The Donald Trumps of the Corporate World

There is a word, recidivists, for those who repeatedly commit crimes. But there is no term, as far as I know, for those who commit the greatest variety of offenses.

If we are talking about public figures, the term should probably be Trumpist—given that the former president has racked up an unprecedented assortment of legal entanglements that continue to grow. But what about corporations? Which companies have engaged in the widest range of misconduct?

To answer this question, I drilled down into the data collected in Violation Tracker. The database tags each of its more than 500,000 entries with one of eight broad offense groups: competition-related offenses; consumer-protection-related offenses; employment-related offenses; environment-related offenses; financial offenses; government-contracting-related offenses; healthcare-related offenses; and safety-related offenses. These, in turn, are divided into a total of nearly 100 more specific offense types.

I set out to discover whether any of the more than 3,000 parent companies for which we aggregate data are linked to cases in every one of the eight offense groups. It turns out that 13 parents meet that criterion, but if we look only at those with substantial penalties—over $1 million—in each category, the list narrows down to five corporations. These include one freight giant (United Parcel Service), two major pharmacy chains (CVS Health and Walgreens Boots Alliance) and two large drugmakers (Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck).

Among the wide-ranging rap sheets of these five companies, the one that stands out is that linked to Merck. It has the largest cumulative penalty total dating back to 2000: more than $10 billion. That includes ten-figure totals in three offense groups: financial, healthcare-related and safety-related.

Merck has achieved its position as the Donald Trump of the business world as a result of 86 entries in Violation Tracker. Chief among its safety-related cases is the $4.9 billion it paid to settle multi-district litigation brought by thousands of plaintiffs claiming the company’s heavily promoted anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx caused injury or death. The Vioxx scandal was also at the center of the company’s biggest penalty in the healthcare-related category, a $950 million settlement of civil and criminal charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department, as well as several consumer protection cases.

As for financial offenses, Merck had to pay over $2 billion to settle tax issues brought by the Internal Revenue Service. Merck’s government-contracting-related cases include a $650 million False Claims Act case involving improper kickbacks to healthcare providers to get them to prescribe its medications.

Merck’s competition-related penalties include a $60 million settlement by its subsidiary Schering-Plough of allegations it improperly blocked the introduction of a lower-cost alternative to one of its products. In the environmental area, Merck has paid over $33 million in penalties in nearly three dozen federal and state enforcement actions.

Finally, Merck’s record of employment-related offenses includes eleven cases dealing with retirement plan administration, gender discrimination and violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

One thing that can be said in Merck’s defense is that few of its penalties are from the past few years, indicating that it may be trying to improve its compliance. It’s a different story with CVS and Walgreens. Since the beginning of 2020, Walgreens has paid penalties more than two dozen times, while CVS has done so in 69 cases. Both are involved in pending multistate lawsuits relating to their role in the opioid crisis, so their penalty totals are likely to go on growing.

Companies that have paid multiple penalties in multiple categories exemplify misconduct that is not compartmentalized but instead can be found throughout a firm’s operations. Regulators and prosecutors need to do more to get these corporations to clean up their act across the board.