The Other Regulators

When it comes to business regulation, we tend to focus on federal agencies, which for the financial sector means the SEC, the CFPB, the Federal Reserve and the like. Yet there is another world of financial regulation at the state level, which at a time of weakening enforcement is more important than ever.

My colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project have just completed a deep dive in this world for a major expansion of Violation Tracker. We collected enforcement data dating back to the beginning of 2000 for each state’s regulatory agencies dealing with banking, consumer finance, insurance and securities. In all, we created 15,000 entries with total penalties of more than $17 billion.

The number of cases and penalty amounts vary greatly from state to state. Among the more than 150 agencies we looked at, some disclosed hundreds of successful enforcement actions while others reported a few dozen. Some states are active in one of the areas we examined and weak in others.

The state that has by far collected the most in overall penalties is New York, whose total is more than $11 billion. Its Department of Financial Services has gone after the world’s biggest financial institutions and has won major settlements such as the $2.2 billion paid by the French bank BNP Paribas for violating international economic sanctions and the $715 million paid by the Swiss bank Credit Suisse for facilitating tax evasion.

California is second in penalties at just over $1 billion but far ahead in the number of cases. Its financial regulatory agencies have carried out more than 2,000 successful actions. Their biggest settlement was the $225 million paid in 2017 by Ocwen Loan Servicing for mortgage abuses.

Three other states have collected more than $100 million in penalties: Arizona ($665 million in 488 cases), Texas ($632 million in 1,097 cases) and New Jersey ($339 million in 398 cases).

If we focus on the area of insurance, in which the states have pretty much exclusive jurisdiction, the largest number of penalties of $5,000 or more were found in California (1,475), Texas (950) and Virginia (633). Yet in terms of total penalty dollars, New York was first with $808 million, followed by Texas ($617 million) and California ($541 million).

We also identified more than 100 cases in which regulators from different states brought cases jointly. These actions are similar to the multi-state attorneys general cases we analyzed in our Bipartisan Crime Fighting by the States report published in September 2019.

The cases brought by groups of state insurance and securities regulators have yielded about $2 billion in penalties since 2000. The companies that have paid the most in penalties in these cases are: Citigroup ($251 million), American International Group ($204 million), Bank of America ($201 million) and the Swiss bank UBS ($179 million). 

Looking at both single-state and multi-state actions in banking, insurance and securities combined, the companies that have paid the most in total penalties turn out to be the big foreign banks, which account for every spot in the top ten. That New York sanctions case puts BNP Paribas on top with more than $2 billion, followed by Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse.

The U.S. companies with the largest overall penalty totals are State Farm Insurance ($368 million), UnitedHealth Group ($354 million), Citigroup ($295 million), American International Group ($275 million) and MetLife ($263 million).  

With the addition of the state financial cases, Violation Tracker now contains 437,000 cases with total penalties of $627 billion imposed by more than 50 federal and 200 state and local agencies.

Crime Without Real Punishment

The absurdity of the corporate system of justice was on full view this week when the chief executive of Pacific Gas & Electric stood in a California courtroom and pled guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter in connection with a 2018 forest fire blamed on the utility’s faulty maintenance of transmission lines.

The CEO, Bill Johnson, was not personally pleading guilty to the crimes. He was appearing as a representative of the corporation, which was charged with the offenses and which agreed to pay the statutory maximum monetary penalty of $3.48 million—or around $40,000 per victim.

Since no executive of the company was charged and since a corporation cannot be put behind bars, no one is paying a real penalty in this case. That, unfortunately, is the norm for almost all matters of corporate misconduct.

Usually, however, a hefty monetary penalty takes the place of imprisonment. PG&E is not even facing that limited form of punishment to a meaningful degree in the immediate case, though it was separately pressured to create a $13 billion fund to compensate victims of the Camp Fire.

It is difficult to see the PG&E case as anything more than a symbolic gesture. It leaves open the question of what would be an appropriate way to deal with egregious corporate misconduct.

