Archive for December, 2013

The 2013 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Monopoly_Go_Directly_To_Jail-T-linkThe ongoing corporate crime wave showed no signs of abating in 2013. Large companies continued to break the law, violate regulations and otherwise misbehave at a high rate. Whatever lip service the business world gives to corporate social responsibility tends to be overwhelmed by bad acts.

Continuing the trend of recent years, 2013 saw an escalation of the amounts that companies have to pay, especially in the United States, to get themselves out of their legal entanglements. In November JPMorgan Chase set a record with its $13 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and other state and local agencies on charges relating to the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. JPMorgan’s legal problems are not over. There have recently been reports that it may face criminal charges and pay $2 billion in penalties in connection with charges that it turned a blind eye to the Ponzi scheme being run by Bernard Madoff while it was serving as his primary bank.

Other banks have also been shelling out large sums to resolve disputes over the sale of toxic securities in the run-up to the financial crisis. Much of the money has gone to settlements with mortgage agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Bank of America alone agreed to pay out $10.3 billion ($3.6 billion in cash and $6.75 billion in mortgage repurchases) to Fannie.

Here are some of the year’s other highlights (or lowlights):

FORECLOSURE ABUSES. In January, ten mortgage servicing companies–including Bank of America, Citibank and JPMorgan Chase–agreed to an $8.5 billion settlement to resolve allegations by federal regulators relating to foreclosure abuses.

LIBOR MANIPULATION. In February, U.S. and UK regulators announced that the Royal Bank of Scotland would pay a total of $612 million to resolve allegations relating to rigging of the LIBOR interest rate index. In December, the European Union fined RBS and five other banks a total of $2.3 billion in connection with LIBOR manipulation.

ILLEGAL MARKETING. In November, the Justice Department announced that Johnson & Johnson would pay more than $2.2 billion to settle criminal and civil allegations that it improperly marketed the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal for unapproved use by older adults, children and people with development disabilities.

SALE OF DEFECTIVE MEDICAL IMPLANTS. Also in November, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay more than $2 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits charging that the company sold defective hip implants, causing many individuals to suffer severe pain and injury from metallic debris generated by the faulty devices.

INSIDER TRADING. In March, the SEC announced that an affiliate of hedge fund giant SAC Capital Advisors had agreed to pay $602 million to settle SEC charges that it participated in an insider trading scheme involving a clinical trial for an Alzheimer’s drug being jointly developed by two pharmaceutical companies. At the same time, a second SAC affiliate agreed to pay $14 million to settle another insider trading case. Later, SAC agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle related criminal and civil insider trading charges.

PRICE-FIXING. In July, German officials fined steelmaker ThyssenKrupp the equivalent of about $115 million for its role in a price-fixing cartel. In September, the U.S. Justice Department announced that nine Japanese automotive suppliers had agreed to plead guilty to price-fixing conspiracy charges and pay more than $740 million in criminal fines, with the largest amount ($195 million) to be paid by Hitachi Automotive Systems.

MANIPULATION OF ENERGY PRICES. In July, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered Barclays and four of its traders to pay $453 million in civil penalties for manipulating electricity prices in California and other western U.S. markets during a two-year period beginning in late 2006.

BRIBERY. In May, the Justice Department announced that the French oil company Total had agreed to pay $398 million to settle charges that it violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by paying bribes to officials in Iran.

VIOLATION OF DRUG SAFETY RULES. In May, DOJ announced that generic drug maker Ranbaxy USA Inc., a subsidiary of the Indian company Ranbaxy Laboratories, had pleaded guilty to felony charges relating to the manufacture and distribution of adulterated drugs and would pay $500 million in fines.

VIOLATION OF RULES ON THE SALE OF NARCOTICS. In June, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced that the giant Walgreen pharmacy chain would pay a record $80 million in civil penalties to resolve charges that it failed to properly control the sales of narcotic painkillers at some of its stores.

DEALINGS WITH ENTITIES SUBJECT TO SANCTIONS. In June, New York officials announced that Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi-UFJ had agreed to pay $250 million to settle allegations that it violated state banking laws by engaging in transactions with entities from countries such as Iran subject to sanctions.

LABOR LAW VIOLATIONS. In November, the National Labor Relations Board found that Wal-Mart had illegally disciplined and fired workers involved in protests over the company’s labor practices. A Wal-Mart spokesperson was found to have unlawfully threatened employees who were considering taking part in the actions.

