Archive for the ‘Violation Tracker’ Category

Recalling the Corporate Culprits of Yesteryear

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

Corporate crime has been happening as long as there have been corporations. But if you wanted to choose an event that marked the emergence of what we think of as modern big business misconduct it would be the admission by Enron in November 2001 that it had overstated profits by $600 million. Within months, the high-flying energy trader collapsed amid growing evidence that the company was one big scam. Enron’s lenders, investors, auditors and others were all pulled into the morass.

Enron turned out to be just one of a rash of accounting scandals that rocked the corporate world and severely damaged the legitimacy of American capitalism. The Bush Administration felt compelled to create a President’s Corporate Fraud Task Force headed by none other than James Comey.

I bring up this history because the Corporate Research Project is about to release a major expansion of Violation Tracker that will extend coverage to this period. We are adding ten more years of data, bringing the starting point back to January 2000. The expansion will nearly double the size of the database to 300,000 entries with more than $394 billion in fines and settlements.

More than 95 percent of that penalty amount comes from our universe of large parent companies, which is being increased to about 2,800. These include ones that are publicly traded and privately held, for-profit and non-profit, domestic as well as foreign-based.

Now the universe also includes a bunch of companies like Enron that are defunct but which are kept on the list for historical purposes. Here are some of those zombies. Note that Violation Tracker does not yet include entries relating to private litigation.

The largest penalty total comes from Adelphia Communications, a cable television provider that was riddled with corruption. In 2004 the Justice Department arranged for $715 million of what remained of the company to be handed over to a fund set up to compensate victims of Adelphia.

In 2002 WorldCom, another telecommunications company, filed what was then the largest bankruptcy ever in the wake of a massive accounting scandal. In 2002 the Securities and Exchange Commission reached a $500 million settlement with the company after originally seeking $1.5 billion in penalties. Since WorldCom was taken over by Verizon rather than being dismantled, its entries in Violation Tracker are listed under Verizon.

Enron shows up in nine entries with a penalty total of $446 million, the largest of which was a 2006 agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission giving the agency a $400 million claim in the company’s bankruptcy proceeding stemming from Enron’s misconduct during the 2000-2001 Western energy crisis.

We also list Arthur Andersen, which had served as Enron’s auditor and was convicted of obstruction of justice for shredding documents relating to that client. The conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court (and thus is not listed in Violation Tracker) but the firm never recovered from the scandal. We list a $7 million penalty imposed on Andersen by the SEC in 2002 in connection with its audits of Waste Management in the 1990s.

The corporate scandals of the early 2000s shook up the country and in some ways prompted even more aggressive remedial actions than are seen with more recent cases. There were many more criminal prosecutions of individual executives than occurred with the cases stemming from the financial meltdown, though the dollar amounts of penalties have grown larger.

One thing that has not changed is the persistence of wrongdoing by so many large corporations.

Note: The Violation Tracker expansion will officially launch on September 19.  

Federal Watchdog Agencies Still On Guard

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Donald Trump likes to give the impression that he has made great strides in dismantling regulation. While there is no doubt that his administration and Republican allies in Congress are targeting many important safeguards for consumers and workers, the good news is that those protections in many respects are still alive and well.

This conclusion emerges from the data I have been collecting for an update of Violation Tracker that will be posted later this month. As a preview of that update, here are some examples of federal agencies that are still vigorously pursuing their mission of protecting the public.

Federal Trade Commission. In June the FTC, with the help of the Justice Department, prevailed in litigation against Dish Network over millions of illegal sales calls made to consumers in violation of Do Not Call regulations. The satellite TV provider was hit with $280 million in penalties.

Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA is a regulatory entity as well as a law enforcement agency. In July it announced that Mallinckrodt, one of the largest manufacturers of generic oxycodone, had agreed to pay $35 million to settle allegations that it violated the Controlled Substances Act by failing to detect and report suspicious bulk orders of the drug.

