Archive for the ‘Corporate Accountability’ Category

Employers Stand their Ground

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

These are heady days for the corporate accountability movement. Threats of consumer boycotts prompted half a dozen major companies to drop out of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which in turn forced ALEC to cease its efforts to get states to enact “stand your ground” laws like the one in Florida at the center of an uproar over the shooting of an unarmed teenager.

At the same time, institutional investors humiliated Citigroup by rejecting a board-approved compensation package for its senior executives. Although the “say on pay” resolution is non-binding, it will in all likelihood result in smaller paydays for top officers of an institution that epitomizes financial sector misconduct. This comes on the heels of an announcement by Goldman Sachs that it would change its board structure in response to pressure from the capital strategies arm of the public employee union AFSCME.

Environmentalists have succeeded in stalling and perhaps killing the disastrous Keystone XL pipeline . The past few months have also seen a surge in protest over working conditions at the Chinese plants that produce the wildly popular Apple iPad tablets. Apple’s manufacturing contractor Foxconn was forced to boost pay for factory workers, while Apple itself faced demonstrations at many of its normally idolized retail stores. The Apple campaign and others are being propelled by new online services such as Sum of Us and Change.org that mobilize online pressure for a variety of anti-corporate initiatives.

Missing from all this positive momentum is a significant victory for the U.S. labor movement. While major corporations have bowed to pressure from consumers and shareholders, they are standing their ground against unions.

Rather than making concessions, large private-sector employers are looking to further roll back labor’s power. Companies such as American Airlines and Hostess Brands (maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread) have filed for Chapter 11 and are using the bankruptcy courts to decimate their collective bargaining agreements and gut pension plans.

Verizon continues to stonewall in negotiations with members of the Communications Workers of America, who struck the company for two weeks last summer in the face of unprecedented concessionary demands from management but then went back to work without a new contract. CWA is also facing difficult negotiations with AT&T, even though the union went out on a limb to support the company’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to take over T-Mobile.

There have been a few relatively bright spots for labor. For example, after being locked out for three months, Steelworkers union members at Cooper Tire and Rubber managed to negotiate a new contract that excluded the company’s demand for a five-tier wage structure with no guaranteed pay increases.

Yet organized labor has not been able to take the offensive in a significant way, and employers continue to feel emboldened. This comes through loud and clear in the results of the latest Employers Bargaining Objectives survey conducted by Bloomberg BNA (summarized in the April 11 edition of Labor Relations Week).

“Employers are fairly brimming with confidence as they head into 2012 talks,” Bloomberg BNA writes. “Nine out of 10 of the employers surveyed are either fairly confident or highly confident of obtaining the goals they have set for their labor agreements.”

Those goals, of course, do not include hikes in pay and improvements in working conditions. In fact, only 11 percent of respondents said they expected to have to negotiate significant wage increases, while 27 percent said they planned to bargain for no improvements at all in wage rates. Many employers expect to shift more health care costs to workers, and few expect to agree to stronger job security provisions.

Employers are prepared to play hardball in seeking their objectives. For example, one-quarter of manufacturing-sector respondents told Bloomberg BNA they would be likely to resort to a lockout of workers if they did not get their way in negotiations. Corporations have little fear of strikes, which are all but extinct, and if workers do dare to walk out, employers are confident of prevailing—or at least maintaining the kind of impasse that exists at Verizon.

Such arrogance is not surprising at a time when unemployment levels remain high and private-sector unionization rates are abysmally low. The question is what it will take to shatter employer intransigence.

One piece of the solution is greater cooperation between unions and the rest of the broader corporate accountability movement, and that’s exactly what seems to be emerging from the 99% Spring offensive.

Strong private sector unions in the United States are an essential check on the power of large corporations and one of the most effective vehicles for raising living standards. Corporate accountability will mean much more when big business is running away not only from ALEC but also from union-busting.

Another Supreme Court Boost for Corporate Unaccountability?

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Global corporations often think they are above the law, but for more than a decade some of the most egregious human rights and environmental violators have had to answer for their overseas actions in U.S. courtrooms. It now appears that the conservatives on the Supreme Court want to put an end to this key tool of corporate accountability.

The controversy surrounds a once-obscure 1789 law known as the Alien Tort Statute or the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). It allows foreign citizens to bring civil actions in U.S. courts involving violations of international law or a treaty signed by the United States. The long dormant law was revived in the 1980s by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) as a vehicle for pursuing individual human rights violators and later came to be used against corporations as well.

One of the latter cases, involving Royal Dutch Petroleum, the parent of Shell Oil, made its way to the Supreme Court, where during recent oral arguments justices such as Alito and Kennedy expressed disdain for ATCA. Disposing of any remnant of American exceptionalism when it comes to human rights enforcement, Justice Alito insisted that allegations of Royal Dutch complicity in torture in Nigeria have “no connection” to the United States. “What business does a case like that have in the courts of the United States,” he complained.

