Archive for September, 2016

False Claims and Other Frauds

Monday, September 26th, 2016

ViolationTracker_Logo_Development_R3The False Claims Act sounds like the name of a Donald Trump comedy routine, but it is actually a 150-year-old law that is widely used to prosecute companies and individuals that seek to defraud the federal government. It is also the focus of the latest expansion of Violation Tracker, the database of corporate crime and misconduct we produce at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First. The resource now contains 112,000 entries from 30 federal regulatory agencies and all divisions of the Justice Department. The cases account for some $300 billion in fines and settlements.

Through the addition of some 750 False Claims Act and related cases resolved since the beginning of 2010, we were able to identify the biggest culprits in this category. Drug manufacturers, hospital systems, insurers and other healthcare companies have paid nearly $7 billion in fines and settlements. Banks, led by Wells Fargo, account for the second largest portion of False Claims Act penalties, with more than $3 billion in payments. More than one-third of the 100 largest federal contractors have been defendants in such cases during the seven-year period.

Among the newly added cases involving healthcare companies, the largest is the $784 million settlement the Justice Department reached last April with Pfizer and its subsidiary Wyeth to resolve allegations that they overcharged the Medicaid program. DaVita HealthCare Partners, a leading dialysis provider, was involved in the next two largest cases, in which it had to pay a total of $800 million to resolve allegations that it engaged in wasteful practices and paid referral kickbacks while providing services covered under Medicare and other federal health programs.

Wells Fargo accounts for the largest banking-related penalty and the largest False Claims Act case overall in the new data: a $1.2 billion settlement earlier this year to resolve allegations that the bank falsely certified to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that certain residential home mortgage loans were eligible for Federal Housing Administration insurance, with the result that the government had to pay FHA insurance claims when some of those loans defaulted.

Thirty-five of the 100 largest federal contractors (in FY2015) have paid fines or settlements totaling $1.8 billion in False Claims Act-related cases since the beginning of 2010. The biggest contractor, Lockheed Martin, paid a total of $50 million in four cases, while number two Boeing paid a total of $41 million in two cases.

The database has also added new search features, such as the ability to search by 49 different types of offenses, ranging from mortgage abuses to drug safety violations. Users can view summary pages for each type of offense, showing which parent companies have the most penalties in the category. Penalty summary pages for parents, industries and agencies now also contain tables showing the most common offenses. Users can add one or more offense type to other variables in their searches.

Among types of offenses, the largest penalty total comes from cases involving the packaging and sale of toxic securities in the period leading up to the financial meltdown in 2008. The top-ten primary case types are as follows:

  1. Toxic securities abuses: $68 billion
  2. Environmental violations: $63 billion
  3. Mortgage abuses: $43 billion
  4. Other banking violations: $18 billion
  5. Economic sanction violations: $14 billion
  6. Off-label/unapproved promotion of medical products: $12 billion
  7. False Claims Act cases: $11 billion
  8. Consumer protection violations: $9 billion
  9. Interest rate benchmark manipulation: $7 billion
  10. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases: $6 billion

We also added a feature allowing for searches limited to companies linked to parent companies with specific ownership structures such as publicly traded, privately held, joint venture, non-profit and employee-owned. That’s in addition to updating the data from the agencies already covered and increasing the size of the parent company universe to 2,165.

The uproar over the Wells Fargo sham accounts scandal is heightening the discussion of corporate crime. Violation Tracker hopes to be a tool in efforts to turn that discussion into lasting change.

Grandstanding Without Results

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

John Stumpf of Wells Fargo

Members of Congress subjected the CEOs of a pair of rogue corporations to much-deserved castigation in recent days, but the executives will probably turn out to be the victors. John Stumpf of Wells Fargo and Heather Bresch of Mylan endured the barbs knowing that they will not lead to any serious consequences.

The periodic grilling of business moguls amid corporate scandals is a longstanding feature of Congressional oversight. In the 1930s the Senate Banking Committee, led by investigator Ferdinand Pecora, questioned Wall Street titans such as J.P. Morgan about the causes of the stock market crash. In the late 1950s Sen. Estes Kefauver asked pharmaceutical executives about rising drug prices. In the 1960s Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, with the help of a young lawyer named Ralph Nader, interrogated auto industry executives about their seemingly cavalier attitude toward safety.

Jumping to the recent past: In 2010 the CEO of BP was hauled before a House hearing to testify about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In 2013 the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations questioned Apple CEO Tim Cook about his company’s international tax avoidance. And so forth.

Yet there is a big difference between the older and the more recent hearings. In the 20th Century these events were preludes to legislative reform. The Pecora hearings led to the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act separating speculative activities from commercial banking. Kefauver tried but failed to pass price restrictions but was able to enact stricter drug manufacturing and reporting rules. The Ribicoff hearings led to the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act.

Those earlier hearings may have been political theatre, but they were followed by serious regulatory changes. Today’s hearings, on the other hand, seem to be nothing more than theatre. For many members of Congress, they are opportunities to pretend to be concerned about corporate misconduct while having no intention to do anything about it.