For a while it appeared that the utility might face serious consequences after Gov. Gavin Newsom raised the possibility of a state takeover. It now appears Newsom was simply using that threat as leverage to get PG&E to make some changes to its operations. Those changes are unlikely to be adequate for a company with such a poor track record.

Converting PG&E from an investor-owned utility into a customer-owned cooperative, as some California officials suggested, would accomplish much more. Skimping on maintenance to bolster quarterly profits would likely become a thing of the past under such an arrangement.

Such a conversion would in effect be a “death penalty” sentence for the existing PG&E. But instead of putting the company out of business, it would resurrect it in a new, more accountable form.

This is actually not a very radical idea. There are already many community-owned utilities across the United States. They even have their own trade association, the American Public Power Association. There are also many cooperative utilities. Even the federal government is involved through entities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Yet these forms of public power have never represented more than a slice of the industry, which instead has been dominated by large investor-owned utilities whose clout was supposed to be kept in check by strict regulatory oversight, especially at the state level.

PG&E is a prime example of the failure of that oversight. Perhaps it is now time to return to the idea of regarding access to energy, like healthcare, as a right rather than a product.

The Real Law and Order Problem

Donald Trump’s bombastic campaign to restore law and order is focusing on minor crimes like vandalism while allowing much more serious corporate offenses to go unaddressed. Federal agencies such as OSHA are failing to fulfill their regulatory responsibilities, putting lives at risk.

Not only is the government failing to crack down on business miscreants — in some cases it is using tax dollars to give them grants and loans to weather the pandemic-generated economic crisis.

These are not just companies involved in civil infractions but also some that have faced actual criminal charges, which are rarely used against corporations.

So far, the limited information released by the Administration on the recipients of CARES Act assistance has involved two main groups: hospitals and other healthcare providers, and airlines and air cargo companies. Even within this limited universe we can find firms that have been embroiled in criminal cases.

One example is National Air Cargo Group, which recently received a grant of more than $15 million through the Payroll Support Program.  In 2008 the company had to pay $28 million to resolve criminal and civil allegations that it defrauded the Defense Department when billing for air freight services. As part of the resolution, National Air Cargo pled guilty to one count of making a material misstatement to the federal government and paid more than $16 million in criminal fines and restitution (the rest of the penalty total involved the civil portion of the case).

Among the healthcare providers there is the case of WakeMed Health & Hospitals, which is receiving more than $22 million from the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund. In 2012 it had to pay $8 million to settle criminal and civil allegations that it used more costly in-patient rates when billing Medicare for services that were actually performed on an out-patient basis. The non-profit health system was offered a deferred prosecution agreement but it had to admit to the wrongdoing.

Criminal cases can also be found among the larger corporations receiving covid-related aid. Take the case of the for-profit hospital chain Tenet Healthcare, which is getting more than $300 million from the Provider Relief Fund. In 2016 Tenet and two of its subsidiaries had to pay more than half a billion dollars to resolve criminal charges and civil claims relating to a scheme to defraud the federal government and to pay kickbacks in exchange for patient referrals. Tenet got a non-prosecution agreement while the subsidiaries pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and paying health care kickbacks and bribes in violation of the Anti-Kickback Statute.

In other words, the federal government is currently paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to companies that have been implicated in criminal schemes to cheat that very same government.

The most odious abuses in the American justice system involve disparate treatment based on race, but there are also serious flaws in the way corporate offenders can so easily buy their way out of serious legal jeopardy. Allowing those offenders to receive federal aid is compounding the abuse.

The Battle Over Covid Safety on the Job

As the country reaches the sorrowful milestone of 100,000 dead from covid-19, there is much discussion of the unequal distribution of fatalities around the country. Instead of focusing only on which cities lost the most lives, we should also be analyzing what portion of the deaths occurred in the workplace. The latter is part of one of the biggest scandals of the pandemic: the extent to which employers are being allowed to put workers in high-risk situations, with little or no intervention from health and safety regulators.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, we have seen contradictory tendencies when it comes to at-risk workers. There has been an enormous amount of justified praise for front-line nurses, doctors, EMTs and others who have been helping covid patients. The nightly applause and other demonstrations of appreciation are important affirmations of the vital role these workers play.

