Archive for the ‘Corporate Crime’ Category

Getting Tough on Corporate Killing

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020

The lead story on the front page of a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal was about the former chief executive of a Brazilian mining company not widely known in the United States. The Journal’s editors probably realized their readers would be shaken by the news that Fabio Schvartsman has been charged with homicide in the deaths of 270 people in a mining dam collapse last year.

The decision by prosecutors in the state of Minas Gerais to bring such charges against Schvartsman as well as other former executives at Vale SA shows the depth of anger in Brazil at the giant iron ore company over the accident in which a torrent of waste swept away people, submerged houses and created a large toxic wasteland (photo).

Vale and a German consulting company, five of whose officials were also hit with homicide charges, are alleged to have long known about a critical safety flaw in the tailings dam but failed to act.

Although Brazil does not have a death penalty or life sentences for civilian offenses, the filing of homicide charges against corporate executives is an aggressive measure that has rarely been applied in that country or anywhere else.

There are more precedents when it comes to corporate manslaughter, which is the idea that a business entity can be prosecuted for causing the death of employees or other persons. For example, in 2007 the United Kingdom enacted the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, though that law has not been enforced as rigorously as many advocates had hoped.

In the United States there is no such federal statute, though the principle of corporate criminal liability is well-established, and numerous companies have faced criminal charges, though they frequently end with deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements.

The Violation Tracker database has more than 1,600 criminal cases (compared to 395,000 civil matters). Many of these are financial in nature or involve violations of environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act that are deemed negligent or deliberate but usually don’t involve loss of life.

A much smaller number involve corporate killing, including notorious cases such as BP’s role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster or the Upper Big Branch disaster at a coal mine owned by Massey Energy.

In these matters, however, the corporations, as in civil cases, mainly paid financial penalties and their executives faced no personal liability. One exception was former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who was convicted of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards and was sentenced to a year in prison. Otherwise, the Justice Department has shown little interest in prosecuting corporate executives for environmental or workplace fatalities.

There has been a bit more of such activity at the local level, especially on the part of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. It has brought criminal charges against both companies and individuals in connection with workplace and other accidents. For example, in November 2019 a building owner, a plumber and a contractor were convicted of manslaughter by causing a 2015 explosion resulting from unauthorized natural-gas connections installed in a rental building.

Three years earlier, the Manhattan DA won a conviction against a construction supervisor accused of ignoring warnings about unsafe conditions on a building site that resulted in a fatal accident.

The approach of the Manhattan DA and the prosecutors in Brazil points to a promising way forward in the handling of corporate misconduct that results in serious harm or death. If they know they may end up behind bars for a long time, corporate executives and managers may become more serious about their responsibility to abide by health and safety laws.

A Boom Decade for Corporate Misconduct

Thursday, January 2nd, 2020

Business journalists are looking back with amazement at the stock market’s track record over the past decade. Yet the 2010s were also a boom period for corporate crime and misconduct.

In Violation Tracker my colleagues and I have documented more than 240,000 cases for that period representing $442 billion in fines and settlements—more than twice the $161 billion total for the previous decade. (The numbers are not adjusted for inflation.)

The cases from the 2010s include 574 with a penalty of $100 million or more, 147 with a penalty of $500 million or more, and 67 with a penalty of $1 billion or more.

The top tier of these mega-cases is dominated by four corporations. BP is linked to the largest single case on the list—the $20.8 billion settlement with the federal government and five states to resolve civil claims stemming from the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP paid out numerous other mega-penalties and smaller ones to put its total for the decade at nearly $28 billion.

The second biggest single penalty during the decade was Bank of America’s $16.65 billion settlement with the Justice Department in 2014 to resolve claims relating to fraud in the period leading up to the financial crisis, including such behavior on the part of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide Financial, which BofA acquired during that crisis. BofA also had plenty of other penalties during the decade—including two in excess of $10 billion—bringing its total for that period to an eye-popping $62 billion.

The third of the penalty leaders is Volkswagen, which in 2016 reached a $14.7 billion settlement with the federal government and the state of California to resolve allegations relating to systematic cheating on diesel pollution emission testing through the use of defeat devices. VW paid out several other multi-billion penalties related to the cheating and racked up a penalty total of more than $23 billion for the decade.