Following the oral arguments, the Supreme Court seemed to signal that it wants to address (and quite possibly strike down) ATCA cases against individuals as well as corporations. It asked for additional briefs to be filed by June and will hear new arguments during the court’s next term. This move puts off the day of reckoning for ATCA for some months, but if the tenor of the recent oral arguments reflected the thinking of the justices, ATCA will not be with us for much longer.

To get a sense of what we may be losing, it is worth taking a look at how ATCA has been used to address corporate transgressions. Apart from the Royal Dutch matter still before the Supreme Court, here are some of the main cases that have been brought:

Doe v. Unocal. This pioneering corporate ATCA case was filed in 1996 by a group of Burmese citizens against U.S.-based Unocal (later taken over by Chevron), which was accused of complicity in abuses such as forced relocation, forced labor, murder, rape and torture by the Burmese military during the construction of a gas pipeline project sponsored by the company and the military. The case, brought with the help of CCR and EarthRights International (ERI), was settled out of court in 2005.

Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum/Shell Oil. In 1996 CCR and ERI helped bring an earlier case against Royal Dutch and Shell involving human rights abuses in Nigeria, especially the execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. On the eve of a trial in 2009, the companies agreed to a $15.5 million settlement.

Bowoto v. Chevron. In 1999 a group of Nigerians of the Niger Delta region, where Chevron is engaged in oil production, brought suit against the company, which they accused of complicity in torture, summary execution and other human rights abuses carried out by the Nigerian police and military against people protesting environmental violations on the part of the company. In 2008 a federal jury ruled in favor of the company, but the plaintiffs, who have been aided by CCR and ERI, filed an appeal which is pending.

Sarei v. Rio Tinto. In 2000 a group of residents of the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) brought an ATCA suit against this mining giant, alleging that it was complicit in crimes against humanity committed by the PNG army during a secessionist conflict. The plaintiffs also accused the company of environmental crimes. The case has gone through a series of twists and turns over the past decade and is still pending after the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s dismissal of the case last October.

John Doe v. Exxon Mobil.  In 2001 a group of villagers from the Indonesian province of Aceh, working with the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), brought an ATCA case accusing the oil giant of complicity in human rights abuses committed by Indonesian security forces. For more than a decade the case has made its way through various courts and remains unresolved.

SINALTRAINAL et al. v Coca-Cola et al. In 2001, several individuals and the Colombian trade union SINALTRAINAL, with the help of ILRF and U.S. unions, brought suit against Coca-Cola and two of its Latin American bottlers in connection with the torture and murder of trade unionists by paramilitary groups. A federal judge removed Coca-Cola from the case, which was later dismissed in its entirety (though a related campaign continues).

It’s clear from this brief review that ATCA cases have faced high hurdles and protracted legal maneuvering on the part of the defendants, and only rarely have they achieved success in the form of a settlement. In 2004 the Supreme Court, amid intense pressure from the corporate world and the Bush Administration, declined to ban ATCA cases, though it insisted that only a narrow category of cases could be brought under the statute.

A majority of the current Court seems less interested in such compromises and more inclined to sweep away ATCA in a Citizens United-type affirmation of corporate unaccountability that will be celebrated by repressive governments and their foreign investors around the world.

Note: A list of pending ATCA cases can be found on the website of International Rights Advocates. An excellent resource on ATCA cases and other issues involving the conduct of global corporations can be found on the website of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

Making Corporations Disappear

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

From the 11-year prison term and $92 million fine imposed on convicted insider trader Raj Rajaratnam to the apparent misappropriation of hundreds of millions of dollars in client funds at failed brokerage firm MF Global to the admission by Japan’s Olympus Corp. that it has been cooking the books for years, the news is full of reminders about the criminality that pervades the corporate world.

At the same time, the ongoing Occupy movement has been bringing renewed attention to the disastrous consequences of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that enshrined corporate personhood. One of the more popular protest messages seen at Occupy encampments is: “I will believe that corporations are people when Texas executes one of them.”

As Russell Mokhiber of Corporate Crime Reporter points out, the idea is not so far-fetched. For the past two decades there has been a small but persistent campaign to promote the idea that the state-granted charters of rogue corporations could be challenged, thereby putting them out of business. The movement was pioneered by Richard Grossman, who co-authored a well-circulated 1993 pamphlet entitled Taking Care of Business, which outlined legal and historical justifications for charter revocations.

Grossman’s evangelism helped create the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which helps communities fight corporate intrusions at the local level, and the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, which publishes materials that “contest the authority of corporations to govern.”

