Another Chance to Punish HSBC

February 12th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

swissleaksIt’s reassuring that the Justice Department is reportedly pushing a group of big banks, including Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, to plead guilty to felony counts in connection with their brazen manipulation of the foreign currency market.

Yet Justice also needs to undo the damage done by its ill-advised 2012 decision to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with HSBC, which was allowed to pay $1.9 billion in settlements  rather than having to plead guilty to charges that it helped drug traffickers and terrorist groups evade money-laundering restrictions. Those practices had been detailed in a 300-page report by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose chair at the time, Sen. Carl Levin, called HSBC’s compliance culture “pervasively polluted for a long time.” A subsequent Matt Tiabbi Rolling Stone article about HSBC’s misdeeds quoted former Senate investigator Jack Blum as saying: “They violated every goddamn law in the book.”

The key prosecutor in the 2012 case was Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and now President Obama’s choice to succeed Eric Holder as Attorney General. The deal is back in the news in connection with extraordinary revelations about the role of HSBC’s Swiss private banking unit in abetting widespread tax evasion by thousands of wealthy individuals from around the world.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), working in concert with news organizations around the world, adds another major dimension to the misconduct at HSBC. What ICIJ calls its Swiss Leaks project is based on a vast amount of internal bank data that former HSBC technology employee Hervé Falciani provided to tax authorities in various countries in 2010. A French official later re-leaked the data to Le Monde, whose staffers realized they had more information that they could possibility research on their own and so enlisted ICIJ and others, including 60 Minutes in the U.S., to join in the fun.

All this amounts to one of the most remarkable examples ever of collaborative investigative journalism on a global scale. The ICIJ site has links to investigations published not only in Western Europe but also in countries ranging from Ecuador and Argentina to Egypt and India. The geographic diversity stems from the fact that the leaked data relates to more than 100,000 HSBC clients in some 200 countries.

ICIJ takes pains to point out that there may be legitimate reasons for these people to have accounts in Switzerland, but it is clear that a substantial number of the clients were using them to conceal income from tax collectors. They also included individuals involved in unsavory pursuits such as arms trafficking, blood diamonds and bribery.

Some of the governments that received the data from Falciani have already begun bringing cases against individuals, but the revelations are also causing crises for some governments themselves. This is especially so in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron is under fire for having chosen a former HSBC executive to serve as a minister.

Even more precarious is the position of HSBC itself, which stands accused of not just allowing rich people to open the secret accounts but also of actively assisting their tax dodging. The Guardian, for instance, is reporting that HSBC contacted clients to market techniques that would allow them to evade a system under which the bank was supposed to collect a sort of withholding tax on the secret accounts on behalf of European Union revenue authorities.

This brings things back to Loretta Lynch, who is not yet confirmed by the Senate but who is already facing pressure from the likes of Elizabeth Warren to come down harder on HSBC this time around. She should give in to those pressures.

Holder’s departure from the Justice Department creates an opportunity to end the shameful practice of letting unscrupulous large companies buy their way out of serious legal jeopardy with payments, which despite growing in size still do little to deter ongoing corporate crime.

Also see my updated Corporate Rap Sheet on HSBC.

Project Zero Corporate Taxes

February 5th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

bad-appleGoogle’s Project Zero works on computer security, but that name could more be more accurately applied to the efforts of high-tech giants and other large U.S. corporations when it comes to federal tax policy: they want to pay less and less, and ultimately nothing at all. President Obama’s new tax reform proposal could end up assisting the business campaign.

Obama is endorsing the long-standing business proposal for a reduction in the statutory rate (from 35 to 28 percent) while at the same time offering an even lower rate (14 percent) on repatriated foreign profits being held abroad and a 19 percent rate on future overseas business income (minus foreign taxes paid). The revenue from the tax on accumulated offshore earnings would be earmarked for infrastructure projects.

Much of the reaction to the plan has framed the offshore provisions as a big tax hit on companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Citigroup. The Business Roundtable accused Obama of seeking “steep tax increases on businesses that will negatively impact their competitiveness.”

This view make sense only if you take as the norm the current effective tax rate imposed on these cash hoards, which is zero. In reality, that cash — which in the case of Apple alone exceeds $130 billion — should be seen as the ill-gotten gains of systematic international tax dodging and thus hardly worthy of preferential tax treatment.

