Barr Opts for Prisoner Executions over Corporate Prosecutions

The priorities of the Barr Justice Department came to light with the revelation that it is rushing to schedule a series of federal prisoner executions before the Trump Administration comes to an end in January. DOJ is exhibiting a lot less urgency about meting out penalties for corporate defendants.

Four years ago at this time, the Obama Justice Department used its final weeks to negotiate an extraordinary wave of settlements with big business, collecting more than $30 billion in fines and settlements. During a period of ten days there were four ten-figure settlements: Deutsche Bank’s $7.2 billion toxic securities case; Credit Suisse’s $5.3 billion case in the same category; Volkswagen’s $4.3 billion case relating to emissions fraud; and Takata’s $1 billion case relating to defective airbag inflators.

The rush to settle was based at least in part on concern that the incoming Trump Administration would downplay the prosecution of corporate offenses as part of the assault on government regulation. That concern turned out to be valid, though not to the extent many observers expected. Prosecutions and regulatory enforcement have declined in some areas but have not disappeared.

Since this year’s election results became clear, there have been no billion-dollar resolutions announced by DOJ. During this time the only significant announcement was one involving a $135 million settlement of a foreign bribery case against Vitol, the secretive European commodity trading company.

While Barr is not yet using the lame duck period to resolve cases, DOJ was showing some prosecutorial vigor in a few areas even before the election. One of these is the enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Even though Trump himself has reportedly sought to strike down the law, claiming it is unfair to U.S. companies, the Justice Department has gone on bringing cases.

The Vitol action is one of five FCPA settlements DOJ has announced during the past few months. These follow about 20 others since Trump took office. There are a few things to note about these cases. First, the corporate defendant, while paying a penalty, was almost always offered a way to avoid a guilty plea, usually through a deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreement.

The second significant feature of Trump’s FCPA cases is that most of them were brought against corporations headquartered outside the United States. Trump’s criticism of the law may have prompted DOJ to focus more on foreign culprits, perhaps using FCPA as a surreptitious trade weapon. When DOJ pursued a case against the very American company Walmart, the department was accused of going easy on the giant retailer in the settlement negotiations.

Occasionally, even Barr’s DOJ has had to get tough with a U.S. company in an FCPA case. That happened in October, when Goldman Sachs had to pay more than $2 billion to resolve its culpability in the notorious 1Malaysia Development Bhd. (1MDB) case, which also involved prosecutors from other countries such as the United Kingdom and Singapore.

Assuming he does not get fired for refusing to go along with Trump’s election fraud delusion, Barr still has some time to end his tenure in a blaze of corporate settlements. It would be a better legacy than a brazen misuse of the death penalty by a lame duck attorney general.

In Pfizer We Trust?

The world is in love with Pfizer and Moderna. The two pharmaceutical companies have each announced amazing results in their separate efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Pfizer first announced that its product appeared to be 90 percent effective, only to be upstaged days later by Moderna and its claim of 94.5 percent. Pfizer then revised its efficacy rate to 95 percent.

Like everyone else, I am eager to see progress made in the fight against covid, but there is a part of me that wonders whether these announcements, coming in record-breaking time, are a bit too good to be true. Don’t get me wrong—I am not a vaccine skeptic. I recently got my flu shot and previously was inoculated against shingles and pneumonia.

Yet I am a wary when it comes to grand pronouncements by large corporations about advances that will generate vast amounts of profit. This is particularly the case with large drug companies, which have a long history of deception and malfeasance.

Pfizer is a prime example. Its track record is filled with cases in which it was accused of misleading regulators and the public about the safety of its products.

In the early 1990s, for example, Pfizer was embroiled in a controversy about scores of fatalities linked to heart valves produced by its Shiley division. In 1992 it agreed to pay up to $205 million to settle thousands of lawsuits. In 1994 the company agreed to pay $10.75 million to settle Justice Department charges that it lied to regulators in seeking approval for the valves.

In 2005 Pfizer had to stop advertising its arthritis medication Celebrex after a study showed that high doses were associated with an increased risk of heart attacks. Pfizer’s claims about the safety of the drug were further undermined when it came to light that the company had conducted a clinical trial back in 1999 that also pointed to the cardiac risk but which Pfizer kept secret.

