Archive for the ‘Tax avoidance/evasion’ Category

Congress’s Corporate Accountability Charades

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

bosses_900In recent days we’ve seen reprises of that old stand-by from the Congressional repertoire: hearings in which members of the House and Senate express indignation at corporate misconduct. Like similar performances that have come before, these events provided some short-term gratification but in all likelihood will ultimately prove frustrating.

The designated whipping boys this week were General Motors and Caterpillar. Both are legitimate targets. GM is embroiled in one of the worst safety scandals in its history as a result of mounting evidence that for years it concealed evidence of an ignition-switch defect that has been tied to a large number of deadly accidents. Caterpillar is under the gun because of a new Senate report accusing it of using accounting gimmicks to avoid more than $2 billion in federal taxes.

At a hearing of the Senate Commerce committee, GM chief executive Mary Barra was confronted with statements such as “The public is very skeptical of GM,” “GM is not forthcoming” and “I think this goes beyond unacceptable. I believe this is criminal.”

The amazing thing is that these statements were coming from both Democrats and Republicans, who differed little in their critique of the automaker. The same can, for the most part, be said about Barra’s only slightly milder interrogation by the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee. Several Republicans sought to score some political points by emphasizing GM’s previous status as a government-controlled corporation, and Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn asked Barra whether the company’s safety lapses were related to the federal bailout (Barra sidestepped the question). Yet they did not press too hard in that direction.

The transcripts of the two GM hearings (available via Nexis) paint a very different picture of Congress from what we usually see these days. As Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont stated in the House hearing: “I have to congratulate General Motors for doing the impossible. You’ve got Republicans and Democrats working together.”

There was a similar seriousness of purpose and absence of simple-minded partisanship in the Senate hearing on Caterpillar. Subcommittee chair Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has done extensive work to highlight corporate tax dodging, was of course aggressive in grilling company executives about Caterpillar’s funneling of vast amounts of profit through a tiny Swiss subsidiary to take advantage of an artificially low tax rate.

Yet the company did not get much sympathy from the Republican members of the subcommittee either, though Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson did manage to interject a reference to “our uncompetitive tax system.”

The unfortunate truth is that hearings such as these end up being nothing but a charade in which members of Congress pretend for a while to be tough on an egregious case of corporate malfeasance before they go back to doing the bidding of the monied interests.

For example, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who was the one calling GM’s behavior “unacceptable” and “criminal,” sought to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who joined in the critical questioning of Barra, once introduced a bill to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from introducing “job-crushing regulations.”

The problem extends to Democrats as well. Veteran Rep. John Dingell, who was awarded special deference at the House hearing, has long-standing ties to General Motors and the other big U.S. automakers, which have been among his strongest political supporters. His wife Debbie Dingell worked for GM for 30 years. When the 87-year-old Dingell announced earlier this year that he plans to retire from Congress, a GM spokesperson said:  “As a champion of the auto industry, John Dingell had no peer.”

If anything, the inclination of members of Congress to do the bidding of business will only increase, now that the Supreme Court has struck down limits on total amounts wealthy individuals can give to candidates, party committees and PACs. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Money in politics may at times seen repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.”

By once again equating money with speech, Roberts is ensuring that those with the most of it, including giant corporations, are the ones to which Congress, apart from brief periods of public interest grandstanding, will bow.

GE Dumps Workers as It Dredges the Hudson

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

DUMP_YRD_SIGNFor 30 years, General Electric resisted calls to remove the toxic substances it had dumped into New York’s Hudson River over several decades. Now that the process is well under way, the company is striking back at the state by shutting its cleaned-up plant along the river and moving some 200 jobs to Florida. The workers slated to be laid off feel that they are now being dumped.

The site of the dispute is Fort Edward (about 200 miles north of New York City), where from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s GE produced electric capacitors using insulating material containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Vast quantities of PCB-contaminated waste ended up in the river’s waters and riverbed.

By the 1970s PCBs were recognized to be a human carcinogen and their manufacture was banned in the United States.  In 1975 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ordered GE to cease its PCB dumping and negotiated a path-breaking settlement under which the company would help pay the cost of cleaning up the pollution that had closed the river to commercial fishing and become a national symbol of corporate irresponsibility.

As the projected cost of the clean-up escalated, GE resisted dredging the river’s sediment, which was estimated to contain more than 130 metric tons of PCBs, and instead proposed dubious alternatives such as using bacteria to try to break down the toxic wastes. The company continued this obstruction for years, even after the EPA ordered it in 2001 to pay an estimated $460 million to remove 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment. The legal battle finally ended in 2005, but it took until 2009 for GE to actually begin the dredging. The process is now in its fifth year.

The workers at the Fort Edward plant may not be around to celebrate the completion of the clean-up. A few weeks ago, GE announced that it planned to close the plant and move the operation to Clearwater, Florida. The Fort Edward workers have been represented by the United Electrical (UE) union for the past 70 years, while the Clearwater plant—as you might expect—is non-union.

The Fort Edward move is just the latest of a long series of actions by GE that have weakened the economy of upstate New York. The city of Schenectady, where Thomas Edison moved his electrical equipment operation in 1886, has alone lost tens of thousands of jobs through waves of GE downsizing.

