Archive for the ‘Corporate Lobbying’ Category

Banking on Boeing

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Recent passage of a piece of federal legislation on a broadly bipartisan basis was considered unusual enough for the Washington Post to treat it as front-page news. Yet what was most significant about the measure to extend the life of the U.S. Export-Import Bank was not its bipartisanship but rather the way it revealed a profound confusion on the part of both major political parties about how the federal government should relate to big business.

The fate of the Ex-Im Bank, which for decades has served mainly as a tool to promote exports by large U.S. manufacturers, had come into question after it was targeted by tea party types in Congress. While conservatives are usually inclined to do everything possible (short of bailouts) to assist corporations, many had come to accept the view that the Ex-Im Bank was an unjustified form of government intervention. Utah Senator Mike Lee denounced the bank’s operations as “corporate welfare that distorts the market and feeds crony capitalism.”

Supposedly anti-corporate Congressional Democrats joined with the likes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to defend the Ex-Im Bank. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said that Congress had to send “a strong signal to American businesses: we will help them get their products into markets abroad, and in doing so, we will create jobs here at home.” Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, maintained his long-time opposition to the bank.

In the end, the corporatist wings of the two major parties prevailed, but not before the Ex-Im Bank had been pummeled by conservatives who had begun denouncing the institution as “Boeing’s Bank.” They have a valid point. A huge portion of the agency’s resources have long been devoted to that one company. If you look at the list of loans and long-term guarantees in the bank’s annual report, Boeing’s name shows up repeatedly—more than 40 times last year, far more than any other company. The company got assistance in its deals to sell planes to airlines in more than 20 countries such as Angola, Indonesia and Tajikistan.

The right has assumed the role of Ex-Im Bank critic once occupied by the left. Back in 1974 the anti-imperialist magazine NACLA’s Latin America & Empire Report published a critique of the bank that concluded with the following statement: “Confronted by a world increasingly hostile to U.S. imperialism, strategists will employ the credit levers of the Eximbank in the coming years to punish countries that nationalize American corporations, and to reward those nations that cater to U.S. commercial interests.”

Eliminating Ex-Im Bank’s credit assistance was high on the list of programs proposed for elimination in the Aid for Dependent Corporations reports issued by the Ralph Nader group Essential Information in the 1990s. By that point libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute were also speaking out against the bank and other forms of corporate welfare. Also lining up against the bank were environmental groups concerned about its role—along with that of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation—in enabling hazardous projects such as the Three Gorges Dam in China.

The contemporary right’s misgivings about the Ex-Im Bank have nothing to do, of course, with anti-imperialism or environmental protection—and everything to do with absolutist ideas about the role of government. The problem these conservatives face is that the actual behavior of large corporations frequently bears little resemblance to pure free-market principles.

Boeing, for instance, is not only perfectly willing to accept federal export assistance but has also sought and obtained billions of dollars in state and local economic development subsidies for its U.S. plants. Its decision to locate a Dreamliner production facility in South Carolina garnered a subsidy package estimated to be worth more than $900 million. The company’s hold over the Palmetto State is so strong that it drove a wedge between South Carolina’s two paleo-conservative U.S. Senators during the Ex-Im debate, with Jim DeMint holding to laissez-faire principles while Lindsey Graham warned that eliminating the bank would jeopardize aerospace jobs.

When it comes to labor relations issues, Boeing suddenly turns into an ardent opponent of government. When the National Labor Relations Board took seriously an allegation by the Machinists that the company’s investment in South Carolina was a form of anti-union retaliation, Boeing screamed bloody murder and got support from all of the state’s leading politicians—and most of the corporate world.

It will be interesting to see how conservatives handle this tension between lionizing large corporations and demonizing them. The outcome of the Ex-Im debate suggests that, for now, corporatists retain the upper hand across the mainstream political spectrum.

Wal-Mart and Watergate

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Wal-Mart has been probably been accused of more types of misconduct than any other large corporation. The latest additions to the list are bribery and obstruction of justice. In an 8,000-word exposé published recently in the New York Times, top executives at the giant retailer are reported to have thwarted and ultimately shelved an internal investigation of extensive bribes paid by lower-level company officials to expand Wal-Mart’s market share in Mexico.

While Wal-Mart’s outrageous behavior is often in a class by itself, the bribery aspects of the allegations are far from unique. In fact, Wal-Mart is actually a late arrival to a sizeable group of major corporations that have found themselves in legal jeopardy because of what in corporate circles are politely called questionable foreign payments.

That jeopardy has grown more significant in recent years as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice have stepped up enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, which prohibits overseas bribery by U.S.-based corporations and foreign companies with a substantial presence in the United States.

