Archive for August, 2010

The Dark Side of Family Business

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Americans love entrepreneurship, and no form of it is more celebrated than the family business. Most of us distrust big banks and giant corporations, but who doesn’t have warm feelings about mom and pop companies or family farms? These are the types of firms that politicians of all stripes want to shower with tax breaks and other forms of government assistance.

The problem is that family enterprises, like pet alligators, may start out as small and cuddly but can grow into large and dangerous monsters. We’ve seen two examples of this recently in connection with the family-owned oil company Koch Industries and the egg empire controlled by the DeCoster Family.

Koch Industries and its principals David and Charles Koch are the subject of a detailed article in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer. Much of the information in the piece has previously come out in blogs, websites and muckraking reports by environment groups, but she does a good job of consolidating those revelations and presenting them in a prestigious outlet.

Mayer describes how the Kochs, who are worth billions, have for decades used their fortune to bankroll a substantial portion of rightwing activism and are currently the big money behind groups such as Americans for Prosperity that are helping coordinate the purportedly grassroots Tea Party movement. What makes the Kochs especially insidious is that they use the guise of philanthropy to fund organizations promoting policy positions – environmental deregulation and global warming denial – that directly serve the Koch corporate interests, which include some of the country’s most polluting and greenhouse-gas-generating operations. The Kochs also contribute heavily to mainstream philanthropic causes such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to win influential allies and gain respectability.

The DeCosters, whose egg business is at the center of the current salmonella outbreak, are not in the same social circles as the Kochs, but they have an even more egregious record of business misconduct. Hiding behind deceptively modest company names such as Wright County Egg, the family, led by Jack DeCoster, has risen to the top of the egg business while running afoul of a wide range of state and federal regulations.

As journalists such as Alec MacGillis of the Washington Post have recounted, the DeCosters have paid millions of dollars in fines for violating environmental regulations (manure spills), workplace health and safety rules (workers forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands), immigration laws (widespread employment of undocumented workers), animal protection regulations (hens twirled by their necks, kicked into manure pits to drown and subjected to other forms of cruelty), wage and hour standards (failure to pay overtime), and sex discrimination laws (female workers from Mexico molested by supervisors).

Their lawlessness dates back decades. A November 11, 1979 article in the Washington Post about Jack DeCoster’s plan to expand from his original base in Maine to the Eastern Shore of Maryland states that he was leaving behind “disputes over child labor, union organizing drives and citations for safety violations.” In 1988 the Maryland operation was barred from selling its eggs in New York State after an outbreak of salmonella. In 1996 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the DeCosters $3.6 million for making its employees toil in filth. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen.”

The DeCosters were notorious enough to be featured in a 1999 report by the Sierra Club called Corporate Hogs at the Public Trough.  The title referred to the fact that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) such as those operated by the DeCosters were receiving substantial federal subsidies despite their dismal regulatory track record.

Articles about Jack DeCoster invariably describe him as self-made and hard-working. “Jack doesn’t fish, he doesn’t hunt, he doesn’t go to nightclubs,” a farmer in Maine told the New York Times in 1996. “He does business — 18 hours a day.” He was recently described as a “born-again Baptist who has contributed significant amounts of money to rebuild churches in Maine and in Iowa.”

Like the Kochs, DeCoster apparently thinks that some philanthropic gestures will wipe away a multitude of business transgressions. Yet no amount of charitable giving can change the fact that these men grew rich by disregarding the well-being of workers, consumers and the earth. Such are the family values of these family businessmen.

Villainous Visionaries

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

It is tempting to refute the new book on business ethics by Andy Wales, Matthew Gorman, and Dunstan Hope with two letters; BP. The oil giant’s record of negligence in connection with the Gulf of Mexico disaster, its refinery accidents and its pipeline leaks in Alaska flies in the face of the thesis of Big Business, Big Responsibilities: that large corporations are in the vanguard of efforts to address the planet’s most pressing environmental and social problems.

The text of the book appears to have been completed before the blow-out of BP’s Macondo well this spring, but it is likely that the incident would not have merited mention if the timing had been different. Wales, Gorman and Hope seem to live in a world in which corporations act nobly and business crimes such as bribery, price-fixing, toxic waste dumping, mistreatment of workers and disregard for safety norms are either a thing of the past or are rare enough to ignore.

