Archive for February, 2017

Documenting the Last Hurrah of Regulatory Enforcement

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

Since the beginning of 2010 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has resolved more than 200 cases of workplace discrimination based on race, religion or national origin and imposed penalties of more than $116 million on the employers involved.

During that same period, the Department of Housing and Urban Development — now in the hands of Ben Carson — settled more than two dozen discrimination cases against banks and mortgage companies, collecting more than $200 million in penalties.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has handled more than 50 cases of whistleblower retaliation since 2010. These have involved both cases in which workers complained about physically unsafe conditions as well as ones involving complaints about corporate financial misconduct. The latter, stemming from authority given to OSHA under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, include cases brought against banks such as JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Eight large pharmacy chains and drug distributors have been penalized more than $400 million by the Drug Enforcement Administration during the past seven years for various violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

These are examples of the kind of information that can be found in latest expansion of Violation Tracker, which adds case data from nine additional federal regulatory agencies, bringing the total to 39 agencies and the Justice Department.

In addition to the new agencies, the expansion includes updated information for the existing ones. That includes the final burst of cases seen during the closing weeks of the Obama Administration. Between election day and the inauguration, the Justice Department and agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced several dozen case resolutions with total fines and settlements in excess of $20 billion.

These include 16 cases with penalties of $100 million or more; four in excess of $1 billion: Deutsche Bank ($7.2 billion), Credit Suisse ($5.3 billion), Volkswagen ($4.3 billion) and Takata ($1 billion).

Banks and other financial services companies account for the largest portion by far of the recent cases, racking up nearly $15 billion in fines and settlements with DOJ, the CFPB, the SEC and banking regulators. Automotive companies like Volkswagen and Takata are second with about $5.5 billion, while pharmaceutical and healthcare firms account for about $1.2 billion.

Given the Trump Administration’s focus on deregulation rather than enforcement, the Obama Administration’s final wave of settlements may represent Uncle Sam’s last hurrah against business misconduct for some time. The data in Violation Tracker, which show widespread misconduct and high levels of recidivism, should give pause to those pushing for less oversight.

With the update and coverage expansion, Violation Tracker now contains more than 120,000 entries with total penalties of more than $320 billion, most of that connected to some 2,300 large parent companies whose disparate individual entries are linked together in the database. Coverage currently begins in 2010 but will be extended back to 2000 later this year.

Individual entries include links to official online information sources. The new version of Violation Tracker supplements those with links to archival copies of those sources preserved on our server.

Having completed the update, the expansion and the creation of the archive, we will return to our effort to collect comprehensive data on wage theft cases — both those brought by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division and related private litigation. We expect that to be ready later this year.

We can only wonder what will be left of the regulatory system by that point.

Trump’s Commerce Nominee Also Has Suspicious Russian Ties

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

While the spotlight is on Michael Flynn’s discussions with Russia about sanctions, little attention is being paid to the Russian connections of Trump’s Commerce Secretary nominee Wilbur Ross, who if confirmed would oversee an agency involved with enforcing those sanctions.

The 79-year-old Ross, who was an advisor to Trump’s presidential campaign, is best known as a vulture capitalist who made a fortune restructuring troubled steel, coal and textile companies and then selling them off. Yet he continues to have associations with a wide range of companies. Among those is the Bank of Cyprus, where Ross has served as vice chairman of the board of directors since leading a financial rescue of the institution in 2014.

According to reporting in late 2016 by McClatchy and Mother Jones, the Cypriot bank has close ties to wealthy Russian businessmen linked to Vladimir Putin. One of those is Viktor Vekselberg, whose Renova Group became the second largest shareholder in the bank. One of Renova’s executives, Maksim Goldman, was named to the bank’s board of directors and is now a vice chairman alongside Ross.

McClatchy also pointed out that the Bank of Cyprus was mentioned thousands of times in the Panama Papers in connection with the offshore activities of Putin’s cronies. And then there’s the fact that the chair of the bank Ross helped to install is Josef Ackermann, the retired chief executive of Deutsche Bank, which last month agreed to pay $425 million to resolve allegations by the New York State Department of Financial Services that it helped Russian clients engage in what amounted to money laundering through an international mirror-trading scheme.

What makes all of this more significant is that among the agencies Ross would oversee as Commerce Secretary is the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), which along with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, administers the sanctions against Russia imposed by the Obama Administration and which, for the moment, are still in effect.

The BIS portion of those sanctions includes restrictions on the ability of U.S. companies to export certain military and energy products to Russian parties whose names are on what is known as the Entity List. The latest Russian additions to the list were made in the final weeks of the Obama Administration in the wake of new sanctions imposed in response to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.

In his confirmation hearing last month, Ross was not interrogated about his views on Russian sanctions or how he might adjust the role of BIS. And Ross has defused much of the opposition to his nomination by vowing to divest from most (though not all) of his holdings.

Yet in light of the ongoing controversy over the Russian links of other figures in Trump’s campaign and his administration, Ross’s ties to the Putin network deserve a lot more scrutiny (as do his China connections).

Note: The Bureau of Industry and Security and the Office of Foreign Assets Control, along with the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, are among the agencies whose cases will be included in an update of Violation Tracker that will be posted next week.

Companies Fighting the Travel Ban Should Also Oppose the Labor Department Nominee

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

Trump’s scandal-ridden choice for Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzder, is yet another of this administration’s nominees who don’t believe in the mission of the agency they intend to lead.