Pfizer, which was a pioneer in the once controversial practice of advertising pharmaceuticals, has frequently been accused of making false or misleading claims about its products. It has paid millions of dollars to resolve state and federal allegations about these practices.

It has paid even larger amounts in cases involving allegations that the company promoted its drugs for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These include a $2.3 billion settlement in 2009 that covered criminal as well as civil allegations. Pfizer’s subsidiary Wyeth settled its own criminal-civil illegal marketing case for $490 million four years later. In 2016 Wyeth paid another $784 million to settle allegations that it reported false pricing information to the federal government.

Moderna has not been around long enough to get into much trouble, but other companies working on vaccines have track records similar to Pfizer’s. These include Johnson & Johnson, whose penalty total on Violation Tracker is $4.2 billion, AstraZeneca ($1.1 billion), GlaxoSmithKline ($4.4 billion) and Sanofi ($641 million).

We may have no choice but to depend on companies such as these to develop and produce the vaccines we need to overcome covid. Fortunately, their efficacy and safety claims will be subject to review by presumably independent experts before the vaccines are put into general distribution. I will continue to have my doubts about Pfizer, but I’m willing to trust Fauci.

Limiting Corporate Influence

Among the many challenges the Biden Administration will have to confront after Trump ends his temper tantrum is deciding on the posture it wants to take toward big business. There will be a battle for the soul of the new president as corporate Democrats vie with progressives to influence policy in areas such as regulation and antitrust.

The initial signs are encouraging. The Biden transition just released a list of some 500 individuals who will be staffing the Agency Review Teams charged with preparing the way for a transfer of power in all parts of the executive branch.

I went through the list of affiliations and found only about 20 for large corporations. The vast majority of the people are from academia, state government, law firms, non-profits, unions, think tanks and foundations.  It is likely that some of the law firms are there to represent specific corporate interests, but the numerous representatives from progressive public interest, environmental and labor groups should serve as an effective counterweight.

In the Labor Department list there are no law firms or corporations; in their place are representatives from five different unions along with people from the National Employment Law Project and other progressive groups.

What is particularly significant is the near absence of people affiliated with Wall Street banks. The Defense Department list has someone from JPMorgan Chase; Homeland Security has a representative from Capital One; and the International Development group includes someone from U.S. Bank. There is no one from Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Wells Fargo or Morgan Stanley.

The Treasury Department group is led by someone from Keybank, which is based in Cleveland and ranks about 29th among U.S. banks. Fortunately, the Treasury group also includes representatives from places such as the Center for American Progress, the American Economic Liberties Project and the AFL-CIO.

Other balancing acts include the list for the Environmental Protection Agency, which includes a representative from Dell Technologies but also from Earthjustice (the lead person) and The Sierra Club.

Some of the corporations show up in surprising places. Walt Disney is represented on the Intelligence Community list. The cosmetics firm Estee Lauder has someone on the State Department list. Someone from Airbnb is in the National Security Council group.

Looking at current corporate villains, the one that stands out is Amazon.com. It shows up on two lists—the one for the State Department and the one for the Office of Management and Budget.

Lyft and Airbnb are also on the OMB list, along with some academics, a consultant, a state official and someone from Meow Wolf, a Santa Fe-based non-profit that produces immersive art experiences.

Given that OMB oversees regulatory policy, the absence of public interest, union and environmental people raises a concern. Otherwise, it appears that the Biden team is limiting corporate influence in the emerging administration. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Downplaying Corporate Misconduct

Despite all the effort it has put into eliminating business regulations, the Trump Administration insists that it diligently enforces those rules that are still in effect. Moreover, Trump likes to depict himself as some sort of crusader against corporate misconduct.

A new indication of the absurdity of these claims comes from the U.S. Labor Department, which recently decided it would no longer issue press releases when citing companies for violations of rules governing workplace safety, employment discrimination and labor standards. According to an internal memo obtained by the New York Times, the excuse for the change was that such releases tend to linger prominently in search results and would be misleading if an enforcement action was ultimately found to have been unjustified.