Their efforts are all the more heroic in that most of these workers readily accepted the risk, seeing it as part of their professional responsibility to help those in need, despite the circumstances.

Potentially fatal workplace risk becomes a trickier matter for other occupations not usually regarded as hazardous. Prior to the pandemic, no one ever took a job in a supermarket expecting to put his or her life on the line. Warehouse and factory jobs have had higher accident rates, but in most cases they were still not viewed as deadly environments.

Now the calculus of workplace safety has become a lot more complicated, and the situation is being exacerbated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s abdication of its watchdog role. OSHA is performing very few covid-related inspections and reportedly has not proposed a single penalty against an employer.

The agency has claimed it plans to increase inspections, and it put out a statement affirming that employers are responsible for recording coronavirus illnesses among its workers. Yet it is unclear whether that data collection will have any enforcement consequences. The agency’s announcement states: “Recording a coronavirus illness does not mean that the employer has violated any OSHA standard. Following existing regulations, employers with 10 or fewer employees and certain employers in low hazard industries have no recording obligations; they need only report work-related coronavirus illnesses that result in a fatality or an employee’s in-patient hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye.”

Perhaps the most disturbing workplace safety situation involves the country’s meatpacking plants, which have seen some of the worst clusters of covid-19. The Trump Administration, after resisting calls to make full use of the Defense Production Act to address the crisis regarding masks and ventilators, chose to invoke the law to compel meat plants to open even before the outbreaks were brought under control.  

Rarely has a President made it so clear that the he was giving the well-being of workers lower priority than the desire to stimulate economic activity. What made things worse in this case was that the stimulus took the form of increasing the nation’s supply of ground beef and bacon strips.

In the decades following the creation of OSHA, annual workplace deaths sharply declined from around 17 per 100,000 employees to around 4 per 100,000. The Trump Administration’s two-pronged attack on safety threatens to reverse that trend.

There are already signs that people are resisting. We’ve seen increased militancy over safety at places such as Amazon.com distribution centers, and we’ve seen the filing of a class action lawsuit against McDonald’s. Widespread work stoppages are possible. One way or another, workers will defend their right to safety on the job.

Corporate America Wants Its Own Immunity Passport

It is unclear at the moment whether Mitch McConnell and other Congressional Republicans are backing off their demand that corporations be given protection from covid-19 lawsuits — or if they are maneuvering behind the scenes in favor of the proposal.

What I find amazing is that business lobbyists and their GOP supporters think they can sell the country on the idea, which would be a brazen giveaway to corporate interests.

There are numerous compelling arguments against immunity, but I want to focus on one: the track records of corporations themselves. Proponents of a liability shield imply that large companies normally act in good faith and that any coronavirus-related litigation would be penalizing them for conditions outside their control. These lawsuits, they suggest, would be frivolous or unfair.

This depiction of large companies as innocent victims of unscrupulous trial lawyers is a long-standing fiction that business lobbyists have used in promoting “tort reform,” the polite term for the effort to limit the ability of victims of corporate misconduct to seek redress through the civil justice system. That campaign has not been more successful because most people realize that corporate negligence is a real thing.

In fact, some of the industries that are pushing the hardest for immunity are ones that have terrible records when it comes to regulatory compliance. Take nursing homes, which have already received a form of covid immunity from New York State.

That business includes the likes of Kindred Healthcare, which has had to pay out more than $350 million in fines and settlements.  The bulk of that amount has come from cases in which Kindred and its subsidiaries were accused of violating the False Claims Act by submitting inaccurate or improper bills to Medicare and Medicaid. Another $40 million has come from wage and hour fines and settlements.

Kindred has also been fined more than $4 million for deficiencies in its operations. This includes more than $3 million it paid to settle a case brought by the Kentucky Attorney General over issues such as “untreated or delayed treatment of infections leading to sepsis.”