The website through which he is promoting his nomination is headlined: “Job creation is what I stand for.” That’s fine but it has little to do with the primary purpose of the Department of Labor: worker protection. The rest of that website, which has nothing to say about that purpose, instead clearly signals that Puzder will seek to weaken or dismantle the regulations DOL is supposed to enforce.

We can expect that will include rollbacks in protections relating to occupational safety and wage theft, but in light of the current debates on discrimination, it is worth remembering that DOL is also home to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), the agency charged with fighting racial and other forms of bias in the workplaces of companies doing business with Uncle Sam.

OFCCP has long been targeted by the regulation-bashers, and now there are reports that an effort to abolish the agency that began during the Reagan Administration may get revived. This would go along with the move to reverse the Obama Administration executive order on Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces.

I’ve been thinking about the OFCCP because it is one of the agencies (along with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) included in an expansion of Violation Tracker that my colleagues and I will release soon. We’ll be including entries for the more than 200 cases OFCCP has resolved since the beginning of 2010. The companies involved, which together have paid fines or settlements of about $51 million, include well-known firms such as Tyson Foods (six cases), FedEx, Cargill, Bank of America, General Electric and Comcast.

In the case with the biggest settlement amount, FedEx had to pay $3 million in 2012 to settle allegations that  it engaged in discrimination on the bases of sex, race and/or national origin against specific groups identified at 23 facilities in 15 states.

The OFCCP has been showing a growing interest in the practices of high-tech companies. Last year it got Hewlett Packard Enterprise to pay $750,000 to settle allegations of racial discrimination in hiring at a facility in Arkansas. In the closing days of the Obama Administration, the OFCCP brought suit against Oracle for discriminatory practices shortly after it filed an action against Google for refusing to provide compensation data for its Silicon Valley headquarters during what the agency called a routine compliance evaluation.

Google is among the scores of high-tech companies that have come out in opposition to Trump’s travel ban. That is laudable, but if these companies are serious about their opposition to discrimination they should also make sure they are in compliance with the OFCCP and speak out just as forcefully against any effort to undermine the agency.

Note: A state court in California just postponed until June the starting date of a trial in a case in which Puzder’s company CKE Restaurants is accused of age and disability discrimination.

Trump’s Other Ban

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Trump’s travel ban and his rightwing Supreme Court pick are troubling in themselves, but they are also serving to deflect attention away from the plot by the administration and its Republican allies to undermine the regulation of business.

Surprisingly little is being said about Trump’s January 30 executive order instructing federal agencies to identify two prior regulations for elimination for each new rule they seek to issue. It also dictates that the total incremental cost of new rules (minus the cost of repealed ones) should not exceed zero for the year.

While Trump’s appointees will probably not propose much in the way of significant new rules that would have to be offset, the order amounts to a ban on additional regulation.  It boosts the long-standing effort by corporate apologists to delegitimize regulation by focusing on the number of rules and their supposed cost while ignoring their social benefits.

Meanwhile, the regulation bashers are also busy on Capitol Hill. Republicans have resurrected the rarely used Congressional Review Act as a mechanism for undoing the Obama Administration’s environmental regulations as well as its Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order concerning federal contractors.

Both Trump and Congressional Republicans are also targeting the Dodd-Frank law that enhanced financial regulation after the 2008 meltdown. Calling the law a “disaster,” Trump recently said “we’re going to be doing a big number on Dodd-Frank,” adding: “The American dream is back.”

If Trump was referring to the aspirations of the wolves of Wall Street, then that dream may indeed be in for a resurgence. For much of the rest of the population, the consequences would be a lot less pleasant.

To take just one example, an attack on Dodd-Frank would certainly include an assault on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was created by the law and which has aggressively gone after financial predators. As Violation Tracker shows, during the past five years the agency has imposed more than $7 billion in penalties in around 100 enforcement actions against banks, payday lenders, credit card companies and others. Its $100 million fine against Wells Fargo last September brought attention to the bank’s bogus-account scheme.

The CFPB has not let the election results impede its work. Since November 8 it has announced more than a dozen enforcement actions with penalties totaling more than $80 million. The largest of those involves Citigroup, two of whose subsidiaries were fined $28.8 million for keeping borrowers in the dark about options to avoid foreclosure and burdening them with excessive paperwork demands when they applied for foreclosure relief.

Citigroup, one of the companies that has the most to gain from restrictions on the CFPB and Dodd-Frank in general, has shown up often as I have been collecting data on recent enforcement cases from various agencies for a Violation Tracker update that will be released soon.

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently announced that Citigroup Global Markets would pay $18.3 million to settle allegations that it overcharged at least 60,000 investment advisory clients with unauthorized fees. In a separate SEC case, Citi had to pay $2.96 million to settle allegations that it misled investors about a foreign exchange trading program.

Around the same time, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission filed and settled (for $25 million) allegations that Citigroup Global Markets engaged in the illicit practice of spoofing — bidding or offering with the intent to cancel the bid or offer before execution — in U.S. Treasury futures markets and that it failed to diligently supervise the activities of its employees and agents in conjunction with the spoofing orders.

Citi’s record, along with that of other rogue banks, undermines the arguments of Dodd-Frank foes and in fact makes the case for stricter oversight. Yet the reality of financial misconduct is about to be overwhelmed by a barrage of alternative facts about the magic of deregulation.

Update: After this piece was written, Congress voted to repeal another provision of Dodd-Frank known as Cardin-Lugar or Section 1504, which required publicly traded extractive companies to report on payments to foreign governments in their SEC filings. The disclosure was meant as an anti-corruption measure.