The Ongoing Business Watergate Scandal

June 16th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

It is often forgotten that the Watergate scandal of the 1970s was not only about the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration. Investigations by the Senate and the Watergate Special Prosecutor forced companies such as 3M, American Airlines and Goodyear Tire & Rubber to admit that they or their executives had made illegal contributions to the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Subsequent inquiries into illegal payments of all kinds led to revelations that companies such as Lockheed, Northrop and Gulf Oil had engaged in widespread foreign bribery. Under pressure from the SEC, more than 150 publicly traded companies admitted that they had been involved in questionable overseas payments or outright bribes to obtain contracts from foreign governments. A 1976 tally by the Council on Economic Priorities found that more than $300 million in such payments had been disclosed in what some were calling “the Business Watergate.”

While some observers insisted that a certain amount of baksheesh was necessary to making deals in many parts of the world, Congress responded to the revelations by enacting the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977, making bribery of foreign government officials a criminal offense under U.S. law.

That laws is still on the books, and despite all the talk of corporate social responsibility, quite a few corporations still get caught in its net.

As part of the forthcoming expansion of the Violation Tracker database I produce with my colleagues at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First, I’ve been looking at recent FCPA data and have been struck by the enduring inclination of businesspeople to engage in foreign bribery.

Since the beginning of 2010 about 90 companies have been hit with either criminal charges brought by the Justice Department or civil charges filed by the SEC or both. The 53 companies charged by the DOJ had to pay nearly $4 billion to settle their cases, while the 72 firms targeted by the SEC had to pay $1.7 billion.

The companies involved in the cases include some very familiar U.S. corporate names, including: Alcoa, General Electric, Goodyear, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Ralph Lauren and Smith & Wesson.

Yet some of the biggest penalties have been paid by foreign companies such as the French conglomerate Alstom ($772 million), British military contractor BAE Systems ($400 million), Italian petroleum company ENI ($125 million) and German automaker Daimler ($91 million).

That reflects the long reach of the law, which allows for cases to be brought against foreign corporations involving corrupt practices in third countries. For example, the Japanese trading company Marubeni was charged with paying bribes to high-ranking government officials in Indonesia to secure a lucrative power project. Germany’s Deutsche Telekom and its Hungarian subsidiary Magyar Telecom were charged with making illegal payments in Macedonia and Montenegro.

From the time the FCPA was enacted, corporate lobbyists have complained about the law and have sought to have it weakened or repealed. The smarter companies have realized that the bribery rules are not going away and that they simply need to clean up their act when doing business abroad.

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Note: Violation Tracker 2.0 — which will add banking offenses and cases involving price-fixing, money laundering, defrauding of consumers and export-control/sanctions violations as well as foreign bribery — will be released on June 28.

The (Price) Fix is In

June 9th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Conventional economists and the policymakers who follow their advice continue to insist that the market is an inevitable force to which we must all pay homage. Belief in the power of the “invisible hand” is used to justify all manner of conservative policies, including resistance to living wage ordinances.

Yet there is plenty of evidence that influences other than supply and demand play a role in commercial activity, even when government is not involved. A key example concerns the setting of prices, which is supposedly the purest of free market activities but is frequently the result of collusion among supposed competitors.

Anyone who read Adam Smith in college may have been exposed to his observation that “people of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or some contrivance to raise prices.”

I was reminded of the enduring truth of that statement in the course of gathering data for the forthcoming expansion of the Violation Tracker database I oversee as part of my work for the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First. The bulk of that expansion will cover the many sins of the banking sector, but it will also include other commercial offenses such as price-fixing.

Since the beginning of 2010, the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department has resolved price-fixing cases against more than 80 companies. This is one of the few areas in which corporations routinely face criminal charges and usually have to enter guilty pleas rather than getting off with a deferred-prosecution or non-prosecution agreement.