The authors – two of whom work for large corporations while the third (Hope) is on the staff of Business for Social Responsibility – would have us believe that many major companies have in a short period of time evolved from villains to visionaries.

To their credit, Wales, Gorman and Hope do not claim that this transformation happened spontaneously. They fully acknowledge the role of environmental and social justice campaigns in highlighting harmful and unfair business practices. Yet they fail to address corporate resistance to these campaigns, making it seem as if top executives promptly renounced pollution and exploitation as soon as an objection was raised.

Wales, Gorman and Hope admit that the initial boardroom motivation was to protect brands damaged by aggressive campaigners, but they insist that many large companies have gone beyond that defensive posture and are now engaged in a “proactive search for opportunities to improve social well-being and achieve corporate financial success at the same time.”

Their outlook is representative of the new corporate utopianism – the notion that the profit motive can be made to align perfectly with the public good, thus making global companies the perfect vehicle for reshaping the world.

It is easy to see why Wales, Gorman and Hope, who have built their careers on promoting corporate social responsibility, would embrace this view, and its appeal among the companies they advise is obvious.

But it is not clear why those of us with no vested interested in corporate canonization should go along. Even if we admit that some companies are doing some socially beneficial things, what took them so long? Are we expected to forget their decades of rapacious behavior?

It is also unclear how far should we trust companies that began to act responsibly only after being pressured to do so by outside forces, which according to Wales, Gorman and Hope include not just corporate campaigns but also growing consumer preference for ethical and sustainable goods and services. The only internal impulse that seems to be at work in socially responsible companies is the desire to make a buck from these new market opportunities.

So let me get this straight: responding to external pressures, giant corporations are doing the right thing, which turns out to be highly profitable – and we are supposed to believe this is some kind of great moral awakening?

Before passing judgment on the intentions of companies professing a commitment to social responsibility, perhaps we should take a step back and ask how real is the purported transformation. And this brings us back to BP, which is repeatedly praised by Wales, Gorman and Hope for its forward-thinking stance on issues such as climate change.

Given what we now know about BP’s reckless actions, as opposed to its high-minded principles, it is likely that its commitment to social responsibility is a smokescreen. Wales, Gorman and Hope don’t consider the possibility that many of the laudatory policies adopted by BP and other corporate leviathans are nothing more than greenwashing.

Big Business, Big Responsibilities could be dismissed as a work of corporate propaganda, but what makes it more insidious is the appeal the authors make to non-governmental organizations. The last page of the book calls on NGOs to be less suspicious of corporations and to accept them as full partners in environmental and social campaigns. I read this as an effort to bring about a unilateral ceasefire by watchdogs groups, which would lose their independence and start functioning as appendages of corporate public relations departments.

While a few NGOs have already moved in this direction, it would be foolhardy for serious campaigners to abandon their adversarial posture toward corporations. Without such pressure, big business would inevitably return to all its old tricks.

Stealth Disclosure

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

The Congressional practice of quietly attaching an unrelated provision to a larger piece of legislation at the last minute has all too often been used to benefit powerful corporate interests. In two recent cases, however, the stealth amendment process has resulted in changes that will make it easier to monitor questionable business practices by energy companies and federal contractors.

Extractive industries are complaining about language (Section 1504) slipped into the new financial reform bill that will require them to report on royalties and other payments to governments. The aim is to make it harder for those corporations to conceal bribes and other illegal transfers used to obtain petroleum or mining concessions and that often prop up corrupt regimes such as the one in Equatorial Guinea. The provision, based on a bill that had been introduced by Senators Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and Richard Lugar of Indiana, applies to publicly traded oil, gas and mining companies whose shares trade in the United States.

The law is a victory for groups such as Publish What You Pay, which has long campaigned to increase the transparency of energy corporation dealings with governments around the world. The campaign has already succeeded in getting some firms to disclose the information voluntarily, but it will be much better to have it mandated and overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which will write rules covering the inclusion of the information in financial statements.

That’s why trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute and companies such as Exxon Mobil are grousing about the law. An API spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that Russian and Chinese oil companies not subject to the requirement “could use the data to outfox U.S. companies in deals.”

Dubious complaints are also being heard from Beltway Bandit mouthpieces in response to a swift move by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to insert a provision in the recently passed supplemental appropriations bill giving the public access to a database about contractor performance – which in many cases means contractor misconduct.