It is often forgotten that the Watergate scandal of the 1970s was not only about the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration. Investigations by the Senate and the Watergate Special Prosecutor forced companies such as 3M, American Airlines and Goodyear Tire & Rubber to admit that they or their executives had made illegal contributions to the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Subsequent inquiries into illegal payments of all kinds led to revelations that companies such as Lockheed, Northrop and Gulf Oil had engaged in widespread foreign bribery. Under pressure from the SEC, more than 150 publicly traded companies admitted that they had been involved in questionable overseas payments or outright bribes to obtain contracts from foreign governments. A 1976 tally by the Council on Economic Priorities found that more than $300 million in such payments had been disclosed in what some were calling “the Business Watergate.”

While some observers insisted that a certain amount of baksheesh was necessary to making deals in many parts of the world, Congress responded to the revelations by enacting the FCPA in late 1977. For the first time, bribery of foreign government officials was a criminal offense under U.S. law, with fines up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to five years.

The ink was barely dry on the FCPA when U.S. corporations began to complain that it was putting them at a competitive disadvantage. The Carter Administration’s Justice Department responded by signaling that it would not be enforcing the FCPA too vigorously. That was one Carter policy that the Reagan Administration was willing to adopt. In fact, Reagan’s trade representative Bill Brock led an effort to get Congress to weaken the law, but the initiative failed.

The Clinton Administration took a different approach—trying to get other countries to adopt rules similar to the FCPA. In 1997 the industrial countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reached agreement on an anti-bribery convention. In subsequent years, the number of FCPA cases remained at a miniscule level—only a handful a year. Optimists were claiming this was because the law was having a remarkable deterrent effect. Skeptics said that companies were being more careful to conceal their bribes, and prosecutors were focused elsewhere.

Any illusion that commercial bribery was a rarity was dispelled in 2005, when former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker released the final results of the investigation he had been asked to conduct of the Oil-for-Food Program in Iraq. Volcker’s group found that more than half of the 4,500 companies participating in the program—which was supposed to ease the impact of Western sanctions on Iraq—had paid illegal surcharges and kickbacks to the government of Saddam Hussein. Among those companies were Siemens, DaimlerChrysler and the French bank BNP Paribas.

The Volcker investigation, the OECD convention, and the Sarbanes-Oxley law (whose mandates about financial controls made it more difficult to conceal improper payments) breathed new life into FCPA enforcement during the final years of the Bush Administration and after President Obama took office.

The turning point came in November 2007, when Chevron agreed to pay $30 million to settle charges about its role in Oil-for-Food corruption. Then, in late 2008, Siemens agreed to pay the Justice Department, the SEC and European authorities a record $1.6 billion in fines to settle charges that it had routinely paid bribes to secure large public works projects around the world. This was a huge payout in relation to previous FCPA penalties, yet it was a bargain in that the big German company avoided a guilty plea or conviction that would have disqualified it from continuing to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts.

In February 2009 Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root agreed to pay a total of $579 million to resolve allegations that they bribed government officials in Nigeria over a ten-year period. A year later, the giant British military contractor BAE Systems reached settlements totaling more than $400 million with the Justice Department and the UK Serious Fraud Office to resolve longstanding multi-country bribery allegations. In April 2010 Daimler and three of its subsidiaries paid $93 million to resolve FCPA charges. Other well-known companies that have settled similar bribery cases since the beginning of 2011 include Tyson Foods, IBM, and Johnson & Johnson. In most cases companies have followed the lead of Siemens in negotiating non-prosecution or deferred prosecution deals that avoided criminal convictions.

A quarter century after the Watergate investigation revealed a culture of corruption in the foreign dealings of major corporations, the new wave of FCPA prosecutions suggests that little has changed. There is one difference, however. Whereas the bribery revelations of the 1970s elicited a public outcry, the cases of the past few years have generated relatively little comment in the United States—except for the complaints of corporate apologists that the FCPA is too severe. Among those apologists are board members of the Institute for Legal Reform (a division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), whose ranks have included the top ethics officer of Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart case could turn out to be a much bigger deal than previous FCPA cases—for the simple reason that the mega-retailer appears to have forgotten Watergate’s central lesson that the cover-up is often punished more severely than the crime. A company that has often avoided serious consequences for its past misconduct may finally pay a high price.

Employers Stand their Ground

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

These are heady days for the corporate accountability movement. Threats of consumer boycotts prompted half a dozen major companies to drop out of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which in turn forced ALEC to cease its efforts to get states to enact “stand your ground” laws like the one in Florida at the center of an uproar over the shooting of an unarmed teenager.