Rounding out the list of companies with individual penalties in excess of $10 billion is JPMorgan Chase, which in 2013 reached a $13 billion settlement to resolve federal and state claims relating to the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities by the bank itself and by its acquisitions Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. JPMorgan also had several other penalties of $1 billion or more, along with smaller ones, that pushed its penalty total for the decade to more than $29 billion.

Other big domestic banks had a substantial share of mega-penalties. These include Citigroup, with a $7 billion toxic securities settlement in 2014 (and a penalty total of $16 billion for the decade) and Wells Fargo, with a similar $5.3 billion settlement in 2012 (and a penalty total of $15 billion stemming from issues such as the creation of bogus accounts to generate illicit fees).

The decade also saw a slew of mega-cases involving foreign banks such as BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland and Credit Suisse for offense such as violations of economic sanctions and their own toxic securities abuses.

Financial services companies of all kinds dominated the mega-penalty list, accounting for 41 of the 67 billion-dollar cases. Also worthy of mention are the pharmaceutical companies, including settlements by GlaxoSmithKline for $3 billion and Johnson & Johnson for $2.2 billion, both for marketing drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. That industry will end up paying much more when the pending multistate opioid litigation is resolved.

The list could continue. Suffice it to say that the decade’s major cases made it clear that corporate misconduct perseveres through good times and bad.

The 2019 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 19th, 2019

While the news has lately focused on political high crimes and misdemeanors, 2019 has also seen plenty of corporate crimes and violations. Continuing the pattern of the past few years, diligent prosecutors and career agency officials have pursued their mission to combat business misconduct even as the Trump Administration tries to erode the regulatory system. The following is a selection of significant cases resolved during the year.

Online Privacy Violations: Facebook agreed to pay $5 billion and to modify its corporate governance to resolve a Federal Trade Commission case alleging that the company violated a 2012 FTC order by deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal information.

Opioid Marketing Abuses: The British company Reckitt Benckiser agreed to pay more than $1.3 billion to resolve criminal and civil allegations that it engaged in an illicit scheme to increase prescriptions for an opioid addiction treatment called Suboxone.

Wildfire Complicity: Pacific Gas & Electric reached a $1 billion settlement with a group of localities in California to resolve a lawsuit concerning the company’s responsibility for damage caused by major wildfires in 2015, 2017 and 2018. PG&E later agreed to a related $1.7 billion settlement with state regulators.

International Economic Sanctions: Britain’s Standard Chartered Bank agreed to pay a total of more than $900 million in settlements with the U.S. Justice Department, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, the New York Department of Financial Services and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office concerning alleged violations of economic sanctions in its dealing with Iranian entities.

Emissions Cheating: Fiat Chrysler agreed to pay a civil penalty of $305 million and spend around $200 million more on recalls and repairs to resolve allegations that it installed software on more than 100,000 vehicles to facilitate cheating on emissions control testing.

Foreign Bribery: Walmart agreed to pay $137 million to the Justice Department and $144 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in Brazil, China, India and Mexico.

False Claims Act Violations: Walgreens agreed to pay the federal government and the states $269 million to resolve allegations that it improperly billed Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal healthcare programs for hundreds of thousands of insulin pens it knowingly dispensed to program beneficiaries who did not need them.

Price-fixing: StarKist Co. was sentenced to pay a criminal fine of $100 million, the statutory maximum, for its role in a conspiracy to fix prices for canned tuna sold in the United States.  StarKist was also sentenced to a 13-month term of probation.

Employment Discrimination: Google’s parent company Alphabet agreed to pay $11 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging that it engaged in age discrimination in its hiring process.

Investor Protection Violation: State Street Bank and Trust Company agreed to pay over $88 million to the SEC to settle allegations of overcharging mutual funds and other registered investment company clients for expenses related to the firm’s custody of client assets.

Illegal Kickbacks: Mallinckrodt agreed to pay $15 million to resolve claims that Questcor Pharmaceuticals, which it acquired, paid illegal kickbacks to doctors, in the form of lavish dinners and entertainment, to induce them to write prescriptions for the company’s drug H.P. Acthar Gel.

Worker Misclassification: Uber Technologies agreed to pay $20 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that it misclassified drivers as independent contractors to avoid complying with labor protection standards.