Rarely does an alleged violation turn out to have no basis, and in those very few instances the problem could be resolved by the issuance of a new press release that would presumably circulate as easily as the original one. The real motivation for the change is to reduce the ability of agencies to pressure corporate transgressors and could be a stepping-stone toward the elimination of all announcements of violations.

Some parts of the Trump Administration already seem to have moved in that direction. In the course of collecting data for Violation Tracker, I check the websites of more than 50 federal regulatory agencies every three months to find new cases to add to the database. By the way, only finalized cases are included.

Agencies report on different schedules. Some issue a press release on each case when it is resolved or add each penalty to an ongoing database. Others disclose the data periodically, whether monthly, quarterly or annually.

What I have found is that some agencies seemed to have given up on new reporting even while leaving their historical data in place. Here are some examples:

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore oil drilling, has no data on its civil penalties page more recent than fiscal year 2018.

The Federal Maritime Commission’s Bureau of Enforcement has not updated its penalty announcements since May 2019.

The most recent item on the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s list of press releases relating to an enforcement penalty is dated November 26, 2018.

It is difficult to determine whether these agencies are not announcing enforcement actions or have stopped bringing them. Either would be troubling.

Publicizing violations and penalties is just as important as the enforcement actions themselves. For many companies, the fines they are required to pay are trivial. The disclosure of their conduct means much more in terms of the impact on the firm’s reputation among customers and investors. Those revelations, called “regulation by shaming” in the academic literature, can have a bigger deterrent effect.

Violation Tracker is meant to enhance the deterrence by collecting a wide variety of disclosures about corporate misconduct and showing the degree of recidivism, especially among large companies. Keeping the database current is a lot easier when agencies are not hiding their data.

The $8 Billion Slap on the Wrist

In the normal course of events, an $8 billion penalty and a guilty plea would represent a landmark event in the history of corporate crime enforcement. The newly announced resolution of charges against Purdue Pharma is, however, a disappointment and a missed opportunity to mete out appropriate punishment to one of the most egregious rogue companies this country has ever seen.

Let’s start with the monetary penalty. The $8 billion amount ranks 11th among all the fines and settlements collected in Violation Tracker. It is surpassed by penalties paid by companies such as BP, Volkswagen, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase.

As bad as the environmental and financial conduct of those corporations may have been, it is likely that Purdue Pharma has caused much greater harm. It bears a significant amount of responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of people who have died from overdoses after becoming addicted to opioids the company recklessly promoted.

There is also the issue of the economic costs to society. The Society of Actuaries has estimated those costs to be as high as $214 billion a year. Looked at in comparison to the human and economic costs, the $8 billion penalty seems woefully inadequate—all the more so because it is unclear how much of that amount the bankrupt company will actually pay.

It is good that the Justice Department extracted a guilty plea from Purdue rather than its frequent practice of allowing large companies to sign deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements. Yet this is a case which called out for individual as well as corporate criminal charges. DOJ got the Sackler Family, which controls Purdue, to pay out $225 million—yet that is a pittance in relation to the billions the family has taken from the company.

One unusual feature of the case resolution is the provision that will require Purdue to emerge from bankruptcy as a benefit company supposedly dedicated to serving the public rather than maximizing profits. It remains to be seen how that would work, but it is already troubling that the creation of the trust would allow Purdue to reduce its criminal penalty substantially.

The good news is that the DOJ settlement is not the end of the story. The statement that the Sackler family has not been released from potential federal criminal liability is not expected to mean much, especially under a Trump Administration.

The possibility of more aggressive action can be found at the state level. Numerous state attorneys general have sharply criticized the deal and have vowed to pursue their own cases. “I am not done with Purdue and the Sacklers,” warned Massachusetts AG Maura Healey.

Let’s hope that state prosecutors do their job, because their federal counterparts have failed to adequately crack down on the worst corporate violators and the individuals behind them.