That’s not surprising, given that the party in control of both chambers of Congress is rabidly anti-regulation. The 2016 Republican National Platform is filled with critical comments about regulation, including an assertion that the Obama Administration “triggered an avalanche of regulation that wreaks havoc across the economy.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the lead regulator in the Wells Fargo fake accounts case, is a favorite target of conservative lawmakers. Right after the CFPB’s Wells Fargo announcement, Speaker Paul Ryan sent out a tweet claiming that the agency “tries to micromanage your everyday life.” Senate Banking Committee Chair Richard Shelby tried to block the appointment of Richard Cordray to head the CFPB and subsequently sought to weaken the agency. And during his opening statement at the hearing, he took a pot shot at CFPB for not being aggressive enough in pursuing the case.

Congressional grandstanding against corporate miscreants has been going on for decades, but what was once a device to build public support for real legislative change now serves mainly to conceal the fact that too many legislators are in office to do the bidding of corporations, even the most corrupt ones.

A Culture of Corruption

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

The chief executive of Wells Fargo would have us believe that more than 5,000 of his employees spontaneously became corrupt and decided to create bogus accounts for customers who were then charged fees for services they had not requested.

John Stumpf has earned himself a place in the corporate hall of shame for putting the blame on underlings for carrying out a fraud that must have been sanctioned by top officials at the bank, which has a reputation for pushing new products on customers. He may have been inspired by Volkswagen, whose senior people have been claiming that they knew nothing about systematic cheating on auto emissions tests.

After the announcement that Wells would pay $185 million to settle the case, Stumpf did a self-protective interview with the Wall Street Journal in which he insisted that the misconduct was in no way encouraged by management and was inconsistent with the bank’s internal culture. Few seem to be buying that argument, and Wells is facing various federal investigations.

The notion that Wells had been a paragon of virtue is preposterous. The dishonesty begins with its name, which evokes the legendary stagecoach line. The company is actually the descendant of Norwest, a bank holding company based in Minneapolis which changed its name after acquiring the old Wells Fargo in 1998.

Four years later, the combined company had to pay a penalty of $150,000 to settle SEC charges of improperly switching customers among mutual funds. In 2005 the securities industry regulator NASD (now FINRA) fined Wells $3 million for improper sales of mutual funds.

When Wells acquired Wachovia Bank amid the financial meltdown of 2008 it acquired a bunch of legal problems, including a municipal securities bid rigging case that required a $148 million settlement.

Recent years have seen a long list of additional scandals and settlements. In 2009 Wells had to agree to buy back $1.4 billion in auction-rate securities to settle allegations by the California attorney general of misleading investors. In 2011 it agreed to pay $125 million to settle a lawsuit in which a group of pension funds accused it of misrepresenting the quality of pools of mortgage-related securities. That same year, the Federal Reserve announced an $85 million civil penalty against Wells Fargo for steering customers with good qualifications into costly subprime mortgage loans during the housing boom.

In 2012 Wells Fargo was one of five large mortgage servicers that consented to a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and state attorneys general to resolve allegations of loan servicing and foreclosure abuses. Later that year, the Justice Department announced that Wells Fargo would pay $175 million to settle charges that it engaged in a pattern of discrimination against African-American and Hispanic borrowers in its mortgage lending during the period from 2004 to 2009. Also in 2012, Wells agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle SEC charges that it failed to fully research the risks associated with mortgage-backed securities before selling them to customers such as municipalities and non-profit organizations.

In 2013 Wells was one of ten major lenders that agreed to pay a total of $8.5 billion to resolve claims of foreclosure abuses; it settled a lawsuit alleging that it neglected the maintenance and marketing of foreclosed homes in black and Latino areas by agreeing to spend at least $42 million to promote home ownership and neighborhood stabilization; and it agreed to pay $869 million to Freddie Mac to repurchase home loans the bank had sold to the mortgage agency that did not conform to the latter’s guidelines.

Jumping to 2016: the Justice Department announced that Wells would pay $1.2 billion to resolve allegations that the bank certified to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that certain residential home mortgage loans were eligible for Federal Housing Administration insurance when they were not, resulting in the government having to pay FHA insurance claims when some of those loans defaulted.

And a few weeks before the CFPB revealed its sham accounts penalty against Wells, the agency fined the bank $3.6 million plus $410,000 in restitution to customers to resolve allegations that it engaged in illegal student loan servicing practices.

Contrary to Stumpf, the sham accounts were much in line with the culture of Wells, which has been corrupt for years. As long as the bank’s top management denies the reality, it seems unlikely anything will change.

Note: This post draws from my newly updated Corporate Rap Sheet on Wells Fargo.

Imposing the Ultimate Punishment

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

The outcome of most cases of serious corporate misconduct is the same: the company pays a fine that is not too onerous and no one ends up behind bars. That’s what makes the fate of ITT Educational Services all the more significant.

This for-profit educational outfit just shut down pretty much all its facilities in the wake of a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that the company would no longer be able to enroll new students using federal financial aid funds. In other words, the feds effectively put ITT out of business.

