Archive for January, 2015

A Crowded Corporate Hall of Shame

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

2015_PublicEye_KeyVisual_550x275Over the past year, Chevron has had success in getting a U.S. federal judge to block enforcement of a multi-billion-dollar judgment imposed by a court in Ecuador, and the oil giant managed to pressure the U.S. law firm representing the plaintiffs to drop out of the case and pay the company $15 million in damages. Chevron has just had another significant win but of a less desirable kind.

The Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland recently announced that Chevron had received the most votes in a competition to determine the world’s most irresponsible corporation and thus was the “winner” of the Public Eye Lifetime Award.

For the past ten years, the two groups have countered the elite mutual admiration society taking place at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland by highlighting the misdeeds of large corporations. The previous awardees ranged from banks such as Citigroup to drug companies such as Novartis to Walt Disney, which was chosen because of its use of foreign sweatshop labor to produce its toys.

A few months ago, Public Eye sponsors decided to bring the project to a close but do so with a splash by naming the company that stood out as the worst. Activists from around the world promoted their choices from among six nominees: Dow Chemical, Gazprom, Glencore, Goldman Sachs and Wal-Mart Stores, along with Chevron. Amazon Watch, which led the Chevron effort, prevailed. Glencore and Wal-Mart were the runners-up.

Public Eye’s award ceremony featured the Yes Men satirical group, which in one of its rare un-ironic pronouncements stated: “Corporate Social Responsibility is like putting a bandage on a severed head – it doesn’t help”. This sentiment is especially appropriate in relation to Chevron, which has long sought to portray itself, through ads headlined WILL YOU JOIN US, as not only mindful of environmental issues but as a leader of the sustainability movement.

Given the prevalence of business misconduct, choosing the most irresponsible corporation is no easy matter. Even within the petroleum industry, Chevron’s environmental sins in Ecuador and the rest of its rap sheet must be weighed against the record of a company such as BP, infamous for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster as well as safety deficiencies at its refineries that resulted in explosions such as one in Texas that killed 15 workers in 2005. Also worthy of consideration are Royal Dutch Shell, with its human rights abuses in Nigeria, and Exxon Mobil, with its own record of oil spills as well as climate change denial.

And what about the mining giants and their notorious treatment of indigenous communities around the world. A prominent activist once called Rio Tinto “a poster child for corporate malfeasance.” Then there is Big Pharma, made up of corporations that tend toward price-gouging and product safety lapses. And we shouldn’t leave out the auto industry, which in the past year has been shown to be a lot sloppier about safety matters than we could have imagined. Also not to be forgotten are the weapon makers, whose products are inherently anti-social.

Yet perhaps the biggest disappointment for corporate critics in the United States may be the fact that the Lifetime Award did not go to Wal-Mart. For the past two decades, the Behemoth of Bentonville has epitomized corporate misbehavior in a wide variety of areas — most notably in the labor relations sphere, but also promotion of foreign sweatshops, gender discrimination, destruction of small business, tax dodging, bribery (especially in Mexico) and the spread of suburban sprawl with its attendant impact on climate change. Yet perhaps the most infuriating thing about Wal-Mart has been its refusal to abandon its retrograde labor practices while working so hard, like Chevron, to paint itself as a sustainability pioneer.

It’s too bad that we will no longer have the annual Public Eye awards, but corporate misconduct will apparently be with us for a long time to come.

Precarious Pipelines

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

waterpickupProponents of the Keystone XL pipeline in Congress were annoyed at President Obama’s wisecrack in the State of the Union, but events 1700 miles away are an even bigger embarrassment for House members of both parties who voted for a bill ordering the administration to proceed with the controversial project.

The latest reminder that oil pipelines are an especially risky business emerged recently near Glendive, Montana when a burst pipeline spilled tens of thousands of gallons of light crude into the Yellowstone River. The accident contaminated the water supply of Glendive with carcinogenic benzene, and although later tests have yielded better results, residents have been using bottled water. Evidence of the spill has been visible along some 60 miles of the river.

All this is reminiscent of the 2011 rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline that caused a spill in the same river. The U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has proposed that the company be fined $1.7 million in connection with the accident.

This time, however, the rupture occurred in a pipeline owned by a modest-sized company, which goes to show that small business is not always immune from the ills of mega-corporations. The operator is Bridger Pipeline, a unit of a privately held group called True Companies.

According to the PHMSA website, Bridger has been involved in nine incidents since 2006, including three spills, all much smaller than the current situation. In 2007 the company was fined $100,000 for not having written guidelines for pipeline employee qualifications. Later it was fined $70,000 (reduced to $45,000) for other safety infractions. With the new accident, Bridger will probably join the ranks of the more serious violators.

What makes the Glendive accident all the more significant is that it occurred not far from where the Keystone XL would cross the Yellowstone. Those of a more pessimistic nature might say that this incident is an omen of what the bigger pipeline might bring.

Bridger’s link to Keystone XL is not just a matter of proximity. There have been reports that the firm’s Four Bears pipeline in North Dakota would have a connection to Keystone. North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven praised Four Bears for exactly this reason in 2012.

In 2012 Tad True of the True Companies appeared at a House hearing meant to celebrate the oil boom in North Dakota. His testimony argued for greater use of pipelines, calling them “safe and getting safer.” Numerous House members apparently took his message to heart, but the residents of Glendive may have another opinion on the matter.