Trump’s Environmental Charade

When challenged about their climate denialism, President Trump and Vice President Pence tend to respond with a claim that the United States has the world’s cleanest air and water, thereby implying that their administration is doing a good job enforcing environmental regulations. Aside from being a separate issue from climate change, the claim is false in two ways: our air quality and water quality are far from the best, and enforcement has been on the decline.

The latter should come as no surprise, since regulation-bashing has been one of the hallmarks of the Trump Administration. It is one of the few areas in which traditional Republican values have been preserved.

Much of the administration’s focus has been on reversing the environmental initiatives of the Obama Administration, yet there has also been an erosion in the enforcement of longer-standing laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

The latest evidence of this comes in a new study by David Uhlmann of the Environmental Crimes Project at the University of Michigan Law School. The analysis, which has received prominent coverage in the New York Times, finds that during the first two years of the Trump Administration the number of criminal prosecutions under the Clean Water Act fell 70 percent and those under the Clean Air Act declined by more than 50 percent.

It should be noted that criminal prosecutions represent a small subset of environmental cases, the large majority of which are brought as civil matters. Criminal charges are often brought against individuals rather than corporate polluters, and they often involve specific offenses such as ocean dumping of hazardous wastes.

Uhlmann’s analysis is based on the number of cases and the number of defendants, which will differ given that some cases have multiple defendants. His findings are consistent with the data in Violation Tracker, where we focus more on the penalties paid by offenders, and we include civil as well as criminal cases.  

Our data shows that the total penalties (both fines and settlements) collected by the EPA and the Justice Department have been trending downward during the Trump years. In the period from 2009 to 2016, environmental penalties averaged over $7 billion a year, an amount boosted by major cases against corporations such as BP for the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Volkswagen for emissions cheating.

Penalties during the Trump Administration have averaged $974 million per year. The average would be much lower if not for the $1.5 billion settlement announced in September with Daimler for its emissions cheating. It is encouraging that this case was resolved during the current administration, but it is one of only a small number of mega-settlements reached over the past few years, and most of these represented the culmination of enforcement initiatives begun under the previous administration.

Thanks to career public servants in the EPA and the Justice Department, environmental enforcement has not disappeared during the Trump Administration. Yet the downward trend in penalties suggests that political appointees are probably thwarting more aggressive action against polluters.

The Many Sins of the Tech Giants

The 400-page report just published by the Democratic leadership of the House Judiciary Committee is a damning review of the anti-competitive practices of the big tech companies—Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google’s parent Alphabet.

The report finds that in various portions of the digital world these companies have amassed what amounts to monopoly control and have not hesitated to use it crush or absorb competitors. Comparing the tech giants to the oil barons and railroad tycoons of the late 19th century, the report calls for aggressive measures such as breaking up the companies and doing more rigorous reviews of proposed mergers and acquisitions in the future.

Among the broader consequences of the rising power of the tech giants are, the report argues: a weakening of innovation and entrepreneurship, a decline in the number of trustworthy sources of news, and an erosion of safeguards for the privacy of personal information.

One aspect of the report that has not received much coverage is the brief discussion of the power of the tech giants in the labor market. This is especially relevant for Amazon, which as the report notes has become one of the largest employers in the country and is exercising monopsony power in sectors such as warehousing and “has wage-setting power through its ability to set route fees and other fixed costs for independent contractors in localities in which it dominates the delivery labor market. These entities are dependent on Amazon for a large majority—or even 100%—of their delivery business.”

Amazon has moved into the position previously held by Walmart—a shamelessly exploitative employer that depresses wages and worsens working conditions not only for its own workers but also for the entire sector in which it operates—and to some extent for the economy as a whole.

The report’s wide-ranging recommendations do not include any remedies for these labor issues, perhaps because they are outside the scope of the Judiciary Committee.

It is worth noting that there are already efforts underway to address the labor practices of the tech giants. Several unions as well as other groups are working with Amazon employees to agitate for better conditions, a process made more difficult by Amazon’s brazen anti-union practices and its widespread use of staffing services to evade its employer responsibilities.

