Archive for the ‘Regulation’ Category

Regulation is Not Dead Yet

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Donald Trump tries to give the impression that his crusade against business regulation is moving ahead rapidly. While several rules have been rescinded and more are threatened, it turns out that for now the enforcement systems at most agencies are functioning normally.

In preparing a forthcoming update of the Violation Tracker database, I’ve found that since the inauguration federal regulatory agencies have announced more than 160 case resolutions with fines and settlements totaling more than $1.6 billion. This two-month dollar amount does not compare to the $20 billion collected by the Obama Administration during its final tens weeks in office. Yet it does show that the so-called administrative state is not dead yet.

A large portion of the Trump collections come from enforcement actions against a single company that are in line with the new president’s views. The Chinese telecommunications company ZTE was penalized $1.2 billion for violating economic sanctions against Iran and North Korea by supplying them with prohibited items. The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security imposed a $661 million civil penalty and the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control collected another $106 million while the Justice Department got ZTE to plead guilty and pay $430 million in fines and criminal forfeiture.

The remaining $422 million was collected in cases brought by 21 different agencies and four divisions of the Justice Department. Among the larger actions:

  • The Commodity Futures Trading Commission reached an $85 million settlement with the Royal Bank of Scotland to resolve allegations that it attempted to manipulate interest-rate benchmarks.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reached an $81 million settlement with GDF Suez to resolve allegations that it manipulated energy markets.
  • TeamHealth Holdings agreed to pay $60 million to settle Justice Department allegations that its subsidiary IPC Healthcare Inc. violated the False Claims Act by overbilling Medicare, Medicaid, the Defense Health Agency and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
  • Offshore oil driller Wood Group PSN was ordered to pay a total of $9.5 million to resolve criminal charges that it falsely reported over several years that its personnel had performed safety inspections on offshore facilities and that it negligently discharged oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Keurig Green Mountain agreed to pay $5.8 million to settle allegations by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that it failed to report a defect in its Mini Plus Brewing System that had caused scores of serious burn injuries.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau imposed a $3 million penalty on Experian for deceptively marketing credit scores.

The list also includes: 14 settlements with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by employers in cases involving gender, pregnancy and disability discrimination; six cases in which private sponsors of Medicare Advantage plans violated consumer protection rules; two cases in which companies were charged with violating the Controlled Substances Act by failing to properly monitor opioid prescriptions; and much more.

On the other hand, the situation remains puzzling at the Labor Department, where agencies such as OSHA have not announced a single enforcement action since Trump took office. [UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that despite the absence of OSHA press releases the agency is still posting enforcement actions on its website on this page, which shows numerous cases since Inauguration Day.]

It is likely that most of the 160 cases were initiated while the Obama Administration was in office, but it is heartening that they have gotten resolved under the new management. The career officials in the various agencies should be commended for continuing to do their job in difficult circumstances. Let’s hope they can convince their new bosses that there is a value to protecting consumers, workers and the public against corporate misconduct in its many forms.

Labor Unenforcement

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Once upon a time, a key component of American populism was the demand for stricter controls over big business: in other words, regulation. Today, the country’s purported populist in chief is instead promoting the dubious claim that deregulation is what will benefit the masses. Through executive orders and now with his administration’s budget blueprint, Donald Trump is seeking an unprecedented rollback of workplace, environmental and consumer protections.

There are signs that at least one agency in the Trump Administration may not waiting for the legal changes to take effect before providing relief to business. In the eight weeks since the inauguration, the regulatory arms of the Labor Department appear to have been in a near state of suspended animation, at least in terms of their announced enforcement activity.

Take the case of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since the inauguration it has not posted a single press release about an enforcement matter on the DOL website. This compares to more than 70 releases — about the filing of cases or the imposition of penalties — posted during the same period last year.

This can’t be explained by delays in a new administration getting up and running. During the comparable time period for the newly installed Obama Administration in 2009, OSHA made more than 30 enforcement announcements.