Or consider the meatpacking industry, which has experienced severe outbreaks yet is keeping many facilities open. This sector includes companies such as WH Group, the Chinese firm that has acquired well-known businesses such as Smithfield. WH Group’s operations have paid a total of $137 million in penalties from large environmental settlements as well as dozens of workplace safety violations.

Similar examples can be found throughout the economy. Every large corporation is, to at least some extent, a scofflaw when it comes to employment, environmental and consumer protection issues. There is no reason to think this will change during the pandemic. In fact, companies may respond to a difficult business climate by cutting even more corners.

The two ways such misconduct can be kept in check are regulatory enforcement and litigation. We have an administration that believes regulation is an evil to be eradicated.

This makes the civil justice system all the more important, yet business lobbyists and their Congressional allies are trying to move the country in exactly the opposite direction. They want to liberate big business from any form of accountability, giving it what amounts to an immunity passport. Heaven help us if they succeed.

Rescuing the Cheaters

The federal government has been sending tens of billions of dollars in aid to the country’s hospitals under the Provider Relief Fund created by the CARES Act. That’s all well and good. Yet there is an awkward aspect to this: quite a few of the recipients have been accused of cheating the federal government in the past.

I’ve been working closely with the relief fund data in recent days, in order to prepare it for uploading to Covid Stimulus Watch. I’ve noticed that numerous recipients are hospital chains that have been involved in cases brought under the False Claims Act (FCA), the law that is widely used by the federal government to go after healthcare providers and contractors for billing irregularities or other improprieties in their dealings with Uncle Sam.

Matching the Provider Relief Fund recipients to the FCA data my colleagues and I have collected for Violation Tracker, I found more than 100 overlaps for the period extending back to 2010. These include both for-profit and non-profit hospital systems.

The company that has received the most from the basic Provider Relief Fund (there is a separate set of awards to hospitals that have treated large numbers of covid patients) is also the hospital chain that has paid the most in FCA penalties over the past decade: Tenet Healthcare.

In 2016 Tenet and two of its subsidiaries had to pay over $513 million to resolve criminal charges and civil claims relating to a scheme to defraud the United States and to pay kickbacks in exchange for patient referrals. The subsidiaries pled guilty to conspiracy charges.

Community Health Systems, another big for-profit hospital chain participating in the relief fund, has been involved in ten different FCA controversies over the past decade. In 2018 one of its subsidiaries had to pay $260 million to resolve criminal charges and civil claims that it knowingly billed government health care programs for inpatient services that should have been billed as outpatient or observation services; paid remuneration to physicians in return for patient referrals; and submitted inflated claims for emergency department facility fees.

Among the non-profit relief fund recipients with FCA problems is Michigan-based Beaumont Health, one of whose hospitals had to pay $84 million in 2018 to resolve allegations that it made payments to referring physicians that violated the Anti-Kickback Act as well as the FCA.

CommonSpirit Health, the large Catholic health system, has numerous affiliates receiving relief funds that have faced FCA allegations. For example, in 2014 Dignity Health had to pay $37 million to resolve allegations that 13 of its hospitals in California, Nevada and Arizona knowingly submitted false claims to Medicare and TRICARE by admitting patients who could have been treated on a less costly, outpatient basis.

Altogether, at least 103 health systems whose facilities are participating in the relief fund have paid more than $4 billion in False Claims Act settlements and fines over the past decade.

Given the magnitude of the covid crisis, it would be difficult to argue that these providers should be denied assistance. Yet there should at least be additional safeguards put in place to make sure that they do not engage in similar transgressions when it comes to CARES Act funds.

Note: A list of companies receiving $500,000 or more from the Provider Relief Fund can be found here. A list of recipients of the high-impact awards can be found here.

Should Taxpayers Aid Corporate Bad Actors?

The uproar over the participation of larger companies in the Paycheck Protection Program is a sign that the country will increasingly confront a broader issue about the massive Covid-19 relief effort: does every company deserve assistance during a crisis that affects all parts of the economy?