At the same time, institutional investors humiliated Citigroup by rejecting a board-approved compensation package for its senior executives. Although the “say on pay” resolution is non-binding, it will in all likelihood result in smaller paydays for top officers of an institution that epitomizes financial sector misconduct. This comes on the heels of an announcement by Goldman Sachs that it would change its board structure in response to pressure from the capital strategies arm of the public employee union AFSCME.

Environmentalists have succeeded in stalling and perhaps killing the disastrous Keystone XL pipeline . The past few months have also seen a surge in protest over working conditions at the Chinese plants that produce the wildly popular Apple iPad tablets. Apple’s manufacturing contractor Foxconn was forced to boost pay for factory workers, while Apple itself faced demonstrations at many of its normally idolized retail stores. The Apple campaign and others are being propelled by new online services such as Sum of Us and Change.org that mobilize online pressure for a variety of anti-corporate initiatives.

Missing from all this positive momentum is a significant victory for the U.S. labor movement. While major corporations have bowed to pressure from consumers and shareholders, they are standing their ground against unions.

Rather than making concessions, large private-sector employers are looking to further roll back labor’s power. Companies such as American Airlines and Hostess Brands (maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread) have filed for Chapter 11 and are using the bankruptcy courts to decimate their collective bargaining agreements and gut pension plans.

Verizon continues to stonewall in negotiations with members of the Communications Workers of America, who struck the company for two weeks last summer in the face of unprecedented concessionary demands from management but then went back to work without a new contract. CWA is also facing difficult negotiations with AT&T, even though the union went out on a limb to support the company’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to take over T-Mobile.

There have been a few relatively bright spots for labor. For example, after being locked out for three months, Steelworkers union members at Cooper Tire and Rubber managed to negotiate a new contract that excluded the company’s demand for a five-tier wage structure with no guaranteed pay increases.

Yet organized labor has not been able to take the offensive in a significant way, and employers continue to feel emboldened. This comes through loud and clear in the results of the latest Employers Bargaining Objectives survey conducted by Bloomberg BNA (summarized in the April 11 edition of Labor Relations Week).

“Employers are fairly brimming with confidence as they head into 2012 talks,” Bloomberg BNA writes. “Nine out of 10 of the employers surveyed are either fairly confident or highly confident of obtaining the goals they have set for their labor agreements.”

Those goals, of course, do not include hikes in pay and improvements in working conditions. In fact, only 11 percent of respondents said they expected to have to negotiate significant wage increases, while 27 percent said they planned to bargain for no improvements at all in wage rates. Many employers expect to shift more health care costs to workers, and few expect to agree to stronger job security provisions.

Employers are prepared to play hardball in seeking their objectives. For example, one-quarter of manufacturing-sector respondents told Bloomberg BNA they would be likely to resort to a lockout of workers if they did not get their way in negotiations. Corporations have little fear of strikes, which are all but extinct, and if workers do dare to walk out, employers are confident of prevailing—or at least maintaining the kind of impasse that exists at Verizon.

Such arrogance is not surprising at a time when unemployment levels remain high and private-sector unionization rates are abysmally low. The question is what it will take to shatter employer intransigence.

One piece of the solution is greater cooperation between unions and the rest of the broader corporate accountability movement, and that’s exactly what seems to be emerging from the 99% Spring offensive.

Strong private sector unions in the United States are an essential check on the power of large corporations and one of the most effective vehicles for raising living standards. Corporate accountability will mean much more when big business is running away not only from ALEC but also from union-busting.

Statehouse Inc.

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

State legislatures, once hailed by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy” because of their progressive innovations, have for the past couple of decades often been hotbeds of plutocracy instead. The blame for this rests in no small part with a shadowy organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Thanks to a WikiLeaks-like initiative by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), we now know a lot more about the way that ALEC operates. CMD obtained and has just made public for the first time the full texts of more than 800 model bills and resolutions secretly approved by ALEC’s corporate and legislative members. These positions are often introduced—in many cases word-for-word—by rightwing state legislators and all too frequently become the law of the land. The trove of documents is available at a website called ALEC Exposed.

ALEC was created in 1973 by the far-sighted conservative strategist Paul Weyrich, who was also involved in the establishment of the Heritage Foundation and other institutions of the Right. Though it never became a household name, ALEC was playing an influential role in the direction of state policymaking as early as the 1980s. A 1984 article in The National Journal, noting that its leaders got “the red carpet treatment from the Reagan White House” when they met in Washington, called ALEC “the New Right group that has done the most to set the conservative agenda at the state level.”

That agenda is the same one being pushed more than a quarter-century later by the greatly expanded cohort of ALEC allies generated by the Republican landslide in last November’s elections: tax limitation, cuts in social spending, restrictions on public employee collective bargaining rights, privatization, reduced regulation of business, school vouchers, and much more.