A similar pattern can be seen at DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, which under the Obama Administration aggressively pursued employers that violated minimum wage, overtime and other provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Since January 20, the WHD has made only one case announcement. By contrast, during the same period last year WHD announced 35 cases in which an employer was being sued or had settled allegations by agreeing to pay back wages and sometimes a monetary penalty. In 2009, right after Obama took office, the WHD announced 14 cases in the same period.

Other parts of the Labor Department are also quiet. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which makes sure government contractors comply with anti-discrimination laws, has not issued a single press release since inauguration day — on enforcement matters or anything else.

Enforcement is handled by career employees of the DOL, whose activities should not be affected by the delays in filling the Labor Secretary’s job, unless their work is being impeded by Trump’s appointed “beachhead” officials now running the department.

There are no indications that the work of DOL agencies has been suspended. Yet the almost complete disappearance of enforcement announcements may indicate that the Trump appointees have been holding up case resolutions or are choosing not to publicize those matters that have been resolved.

In any event, this enforcement lethargy may be a rehearsal for things to come. The Trump budget blueprint calls for a 21 percent reduction in DOL funding, and while the document provides limited details on what would be targeted, a cut of that size is bound to impair enforcement. How many workers who voted for Trump were seeking more dangerous conditions on the job and greater vulnerability to wage theft?

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that despite the absence of OSHA press releases the agency is still posting enforcement actions on its website on this page, which shows numerous cases since Inauguration Day.

Trump’s Misguided Crusade Against the EPA

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Executives at Volkswagen must be cursing the bad timing. If only they had been able to keep their emissions cheating scheme quiet for a while longer, they could have avoided a lot of grief. That’s because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement capacity may soon be crippled.

This is a likely consequence of the Trump Administration’s plans, just reported by the Washington Post, to cut the staff of the agency by one-fifth and eliminate dozens of programs. It’s not yet known exactly what functions are being targeted, but cuts of this magnitude will certainly make it more difficult for the EPA to pursue the kind of investigations that led to the filing of civil and criminal charges against VW.

In January, shortly before Trump took office, the company agreed to plead guilty to three federal felony counts and pay a criminal penalty of $2.8 billion along with another $1.5 billion to settle civil claims. VW previously reached a settlement with the EPA and other agencies under which it committed to spend more than $14 billion to buy back cars containing “defeat devices” and undertake projects to mitigate the extra pollution generated by those vehicles.

VW is one of the thousands of polluters whose activities have been thwarted by the EPA. As shown in Violation Tracker, since the beginning of 2010 the agency (on its own or with the Justice Department) has collected more than $43 billion in fines and settlements in more than 15,000 cases. That does not include billions more from companies such as BP in cases in which the EPA joined with other agencies in joint referrals to the DOJ. Apart from VW and BP, here are the biggest EPA penalty cases over the past seven years:

In 2015 a $5 billion settlement with the EPA and the DOJ went into effect under which Anadarko Petroleum agreed to pay for the clean-up of toxic waste sites across the country linked to Tronox Inc., a spinoff of Anadarko’s subsidiary Kerr-McGee.

In 2013 Wisconsin Power and Light Company, a subsidiary of Alliant Energy, agreed to spend over $1 billion on new equipment to substantially reduce air pollution generated by three coal-fired power plants.

In 2013 Transocean agreed to pay a $1 billion civil penalty to the EPA in connection with its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico three years earlier.

In a 2015 settlement with the EPA, fertilizer giant Mosaic agreed to establish a $630 million trust fund to pay for the future closure of and treatment of hazardous wastewater at four facilities in Florida and Louisiana. The company also agreed to spend $170 million on environmental mitigation at its operations.

In 2011 Hovensa, now owned by ArcLight Capital, agreed to spend more than $700 million on new air pollution controls at its massive petroleum refinery in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Not all the companies are from the industrial and energy sectors. Retail behemoth Wal-Mart Stores has had to pay more than $90 million in EPA fines and settlements to resolve cases involving improper disposal of hazardous waste and other violations.

