Forbes loves to compile lists; in fact, for many people the magazine is synonymous with its annual ranking of the 400 richest Americans. Recently, the publication allowed its list mania to overwhelm its other obsession — defending big business — when it came out with a feature on “The Biggest CEO Outrages of 2009.”
Writer Helen Coster frames the story as an assessment of how corporate malfeasance has been faring since the arrest of world-class Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff a year ago. She finds that “nobody managed to top Madoff’s crimes in 2009, but 10 executives showed enough greed, hubris and chutzpah to give him a run for his (stolen) money.”
Her list ranges from other alleged fraudsters such as R. Allen Stanford to accused insider trader Raj Rajaratnam of the Galleon Group hedge fund to convicted tax evader Robert Moran. She also includes Edward Libby of AIG and former Merrill Lynch head John Thain for their role in enabling questionable bonuses. Also on the list is Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, whose main sin, according to Coster, seems to have been his comment that he was just a banker doing “God’s work.”
All of these individuals deserve some disapprobation, but Coster manages to gloss over a major distinction with regard to executive misbehavior: the difference between improper actions taken to benefit oneself and those undertaken to benefit the corporation.
Individual fraud, embezzlement, tax cheating and other forms of self-dealing are reprehensible, but do they begin to compare in their impact to major misdeeds committed in the name of advancing corporate interests? This point is especially relevant given that these days we are marking not only the first anniversary of the Madoff scandal but also the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.
Madoff brought financial ruin to numerous individuals and non-profit organizations, but what critics charge was systematic negligence on the part of executives of Union Carbide (now part of Dow Chemical) killed or seriously injured thousands of residents in Bhopal, making it the worst industrial accident ever. Madoff pleaded guilty to his crimes, but Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide, remained a fugitive rather than face criminal charges brought against him in India, and Dow Chemical has refused to take responsibility for providing adequate compensation to the Bhopal victims.
Over the past year there have been various instances of outrageous acts committed to advance corporate goals that do not begin to compare with Bhopal but have caused considerably more harm than the ones catalogued by Forbes.
Take, for example, the case of Stewart Parnell and his now defunct Peanut Corporation of America, accused earlier this year of knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted food products from a filthy plant in Georgia, thereby contributing to one of the country’s worst outbreaks of food poisoning, including about nine deaths.
Then there’s the case of the managers at Bayer CropScience, who, according to a Congressional report released in April, withheld critical information from emergency responders during an accident at a plant in West Virginia that nearly resulted in the release of methyl isocyanate, the same chemical involved in the Bhopal catastrophe.
Or what about the executives at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer who illegally marketed the painkiller Bextra, causing the company to have to agree in September to pay $2.3 billion to settle civil and criminal charges brought by federal prosecutors? One Pfizer sales rep told prosecutors: “If you didn’t sell drugs illegally, you were not seen as a team player.”
It’s one thing for an individual executive to go bad. The real harm comes when the misbehavior becomes, in effect, the mission statement of the corporation. That, dear Forbes, is what is truly outrageous.