This was made clear with respect to Apple in a 2013 report by the Senate investigations subcommittee that described a wide array of loopholes and tricks used by the iPhone producer. Nonetheless, CEO Tim Cook came to Capitol Hill and testified that Apple was not using gimmicks but simply managing its foreign cash holdings prudently. Sen. Rand Paul was taken in by this deceit and declared that Apple was owed an apology.

Too many members of Congress are willing not only to accept the legitimacy of offshore cash hoards but also to go along with misguided schemes to “incentivize” companies to bring some of that money back home. Last month, Sen. Paul and his Democratic colleague Barbara Boxer called for a “tax holiday” that would allow the repatriation of foreign profits with a tax rate of only 6.5 percent. This would be a replay of 2005 holiday that brought some $300 billion back to the United States, but it turned out that very little of the money was used to stimulate investment and job creation, as proponents had promised. Instead, much of it was spent on corporate stock buybacks.

Although he is not using the term, Obama’s 14 percent proposal amounts to the same kind of dubious tax holiday scheme. His higher rate is being regarded in business circles as simply an opening offer that corporate lobbyists will bring down to “reasonable” levels.

The corporate position on repatriated profits looks all the more unreasonable in light of the recent financial performance of leading offshore cash hoarder Apple. The company has more money than it knows what to do with. In January it reported quarterly profits of $18 billion, thanks to the sale of a ridiculous number of iPhones. This was a record not only for Apple but was the biggest quarterly net in corporate history.

Apple may not be sure how to use that windfall, but like many other large companies it is certain what it does not want to do: pay its fair share of taxes.

A Crowded Corporate Hall of Shame

January 29th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

2015_PublicEye_KeyVisual_550x275Over the past year, Chevron has had success in getting a U.S. federal judge to block enforcement of a multi-billion-dollar judgment imposed by a court in Ecuador, and the oil giant managed to pressure the U.S. law firm representing the plaintiffs to drop out of the case and pay the company $15 million in damages. Chevron has just had another significant win but of a less desirable kind.

The Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland recently announced that Chevron had received the most votes in a competition to determine the world’s most irresponsible corporation and thus was the “winner” of the Public Eye Lifetime Award.

For the past ten years, the two groups have countered the elite mutual admiration society taking place at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland by highlighting the misdeeds of large corporations. The previous awardees ranged from banks such as Citigroup to drug companies such as Novartis to Walt Disney, which was chosen because of its use of foreign sweatshop labor to produce its toys.

A few months ago, Public Eye sponsors decided to bring the project to a close but do so with a splash by naming the company that stood out as the worst. Activists from around the world promoted their choices from among six nominees: Dow Chemical, Gazprom, Glencore, Goldman Sachs and Wal-Mart Stores, along with Chevron. Amazon Watch, which led the Chevron effort, prevailed. Glencore and Wal-Mart were the runners-up.

Public Eye’s award ceremony featured the Yes Men satirical group, which in one of its rare un-ironic pronouncements stated: “Corporate Social Responsibility is like putting a bandage on a severed head – it doesn’t help”. This sentiment is especially appropriate in relation to Chevron, which has long sought to portray itself, through ads headlined WILL YOU JOIN US, as not only mindful of environmental issues but as a leader of the sustainability movement.

Given the prevalence of business misconduct, choosing the most irresponsible corporation is no easy matter. Even within the petroleum industry, Chevron’s environmental sins in Ecuador and the rest of its rap sheet must be weighed against the record of a company such as BP, infamous for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster as well as safety deficiencies at its refineries that resulted in explosions such as one in Texas that killed 15 workers in 2005. Also worthy of consideration are Royal Dutch Shell, with its human rights abuses in Nigeria, and Exxon Mobil, with its own record of oil spills as well as climate change denial.

And what about the mining giants and their notorious treatment of indigenous communities around the world. A prominent activist once called Rio Tinto “a poster child for corporate malfeasance.” Then there is Big Pharma, made up of corporations that tend toward price-gouging and product safety lapses. And we shouldn’t leave out the auto industry, which in the past year has been shown to be a lot sloppier about safety matters than we could have imagined. Also not to be forgotten are the weapon makers, whose products are inherently anti-social.