These groups and others were challenging corporate personhood even before Citizens United, and groups inspired by these ideas launched campaigns to challenge the charters of outlaw corporations such as Union Carbide (largely because of its role in the Bhopal disaster) and Unocal (because of its role in oil spills, frequent workplace safety and health violations, and human rights violations in its relations with repressive governments).

The idea began to catch on. In 1998, Eliot Spitzer, then a candidate for New York Attorney General, said he would not hesitate to push for the dissolution of corporations found guilty of criminal offenses. In the early 2000s, groups in California pushed for a corporate three strikes law to deal with recidivist business offenders such as Tenet Healthcare.

The charter revocation concept waned for a while but had a resurgence last year in response to the outrageous behavior of BP in the Gulf oil spill and that of Massey Energy in creating the conditions that led to the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia. Massey ended up being taken over by another company, but BP remains in business despite the fact that its misconduct in the Gulf occurred while it was on probation for earlier federal offenses relating to a 2005 refinery explosion in Texas and 2006 oil spills in Alaska.

The Occupy movement sets the stage for a new assault on corporate recidivists. There is no shortage of offenders. For instance, the New York Times just showed that numerous investment banks have committed repeated violations of Securities and Exchange Commission anti-fraud rules. Mokhiber suggests that potential candidates for the corporate death penalty include health insurers, nuclear power plant operators, giant banks and firms engaged in hydraulic fracking.

The real challenge is to figure out what it would mean to execute a giant corporation. There are few precedents for doing so. Nearly all the major companies that have gone out of existence have done so as the result of takeovers by other large firms. In a limited number of cases such as Enron and Lehman Brothers, companies were forced to liquidate, but by the time this happened the firms were effectively worthless.

Unanswered is the question of what would happen if a large and healthy corporation had to cease operations because of a charter revocation. Selling off the company piece by piece in fire sales to other large corporations would have the undesirable effect of increasing concentration in the industry.

While it may be morally satisfying to say that such a firm should simply vanish, that would be unfair to the workers and other stakeholders who may have played no role in the criminal behavior that brought on the revocation. Besides, this too could result in higher industry concentration as other firms capture the disappearing company’s market share.

What’s needed is a set of protocols for a just transition of a de-chartered company to a new corporate form based on principles such as trust busting (splitting up business behemoths into smaller entities), worker ownership, environmental responsibility and community oversight.

A distinction would have to be made between disappearing companies in those industries that serve a legitimate need and those which need to be phased out for reasons aside from the behavior of individual firms (coal, tobacco, for-profit health insurance, etc.).

Figuring out how to dismantle large companies will be a huge and complicated task, but it is an essential undertaking if we are ever to escape from the era of corporate domination.

Tax Dodging Inc.

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Given that big business provides the bulk of the money pouring into the political system, it is no surprise that members of Congress and presidential contenders alike tend to espouse the idea that large corporations are overtaxed. This myth gets repeated despite all the evidence that blue chip companies find endless ways to pay much less than the statutory rate.

It is now more difficult for the tax avoidance deniers to spread their snake oil. Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy have just come out with a compelling study called Corporate Taxpayers & Corporate Tax Dodgers that examines the fine print of the financial statements of the country’s largest corporations and identifies scores of firms that fail to pay their fair share of the cost of government.

Looking at a universe of 280 companies, CTJ and ITEP find that over the past three years, 40 percent of them paid less than half of the statutory rate of 35 percent. Most of those paid what the study calls “ultra-low” rates of less than 10 percent. Thirty of the firms actually had negative tax rates, meaning that Uncle Sam was paying them for doing business. In dollar terms, the biggest recipients of tax subsidies over the three-year period were Wells Fargo ($18 billion), AT&T ($14.5 billion), Verizon Communications ($12.3 billion) and General Electric ($8.4 billion). The freeloaders had rates as low as minus 57.6 percent. You should read the study for yourself to get all the juicy details.

CTJ and ITEP have been putting out these bombshell reports periodically over the past three decades. The ones from the early 1980s drove the Reagan Administration crazy and paved the way for the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which reversed many of the corporate giveaways of the initial Reagan years.

It is tempting to think that this new report will subvert the current corporate tax relief movement, but that is a tall order. Part of the reason is that corporations, having bought much of the policymaking apparatus, have become much more brazen in their self-serving behavior.

Let’s take the case of Nabors Industries, the world’s largest oil and gas land drilling contractor.  Nabors was not eligible to be considered for the CTJ/ITEP study because it is headquartered in Bermuda. The company is not really Bermudan. Its principal offices are in Houston, but it re-incorporated itself in the island nation a decade ago for one simple reason: to escape paying U.S. federal income taxes (Bermuda imposes no such levies on corporations). It was part of a wave of companies that in the early 2000s underwent what were euphemistically called corporate inversions.