Accounting Fraud: KPMG agreed to pay $50 million to the SEC to settle allegations of altering past audit work after receiving stolen information about inspections of the firm that would be conducted by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.  The SEC also found that numerous KPMG audit professionals cheated on internal training exams by improperly sharing answers and manipulating test results.

Trade Violations: A subsidiary of Univar Inc. agreed to pay the United States $62 million to settle allegations that it violated customs regulations when it imported saccharin that was manufactured in China and transshipped through Taiwan to evade a 329 percent antidumping duty.

Consumer Protection Violation: As part of the settlement of allegations that it engaged in unfair and deceptive practices in connection with a 2017 data breach, Equifax agreed to provide $425 million in consumer relief and pay a $100 million civil penalty to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It also paid $175 million to the states.

Ocean Dumping: Princess Cruise Lines and its parent Carnival Cruises were ordered to pay a $20 million criminal penalty after admitting to violating the terms of their probation in connection with a previous case relating to illegal ocean dumping of oil-contaminated waste.

Additional details on these cases can be found in Violation Tracker, which now contains 397,000 civil and criminal cases with total penalties of $604 billion.

Note: I have just completed a thorough update of the Dirt Diggers Digest Guide to Strategic Corporate Research. I’ve added dozens of new sources (and fixed many outdated links) in all four of the guide’s parts: Key Sources of Company Information; Exploring A Company’s Essential Relationships; Analyzing A Company’s Accountability Record; and Industry-Specific Sources.

Corporate Law & Order

Tuesday, December 10th, 2019

Some of the best episodes of the old Law & Order television series were the ones in which the prosecutors investigated corporate misconduct. In 1992, for example, one episode titled “The Corporate Veil” featured a plot involving a medical equipment manufacturer’s sale of faulty pacemakers.

In real life, district attorneys focus mostly on homicides and other street crimes, but the business culprits depicted on Law & Order were not entirely imaginary. Local prosecutors do sometimes target rogue corporations, especially in certain parts of the country.

The latest expansion of Violation Tracker documents this fact. My colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First looked at the records of district attorneys in the country’s 50 largest counties and 50 largest cities (some of which use other titles for their prosecutors, such as state attorney and prosecuting attorney).

In the period since the beginning of 2000, we found a total of 565 instances in which local prosecutors brought cases against corporations for offenses such as fraud against consumers and hazardous waste violations that resulted in a company’s paying a monetary fine or settlement. The aggregate penalties came to $5.9 billion.

These cases are far from evenly distributed among the large localities. California’s counties and cities, with 441 successful actions against corporations, account for more than three quarters of the nation’s cases.

California is also unusual in that its localities frequently band together to bring cases against large companies. We found 191 of these group lawsuits that together resulted in more than $1.8 billion in fines and settlements. These include a $1 billion settlement reached this year by 18 California counties and other public entities with Pacific Gas & Electric to resolve claims relating to the company’s role in major fires.

These multi-jurisdictional lawsuits are similar to those more often brought by groups of state attorneys general. In September, the Corporate Research Project published a report on these multistate cases, based on a compilation of more than 600 such actions.

The ability of California counties and large cities to pursue cases against corporations is strengthened by the state’s Unfair Competition Law and False Advertising Law, which prohibit many forms of predatory business conduct. Local prosecutor activism has caused tension with the state attorney general’s office, which views itself as the appropriate protector of the public against corporate abuses.

Although California’s local prosecutors have a commanding lead in the number of corporate cases, New York’s have collected the most penalty dollars. The Empire State’s $3.5 billion total (compared to $2.3 billion in California) is due mostly to a dozen very large cases brought against major foreign banks by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The banks, such as BNP Paribas and UniCredit, were accused of doing business with parties subject to international economic sanctions.

New York local prosecutors have brought a total of 88 business misconduct cases that resulted in fines or settlements. The only other state in double digits was Texas, with 12 cases generating $12 million in penalties. Large localities in nine more states had one to six cases each: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.

The local prosecutors’ cases, along with an update of the existing categories, brings the number of entries in Violation Tracker to 397,000 with aggregate penalties of $604 billion.

Note: In addition to the local prosecutors’ cases, the new Violation Tracker update includes cases from eight state and local consumer protection agencies as well as more than 200 cases from the New York Department of Financial Services with total penalties of more than $10 billion. The latter is the first portion of what will be complete coverage of state financial regulatory agencies throughout the country.