Those 83 companies have had to pay a total of more than $4 billion in fines, with the individual amounts ranging as high as $500 million in the case of Taiwanese electronics company AU Optronics, which pleaded guilty to fixing prices of LCD displays used in computers and televisions in the United States. A federal jury found that the company conspired with its competitors during monthly meetings secretly held in hotel conference rooms, karaoke bars and tea rooms around Taiwan.

AU Optronics is one of five Taiwanese companies that have faced U.S. price-fixing charges in recent years, but the largest number of defendants in these cases come from Japan. Forty-nine Japanese companies have paid a total of $2.8 billion in penalties. Adding in the two defendants from South Korea and one from Singapore, Asian companies accounted for more than two-thirds of the cases and three-quarters of the penalties.

Price-fixing, however, is not an exclusively Asian proclivity. The list of defendants include 14 U.S. companies, seven from Germany, two from Switzerland and one each from Bermuda, Chile and Sweden.

The industry that has dominated U.S. price-fixing prosecutions in recent years is auto parts, which accounts for 42 defendants that have paid some $2.6 billion in penalties. More defendants come from the freight industry but the average penalties have been lower, totaling $449 million. The electronic components sector accounts for $583 million, mainly as a result of AU Optronics.

While many of the culprits are lesser known manufacturing and service companies, the list also includes corporations familiar to consumers. Among these are Bridgestone, Panasonic and Samsung.

Keep these cases in mind the next time someone insists that the market is sacrosanct

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Note: Violation Tracker 2.0 — which will add banking offenses, money-laundering, defrauding of consumers, foreign bribery and export-control/sanctions violations as well as price-fixing — is scheduled to be released on June 28.

Trump and the National Enquirer’s Mutual Admiration Society

June 2nd, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Donald Trump’s verbal assault on reporters who dared to ask question about his charitable activities displays a contempt for the media comparable to that of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Yet there is one media outlet for which the presumptive Republican nominee seems to have unbounded affection: the National Enquirer.

Much has been written about Trump’s fascination with the supermarket tabloid, usually with the assumption that it is simply an indication of low-brow reading habits. Yet there is more to Trump’s relationship with the current and former principals at the Enquirer that bears closer scrutiny.

Trump is apparently close with David Pecker, chief executive of American Media Inc., parent of the Enquirer and other tabloids. In 2010 New York’s Pace University announced that it would pay tribute to Pecker (an alumnus) and that the award would be presented by Trump, “a long-time friend and business associate.”

Last August, the New York Daily News, also noting the relationship between the two men, reported that the Enquirer had decided not to subject Trump to the kind of sensationalized reporting that it had used in the past to sink the presidential ambitions of John Edwards and Gary Hart. In fact, the Enquirer has published self-aggrandizing pieces written by Trump, attacked his Republican opponents and formally endorsed Trump, apparently the first time the tabloid has done so for a candidate.

American Media gained control of the Enquirer after the 1988 death of Generoso Pope Jr., who had purchased the publication in the early 1950s. The Enquirer had been founded in 1926 by William Griffin, a protege of William Randolph Hearst who shared the media baron’s isolationist views. Griffin was so outspoken in opposing U.S. involvement in World War II that he was among a group of people indicted in the 1940s for sedition and conspiring to impair the morale and loyalty of the armed forces. The charges against him were later dropped.

The Enquirer was struggling to survive when Pope acquired it, reportedly with the financial assistance of mobster Frank Costello, who was apparently close to Pope’s father, also named Generoso. The elder Pope was a political powerbroker in the Italian-American community as the publisher of the rightwing Italian-language newspaper Il Progresso. Until 1941 he was a supporter of Mussolini.

Along with his publishing enterprises, the elder Pope controlled Colonial Sand & Stone, which became the dominant ready-mix concrete provider in New York City. After his death, both Il Progresso and Colonial were taken over by his oldest son, Fortune Pope. Colonial retained its grip on New York’s construction industry until the 1970s and in all likelihood did business with Donald Trump’s father Fred and perhaps Donald himself during the early years of his career.