Apart from the issue of size, there is the question of behavior—that is, should a company with a track record of bad conduct be eligible for large amounts of taxpayer-funded aid?

This issue is behind the decision my colleagues and I made to create Covid Stimulus Watch, a website that combines available company recipient data with information on the accountability records of the corporations getting the aid. Much of the latter consists of penalty data we have previously collected for our Violation Tracker database. We also added data on issues such and tax avoidance and CEO pay.

So far, we know the recipients of only about 400 grant and loans, mostly PPP awards that publicly traded firms have disclosed in SEC filings. Yet there are already signs that corporate bad actors are getting assistance.

I took a close look at the executive compensation data we collected. In their documents known as proxy statements, firms are required to disclose how much their chief executive is paid and calculate the ratio of that compensation to the median pay of the company’s workforce, which is also disclosed. Smaller companies can opt out of the requirement to reveal median worker pay and the ratio.

Among the publicly traded firms that have disclosed PPP awards, five reported paying their typical worker an amount below the federal poverty level for a family of four ($26,200). These included three with active loans: Drive Shack ($13,902), Applied Opto-Electronics ($15,620) and Trans World Entertainment Corporation ($17,346). The two others are among the larger firms that are returning their loans in response to public pressure: Fiesta Restaurant Group ($14,241) and Shake Shack ($17,032). 

The restaurant employers tend to complain in their proxies that they have to include part-timers in their calculations, while Applied Opto-Electronics tries to downplay its low figure by noting that it includes employees in China and Taiwan. The company provides a separate figure for U.S. workers only — $43,427 — which is still below the national median income level.

Many of the low-wage employers are much more generous when it comes to CEO pay. Drive Shack, for instance, paid its CEO more than $7 million, which is more than 500 times what the median employee received.  

Problematic corporate recipients can be found in other covid stimulus program. Take the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. There was a great deal of criticism among Republicans, including Trump, over the fact that Harvard University, with its immense endowment, was participating in the program.

Yet, it turns out that for-profit colleges are also among those institutions getting aid. Looking through the list published by the Department of Education, I found 11 awards going to the likes of the University of Phoenix, owned by the Apollo Education Group, and Chamberlain University, owned by Adtalem Global Education. The largest amount I found (looking only at the maximum portion schools are allowed to use for institutional costs) was $11.2 million going to Grand Canyon Education Inc.

This industry has been embroiled in numerous scandals based on allegations of unfair and deceptive practices, especially that of luring students with deceptive claims about the value of the degrees they offered. For example, Perdoceo Education Corporation, the parent of two schools receiving the stimulus aid, used to be known as Career Education Corp., which in 2019 had to pay $493 million to resolve fraud allegations by state attorneys general.   

Or consider the Provider Relief Fund set up by the Department of Health and Human Services. Those providers include for-profit hospital chains such as Tenet Healthcare, which has reported receiving $370 million so far from the fund. Tenet has had to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to resolve regulatory violations and False Claims Act cases brought by the Justice Department, including a 2016 settlement in which the company paid $513 million and two of its subsidiaries pleaded guilty to criminal charges relating to bribes and kickbacks.

We are thus left with the question of whether companies that pay poverty-level wages, have excessive CEO compensation levels, routinely cheat their customers or plead guilty to criminal bribery charges should qualify for aid amid a pandemic. There is no easy answer.

The executives of those firms may not deserve help, but lower-level employees should not suffer because of the sins of their bosses. The solution might be to attach some strings to the aid they receive, requiring them, for example, to pay a living wage and to deal honestly with their customers and the government. Failure to adhere to those provisions should trigger an obligation to refund all the aid and other serious consequences.

Getting such a system enacted would be a longshot, and even if it happened, an administration like the current one could undermine it with weak enforcement. Yet it is worth imaging how well-structured covid stimulus programs might not only provide relief from the effects of the pandemic but also promote better corporate behavior now and in the future.