The database is the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS), which was mandated as a result of 2008 legislation enacted thanks to the efforts of groups such as the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), which has its own Federal Contractor Misconduct Database covering the 100 companies doing the most business with Uncle Sam. FAPIIS is supposed to make it easier for federal agencies to review the track record of a much wider range of companies bidding on new contracts worth $500,000 or more. In addition to contract performance information collected from various federal sources, FASPIIS includes data submitted by companies with more than $10 million in contracts or grants on any criminal, civil or administrative proceedings brought against them during the previous three years.

FAPIIS was an important step forward, but it was able to get through Congress only after its sponsors agreed to restrict access to the database. POGO tested the provision by filing a FOIA request with the Pentagon for its FAPIIS information but was shot down.

A short time later, however, it came to light that the Sanders amendment survived in the supplemental spending bill President Obama signed on July 29. The provision will give the public access to FAPIIS information about contractor track records, but unfortunately it excludes past contract performance reviews by federal agencies.

Already, the Professional Services Council, the leading trade association of federal contractors, is warning that making parts of FAPIIS public “could create a politically motivated blacklist of vendors.” The PSC seems to believe that the public should not have the ability to pressure the federal government to stop doing business with crooked companies.

Speaking of blacklists, the FAPIIS change comes on the heels of an announcement by the Obama Administration that it is creating a master Do Not Pay database covering individuals and businesses that should not be receiving payments from federal agencies. At a time of growing hysteria about the federal deficit, it is good to see that attention is being paid to ways of cutting costs that are truly wasteful.

Obama’s Oil Magic

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

BP has been selling off small pieces of itself to help pay for its liability costs in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s another way it can economize: eliminate its public relations staffers and outside consultants such as the well-connected Podesta Group. The oil giant doesn’t need them any longer, now that the Obama Administration has taken over responsibility for burnishing the image of the beleaguered oil giant.

BP’s new mouthpieces include Carol Browner, whose official title is Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, and Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Browner has taken to the airwaves to deliver the mind-boggling message that the BP mess — which had just been declared by federal scientists to be the largest oil spill in history — has largely disappeared: “The vast majority of the oil is gone,” she told NBC’s Matt Lauer. “It was captured. It was skimmed. It was burned. It was contained. Mother Nature did her part.”

Lubchenco presided over the preparation of a five-page report claiming that one-quarter of the 200 million gallons of crude released from BP’s Macondo well “naturally evaporated or dissolved”; another quarter was dispersed “naturally” or chemically; and a third quarter was either directly recovered, burned off or skimmed from the surface, leaving a “residual” of 26 percent, among which is whatever BP collects from the shore.

In other words: Abracadabra, the oil is gone.

If BP had tried this kind of magic trick, it would have been laughed off the stage. The administration, exploiting the legitimacy of NOAA and Browner, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is being taken (somewhat) seriously. In doing so, it is acting as a sort of front group for BP, giving more credence to the company’s claims of having carried out an effective clean-up operation. The remarkable claims about evaporation and dissolution could also help to reduce BP’s ultimate liability costs.

At the same time, the White House is clearly trying to protect itself. The NOAA report can be seen as a justification for the administration’s capitulation to BP on the issue of chemical dispersants. Only a few days before the announcement of the NOAA calculations, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming had released documents showing that the Coast Guard had repeatedly approved BP requests to apply large quantities of Corexit, despite EPA’s claim to have ordered the company to restrict its use of the controversial chemicals.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that BP and the administration have conspired to disguise the full extent of the disaster through the use of the dispersant, which reduces the amount of sludge arriving on shore but is having as yet unknown effects on the ecology of the gulf. The White House is so compromised in this situation that it seems unable to recognize the dissonance between the President’s statement that this is the “worst environmental disaster America has ever faced” and the new message, which is essentially “don’t worry, be happy.”

The positive spin is giving ammunition to figures such as Rush Limbaugh, who have been claiming for some time that the impact of the BP spill has been exaggerated. By encouraging these disaster deniers, the administration is undermining the rationale for continuing the deepwater drilling moratorium and even for the transformation of the former Minerals Management Service into a real regulatory watchdog.

If spills — including gigantic ones such as BP’s — can be brought under control so easily with dispersants and Mother Nature, why bother to restrict offshore drilling? After an incident that should have discredited that activity once and for all, the Obama Administration has in effect paved the way for a return to “Drill, Baby, Drill.” Quite a magic trick.