CLEAN WATER ACT VIOLATIONS. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Wal-Mart had pleaded guilty to charges that it illegally disposed of hazardous materials at its stores across the country. The company had to pay $81.6 million in civil and criminal fines.

HEALTH AND SAFETY CODE VIOLATIONS. In August, Chevron pleaded no contest and agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges that it violated state health and safety regulations in connection with a fire at its refinery in Richmond, California that sent thousands of people to hospital for treatment of respiratory problems.

DELAYS IN RECALLING UNSAFE VEHICLES. In August, Ford Motor was fined $17.4 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for taking too long to recall unsafe sport utility vehicles.

PRIVACY VIOLATIONS. In November, Google agreed to pay $17 million to 37 states and the District of Columbia to settle allegations that the company violated privacy laws by tracking online activity of individuals without their knowledge.

Note: For fuller dossiers on many of the companies listed here, see my Corporate Rap Sheets.

Contractor Entitlement Reform

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

nn_thomp_refineryfire_050324.300wThe fiscal austerity crowd is preoccupied with the size of government, but what they rarely acknowledge is that more than $500 billion in annual federal outlays take the form of purchases of goods and services from the private sector. Uncle Sam’s role as the country’s biggest consumer means that federal agencies are in a good position to expect the highest standards of conduct from contractors.

A new report by the majority staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee shows that the federal government is not doing a good job of enforcing such standards when it comes to working conditions at contractor companies. In fact, the report shows that violations of occupational safety and health regulations as well as wage and hour laws are rampant among the contractors.

Some key findings of the report:

  • Eighteen federal contractors were among those companies receiving the 100 largest penalties issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between 2007 and 2012. Contractors accounted for 48 percent of the dollar value of those penalties.
  • Thirty-two federal contractors were among the companies receiving the large back-wage assessments ordered by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the Department of Labor between 2007 and 2012.
  • The 49 federal contractors in these categories were found to have been cited for 1,776 separate violations and paid $196 million in penalties and assessments. In fiscal year 2012, these same companies were awarded $81 billion in federal contracts.

Misconduct by contractors is an old story, but legislation passed in 2008 was supposed to make it easier for federal agencies to identify bad actors and disqualify them from contract awards. The law provided for the development of an official database along the lines of the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database created by the Project On Government Oversight.

That database did come into being and is known as the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System, or FAPIIS. In its current state, FAPIIS is a big disappointment. The Senate report points out that of the 49 contractors on the lists of largest labor violations only one has such instances of misconduct included in its FAPIIS entry. As the report states with understandable outrage:

In perhaps the most astonishing example of the failures of FAPIIS, BP, despite the deaths, injuries, and massive environmental damage, as well as the billion dollar settlements resulting from the Deep Water Horizon incident, and despite the deaths, injuries and fines resulting from the Texas City refinery explosion [photo], and despite holding $2 billion in contracts in 2012, has no misconduct entries in FAPIIS.

The Senate report does not just point out the limitations of FAPIIS but also demonstrates how more aggressive information-gathering on companies can be done. Its authors delved into the enforcement databases of both OSHA and the WHD to identify which contractors were serial violators. The results are presented both in summary tables in the report and in a 448-page appendix with key data on several dozen of the worst offenders.

In the occupational safety and health category, it is no surprise that the company at the top of the list of violators is BP, which is a rare example of a large company that was actually debarred (albeit temporarily) from doing business with the federal government because of its misconduct.

On the wage and hour side, it is also not surprising that the company appearing most often in the list of the biggest back pay assessments is Wal-Mart, though the company does a miniscule amount of business with the federal government. Also on high up on the list are companies focused on government contracting, such as private prison operator Management & Training Corporation and Pentagon outsourcer IAP Worldwide Services (owned by the private equity company Cerberus Capital Management).

While the Senate report calls on the General Services Administration, which oversees FAPIIS, to clean up the database, it also urges the Department of Labor to do more to publicize the names of contractors that were found to be violators of federal labor laws.

But why stop with DOL? Shouldn’t every regulatory agency take pains to highlight bad actors and make sure federal procurement officials know who they are?

