impact on climate change. Yet perhaps the most infuriating thing about Wal-Mart has been its refusal to abandon its retrograde labor practices while working so hard, like Chevron, to paint itself as a sustainability pioneer.

It’s too bad that we will no longer have the annual Public Eye awards, but corporate misconduct will apparently be with us for a long time to come.

Prosecuting Corporate Culprits

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

SteinzorOn December 18th, the national page of the New York Times contained two stories on atypical events in the business world. One was headlined “Pharmacy Executives Face Murder Charges in Meningitis Deaths” and the other “Chemical Company Owners are Charged in Spill That Tainted West Virginia Water.”

By all rights, articles like these should be as common as those reporting on the prosecution of warring gang members or drug kingpins. Actually, they should be more common, since street crime is declining while corporate malfeasance seems to be on the rise.

The reasons for the reluctant prosecution of corporate crime are carefully dissected in the new book Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction by Rena Steinzor (photo), a law professor at the University of Maryland.

Steinzor, who is also president of the Center for Progressive Reform, starts by pointing a finger at what she calls “hollow government,” by which she means “outmoded and weak legal authority, funding shortfalls that prevent the effective implementation of regulatory requirements, and the relentless bashing of the civil service.”

What makes the decline of health, safety and environmental regulation so troubling is that for quite a while the system was, Steinzor notes, working fairly well. Both the food and drug laws of the early 20th Century and the environmental and workplace health legislation of the 1970s were helping to reduce deaths and illnesses.

Yet by the beginning of the new century, regulatory agencies were becoming timid while industry opponents and their Congressional allies grew ever more aggressive and successful. Steinzor takes the Obama Administration to task for often putting politics above regulatory rigor and for allowing the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to continue its traditional practice of weakening proposed rules.

Steinzor also excoriates the Justice Department for its widespread use of deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements, both before and during the Obama Administration. She sees these techniques as exactly the wrong approach in addressing corporate culpability in situations such as the Massey Energy mine collapse and two disasters — the Macondo well blowout and Texas City refinery explosion — linked to BP.

Rather than letting corporations buy their way out of these situations with financial settlements and promises not to sin again, Steinzor shows how it is possible to basic use legal concepts such as recklessness and willful blindness to bring criminal prosecutions against culpable managers and executives, especially when “industrial activities cause grave harm to public health, consumer or worker safety, or the environment.”

This needs to be done not only at the federal level, but also by local prosecutors, who have the powerful but largely neglected weapon of state manslaughter laws at their disposal.

Steinzor acknowledges that it will be difficult to change the attitudes of prosecutors, who all too often go for the easier approaches.

Another obstacle is the reluctance prosecutors seem to have about bringing cases they think might threaten the continued existence of a large corporation, a phobia stemming from the demise of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm in 2002 in the wake of its criminal conviction for actions relating to the Enron fraud.

It is significant that the two prosecutions cited at the start of these piece involve executives at relatively small firms. Until we also see executives at Fortune 500 companies facing the risk of time behind bars, the current corporate crime wave will continue unabated.