Corporate critics first began to pay serious attention to ALEC about a decade ago. In 2002 two environmental groups—Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council—issued a report entitled Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States that debunked ALEC’s claim of being a non-partisan good government group and showed how it was dominated by and promoted the interests of large companies such as Chevron, Philip Morris and Enron. The legislators who made up the purported membership of ALEC were simply a conduit for policy prescriptions devised by corporate lobbyists and trade associations.

Progressive organizations set up a website called ALEC Watch to monitor the group’s activities and launched a counterpart entity called ALICE (American Legislative Issues Campaign Exchange). The latter was not a great success, but it helped give rise to today’s Progressive States Network.

Additional investigative reporting—including accounts by progressive infiltrators at ALEC events—and analyses such as a May 2010 report by the American Association for Justice called ALEC: Ghostwriting the Law for Corporate America—have revealed more about the group’s modus operandi.

What remained largely secret were the details of the proposed legislative language prepared by ALEC’s corporate members. Now that has changed with the arrival of ALEC Exposed.

The scope of the issues covered by ALEC’s model bills is extraordinary. CMD divides them into seven major categories ranging from worker/consumer rights to tax loopholes/budgets, each of which contains dozens of items on very specific issues.

Within the model bills on worker and consumer rights are, of course, the notorious Paycheck Protection Act (which seeks to weaken union participation in the political process) and the Prevailing Wage Repeal Act. But there’s also a bill that allows gives employers the option to pay workers with prepaid debit cards rather than cash.

There’s a model bill on “class action improvements” (designed to make it harder to certify classes), but also one on “admissibility in civil actions of nonuse of a seat belt.” In the health area, there’s a “model resolution on disease management of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” as well as one on “taxation of moist smokeless tobacco.”

Browsing through the inventory of bills, one comes away with the unsettling feeling that Corporate America is asserting its interest in every single aspect of public policy. Given that corporations and their executives supply legislators not only with model bills but also campaign cash, those interests too often prevail.

Justice Brandeis is also known for having said: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” ALEC is helping to ensure we make the “Right” choice.

Corporate America’s Paid Holiday

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

According to the old saying, insanity can be defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. But what do you call corporate executives who want the country to adopt a business tax policy that has failed miserably in the past? Crazy like a fox.

Such self-serving fiscal delusion is on full display in the current push for a “repatriation holiday.” A slew of major U.S.-based corporations are proposing that they be allowed to bring home many billions of dollars in largely untaxed overseas profits and, for a limited time, pay only a fraction of the statutory rate. According to a corporate front group called Working to Invest Now in America, or WinAmerica, this is “a common sense solution that will immediately inject up to $1 trillion into our economy and provide businesses with the security and certainty they need to help get Americans back to work.”

The group should really be called ConAmerica. The corporate titans are proposing a scheme that was tried and failed miserably only a few years ago, not to mention the fact that it would reward big business for practices that already deprive the country of huge amounts of tax revenue and countless jobs.

First, a bit of background. Although the U.S. Internal Revenue Code is designed to tax corporations on their worldwide profits, it contains a provision that allows companies to defer paying domestic taxes on overseas earnings as long as they stay with a firm’s foreign affiliates.

That may sound reasonable to some, but what corporate giants designate as overseas profits actually includes disguised domestic earnings. That’s because corporate tax dodging frequently takes the form of accounting gimmicks that shift reported earnings to subsidiaries in tax haven countries like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.

This is done in a variety of ways. A company may transfer ownership of valuable patents and trademarks to a tax haven subsidiary, which then collects royalties from other parts of the company. Earnings stripping is a similar ploy that involves bogus interest payments. And then there’s the big daddy of multinational tax schemes: transfer pricing. This is the practice of exchanging goods and services among parts of a corporation at rates that have little relation to real costs.

The objective of all these tricks is to maximize reported income in countries that subject profits to minimum taxation—or none at all. Thanks to the deferral rule, a lot less is paid to Uncle Sam. It is estimated that transfer pricing costs the U.S. Treasury more than $28 billion a year.

Having engaged in this brazen tax dodging, corporations now want the right to bring the profits back home and get another tax break through the repatriation holiday. Their complaints about the need from relief from U.S. tax rates sound a lot like those of the proverbial murder who kills his parents and then pleads for sympathy as an orphan.

What makes the chutzpah quotient of the repatriation holiday advocates even higher is that they are promoting the idea in the face of documented evidence of its ineffectiveness. In 2004 a similar big business campaign succeeded in getting Congress to enact a repatriation holiday that brought the statutory tax rate on the returning profits down to 5.25 percent for the following year only. The plan was dressed up as the Homeland Investment Act, which was part of the American Jobs Creation Act.

