Archive for September, 2012

Corporate Recidivism

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

The announcements by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission that they had each charged Tyco International with engaging in foreign bribery was not just another all-too-familiar instance of corporate misconduct. It is an indicator of how a large corporation can be repeatedly drawn to illicit behavior even after being embroiled in a huge scandal that shook it to its core.

In the early 2000s, Tyco ranked with Enron and WorldCom as the leading symbols of the sleazy side of big business. In 2002 its chairman and CEO Dennis Kozlowski resigned amid reports that he was being investigated for evading more than $1 million in sales taxes due on artwork for his $18 million apartment on Park Avenue.

That was just the beginning. Kozlowski and Tyco’s former chief financial officer Mark Swartz were then indicted in a racketeering lawsuit charging them with looting the company of some $600 million through stock fraud, falsified expense accounts and other means. During their trial, details were revealed about Kozlowski’s lavish lifestyle—including what would become an infamous $6,000 shower curtain—based on what the prosecution called his misappropriation of company funds. In 2005, the two men were convicted of fraud, conspiracy and grand larceny; they were sentenced to 8-25 years in prison.

While the actions of Kozlowski and Swartz were meant to enrich themselves, Tyco benefited from other questionable maneuvers, such as the transfer of its corporate domicile offshore to Bermuda to avoid paying some $400 million a year in federal income taxes. In December 2002 the company, acknowledging what had long been suspected, admitted that for years it had engaged in financial gimmickry to inflate its reported earnings.

An internal investigation documented that Tyco managers had been openly encouraged to engage in creative accounting to give investors a misleadingly rosy view of how the company was performing. At the time, Tyco reduced its stated earnings by $382 million and later reported another $1 billion in accounting irregularities. In 2006 Tyco agreed to pay $50 million to settle SEC charges related to the accounting improprieties, and the following year it paid $3 billion to settle related class-action investor lawsuits.

In an effort to improve its reputation with shareholders, Tyco has undergone several restructurings and spinoffs. It also moved its legal headquarters from Bermuda to Switzerland, where the tax avoidance possibilities are apparently even more attractive.

Yet the one thing that should have been the top priority—ending its ethical shortcomings—apparently fell off the list, if the new SEC complaint is any indication.

According to the agency, Tyco repeatedly violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act through illicit payments to officials in more than a dozen countries during a period that began before 2006 and continued at least until 2009. After settling its earlier case with the SEC, Tyco allegedly continued to cook its books to disguise the bribes its subsidiaries were paying in places such as Turkey, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

At the same time the SEC and Justice Department revealed their actions against Tyco, the agencies announced that the company had settled the civil and criminal charges by agreeing to pay a total of $26 million—less than what it paid the SEC six years ago.

This comes across as a slap on the wrist for a company which had previously been accused of serious accounting fraud and which was supposed to cleaning up its act. The fact that Tyco could be granted a non-prosecution agreement for the criminal conspiracy charge is especially odious.

Both the SEC and Justice seemed to be trying to justify the light penalties by praising Tyco for cooperating in the investigation of the bribery. Yet this is the same company that was supposed to have rooted out its culture of corruption long ago.

It didn’t do a very good job of that, and the $26 million penalties—for a company with more than $17 billion in annual revenue and $1.7 billion in profits—does not create much pressure to end the profitable misconduct.

If there’s one thing that can be said for Kozlowski and the others who looted Tyco and cooked its books, it’s that they thought big. The prosecutors deciding on penalties for the company’s misdeeds should do the same.

Corporations are the Real Moochers

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

The firestorm over Mitt Romney’s closed-door comments depicting nearly half the U.S. population as parasites is coming mainly from those defending seniors, the poor and the disabled. But what’s really wrong with the Ayn Rand worldview Romney was parroting is that it ignores those who are the biggest moochers of all: giant corporations.

If, as Romney suggested, moocherism begins with the failure to pay federal income taxes, then that label can easily be applied to many of the country’s major companies. A November 2011 report by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that more than one-quarter of large companies paid zero taxes in at least one of the three years examined.

Quite a few of those companies arranged their affairs so that they had negative tax rates, meaning that the IRS sends them checks. And many of those that paid taxes did so at what CTJ and ITEP called “ultra low” rates of 10 percent or less.

Corporate tax avoidance is just the beginning of the story. The dependence on government that has Romney so upset is at the heart of the business plan for much of Corporate America. What libertarian types tend to overlook is that much of the public spending they disdain comes in the form of purchases from businesses. It’s estimated that more than $500 billion a year in federal outlays occurs via private-sector contracts.

Some companies rely so heavily on that spending that they are as government-dependent as any Medicaid or food stamp recipient. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, for example, derives more than 80 percent of its revenue from the federal government, especially the Pentagon; for its competitor Raytheon the figure is about 75 percent.

A large portion of what is called entitlement spending, especially in healthcare, ends up in the pockets of corporations, including drug makers, medical device manufacturers and for-profit hospital chains. The largest of the latter, HCA, gets more than 40 percent of its revenue from Medicare and Medicaid.