Critics called the moves “unpatriotic” or even “akin to treason,” but Nabors went ahead with its plan. There was an effort later in Congress to collect retroactive taxes from Nabors and a handful of other firms that had carried out inversions, but the move was blocked by New York Rep. Charles Rangel after Nabors CEO Eugene Isenberg made a $1 million contribution to a help build the Charles B. Rangel School of Public Service at the City College of New York. Rangel was subsequently charged with an ethics violation in connection with the contribution.

Nabors and Isenberg have been in the news again recently in connection with another scandal. Nabors announced that it was paying Isenberg, now 81 years old, $100 million to give up his post as chief executive. Although the payment is linked to a severance agreement, Isenberg is remaining with the company as chairman of the board. The situation was remarkable enough to merit a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, which is normally blasé about bloated executive pay.

Isenberg’s bonanza is the culmination of a series of outsized pay packages. In 2005, for instance, he received total compensation of more than $200 million. In 2008 his bonus alone was more than $58 million. In a non-binding vote earlier this year, a majority of Nabors shareholders disapproved the company’s executive pay policies.

It used to be that executive compensation was high in relation to worker pay rates put still a relatively small amount compared to revenue and profits in large companies.  That has been changing. The payouts to Isenberg have a significant impact on the firm’s bottom line. The $100 million being collected by Isenberg to give up his CEO job more than wipes out the $74 million in profits Nabors posted for the most recent quarter. Nabors, by the way, has disclosed that it has been investigated by the Justice Department for making foreign bribes.

As the Institute for Policy Studies showed in a report a couple of months ago, it is not unusual for major companies to pay their chief executives more than they send to the Treasury in taxes. Add to that the CTJ/ITEP findings and the behavior of firms like Nabors, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in many large corporations the dominant motivation is to enrich their principals, even if that means sidestepping obligations to shareholders, government and workers. In other words, big business is increasingly acting as little more than a vehicle for expanding the wealth of the 1%.

Clawing Back from the 1%

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Rick Perry has admitted that his recent attempt to revive controversy over President Obama’s birth certificate was done for “fun.” This came after Herman Cain said that his call for an electrified fence to protect the U.S. border with Mexico was meant as a joke.

The question, then, is whether their economic plans should also been seen as pranks. It is indeed difficult to take the proposals of the two men and the other presidential contenders seriously. Do they really believe that the solution to the country’s job crisis lies in massive tax reductions for the wealthy and large corporations along with a rollback of federal regulations on banks, health insurance companies and polluters? These ideas sound as if they were cooked up as part of a Yes Men parody to make the 1% look ridiculous in the face of the growing Occupy movement.

One sign that the candidates are not putting forth legitimate policy prescriptions is that their plans contain no accountability provisions. Perry’s just released “Cut, Balance and Grow” scheme, for instance, has repeated references to the wave of job creation that will supposedly be generated by overhauling the tax and regulatory systems, but nowhere does it say what will happen to those companies that, in spite of being freed from federal shackles, still fail to hire significant numbers of new workers.

When it comes to foreign policy, conservatives love Ronald Reagan’s dictum of “trust, but verify.” But in the realm of domestic economic policy their approach is “take it on faith” – giving the 1% everything they want and doing nothing to make sure that the purported benefits to the economy ever materialize. Actually, it is not only conservatives who adopt this posture. Many pro-corporate Democrats are also willing to give away the store to big business without imposing any real safeguards. This can be seen, for instance, in the bi-partisan campaign to slash taxes on repatriated foreign profits without ensuring that those savings actually result in job creation.

Presidential candidates and federal policymakers have something to learn in this regard from the states, including Perry’s Texas.  Together, the states spend tens of billions of dollars each year on tax credits, grants, low-cost loans and other forms of financial assistance to corporations in an attempt to stimulate job creation and economic development.

More and more of these subsidy programs attach strings to the government largesse. Corporate recipients must commit to creating a specific number of jobs, which are often subject to wage and benefit requirements. When companies fail to live up to those obligations, the state may recoup all or some of the subsidies (or restrict future benefits) through devices known as clawbacks. These provisions vary widely in stringency from state to state and sometimes within states.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First are currently studying the job creation, job quality and clawback practices of the major state subsidy programs around the country. Our report will not be issued until later this year, but I can say now that among the programs that contain clawback provisions are two that are closely controlled by Perry: the Texas Enterprise Fund and the state’s Emerging Technology Fund. These funds have been criticized for cronyism and other abuses, but at least there are some mechanisms for holding recipients accountable on their commitments.

The same cannot be said at the federal level. If Perry and others proposing national solutions to the jobs crisis were serious, they would be recommending that any tax reductions or regulatory relief be contingent on the creation of significant numbers of jobs—and quality ones at that.