The 2005 tax holiday was hailed as a success by corporate apologists for repatriating some $312 billion in profits for more than 800 large companies led by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Merck and Eli Lilly.

What they don’t emphasize is that the plan was a dismal failure in its stated purpose of generating jobs and investment in the United States. This should not have come as a complete surprise, since Congress allowed companies to use the repatriated profits for other purposes such as acquisitions and repayment of debt. Another factor was the old problem of the fungibility of money.

According to an analysis produced for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the 2005 repatriation holiday did not lead to an increase in domestic investment, domestic employment or R&D spending. The biggest impact, the report found, was an increase in stock buybacks by corporations, which was not one of the intended purposes of the legislation.

In other words, the tax holiday was a scam. Instead of stimulating job growth, it served as yet another way for large corporations to continue shrinking their contribution to the costs of running the U.S. government that serves them so well. In fact, some of the companies that benefited most from the holiday—such as Merck—carried out large-scale layoffs of U.S. workers during the time they were bringing those profits home.

Six years later, the same misleading claims are being made for repeating the practice that did so little good. What makes this especially frustrating is that it is taking place not long after Barack Obama made the issue of deferred taxes an issue in his presidential election campaign and then sought to increase taxation of foreign profits during his first year in office.  Those plans have been forgotten, and now the repatriation holiday proponents are riding high, despite estimates that the scheme would result in a loss of $78 billion in federal revenues over the next decade.

Fortunately, not everyone is being taken in by WinAmerica. Along with stalwart critics such as Citizens for Tax Justice—which calls the idea “amnesty for corporate tax dodgers”—the repatriation holiday is being attacked by newer groups such as US Uncut, whose main target is WinAmerica ringleader Apple Inc.

One of US Uncut’s slogans is “Tax Dodging. Is there an app for that?” Actually, no app is necessary as long as Congress goes on buying the tax-break snake oil of Corporate America.

Aiding Corporate Outlaws

Friday, January 7th, 2011

In a move akin to asking burglars for suggestions on how to make security systems less effective, Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the new Republican-dominated House of Representatives, is consulting corporations and trade associations on regulatory policy.

Seeking to revive the anti-regulatory fervor of the Reagan era, Issa is throwing around fabricated numbers ($1.7 trillion) about the cost of business compliance with government rules and bogus claims about the negative impact of regulation on job creation. And in an unambiguous signal that corporate interests are now to be considered paramount, he has been sending letters to scores of companies and associations asking for their deregulatory wish lists.

Issa’s office declined to disclose a complete list of those sent the love letters, but Politico reports that the recipients include trade groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, and individual companies such as Toyota, Duke Energy, Bayer and FMC Corp.

Of all these names, FMC is probably the least well known, but it is a good example of the kind of corporation that will probably benefit the most if Issa and his colleagues have any success – i.e. a company with an abysmal track record.

FMC is a $3 billion chemical company that produces pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and specialty chemicals for food processing and other industries. Headquartered in Philadelphia, the company dates back to the invention of an insecticide pump by John Bean in the 1880s. From the 1920s onward it functioned as a conglomerate, acquiring a wide range of food processing and chemical firms (it was also a military contractor for a period of time).

It was through these acquisitions that FMC assumed responsibility for some of the most hazardous production facilities and waste sites in the country. For example:

In 1977 FMC’s South Charleston, West Virginia plant was shut down under court order for discharging carbon tetrachloride (used in cleaning agents) into drinking-water supplies of communities along with Kanawha and Ohio rivers. After FMC and two of its executives were indicted in federal court on charges of conspiring to conceal excessive discharges at the plant, the company agreed to pay a fine of $35,000 and to place $1 million in escrow to finance future water pollution studies. In 1983 an explosion at the plant killed one worker and injured three others. OSHA later determined that safety violations by the company contributed to the conditions that caused the accident.

In 1983 FMC agreed to spend $6 million to clean up a hazardous waste site in Minnesota that threatened the drinking water supply of Minneapolis. The cleanup at the munitions plant in the town of Fridley, where chemical wastes were buried for more than two decades, involved the treatment of up to 58,000 cubic yards of soil for contaminants such as trichloroethylene.

In 1995 about 6,250 pounds of phosphorus trichloride spilled from an overfilled tank onto the ground, reacted with rainwater and sent a toxic cloud of hydrochloric acid from the FMC plant in Nitro, West Virginia.