Data collected for an extension of Violation Tracker coverage back an additional ten years to 2000 includes EPA cases with total fines and settlements of more than $20 billion. Among these are a 2007 agreement by utility giant American Electric Power to spend an estimated $4.6 billion to reduce toxic air emissions at its power plants and a $50 million criminal penalty BP paid for environmental violations at its refinery in Texas City, Texas (now owned by Marathon Petroleum) where 15 workers were killed in an explosion in 2005.

These various examples do not include the many Superfund cases brought by EPA against multiple parties in connection with long-term toxic dumping or cases brought against government entities; nor do they include all the work EPA does apart from enforcement.

Trump’s assault on the EPA is based on the once common but now widely debunked notion that there is an inherent conflict between jobs and environmental protection. Today there is greater recognition that workers also need to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and that there are many business and employment opportunities associated with environmental clean-up and sustainable practices.

Decimating the EPA will serve only to empower rogue corporations such as Volkswagen. There is nothing to be gained from making polluters great again.

Documenting the Last Hurrah of Regulatory Enforcement

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Since the beginning of 2010 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has resolved more than 200 cases of workplace discrimination based on race, religion or national origin and imposed penalties of more than $116 million on the employers involved.

During that same period, the Department of Housing and Urban Development — now in the hands of Ben Carson — settled more than two dozen discrimination cases against banks and mortgage companies, collecting more than $200 million in penalties.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has handled more than 50 cases of whistleblower retaliation since 2010. These have involved both cases in which workers complained about physically unsafe conditions as well as ones involving complaints about corporate financial misconduct. The latter, stemming from authority given to OSHA under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, include cases brought against banks such as JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Eight large pharmacy chains and drug distributors have been penalized more than $400 million by the Drug Enforcement Administration during the past seven years for various violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

These are examples of the kind of information that can be found in latest expansion of Violation Tracker, which adds case data from nine additional federal regulatory agencies, bringing the total to 39 agencies and the Justice Department.

In addition to the new agencies, the expansion includes updated information for the existing ones. That includes the final burst of cases seen during the closing weeks of the Obama Administration. Between election day and the inauguration, the Justice Department and agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced several dozen case resolutions with total fines and settlements in excess of $20 billion.

These include 16 cases with penalties of $100 million or more; four in excess of $1 billion: Deutsche Bank ($7.2 billion), Credit Suisse ($5.3 billion), Volkswagen ($4.3 billion) and Takata ($1 billion).

Banks and other financial services companies account for the largest portion by far of the recent cases, racking up nearly $15 billion in fines and settlements with DOJ, the CFPB, the SEC and banking regulators. Automotive companies like Volkswagen and Takata are second with about $5.5 billion, while pharmaceutical and healthcare firms account for about $1.2 billion.

Given the Trump Administration’s focus on deregulation rather than enforcement, the Obama Administration’s final wave of settlements may represent Uncle Sam’s last hurrah against business misconduct for some time. The data in Violation Tracker, which show widespread misconduct and high levels of recidivism, should give pause to those pushing for less oversight.

With the update and coverage expansion, Violation Tracker now contains more than 120,000 entries with total penalties of more than $320 billion, most of that connected to some 2,300 large parent companies whose disparate individual entries are linked together in the database. Coverage currently begins in 2010 but will be extended back to 2000 later this year.

Individual entries include links to official online information sources. The new version of Violation Tracker supplements those with links to archival copies of those sources preserved on our server.

Having completed the update, the expansion and the creation of the archive, we will return to our effort to collect comprehensive data on wage theft cases — both those brought by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division and related private litigation. We expect that to be ready later this year.

We can only wonder what will be left of the regulatory system by that point.

Trump’s Other Ban

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Trump’s travel ban and his rightwing Supreme Court pick are troubling in themselves, but they are also serving to deflect attention away from the plot by the administration and its Republican allies to undermine the regulation of business.

Surprisingly little is being said about Trump’s January 30 executive order instructing federal agencies to identify two prior regulations for elimination for each new rule they seek to issue. It also dictates that the total incremental cost of new rules (minus the cost of repealed ones) should not exceed zero for the year.