I don’t expect this to happen any time soon. Both branches of the national political elite have bought into the idea that large corporations and the wealthy have to be, in effect, bribed to make job-creating investments in the U.S. economy and that there is no recourse when they fail to carry out what they were paid off to do.

Even before the current crop of pro-corporate economic plans, large companies and the wealthy have, of course, benefitted from a skewed tax system, special subsidies for selected industries, lucrative federal contracts, weak regulation, one-sided labor laws, and a justice system that is soft on business crime. And we have little to show for it in the way of decent jobs and economic security.

Rather than showering even more advantages on the 1 percenters, we should be demanding that they give something back. The Occupy movement can be seen as a big clawback effort whose goal is to recoup not just a tax break here or there but control over the future of the entire U.S. economy.

A Rogues Gallery of the One Percent

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

For the past 30 years, Forbes magazine has used its annual list of the 400 richest Americans as a platform for celebrating the wealthy. This year, amid the persistent jobs crisis and the growing challenge posed by the Occupy movement, the Forbes list has to be viewed in a different light. Rather than a scorecard of success, it comes across as a rogues gallery of the 1 Percent who have hijacked the U.S. economy.

Start with the overall numbers. Combined, the 400 are worth an estimated $1.5 trillion, up 12 percent from the year before. This at a time when both the net worth and annual income of the typical American household have been sinking. When the first Forbes list was published in 1982 there were only about a dozen billionaires. Today, every single member of the 400 has a ten-figure fortune. Their average net worth is $3.8 billion.

And where did this wealth come from? Forbes tries to justify the skyrocketing assets of the 400 by saying that “an alltime-high 70% are self-made…This is the working elite.” New riches may indeed be better than inherited wealth, but how did this “elite” climb the ladder of success?

The question is all the more pertinent, given the current inclination of conservatives to refer to the wealthy as “job-creators” as a way of rebuffing efforts to get the plutocrats to pay their fair share of taxes.

How much job creation can be attributed to the Forbes 400? In a chart on Sources of Wealth, the magazine notes that the largest single “industry” is investments, accounting for the fortunes of 96 of the 400. By contrast, manufacturing, which is more labor intensive, is listed as the source for only 17 of the tycoons.

Within the investments category, about one-sixth of the people in the top 100 made their fortunes from hedge funds, private equity and leveraged buyouts—activities that are more likely to result in the destruction than the creation of jobs. For example, Sam Zell (net worth: $4.7 billion) was ruthless in laying off workers after his takeover of the Tribune newspaper company.

Forbes no doubt would respond by pointing to the 48 people on the list who got fabulously wealthy from the technology sector. Yet many of these companies create very few jobs: Facebook, which made Mark Zuckerberg worth $17.5 billion, has only about 2,000 employees. Or, like Apple, which gave the late Steve Jobs a $7 billion fortune, they create most of their jobs abroad in low-wage countries such as China rather than manufacturing their gadgets in the United States. The same is now true for Dell—source of Michael Dell’s $15 billion fortune—which has closed most of its U.S. assembly operations.

The few people on the list who are associated with large-scale job creation in the United States got rich from a company known for paying lousy wages and fighting unions. Christy Walton and her immediate family enjoy a net worth of more than $24 billion deriving from the notorious Wal-Mart retail empire (other Waltons are worth billions more). The Koch Brothers ($25 billion) are bankrolling the effort to weaken collective bargaining rights and thereby depress wage levels, while satellite TV pioneer Stanley Hubbard ($1.9 billion) has been an outspoken critic of labor unions and was an aggressive campaigner against the Employee Free Choice Act.

Poor job creation performance and anti-union animus are not the only sins of the 400 and their companies. Some of them have a checkered record when it comes to other aspects of accountability and good corporate behavior.

Start at the top of the list. Bill Gates, whose $59 billion net worth makes him the richest individual in the United States, is known today mainly for his philanthropic activities. Yet it was not long ago that Gates was viewed as a modern-day robber baron and Microsoft was being prosecuted by the European Commission, the U.S. Justice Department and some 20 states for anti-competitive practices. In the 1990s there were widespread calls for the company to be broken up, but Microsoft reached a controversial settlement with the Bush Administration that kept it largely intact.

Today it is Google, whose founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are estimated by Forbes to be worth $16.7 billion, that is at the center of accusations of monopolistic practices.

Amazon.com, headed by Jeff Bezos ($19.1 billion), has fought against the efforts of a variety of state governments to get the online retailer to collect sales taxes from its customers. By failing to collect taxes on most transactions, Amazon gains an advantage over its brick-and-mortar competitors but deprives states of billions of dollars in badly needed revenue.

