Archive for May, 2014

Subsidizing Corporate Offenders

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

moneybagsontherunIt’s been clear for a long time now that, despite recurring calls to get tough on corporate crime, companies can essentially buy their way out of legal entanglements. In most cases this has come about through the U.S. Justice Department’s willingness to offer companies deferred prosecution agreements. The recent Credit Suisse guilty plea, which is not doing much to impair the bank’s operations, shows that big companies can even go about their business with a criminal conviction.

That’s not the worst of it. It turns out that many of these corporate offenders have received tax breaks and other forms of financial assistance from state and local governments around the country. This does not come as a complete surprise, but it is now possible to quantify the extent to which this unfortunate practice is taking place.

This estimate comes from mashing up two datasets. The first is the Subsidy Tracker I and my colleagues at Good Jobs First have compiled. In recent months we have enhanced the database by matching many of the individual entries to their corporate parents. For 1,294 large companies we now have summary pages that provide a full picture of the subsidies they and their subsidiaries have received.

The other data source is a list of the companies that have entered into deferred-prosecution and non-prosecution agreements with the Justice Department to settle a variety of criminal charges. (Although I refer to these firms as corporate miscreants or offenders, it must be pointed out that they were never formally convicted.)

The list appeared in the May 26, 2014 issue (print version only) of Russell Mokhiber’s excellent Corporate Crime Reporter. Mokhiber obtained it from University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett, author of a forthcoming book on corporate crime prosecution, and used it for an article showing that the bulk of those agreements are negotiated by a small number of law firms.

I took the liberty of using the list for another purpose: determining how many of the companies also appear in Subsidy Tracker. The results are striking: more than half of the miscreants (146 of 269, or 54 percent) have received state and local subsidies. These include cases in which the awards went to the firm’s parent or a “sibling” firm.

Even more remarkable are the dollar amounts involved. The total value of the awards comes to more than $25 billion. A large portion of that total ($13 billion) comes from a single company — Boeing, which is not only the largest recipient of subsidies among corporate miscreants but is also the largest recipient among all firms. Boeing made the Justice Department list by virtue of a 2006 non-prosecution agreement under which it paid $615 million to settle criminal and civil charges that it improperly used competitors’ information to procure contracts for launch services worth billions of dollars from the U.S. Air Force and NASA.

To be fair, I should point out that not all the subsidies came after that case was announced. In the period since 2006, Boeing has received “only” about $9.8 billion.

The other biggest subsidy recipients on the list are as follows:

  • Fiat (parent of Chrysler): $2.1 billion
  • Royal Dutch Shell (parent of Shell Nigeria): $2.0 billion
  • Toyota: $1.1 billion
  • Google: $751 million
  • JPMorgan Chase: $653 million
  • Daimler: $545 million
  • Sears: $536 million

Altogether, there are 26 parents on the DOJ list that have received $100 million or more in subsidies. As with Boeing’s $13 billion figure, the amounts for many of the companies include subsidies received before as well as after their settlement.

These results suggest two conclusions. The first is that state and local governments might want to pay more attention to the legal record of the companies to which they award large subsidy packages. A company that ran afoul of federal law might not be punctilious about living up to its job-creation commitments.

More broadly, the ability of companies caught up in criminal cases to go on getting subsidies suggests that there is insufficient stigma attached to involvement in such cases. If companies know that they can not only avoid serious punishment but still qualify for rewards such as tax breaks and cash grants, they are more likely to give in to temptations such as fraud, bribery, tax evasion, price-fixing and the like. Without real deterrents, the corporate crime wave will continue.

Too Big to Punish

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

get_out_of_jail_freeEver since the financial meltdown, corporate critics have been clamoring for criminal charges to be brought against major financial institutions. With the exception of the guilty plea extracted from an obscure subsidiary of UBS in a case involving manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index, the Obama Administration long resisted these calls, continuing the dubious practice of offering corporate miscreants deferred prosecution agreements and escalating but still affordable fines.

The Justice Department has now given in to the pressure, forcing Credit Suisse’s parent company to plead guilty to a criminal charge of conspiring to aid tax evasion by helping American citizens conceal their wealth through secret offshore accounts. Yet what should be a watershed moment in corporate accountability is starting to feel like a big letdown.