While Trump’s appointees will probably not propose much in the way of significant new rules that would have to be offset, the order amounts to a ban on additional regulation.  It boosts the long-standing effort by corporate apologists to delegitimize regulation by focusing on the number of rules and their supposed cost while ignoring their social benefits.

Meanwhile, the regulation bashers are also busy on Capitol Hill. Republicans have resurrected the rarely used Congressional Review Act as a mechanism for undoing the Obama Administration’s environmental regulations as well as its Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order concerning federal contractors.

Both Trump and Congressional Republicans are also targeting the Dodd-Frank law that enhanced financial regulation after the 2008 meltdown. Calling the law a “disaster,” Trump recently said “we’re going to be doing a big number on Dodd-Frank,” adding: “The American dream is back.”

If Trump was referring to the aspirations of the wolves of Wall Street, then that dream may indeed be in for a resurgence. For much of the rest of the population, the consequences would be a lot less pleasant.

To take just one example, an attack on Dodd-Frank would certainly include an assault on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was created by the law and which has aggressively gone after financial predators. As Violation Tracker shows, during the past five years the agency has imposed more than $7 billion in penalties in around 100 enforcement actions against banks, payday lenders, credit card companies and others. Its $100 million fine against Wells Fargo last September brought attention to the bank’s bogus-account scheme.

The CFPB has not let the election results impede its work. Since November 8 it has announced more than a dozen enforcement actions with penalties totaling more than $80 million. The largest of those involves Citigroup, two of whose subsidiaries were fined $28.8 million for keeping borrowers in the dark about options to avoid foreclosure and burdening them with excessive paperwork demands when they applied for foreclosure relief.

Citigroup, one of the companies that has the most to gain from restrictions on the CFPB and Dodd-Frank in general, has shown up often as I have been collecting data on recent enforcement cases from various agencies for a Violation Tracker update that will be released soon.

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently announced that Citigroup Global Markets would pay $18.3 million to settle allegations that it overcharged at least 60,000 investment advisory clients with unauthorized fees. In a separate SEC case, Citi had to pay $2.96 million to settle allegations that it misled investors about a foreign exchange trading program.

Around the same time, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission filed and settled (for $25 million) allegations that Citigroup Global Markets engaged in the illicit practice of spoofing — bidding or offering with the intent to cancel the bid or offer before execution — in U.S. Treasury futures markets and that it failed to diligently supervise the activities of its employees and agents in conjunction with the spoofing orders.

Citi’s record, along with that of other rogue banks, undermines the arguments of Dodd-Frank foes and in fact makes the case for stricter oversight. Yet the reality of financial misconduct is about to be overwhelmed by a barrage of alternative facts about the magic of deregulation.

Update: After this piece was written, Congress voted to repeal another provision of Dodd-Frank known as Cardin-Lugar or Section 1504, which required publicly traded extractive companies to report on payments to foreign governments in their SEC filings. The disclosure was meant as an anti-corruption measure. 

Corporate Crime and the Trump Administration

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

With all that’s happening in the chaotic Trump transition, less attention is being paid to the announcement that Volkswagen is pleading guilty to felony charges and paying more than $4 billion in penalties while a half dozen of its executives face individual criminal indictments.

A development of this sort should represent a turning point in the prosecutorial handling of the corporate crime wave that has afflicted the United States for years. Yet because of its timing, it may end up being no more than a parting gesture of an administration that has struggled for eight years to find an effective way of dealing with widespread and persistent misconduct by large companies. And it may be followed by a weakening of enforcement in a new administration led by a president whose attacks on regulation were a hallmark of his electoral campaign.

First, with regard to the Obama Administration: The treatment of Volkswagen is what should have been dished out against the banks that caused the financial meltdown, against BP for its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, against Takata for its production of deadly airbags, and against the other corporations involved in major misconduct ranging from large-scale oil spills and contracting fraud to market manipulation and wage theft.

Instead, the Obama Justice Department continued the Bush Administration’s practice of avoiding individual prosecutions and offering many corporations deferred and non-prosecution deals in which they essentially bought their way out of jeopardy, albeit at rising costs. These arrangements, which are catalogued in Violation Tracker, imposed a financial burden but appear to have had a limited deterrent effect.