Corporations can get federal grants as well as contracts. The Commerce and Agriculture Departments have a slew of programs that assist businesses in marketing their products or that underwrite some of their costs. And, of course, a large portion of the billions paid each year in farm subsidies goes to agribusiness giants rather than family farmers.

Despite the recent Republican demagoguery on Solyndra, targeted federal spending to develop new energy technologies is nothing new. The Recovery Act’s billions for solar and wind companies was completely in line with federal programs that have subsidized everything from coal gasification to nuclear power plants. Before the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, the U.S. government was promoting a loan guarantee program to encourage the construction of a new generation of nukes by major utility companies.

Giant corporations also depend on the federal government to help them sell their goods abroad. The Export-Import Bank of the United States spends more than $30 billion each year providing various forms of insurance, loan guarantees and direct loans for the likes of Boeing, General Electric and Caterpillar. The federal government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation helps U.S. companies do more business offshore by providing political risk insurance and other types of financial assistance.

Another form of corporate dependency on government  is the ability of natural resources companies to operate on public lands and pay either no royalties or artificially low ones . Mining corporations, for example, take advantage of an 1872 law that allows them to extract gold, silver and other hardrock minerals from public lands royalty-free.

Assistance from the federal government can be a matter of life and death for some companies, as in clear in the cases of General Motors and Chrysler as well as the banks that were brought back from the brink by the TARP bailout and then thrived on the influx of billions in essentially free money from the Federal Reserve.

Hearing all the ways in which the federal government makes life easier and more profitable for big business, a newly arrived Martian might expect giant corporations to be grateful boosters of the public sphere. Instead, as we know all too well, most large companies are disdainful of government and are constantly whining about regulation and taxes they can’t avoid paying.

To make things worse, many government-dependent companies are less than honest when it comes to their dealings with the public sector. The Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database identifies hundreds of examples of contract fraud and other offenses. Healthcare providers such as HCA, not satisfied with the vast amount of honest business they get from Medicare and Medicaid, have defrauded taxpayers out of billions more.

If Romney wants to find the real moochers—and often crooked ones at that—he can find them in the corporate world that is his natural habitat.

Corruption and Concentration

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

The United States has by far the fattest military budget in the world, but soon the biggest company providing much of that weaponry could be European. Britain’s BAE Systems and Airbus parent EADS have announced plans to join forces, creating the world’s largest aerospace and military contracting corporation.

Business analysts are focusing on the challenge such a merger would pose to the companies’ U.S. rivals Boeing and Lockheed Martin, while little mention is being made of the fact that the deal would bring together two of the most ethically challenged large corporations in the world today.

For most of the past decade, BAE has been confronted with allegations that the company engaged in widespread bribery in its dealings with foreign governments. The charges began to receive significant attention in June 2003, when The Guardian reported that the U.S. government had privately accused BAE of offering bribes to officials in the Czech Republic. The Guardian went on to report that BAE was facing bribery allegations in three additional countries: India, South Africa and Qatar. Among the charges was that BAE had paid millions of pounds in secret commissions to obtain a huge deal, backed by the British government, to sell Hawk jets to South Africa. There were subsequent allegations that the company had formed a £20 million slush fund (later said to be £60 million) for paying bribes to officials in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.

Despite denials by the company, Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) launched a criminal investigation of the bribery charges, focusing on the allegations regarding Saudi Arabia. BAE and the Saudi embassy reportedly lobbied intensively to have the probe terminated, and in December 2006 their effort paid off. The British government called a halt to the case because of national security concerns. (In April 2008 Britain’s High Court ruled that the termination of the investigation was unlawful, but in July 2008 the House of Lords overruled the court.) The SFO did, however, continue to investigate BAE’s questionable behavior in six other countries. The company was also being investigated by Swiss officials for possible money laundering violations.

Unable to escape these allegations, BAE announced in June 2007 that it would commission its own purportedly independent examination of the issues led by Lord Woolf, former lord chief justice of England and Wales. The Woolf Committee’s 150-page report, released in May 2008, stated that BAE’s top executives “acknowledged that the Company did not in the past pay sufficient attention to ethical standards and avoid activities that had the potential to give rise to reputational damage.” However, the report seems to have bowed to the wishes of the company that the focus be placed on the future rather than the past. The report provided what it called “a route map for the Company to establish a global reputation for ethical business conduct.” Among its 23 recommendations is that BAE “continue to forbid facilitation payments as a matter of global policy.” Given the less than draconian nature of the recommendations, it is no surprise that BAE agreed to adopt all of them.

A new front in BAE’s problems with questionable payments opened in late July 2008, when the Financial Times reported that it had seen documents suggesting that the company had paid at least £20 million to a company linked to a Zimbabwean arms trade close to controversial President Robert Mugabe.

In February 2010 BAE reached settlements with the U.S. Justice Department and the U.K. Serious Fraud Office concerning the longstanding bribery charges. The company agreed to pay $400 million in the U.S. and the equivalent of about $47 million in Britain to resolve the cases.

Confidential U.S. government cables given leaked to the press by Wikileaks in 2011 indicated that BAE had paid more than £70 million in bribes to Saudi officials to support its help win a contract for fighter jets.