Despite weeks of handwringing by corporate apologists about the risks for a bank of having a criminal conviction, along with impassioned pleas for mercy by Credit Suisse lawyers, the world has hardly come tumbling down for the Swiss financial giant since Attorney General Eric Holder announced the plea.

Particularly unsatisfying is the fact that no top executives at the bank were charged, meaning that we were prevented from seeing any high-level perp walks. While some lower level bank employees were prosecuted, CEO Brady Dougan is getting off scot free. Even the Financial Times found this unseemly, suggesting that he should have had the good manners to resign. Dougan, instead, handled things in classic damage-control mode, treating the matter as over and done, stating: “We can now focus on the future and give our full attention to executing our strategy.”

The Justice Department is bragging about the plea and the $2.6 billion in penalties, but it is downplaying the failure to achieve one of the main objectives of the case. Credit Suisse is not being compelled to turn over the names of the holders of the secret accounts.

Other parts of the federal government seem to be doing everything possible to cushion the impact of the plea. The SEC has decided, at least for the time being, to exempt Credit Suisse from a law that requires a bank to relinquish its investment-advisor license in the event of a guilty plea. The Federal Reserve, which received $100 million of the penalties, issued a “cease and desist order requiring Credit Suisse promptly to address deficiencies in its oversight, management, and controls governing compliance with U.S. laws,” but it has given no indication that the bank’s activities will be restricted.

There are also no signs that the private sector will punish Credit Suisse. Customers do not appear to be shunning the bank, and the stock market has reacted to the plea with equanimity. The company’s stock price has fallen only a few points since the reports of a possible conviction emerged in recent weeks, and in the wake of the actual plea it has held steady.

When an individual is convicted of a crime, his or her life is usually thrown into disarray. Along with a possible loss of liberty, there may be a forfeiture of assets and a loss of livelihood. Especially for white-collar offenders, there is likely to be ostracism.

For corporate offenders, we’ve long seen how companies can buy their way out of serious consequences through non-prosecution and deferred prosecution deals. Now that get-out-of-jail-free card seems to be available to a company with an actual conviction.

Why, then, did the Justice Department bother pursuing criminal charges? It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the prosecution was meant solely as a symbolic gesture—a political move to quiet criticism of the administration’s treatment of corporate misconduct.

The handling of the Credit Suisse case may end up doing more harm than good, both in symbolic and substantive terms. The moves to mitigate the impact on the bank neutralize the administration’s effort to appear tough on corporate crime. They also undermine whatever deterrent effect the prosecution was supposed to achieve.

Large corporations may no longer be too big to convict, but they are still regarded as too big to punish.

Note: For details on the sins of Credit Suisse, see its updated Corporate Rap Sheet.

A New Generation of Corporate Tax Traitors

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Large U.S.-based corporations have long demonstrated that they are willing to put profits before patriotism. Over the past two decades, about two dozen of those companies have moved their legal headquarters offshore in order to drastically reduce their federal tax obligations. This disreputable practice is once again in vogue and being brought to a new level by Pfizer’s effort to acquire AstraZeneca and register the combined operation in the United Kingdom. The big Walgreen drugstore chain is also considering a foreign reincorporation move.

During the last big wave of what are politely known as corporate inversions, there was a great deal of protest. The decision by companies such as Tyco International and Ingersoll-Rand to reincorporate abroad was widely denounced as being akin to treason. Reacting to the controversy, Stanley Works dropped plans for a similar move.

Today there is surprisingly little anger over Pfizer’s plan. In fact, the business press is filled with articles indicating that numerous other companies are thinking along the same lines. Pfizer is facing some opposition, but it is mainly in Britain, where the company’s CEO Ian Read (photo) was grilled by members of parliament concerned that the merger will have a negative impact on employment at AstraZeneca.

While Pfizer has been quite open about the tax dodging aspect of its takeover bid, companies involved in inversions tend to justify their move by emphasizing the global nature of their business. The problem with this argument is that it is not supported by the facts. The companies that reincorporate abroad continue to do more business in the United States than in any other country. For example, the purportedly Irish company Ingersoll-Rand derives 59 percent of its revenues from the United States and has 80 percent of its long-lived assets in that country.

Inverted companies usually continue to trade on U.S. stock exchanges and keep their real headquarters at home. They also continue to win contract awards from the federal government. Accenture, another company claiming to be Irish, does more than $1 billion a year in business with Uncle Sam.