Yet perhaps the biggest disappointment for corporate critics in the United States may be the fact that the Lifetime Award did not go to Wal-Mart. For the past two decades, the Behemoth of Bentonville has epitomized corporate misbehavior in a wide variety of areas — most notably in the labor relations sphere, but also promotion of foreign sweatshops, gender discrimination, destruction of small business, tax dodging, bribery (especially in Mexico) and the spread of suburban sprawl with its attendant impact on climate change. Yet perhaps the most infuriating thing about Wal-Mart has been its refusal to abandon its retrograde labor practices while working so hard, like Chevron, to paint itself as a sustainability pioneer.

It’s too bad that we will no longer have the annual Public Eye awards, but corporate misconduct will apparently be with us for a long time to come.

Precarious Pipelines

January 22nd, 2015 by Phil Mattera

waterpickupProponents of the Keystone XL pipeline in Congress were annoyed at President Obama’s wisecrack in the State of the Union, but events 1700 miles away are an even bigger embarrassment for House members of both parties who voted for a bill ordering the administration to proceed with the controversial project.

The latest reminder that oil pipelines are an especially risky business emerged recently near Glendive, Montana when a burst pipeline spilled tens of thousands of gallons of light crude into the Yellowstone River. The accident contaminated the water supply of Glendive with carcinogenic benzene, and although later tests have yielded better results, residents have been using bottled water. Evidence of the spill has been visible along some 60 miles of the river.

All this is reminiscent of the 2011 rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline that caused a spill in the same river. The U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has proposed that the company be fined $1.7 million in connection with the accident.

This time, however, the rupture occurred in a pipeline owned by a modest-sized company, which goes to show that small business is not always immune from the ills of mega-corporations. The operator is Bridger Pipeline, a unit of a privately held group called True Companies.

According to the PHMSA website, Bridger has been involved in nine incidents since 2006, including three spills, all much smaller than the current situation. In 2007 the company was fined $100,000 for not having written guidelines for pipeline employee qualifications. Later it was fined $70,000 (reduced to $45,000) for other safety infractions. With the new accident, Bridger will probably join the ranks of the more serious violators.

What makes the Glendive accident all the more significant is that it occurred not far from where the Keystone XL would cross the Yellowstone. Those of a more pessimistic nature might say that this incident is an omen of what the bigger pipeline might bring.

Bridger’s link to Keystone XL is not just a matter of proximity. There have been reports that the firm’s Four Bears pipeline in North Dakota would have a connection to Keystone. North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven praised Four Bears for exactly this reason in 2012.

In 2012 Tad True of the True Companies appeared at a House hearing meant to celebrate the oil boom in North Dakota. His testimony argued for greater use of pipelines, calling them “safe and getting safer.” Numerous House members apparently took his message to heart, but the residents of Glendive may have another opinion on the matter.

Debunking Anti-Regulatory Rhetoric

January 15th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

dimonBelief in the infallibility of papal pronouncements is not as great as it used to be, but conservatives have lost none of their reverence for the statements of corporate executives. Nowhere is this clearer than in the new Congress, where Republicans seem preoccupied with addressing calls for regulatory “reform” from business leaders.

The vote in the House to begin gutting Dodd-Frank is the case in point. Conservatives appear to have taken to heart the dubious complaints by banks that they are being crippled by what are actually far from draconian restrictions.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon is keeping up the drumbeat, telling reporters the other day that “banks are under assault.” Would that it were so. Dimon cited as “evidence” the fact that his institution needs to deal with multiple regulatory agencies: “You should all ask the question about how American that is, how fair that is.”

First of all, the fragmentation of bank regulation in the United States is an old issue that has nothing to do with the severity of the oversight. Several agencies treating banks with kid gloves do not amount to something more onerous than having one do so.

What makes Dimon’s laments all the more absurd is that they come from the head of a bank with an abominable track record. This is the bank that in 2013 had to pay $13 billion to settle federal and state allegations concerning the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. It is also the bank that suffered a $2 billion trading loss generated by a group of London-based traders that top management failed to rein in and that Dimon himself all but excused in a blustering appearance before a Congressional committee.