There are also class-action lawsuits challenging unfair employment practices by Amazon and other tech giants. For example, Facebook recently agreed to pay $1.65 million to resolve litigation alleging that it misclassified workers to deprive them of overtime pay.  A few years ago, Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe Systems together agreed to pay $415 million to resolve allegations that they conspired not to hire each other’s employees, thus suppressing salary levels.

Taking on the tech giants will require many lines of attack to address the harms they cause to users and employees alike.

The Legacy of Financial Services Racism

At a time when numerous large corporations have been expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, it is important not to forget that big business has played a role in perpetuating systemic racism and widening the racial wealth gap.

This reality became clearer for me while I was collecting a new category of data for Violation Tracker: class-action lawsuits brought against financial services corporations engaging in discriminatory practices against their customers.

I was able to identify a total of 30 cases in which banks, insurance carriers and consumer finance companies paid a total of $400 million in settlements over the past two decades to resolve allegations that they charged higher premiums or interest rates to minority customers.

These private lawsuits are in addition to dozens of similar cases already in Violation Tracker that were brought by the Justice Department and state attorneys general during the same time period.

A wave of this litigation came in the early 2000s, when all the major automobile financing companies—including subsidiaries of carmakers such as Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Honda—agreed to settle allegations that they allowed dealers to charge inflated interest rates on loans to African-American customers.

Subsequent years saw settlements with major insurance companies such as John Hancock, which in 2009 agreed to pay $24 million to resolve allegations that for decades it sold only inferior policies to Black customers. As recently as 2018, Travelers Indemnity settled a suit alleging it engaged in racial discrimination by refusing to write commercial policies for landlords who rented to tenants using Section 8 vouchers.

Over the past decade, major banks have faced private discrimination lawsuits concerning their mortgage lending practices. The defendant in four of these cases was Wells Fargo, which has paid more than $28 million in settlements. These include a case resolved just last year in which the City of Philadelphia had sued the bank on behalf of minority residents it allegedly steered to mortgages that were riskier and more expensive than those offered to similarly situated white homebuyers.

Discriminatory practices such as redlining began many decades ago. What the consumer civil rights lawsuits now documented in Violation Tracker show is that these injustices are not entirely a phenomenon of the distant past. The financial services sector has more work to do to ensure that their customers of color are treated equitably.

Note: with the addition of these lawsuits and other recent cases, Violation Tracker now contains a total of 438,000 entries involving $633 billion in fines and settlements.

High-Minded Hypocrisy

As they push forward to fill a Supreme Court vacancy shortly before a presidential election, Republicans are putting on a master class in hypocrisy. A new report on self-proclaimed socially responsible corporations reminds us that the tendency to say one thing and do another can also be seen in the world of business.

The study, produced by consulting firm KKS Advisors and an initiative called Test of Corporate Purpose (TCP), looks at large corporations that were signatories to a much-ballyhooed statement issued in 2019 under the auspices of the Business Roundtable. That statement was meant to give the impression that big business is no longer concerned only with maximizing returns for shareholders and is promoting the well-being of other stakeholders such as employees.

Some of us responded to the Roundtable’s statement with skepticism, but KKS and TCP decided to put the 181 signatories to the test, looking at their behavior in dealing with the pandemic and the problem of inequality. Basing its analysis on news coverage of corporate actions, the report compared signatories and non-signatories on topics such as workplace safety, healthcare access, wage levels, diversity and environmental justice. The evaluations used data prepared by Truvalue Labs using the framework of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.

The report’s conclusion is that signatories were slightly less likely to respond in a responsible way to the pandemic and slightly more likely to do so with regard to inequality—in other words, endorsement of the Roundtable statement did not make a big difference one way or the other. KKS and TCP put it this way: “our results suggest that corporate commitments to purpose are less informative about a company’s future performance on social and human capital issues than other indicators. What matters more is whether a company has a strong track record of proactively managing issues that may become material during a crisis, and whether a company is an early responder on relevant issues during a crisis.”

I’m not sure exactly what is meant by “proactively managing issue” and being an “early responder” may be a good or bad thing depending on the nature of the response. I also think the report goes too far in trying to use news coverage to assess and rank corporate behavior.

My preference is to use concrete evidence relating to corporate behavior—especially the extent to which companies have been found to be violating regulations relating to the workplace, the environment, consumer protection, etc.

