Archive for January, 2017

Aetna’s Deception and the ACA Crisis

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

One of the decisive moments in the 2016 election campaign came last summer, when major insurance companies cut back their involvement in the Affordable Care Act exchanges after claiming they were losing money in the market. This was seized on by Trump and other Republicans to further denigrate the ACA and argue the need for repeal and replace.

Evidence has now emerged suggesting that the insurers’ claims were more of the lies that tainted the whole campaign and that those lies were motivated by an attempt to influence the federal government’s policy on mergers.

What was often overlooked during discussions of the health insurance industry last year was that the biggest concern of the major firms was the fate of their attempt to capture greater market share through giant acquisitions. Aetna was seeking to acquire Humana, and Anthem wanted to join forces with Cigna. The two proposed deals, worth about $85 billion, would reduce the number of major players to three (the other being UnitedHealth).

The Obama Administration and multiple states challenged the mergers, which ended up in court. Recently a federal district court judge sided with the Justice Department in the Aetna-Humana case; another judge is expected to rule soon on the Anthem-Cigna deal.

In his 158-page ruling on the Aetna matter, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates cited evidence indicating that the company’s decision to leave ACA exchanges in 17 counties in three states (Florida, Georgia and Missouri) was designed to “improve its litigation position.” In other words, its main reason for dropping out was not the profitability of  those markets but rather the attempt to make it more likely that the Humana acquisition would be approved.

The opinion reveals (on p.125) that when Aetna met with officials at the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services prior to the filing of the government’s complaint it “connected this lawsuit with its future participation in the exchanges” and threatened (p.126) to withdraw from those exchanges if the merger were not approved.

Also included in the opinion is an excerpt (p.127) from an e-mail in which Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini stated that “the administration has a very short memory, absolutely no loyalty and a very thin skin.” Asked in a deposition what he meant by that, Bertolini expressed resentment that the administration was opposing the merger despite Aetna’s role in supporting the ACA during the battle over its enactment.

The judge went on to cite (p.129) internal company e-mails in which, in the words of the opinion, “Aetna executives tried to conceal from discovery in this litigation the reasoning behind their recommendation to withdraw from the 17 complaint counties.” That effort was unsuccessful.

Overall, the court found that the exchange counties from which Aetna was withdrawing were a mix of profitable and unprofitable ones, thus undermining the claim that the move was purely a business decision.

While Aetna’s deception failed to sway the government or the lawsuit, it had a significant political impact amid a heated campaign. Now that the campaign is over and the ACA opponents prevailed, Aetna and the other insurance giants are staying silent as Republicans move to gut the law.

It’s unclear whether the firms expect the exchanges to survive in some form or they are rooting for a return to the old days of minimal regulation. In either event, it’s clear that companies like Aetna and Anthem are putting their desire for oligopolistic control above all else.

Obama’s Final Blows Against Corporate Crime

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

$335 billion: that’s what has been paid by companies in fines or settlements in cases brought by federal agencies and the Justice Department during the Obama Administration. The estimate comes from the amounts associated with entries already in Violation Tracker and an update that is in the works.

Preparing that update has proven to be a challenge because of the remarkable flurry of cases that the Obama Administration has resolved in the waning days of its existence. Since the election the penalty tally has risen by more than $30 billion, much of that coming this month alone. The past ten days have seen four ten-figure settlements: Deutsche Bank’s $7.2 billion toxic securities case; Credit Suisse’s $5.3 billion case in the same category; Volkswagen’s $4.3 billion case relating to emissions fraud; and Takata’s $1 billion case relating to defective airbag inflators.