And it is the bank that a year ago paid $1.7 billion to victims of the Ponzi scheme perpetuated by Bernard Madoff to settle civil and criminal charges of failing to alert authorities about large numbers of suspicious transactions made by Madoff while it was his banker.

Criticisms of financial regulations coming from someone like Dimon should be accorded as much respect as denunciations of the racketeering laws coming from a mobster.

Another key source of overheated anti-regulation rhetoric is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has published a funny but telling account of how top officials of the powerful trade association reacted when he asked them how their dire warnings about the threats to free enterprise posed by the Obama Administration squared with the recent good news about the economy.

Chamber President Tom Donohue and chief lobbyist Bruce Josten called Milbank “crazy” for saying that the Chamber had ever issued such warnings, with Donohue offering to buy the journalist lunch if he could produce such statements. Of course, Milbank goes on to reproduce several overwrought quotes.

It’s quite possible that the likes of Donohue and Josten are so used to speaking in exaggerated terms that they forget the meaning of their words.

Unfortunately, their acolytes in Congress, who receive those words wrapped in campaign contributions, take the messages all too seriously.

Prosecuting Corporate Culprits

January 8th, 2015 by Phil Mattera

SteinzorOn December 18th, the national page of the New York Times contained two stories on atypical events in the business world. One was headlined “Pharmacy Executives Face Murder Charges in Meningitis Deaths” and the other “Chemical Company Owners are Charged in Spill That Tainted West Virginia Water.”

By all rights, articles like these should be as common as those reporting on the prosecution of warring gang members or drug kingpins. Actually, they should be more common, since street crime is declining while corporate malfeasance seems to be on the rise.

The reasons for the reluctant prosecution of corporate crime are carefully dissected in the new book Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction by Rena Steinzor (photo), a law professor at the University of Maryland.

Steinzor, who is also president of the Center for Progressive Reform, starts by pointing a finger at what she calls “hollow government,” by which she means “outmoded and weak legal authority, funding shortfalls that prevent the effective implementation of regulatory requirements, and the relentless bashing of the civil service.”

What makes the decline of health, safety and environmental regulation so troubling is that for quite a while the system was, Steinzor notes, working fairly well. Both the food and drug laws of the early 20th Century and the environmental and workplace health legislation of the 1970s were helping to reduce deaths and illnesses.

Yet by the beginning of the new century, regulatory agencies were becoming timid while industry opponents and their Congressional allies grew ever more aggressive and successful. Steinzor takes the Obama Administration to task for often putting politics above regulatory rigor and for allowing the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to continue its traditional practice of weakening proposed rules.

Steinzor also excoriates the Justice Department for its widespread use of deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements, both before and during the Obama Administration. She sees these techniques as exactly the wrong approach in addressing corporate culpability in situations such as the Massey Energy mine collapse and two disasters — the Macondo well blowout and Texas City refinery explosion — linked to BP.

Rather than letting corporations buy their way out of these situations with financial settlements and promises not to sin again, Steinzor shows how it is possible to basic use legal concepts such as recklessness and willful blindness to bring criminal prosecutions against culpable managers and executives, especially when “industrial activities cause grave harm to public health, consumer or worker safety, or the environment.”

This needs to be done not only at the federal level, but also by local prosecutors, who have the powerful but largely neglected weapon of state manslaughter laws at their disposal.

Steinzor acknowledges that it will be difficult to change the attitudes of prosecutors, who all too often go for the easier approaches.

Another obstacle is the reluctance prosecutors seem to have about bringing cases they think might threaten the continued existence of a large corporation, a phobia stemming from the demise of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm in 2002 in the wake of its criminal conviction for actions relating to the Enron fraud.

It is significant that the two prosecutions cited at the start of these piece involve executives at relatively small firms. Until we also see executives at Fortune 500 companies facing the risk of time behind bars, the current corporate crime wave will continue unabated.