Along with their federal tax avoidance, many of the turncoat companies also take widespread advantage of tax breaks and other economic development subsidies from state and local governments. Here are some of the aggregate totals assembled by my colleagues and me at Good Jobs First for our Subsidy Tracker database:

If Pfizer succeeds in its bid, it would add another $200 million to this list, plus $9.2 million that has gone to AstraZeneca’s U.S. operations. Walgreen has received more than $12 million in subsidies.

Along with showing little loyalty to the United States, the corporate tax traitors do not hesitate to abandon their adopted countries when it is financially advantageous to do so. A number of the companies that had reincorporated in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands in the late 1990s and early 2000s subsequently moved to Europe. These include Ingersoll-Rand, Tyco International and Seagate Technology.

Doing so allowed them to avoid the stigma and legal complications of being based in Caribbean tax havens while still enjoying the relatively low corporate tax rates provided by countries such as Ireland and Switzerland. Britain, the intended new home of Pfizer, is now also regarded as one of the more respectable tax haven destinations.

While pretending to be Irish or Swiss or British may be regarded as more acceptable than pretending to be Bermudan, what these companies are doing is still brazen tax dodging and a betrayal of the country that helped them grow into corporate behemoths in the first place.

After the inversion controversies of the early 2000s, Congress took action that thwarted the practice. In today’s political climate in Washington, it is unlikely that restrictions will be placed on the new generation of runaway corporations. Business apologists are already using the Pfizer deal not as a call to arms to block more relocations but rather as an argument for giving in to longstanding demands to gut what remains of the corporate income tax.

According to this warped logic, the United States will solve the tax haven problem only by becoming one itself.

Targeting the Climate Culprits

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

CarbonMajorsImage1The new U.S. National Climate Assessment makes for sobering reading. In a document of more than 800 pages, it shows that climate change is not some possibility in the distant future but rather a crisis we are already beginning to experience. Extreme weather events linked to climate change, it states, are “disrupting people’s lives and damaging some sectors of our economy.”

Although it is forthright in stating the scientific evidence, the report, as an official government document, avoids assigning blame for the run-up in greenhouse gas emissions to specific parties, and it does not make specific proposals for mitigating the problem.

A very different approach is taken in research recently published by the Climate Accountability Institute, which as its name suggests is very much about naming names. The institute’s Carbon Majors project has accomplished the remarkable feat of estimating how much in the way of carbon and methane emissions can be linked to specific companies going back decades.

In a painstaking analysis, principal investigator Richard Heede has reconstructed the corporate lineage of the major fossil fuel and cement corporations,  assembled data on their historical output and estimated the greenhouse gas emissions caused by that output. In the case of Chevron, for example, the analysis goes back to 1912 and includes predecessor entities such as Standard Oil of California, Gulf Oil, Texaco, Getty and Unocal. The report also covers state-owned oil companies, which Heede notes have not done a good job of providing production statistics.

In all, Heede documents more than 900 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents and links them to 90 of the world’s largest oil, gas, coal and cement-producing entities. If contributing to the climate crisis can be considered an offense against the planet, these 90 entities are the biggest climate culprits.

So who are they? Table 11 of Heede’s report shows that the companies with the largest cumulative emissions are the following:

  1. Chevron: 51.1 billion metric tons
  2. Exxon Mobil: 46.7 billion metric tons
  3. Saudi Aramco: 46 billion metric tons
  4. BP: 35.8 billion metric tons
  5. Gazprom: 32.1 billion metric tons
  6. Royal Dutch Shell: 30.8 billion metric tons
  7. National Iranian Oil Company: 29.1 billion metric tons
  8. Pemex: 20 billion metric tons
  9. ConocoPhillips: 16.9 billion metric tons
  10. Petroleos de Venezuela: 16.2 billion metric tons

Pressuring these companies through a divestment campaign of the type that is beginning to take hold among U.S. universities (Stanford has just announced it will purge its portfolio of coal stocks) is a good start, but it will probably not be enough.

Other approaches are also being pursued. In an article in The Nation, Dan Zegart reports on efforts by environmental lawyers to mount a legal assault on fossil fuel companies like that used against Big Tobacco. It turns out that these lawyers are studying Heede’s research closely and are trying to figure out ways to use it in their suits.