Debunking Anti-Regulatory Rhetoric

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

dimonBelief in the infallibility of papal pronouncements is not as great as it used to be, but conservatives have lost none of their reverence for the statements of corporate executives. Nowhere is this clearer than in the new Congress, where Republicans seem preoccupied with addressing calls for regulatory “reform” from business leaders.

The vote in the House to begin gutting Dodd-Frank is the case in point. Conservatives appear to have taken to heart the dubious complaints by banks that they are being crippled by what are actually far from draconian restrictions.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon is keeping up the drumbeat, telling reporters the other day that “banks are under assault.” Would that it were so. Dimon cited as “evidence” the fact that his institution needs to deal with multiple regulatory agencies: “You should all ask the question about how American that is, how fair that is.”

First of all, the fragmentation of bank regulation in the United States is an old issue that has nothing to do with the severity of the oversight. Several agencies treating banks with kid gloves do not amount to something more onerous than having one do so.

What makes Dimon’s laments all the more absurd is that they come from the head of a bank with an abominable track record. This is the bank that in 2013 had to pay $13 billion to settle federal and state allegations concerning the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. It is also the bank that suffered a $2 billion trading loss generated by a group of London-based traders that top management failed to rein in and that Dimon himself all but excused in a blustering appearance before a Congressional committee.

And it is the bank that a year ago paid $1.7 billion to victims of the Ponzi scheme perpetuated by Bernard Madoff to settle civil and criminal charges of failing to alert authorities about large numbers of suspicious transactions made by Madoff while it was his banker.

Criticisms of financial regulations coming from someone like Dimon should be accorded as much respect as denunciations of the racketeering laws coming from a mobster.

Another key source of overheated anti-regulation rhetoric is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has published a funny but telling account of how top officials of the powerful trade association reacted when he asked them how their dire warnings about the threats to free enterprise posed by the Obama Administration squared with the recent good news about the economy.

Chamber President Tom Donohue and chief lobbyist Bruce Josten called Milbank “crazy” for saying that the Chamber had ever issued such warnings, with Donohue offering to buy the journalist lunch if he could produce such statements. Of course, Milbank goes on to reproduce several overwrought quotes.

It’s quite possible that the likes of Donohue and Josten are so used to speaking in exaggerated terms that they forget the meaning of their words.

Unfortunately, their acolytes in Congress, who receive those words wrapped in campaign contributions, take the messages all too seriously.

Prosecuting Corporate Culprits

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

SteinzorOn December 18th, the national page of the New York Times contained two stories on atypical events in the business world. One was headlined “Pharmacy Executives Face Murder Charges in Meningitis Deaths” and the other “Chemical Company Owners are Charged in Spill That Tainted West Virginia Water.”

By all rights, articles like these should be as common as those reporting on the prosecution of warring gang members or drug kingpins. Actually, they should be more common, since street crime is declining while corporate malfeasance seems to be on the rise.

The reasons for the reluctant prosecution of corporate crime are carefully dissected in the new book Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction by Rena Steinzor (photo), a law professor at the University of Maryland.

Steinzor, who is also president of the Center for Progressive Reform, starts by pointing a finger at what she calls “hollow government,” by which she means “outmoded and weak legal authority, funding shortfalls that prevent the effective implementation of regulatory requirements, and the relentless bashing of the civil service.”

What makes the decline of health, safety and environmental regulation so troubling is that for quite a while the system was, Steinzor notes, working fairly well. Both the food and drug laws of the early 20th Century and the environmental and workplace health legislation of the 1970s were helping to reduce deaths and illnesses.

Yet by the beginning of the new century, regulatory agencies were becoming timid while industry opponents and their Congressional allies grew ever more aggressive and successful. Steinzor takes the Obama Administration to task for often putting politics above regulatory rigor and for allowing the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to continue its traditional practice of weakening proposed rules.

Steinzor also excoriates the Justice Department for its widespread use of deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements, both before and during the Obama Administration. She sees these techniques as exactly the wrong approach in addressing corporate culpability in situations such as the Massey Energy mine collapse and two disasters — the Macondo well blowout and Texas City refinery explosion — linked to BP.

Rather than letting corporations buy their way out of these situations with financial settlements and promises not to sin again, Steinzor shows how it is possible to basic use legal concepts such as recklessness and willful blindness to bring criminal prosecutions against culpable managers and executives, especially when “industrial activities cause grave harm to public health, consumer or worker safety, or the environment.”

This needs to be done not only at the federal level, but also by local prosecutors, who have the powerful but largely neglected weapon of state manslaughter laws at their disposal.

Steinzor acknowledges that it will be difficult to change the attitudes of prosecutors, who all too often go for the easier approaches.

Another obstacle is the reluctance prosecutors seem to have about bringing cases they think might threaten the continued existence of a large corporation, a phobia stemming from the demise of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm in 2002 in the wake of its criminal conviction for actions relating to the Enron fraud.

It is significant that the two prosecutions cited at the start of these piece involve executives at relatively small firms. Until we also see executives at Fortune 500 companies facing the risk of time behind bars, the current corporate crime wave will continue unabated.