Immunity Disorders

Thursday, October 24th, 2019

Immunity was once a term used mainly in discussing medical conditions, but Donald Trump and his defenders have seized on it as an all-purpose defense in dealing with the Mueller investigation and now the Ukraine probe. Trump’s lawyers just made preposterous claims about the scope of Presidential immunity in appellate court arguments seeking to block a subpoena for Trump Organization business records.

The claim is based on the dubious argument that having to respond to a criminal case would unduly distract the president from his duties. Given that Trump seems to relish doing battle with those who dare to investigate him, it is unlikely that an indictment would change his behavior much. If Trump is successful in his immunity claims, that would go a long way in putting the presidency above the law.

At least the debate on presidential immunity is being conducted in the open. There is another form of effective immunity that is rarely described as such but is also dangerous to our society.

That is the de facto immunity that chief executives of large companies enjoy in cases of egregious corporate misconduct. Consider some of the issues that dominate the business news these days.

  • Large pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors stand accused of fostering an opioid epidemic that has resulted in tens of thousands of overdose deaths.
  • Johnson & Johnson is involved in a series of controversies about asbestos in baby powder, dangerous pelvic mesh and improper marketing of an anti-psychotic drug.
  • Boeing is facing allegations that it covered up serious safety hazards in a new jetliner that was involved in two fatal crashes before being taken out of service.
  • Exxon Mobil is facing lawsuits accusing it of suppressing for many years internal evidence of the costs and consequences of climate change exacerbated by its own operations.
  • PG&E is alleged to be responsible for wildfires in California that took scores and lives and destroyed thousands of homes.

What all these situations have in common is that the defendants are the corporations themselves rather than the individual executives ultimately responsible for the actions or policies that created the harms. We have come to take it for granted that corporations can shield their officers and board members from liability and use the company’s coffers to buy their way out of legal jeopardy.

This is, of course, nothing new. Top executives of the big banks escaped individual prosecution for their role in the financial meltdown, as did CEOs in many other scandals.

There have been a few exceptions. Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in prison for his role in that company’s giant fraud, but he used his resources to fight the sentence and ended up spending only half that amount of time behind bars.

In Violation Tracker we have 380,000 cases of corporate misconduct, including 84 in which a company paid a penalty of $1 billion or more. If we had chosen to compile data on convictions of corporate executives rather than companies, the list would fit on a single page.

If we are lucky, the courts will strike down the spurious claims of presidential immunity. Yet we must also find ways to make sure that rogue chief executives also remain within the reach of the law.

Capital Punishment

Thursday, October 3rd, 2019

Some corporate critics have argued that the only way to deter egregious misconduct by companies may be to give prosecutors the option to seek the “death penalty”—revocation of the firm’s charter and the closing of the business.

Ever since the dismantling of Arthur Andersen after its conviction on criminal charges relating to its auditing of Enron, prosecutors at the federal level have avoided seeking that harsh remedy. In fact, they moved sharply in the other direction by adopting dubious arrangements known as deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements that allow companies essentially to buy their way out of criminal jeopardy. A recent report from Public Citizen found that these arrangements have been a failure in deterring corporate wrongdoing.

Yet what has received less attention is the fact that the corporate death penalty is alive and well at the state level. Numerous state AGs have been using this method to deal with those firms considered unredeemable bad actors.

For example, the Delaware AG Kathy Jennings recently announced that she had filed actions in the state Court of Chancery to dissolve 15 Delaware business entities for involvement in criminal activities. Her press release stated: “State law allows the Attorney General to petition for cancellation of an entity’s Delaware formation document when its powers, privileges, or existence have been abused or misused.”

Among the firms she moved to dissolve were LOAV Ltd., Davis Manafort International LLC, DMP International LLC, BADE LLC, Jupiter Holdings Management, LLC, and Davis, Manafort & Stone, Inc. The principals of these companies, the AG noted, were Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to charges involving money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent, failure to report bank transactions, and making false statements. Manafort was also convicted in 2018 by a jury of tax and bank fraud charges. The charges against the two men included allegations that they used the named businesses to illegally conceal from the United States government millions of dollars in income received from the Ukrainian government as well as evading roughly $1.4 million in personal income taxes owed to the IRS while funding lavish personal expenditures.