GE also seems to feel no sense of obligation in connection with the economic development subsidies it has received from state and local government agencies in New York. The biggest giveaways have come downstate. In 1987, a year after it was acquired by GE, NBC pressured New York City to give it $98 million in tax breaks under the threat of moving its operations to New Jersey.  In 1999 investment house Kidder Peabody, then owned by GE, got its own $31 million package to stay in the city.

There have also been subsidies upstate. For example, in 2009 GE got a $5 million grant and a $2 million tax abatement for its operations in Schenectady. The company’s research center in Niskayuna, New York has received millions of dollars in local tax breaks.

When GE has not received enough subsidies for its satisfaction, the company sometimes tries to reduce its local tax bills by challenging the assessed value of its property. In 2002, for example, it sued to get the value of its turbine plant in Rotterdam, New York reduced from $159 million to $41 million. A compromise ruling gave GE some of what it wanted and forced the town to reimburse the company about $6 million. Not satisfied, the company later brought a new challenge and got the town to negotiate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal.

And, of course, GE is notorious for its dodging in other states and at the federal level, where it also gets subsidized through agencies such as the Export-Import Bank and got TARP-related assistance for its GE Capital unit.

Members of UE Local 332 are vowing to fight the plant shutdown, but they are up against a company that has shown it is  willing to go to great lengths to get its way on environmental, labor and tax issues.

Corporate Privacy is Alive and Well

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

we-the-corporations02-e1294670618870Recent revelations about the electronic surveillance programs of the federal government, which are being carried out with the cooperation of large telecommunications and internet companies, show that personal privacy rights are in serious peril.

Much is being said and written about the discrepancy between the seemingly invincible status of the Second Amendment and the disintegrating Fourth Amendment. Yet the more significant contrast may be between individuals and corporations with regard to privacy and protection from government intrusion.

Despite all the complaints from business groups about the supposedly overbearing Obama Administration, large corporations have it pretty good. This is especially the case in the matter of taxes.

Although the finances of publicly traded companies are supposed to be an open book, firms are not required to make public their tax returns. This allows them to conceal the inconsistencies between what they disclose to shareholders and what they report to Uncle Sam. The recent report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations about tax dodging by Apple showed there was a $4.4 billion discrepancy between the FY2011 tax liability presented in the company’s 10-K annual report and what it listed in its corporate tax return (which the committee had to subpoena).

Revelations about Apple and other tax dodging companies has not resulted in any action by Congress. The European Union, by contrast, is moving ahead with a transparency initiative that will thwart tax avoidance and illegal financial flows.

Anti-corruption and pro-transparency groups in the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition have been pressing the Obama Administration to support a plan, backed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, to require the registration of owners of shell companies—a move that would make illicit financial transfers more difficult. The idea will be discussed at the upcoming G8 summit, but there is little indication that Obama, much less the U.S. Congress, is prepared to sign on to Cameron’s “transparency revolution.”

Large corporations enjoy a great deal of privacy with regard to state as well as federal tax liabilities. Publicly traded companies are required only to disclose aggregate figures on the taxes they are paying (or not paying) to the states overall, making it impossible to get a clue on how much dodging is going on in individual states. Although there have been efforts at times to compel publicly traded companies to make public their state tax returns, those documents remain as private as their federal returns.

Corporate financial statements are also usually devoid of any information on the billions of dollars companies receive each year in economic development subsidies from state and local governments. There has, however, been progress in piercing the corporate privacy veil in this arena, but it is mixed.

At the state level, disclosure is better than it has ever been, but there is a great deal of inconsistency from state to state and from program to program within states. Much of the transparency progress relates to grant and low-cost loans, while the tax breaks—which are often the big-ticket items—lag. Fewer than half the states post a significant amount of information online about corporate tax credits.

And as my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First showed in a recent report, disclosure is even more primitive among most large cities and counties. All the disclosed data is collected in our Subsidy Tracker search engine.

Taxes and subsidies are not the only areas in which corporate privacy remains strong. There are also serious limitations, for example, in what companies have to reveal about their labor practices. Even publicly traded companies are providing less and less in their 10-K annual reports about collective bargaining. Reading the 10-K of Wal-Mart, for instance, you would never know that it has fought tooth-and-nail against unions and is now facing a non-traditional organizing campaign. Whether they are sympathetic or not to the goals of the campaign, shouldn’t shareholders at least be told that it exists and what the company is doing in response?

As poor as the transparency rules are for publicly traded companies, they shine in connection with the absence of significant requirements with regard to privately held firms. The secrecy afforded to family-controlled mega-corporations such as Koch Industries and Cargill is a serious public policy problem.

While companies such as Facebook and Google claim to be sympathetic to the concerns of their customers about government surveillance, they continue to enjoy a higher level of privacy. Corporations have been aggressive in asserting First Amendment rights equivalent to those of natural persons, but when it comes to the Fourth Amendment, they seem to be ahead of us humans.

Apologies and Apple

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

bad-appleIn 2010 Texas Rep. Joe Barton took the bizarre step of apologizing to BP for the Obama Administration’s effort to get the oil giant to compensate those affected by its massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Barton faced a firestorm of criticism and had to retract his statement.