Meanwhile, Fortune’s eccentric brother Generoso turned the Enquirer into a thriving operation with a mix of sensationalism and scandal. It was not until American Media took it over that the publication began to dabble in political reporting and politics. Back in 1999, when Trump was considering his presidential bid, via the Reform Party, the Enquirer published a poll purportedly showing that the real estate developer would be a strong candidate. Trump, naturally, cited the poll in justifying his plans.

It is difficult to tell whether Pecker, who has made campaign contributions to prominent Democrats as well as Republicans, has been promoting Trump for ideological reasons or just because the colorful real estate developer and former reality TV star helps sell his publications. Pecker’s company used to publish Reality Weekly, which featured Trump during his “Apprentice” days. Earlier in his career, while at Hachette, Pecker published an in-house magazine called Trump Style that was distributed to visitors at Trump properties.

While the relationship between Pecker and Trump may have once been little more than matter of  cross-marketing, its role in the current presidential race is a lot more troubling.

Monsanto’s German Suitor Has Its Own Tainted Record

May 26th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Monsanto, one of the most controversial corporations in the United States, now finds itself the target of a takeover campaign by German pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer. Would a change in ownership improve the behavior of the biotechnology company dubbed “Mutanto” by its critics?

Answering that question requires a look at Bayer’s own track record, which is far from unblemished. Most Americans associate Bayer with aspirin. The company created the analgesic in 1899, but during World War I the U.S. government seized Bayer’s American assets and allowed other firms to sell aspirin under the Bayer name until the German company bought back the rights in 1994.

In the 1920s Bayer was absorbed into the massive IG Farben cartel, which used slave labor and supported the Nazi regime. After the Second World War it re-emerged as one of the companies created through the break-up of IG Farben. During the 1950s it began to return to the U.S. market through efforts such as a joint venture with Monsanto (in its pre-agribusiness era) called Mobay Chemical.

As Bayer has stepped up its U.S. involvement over the past two decades it has gotten embroiled in one scandal after another. In 1997 one of its subsidiaries based in New Jersey pled guilty to criminal price-fixing and had to pay a $50 million fine. In 2000 Bayer had to pay $14 million to the federal government and the states to settle allegations that it inflated prices on drugs sold to the Medicaid program. In 2001 it was accused of price-gouging on the antibiotic Cipro, which was then in high demand because of the anthrax scare. It later had to pay $257 million to settle a federal lawsuit on Cipro overcharging.

In 2003 documents emerged suggesting that Bayer was aware of serious safety problems with its cholesterol drug Baycol long before the medication was withdrawn from the market. In 2004 Bayer had to pay a $66 million fine in another criminal price-fixing case. A 2008 explosion at a Bayer pesticide plant in West Virginia that killed two workers led to regulatory penalties including a $5.6 million settlement with the EPA. A report found that management deficiencies played a significant role in creating the conditions that caused the explosion.

That’s just the quick version of Bayer’s controversies. For more see the website of the Coalition against BAYER-dangers, a German watchdog group that has been monitoring the company for more than 30 years.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that Bayer has already been active in the businesses in which Monsanto has gained its checkered reputation: agricultural chemicals and genetically modified seeds. Before the Monsanto bid, Bayer was in the news most often because of concerns that its pesticides were responsible for sharp drops in bee populations.

The chances that a Bayer takeover of Monsanto will get the U.S. company to clean up its act seem slim indeed. In fact, the combined company will probably be an even bigger threat.

President or Pitchman?

May 19th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

In submitting his new financial disclosure form to the Federal Election Commission, Donald Trump described it as “the largest in the history of the FEC.” Aside from being another example of his compulsive need to boast, the statement seems to demonstrate an astounding ignorance of what the disclosure process is all about.

It also raises questions as to what Trump’s entire candidacy is all about. Since announcing his bid for the Republican nomination last June, Trump has made countless statements about his supposed business prowess and the success of his various enterprises. He even insisted that multiple corporate bankruptcies were indications of shrewdness rather than failure, and he downplayed the long series of controversies and scandals that have marked his business career.