The AG also proposed to dissolve Essential Consultants LLC, which was used by former Trump fixer Michael Cohen to facilitate a hush-money payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels.

Previously, the Delaware AG was successful in forcing four LLCs linked to the now defunct website Backpage.com to relinquish their state certificates of formation in the wake of allegations that the site promoted prostitution and human trafficking.

Not all the companies forced to dissolve are quite so well known. In the course of collecting data for our recent report on state AGs, my colleagues and I came across numerous cases in which obscure firms such as home contractors or used-car dealers were forced out of business.

For example, in July 2011 the Oregon AG announced that a company called S&S Drywall Assemblies was ordered dissolved as part of the resolution of criminal racketeering and antitrust charges brought against the company and its owner.

In some cases a state AG would carry out what amounted to a partial death sentence by banning an out-of-state company from continuing to operate in the AG’s state while it may continue to function elsewhere. We found numerous cases of this in North Dakota, which rarely penalized in-state companies but did not hesitate to ban misbehaving out-of-state ones. One of these targets was a traveling asphalt paving company.

We did not include these cases in our report or the state AG data we added to Violation Tracker because the dissolutions or state bans usually did not include monetary penalties, the common denominator among the varied cases contained in our database.

Clearly, it’s much easier for state AGs to dissolve smaller firms than it would be for federal prosecutors to do the same to large corporations with thousands of employees and shareholders. States also have the advantage that corporate chartering is a function that they, not the feds, control.

There is a feeling of satisfaction that comes from seeing a rogue company shut down that does not go along with a deferred prosecution agreement and a far-from-confiscatory monetary penalty. There has to be some way to bridge the gap.

Sweet Deals for Corporate Wrongdoers

Thursday, September 26th, 2019

We have been hearing plenty this year about the unwillingness of the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against Donald Trump, but a new report from Public Citizen shows there is an even bigger non-prosecution scandal when it comes to lawbreaking by large corporations.

Soft on Corporate Crime is a detailed analysis of the long-standing yet still disturbing practice by which big companies found to be involved in serious misconduct are given a sweet deal not typically available to individual criminals. These deals, known as non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements, allow the company to avoid criminal charges if it admits to the wrongdoing, pays a penalty, and signs an agreement that leaves open the prospect of future prosecution if the bad behavior continues.

Using data from the Corporate Prosecution Registry, Public Citizen examined the 535 NPAs and DPAs the Justice Department has entered into since 1992. The report finds that the practice originated in the Clinton Administration and has been used widely during both Democratic and Republican presidencies. The Trump Administration’s DOJ has continued the trend amid its overall reduction in corporate prosecutions.

NPAs and DPAs are part of a fundamental unwillingness of the U.S. justice system to get really tough with corporate miscreants, no matter how egregious their behavior. The argument for using these agreements is that conventional prosecutions of large corporations could result in their demise—as happened in the Arthur Andersen case of the early 2000s—and thereby cause great harm to employees and shareholders.

The theory is that having companies admit responsibility for the misconduct and pay substantial monetary penalties would be enough to deter future wrongdoing. Yet Public Citizen’s research makes it clear that the deterrent effect of NPAs and DPAs is quite weak.

The report finds 38 examples in which companies that had signed those agreements were later the subject of a new criminal enforcement action by DOJ. The problem is that DOJ rarely punishes repeat offenders for violating NPAs and DPAs. Public Citizen found only seven examples, and of these only three corporations—UBS, Barclays and Aibel Group—faced full prosecution for their recidivism. In other cases, the penalty, if you can call it that, was simply to extend the terms of the NPA or DPA and sometimes an additional monetary penalty.

Public Citizen highlights seven egregious examples of corporate repeat offenders that have received multiple DPAs and/or NPAs. These include four banks (HSBC, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase and Societe Generale) along with Bristol-Myers Squibb, Zimmer Biomet and Las Vegas Sands.

Although the report focuses on corporate criminal recidivism, it is worth pointing out that many of these companies were embroiled in civil misconduct cases in the period during which they were supposed to be on their best behavior to comply with the NPA or DPA.

For example, as shown in Violation Tracker, in the period since JPMorgan entered into its first NPA in 2011 it has paid more than $26 billion in civil penalties (including settlements). A substantial portion of that total comes from actions that date back to the 2000s, but there is still a strong indication that the NPA did not do much to change the bank’s overall behavior.