It will be interesting to see if Sen. Rand Paul has to do the same with his outrageous statement the other day arguing that the Senate should apologize to Apple for the report of its investigations subcommittee documenting brazen tax dodging by the company. “I would say what we really need to do is to apologize to Apple, compliment them for the job creation they are doing, and get about doing our job,” Paul declared at a hearing to discuss the report.

I don’t know how Apple CEO Tim Cook restrained himself from jumping up and giving Paul a big wet kiss on the lips. Cook instead offered testimony that was part p.r. spiel about the wonderfulness of Apple and part outright dishonesty about its tax practices. Among his claims: “Apple does not use tax gimmicks.”

The problem is that the investigations subcommittee’s 40-page report described an array of loopholes and tricks by which Apple has shielded tens of billions of dollars from federal taxation.  At the center of the scheme is the artificial designation of vast amounts of cash as being held offshore to keep it outside the reach of the IRS. That hoard, which now totals more than $100 billion, is actually, the New York Times reports, held in bank accounts in New York in the name of Apple subsidiaries based in Ireland.

For tax purposes, Apple claims that its key Irish entity has no legal residency (nor a physical presence or employees), meaning that it is not effectively taxed anywhere. A recent analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice concluded that Apple has paid “almost no income taxes to any country” on its offshore stash. This undermines the arguments made by Apple and other corporations for a new repatriation tax holiday or a shift to a territorial tax system.

“Apple has a very strong moral compass, and we believe in really good corporate citizenship,” Cook recently told the Washington Post. That claim was already preposterous, given past revelations about abysmal working conditions at the company’s supplier plants in China.

Tax dodging, unfortunately, is not widely regarded as being on a par with sweatshops as an indicator of corporate social irresponsibility. Apple, for instance, feels compelled to publish material asserting that it and its suppliers support labor and human rights and that they operate in an environmentally sound manner. There is no such statement on its website about compliance with tax laws.

Apple, like just about every other large corporation, not only manipulates the federal tax code but does the same at the state and local level, both through accounting schemes and by negotiating economic development subsidy deals, which frequently include corporate income tax credits, business property tax abatements and the like.

Last year, for example, Apple took an $89 million subsidy package to build a data center in Reno, Nevada that was expected to create only 35 permanent Apple employees. Three years earlier, Apple got a state subsidy package in North Carolina worth over $46 million (plus more at the local level) for a similar facility that was projected to produce only 50 permanent jobs.

Apple and other companies justify the taking of subsidies because it is legal and because it is usually linked to job creation, though in the case of Apple the number of jobs, at the data centers at least, is minute compared to the lost tax revenue.

What demands by rich companies for subsidies they don’t need really shows is that tax minimization is not, as corporate apologists would have us believe, just a response to the complexity of the federal tax code. It is a compulsion to increase net income, regardless of the consequences for the public. That is part of the definition of corporate irresponsibility.

Companies like Apple will continue to get away with fiscal murder until tax dodging and excessive subsidy taking are as stigmatized as the use of sweatshop labor and toxic dumping. At that point, even politicians of Rand Paul’s ilk might have to think twice about challenging the right of Congress to investigate unscrupulous tax accounting practices.

Amazon Gets Its Way

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

amazonWhen companies get subsidies from state and local governments, it usually means that they have to pay less in taxes. Internet retailing behemoth Amazon.com built its business on making sure it could avoid collecting sales taxes from many of its customers, thus allowing it to undercut its brick and mortar rivals.

It now looks like that indirect subsidy is finally coming to an end. Congress seems poised to pass legislation that would require all online merchants with $1 million or more in revenue (Amazon’s annual sales are 60,000 times larger at $61 billion) to collect state and municipal sales taxes from customers anywhere in the country. This will be a godsend to struggling governments that need the revenue to pay for education, healthcare and other vital services.

Amazon has already come to terms with this policy change and in fact has been taking steps to exploit it. As has been widely reported, Amazon recognizes that the next stage in internet retailing is same-day delivery, at least in selected areas. To make that service possible, Amazon needs to greatly expand its network of huge distribution centers from which all those Kindles and toys and kitchen gadgets can be quickly transported to impatient customers. The company just reported a 37 percent drop in its first quarter profits that has been attributed in part to the cost of expanding that distribution network.

Don’t shed any tears for Amazon. That drop is probably just a blip. The company has already taken steps to radically reduce the cost of building those new facilities.

It has done this by using its sales tax collection practices as leverage in negotiating with state governments. For several years, the company negotiated special exemptions from the requirement to collect taxes in those states where it had a physical presence such as a warehouse. In some states, such as South Carolina in 2011, it used the promise of job creation linked to new distribution centers as bait to get the exemptions.

When necessary, the company also tried to use those promises to evade obligations to make good on judgments concerning uncollected past taxes. For example, last year the company reached a deal with Texas that allowed it to skate on a $269 million assessment for uncollected taxes. In exchange, the company agreed to invest $200 million on facilities it would have had to build anyway.