Federal Reserve. The Fed continues to take action against both domestic and foreign banks that fail to exercise adequate controls over their foreign exchange trading, in the wake of a series of scandals about manipulation of that market. The Fed imposed a fine of $136 million on Germany’s Deutsche Bank and $246 million on France’s BNP Paribas.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Last month the beleaguered CFPB ordered American Express to pay $95 million in redress to cardholders in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for discriminatory practices against certain consumers with Spanish-language preferences.

Securities and Exchange Commission. In May the SEC announced that Barclays Capital would pay $97 million in reimbursements to customers who had been overcharged on mutual fund fees.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC announced that the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain would pay $12 million to settle allegations that it discriminated against older employees by denying them front-of-the-house positions such as hosts, servers and bartenders.

Justice Department Antitrust Division. The DOJ announced that Nichicon Corporation would pay $42 million to resolve criminal price-fixing charges involving electrolytic capacitors.

Federal agencies are also finishing up cases dating back to the financial meltdown. For example, in July the Federal Housing Finance Agency said that it had reached a settlement under which the Royal Bank of Scotland will pay $5.5 billion to settle litigation relating to the sale of toxic securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And the National Credit Union Administration said that UBS would pay $445 million to resolve a similar case.

It remains to be seen whether federal watchdogs can continue to pursue these kinds of cases, but for now they are not letting talk of deregulation prevent them from doing their job.

Note: The new version of Violation Tracker will also include an additional ten years of coverage back to 2000.

Should Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Rebuilding the Gulf Coast’s Petrochemical Industry?

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

Much of the Gulf region remains flooded, people are still being rescued, and the full magnitude of the damage is not yet known. But soon the center of attention will be the rebuilding effort and how to pay for it.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is talking about the need for a federal aid package well in excess of $100 billion. Whatever the amount turns out to be, the critical issue will be how the money is distributed.

It’s already clear that the petrochemical facilities clustered in southeastern Texas have been hard hit by the flooding, and there will no doubt be calls to use both federal and state financial resources to help repair these plants.

While there should be no hesitation about using public funds to help the people of the Gulf rebuild their lives, we shouldn’t automatically do the same for the petro giants.

The first reason is that these companies can well afford to rebuild on their own dime. Exxon Mobil, which owns the giant refinery in Baytown, earned more than $130 billion in profits during the past five years. The Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, another massive facility, is owned by Aramco, which in turn is owned by the fabulously wealthy government of Saudi Arabia.

Second, taxpayers made enormous financial contributions to the construction and operation of these facilities. As shown in Subsidy Tracker, the Motiva refinery was awarded a $257 million state and local subsidy package in 2006 to help underwrite its expansion. Earlier this year, Exxon and SABIC, another Saudi company, were granted a $460 million package to jointly build a petrochemical plant near Corpus Christi.

Apart from being subsidized, many of the Gulf region’s petrochemical plants have horrible compliance records regarding toxic emissions and worker safety. The most notorious example is the refinery in Texas City between Houston and Galveston that was previously owned by BP and subsequently sold to Marathon Petroleum. In the wake of a 2005 explosion at the facility that killed 15 workers, BP was fined a then record amount of $21 million by OSHA for a pattern of egregious safety violations in Texas City. The company failed to make the necessary corrections and was later hit with an even larger penalty. BP also had to pay nearly $180 million to settle a federal environmental case involving the refinery.

As shown in Violation Tracker, in 2013 Shell Oil had to pay more than $117 million to resolve Clean Air Act violations at its Deer Park refinery outside Houston. The chemical plant in Crosby, Texas owned by the French company Arkema, where flooding has caused explosions, was fined $107,918 earlier this year by OSHA for serious safety violations (company later negotiated a reduction down to $91,724).

Providing more subsidies for these facilities would in effect negate the impact of the penalties the corporations paid for their negligence.

Finally, there is the difficult question of whether all these facilities should be rebuilt at all, especially if taxpayer funds are involved. The Gulf refineries play a significant role in an energy system that exacerbates the climate crisis, which likely contributed to the intensity of Harvey. We may not be free of fossil fuels yet, but does it make sense to use public resources to prolong the life of facilities linked to extreme weather events that threaten our future?