The bank’s civil and criminal wrongdoing seemed to have little effect on DOJ’s treatment of the company either. It’s true that JPMorgan had to plead guilty in 2015 to conspiring with other banks to manipulate global currency exchange rates, yet the following year it was offered an NPA in another case.

Public Citizen concludes that the Justice Department’s NPA/DPA system has been a failure, finding that instead of deterring future misconduct the agreements have “enabled further wrongdoing.” At the very least, the report concludes, DOJ should stop offering the agreements to repeat offenders but the ultimate fix would be to end the practice completely and prosecute corporations to the fullest.

Note: Violation Tracker has 360 NPA or DPA entries dating back to 2000. A list can be found here.

Bipartisan Corporate Crime Fighting by the States

Monday, September 16th, 2019

A new report from the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First on lawsuits filed by state attorneys general shows that the current cases against the drug companies and the tech sector are part of a long-standing practice of bipartisan cooperation in fighting corporate misconduct.

The report focuses on 644 cases in which AGs from multiple states took on companies over issues ranging from mortgage abuses to illicit marketing of prescription drugs and collected more than $100 billion in settlements over the past two decades.

These multistate cases are a subset of more than 7,000 state AG actions compiled for the latest expansion of Violation Tracker and now available for searching on the database.

In at least 260 multistate cases, a majority of the states signed on as plaintiffs. In 172 of the cases, 40 or more states participated. State AGs are split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, meaning that the cases with large numbers of state participants are necessarily bipartisan.

In 362 of the cases, the defendants were giant companies included in the Fortune 500 or the Fortune Global 500. The parent company with the most cumulative multistate AG penalties is, by far, Bank of America, with more than $26 billion in settlements over issues such as mortgage abuses and the sale of toxic securities. It is followed by the Swiss bank UBS ($11 billion), Citigroup ($8 billion), JPMorgan Chase ($6 billion) and BP ($4.9 billion).

The most frequent defendant has been CVS Health, which has paid out more than $215 million in 14 settlements, most of them involving the alleged submission of false claims to state Medicaid programs and the payment of illicit kickbacks to healthcare providers.  Another 47 parent companies have been involved in three or more multistate AG cases.

In 118 multistate AG cases, corporations have paid penalties of $100 million or more; in 19 of these the amount exceeded $1 billion. The biggest individual settlement was an agreement by UBS to repurchase $11 billion in investments known as auction-rate securities whose safety it allegedly misrepresented to investors. The second largest was an $8.7 billion agreement by Bank of America to resolve claims relating to predatory home mortgage practices by its Countrywide Financial subsidiary. (The recently announced multistate settlement with Purdue Pharma is not included because it is still tentative.)

Banks and other financial services companies account for far and away the largest monetary share of penalties paid in multistate AG cases — $70 billion from 122 settlements involving 65 different parent companies. In second place is the pharmaceutical industry with $10.4 billion in penalties from 137 settlements.

Consumer protection and price-fixing cases are the most numerous kinds of multistate AG lawsuits, but investor protection and mortgage abuse lawsuits against the big banks have generated the greatest monetary penalties.

In 243 of the multistate cases, the U.S. Department of Justice or another federal agency was also involved in the settlement and often led the negotiations. These actions, which accounted for $31 billion of the $105 billion in total penalties, include cases in which the federal entity, usually DOJ, initiated the investigation and brought in the states — as well as ones in which federal and state prosecutors were involved from the start.

Multistate AG lawsuits originated in the 1980s, when state prosecutors grew concerned at rollbacks in federal enforcement by the Reagan Administration and decided they needed to fill the gap. They scored a big win with the master tobacco settlement of the late 1990s and continued their actions through both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.

There is every reason to believe that the number of multistate AG settlements will continue to grow. The pending cases against opioid and generic drug producers, as well as emerging antitrust investigations of the tech sector, could add billions more to the penalty totals.

Crossing Party Lines to Fight Corporate Crime

Thursday, September 12th, 2019

The state attorneys general seem to be divided on how big a settlement they should extract from the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma to resolve a lawsuit concerning their involvement in the opioid crisis. According to one report, the split is largely on party lines, with Democratic AGs calling for a bigger payout and Republican prosecutors settling for less.