Trump is not the first candidate to try to use a business track record as the springboard to the presidency. Mitt Romney did essentially the same thing, though in his case he had already distanced himself from Bain Capital and had transitioned to the public sector by serving as the governor of Massachusetts.

Yet in Trump’s case, the objective seems to be more than simply asserting his qualifications based on past business activities. To a great extent, he has used his candidacy to promote his current endeavors. He uses every opportunity to tout his portfolio of businesses, and in March he literally put his wares on display by holding a news conference surrounded by piles of Trump Steaks, Trump Wine and other branded products.

He has also employed the campaign to promote the size of his personal fortune, demonstrating a preoccupation with asserting a net worth of $10 billion in the face of substantially smaller estimates by the likes of Forbes ($4.5 billion) and Bloomberg ($2.9 billion). A decade ago, Trump brought an unsuccessful $5 billion defamation lawsuit against an author who claimed that he was actually worth less than a billion.

Initially, it appeared that Trump’s unrestrained comments about Mexicans would harm his business interests as companies such as NBC Universal, Univision, Macy’s and Serta cut ties with him. Yet the newly released disclosure form suggests something different. The Washington Post concludes that “business has boomed in Donald Trump’s financial empire during the time he has run for president.”

This raises the question: Is Trump primarily interested in serving the country or serving his business interests? The candidate seems to have done little to separate himself from those interests during the campaign. In 1992 Ross Perot resigned as CEO of his computer services company while running for the presidency. Trump has made no secret of the fact that he continues to be involved in commercial endeavors.

Trump has not committed to selling off his interests should he reach the White House. He has suggested that his adult children would get more involved in managing those operations, but it is difficult to believe that he would recuse himself to any great extent. Moreover, Trump’s businesses are so bound up with him personally — his name, his image, etc. — that it is difficult to see how he could separate himself even if he wanted to.

This brings us back to the financial disclosure form. Trump apparently views it as an opportunity to “document” his net worth, but the real purpose, of course, is to identify possible conflicts of interest. In Trump’s case, with hundreds of companies under his control and licensing deals with many others, those potential conflicts are endless.

Trump appears to be oblivious to the issue. If his goal was actually to make the Trump Organization, his holding company, great again, he may very well have succeeded. It remains to be seen how the rest of the country fares.

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Note: Subsidy Tracker, the corporate welfare database I produce with my colleagues at Good Jobs First, has reached two milestones: 500,000 entries and $250 billion in taxpayer-funded giveaways.

Manufacturing McJobs at Nissan and Elsewhere

May 12th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Bring back manufacturing jobs: For years this has been put forth as the silver bullet that would reverse the decline in U.S. living standards and put the economy back on a fast track. The only problem is that today’s production positions are not our grandparents’ factory jobs. In fact, they are often as substandard as the much reviled McJobs of the service sector.

The latest evidence of this comes in a report by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, which has issued a series of studies on how the growth of poorly paid jobs in retailing and fast food have burdened government with ever-rising social safety net costs. Now the Center shows how the same problem arises from the deterioration of job quality in manufacturing.  The study estimates that one-third of the families of frontline production workers have to resort to one or more safety net program and that the federal government and the states have been spending about $10 billion a year on their benefits.

What makes these hidden taxpayer costs all the more galling is that manufacturing companies enjoy special benefits in the federal tax code and receive lavish state and local economic development subsidies, the rationale for which is that the financial assistance supposedly helps create high-quality jobs.

The Center’s analysis deals in aggregates and thus does not single out individual companies, but it is not difficult to think of specific firms that contribute to the vicious cycle. A suitable poster child, it seems to me, is Nissan. It is one of those foreign carmakers credited with investing in U.S. manufacturing, though like the other transplants it did so in a pernicious way.

First, it tried to avoid being unionized by locating its facilities in states such as Mississippi and Tennessee that are known to be unfriendly to organized labor. After the United Auto Workers nonetheless launched an organizing drive, the company has done everything possible to thwart the union.