In a few instances, companies did have to enter guilty pleas, but the impact was softened when, for examples, the large banks that had to take that step in a case involving manipulation of the foreign exchange market later got waivers from SEC rules that bar firms with felony convictions from operating in the securities business.

It remains to be seen how much VW’s guilty plea affects its ability to continue doing business as usual. Yet the bigger question is how corporate criminals will fare in the Trump Administration.

Trump the candidate said little or nothing about VW, Wells Fargo and the other big corporate scandals of the day and instead parroted Republican talking points about the supposedly intrusive nature of regulation. Corporations that have supposedly been put on notice about moving jobs offshore or seeking overly lucrative federal contracts apparently are to have a free hand when it comes to poisoning the environment, maiming their workers or defrauding customers.

Although some have speculated that Jeff Sessions will be tough on corporate crime, a Public Citizen report on his time as Alabama’s attorney general in the 1990s provides evidence strongly to the contrary.

While Sessions took pains during his confirmation testimony to claim that he would not be a “rubber stamp” for the new Administration, he has strong political ties to Trump and worked hard to legitimize some of his more extreme positions during the campaign. Trump is unlikely to pay much heed to the traditional independence of the Justice Department, and Sessions is unlikely to adopt policies that rub Trump the wrong way.

Despite the inclinations of Sessions, the appointment of anti-regulation foes to head many federal agencies will mean that fewer cases will get referred to the Justice Department. And if Trump’s deregulatory legislative agenda gets enacted, the enforcement pipeline will dry up even more.

Corporate misconduct may very well decline during the Trump era because much of that conduct will become perfectly legal.

A Mandate for Corporate Misconduct?

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

Many analysts of the presidential election are depicting it as a victory for workers, at least the disaffected white portion of the labor force. It remains to be seen whether Trump can deliver much in the way of concrete economic benefits for them.

Trump’s triumph may actually turn out to be a bigger boon for corporations. Although his candidacy was not actively supported by much of big business, which remains nervous about his posture on trade, Trump put forth other arguments that evoke less a populist uprising than the lobbying agenda of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce , which has just issued a statement embracing the election results for preserving “pro-business majorities” in the Senate and the House.

Trump’s position on big business has been difficult to pin down. He has often criticized crony capitalism but it has usually been part of attacks on Hillary Clinton or the Obama Administration. He has criticized some companies for sending jobs offshore yet has made tax proposals that would be a windfall for Corporate America.

One area in which Trump’s position has been unambiguously pro-corporate is the issue of regulation, where his stance has been indistinguishable from the Chamber and its allies. Trump has expressed a broad-brush condemnation of federal rules as job-killing, using the usual bogus numbers on their economic costs while ignoring the benefits. He has vowed both to eliminate many of the Obama Administration’s initiatives and to put a moratorium on most new rules. Trump has called for slashing the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency and for repealing much of Dodd-Frank, which could mean the demise of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Trump’s embrace of traditional Republican regulation bashing is all the more troubling as it comes at a time when corporate misconduct remains rampant. It is remarkable that so little attention was paid during the campaign to the scandals involving companies such as Volkswagen, whose emissions fraud has been pursued by the EPA, and Wells Fargo, which was fined $100 million by the CFPB for creating millions of bogus accounts. By threatening these agencies , Trump is undermining future cases against other corporate miscreants.

It’s possible that Trump’s attacks on regulation are nothing more than campaign rhetoric, but he is now allied with those pro-business majorities in Congress that are dead serious about dismantling as much of the federal regulatory framework as possible. Corporate lobbyists must be salivating at what lies ahead.

Is that what Trump supporters signed up for? Do residents of oil and gas states whose water supplies have been contaminated want the EPA to dwindle? Do blue collar workers confronted by predatory lending practices want the CFPB to disappear? Do families with serious health problems want to go back to a system in which insurance companies can discontinue their coverage? Do victims of wage theft want to see funding cut for the Wage & Hour Division of the Labor Department?

