Archive for December, 2012

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 Right to Freeload

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

RTWThe justifications cited by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for why he signed the “right to work” law that Republicans rammed through a lame duck session are as spurious as the name of the bill itself. The statutes now in place in two dozen states using that label provide, of course, no right to employment yet take advantage of the fact that the uninformed may jump to that conclusion.

Snyder has offered several rationales for his decision to approve legislation he had not previously supported. With a straight face he told Joe Scarborough of MSNBC that the law would make unions stronger by holding them more accountable to members, but he went on to repeat the platitudes about “freedom” that the corporate-backed proponents of the law disingenuously employ.

On top of that, Snyder has made the assertion that being a RTW state will make it easier for Michigan to attract new investment and jobs to the state, citing data from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. The relationship between RTW and attractiveness to corporations is not a simple matter. On the one hand, there is a body of literature showing that RTW does not have a significant impact on job growth or the rate of new business formation. Yet, as Peter Fisher points out in his review of this literature in chapter 6 of his recent report Selling Snake Oil to the States, there is evidence showing that RTW states tend to have lower wage rates and lower per capita income.

There is no doubt that those lower wages along and lower rates of unionization are appealing to at least some low-road companies. In many RTW states there is a long history of coddling such firms. As James Cobb shows in his book The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936-1990, Dixie was using the availability of cheap, non-union labor as a selling point in industrial recruitment even before Section 14(b) of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act created RTW by giving states the right to outlaw union security provisions in labor agreements. Cobb notes that some southern communities went so far as to offer written commitments to those investors that their operation would be union-free.

It is interesting that Snyder cites Indiana and its IEDC in his economic development rationale for RTW. That state and agency have relied much less on RTW than on subsidies in the effort to attract investment. Both lures are currently given equal billing on the homepage of the IEDC website, yet inside the site there is nothing more about RTW yet there are numerous pages about the myriad business tax credits and other kinds of assistance the state has to offer.

There is also a body of literature showing the limited effectiveness of such financial “incentives” in fostering economic growth, but here too there are some mercenary companies that will respond to handouts. The IEDC, by the way, has been the subject of investigative reporting showing that it has exaggerated the job-creation impact of its activities.

In his Snake Oil to the States report, Peter Fisher notes that RTW, by allowing workers who decline to join an existing union to avoid contributing to the cost of the collective bargaining from which they benefit, should really be called Right to Freeload.

The same can be said about the corporate subsidies that are at the heart of the economic development efforts of Indiana and numerous other states. Special tax breaks granted to certain companies mean that they are not paying their fair share of taxes, forcing other companies and households to make up the difference.

Michigan is actually a special case in this regard. Since taking office, Snyder has pushed the state to rely less on business tax credit programs, which under his predecessor had reached astronomical levels. However, his motivation for this has been to reduce taxes on all companies, meaning that the business sector overall will pay less and thus increase the burden on families.

By reducing wages, RTW is another way of allowing business to avoid paying its fair share of economic growth. The pattern is clear: through a combination of low wages, weak unions, subsidies and low business tax rates, the Right wants to build a society based on corporate freeloading.

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New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS:  a dossier on drugmaker Merck, including its Vioxx scandal (which led to billions in fines and lawsuit damages), tax dodging and more.

 

Summing Subsidies

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First were excited at the publication of the New York Times series on the “United States of Subsidies,” since it brings a great deal of attention to a problem—corporate abuse of economic development assistance—that we have been working on for more than a decade.

We were also pleased to see the online database that the Times posted to go along with the articles. We had provided a copy of the master spreadsheet for our Subsidy Tracker database to Louise Story, the author of the series, and she made extensive use of it. Although the Times obtained some information from other sources, it appears that about 98 percent of their company-specific listings come from Subsidy Tracker. (SEE UPDATE BELOW.)

Now that we have had a few days to examine the Times database, we see that there are some flaws in the way the paper used our data.

First, a few words on Subsidy Tracker. In recent years, a growing number of states began to put company-specific information on at least some of their economic development awards—grants, tax credits, tax abatements, etc.—online. This was often in response to the subsidy accountability movement that we and our allies have built.

The problem was that these disclosures usually happened via hard-to-find reports and web pages that were often difficult to search even when you did locate them. Good Jobs First decided to collect all these disclosures and combine them into one national search tool. We introduced Subsidy Tracker in December 2010 with 43,000 listings from 124 subsidy programs in 27 states.

