The article and dazzling infographics on Violation Tracker just published by Fortune are not only great publicity for the database. They also provide an opportunity to recall how the idea for a resource on corporate misconduct came about in the first place.
As the Fortune piece mentions, the origin story dates back to 1980, when I was a young researcher on the staff of that same magazine. Yet there is more to be said about what occurred behind the scenes during that project and its aftermath.
Back then, Irwin Ross, a contributor to the magazine, had seen a news article about small-business corruption in Chicago and thought it would be interesting to explore similar behavior among large companies. His assumption—and that of Fortune’s editors—was that illegality was rare in big business.
After being assigned to the project, I set out to disprove that premise by gathering as many cases as I could involving our sample universe of just over 1,000 companies that had appeared on the Fortune 500 and related lists at any point during the previous ten years. The editors decided to limit the scope of the research to five categories: bribery, criminal fraud, illegal political contributions, tax evasion, and criminal antitrust violations.
To the dismay of the editors, I found that quite a few of the corporations – 117 to be precise – had been the subject of a successful federal prosecution during the specified time period. Among these was Fortune’s then-parent, Time Inc., whose subsidiary Eastex Packaging had pleaded no contest to a price-fixing charge.
After much hand-wringing, Fortune’s editors decided to publish the list of the cases, along with an article by Ross, in the December 1, 1980 issue with the headline “How Lawless Are Big Companies?” and the subhead “A look at the record since 1970 shows that a surprising number of them have been involved in blatant illegalities.” The story was featured on the cover with a photograph depicting an executive being fingerprinted by a U.S. Marshal.
As one might expect, the companies included in the list were quite displeased. To their credit, Fortune’s editors did not retract or disown the article, but they did agree to give one of the corporations an opportunity to respond.
The December 29, 1980 issue contained a piece by William Lurie, general counsel of International Paper, headlined “How Justice Loads the Scales Against Big Corporations.” Calling my list “simplistic and misleading,” he tried to explain why IP had felt compelled to plead nolo contendere to price fixing charges. His argument was essentially that it was simply too risky for a company to fight such charges in court, given that a guilty verdict would open the door to crushing damages in a follow-on civil suit.
This was not exactly a profession of innocence. In fact, as the Fortune article noted and Lurie acknowledged, no contest is tantamount to a guilty plea. Lurie’s argument, like nolo itself, served as a way for corporations to save face after being labeled corporate criminals. His piece also took the pressure off Fortune editors for diverging from what was then their unvarying defense of corporate behavior.
For me, the experience created a life-long fascination with documenting corporate misconduct. I later learned that this kind of research had begun much earlier, especially through the work of the sociologist Edwin Sutherland. When his book White Collar Crime was published in 1949, the company names were removed. It was only in 1983 that an unexpurgated version was published by Yale University Press.
Following in the tradition of Sutherland’s book and other work such as the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, Violation Tracker is designed to show that lawlessness among large corporations is a problem that persists.
Note: drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can’t get behind the Fortune paywall and want to see the whole story.