In 1998 the EPA fined FMC $209,600 for underreporting Toxic Release Inventory data related to a phosphorous processing plant on the Shoshone-Bannock Fort Hall Reservation near Pocatello, Idaho. Later that year, FMC and the EPA reached agreement on a consent decree to resolve other violations at the plant by requiring the company to spend approximately $158 million on remedial measures. FMC also agreed to a penalty of $11.8 million, a record at the time for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

In 1999 FMC reached agreement with the EPA and the Justice Department regarding the cleanup of the Avtex Fibers Superfund site in Front Royal, Virginia, which FMC owned and operated from 1963 to 1976. Avtex bought the facility in 1976 but shut it down in 1989 under the weight of some 2,000 environmental violations related to many years of contamination with asbestos, lead and other toxic substances. FMC agreed to spend about $100 million for the clean-up of the site, considered the biggest environmental problem area in the state.

By 2000, FMC had been named as a potentially responsible party in connection with about 30 locations on the federal government’s National Priority List of hazardous waste sites.

Add to all of this FMC’s involvement over the years in cases involving price fixing, sex discrimination, defrauding the federal government and other violations of laws and regulations. In 2000 it paid $80 million to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit challenging the safety of the Bradley Fighting Vehicles the company was producing for the U.S. Army.

In recent years FMC has restructured itself, spinning off many of its operations. But it continues to battle with the federal government over regulatory issues. Its biggest fight has concerned the controversial pesticide carbofuran, sold by FMC under the name Furadan. In 2006 the Bush EPA finally acknowledged the product was so dangerous for humans and for animals that it should be completely banned, as the European Union has done.  The slow process of removing the product from the market has continued ever since, with FMC kicking and screaming in protest.

The company has been largely unsuccessful in its legal challenge up through the appellate level and has been considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It may now hope for relief from Congress instead.

The deregulatory juggernaut is nothing more than an effort to aid and abet the country’s worst corporate outlaws. We’ll be in big trouble if Issa and his ilk succeed.

The Corporate Crime PAC

Friday, October 29th, 2010

Election day is upon us, but more than five million American citizens will not be able to go to the polls because they have been convicted of a felony and thus stripped of their voting rights. Yet there is another group of felons and other malefactors whose participation in the electoral process has been enhanced rather than curtailed: corporate criminals.

Corporations vote with their dollars, and thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, they have more influence in elections than ever before. That includes corporations that have been convicted of crimes or regulatory violations, settled similar charges without admitting guilt or otherwise run afoul of the law.

Here are some of the leading corporate criminals that are active participants in the electoral process. The figures on their political spending are no doubt understated, given the various ways that companies can now invest in elections and keep it secret.

BP

Leaving aside this year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, for which BP has not yet faced court action, in 2007 the British oil giant and some of its subsidiaries paid $370 million in fines and restitution for environmental criminal violations stemming from a fatal fire at a Texas refinery in 2005 and leaks of crude oil from its pipelines in Alaska. BP Products North America and British Petroleum Exploration (Alaska) Inc. were put on probation for three years.

In the current electoral cycle, according to the Open Secrets website, BP’s political action committee has spent more than $300,000.

Goldman Sachs

In July, Goldman Sachs paid $550 million to settle federal charges that it misled investors in connection with subprime mortgage securities.

In the current electoral cycle, the Goldman Sachs PAC has spent more than $850,000.

GlaxoSmithKline

British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline and a subsidiary together recently agreed to pay $750 million to settle criminal and civil charges relating to the knowing sale of contaminated and ineffective products.

In the current electoral cycle, the GlaxoSmithKline PAC has spent more than $1.5 million.

Hewlett-Packard

In August, Hewlett-Packard paid $55 million to settle charges that it paid kickbacks to win U.S. government business.

In the current electoral cycle, the Hewlett-Packard PAC has spent more than $350,000.

American Airlines

Also in August, the Federal Aviation Administration charged American Airlines with multiple maintenance violations and proposed a record fine of $24.2 million.

In the current electoral cycle, the American Airlines PAC has spent more than $550,000.

Dell

In July the computer maker Dell agreed to pay more than $100 million in penalties to settle charges of failing to disclose material information to investors and using fraudulent accounting methods.

In the current electoral cycle, the Dell PAC has spent more than $160,000.

Citigroup

In July, Citigroup paid $75 million to settle federal charges that it misled its own investors about the company’s exposure to risky subprime mortgage assets.

In the current electoral cycle, the Citigroup PAC has spent more than $390,000.

Lockheed Martin

We can’t forget about the big military contractors. Lockheed Martin, the largest of that fraternity, has 51 listings in the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, with total fines and settlements of some $577 million.

In the current electoral cycle, the Lockheed Martin PAC has spent more than $2.9 million.

I could go on and on. The political system in awash with direct contributions from corporations that have broken a wide range of laws and in many cases are using their campaign offerings to unduly influence federal policy so they can go on doing what they do – and perhaps face fewer prosecutions and enforcement actions in the future if their desired candidates are elected.