Cleaning products giant S.C. Johnson & Son, the source of the combined $11.5 billion fortune of the Johnson family, recently admitted that it has used aggressive tax avoidance practices to the extent that it pays no corporate income taxes at all in its home state of Wisconsin. Forbes ignores this issue, but instead describes in detail the criminal sexual molestation charges that have been filed against one member of the family.

And then there are the environmental offenders, such as Ira Rennert ($5.9 billion.) His Renco Group was for years one of the country’s biggest polluters, and the Peruvian lead smelter of his Doe Run operation is one of the most hazardous sites in the world.

This is only a small sampling of the transgressions of the 400 and their companies. Rather than being hailed as job creators, they should be made to answer for their job destruction, their tax avoidance, their anti-competitive practices, their environmental violations and much more.  Rather than celebration, the Forbes 400 and the rest of the 1 Percent are in need of investigation.

The Ghostbusters of Liberty Plaza

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Protesting near the haunted One Liberty Plaza building

Occupy Wall Street’s decision to use Liberty Plaza in lower Manhattan as its base camp is meant to evoke comparisons to Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the focal point of the popular uprising in Egypt earlier this year.

Yet the concrete plaza (also known as Zuccotti Park) turns out to be a fitting symbol of the big business debacles that the new Occupy movement is condemning.

Looming over the space is a hulking 54-story office building known as One Liberty Plaza, which is part of the real estate portfolio of Brookfield Office Properties, also owner of the plaza itself. The skyscraper, completed in 1972, was originally the New York City headquarters of U.S. Steel.

By the time U.S. Steel moved into the building, the company had begun to lose market share and was embarking on an ill-fated diversification process. Within it few years it liquidated more than a dozen mills and spent more than $6 billion on the acquisition of Marathon Oil. It continued to shed mills, and in 1986 it purchased another oil company and changed its name to USX to reflect its retreat from the steel business.

After fighting off a takeover bid by corporate raider Carl Icahn, USX underwent more restructuring and finally decided to spin off its oil operations and reclaim the U.S. Steel name. After 9/11 it unsuccessfully tried to engineer a merger of all the U.S. integrated steel companies into something that would have resembled the steel trust assembled by J.P. Morgan at the beginning of the 20th Century. Today U.S. Steel is far overshadowed by foreign competitors, especially ArcelorMittal.

In 1980 U.S. Steel had sold One Liberty Plaza to Merrill Lynch, which was then riding high atop the stock brokerage business. A year after the sale, Merrill’s chief, Donald Regan, went to Washington to serve as Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration. Regan had initiated a process of diversification into international banking, real estate, insurance and other financial services.

Merrill, which had always prided itself on serving the individual investor, became increasingly involved in wheeling and dealing. In the early 2000s Merrill’s reputation was seriously tarnished by its close ties to the corrupt Enron Corporation and by allegations that its analysts were strongly touting dubious internet stocks for which Merrill was providing investment banking services.

In 2007 Merrill’s CEO Stan O’Neal was ousted after the firm was forced to take an $8.4 billion write-down linked to sinking securities backed by subprime mortgages. Amid the meltdown of Wall Street in September 2008, Merrill Lynch avoided following Lehman Brothers into oblivion only by agreeing to be taken over by Bank of America. There was later a furor when it came to light that Merrill rushed through some $3 billion in bonuses before the merger took effect.

In 1984 Merrill Lynch had agreed to sell One Liberty Plaza to the real estate firm Olympia & York (O&Y) and move its headquarters to the World Financial Center development that O&Y was building a few blocks away in Battery Park City.

O&Y, under the control of the Reichmann Family, first amassed holdings in Canada and then made a splash in the New York City real estate world with an aggressive series of purchases. By the mid-1980s it had become the largest real estate company in the world while also investing heavily in natural resources companies such as Gulf Canada. Its dizzying growth came to an end in 1992, when it could no longer handle its $18 billion in debt and was forced to file for bankruptcy.

The man who ran O&Y’s U.S. real estate operations was former New York deputy mayor John Zuccotti—the guy the park is named after. He stayed on after the bankruptcy filing, oversaw the sale of O&Y’s portfolio to Brookfield Properties and was kept in place by Brookfield. He is currently on the board of directors of what is now known as Brookfield Office Properties.  So far, Brookfield has avoided any fiascoes of its own.

Yet the previous owners of One Liberty Plaza—U.S. Steel, Merrill Lynch and Olympia & York—haunt the office building and Zuccotti Park. Their track record of foolhardy restructurings, reckless borrowing and unscrupulous investment practices are emblematic of the misdeeds of large corporations over the past few decades. Those practices have enfeebled the U.S. economy and diminished the living standards of all but a narrow slice of the population.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is, in effect, trying to exorcise these demons.  And the ranks of the ghostbusters in Liberty Plaza and elsewhere seem to be growing every day.