The company is also shifting its demands to traditional economic development subsidies such as income tax credits, property tax abatements and cash grants. For example, the company got a $7.5 million state grant and a $1 million local abatement for a distribution center it agreed to build in Delaware, and it agreed to build two such facilities in New Jersey on the condition that it receive a subsidy package, the value of which has not yet been announced

Amazon has also received a $2 million tax credit and up to $300,000 in training grants from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation for a fulfillment center it agreed to build in Jeffersonville. That agency — whose website lures companies with the pitch “Looking for a right-to-work state with all the right resources, business incentives, low corporate tax rates and AAA credit rating in place to reach your full potential?  – is in tune with Amazon’s sensibilities. For in addition to seeking financial assistance, Amazon takes advantage of the implicit subsidy created by weak labor laws.

The fact that its U.S. operations have remained entirely non-union has made it easier for the company to impose inhuman working conditions in its facilities, which have been the target of criticism by groups such as Working Washington. The controversy has also emerged at Amazon’s operations in Germany, where the company was accused of using neo-Nazi thugs to intimidate immigrant workers at the facilities.

Amazon, it appears, will stop at nothing in its quest to dominate online commerce.

Violating the Norm at Deutsche Bank

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Layout 1Corporate annual meetings and the publication of company annual reports usually come off like clockwork. Deutsche Bank, however, has found itself in the awkward position of having to call an extraordinary general meeting and delay the issuance of its annual financial documents until after that event.

These unusual measures are symptoms of the disarray of the giant German financial institution as it copes with a series of legal complications stemming from its own ethical shortcomings.

The special meeting was necessitated by a court ruling that invalidated votes that had been taken at last year’s scheduled shareholder gathering. That ruling came as the result of a legal challenge brought by the heirs of German media tycoon Leo Kirch, who blame the bank for forcing his company into bankruptcy.

There’s a silver lining in this for Deutsche Bank management, since the delay in the publication of the annual report (and the 20-F filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) means that it will have more time before it needs to give more details about the various legal messes it is in.

It’s not easy keeping track of them all. Deutsche Bank’s reputation has been tarnished in a variety of ways. This is not to say that the bank’s image started off spotless. It did, after all, actively collaborate with the Nazi regime, helping appropriate the assets of financial institutions in conquered countries.

The sins were not all in the distant past. In 1999 Deutsche Bank acquired New York-based Bankers Trust, which was embroiled in a scandal over its diversion of unclaimed customer assets into its own accounts; it had to pay a $60 million fine and plead guilty to criminal charges.

Deutsche Bank itself was then the subject of wide-ranging investigations of its role in helping wealthy customers, especially those from the U.S., engage in tax evasion. The bank was featured in an investigative report on offshore tax abuses issued by a U.S. Senate committee and was eventually charged by federal prosecutors. In 2010 it had to pay $553 million and admit to criminal wrongdoing to resolve allegations that it participated in transactions that promoted fraudulent tax shelters and generated billions of dollars in U.S. tax losses.

That did not put an end to Deutsche Bank’s tax evasion woes. It is currently reported to be the subject of an investigation by German prosecutors of tax dodging through the use of carbon credits. In December, the bank’s German offices were raided by some 500 police officers seeking evidence for the probe.

Deutsche Bank is also widely reported to be under investigation for its role in the manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index. There has been speculation that the bank’s co-chief executive, Anshu Jain, might lose his job over the issue. Lower-level employees of the bank have already been disciplined.

There’s more. Deutsche Bank is one of the firms that were sued by the U.S. Federal Housing Finance Agency for abuses in the sale of mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the case is pending). Last year, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that Deutsche Bank would pay $202 million to settle charges that its MortgageIT unit had repeatedly made false certifications to the U.S. Federal Housing Administration about the quality of mortgages to qualify them for FHA insurance coverage.

In January Deutsche Bank agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine to the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to settle charges that it had manipulated energy markets in California in 2010.

Deutsche Bank’s misconduct goes beyond the realm of finance. The bank is being targeted by labor activists in Las Vegas, where it owns two casinos. Members of UNITE HERE have been picketing the bank’s Cosmopolitan casino over management’s insistence on weakening standard industry work rules during negotiations on the union’s first contract at the site. As part of its organizing drive, UNITE HERE created a website called Deutsche Bank Risk Alert to highlight the negative issues surrounding the casino’s parent. It has not lacked for content.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Deutsche Bank, which can be found here.

UBS’s Ill-Fated Quest for Financial Glory

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

UBSUBS seems to be in the news these days more often in connection with its legal problems than in its role as a major financial services company.

This is a result both of some dubious cases brought against it and numerous instances of serious misconduct on the part of the Swiss company. UBS, after all, a corporation that not long ago had to pay $1.5 billion to settle charges that it helped manipulate the LIBOR interest rate index.

In the dubious category is a case brought by a group of its U.S. customers who tried to collect damages from the bank after it had revealed their secret accounts and they had to pay hefty penalties to avoid tax evasion charges for unreported income. A U.S. appellate court in Chicago recently upheld a lower court’s dismissal with a ruling that was, in more than one sense, dismissive. U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner wrote that UBS “has no duty to treat [the plaintiffs] like children or illiterates, and thus remind them that they have to pay taxes on the income on their deposits.” Posner went on to state: “This lawsuit, including the appeal, is a travesty. We are surprised that UBS hasn’t asked for the imposition of sanctions on the plaintiffs and class counsel.”