EADS has been embroiled in its own corruption controversies. In mid-2006 a scandal emerged regarding EADS co-chief executive Noel Forgeard. French and German market regulators announced that they were looking into the timing of substantial sales of EADS stock by Forgeard and members of his family that occurred just before the company announced delays in the production of the Airbus A380 superjumbo jet. Forgeard initially claiming the timing was coincidental, but within a few weeks he was forced to resign, as was the head of Airbus, Gustav Humbert.

That did not put an end to the insider trading investigation. In December 2006 French police searched the Paris headquarters of EADS and that of its main French shareholder, the Lagardère conglomerate. In April 2008 a formal complaint was filed against EADS as well as more than a dozen current and former executives. The following month preliminary charges were brought against Forgeard and then against former deputy chief executive Jean-Paul Gut. In December 2009, however, French authorities concluded there was insufficient evidence against the executives.

Prior to the insider trading affair, EADS and/or Airbus had been named in numerous scandals around the world involving alleged bribery. A 2003 article in The Economist described a pattern of foreign bribes paid by Airbus throughout its history, noting that the French government tolerated such payments until 2000.

One of the most significant controversies occurred in Canada, where former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was investigated over charges that he took bribes from German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber to induce Air Canada (then government controlled) to purchase $1.2 billion worth of Airbus planes in 1988. Mulroney denied the allegation vehemently and sued his own government, winning an apology and a cash settlement. The allegations were kept alive when Schreiber brought a civil suit against Mulroney, but Schreiber ended up making contradictory statements about the matter.

In December 2007 the government of India cancelled a $600 million order for military helicopters from Eurocopter after allegations that there had been corruption in the bidding process.

Just last month, it was reported that Britain’s SFO has launched a criminal probe of claims that a unit of EADS bribed officials in Saudi Arabia to win a $3 billion communications contract. The company asked PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct a parallel investigation.

Given the records of these two corporations, the regulators who will be deciding whether to approve the merger should also consider what conditions could be imposed on the combined company to get it to put an end to its legacy of corruption.

Dealing with a Rigged System

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Bill Clinton may have stolen the show at the Democratic convention, but it was the speaker preceding him who had the more powerful message.

Declaring that “the system is rigged,” Elizabeth Warren delivered perhaps the most candid statement ever made at a mainstream U.S. political event about corporate domination of American life.

While both speeches were meant to make the case for the reelection of Barack Obama, they took two starkly different approaches that highlighted a tension within the Democratic Party as intense as the one between it and the Republicans.

Clinton, basking in the nostalgia many people feel for the relative prosperity of the 1990s, did a good job in contrasting the GOP’s ideology of “you’re on your own” to a Democratic philosophy of “we’re in this together.” His call for a shared prosperity was based on a vision of “business and government actually working together to promote growth.” He insisted that “advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics.”

While Clinton derided the Republican narrative that every successful person is completely self-made as an “alternative universe,” he is living in a fantasy world of his own. That’s one in which corporations that have pursued self-interested policies that put the economy on the brink of disaster and ravished the living standards of most of the population are suddenly going to get religion about economic justice.

Clinton captured the absurdity of the Republican argument against Obama’s re-election: “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in.” Yet the “we” in that statement actually includes more than George W. Bush and Republican members of Congress. The mess was caused primarily by the big banks, whose orgy of speculation was ushered in by the bipartisan financial deregulation of the Clinton era.

A more accurate rebuttal of the GOP’s bogus rugged individualism was provided by Warren: “Republicans say they don’t believe in government. Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends.” The Massachusetts senatorial candidate, refusing to kowtow to the sector that many Democrats turn to for campaign contributions, added: “Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them.”

Unlike Clinton, Warren acknowledged that contemporary big business is rife with corruption. She repeatedly depicted the economic system as being “rigged” and referred to the “rip-offs” perpetrated by the big banks. And in a rare linkage between conventional and corporate crime, she called for a society in which “no one can steal your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street.”

This gets to the dilemma for Democrats. Do they ignore corporate crime, as Clinton chose to do, and make the far-fetched claim that government partnership with business will suddenly result in broad-based prosperity rather than widening inequality? If instead they follow Warren’s lead and highlight the venality of corporations, what kind of solution can they offer?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau championed by Warren is a good start. As Warren noted in her speech (without naming the culprit), the CFPB recently brought an enforcement action, the agency’s first, against Capital One for deceptive marketing of credit cards.

Yet the Obama Administration overall has shown little stomach for taking tough action against corporate criminals. Obama does not hesitate to talk about how bad things were when he took office, yet his Justice Department has done little to prosecute the banksters who created the crisis.

“President Obama believes in a level playing field,” Warren dutifully declared. “He believes in a country where everyone is held accountable.” But belief is not enough. If he is reelected, Obama will have to take on corporate misconduct and stonewalling on job creation in a much more aggressive way.

After Clinton finished his speech at the convention, Obama came out on stage to embrace him and share in the enthusiastic response of the audience. Yet in a second Obama term, he would do better to align himself with Warren’s call to show that “we don’t run this country for corporations, we run it for people.”