Here are some of the next-tier cases that would normally get significant coverage but may have gotten lost in the stream of announcements:

  • Moody’s agreed to pay $864 million to resolve allegations relating to flawed credit ratings provided for mortgage-backed securities during the run-up to the financial crisis.
  • Western Union agreed to pay $586 million to settle charges that it failed to guard against the use of its system for money laundering.
  • Shire Pharmaceuticals agreed to pay $350 million to settle allegations that one of its subsidiaries violated the False Claims Act by paying kickbacks to healthcare providers.
  • Rolls-Royce agreed to pay $170 million to resolve foreign bribery criminal charges; the military contractor was offered a deferred prosecution agreement.
  • McKesson, a large pharmaceutical distribution, was fined $150 million by the Drug Enforcement Administration for failing to report suspicious bulk purchases of opioids.

Although a few of these cases — including Volkswagen, Takata and Western Union– have involved criminal charges, for the most part the Obama Justice Department has kept its focus on extracting substantial monetary penalties from corporate wrongdoers.

While this approach has served the purpose of highlighting the magnitude of business misconduct, it remains unclear whether it has done much to deter such behavior. One of the aims of Violation Tracker is to document the problem of ongoing recidivism among corporate offenders by listing their repeated transgressions. JPMorgan Chase, for example, has racked up $28 billion in penalties in more than 40 cases resolved since the beginning of 2010. The list is likely to continue growing.

The steady stream of big-ticket cases has provided a constant source of new content for Violation Tracker, but it would have been preferable if federal prosecutors and regulators had figured out a way to get the bank and others like it to behave properly.

The Obama Justice Department’s rush to complete the recent settlements seems to be based in part on uncertainty as to whether the Trump Administration will continue to give priority to the prosecution of corporate crime. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions has not said much on the subject, while the President-elect has been uncharacteristically silent — both during his campaign and since the election — about corporate scandals such as the Wells Fargo bogus-account case while being outspoken in his critique of regulation.

We may soon look back fondly at the Obama approach as the new administration takes an even weaker posture toward the ongoing corporate crime wave.

Corporate Crime and the Trump Administration

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

With all that’s happening in the chaotic Trump transition, less attention is being paid to the announcement that Volkswagen is pleading guilty to felony charges and paying more than $4 billion in penalties while a half dozen of its executives face individual criminal indictments.

A development of this sort should represent a turning point in the prosecutorial handling of the corporate crime wave that has afflicted the United States for years. Yet because of its timing, it may end up being no more than a parting gesture of an administration that has struggled for eight years to find an effective way of dealing with widespread and persistent misconduct by large companies. And it may be followed by a weakening of enforcement in a new administration led by a president whose attacks on regulation were a hallmark of his electoral campaign.

First, with regard to the Obama Administration: The treatment of Volkswagen is what should have been dished out against the banks that caused the financial meltdown, against BP for its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, against Takata for its production of deadly airbags, and against the other corporations involved in major misconduct ranging from large-scale oil spills and contracting fraud to market manipulation and wage theft.

Instead, the Obama Justice Department continued the Bush Administration’s practice of avoiding individual prosecutions and offering many corporations deferred and non-prosecution deals in which they essentially bought their way out of jeopardy, albeit at rising costs. These arrangements, which are catalogued in Violation Tracker, imposed a financial burden but appear to have had a limited deterrent effect.

In a few instances, companies did have to enter guilty pleas, but the impact was softened when, for examples, the large banks that had to take that step in a case involving manipulation of the foreign exchange market later got waivers from SEC rules that bar firms with felony convictions from operating in the securities business.

It remains to be seen how much VW’s guilty plea affects its ability to continue doing business as usual. Yet the bigger question is how corporate criminals will fare in the Trump Administration.

Trump the candidate said little or nothing about VW, Wells Fargo and the other big corporate scandals of the day and instead parroted Republican talking points about the supposedly intrusive nature of regulation. Corporations that have supposedly been put on notice about moving jobs offshore or seeking overly lucrative federal contracts apparently are to have a free hand when it comes to poisoning the environment, maiming their workers or defrauding customers.

Although some have speculated that Jeff Sessions will be tough on corporate crime, a Public Citizen report on his time as Alabama’s attorney general in the 1990s provides evidence strongly to the contrary.