This is not to say that UBS was blameless. The lawsuit came after a former UBS banker turned whistleblower had revealed how the bank actively assisted wealthy Americans seeking to hide income from the IRS. Federal prosecutors targeted UBS, which in 2009 had to pay $780 million and sign a deferred prosecution agreement to settle criminal charges of having defrauded U.S. tax authorities.

The feds then pressured UBS to hand over account information on more than 50,000 U.S. customers. UBS and the Swiss government, seeking to retain the country’s tradition of bank secrecy, resisted but in the end agreed to spill the beans on a smaller group of depositors. Using that information, the IRS went after a bunch of those tax dodgers, some of whom then foolishly thought they could use the courts to get UBS to cover their tax bills.

UBS recently prevailed in another lawsuit filed in response to a different instance of its misconduct. In 2004 the U.S. Federal Reserve fined the bank $100 million for violating U.S. trade sanctions by engaging in currency transactions with parties in countries such as Iran and Libya. Based on that, a group of Americans who had been injured in Hamas and Hezbollah attacks while in Israel sued UBS in 2008 under the Anti-Terrorism Act, arguing that the bank was liable for damages in light of its dealings with Iran, which is said to back those groups. The U.S. appeals court in New York has just upheld a dismissal of the case, though it ruled that the trial judge was wrong in holding that the victims lacked standing to bring the action in the first place.

UBS’s success in these two cases pales in comparison to the damage that its reputation has suffered both from the larger matters that prompted them and from a series of other scandals that have embroiled the company through most of the 15 years since it was created from the merger of two of Switzerland’s three big banks: Swiss Bank Corporation and Union Bank of Switzerland.

After the deal was completed, UBS’s chief executive at the time, Marcel Ospel, set out on an ambitious mission to make the company the world leader in investment banking. It was an ill-fated quest.

When UBS sought to increase its U.S. presence with the acquisition of brokerage house PaineWebber, it inherited a slew of legal problems relating both to PaineWebber’s own deceptive practices in the sale of limited partnerships and those the U.S. firm in turn took on when it bought Kidder Peabody, including a scandal in which a trader fabricated $350 million in trading profits to hide what were actually huge losses.

UBS’s U.S. operation was later caught up in the controversy over conflicts of interest between research and investment banking (UBS paid $80 million as its share of the settlement) and was sued by several U.S. state governments relating to its sale of auction-rate securities. UBS settled the actions by agreeing to pay a total of $150 million in penalties to the states and buy back more than $18 billion of the securities.

After getting bailed out to the tune of some $65 billion by the Swiss government during the financial meltdown in 2008, UBS had to pay $160 million to settle federal and state charges relating to bid-rigging in the municipal securities market. Just after that, UBS was sued by the Federal Housing Finance Agency in an action seeking to recover more than $900 million in losses suffered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from mortgage-backed securities purchased through UBS. (The case is pending.)

UBS faced criticism in 2011 after it came to light that a young trader named Kweku Adoboli working in the bank’s London offices had racked up more than $2 billion in losses. Adoboli was later found guilty of fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison, while UBS was fined £29 million by British regulators for supervisory failures.

And late last year, there was the resolution of the LIBOR manipulation case. In addition to the $1.5 billion in penalties, a Japanese subsidiary of UBS pleaded guilty to a charge of felony wire fraud in U.S. federal court. (By having a foreign subsidiary take the fall, UBS shielded its U.S. operations.) The repercussions of the LIBOR case did not disappear. During a subsequent hearing on the matter in the British Parliament, several former UBS executives were accused of “gross negligence and incompetence.” So much for the dream of financial glory.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on UBS, which can be found here.

The Goldman Sachs Rogue Money Machine Keeps Humming

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

While Congress and the Obama Administration were busy with their fiscal cliff negotiations on New Year’s Eve, Goldman Sachs quietly submitted a batch of filings to the SEC about its own tax initiative. The rogue investment banking firm said it would accelerate the payment of $65 million in stock awards to ten executives, including CEO Lloyd Blankfein, so that they would be subject to 2012 tax rates rather than the expected higher 2013 levels.

Goldman is not the only firm to use the calendar as a form of tax avoidance. Wal-Mart did the same for its shareholders by speeding up the payment of dividends—a boon worth an estimated $180 million for the controlling Walton Family.

Yet there is something particularly galling about this behavior on the part of Goldman, which played such a large role in the financial crisis that, much more than the federal deficit and debt on which Washington is fixated, brought about our current economic problems. Despite facing various federal prosecutions and investor lawsuits, Goldman continues to reward its top people lavishly while begrudging a bit of extra money to Uncle Sam. That is the same the federal government which provided $10 billion in bailout aid and virtually interest-free borrowing to help Goldman get through the crisis (and declined to bring criminal charges against it).

I came across the news about the timing of Goldman’s stock awards just as I was finishing my first Corporate Rap Sheet of the new year, which is about none other than Goldman. I thought I would use this week’s Dirt Diggers to summarize the sordid track record of the firm.