Documenting NLRB Back Pay Awards

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017

Massey Energy is notorious for the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 workers at a coal mine with a long history of safety violations. Yet Massey, now owned by Alpha Natural Resources, has another dubious distinction: it was responsible for the largest back pay award mandated by the National Labor Relations Board in recent years.

Massey paid out $22.8 million after the Board found it had committed unfair labor practices when it refused to recognize the United Mine Workers after it purchased a unionized West Virginia mining operation (separate from Upper Big Branch) and declined to continue the employment of most of the union members there.

The information about Massey’s payment emerges from the latest expansion my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First have made to the Violation Tracker database. We obtained a list of some 3,000 back pay awards through a Freedom of Information Act request to the NLRB. The awards, covering the period since the agency adopted its new NxGen database system in 2011, total more than $284 million.

This is not the complete list of unfair labor practice back pay cases during the period. The NLRB excluded from its FOIA response what are known as non-Board settlements — those reached by the parties before the NLRB has ruled on the matter. The Board said some of the awards are confidential, and since its system could not easily identify which those were, it left out all the non-Board settlements.

Among the other biggest NLRB back pay awards since 2010 are: $16.2 million paid by Midwest Generation (a subsidiary of NRG Energy), $10.7 million paid by Delphi Packard Electric (part of Delphi Automotive), $10.3 million paid by Fluor-Daniel (a unit of the engineering company Fluor), and $10 million paid by Momentive Performance Materials.

The NLRB dataset is an important addition to Violation Tracker. The Board issues press releases about only a small number of back pay awards and does not make data about other awards easily retrievable in the case information on its website. This appears to be the first time extensive NLRB back-pay award data is readily available online.

It should be noted, however, that information on back pay awards for the dozen years preceding 2011 is buried in a large NLRB dataset posted on Data.gov. My colleagues and I extracted the data. The entries for 2010 (the current starting point for Violation Tracker) are part of the new update. Earlier entries will be included in an expansion of the entire database back to 2000 that will be posted in a few months.

Those earlier entries contain some back pay awards much larger than those cited above, including $130 million paid by Lucent Technologies and Avaya Inc., and $97 million paid by CF&I Steel.

Along with the NLRB data, Violation Tracker has also been updated with recent entries from the more than 40 federal regulatory agencies already covered by the website.

Also new on the site are links on the parent-company summary pages to the pages for those companies in the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database and in the list of the 100 largest federal contractors on POGO’s FedSpending site.

Violation Tracker now contains more than 161,000 entries with total penalties of more than $324 billion,  the vast majority of which is connected to some 2,460 large parent companies.

It’s good to see unfair labor practice culprits take their place alongside corporate violators of environmental, health and safety, consumer protection and other laws that protect workers and the public.

The Tainted Reverse Revolving Door

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Given his own string of business controversies, it perhaps should come as no surprise that Donald Trump does not seem to worry much about the accountability track record of the companies from which he has recruited key members of his administration.

It’s well known that he chose as his Secretary of State the chief executive of environmental culprit Exxon Mobil, that he brought in a slew of people from controversial investment house Goldman Sachs, that his Treasury Secretary had operated a bank notorious for foreclosures, and that his first pick for Labor Secretary had run a fast-food company with numerous wage and hour violations.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that those were not anomalies. Research being carried out in collaboration with independent investigator Don Wiener shows that the administration also has a tendency in its second-tier White House and subcabinet appointees to select people associated with companies that have a checkered reputation.

When we initially embarked on this effort we expected to have to look into hundreds of names, primarily by checking their affiliated companies in our Violation Tracker. So far, whether by design or disorganization, the Trump Administration has announced nominees for only a few dozen of the hundreds of positions in the various departments and agencies, though things have been moving somewhat faster for White House staffers who do not require Senate confirmation. Within both of these groups there have been some questionable choices. Here are some initial examples; more will come in later posts.

Kenneth Juster and Bridgepoint Education. In February Trump chose Kenneth Juster, a partner at the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, to be Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Policy.  Prior to his appointment Juster was a member of the board of directors of Bridgepoint Education, an operator of for-profit colleges. He was a board representative for Warburg, which was an early backer of the company and which controls one-third of the firm’s shares.