Before anyone begins complaining about overreaching bureaucrats, keep in mind that the company has a dismal track record. It faced accusations from state regulators of misleading students about the quality of its programs and their prospects for employment after graduation. In 2014 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued ITT for predatory lending. CFPB Director Richard Cordray stated at the time: “We believe ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many consumers into expensive loans destined to default. Today’s action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics.”

ITT is not the first dubious for-profit educator to be pushed into oblivion. In 2015 Corinthian Colleges announced the cessation of operations amid a spate of state and federal investigations, including a CFPB case that resulted in a default judgment of $530 million.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has stood fast in its tough treatment of scam schools, building on the 2010 move by Congress to push commercial banks out of the federal student loan business.

The willingness to put sleazy operators out of business is seen little outside the educational sector. It’s true that the Bureau of Prisons announced plans to phase out the use of private prison operators, but the likes of CCA will be kept alive by their state government customers.

Among federal regulators, the one agency that focuses more on shutting down rogue operators rather than imposing monetary fines is the Food and Drug Administration. It must be noted, however, that the shutdowns are often temporary (remaining in effect only while the company corrects unsafe processing plant conditions) and usually involve smaller firms. Other agencies may take action that results in the closing of fly-by-night firms, but it is rare for regulators or prosecutors to take steps that could end up in the demise of an established company, no matter how corrupt it may have become.

This hesitation seems to stem from backlash against the Justice Department’s case against accounting firm Arthur Andersen for its role in the Enron accounting scandal. In the wake of its 2002 conviction for obstruction of justice, the firm had to dismantle its auditing business and was unable to resurrect it after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction three years later. Nonetheless, the Enron accounting fraud was real, and Arthur Andersen enabled it in some way.

It is time for the DOJ and other regulatory agencies to follow the Education Department’s lead in taking the most aggressive kind of action against big companies that misbehave in a major way. A prime candidate for such treatment is Volkswagen, which engaged in a brazen scheme to cheat auto emissions tests and thus exacerbated air pollution to a shocking extent. The company is paying billions in settlement costs but apparently will remain in business. In fact, it just announced a substantial investment in Navistar to boost its position in the U.S. truck business.

A move to mandate the shutdown of a large company like VW should include arrangements for the sale of its assets and other protections for its workers. There would still be disruptions but it would send a strong signal to other large corporations that they should not expect to buy their way out of severe legal liability.

Putting Apple in Its Place

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

bad-appleApple’s indignant response to the European Commission tax ruling has nothing to do with an inability to pay. The company’s cash pile of more than $200 billion could cover the assessment several times over. Instead, it’s something more akin to the attitude attributed to the late New York hotelier Leona Helmsley: only the little people pay taxes.

Large corporations like Apple think that what they do is so important that they should be able to skirt their fair share of taxes. Some of their dodging is covert and some is done brazenly out in the open; some is done against the wishes of tax collectors and some is done with their full cooperation.

The covert portion of Apple’s tax avoidance started to come to light in 2012, when the New York Times published an investigation of the company’s use of esoteric accounting devices such as the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich” to route profits in ways that minimized tax liabilities or eliminated them entirely. A year later, the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report providing additional details on Apple’s tax tricks. It also held hearings in which Apple CEO Tim Cook insisted what the company was doing was simply “prudent” management while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul brought shame on himself by declaring that Apple was owed an apology.

While Congress has done little to thwart corporate tax dodging, the EC used the Senate report to launch an investigation of Apple that resulted in the recent ruling. Now some members of Congress are making fools of themselves by protesting that ruling.

As Apple’s global tax dodging has gotten the most attention, the company has been able to avoid some domestic taxes with much less bother. That because states and localities routinely offer the kind of special tax deals to individual companies that are banned in Europe, more so now that Ireland’s attempted end-run was rejected.

This is seen most clearly in the subsidy packages that Apple and other tech giants such as Facebook and Google receive when they build new data centers necessary to handle the ever-increasing volume of human activity taking place in “the cloud.” Although the decision as to where to locate the facilities is based primarily on considerations such as the availability of low-cost energy (data centers are power hogs), these companies want to receive large amounts of taxpayer assistance.

As my colleague Kasia Tarczynska points out in a forthcoming report on the subject, companies such as Apple regularly negotiate subsidy packages and special tax breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars for data centers that typically create only a few dozen jobs.

In North Carolina, Apple successfully pressured the state to allow it to calculate its income taxes through a special formula that will save the company an estimated $300 million over the 30-year life of the agreement. Local officials provided property tax abatements worth about $20 million more. All this for a project that was to create only about 50 permanent jobs. Despite its $1 billion cost, the facility did little to boost the local economy. “Apple really doesn’t mean a thing to this town,” a resident told a reporter in 2011. Apple went on to receive generous subsidy packages for additional data centers in Oregon and Nevada.

Apple’s various forms of tax avoidance are reminders that large corporations, even those that profess to have enlightened social views, don’t have respect for government and resent having to follow its rules. Rather than pay taxes and follow regulations, they prefer to make charitable contributions and undertake corporate social responsibility initiatives. In other words, they want to do things on their own terms and not comply with the same obligations as everyone else. Kudos to Europe for beginning to put Apple in its place.