Goldman Sachs, once lionized as the premier “money machine” of Wall Street has in the past few years become synonymous with greed and duplicity. A firm that long prided itself on putting the interests of its clients first was revealed to have repeatedly sold securities that it fully expected to plunge in value. Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi’s depiction of Goldman as “a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” and Greg Smith’s reference to Goldman as “toxic and destructive” in a New York Times op-ed announcing his departure from the firm are two of the most frequently quoted phrases about the financial crisis.

Goldman’s reputation was beginning to unravel even before the financial crisis:

  • In 2003 it paid $110 million as its share of a global settlement by ten firms with federal, state and industry regulators concerning alleged conflicts of interest between their research and investment banking activities.
  • In 2005 the SEC announced that Goldman would pay a civil penalty of $40 million to resolve allegations that it violated rules relating to the allocation of stock to institutional customers in initial public offerings.
  • In 2006 Goldman was one of 15 financial services companies that were fined a total of $13 million in connection with SEC charges that they violated rules relating to auction-rate securities. In another case relating to auction-rate securities brought by the New York State Attorney General, Goldman was fined $22.5 million in 2008.

When the crisis erupted in 2008, Goldman gave in to pressure from federal regulators to convert itself into a bank holding company and received a $5 billion capital infusion from Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Goldman also received $10 billion from the federal government’s Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). During this period, Goldman profited from subprime mortgages through its ownership of Litton Loan Servicing, which it sold in 2011 in the wake of numerous abuse allegations.

The forced restructuring of Wall Street took place largely under the direction of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who resigned as Goldman’s CEO in 2006 to take the post at the request of President George W. Bush. Although Paulson was required to liquidate his sizeable Goldman holdings before moving to Treasury, his actions during the 2008 crisis were widely criticized as working to the benefit of his former firm. Chief among these was the allegation that he allowed Lehman Brothers to collapse while taking pains to bail out insurance giant A.I.G., which had extensive dealings with Goldman and which used its federal support to pay off its obligations at 100 cents on the dollar. In the case of Goldman, this amounted to $12.9 billion.

Goldman soon became the leading symbol of the excesses that led up to the financial meltdown. The Taibbi quote was the most colorful of many unflattering depictions of the firm. Blankfein initially responded to the criticism by making the far-fetched claim that Goldman was doing “god’s work.”  When that did not go over well, he issued an apology for the firm’s mistakes and vowed to spend $500 million to help thousands of small businesses recover from the recession. That did little to rectify the situation.

In April 2010 the SEC accused Goldman of having committed securities fraud when it sold mortgage-related securities to investors without telling them that the investment vehicle, called Abacus, had been designed in consultation with hedge fund manager John Paulson (no relation to Hank Paulson), who chose securities he expected to decline in value and had shorted the portfolio. The Goldman product did indeed fall in value, causing institutional customers to lose more than $1 billion and Paulson to make a bundle. Paulson was not charged, but the SEC did name Fabrice Tourre, the Goldman vice president who helped create and sell the securities.

In July 2010 the SEC announced that Goldman would pay $550 million to settle the Abacus charges. The settlement also required Goldman to “reform its business practices” but did not oblige the firm to admit to wrongdoing. In January 2011 Goldman announced that an internal review of its policies in the wake of the SEC settlement had found that only limited changes were necessary. Others apparently saw matters differently:

  • In November 2010 FINRA fined Goldman $650,000 for failing to disclose that two of its registered representatives, including Fabrice Tourre, had been notified by the SEC that they were under investigation.
  • In March 2011 the SEC announced that it was bringing insider trading charges against former Goldman director Rajat Gupta. He was accused of providing illegal tips, including one about Warren Buffet’s $5 billion investment in Goldman in 2008, to hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam. (Gupta was later convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.)
  • In April 2012 the SEC and FINRA fined Goldman $22 million for failing to prevent its employees from passing illegal stock tips to major customers.
  • In July 2012 a federal appeals court rejected an effort by Goldman to overturn a $20.5 million arbitrator’s award to investors in the failed hedge fund Bayou Group who had accused Goldman of helping to perpetuate a Ponzi scheme.
  • That same month, Goldman agreed to pay $26.6 million to settle a suit brought by the Public Employee’s Retirement System of Mississippi accusing it of defrauding investors in a 2006 offering of mortgage-backed securities.

Some good news for Goldman came in August 2012, when the Justice Department decided it would not proceed with a criminal investigation of the firm’s actions during the financial crisis and the SEC dropped an investigation of the firm’s role in a $1.3 billion subprime mortgage deal.  All in all, Goldman has emerged largely unscathed from these controversies. Its reputation may be in tatters, but its rogue money machine keeps humming.

The full Corporate Rap Sheet for Goldman can be found here.

The 2012 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Monopoly_Go_Directly_To_Jail-T-linkCorporate crime has been with us for a long time, but 2012 may be remembered as the year in which billion-dollar fines and settlements related to those offenses started to become commonplace. Over the past 12 months, more than half a dozen companies have had to accede to ten-figure penalties (along with plenty of nine-figure cases) to resolve allegations ranging from money laundering and interest-rate manipulation to environmental crimes and illegal marketing of prescription drugs.