More on the diverging negotiating positions will probably come to light in the days ahead. This disagreement should not, however, obscure the bigger story: states with very different partisan orientations have been cooperating for years on cases involving corporate misconduct.

On policy issues, state AGs exhibit strong ideological tendencies. Democratic AGs have been suing the Trump Administration repeatedly over issues such as the travel ban and migrant family separation. In the same way, Republican AGs went to court to try to undermine Obama Administration initiatives such as the Affordable Care Act.

Yet in the area of corporate crime-fighting, bipartisanship is the norm.

My colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First have been documenting this fact in the course of collecting data for the latest expansion of our Violation Tracker database. We’ve compiled more than 600 cases in which two or more state AGs successfully sued a corporation and collected monetary penalties, usually in the form of a settlement in which the company did not admit guilt.

Next week we will post the data on Violation Tracker and publish a report that analyzes the multistate AG cases. I can’t give away the main findings until then, but I can say that the new entries will make a major addition to penalty totals in the database.

Currently, there are 61 parent companies with $1 billion or more in cumulative penalties (our entries go back to the beginning of 2000). With the AG cases, that number increases to 84.

The penalty totals for many of the individual corporations, especially the big banks, will rise dramatically. The combined state and federal penalty total for Bank of America, for instance, will be in excess of $80 billion.

Although the report will focus mainly on the multistate AG cases, we also collected data on 7,000 single-state AG cases from across the country that will be added to Violation Tracker. These include lots of relatively minor consumer protection cases (crooked used car dealers and the like), but there are also plenty of major settlements, including 70 cases with corporate payouts of $100 million or more.

There have been a few state AGs who have shown less enthusiasm about pursuing corporate miscreants. One example was Scott Pruitt, when he held that post in Oklahoma before being chosen as the Trump Administration’s first administrator of the EPA.

As state AG, Pruitt brought few actions against companies on his own and did not sign on to many of the multistate cases. Fortunately, he was far from typical, even among the reddest states.  

Facebook Joins the Multi-Billion-Dollar Penalty Club

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

It is a sign of how jaded we have become to corporate misconduct that the $5 billion fine imposed on Facebook by the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations is being shrugged off by the company, by the market and by the public. Many are describing it as a slap on the wrist.

It’s true that a ten-figure penalty is no longer such a rarity. According to Violation Tracker, 35 parent companies have had to pay that amount in at least one case in the United States. Eleven corporations have been hit with billion-dollar-plus penalties more than once. Of these, nine are big banks: Bank of America, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Royal Bank of Scotland and Wells Fargo. The other two are BP and Volkswagen.

Bank of America, whose penalty total is far greater than that of any other corporation, has racked up seven ten-figure cases, including three in excess of $10 billion.

BofA’s rap sheet is perhaps the most persuasive evidence that escalating penalties are not having the desired effect of deterring corporate wrongdoing. Even at the higher levels, the fines are seen by large companies as a tolerable cost to pay for continuing to do business more or less as before.

The Justice Department and the regulatory agencies seem to be aware of this and are at least making noises about taking other steps to deter and punish miscreants.

In the case of Facebook that includes provisions in the FTC settlement that will put more responsibility on the company’s board to make sure that privacy protections are enforced. It also enhances external oversight by an independent third-party monitor.

All of this might be more impressive if Facebook had not already signed a previous settlement with the FTC in 2012 that was supposed to establish strong privacy protections—provisions that the company has clearly evaded.

Also contained in the Facebook settlement is a provision that will require Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to personally certify that the company is adhering to privacy protections. This would only have an impact if it is rigorously enforced, with non-compliance putting him behind bars rather than just triggering another big payout.

There is also renewed discussion of stepped up antitrust enforcement, especially against the big tech companies. This would be more effective if federal authorities were willing to try breaking up the likes of Facebook, Alphabet/Google and Amazon rather than seeking limited restrictions on their market power. That approach has largely been shunned for the past two decades, ever since the effort to split up Microsoft collapsed and the DOJ had to settle for more modest remedies.

Prosecutors and policymakers continue to struggle with the issue of how to deal with large companies. Often it seems they are mainly concerned with little more than giving the appearance of getting tough. Only when faced with sustained public pressure will they come up with effective ways to rein in rogue corporations.