Second, while boasting that its hourly wage rates for permanent, full-time workers are close to those of the Big Three domestic automakers, Nissan has denied those pay levels to large chunks of its workforce. Roughly half of those working at the company’s plant in Canton, Mississippi are temps or leased workers with much lower pay and little in the way of benefits.

It is significant that in the Center’s report, Mississippi — which has also attracted manufacturing investments from other foreign firms such as Toyota and Yokohama Rubber — has the highest rate of participation (59 percent) in safety net programs by families of production workers. The Magnolia State may have experienced a manufacturing revival, but many of those new jobs are so poorly paid that they are creating a burden for taxpayers.

At the same time, Mississippi is among the more generous states in dishing out the subsidies to those foreign investors. My colleague Kasia Tarczynska and I discovered that the value of the incentive package given to Nissan in 2000 will turn out to cost $1.3 billion — far more than was originally reported. Toyota got a $354 million deal in 2007, and Yokohama Rubber got a $130 million one in 2013.

There’s a lot of talk these days about bad trade deals and resulting job losses. We also need to worry about what happens when we gain employment from international investment but the jobs turn out to be lousy ones.

Johnson & Johnson’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

May 5th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Baby powder, the product along with Band-Aids that for decades gave Johnson & Johnson a benign image, is now the latest symbol of its deterioration into one of the most unreliable of large corporations. Juries have recently awarded a total of $127 million to women with ovarian cancer who charge that their disease was caused by the talc in the company’s powder.

J&J, which disputes the allegations and is appealing the verdicts, faces some 1,400 additional similar lawsuits brought by plaintiffs’ lawyers armed with company documents they say show that J&J was concerned about a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer as early as the 1970s. It is unclear what will happen with the litigation, but the lawsuits are part of a long string of scandals that have plagued the giant medical products firm during the past decade and forced it to pay out vast sums in civil settlements and criminal fines.

The most serious of those cases involved allegations that several of its subsidiaries marketed prescription drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration, thus creating potentially life-threatening risks for patients.

In 2010 J&J subsidiaries Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical and Ortho-McNeil-Janssen had to pay $81 million to settle charges that they promoted their epilepsy drug Topamax for uses not approved as safe. The following year, J&J subsidiary Scios Inc. had to pay $85 million to settle similar charges relating to its heart failure drug Natrecor.

In 2013 the Justice Department announced that J&J and several of its subsidiaries would pay more than $2.2 billion in criminal fines and civil settlements to resolve allegations that the company had marketed it anti-psychotic medication Risperdal and other drugs for unapproved uses as well as allegations that they had paid kickbacks to physicians and pharmacists to encourage off-label usage. The amount included $485 million in criminal fines and forfeiture and $1.72 billion in civil settlements with both the federal government and 45 states that had also sued the company.

At a press conference announcing the resolution of the case, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the company’s practices ”recklessly put at risk the health of some of the most vulnerable members of our society — including young children, the elderly and the disabled.”

Other J&J problems resulted from faulty production practices. During 2009 and 2010 the company had to announce around a dozen recalls of medications, contact lenses and hip implants. The most serious of these was the massive recall of liquid Tylenol and Motrin for infants and children after batches of the medication were found to be contaminated with metal particles.

The company’s handling of the matter was so poor that J&J subsidiary McNeil-PPC became the subject of a criminal investigation and later entered a guilty plea and paid a criminal fine of $20 million and forfeited $5 million.

J&J also faced criminal charges in an investigation of questionable foreign transactions. In 2011 it agreed to pay a $21.4 million criminal penalty as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department resolving allegations of improper payments by J&J subsidiaries to government officials in Greece, Poland and Romania in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The settlement also covered kickbacks paid to the former government of Iraq under the United Nations Oil for Food Program.

All of this has been a humiliating comedown for a company that was once regarded as a model of corporate social responsibility and which set the standard for crisis management in its handling of the 1980s episode in which a madman laced packages of Tylenol with cyanide. While the company was then being victimized, the more recent crises have been largely of its own making.

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Note: This piece is drawn from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Johnson & Johnson, which can be found here.