The 2014 Corporate Rap Sheet

December 31st, 2014 by Phil Mattera

gotojailThe bull market in corporate crime surged in 2014 as large corporations continued to pay hefty fines and settlements that seem to do little to deter misbehavior in the suites. Payouts in excess of $1 billion have become commonplace and some even reach into eleven figures, as seen in the $16.65 billion settlement Bank of America reached with the Justice Department to resolve federal and state claims relating to the practices of its Merrill Lynch and Countrywide units in the run-up to the financial meltdown.

This came in the same year in which BofA reached a $9.3 billion settlement with the Federal Housing Finance Agency concerning the sale of deficient mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and in which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered the bank to pay $727 million to compensate consumers harmed by deceptive marketing of credit card add-on products.

The BofA cases helped boost the total penalties paid by U.S. and European banks during the year to nearly $65 billion, a 40 percent increase over the previous year, according to a tally by the Boston Consulting Group reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Among the other big banking cases were the following:

  • France’s BNP Paribas pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid an $8.9 billion penalty to U.S. authorities in connection with charges that it violated financial sanctions against countries such as Sudan and Iran.
  • Citigroup paid $7 billion to settle federal charges relating to the packaging and sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities.
  • U.S. and European regulators fined five banks — JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS — a total of more than $4 billion after accusing them of conspiring to manipulate the foreign currency market.
  • Credit Suisse pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiring to aid tax evasion by U.S. customers and paid a penalty of $2.6 billion.
  • JPMorgan Chase paid $1.7 billion to victims of the Ponzi scheme perpetuated by Bernard Madoff to settle civil and criminal charges that it failed to alert authorities about large numbers of suspicious transactions made by Madoff while it was his banker.

Banks were not the only large corporations that found themselves in legal trouble during the year. The auto industry faced a never-ending storm of controversy over its safety practices. Toyota was hit with a $1.2 billion criminal penalty by U.S. authorities for concealing defects from customers and regulators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined General Motors $35 million (the maximum allowable) for failing to promptly report an ignition switch defect that has been linked to numerous deaths. Hyundai and its subsidiary Kia paid $300 million to settle allegations that they misstated the greenhouse gas emissions of their vehicles.

Toxic dumping. Anadarko Petroleum paid $5.1 billion to resolve federal charges that had been brought in connection with the clean-up of thousands of toxic waste sites around the country resulting from decades of questionable practices by Kerr-McGee, now a subsidiary of Anadarko.

Pipeline safety. The California Public Utilities Commission proposed that $1.4 billion in penalties and fined be imposed on Pacific Gas & Electric in connection with allegations that the company violated federal and state pipeline safety rules before a 2010 natural gas explosion that killed eight people.

Contractor fraud. Supreme Group BV had to pay $288 million in criminal fines and a $146 million civil settlement in connection with allegations that it grossly overcharged the federal government while supplying food and bottled water to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

Bribery. The French industrial group Alstom consented to pay $772 million to settle U.S. government charges that it bribed officials in Indonesia and other countries to win power contracts. Earlier in the year, Alcoa paid $384 million to resolve federal charges that it used a middleman to bribe members of Bahrain’s royal family and other officials to win lucrative contracts from the Bahraini government.

Price-fixing. Japan’s Bridgestone Corporation pleaded guilty to charges that it conspired to fix prices of anti-vibration rubber auto parts and had to pay a criminal fine of $425 million.

Defrauding consumers. AT&T Mobility had to pay $105 million to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission that it unlawfully billed customers for services without their prior knowledge or consent.

The list goes on. Whether the economy is strong or weak, many corporative executives cannot resist the temptation to break the law in the pursuit of profit.

Note: For fuller dossiers on some of the companies listed here, see my Corporate Rap Sheets.

Corporate Subsidies and Economic Inequality

December 16th, 2014 by Phil Mattera

inequality_graphicThe intensification of economic inequality, one of the defining issues of our times, has many causes, ranging from the weakening of labor unions to the decimation of inheritance taxes. In Tax Breaks and Inequality, a report my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just published, we argue that another factor belongs on the list: subsidies given by state and local governments to large corporations in the name of economic development.

This conclusion is based on a mash-up of data from our Subsidy Tracker with two groups of corporations: firms linked to members of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans and a list we created of large low-road employers.