Introducing Covid Stimulus Watch

The furor over some of the companies receiving federal financial assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program represents one of the most remarkable outbursts of anti-corporate sentiment seen for quite some time. A corporation such as Shake Shack, which used to have a cult following, found itself vilified for getting a $10 million loan from a program the public assumed would be used to help mom-and-pop businesses rather than a fast casual chain that last year had revenues of more than half a billion dollars.

I’s not just a matter of big versus small. Journalists have pounced on the disclosures of the PPP loans—which have come from SEC filings rather than the federal government—to look for examples of problem companies on the list. One of the best examples, by the New York Times, found all kinds of corporate bad actors getting the loans.

A new website my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have just launched will make it even easier to pursue this kind of research. Covid Stimulus Watch combines available recipient data for the PPP  — as well as the Payroll Support Program, which has doled out billions to the airlines – with accountability data about the companies.

The accountability data comes in six categories. Four of those are derived from data in Violation Tracker: employment-related penalties (such as wage theft and workplace discrimination); government-contracting related penalties (mainly False Claims Act cases); environmental, healthcare and safety penalties; and consumer protection, financial misconduct and unfair competition penalties.

The fifth category, relating to taxes and subsidies, shows which large companies have paid very low federal income tax rates and which have received large amounts of pre-pandemic financial assistance from federal, state and local programs, such as those shown in Subsidy Tracker. The final category shows which recipient companies have high levels of executive compensation, especially in comparison to what they pay a typical worker.

The limited set of recipients currently listed in Covid Stimulus Watch already illustrate the accountability issues at stake. For example, the major airlines that are receiving billions of dollars in aid raise concerns in multiple categories. United has paid out over $40 million to settle employment discrimination lawsuits. American Airlines has paid over $70 million in safety violations. JetBlue and Delta had negative federal income tax rates in 2018.  The ratio of the pay of American’s CEO to that of its median employee was 195 to 1.

Concerning data can also be seen about some of the smaller recipients. One PPP recipient, Veritone Inc., paid its CEO $18 million in compensation. Another PPP company, FuelCell Energy, received more than $170 million in federal grants prior to the pandemic.

The data in Covid Stimulus Watch will hopefully fuel even more debate over which corporations deserve to be rescued by taxpayers.

Corporate-Owned Nursing Homes and Covid-19

It was only a few days ago that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that nursing homes will be required to notify residents and their families when coronavirus cases have been discovered in a facility. This comes many weeks after the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington became an early Covid-19 hotspot and deaths started mounting at other nursing homes across the country.

Even before the pandemic began, conditions in the nation’s roughly 15,000 nursing homes, which house some 1.5 million residents, were far from ideal. As a Washington Post investigation recently found, about 40 percent of nursing homes with publicly reported cases of coronavirus — the list of which is far from complete, given varying transparency practices among the states — had been previously cited by government inspectors for violating regulations meant to control the spread of infections. This made them all the more susceptible to coronavirus.

The blame for that poor track record rests to a significant degree with the large corporations, including private equity firms, that control a substantial portion of the country’s nursing homes. While the Washington Post story did not identify the parent companies of the facilities with reported Covid-19 cases, the data in Violation Tracker shows the compliance problems at those corporations.

The nursing home chain with the largest amount of total penalties is Kindred Healthcare, which has had to pay out more than $350 million in fines and settlements.  The bulk of that amount has come from cases in which Kindred and its subsidiaries were accused of violating the False Claims Act by submitting inaccurate or improper bills to Medicare and Medicaid. Another $40 million has come from wage and hour fines and settlements.

Kindred has also been fined more than $4 million for deficiencies in its operations. This includes more than $3 million it paid to settle a case brought by the Kentucky Attorney General over issues such as “untreated or delayed treatment of infections leading to sepsis.”

Golden Living Centers, a large chain owned by the private equity firm Fillmore Capital Partners, accounts for more than $200 million in fines and settlements. Golden Living is the current incarnation of Beverly Enterprises, which in the 1990s was the poster child of nursing home misconduct. In 2000 it paid $170 million to settle allegations that it defrauded Medicare by fabricating records to make it appear that staff members were devoting much more time to residents than they actually were.