Putting the industry on the defensive in the courts as well as in the streets is important, because the Carbon Majors will increasingly depict themselves as leaders of the effort to overcome the climate crisis rather than their true identity as key culprits in causing it to happen. I’m sure that Chevron is preparing a new version of its “Will You Join Us?” ad campaign of a few years ago, in which it painted a false picture of itself as part of the clean-energy vanguard.

The recent agreement by Exxon Mobil to insert warnings in its financial reports about the risks to its fossil fuel assets from possible stricter limits on carbon emissions is being hailed by environmentalists as a major transparency advance, but it could also be used by the company as a way of limiting future legal liability.

Another troubling sign of potential corporate maneuvering can be found in the National Climate Assessment itself. It is surprising to open Chapter 4 on Energy Supply and Use and find that one of the lead authors is Jan Dell of ConocoPhillips, one of Heede’s top-ten Carbon Majors. I, for one, would prefer not to see oil company representatives playing a role preparing key analyses of the climate crisis. The fossil fuel industry is a big part of that problem (to the tune of 900 million metric tons), not part of the solution.

Slapping Corporate Wrists a Little Harder

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

moneybagsontherunGovernments will go to ridiculous lengths to punish criminals. States that cling to the death penalty now resort to back-alley methods for obtaining the drugs used in lethal injections, leading to grotesque results such as the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

When it comes to corporate crime, a very different standard is applied. Prosecutors go out of their way to soften the impact on offenders. Criminal charges are often not filed, and when they are companies are offered deferred prosecution agreements that allow them to pay fines and make promises not to sin again.

Federal prosecutors are now feeling pressure to take a harder line, especially with global banks that may have flouted U.S. laws relating to tax evasion and international sanctions. The New York Times reports that the Justice Department is pushing to get guilty pleas from Credit Suisse, which has faced charges of helping wealthy Americans dodge taxes through secret bank accounts, and BNP Paribas, which is being investigated for violating U.S. economic sanctions against countries such as Sudan and Iran.

Getting a guilty plea from a major bank (rather than from one of its obscure subsidiaries, as happened in the LIBOR-manipulation case involving UBS) would be an important step in affirming that these institutions are not above the law. The problem is that the Justice Department does not seem to want to impose the kind of penalties that normally go along with a criminal conviction.

According to the Times, prosecutors are meeting with banking regulators “about how to criminally punish banks without putting them out of business and damaging the economy.”

We would never hear such a statement made about, say, an illegal gambling ring. There is no concern that going after such an operation would eliminate jobs and harm the economy.

As for banks, even when they are found to have engaged in egregious behavior, they are treated as legitimate institutions that must be preserved. It is true that not every employee may have been involved in criminal misconduct, but that is no reason why the continued survival of the bank in its existing form has to be regarded as an essential component of any resolution of criminal charges.

Corporate crime will not disappear until prosecutors are willing to consider truly punitive penalties for companies that engage in serious misbehavior. By this I mean consequences that go well beyond fines that a company can easily afford (and can often deduct from its taxes).

It’s often said that bringing criminal charges against corporations is pointless, since a company cannot be put in prison. Leaving aside the question of the feasibility of putting corporate executives behind bars, this view fails to acknowledge the other ways in which a firm’s liberty can be restricted.

We see such an example in the current scandal involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who is being fined $2.5 million and banned for life by the National Basketball Association for making racist statements but who also may be forced to sell the team. Why is the Justice Department not talking about forcing banks such as Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas to divest themselves of the operations in which the prohibited practices took place? I would prefer to see such criminal enterprises confiscated outright, but that may be too much to hope for.

Prosecutors have to weigh the economic impact of cases that might, for instance, lead to the revocation of a bank’s license to operate, which is considered the corporate equivalent of the death penalty. This is apparently behind the caution being exhibited in the Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas negotiations.

The lesson that prosecutors seem to have taken from the 2002 conviction of Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that abetted Enron’s frauds, is that putting a company out of business is a big mistake. I don’t understand why.

The demise of Andersen and Enron and Drexel Lambert did not bring about economic calamity. In fact, the economy was probably better off without these corrupt institutions. We might also be better off if today’s miscreants met a similar fate, or at least had to undergo radical restructuring. And that would send a clear message to other corporations that they have to clean up their act.

 

Note: For an analysis of an industry that has a lot to clean up, including widespread wage theft, see the report just issued by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United and other groups on the National Restaurant Association and its members. I contributed the Rogues Gallery section.