The still-unresolved question is whether even these heftier penalties are punitive enough, given that corporate misconduct shows no sign of abating. To help in the consideration of that issue, here is an overview of the year’s corporate misconduct.

BRIBERY. The most notorious corporate bribery scandal of the year involves Wal-Mart, which apart from its unabashed union-busting has tried to cultivate a squeaky clean image. A major investigation by the New York Times in April showed that top executives at the giant retailer thwarted and ultimately shelved an internal probe of extensive bribes paid by lower-level company officials as part of an effort to increase Wal-Mart’s market share in Mexico. A recent follow-up report by the Times provides amazing new details.

Wal-Mart is not alone in its behavior. This year, drug giant Pfizer had to pay $60 million to resolve federal charges related to bribing of doctors, hospital administrators and government regulators in Europe and Asia. Tyco International paid $27 million to resolve bribery charges against several of its subsidiaries. Avon Products is reported to be in discussions with the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve a bribery probe.

MONEY LAUNDERING AND ECONOMIC SANCTIONS. In June the U.S. Justice Department announced that Dutch bank ING would pay $619 million to resolve allegations that it had violated U.S. economic sanctions against countries such as Iran and Cuba. The following month, a U.S. Senate report charged that banking giant HSBC had for years looked the other way as its far-flung operations were being used for money laundering by drug traffickers and potential terrorist financiers. In August, the British bank Standard Chartered agreed to pay $340 million to settle New York State charges that it laundered hundreds of billions of dollars in tainted money for Iran and lied to regulators about its actions; this month it agreed to pay another $327 million to settle related federal charges. Recently, HSBC reached a $1.9 billion money-laundering settlement with federal authorities.

INTEREST-RATE MANIPULATION.  This was the year in which it became clear that giant banks have routinely manipulated the key LIBOR interest rate index to their advantage. In June, Barclays agreed to pay about $450 million to settle charges brought over this issue by U.S. and UK regulators. UBS just agreed to pay $1.5 billion to U.S., UK and Swiss authorities and have one of its subsidiaries plead guilty to a criminal fraud charge in connection with LIBOR manipulation.

DISCRIMINATORY LENDING. In July, it was announced that Wells Fargo would pay $175 million to settle allegations that the bank discriminated against black and Latino borrowers in making home mortgage loans.

DECEIVING INVESTORS. In August, Citigroup agreed to pay $590 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that it failed to disclose its full exposure to toxic subprime mortgage debt in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. The following month, Bank of America said it would pay $2.4 billion to settle an investor class-action suit charging that it made false and misleading statements during its acquisition of Merrill Lynch during the crisis. In November, JPMorgan Chase and Credit Suisse agreed to pay a total of $417 million to settle SEC charges of deception in the sale of mortgage securities to investors.

DEBT-COLLECTION ABUSES. In October, American Express agreed to pay $112 million to settle charges of abusive debt-collection practices, improper late fees and deceptive marketing of its credit cards.

DEFRAUDING GOVERNMENT. In March, the Justice Department announced that Lockheed Martin would pay $15.9 million to settle allegations that it overcharged the federal government for tools used in military aircraft programs. In October, Bank of America was charged by federal prosecutors with defrauding government-backed mortgage agencies by cranking out faulty loans in the period leading to the financial crisis.

PRICE-FIXING. European antitrust regulators recently imposed the equivalent of nearly $2 billion in fines on electronics companies such as Panasonic, LG, Samsung and Philips for conspiring to fix the prices of television and computer displays. Earlier in the year, the Taiwanese company AU Optronics was fined $500 million by a U.S. court for similar behavior.

ENVIRONMENTAL CRIMES. This year saw a legal milestone in the prosecution of BP for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling accident that killed 11 workers and spilled a vast quantity of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The company pleaded guilty to 14 criminal charges and was hit with $4.5 billion in criminal fines and other penalties. BP was also temporarily barred from getting new federal contracts.

ILLEGAL MARKETING. In July the U.S. Justice Department announced that British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline would pay a total of $3 billion to settle criminal and civil charges such as the allegation that it illegally marketed its antidepressants Paxil and Wellbutrin for unapproved and possibly unsafe purposes. The marketing included kickbacks to doctors and other health professionals. The settlement also covered charges relating to the failure to report safety data and overcharging federal healthcare programs. In May, Abbott Laboratories agreed to pay $1.6 billion to settle illegal marketing charges.

COVERING UP SAFETY PROBLEMS. In April, Johnson & Johnson was ordered by a federal judge to pay $1.2 billion after a jury found that the company had concealed safety problems associated with its anti-psychotic drug Risperdal. Toyota was recently fined $17 million by the U.S. Transportation Department for failing to notify regulators about a spate of cases in which floor mats in Lexus SUVs were sliding out of position and interfering with gas pedals.

EXAGGERATING FUEL EFFICIENCY. In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that Hyundai and Kia had overstated the fuel economy ratings of many of the vehicles they had sold over the past two years.