Remembering Fallen Workers and Negligent Corporations

April 28th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

workers memorialWorkers Memorial Day (April 28) is not one of those holidays on which to give thanks and feel good. It is a time to be angry about the fact that nearly 5,000 people each year are killed on the job in the United States in accidents that in many cases were the result of management negligence. Millions more are injured or contract occupational illnesses. The just-published 25th edition of the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job annual report makes for sobering reading.

While this day is a time to “remember those who have suffered and died on the job,” it should also be an occasion to point the finger at those corporations which have done the most to cause those outcomes. A list can be found by consulting Violation Tracker, the database my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First introduced last fall.

We identified thousands of individual companies that have been hit with serious, willful and repeated violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration since the beginning of 2010, and we linked many of those to parent companies. These large firms, which have the resources to ensure safe conditions, probably bear the most responsibility for workplace harms. Here’s a dishonor roll of big business occupational safety culprits.

BP. The British oil giant with extensive U.S. operations is a poster boy for safety lapses. Since the beginning of 2010 it has had to pay more than $60 million to settlement OSHA cases — an amazing amount given the pitifully low levels at which the agency’s standard penalties have been kept by Congress. Most of the penalty total derived from an explosion at the company’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others.

Louis Dreyfus Group. This French conglomerate is on the list because of its ownership of Imperial Sugar, which in 2010 had to pay OSHA $6 million to settle more than 120 violations linked to a 2008 explosion at its plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia.

Tesoro. Criticized by the United Steelworkers for its safety shortcomings, the oil refiner has accumulated some $2.5 million in OSHA penalties since 2010. A report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board cited “safety culture deficiencies” as among the causes of a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers.

Dollar Tree. This deep-discount retailer has racked up more than $2 million in OSHA penalties since 2010 because of repeated violations for piling boxes in storage areas of its stores to dangerous heights and blocking emergency exits.

Ashley Furniture. This retailer and manufacturer was fined $1.8 million last year for 38 willful, serious or repeated violations at a plant in Wisconsin stemming from the company’s failure to protect workers from moving equipment parts. One worker lost three fingers while operating a woodworking machine lacking required safety protections. OSHA later proposed another $431,000 in fines for similar problems at another Ashley facility.

Chevron. The petroleum giant has been hit with more than $1 million in OSHA fines since 2010, most of that amount coming from a slew of serious violations relating to a 2012 fire at the company’s refinery in Richmond, California.

While remembering fallen workers let’s not forget these companies and others whose negligence was often to blame.

Emission Cheating and Lead Poisoning

April 21st, 2016 by Phil Mattera

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announces Flint charges

Two legal cases involving egregious harm to public health have moved forward in recent days, though in very different ways. In one case an aggressive prosecutor, defying expectations, filed criminal charges against three individuals and vowed that they “are only the beginning. There will be more to come — that I can guarantee you.” In the other case, a large company reached a deal in which it will pay to modify or buy back hundreds of thousands of defective products.

The case in which the culprits are deservedly having the book thrown at them is the Flint water crisis, while in the other the boom is not yet being lowered on Volkswagen. The first involves misconduct by public officials, the second is a case of brazen corporate crime.

Admittedly, the settlement framework announced in the VW case does not necessarily reflect the full scope of the legal issues facing the automaker in connection with its systematic cheating in auto emission testing. It is not yet known whether the Justice Department’s reported criminal investigation of the matter will result in the filing of charges, nor is it clear whether the civil penalties that may be imposed on VW will come close to the theoretical maximum of $18 billion.

Yet the decision to announce the tentative buyback deal by itself creates the impression that it is the centerpiece of the resolution of the VW case. It’s being estimated that the U.S. buyback would cost the company about $7 billion. If that turns out to be the main cost imposed on VW, the automaker would be getting a bargain.

Causing financial harm to car owners is far from the only sin for which VW has to be held accountable, and it is probably not the most serious one. Of far more consequence are the environmental and public health impacts of the enormous amount of additional pollution that the VW engines have been spewing into the air. What started out as an effort to circumvent regulations will end up causing an unknown number of cases of asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly lung cancer.