When the Roundtable statement was initially released, I ran the names of the signatories through Violation Tracker and found that they accounted for more than $197 billion in cumulative penalties, with 21 of them having penalty totals of $1 billion or more.

Serious violators can also be found among the companies—both signatories and non-signatories—that receive the highest ratings in the KKS-TCP report, which groups the firms into four quartiles without listing specific scores. For example, included in the quartile with the best ratings is drug giant Novartis, which according to Violation Tracker has paid more than $1.5 billion in fines and settlements over issues such as the promotion of drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

That figure will increase to more than $2 billion next week when the database is updated to include recent cases such as one in which Novartis paid $642 million to settle Justice Department allegations relating to kickbacks and other illegal payments. Also in the first quartile are other repeat offenders such as the French bank BNP Paribas, whose Violation Tracker penalty total is more than $12 billion.

Until large corporations end their unlawful conduct, they have no claim to being models of social responsibility.

Covid Contracts and the Fraudsters

If you needed a plumber or a caterer, you would avoid a service provider who had in the past tried to bill you for work not performed or grossly overcharged for what was completed. The Trump Administration takes a different approach. In selecting contractors to provide the goods and services the federal government needs to deal with the pandemic, it has turned to dozens of corporations with a history of cheating Uncle Sam.

This finding emerges from a comparison of the recipients of coronavirus-related contracts to the data in Violation Tracker. The analysis focuses on a list of about 175 larger corporations and non-profits that account for nearly half of the roughly $12 billion in contracts awarded so far for laboratory services, medical equipment and much more.

Among this group, 69 contractors, or more than one-third of the total, have paid fines and settlements during the past decade for healthcare fraud and other violations relating to the federal False Claims Act or related laws. They have been involved in 189 individual cases with total penalty payments of $4.7 billion.

These are not trivial matters. Twelve of the contractors paid total penalties of more than $100 million and the average per parent company was $27 million.

The company with the largest penalty total is pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which received a $13 million contract from the Department of Health and Human Services and whose separate covid-19 vaccine effort is being touted by the Trump Administration. Over the past decade, Pfizer has been penalized in 15 contracting cases, paying out a total of $987 million, most of it stemming from a 2016 lawsuit in which its subsidiary Wyeth had been accused of overcharging federal healthcare programs by misrepresenting its financial relationships with hospitals.

Drug wholesaler McKesson, which has been awarded contracts worth a total of $9 million, has paid penalties of $453 million to resolve allegations such as reporting inflated pricing information for a large number of products, causing Medicaid to overpay for those drugs.

The Walgreens pharmacy chain, which received a $72 million contract for covid-19 testing services, has paid $367 million in contracting penalties, three-quarters of which stemmed from a 2019 case in which the company had been accused of billing federal healthcare programs for hundreds of thousands of insulin pens it knowingly dispensed to beneficiaries who did not need them and that it overcharged Medicaid by failing to disclose lower drug prices it offered the public through a discount program.

Smaller but still significant penalties have been paid by the companies receiving the largest covid-19-related awards. The Dutch company Philips, recipient of $646 million in ventilator contracts, paid a penalty of $34 million through a subsidiary for giving illegal kickbacks to suppliers that purchased sleep apnea masks that were sold to Medicare beneficiaries. AstraZeneca, recipient of $436 million in contracts, has paid $170 million in penalties for False Claims Act and related violations.

The discovery that many covid-19 federal contractors have a history of misconduct in their government business is consistent with the recent finding by Good Jobs First that thousands of companies receiving CARES Act grants and loans have similar track records, including more than 200 healthcare providers that have paid $5 billion in False Claims Act penalties over the past decade.

Some of those aid recipients are also covid-19 contract recipients. Large companies such as Walgreens, Quest Diagnostics and Becton Dickinson are receiving money from the federal government through multiple channels despite having paid penalties in the past for contracting abuses. The awarding of federal contracts to corporations with a history of misconduct dates back long before the pandemic or this administration, but maybe now is the time to begin doing something about this wrong-headed practice.