Golden Living and Beverly have also paid more than $6 million in fines arising out of inspections of their facilities, including $1.5 million paid to the Arkansas Attorney General to resolve allegations of patient neglect.

Another chain with a problematic track record is Life Care Centers of America, operator of the ill-fated facility in Kirkland. The company has paid more than $147 million in fines and settlements, most of which came from a False Claims Act case in which it was accused of improperly billing Medicare for rehabilitation services.

The company has also paid more than $2 million in fines stemming from inspections, including $467,985 for nursing homes in Washington State. Life Care facilities appear numerous times on the Washington Post list of facilities with reported coronavirus cases.

Other chains with substantial penalty totals include Genesis HealthCare ($57 million), Ensign Group ($48 million) and National Healthcare Corp. ($28 million).

Among the many problems that have been brought into sharp relief by Covid-19 — and that will have to be addressed once we have gotten through the pandemic – is the sorry state of our nursing homes, too many of which seem to put profit ahead of safety for one of the most vulnerable parts of our population.

Relying on Drug Companies With Flawed Safety Records to Save Us from Covid-19

Among the many things that have changed drastically in the past few months is the public perception of the pharmaceutical industry. At the beginning of the year, the main news about Big Pharma was the possibility of a multi-billion-dollar opioid settlement with the states.

Now, rather than being held accountable for tens of thousands of overdose deaths, the industry is being hailed as our savior from Covid-19. The news is filled with laudatory stories about the efforts of the drug companies to come up with a treatment for those currently suffering from the virus and a vaccine that may be the only way for society to return to something approximating normal.

Of course, everyone wants these efforts to succeed, but we shouldn’t ignore the very checkered track record of the industry. The safety portion of that record suggests that pushing for extremely rapid results may be risky.

The pharmaceutical industry’s safety problems date back at least to the 1930s, when a company called S.E. Massengill introduced a liquid antibiotic without testing and the drug turned out to cause fatal kidney damage. In the 1950s Parke-Davis heavily promoted a typhoid drug for less serious ailments until it emerged that users were developing severe and irreversible anemia. During the same period, thousands of children around the world were born with birth defects after their mothers took the morning-sickness drug thalidomide during pregnancy.

Sometimes these scandals involved vaccines. In the mid-1950s a California company called Cutter Laboratories produced large stocks of the new polio vaccine that mistakenly contained the live virus. Scores of children who received the vaccine developed polio.

Defenders of the pharmaceutical industry will claim that safety practices are much more stringent these days. But consider the recent history of Johnson & Johnson, which is one of the companies actively pursuing a coronavirus vaccine.

J&J, whose baby products long enjoyed a reputation for purity, has in the past two decades been implicated in a seemingly endless series of controversies about product safety and the illegal marketing of drugs for uses not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Some of the company’s problems stemmed from faulty production practices. During 2009 and 2010 J&J 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 medications were found to be contaminated with metal particles.

in 2013 Advanced Sterilization Products, a division of J&J subsidiary Ethicon Inc., had to pay $1.2 million to settle FDA allegations that it had produced and distributed adulterated and misbranded sterilization monitoring products.

Other major companies in the coronavirus vaccine race have been involved in their own controversies. In 2012 GlaxoSmithKline, which is partnering with Sanofi in its vaccine effort, had to pay $3 billion to settle various criminal and civil charges, among which were allegations that the company withheld data on safety problems with its diabetes drug Avandia from the FDA.

Pfizer, which is working with a smaller company called BioNTech, has had safety problems dating back to the 1980s, when defective heart valves made by its Shiley division caused the death of more than 100 people. An FDA task force concluded that the company had withheld crucial safety information.

We are all desperate for drugs to treat and prevent coronavirus, but we should make sure that the urgency of the situation does not lead to safety shortcuts that can have disastrous consequences.