There’s also the issue of deterrence. If VW and its relevant officials do not face serious consequences for their actions, people at other corporations may think they can also flout vital regulations. It’s already clear that VW’s emission fraud was not an anomaly. Mitsubishi just admitted it has been doing the same thing in Japan for at least one of its vehicles.

We don’t yet know the full story of what happened at VW much less Mitsubishi, yet it is likely that flagrant emissions deception arose out of a corporate mindset that sees regulations as obstacles to be overcome rather than legitimate rules designed to protect the public. That mindset will not change until corporations and individuals within them pay as heavy a price for their transgressions as that facing the public officials who poisoned the children of Flint.

The Wrongs of States’ Rights

April 14th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

The publication of the Panama Papers is a bombshell, though the fallout is being felt much more in countries such as Iceland than in the United States. It’s true that the revelations about offshore tax havens have mentioned domestic counterparts such as Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming, but officials in those states don’t seem to think that any action needs to be taken. As the headline of an article in the BNA Daily Tax Report put it: STATES GIVE GROUP SHRUG TO PANAMA PAPERS.

One reason for the tepid reaction is that the criticisms have been heard before. As BNA points out, a 2006 report from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) listed the three states as being especially appealing to those seeking to create shell companies.

Another basis for complacency by the states is that their practices are part of a long and unfortunate tradition in the United States politely called federalism, but which is really a race to the bottom when it comes to oversight of corporations and the wealthy.

This trend dates back to the 19th Century, when the efforts of tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller to create vast industrial empires came up against the fact that state laws governing corporate charters put restrictions on the size and scope of a corporation’s activities, including the ownership of out-of-state companies. Rockefeller’s flagship firm Standard Oil of Ohio tried to get around this by creating the Standard Oil trust, in which affiliates were nominally independent but were actually controlled by a centralized board chosen by Rockefeller. Similar trusts were created in a variety of other industries.

Standard Oil’s transparent effort to circumvent state law was eventually struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court, but by that time Rockefeller and other robber barons had a new tool at their disposal: the willingness of some states to water down their chartering regulations to make them more attractive to big business.

The pioneer of this practice was New Jersey, which adopted a series of legislative measures from the 1870s through the 1890s to make its regulations more business-friendly. During this period, New Jersey became the destination of choice for trusts looking to legitimize themselves by reincorporating in a state that had no problem with bigness. That position was reinforced after Standard Oil made the Garden State its new base of operations. Muckraker Lincoln Steffens took to calling New Jersey the “traitor state.”

Other states sought to get in on this action. In 1899 Delaware adopted a corporation law that was even looser than New Jersey’s and had lower incorporation fees and franchise taxes. After New Jersey later changed course and went back to stricter corporation laws, it was Delaware that became the new mecca of corporations and has remained so to the present day.

Looser chartering procedures not only helped large corporations get larger but also made it easier for both businesses and wealthy individuals to set up the kind of shell companies highlighted in the Panama Papers. The ability and willingness of states to compete with one another to offer the most corporate-friendly practices goes well beyond company formation and governance.

Two areas in which the effects have been most pernicious are economic development and labor relations. Starting in the 1930s but especially during the past few decades, states have been willing to hand over larger and larger “incentive” packages to corporations to lure investments.  For example, in 2014, following a multi-state competition, tax haven Nevada gave away nearly $1.3 billion in taxpayer revenue to get Tesla Motors to locate an electric-car battery plant in the state.

Some states also lure companies with the promise of weak or non-existent labor unions. Ever since the Tart-Hartley Act of 1947, states have had the right to enact laws outlawing union security provisions in collective bargaining agreements. These so-called right-to-work laws tend to weaken the ability of unions to organize while saddling existing unions with lots of free riders who don’t contribute to the cost of running the organization.

It’s widely understood that the notion of states’ rights is often a smokescreen for racial discrimination, but it’s also part of what enables other retrograde practices such as union-busting, corporate welfare and tax dodging.