Trump has promised to drain the swamp in Washington, yet when it comes to regulation at least he has jumped into the muck feet first and is already becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.

Note: For a reminder of the myriad ways in which the Trump Organization itself has run afoul of federal, state and local regulations, see my Corporate Rap Sheet on the company.

Corporate Criminals and Public Office

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

Donald Trump’s candidacy is based to a great extent on the notion that a successful businessman would make an effective President. Democrats have shot holes in Trump’s claims of success, but they have not done enough to attack the underlying claim that private sector talents are applicable to the public realm.

The conflation of business and government acumen is all the more dangerous at a time when the norm in the corporate world is increasingly corrupt. The observation by Bernie Sanders during the primaries that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud” applies well beyond the realm of investment banking. Have those calling for government to operate more like business been paying attention to Wells Fargo, Volkswagen and EpiPen-producer Mylan?

It used to be that the main threat was that unscrupulous corporations would use investments in the political and legislative process to bend policymaking to favor their interests. Trump has shown that a corporate miscreant can use a pseudo-populist platform to try to take office directly.

Trump is not unique in this regard. Take the case of West Virginia, where a controversial billionaire coal operator is leading the polls in the state’s gubernatorial race. Jim Justice brags that he is a “career businessman” not a career politician, yet that career includes racking up some $5 million in fines imposed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, according to Violation Tracker. To make matters worse, NPR and Mine Safety News reported in 2014 that Justice resisted paying these fines. An NPR update says that $2.6 million in MSHA fines and delinquency penalties remain unpaid even as the Justice mining operations continue to get hit with more safety violations.

On top of this, NPR estimates that the Justice companies face more than $10 million in federal, state and county liens for unpaid corporate income, property and minerals taxes. About one-third of the total is owed to poor West Virginia counties. Like Donald Trump, Justice has failed to follow through on charitable commitments yet has managed to pump several million dollars into his campaign.

Did I mention that Justice is the Democratic candidate?  He is not, however, supporting Hillary Clinton though he is tight with conservative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin. Justice’s Republican opponent is state senate president Bill Cole, whose super PAC received a $100,000 contribution from a super PAC funded by the Koch brothers. This was after Cole spoke at the Koch’s private conservative donors conference in Palm Springs last February, reportedly using his remarks to emphasize his commitment to getting a “right to work” law passed in West Virginia. While in the legislature Cole has also been cozy with the American Legislative Exchange Council and has pushed the crackpot supply-side economic prescriptions of Arthur Laffer. Cole is also an enthusiastic supporter of Trump.

It is difficult to know which is worse: a candidate in the pocket of unscrupulous corporate special interests or one who is himself one of those corporate miscreants. It is troubling to think that our elections increasingly come down to such an untenable choice.

Grandstanding Without Results

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

John Stumpf of Wells Fargo

Members of Congress subjected the CEOs of a pair of rogue corporations to much-deserved castigation in recent days, but the executives will probably turn out to be the victors. John Stumpf of Wells Fargo and Heather Bresch of Mylan endured the barbs knowing that they will not lead to any serious consequences.

The periodic grilling of business moguls amid corporate scandals is a longstanding feature of Congressional oversight. In the 1930s the Senate Banking Committee, led by investigator Ferdinand Pecora, questioned Wall Street titans such as J.P. Morgan about the causes of the stock market crash. In the late 1950s Sen. Estes Kefauver asked pharmaceutical executives about rising drug prices. In the 1960s Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, with the help of a young lawyer named Ralph Nader, interrogated auto industry executives about their seemingly cavalier attitude toward safety.

Jumping to the recent past: In 2010 the CEO of BP was hauled before a House hearing to testify about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In 2013 the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations questioned Apple CEO Tim Cook about his company’s international tax avoidance. And so forth.

Yet there is a big difference between the older and the more recent hearings. In the 20th Century these events were preludes to legislative reform. The Pecora hearings led to the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act separating speculative activities from commercial banking. Kefauver tried but failed to pass price restrictions but was able to enact stricter drug manufacturing and reporting rules. The Ribicoff hearings led to the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act.

