Archive for September, 2017

Recalling the Corporate Culprits of Yesteryear

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

Corporate crime has been happening as long as there have been corporations. But if you wanted to choose an event that marked the emergence of what we think of as modern big business misconduct it would be the admission by Enron in November 2001 that it had overstated profits by $600 million. Within months, the high-flying energy trader collapsed amid growing evidence that the company was one big scam. Enron’s lenders, investors, auditors and others were all pulled into the morass.

Enron turned out to be just one of a rash of accounting scandals that rocked the corporate world and severely damaged the legitimacy of American capitalism. The Bush Administration felt compelled to create a President’s Corporate Fraud Task Force headed by none other than James Comey.

I bring up this history because the Corporate Research Project is about to release a major expansion of Violation Tracker that will extend coverage to this period. We are adding ten more years of data, bringing the starting point back to January 2000. The expansion will nearly double the size of the database to 300,000 entries with more than $394 billion in fines and settlements.

More than 95 percent of that penalty amount comes from our universe of large parent companies, which is being increased to about 2,800. These include ones that are publicly traded and privately held, for-profit and non-profit, domestic as well as foreign-based.

Now the universe also includes a bunch of companies like Enron that are defunct but which are kept on the list for historical purposes. Here are some of those zombies. Note that Violation Tracker does not yet include entries relating to private litigation.

The largest penalty total comes from Adelphia Communications, a cable television provider that was riddled with corruption. In 2004 the Justice Department arranged for $715 million of what remained of the company to be handed over to a fund set up to compensate victims of Adelphia.

In 2002 WorldCom, another telecommunications company, filed what was then the largest bankruptcy ever in the wake of a massive accounting scandal. In 2002 the Securities and Exchange Commission reached a $500 million settlement with the company after originally seeking $1.5 billion in penalties. Since WorldCom was taken over by Verizon rather than being dismantled, its entries in Violation Tracker are listed under Verizon.

Enron shows up in nine entries with a penalty total of $446 million, the largest of which was a 2006 agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission giving the agency a $400 million claim in the company’s bankruptcy proceeding stemming from Enron’s misconduct during the 2000-2001 Western energy crisis.

We also list Arthur Andersen, which had served as Enron’s auditor and was convicted of obstruction of justice for shredding documents relating to that client. The conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court (and thus is not listed in Violation Tracker) but the firm never recovered from the scandal. We list a $7 million penalty imposed on Andersen by the SEC in 2002 in connection with its audits of Waste Management in the 1990s.

The corporate scandals of the early 2000s shook up the country and in some ways prompted even more aggressive remedial actions than are seen with more recent cases. There were many more criminal prosecutions of individual executives than occurred with the cases stemming from the financial meltdown, though the dollar amounts of penalties have grown larger.

One thing that has not changed is the persistence of wrongdoing by so many large corporations.

Note: The Violation Tracker expansion will officially launch on September 19.  

Federal Watchdog Agencies Still On Guard

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Donald Trump likes to give the impression that he has made great strides in dismantling regulation. While there is no doubt that his administration and Republican allies in Congress are targeting many important safeguards for consumers and workers, the good news is that those protections in many respects are still alive and well.

This conclusion emerges from the data I have been collecting for an update of Violation Tracker that will be posted later this month. As a preview of that update, here are some examples of federal agencies that are still vigorously pursuing their mission of protecting the public.

Federal Trade Commission. In June the FTC, with the help of the Justice Department, prevailed in litigation against Dish Network over millions of illegal sales calls made to consumers in violation of Do Not Call regulations. The satellite TV provider was hit with $280 million in penalties.

Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA is a regulatory entity as well as a law enforcement agency. In July it announced that Mallinckrodt, one of the largest manufacturers of generic oxycodone, had agreed to pay $35 million to settle allegations that it violated the Controlled Substances Act by failing to detect and report suspicious bulk orders of the drug.

Federal Reserve. The Fed continues to take action against both domestic and foreign banks that fail to exercise adequate controls over their foreign exchange trading, in the wake of a series of scandals about manipulation of that market. The Fed imposed a fine of $136 million on Germany’s Deutsche Bank and $246 million on France’s BNP Paribas.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Last month the beleaguered CFPB ordered American Express to pay $95 million in redress to cardholders in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for discriminatory practices against certain consumers with Spanish-language preferences.

Securities and Exchange Commission. In May the SEC announced that Barclays Capital would pay $97 million in reimbursements to customers who had been overcharged on mutual fund fees.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC announced that the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain would pay $12 million to settle allegations that it discriminated against older employees by denying them front-of-the-house positions such as hosts, servers and bartenders.

Justice Department Antitrust Division. The DOJ announced that Nichicon Corporation would pay $42 million to resolve criminal price-fixing charges involving electrolytic capacitors.

Federal agencies are also finishing up cases dating back to the financial meltdown. For example, in July the Federal Housing Finance Agency said that it had reached a settlement under which the Royal Bank of Scotland will pay $5.5 billion to settle litigation relating to the sale of toxic securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And the National Credit Union Administration said that UBS would pay $445 million to resolve a similar case.

It remains to be seen whether federal watchdogs can continue to pursue these kinds of cases, but for now they are not letting talk of deregulation prevent them from doing their job.

Note: The new version of Violation Tracker will also include an additional ten years of coverage back to 2000.