Nuclear Deception

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

After hearing the term “meltdown” used so often as a metaphor for the financial crisis, it is shocking to confront the prospect of a literal meltdown at some of Japan’s nuclear reactors in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. There is something the two situations have in common: corporate misconduct.

The company that operates the heavily damaged reactors, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), is one of the most unethical large corporations that I have ever examined. It has an astounding history of deceptions and cover-ups made all the more egregious by the grave risks inherent in the business of generating nuclear power in a country prone to earthquakes.

TEPCO’s transgressions first came to light in 2002, after Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency belatedly began to investigate whistleblower allegations that the company had regularly falsified repair reports and inspection data concerning its nukes. The agency found evidence that the company had engaged in the deception for some 15 years, in some cases concealing the existence of cracks in the steel plates surrounding reactor cores as well as other defects.

The uproar over the revelations forced TEPCO’s president and chairman to resign. This was not just a matter of higher-ups taking responsibility for the misdeeds of underlings. There were reports that the top executives were aware of what was going on. The scope of the subterfuge also continued to grow, prompting some observers to liken the situation to the big U.S. corporate scandals involving companies such as Enron and WorldCom. TEPCO, which was forced to shut down its reactors for extended periods, later admitted that the data falsifications went back as far as the late 1970s.

In 2007 the company admitted that it had concealed incidents involving the emergency shutdowns of its Fukushima reactors—those involved in the current crisis—back in the mid-1980s. A few months after the admission, TEPCO had to apologize for delays and errors in announcing the extent of the damage at its nuclear plant in Kashiwazaki following an earthquake in the northwestern part of the country. When the whole story became known, local officials ordered TEPCO to shut down the plant.

The incident also prompted criticism of TEPCO for building the plant on top of an active seismic fault. It was unclear whether the company had been unaware of the fault or had ignored its presence; in either case, TEPCO looked highly irresponsible. It was later reported that the company had understated the intensity of the earthquake. The Kashiwazaki plant remained offline for more than two years.

TEPCO’s dishonesty is not limited to its nuclear operations. In 2007 it was one of ten utility companies cited by the Japanese government for falsifying data on the large quantities amounts of river water they used for power generation. TEPCO was found to have submitted bogus information on one of its hydroelectric plants for 13 years.

The mendacity of TEPCO is not just a matter of concern for the Japanese. In May 2010 the company announced it would purchase a 10 percent interest in the South Texas nuclear project, one of a slew of proposed new nukes that hope to receive a share of the billions of dollars in federal assistance promised by the Obama Administration to encourage a nuclear renaissance in the United States, where a new nuclear plant hasn’t opened in decades.

Japan’s disaster is already casting a very dark cloud over the prospects for that renaissance.  Debate over new U.S. nukes should not be limited to the technical safety issues. The example of TEPCO raises the question of whether a corporation can be trusted with a technology that has the potential to do such massive harm.

Villainous Visionaries

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

It is tempting to refute the new book on business ethics by Andy Wales, Matthew Gorman, and Dunstan Hope with two letters; BP. The oil giant’s record of negligence in connection with the Gulf of Mexico disaster, its refinery accidents and its pipeline leaks in Alaska flies in the face of the thesis of Big Business, Big Responsibilities: that large corporations are in the vanguard of efforts to address the planet’s most pressing environmental and social problems.

The text of the book appears to have been completed before the blow-out of BP’s Macondo well this spring, but it is likely that the incident would not have merited mention if the timing had been different. Wales, Gorman and Hope seem to live in a world in which corporations act nobly and business crimes such as bribery, price-fixing, toxic waste dumping, mistreatment of workers and disregard for safety norms are either a thing of the past or are rare enough to ignore.

The authors – two of whom work for large corporations while the third (Hope) is on the staff of Business for Social Responsibility – would have us believe that many major companies have in a short period of time evolved from villains to visionaries.

To their credit, Wales, Gorman and Hope do not claim that this transformation happened spontaneously. They fully acknowledge the role of environmental and social justice campaigns in highlighting harmful and unfair business practices. Yet they fail to address corporate resistance to these campaigns, making it seem as if top executives promptly renounced pollution and exploitation as soon as an objection was raised.

Wales, Gorman and Hope admit that the initial boardroom motivation was to protect brands damaged by aggressive campaigners, but they insist that many large companies have gone beyond that defensive posture and are now engaged in a “proactive search for opportunities to improve social well-being and achieve corporate financial success at the same time.”

Their outlook is representative of the new corporate utopianism – the notion that the profit motive can be made to align perfectly with the public good, thus making global companies the perfect vehicle for reshaping the world.

It is easy to see why Wales, Gorman and Hope, who have built their careers on promoting corporate social responsibility, would embrace this view, and its appeal among the companies they advise is obvious.