Those earlier hearings may have been political theatre, but they were followed by serious regulatory changes. Today’s hearings, on the other hand, seem to be nothing more than theatre. For many members of Congress, they are opportunities to pretend to be concerned about corporate misconduct while having no intention to do anything about it.

That’s not surprising, given that the party in control of both chambers of Congress is rabidly anti-regulation. The 2016 Republican National Platform is filled with critical comments about regulation, including an assertion that the Obama Administration “triggered an avalanche of regulation that wreaks havoc across the economy.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the lead regulator in the Wells Fargo fake accounts case, is a favorite target of conservative lawmakers. Right after the CFPB’s Wells Fargo announcement, Speaker Paul Ryan sent out a tweet claiming that the agency “tries to micromanage your everyday life.” Senate Banking Committee Chair Richard Shelby tried to block the appointment of Richard Cordray to head the CFPB and subsequently sought to weaken the agency. And during his opening statement at the hearing, he took a pot shot at CFPB for not being aggressive enough in pursuing the case.

Congressional grandstanding against corporate miscreants has been going on for decades, but what was once a device to build public support for real legislative change now serves mainly to conceal the fact that too many legislators are in office to do the bidding of corporations, even the most corrupt ones.

Imposing the Ultimate Punishment

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

The outcome of most cases of serious corporate misconduct is the same: the company pays a fine that is not too onerous and no one ends up behind bars. That’s what makes the fate of ITT Educational Services all the more significant.

This for-profit educational outfit just shut down pretty much all its facilities in the wake of a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that the company would no longer be able to enroll new students using federal financial aid funds. In other words, the feds effectively put ITT out of business.

Before anyone begins complaining about overreaching bureaucrats, keep in mind that the company has a dismal track record. It faced accusations from state regulators of misleading students about the quality of its programs and their prospects for employment after graduation. In 2014 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued ITT for predatory lending. CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated at the time: “We believe ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many consumers into expensive loans destined to default. Today’s action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics.”

ITT is not the first dubious for-profit educator to be pushed into oblivion. In 2015 Corinthian Colleges announced the cessation of operations amid a spate of state and federal investigations, including a CFPB case that resulted in a default judgment of $530 million.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has stood fast in its tough treatment of scam schools, building on the 2010 move by Congress to push commercial banks out of the federal student loan business.

The willingness to put sleazy operators out of business is seen little outside the educational sector. It’s true that the Bureau of Prisons announced plans to phase out the use of private prison operators, but the likes of CCA will be kept alive by their state government customers.

Among federal regulators, the one agency that focuses more on shutting down rogue operators rather than imposing monetary fines is the Food and Drug Administration. It must be noted, however, that the shutdowns are often temporary (remaining in effect only while the company corrects unsafe processing plant conditions) and usually involve smaller firms. Other agencies may take action that results in the closing of fly-by-night firms, but it is rare for regulators or prosecutors to take steps that could end up in the demise of an established company, no matter how corrupt it may have become.

This hesitation seems to stem from backlash against the Justice Department’s case against accounting firm Arthur Andersen for its role in the Enron accounting scandal. In the wake of its 2002 conviction for obstruction of justice, the firm had to dismantle its auditing business and was unable to resurrect it after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction three years later. Nonetheless, the Enron accounting fraud was real, and Arthur Andersen enabled it in some way.

It is time for the DOJ and other regulatory agencies to follow the Education Department’s lead in taking the most aggressive kind of action against big companies that misbehave in a major way. A prime candidate for such treatment is Volkswagen, which engaged in a brazen scheme to cheat auto emissions tests and thus exacerbated air pollution to a shocking extent. The company is paying billions in settlement costs but apparently will remain in business. In fact, it just announced a substantial investment in Navistar to boost its position in the U.S. truck business.

A move to mandate the shutdown of a large company like VW should include arrangements for the sale of its assets and other protections for its workers. There would still be disruptions but it would send a strong signal to other large corporations that they should not expect to buy their way out of severe legal liability.