Over the following two years, we have expanded that to the current total of 247,000 listings from 409 programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. That expansion was not due entirely to wider official online transparency. Using open records requests, we also obtained unpublished data on scores of additional programs (the total is currently 89). By posting this information to Subsidy Tracker, we became, in effect, the original online disclosure source for these programs.

In recent months we’ve begun applying this approach to city and county subsidy programs, which are far behind their state counterparts in terms of online disclosure.

Despite all this effort, we recognized that we still could not claim to have captured anywhere near all the subsidy awards that have been made across the country. Not only did we still lack many programs, we also have irregular numbers of years of data among programs.  That’s why we have not yet built into Subsidy Tracker a feature that enables instant aggregation of all the awards going to a particular company.

Along with the remaining gaps in the data, there is much that needs to be done with regard to the listings we do have to allow accurate aggregation. This includes the standardization of the variations in company names in our source materials, linking of parent and subsidiary companies, and accounting for mergers and acquisitions. There’s also the problem that some states report subsidy amounts for single years and others for multiple ones. These challenges are all part of our future work plan.

After getting our raw data, the Times did not consult with us on exactly how it would be used. We thus had no opportunity to warn the paper against the perils of aggregation. Specifically, we were not aware of the paper’s plans to create what it calls its $100 Million Club.

It is with this listing that the pitfalls in the Times approach become most apparent. The companies that receive the largest subsidies often get them in the form of packages negotiated with state and local officials. These packages usually consist of awards from various programs and may also involve project-specific awards outside established programs. Some of these pieces of packages are not included in state disclosure channels. It is part of our plan to research packages through other means and add them to Subsidy Tracker as a separate category. We’ve already begun the process in the Key Deals section of the state pages of the Accountable USA section of the Good Jobs First website.

The Times supplemented the roughly 154,000 entries it took from Subsidy Tracker with about 2,000 listings the paper obtained on its own or from an expensive subscription service produced by a company called Investment Consulting Associates. This enabled the inclusion of entries that were gleaned from press releases but had not yet been reported in the official program lists we rely on for Subsidy Tracker.

Yet the $100 Million Club still ends up with numerous instances in which the totals understate the true amount the big subsidy grabbers have received.

For example, the Times lists a total of $338 million for Boeing, including $218 from South Carolina. Yet it has been estimated that the package Boeing got by locating a new Dreamliner assembly line in the Charleston area could be worth some $900 million.

Apple is said to have received a total of $119 million, yet the Times fails to include more than $60 million in subsidies the company got for a data center in North Carolina.

The Times $100 Million Club also misses some major recipients entirely, including Volkswagen, which got more than $500 million in connection with an assembly plant in Tennessee, and ThyssenKrupp, which got more than $1 billion in subsidies for a steel mill in Alabama.

And these only include deals dating back to 2007, which is the period the Times used in compiling its $100 Million Club. The larger Times database seriously understates the size of major deals that took place earlier. For example, it lists only $19.3 million for GlobalFoundries in New York State, even though the company took over a $1.2 billion deal originally offered to Advanced Micro Devices (which isn’t listed at all).

We applaud the Times for the great reporting that went into its United States of Subsidies articles, but the paper fell short when it came to the compilations featured in its database. Good Jobs First will continue to build our Subsidy Tracker tool and in the future will create what we hope will be a more accurate and complete version of a $100 Million Club.

UPDATE

After this blog was posted, Louise Story contacted us with some concerns. She confirmed that 98 percent of the entries (a total of 152,729) in the Times database came from Subsidy Tracker, but she says the number of entries that came from other sources was actually 3,844 rather than the 2,000 we estimated. She added that in dollar terms, a subject we did not address in the blog, Tracker entries account for 67.3 percent of the total in the Times database. However, we cannot verify that number because the Times has not given us its underlying spreadsheet.

Story also believes that the blog should have mentioned the fact that she contacted me several weeks ago to say that the articles and database would be published soon and in effect told me about her aggregation plans. She did indeed contact me but gave the impression that her work was completed, meaning that an effort to suggest any changes in methodology would have been moot at that point.

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New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS: A dossier on Swiss drug giant Novartis and its history of selling unsafe drugs, price-gouging, toxic dumping and gender discrimination.