As shown in Violation Tracker, in 2016 the Consumer Financial Protection Board alleged that Bridgepoint deceived students into taking out private loans that cost more than advertised. The agency fined the company $8 million and ordered it to provide $23.5 million in relief and refunds to clients.

Michael Brown and Chesapeake Energy. Brown, an executive assistant to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, previously worked for Chesapeake Energy, the controversial fracking company based in Oklahoma. In 2013 the Environmental Protection Agency announced that a subsidiary of the company was being fined $3.2 million and would spend $6.5 million on site restoration to settle allegations that it violated the Clean Water Act through improper discharges into streams and wetlands.

Drew Maloney and Hess Corporation. Maloney, chosen to be the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs at the Treasury Department, previously worked at the oil company Hess. In 2012 the EPA announced that Hess would pay a penalty of $850,000 and spend more than $45 million on pollution control equipment to settle Clean Air Act allegations at its refinery in New Jersey.

These are but a few examples of the what might be called the tainted reverse revolving door. The term “revolving door” is used to refer to the movement of government officials into lobbying and other private sector jobs where they exploit connections made in their public positions. The reverse revolving door is the process by which private sector people take government posts in which they are likely to promote the priorities of their previous (and likely future) employers.

Not only is Trump filling his administration with people with a business background, but he’s selecting people from some of the worst companies the private sector has to offer.

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.

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. 

Obama’s Final Blows Against Corporate Crime

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

$335 billion: that’s what has been paid by companies in fines or settlements in cases brought by federal agencies and the Justice Department during the Obama Administration. The estimate comes from the amounts associated with entries already in Violation Tracker and an update that is in the works.

Preparing that update has proven to be a challenge because of the remarkable flurry of cases that the Obama Administration has resolved in the waning days of its existence. Since the election the penalty tally has risen by more than $30 billion, much of that coming this month alone. The past ten days have seen four ten-figure settlements: Deutsche Bank’s $7.2 billion toxic securities case; Credit Suisse’s $5.3 billion case in the same category; Volkswagen’s $4.3 billion case relating to emissions fraud; and Takata’s $1 billion case relating to defective airbag inflators.

Here are some of the next-tier cases that would normally get significant coverage but may have gotten lost in the stream of announcements:

  • Moody’s agreed to pay $864 million to resolve allegations relating to flawed credit ratings provided for mortgage-backed securities during the run-up to the financial crisis.
  • Western Union agreed to pay $586 million to settle charges that it failed to guard against the use of its system for money laundering.
  • Shire Pharmaceuticals agreed to pay $350 million to settle allegations that one of its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by paying kickbacks to healthcare providers.
  • Rolls-Royce agreed to pay $170 million to resolve foreign bribery criminal charges; the military contractor was offered a deferred prosecution agreement.
  • McKesson, a large pharmaceutical distribution, was fined $150 million by the Drug Enforcement Administration for failing to report suspicious bulk purchases of opioids.

Although a few of these cases — including Volkswagen, Takata and Western Union– have involved criminal charges, for the most part the Obama Justice Department has kept its focus on extracting substantial monetary penalties from corporate wrongdoers.

While this approach has served the purpose of highlighting the magnitude of business misconduct, it remains unclear whether it has done much to deter such behavior. One of the aims of Violation Tracker is to document the problem of ongoing recidivism among corporate offenders by listing their repeated transgressions. JPMorgan Chase, for example, has racked up $28 billion in penalties in more than 40 cases resolved since the beginning of 2010. The list is likely to continue growing.

The steady stream of big-ticket cases has provided a constant source of new content for Violation Tracker, but it would have been preferable if federal prosecutors and regulators had figured out a way to get the bank and others like it to behave properly.

The Obama Justice Department’s rush to complete the recent settlements seems to be based in part on uncertainty as to whether the Trump Administration will continue to give priority to the prosecution of corporate crime. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions has not said much on the subject, while the President-elect has been uncharacteristically silent — both during his campaign and since the election — about corporate scandals such as the Wells Fargo bogus-account case while being outspoken in his critique of regulation.

We may soon look back fondly at the Obama approach as the new administration takes an even weaker posture toward the ongoing corporate crime wave.