UNSANITARY PRODUCTION. An outbreak of meningitis earlier this year was tied to tainted steroid syringes produced by specialty pharmacies New England Compounding Center and Ameridose that had a history of operating in an unsanitary manner.

FATAL WORKFORCE ACCIDENTS. The Bangladeshi garment factory where a November fire killed more than 100 workers (who had been locked in by their bosses) turned out to be a supplier for Western companies such as Wal-Mart, which is notorious for squeezing contractors to such an extent that they have no choice but to make impossible demands on their employees and force them to work under dangerous conditions.

UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICES. Wal-Mart also creates harsh conditions for its domestic workforce. When a new campaign called OUR Walmart announced plans for peaceful job actions on the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, the company ignored the issues they were raising and tried to get the National Labor Relations Board to block the protests. Other companies that employed anti-union tactics such as lockouts and excessive concessionary demands during the year included Lockheed Martin and Caterpillar.

TAX DODGING. While it is often not technically criminal, tax dodging by large companies frequently bends the law almost beyond recognition. For example, in April an exposé in the New York Times showed how Apple avoids billions of dollars in tax liabilities through elaborate accounting gimmicks such as the “Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich,” which involves artificially routing profits through various tax haven countries.

FORCED LABOR. In November, global retailer IKEA was revealed to have made use of prison labor in East Germany in the 1980s.

Note: For fuller dossiers on a number of the companies listed here, see my Corporate Rap Sheets. The latest additions to the rap sheet inventory are drug giants AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly.

The Corporate Entitlement Problem

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

To the extent that the United States has a real fiscal crisis, it has been exacerbated by aggressive tax avoidance on the part of big business. Now the chief executives of many of those same giant corporations are inserting themselves at the center of the current fiscal cliff debate, claiming they know what is best for the country.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt, whose “CEO Fiscal Leadership Council” now has more than 100 members from the corporate elite, is not, of course, proposing that the Fortune 500 start paying its fair share of federal taxes. In fact, the group is pursuing an agenda that may very well result in their companies’ paying even less to Uncle Sam.

As the Institute for Policy Studies has pointed out, companies represented in Fix the Debt stand to save tens of billions of dollars from the territorial tax system the campaign seems to be promoting. IPS has also shown the hypocrisy in the fact that the Fix the Debt CEOs calling for “reforms” in Social Security have fat personal retirement assets from their companies, while many of those firms are underfunding their employee pension plans.

There are numerous other ways in which the companies represented in Fix the Debt are far from honest brokers in dealing with the fiscal cliff—and in actuality engage in practices that exacerbate the country’s fiscal and economic problems.

Take the fact that among those companies are some of the most anti-union employers in the United States, beginning with Honeywell, whose CEO David Cote is on the steering committee of Fix the Debt and is one of its main spokespeople. After members of the Steelworkers union at a uranium facility in Illinois balked at company demands for the elimination of retiree health benefits, reductions in pension benefits and other severe contract concessions, Honeywell locked them out for 12 months.

Also on the council is Lowell McAdam of Verizon Communications, which for years has fought against union organizing at its Verizon Wireless unit and took a hard line in its most recent round of contract negotiations covering its unionized workforce.

Then there is Douglas Oberhelman, the CEO of Caterpillar, which has one of the most contentious labor relations histories of any large company, including a 15-week strike at one plant earlier this year prompted by management demands for far-reaching contract concessions.

Not to mention W. James McNerney, Jr. of Boeing, which was accused of opening an assembly plant in right-to-work South Carolina as a form of retaliation against union activism at its traditional manufacturing center in the Seattle area.

These anti-union crusaders have helped bring about a climate of wage stagnation that not only undermines the living standards of their employees but also weakens businesses that depend on their purchasing power.

Fix the Debt CEOs also seem to think that their companies deserve to be lavishly rewarded when they make investments that create jobs. While it is difficult to discern these rewards at the federal level, where they come through the fine print of the Internal Revenue Code, the payoffs are abundantly clear in the lucrative subsidy deals the corporations receive from state and local governments.

For example, that Boeing plant did not only get the promise of a workforce that in all likelihood will remain unorganized. South Carolina also bestowed on the company a state and local subsidy package that has been valued at more than $900 million.

Verizon has received more than $180 million in subsidies from state and local governments around the country. Caterpillar got an $8.5 million grant from Gov. Rock Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund as well as local subsidies when it eliminated jobs in Illinois and opened a new plant in the Lone Star State. Honeywell has received subsidies in at least 14 states.

The subsidy recipients represented in Fix the Debt are not limited to that anti-union group; there are many others. For example, Goldman Sachs, whose CEO Lloyd Blankfein has been a frequent spokesperson for the campaign, took advantage of $1.65 billion in low-cost Liberty Bonds when building its new headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

The refusal of these companies to deal respectfully with unionized workers and their insistence on taking lavish taxpayer subsidies they don’t need are two symptoms of a flawed business culture. The United States does have an entitlement problem, but it is not related to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. It is the notion held by too many large corporations and their CEOs that their narrow interests are synonymous with the national interest. Rather than presuming to fix the debt, big business needs to fix itself.

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New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS: a dossier on drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, including its $3 billion fraud settlement with the federal government.