There is much talk of entitlement reform with regard to safety net programs. What we need instead is more attention on corporations that think they are entitled to receive contracts from the federal government even when they show little regard for federal regulations.

Forward-Looking Corporations and the Backward-Looking Ones

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Google_ALECLarge corporations like to think of themselves as engines of progress. Sometimes they are, though the progress they engender may be a mixed blessing. Other times, however, they are retrogressive, working to preserve the worst practices of the past.

Both of these tendencies have been on display in the news in recent days. In the forward-looking category we have Amazon and Google, which have let it be known that they are exploring what sound like science-fiction options for home delivery of goods.

Amazon revealed it is developing a system of drones that would fly packages from a distribution center to a customer’s home in a matter of minutes after an order is placed. Meanwhile, Google is reported to be working on a delivery system consisting of driverless cars and robots.

Of all the ways that technology could improve everyday life, it is hard to believe that the most compelling is the ability to have a 10-pack of tube socks flown directly to one’s doorstep. It is also unfortunate that these companies are apparently paying little attention to the massive job losses that their innovations could bring about. Yet by some uniquely corporate definition, such innovations would amount to progress.

In the thoroughly backward-looking category we have the American Legislative Exchange Council, the big-business-dominated organization that puts corporate-designed model bills into the hands of conservative state legislators. The Guardian has been publicizing a new batch of leaked ALEC documents that shed new light on the Neanderthal thinking of the organization.

Among the revelations is that ALEC has been working to promote legislation discouraging homeowners from installing solar panels. Dubbed the Electricity Freedom Act, the model bill calls on states to repeal or limit their renewable portfolio standards, which provide the basis for pressuring utilities to purchase excess power generated by houses with the panels. Rather than seeing those homeowners as helping to address climate change problems, an ALEC official told the Guardian that they are “freeriders.”

Discouraging renewable energy is far from the only way that ALEC encourages retrograde policies. The organization has received a torrent of criticism for its role in promoting voter suppression and “stand your ground” gun laws, which represent a return to the eras of Jim Crow and the Wild West.

ALEC has also had disturbing influence over state policymaking through its publication of a series of Rich States, Poor States reports that purport to give a road map to prosperity. A report written by Peter Fisher and published by Good Jobs First (in which I played a small role) shows how these prescriptions—which include shrinking the public sector, suppressing wages and rolling back regulation—amount to nothing but snake oil.

Thanks to other internal ALEC documents just disclosed by the Guardian, we now know that the latest edition of Rich States, Poor States project was funded by $175,000 from the Searle Freedom Trust and $150,000 from the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation. The latter is actually listed in the report as “Koch/Claude Lamb,” which helps make it clear that the foundation is controlled by the Koch Brothers and/or Koch Industries. See more on the foundation here.

It comes as no surprise that the Kochs would be bankrolling such a report, but what’s the story with the Searle Freedom Trust? As Sourcewatch has documented, it is a large funder of rightwing groups such as the American Enterprise Institute at the national level as well as state-level policy groups under the State Policy Network (SPN) umbrella. The trust is featured in the StinkTanks website created by ProgressNow and the Center on Media and Democracy. Another piece just published in the Guardian based on leaked ALEC documents notes that Searle’s connection to the SPN is through its advisor Stephen Moore, an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal and one of the co-authors of the Rich States, Poor States propaganda.

The money behind the trust comes from the inherited wealth of the late Daniel Searle, who once ran the G.D. Searle pharmaceutical corporation. That corporation, which was acquired by Monsanto in 1985, is largely forgotten. Yet back in the 1980s it was notorious for its Copper-7 birth control device, which was linked to many cases of pelvic infections and infertility. Searle, headed after Daniel Searle’s retirement by Donald Rumsfeld, was found to have been negligent in its testing and marketing of the device.

It is the financial legacy of such corporate irresponsibility which is helping to finance the current rightwing policy agenda. As much as they purport to be forward-looking, today’s corporations supporting that agenda are just as guilty as the Searle Freedom Trust of trying to bring us back to the laissez-faire society of the Gilded Age.

That includes Google, which joined ALEC a couple of months ago (at a time when many corporations are fleeing the group), thus making a mockery of its “do no evil” motto. Equitable public policy, not robotic delivery systems, is what we really need.

Note: The latest addition to my Corporate Rap Sheets collection is about South Korean conglomerate LG and its amazing record of price-fixing scandals.