The first part of the report is in effect a rebuttal to Forbes, which in this year’s edition of the 400 plays up those individuals who supposedly built fortunes entirely on their own (rather than through inheritance). We show that many of many of the super-rich – both those Forbes calls “bootstrappers” and those labeled “silver spooners” – received help of another kind: government assistance to the corporations through which they got filthy rich.

Development subsidies – in the form of business property tax abatements, corporate income tax credits, sales tax exemptions, training grants, infrastructure improvements and the like – are supposed to promote job creation and broad-based economic growth. Yet they are often awarded to profitable, growing companies that do not need tax breaks to finance a project, meaning that the subsidies serve mainly to increase profits. When these companies are owned in whole or substantial part by wealthy individuals or families, especially the billionaires in the 400, the subsidies are serving to enlarge those private fortunes — directly in privately held firms or through stock price appreciation and dividends in publicly traded ones.

We find that more than one-third of the 258 companies currently linked to members of the Forbes list are substantial recipients of subsidies. Ninety-nine of them have received awards totaling $1 million or more. The combined value of those awards is $19.4 billion, or an average of $196 million per company.

Five of the 99 firms have been awarded more than $1 billion in subsidies, including Intel ($5.9 billion), Nike ($2 billion), Cerner ($1.7 billion), Tesla Motors ($1.3 billion) and Berkshire Hathaway ($1.2 billion).

About one-third of the individuals on the Forbes 400 are linked to one or more of the 99 highly subsidized companies, including every one of the 11 wealthiest individuals and all but two of the top 25. These include Bill Gates, whose $81 billion fortune comes mainly from his holdings in Microsoft, which has been awarded $203 million in subsidies; Warren Buffett, whose $67 billion net worth derives from Berkshire Hathaway, which has been awarded $1.2 billion in subsidies; Larry Ellison, whose $50 billion net worth comes from Oracle, which has been awarded $18 million in subsidies; the Koch Brothers, each worth $42 billion from Koch Industries, whose subsidies total $154 million; and four members of the Walton Family, each worth more than $35 billion from Wal-Mart Stores, which has been awarded more than $161 million in subsidies.

The second part of the report looks at subsidies awarded to corporations notorious for stingy pay rates and other low-road employment practices. We identify 87 such companies that have each been awarded more than $1 million in state and local subsidies, for a total of $3.3 billion. Retailers dominate the list, with 60 firms awarded more than $2.6 billion in subsidies. Twelve firms in the hospitality sector (restaurants, hotels and foodservice companies) account for more than $245 million in subsidies. The low-wage companies with the most in subsidies are: Sears ($536 million), Amazon.com ($419 million), Cabela’s ($247 million), Convergys ($202 million), Starwood Hotels & Resorts ($166 million) and Wal-Mart Stores ($161 million).

Eight companies are both linked to members of the Forbes 400 and pay low wages. Listed in order of their subsidy totals, they are: Sears, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Bass Pro, Meijer, Menard, and Allegis Group. These are all retailers except for the staffing services company Allegis.

Subsidies are not the primary source of the Forbes 400’s wealth, but they contribute to it in a way that makes things more difficult for working families. When large corporations controlled by billionaires are given lavish taxpayer subsidies, the rest of society — especially working families — gets stuck with a larger share of the cost of essential public services. And when those subsidies go to low-road employers, they are promoting the substandard jobs that keep so many people at the bottom of the income spectrum.

By enriching those at the top and helping to impoverish those at the bottom, subsidies are part of the inequality problem rather than part of the solution.

Waterboarding and Price Gouging

December 11th, 2014 by Phil Mattera

inquisitionThe shameful revelations in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA torture program are, as the New York Times editorial board put it, “a portrait of depravity.” At the same time, they constitute one of most serious federal contracting scandals of all time.

Although it sounds like an idea dreamed up by the writers of the TV series Homeland, it turns out that the creation of the “enhanced interrogation” system was left to a pair of contractors, neither of whom, as the report states, “had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.”

The contractors had previously worked with the U.S. Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, which was created to helped military personnel deal with coercive interrogation techniques to which they might be exposed if taken prisoner by a country that did not adhere to the Geneva Convention. That was before the U.S. became one of those countries.