Corporations are persons, the Supreme Court tells us, and have Constitutional rights. Actually, corporations now have more rights than natural persons. They can break the law repeatedly and buy their way out of serious punishment.

The country would be a lot better off if individual ex-offenders got back their voting rights and corporate criminals were barred from spending lavishly to buy political influence.

Corporations Want It All

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Most of U.S. Big Business seems to be on a capital strike these days, refusing to invest and create new jobs. A notable exception is semiconductor giant Intel, which just announced that it will spend up to $8 billion upgrading its chip fabrication plants in the United States and build a new one in Oregon.

What’s odd is that Intel CEO Paul Otellini is just as critical of American economic policies, especially those promoted by the Obama Administration, as many other companies that use that vote of no confidence to justify their redlining of the USA. One of Otellini’s main gripes is that the United States provides too little in the way of tax breaks and other incentives to corporations compared to other countries. Speaking at a recent event at the Council on Foreign Relations, he proposed “that we take a page from others’ playbooks and provide attractive incentives for companies to build factories here that will employ our workers.”

This is a truly bizarre comment from the head of company that has received more in economic development subsidies than just about any other corporation in the United States. Over the past two decades, taxpayers in states such as New Mexico, Arizona and Oregon have underwritten the company’s rise to its dominant position in the semiconductor market.

New Mexico. The process began in 1993, when Intel announced plans for what was then an unprecedented $1 billion investment in a new chip plant, to be built in a suburb of Albuquerque called Rio Rancho. The company pressured local officials to provide what would ultimately amount to about $455 million in property tax abatements and sales tax exemptions on the equipment purchased for the facility.

Arizona. Soon after getting its way in New Mexico, Intel put the squeeze on officials in Arizona, where it proposed to build another plant in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. The company received some $82 million in property tax abatements, sales tax exemptions and corporate income tax credits. In 2005 Intel strong-armed the state to change the method by which it calculates corporate taxes to a system known as single sales factor, which allowed Intel and other companies with lots of property and a big payroll but relatively low sales in the state to enjoy enormous tax reductions.

Oregon. In 1999 Intel announced plans for a large expansion of its semiconductor operations in Oregon but made it clear that the investment was contingent on receiving a huge property tax abatement. Actually, what Intel was demanding was an extension of tax breaks it previously received in the state, where its manufacturing operations dated back to 1974. Those breaks were enabled by the state’s Strategic Investment Program (SIP), which was adopted in 1993 with Intel in mind. The company’s new SIP deal reduced Intel’s property tax bill by an estimated $200 million over 15 years. In 2005 Intel got the county to extend the property tax break to 2025, locking in an estimated $579 million in additional savings. In addition to these property tax breaks, Intel enjoyed a substantial reduction in corporate income taxes thanks to Oregon’s decision to join the single sales factor bandwagon.

So what is Otellini complaining about? Perhaps his real gripe is that the Federal Trade Commission sued Intel last December, charging that the company “illegally used its dominant market position for a decade to stifle competition and strengthen its monopoly.” The parties settled the case in August, with Intel agreeing to end some of the pressure tactics it applies to computer makers.

Yet it is likely that Otellini’s comments reflect a broader attitude on the part of Big Business. The Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case and the resulting flood of corporate money into the current electoral campaigns appear to have given CEOs like Otellini the idea that they are entitled – entitled to buy elections and entitled to have government policy oriented to their serve their every need. The way things are going, those corporate titans may get their wish.

Punishments that Fit BP’s Crimes

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Few things enrage the American public more than hearing about a criminal who is given a light sentence and then commits another offense. This scenario is not limited to murderers and rapists. Corporations can also be recidivists.

We’re currently contending with such a culprit in the (corporate) person of BP. The oil giant’s apparent negligence in connection with the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico comes on the heels of two previous major accidents in which the company was found culpable: a 2005 explosion at a refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers and a 2006 series of oil spills at its operations in the Alaskan tundra.

Those earlier cases are not just another blot on BP’s blemished track record. In both instances the company was compelled to plead guilty to a criminal charge and not only heavily fined but also put on probation for three years. On a single day in October 2007, the U.S. Justice Department announced these plea agreements along with the resolution of another criminal case in which BP was charged with manipulation of the market for propane. In the latter case, prosecution of BP was deferred on the condition that the company pay penalties of more than $300 million and be subjected to an independent monitor for three years.

In other words, at the time that BP engaged in behavior that contributed to the Gulf catastrophe, it was under the supervision of federal authorities for three different reasons. Although the terms of the probation and independent monitor agreements refer to the parts of BP’s business involved in the offenses, federal law (18 USC Section 3563) requires that “a defendant not commit another Federal, State, or local crime during the term of probation.”