But it is not clear why those of us with no vested interested in corporate canonization should go along. Even if we admit that some companies are doing some socially beneficial things, what took them so long? Are we expected to forget their decades of rapacious behavior?

It is also unclear how far should we trust companies that began to act responsibly only after being pressured to do so by outside forces, which according to Wales, Gorman and Hope include not just corporate campaigns but also growing consumer preference for ethical and sustainable goods and services. The only internal impulse that seems to be at work in socially responsible companies is the desire to make a buck from these new market opportunities.

So let me get this straight: responding to external pressures, giant corporations are doing the right thing, which turns out to be highly profitable – and we are supposed to believe this is some kind of great moral awakening?

Before passing judgment on the intentions of companies professing a commitment to social responsibility, perhaps we should take a step back and ask how real is the purported transformation. And this brings us back to BP, which is repeatedly praised by Wales, Gorman and Hope for its forward-thinking stance on issues such as climate change.

Given what we now know about BP’s reckless actions, as opposed to its high-minded principles, it is likely that its commitment to social responsibility is a smokescreen. Wales, Gorman and Hope don’t consider the possibility that many of the laudatory policies adopted by BP and other corporate leviathans are nothing more than greenwashing.

Big Business, Big Responsibilities could be dismissed as a work of corporate propaganda, but what makes it more insidious is the appeal the authors make to non-governmental organizations. The last page of the book calls on NGOs to be less suspicious of corporations and to accept them as full partners in environmental and social campaigns. I read this as an effort to bring about a unilateral ceasefire by watchdogs groups, which would lose their independence and start functioning as appendages of corporate public relations departments.

While a few NGOs have already moved in this direction, it would be foolhardy for serious campaigners to abandon their adversarial posture toward corporations. Without such pressure, big business would inevitably return to all its old tricks.

Stealth Disclosure

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

The Congressional practice of quietly attaching an unrelated provision to a larger piece of legislation at the last minute has all too often been used to benefit powerful corporate interests. In two recent cases, however, the stealth amendment process has resulted in changes that will make it easier to monitor questionable business practices by energy companies and federal contractors.

Extractive industries are complaining about language (Section 1504) slipped into the new financial reform bill that will require them to report on royalties and other payments to governments. The aim is to make it harder for those corporations to conceal bribes and other illegal transfers used to obtain petroleum or mining concessions and that often prop up corrupt regimes such as the one in Equatorial Guinea. The provision, based on a bill that had been introduced by Senators Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and Richard Lugar of Indiana, applies to publicly traded oil, gas and mining companies whose shares trade in the United States.

The law is a victory for groups such as Publish What You Pay, which has long campaigned to increase the transparency of energy corporation dealings with governments around the world. The campaign has already succeeded in getting some firms to disclose the information voluntarily, but it will be much better to have it mandated and overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which will write rules covering the inclusion of the information in financial statements.

That’s why trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute and companies such as Exxon Mobil are grousing about the law. An API spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that Russian and Chinese oil companies not subject to the requirement “could use the data to outfox U.S. companies in deals.”

Dubious complaints are also being heard from Beltway Bandit mouthpieces in response to a swift move by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to insert a provision in the recently passed supplemental appropriations bill giving the public access to a database about contractor performance – which in many cases means contractor misconduct.

The database is the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS), which was mandated as a result of 2008 legislation enacted thanks to the efforts of groups such as the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), which has its own Federal Contractor Misconduct Database covering the 100 companies doing the most business with Uncle Sam. FAPIIS is supposed to make it easier for federal agencies to review the track record of a much wider range of companies bidding on new contracts worth $500,000 or more. In addition to contract performance information collected from various federal sources, FASPIIS includes data submitted by companies with more than $10 million in contracts or grants on any criminal, civil or administrative proceedings brought against them during the previous three years.

FAPIIS was an important step forward, but it was able to get through Congress only after its sponsors agreed to restrict access to the database. POGO tested the provision by filing a FOIA request with the Pentagon for its FAPIIS information but was shot down.

A short time later, however, it came to light that the Sanders amendment survived in the supplemental spending bill President Obama signed on July 29. The provision will give the public access to FAPIIS information about contractor track records, but unfortunately it excludes past contract performance reviews by federal agencies.

Already, the Professional Services Council, the leading trade association of federal contractors, is warning that making parts of FAPIIS public “could create a politically motivated blacklist of vendors.” The PSC seems to believe that the public should not have the ability to pressure the federal government to stop doing business with crooked companies.

Speaking of blacklists, the FAPIIS change comes on the heels of an announcement by the Obama Administration that it is creating a master Do Not Pay database covering individuals and businesses that should not be receiving payments from federal agencies. At a time of growing hysteria about the federal deficit, it is good to see that attention is being paid to ways of cutting costs that are truly wasteful.