While Sessions took pains during his confirmation testimony to claim that he would not be a “rubber stamp” for the new Administration, he has strong political ties to Trump and worked hard to legitimize some of his more extreme positions during the campaign. Trump is unlikely to pay much heed to the traditional independence of the Justice Department, and Sessions is unlikely to adopt policies that rub Trump the wrong way.

Despite the inclinations of Sessions, the appointment of anti-regulation foes to head many federal agencies will mean that fewer cases will get referred to the Justice Department. And if Trump’s deregulatory legislative agenda gets enacted, the enforcement pipeline will dry up even more.

Corporate misconduct may very well decline during the Trump era because much of that conduct will become perfectly legal.

Trump’s Real Message to Corporate America

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Much has been made of President-elect Trump’s use of his bully Twitter pulpit to get companies such as Carrier and Ford Motor to adjust their investment plans and to warn military contractors about escalating costs. The Washington Post went so far as to publish a piece last month claiming that Corporate America is “unnerved” by Trump.

Any CEOs still feeling such anxiety have not caught on to the way Trump operates. These moves serve two purposes: to give his base the impression that he is promoting the interests of the working class while deflecting attention away from his larger agenda that caters to the corporate elite.

The latter has come through loud and clear in his cabinet nominees. Not only has Trump shunned the idea of including a token Democrat, the purported populist has not picked anyone for the cabinet who can in any way be construed as representing the interests of working people. Along with generals and right-wing zealots, the choices instead include a slew of billionaires, wealthy investors and corporate executives.

These individuals are not exactly from the corporate social responsibility wing of the business world. The man chosen to run the Labor Department, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, openly promotes wage suppression, while the choice for Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was responsible for thousands of dubious foreclosures after he took control of a struggling bank.

Yet perhaps the clearest signal that Trump is favoring the worst elements of big business is the decision to give prominent roles to individuals associated with two of the most controversial large corporations around: Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs.

By proposing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, Trump is implicitly endorsing the polices of a giant oil company which has long been a symbol of corporate irresponsibility. Exxon was widely condemned for its inadequate response to the disastrous 1989 accident in which one of its supertankers spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil off the coast of Alaska. During the past three decades, the company has been involved in a long series of other spills and accidents, and it became notorious for its refusal to acknowledge the climate impacts of fossil fuel production. Violation Tracker shows that since the beginning of 2010 it has racked up more than $80 million in federal regulatory penalties.

Another corporate pariah embraced by Trump is investment bank Goldman Sachs, the alma mater of several key figures in the new administration, including Mnuchin, chief strategist Steve Bannon and Gary Cohn, selected to head the National Economic Council.

Goldman became one of the leading symbols of the reckless behavior of financial institutions in the period leading up to the financial meltdown, thanks to its key role in packaging and distributing toxic securities. Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi’s depiction of Goldman as “a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” and Greg Smith’s reference to Goldman as “toxic and destructive” in a New York Times op-ed announcing his departure from the firm were two of the most frequently quoted phrases about the financial crisis.

According to the Violation Tracker tally, Goldman has had to pay more than $9 billion in legal penalties since the beginning of 2010, putting it in eighth place among all companies.

While repeatedly being found in violation of financial regulations, Goldman has enjoyed taxpayer largesse. Like other big banks, it received vast amounts of support from the federal government, including a $10 billion TARP bailout loan and billions more from the Federal Reserve. It has also received large subsidies from state and local governments, including a $425 million package to keep its headquarters in lower Manhattan after 9-11.

By associating his cabinet so closely with the likes of Goldman and Exxon, Trump is sending a message that his administration is, despite the rhetoric of his campaign, embracing corporate cronyism and irresponsibility. Given Trump’s own checkered business record, this should come as no surprise.

If anyone should be unnerved by the way the Trump Administration is shaping up, it’s not big business but those voters who supported a man they thought would challenge the corporate elite but is instead giving it more power than ever before.