Given the distinct possibility that BP will face new criminal charges, the question arises: what would be a suitable punishment? When an individual violates his or her probation by committing a new offense, the usual result is imprisonment. Federal sentencing guidelines say that when an organizational defendant commits such a violation, the remedy is to extend the period of the probation.

That hardly seems adequate in the case of an egregious repeat offender such as BP. Just as an individual loses certain rights when imprisoned, so should a corporate probation violator face serious consequences. Here are some possibilities:

  • Ineligibility for federal contracts. BP is among the top 30 federal contractors. That privilege should be suspended.
  • Ineligibility for federal drilling leases. BP has shown itself to be reckless when it comes to drilling. It should no longer be able to obtain leases to drill on public lands or in public waters.
  • Ineligibility for federal tax incentives. Like other oil companies, BP receives a variety of special tax advantages such as writeoffs of intangible drilling costs. It should be denied such benefits.
  • Suspension of the right to lobby. According to the Open Secrets database, BP spent nearly $16 million last year on federal lobbying. As a probation violator, it should be barred from trying to influence public policy.
  • Moratorium on image-burnishing advertisements. As the Gulf debacle continues, BP is spending heavily on advertising to convey the message that it is doing everything in its power to address the problem. Once it is designated a probation violator, it should be barred from that sort of crisis marketing.
  • Public admission of fault. At the point that BP pleads guilty to another criminal offense, an appropriate penalty might be to force it to take the money now being spent to repair its image and use it to run ads admitting its misbehavior. Nothing would be more satisfying than hearing BP admit that its purported devotion to corporate social responsibility has been a sham.

No doubt there are legal barriers to such measures, but we need to go beyond the current wrist-slapping approach to the punishment of corporate crime and create deterrents that once and for all get the likes of BP to take safety and environmental regulations seriously.

Attacking the Wrong Earmarks

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Congress is once again talking tough about budget earmarks. House Democratic leaders announced that they are banning earmarks designed to benefit for-profit entities, while House Republicans upped the ante by calling for the abolition of the practice across the board.

Even if this latest in a long line of anti-earmark initiatives takes hold, it will have limited impact on the channeling of taxpayer dollars to favored interests. The earmark database compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense indicates that in the current fiscal year they amount to only $16 billion. And many of the 11,860 individual items cannot be linked to a specific recipient, making targeted bans meaningless.

Even the largest items linked to individual corporations—such as $19.5 million to Boeing for “Maui Space Surveillance System Operations and Research” in Hawaii; $12 million to BAE Systems for “Mk 45 Mod 5 Gun Depot Overhauls” in Kentucky; and $9.6 million to Northrop Grumman for “B-2 Advanced Tactical Data Link” in California—are drops in the bucket of $1 trillion in overall federal discretionary spending and a military budget of $530 billion.

It’s amusing to watch the posturing about these small amounts at a time when Congress may be about to endorse what can be seen as perhaps the largest earmark ever: the healthcare subsidies that will pass from lower-income Americans to private insurers in a public-option-less system. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office estimates that premium and cost-sharing subsidies under the current (pre-reconciliation) Senate version of the bill would cost $337 billion over the next decade. The TARP bailout was bigger, but in that case the taxpayers are recouping much of the outlay.

Healthcare is not the only example of how reform gets built on corporate handouts. The climate bill that passed the House last June (and got stalled in the Senate) would have essentially given away many of the emission allowances for the cap and trade system rather than requiring corporate polluters to pay in full for their greenhouse gas output.

Corporate subsidies are also at the heart of the job-creation initiatives making their way through Congress. Most Democrats have embraced the Republican notion that the best way to increase employment is to decrease business taxes. The same goes for federal efforts to promote renewable energy. At the center of the green jobs initiatives in the Recovery Act were corporate tax breaks such as the $2.3 billion Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit, which the Obama Administration would like to expand by $5 billion. The Administration also wants to give $8 billion in loan guarantees to the Southern Company to build a nuke in Georgia.

In addition to the direct contracts and tax breaks, corporate America is also in effect being subsidized by the unwillingness of much of Congress to tighten regulation of business, even in cases of reckless behavior. The delay and dilution that have characterized financial reform are worth billions to the banks. The moves to exempt sectors such as payday lenders from federal oversight is an enormous boon to those businesses.

Healthcare reform, climate-crisis mitigation, job creation, renewable energy development and financial reform are all laudable goals, but it is frustrating that they are all being pursued in ways that often reward the same large corporations that created many of the problems these initiatives are meant to address. And it is mind-boggling that the critics of this business-friendly agenda repeatedly denounce it as socialistic.

Democrats should spend less time posturing on earmarks and more time trying to figure out how they can fix what’s wrong with the country without giving away the store to big business.