Referred to in the report by the pseudonyms Dr. Grayson Swigert and Dr. Hammond Dunbar, the two are psychologists whose real names are reported to be James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen. Their firm, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates of Spokane, Washington, is said to have been paid $81 million by the CIA for its dubious services. The agency thoughtfully provided the firm “a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program.”

Among the brutal methods promoted by Mitchell and Jessen was waterboarding, which the report says they described as an “absolutely convincing technique.”

It may have been the case that the water used for that torture was provided by another rogue contractor. The Justice Department recently announced that Supreme Group BV would pay $288 million in criminal fines and a $146 million civil settlement in connection with allegations that it grossly overcharged the federal government while supplying food and bottled water to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, one of the countries where the torture took place.

Supreme Group, which is based in the Netherlands but has its main operating base in Dubai, had been awarded an $8.8 billion supply contract that was extended twice before coming to an end in 2013. The fraud was uncovered thanks to a whistleblower inside the company. Despite the egregious nature of the charges and the hefty penalties, Supreme is not, according to the Wall Street Journal, being barred from seeking new federal business.

The abuses of Mitchell and Jessen deserve to be judged more harshly than those of Supreme Group, but they are both examples of the loose morals of many of the parties selling their services to the federal government. Each in its own way serves as a rebuttal to those who extol outsourcing and the superiority of the private sector.

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New in Corporate Rap Sheets: a profile of Newmont Mining and its record of environmental and human rights controversies around the world.

Getting Even Tougher on Corporate Crime

December 4th, 2014 by Phil Mattera

blankenshipWest Virginia’s coal country is not very fond of the Environmental Protection Agency these days, but another part of the federal government — the Justice Department — is viewed more sympathetically.

The reason is that Don Blankenship, the most reviled man in the state, is being prosecuted. A federal grand jury recently handed up an indictment with four criminal counts against Blankenship (photo), the former CEO of Massey Energy, for conspiring with other managers to violate safety laws on a massive scale, thereby creating the conditions that led to the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster, in which 29 miners were killed.

It is a rarity for criminal charges to reach the CEO level, and if any chief executive deserves such special treatment, Blankenship is the one. The indictment paints a picture of a manager who was utterly contemptuous of federal safety regulations and thus of the safety and well being of his employees. He is said to have called the use of workers for safety compliance “ridiculous” and “crazy.”

What’s really crazy is that Blankenship is not facing even more serious charges. He could theoretically spend as much as 31 years in prison, but if convicted he would likely serve much less time. The indictment makes a compelling case for the conspiracy charges, but they also detail activity that could easily be construed as homicide or at least negligent homicide. In fact, back in 2010 there were calls for Blankenship to be charged with murder.

Blankenship is emblematic of a type of business misconduct that brings about serious harm or even death to workers, consumers or the general public. This kind of brazen corporate behavior originated in the 19th Century and persisted in the 20th, especially in industries such as tobacco and asbestos. A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity documents steps by the petroleum industry beginning in the late 1940s to suppress evidence linking benzene, an ingredient in gasoline, to leukemia.

It was not long ago that business apologists were claiming that such egregious cases of corporate irresponsibility were a thing of the past. We were made to believe that Big Business had cleaned up its act and was now taking the lead in promoting ethical and sustainable practices.

That notion took a beating in 2010, which saw not only the Upper Big Branch explosion but also the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico brought about by the negligence of BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

This year corporate wrong-doing is once again in full bloom. At the center of it has been General Motors, the company whose dangerous Corvair compact gave rise to the modern public interest movement. Fifty years later, the new, post-bankruptcy GM is again facing charges of endangering lives through foolish cost-cutting measures.

GM, however, is not alone this time. We’re seeing negligent behavior by other automakers, including the Japanese, and now a scandal is growing over the practices of airbag supplier Takata, which is alleged to have covered up evidence that its products were rupturing and spewing metal debris at drivers. Now the company is resisting calls in the U.S. for a nationwide recall.

For a long time, the discussion on business misconduct has focused on the need to bring criminal charges against top executives. That’s a worthy goal, but we need to give more attention to the nature of the charges. A CEO who has knowingly placed human lives in danger should be prosecuted as toughly as street criminals who do the same. Potential penalties along the lines of life imprisonment may be the only thing that can deter the Don Blankenships of the world.