Archive for the ‘Corporate Crime’ Category

A Reputation for Purity is Now in Tatters

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

For the tens of millions of baby boomers in the United States, the first large corporation whose products they encountered was probably Johnson & Johnson. That’s because the vast majority of parents in the postwar period used the company’s baby shampoo, oil and powder on their precious bundles of joy. Carefully cultivating an image of purity, J&J established itself as an indispensable part of infant care.

That image is now in tatters. The company just disclosed that it is being investigated by the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress in connection with possible asbestos contamination of its baby powder and other talc-based products. These probes were prompted by investigative reporting in outlets such as the New York Times alleging that J&J executives raised internal concerns about the asbestos issue decades ago but the company never acknowledged these publicly.

These revelations gave more credence to thousands of lawsuits filed against J&J in recent years by women, including many who used the company’s baby powder on themselves as well as their infants, charging that the products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. J&J has been losing a lot of these cases, including one in which a jury awarded $4.7 billion in damages to a group of 22 women.

Rarely has a product’s reputation fallen so far, and rarely has a company once held in such high esteem come to be regarded as morally equivalent to cigarette manufacturers. Yet a closer look at J&J’s track record shows that its immaculate reputation has been deteriorating for quite some time.

Over the past decade the company has been involved in a series of scandals and has been forced it to pay out large sums in civil settlements and criminal fines.

The most serious of those cases involved allegations that several of its subsidiaries marketed prescription drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration, thus creating potentially life-threatening risks for patients.

For example, in 2013 the Justice Department announced that J&J and several of its subsidiaries would pay more than $2.2 billion in criminal fines and civil settlements to resolve allegations that the company had marketed it anti-psychotic medication Risperdal and other drugs for unapproved uses as well as allegations that they had paid kickbacks to physicians and pharmacists to encourage off-label usage. The amount included $485 million in criminal fines and forfeiture and $1.72 billion in civil settlements with both the federal government and 45 states that had also sued the company.

Other J&J problems resulted from faulty production practices. During 2009 and 2010 the company had to announce around a dozen recalls of medications, contact lenses and hip implants. The most serious of these was the massive recall of liquid Tylenol and Motrin for infants and children after batches of the medication were found to be contaminated with metal particles.

The company’s handling of the matter was so poor that its subsidiary McNeil-PPC became the subject of a criminal investigation and later entered a guilty plea and paid a criminal fine of $20 million and forfeited $5 million.

J&J also faced criminal charges in an investigation of questionable foreign transactions. In 2011 it agreed to pay a $21.4 million criminal penalty as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department resolving allegations of improper payments by J&J subsidiaries to government officials in Greece, Poland and Romania in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The settlement also covered kickbacks paid to the former government of Iraq under the United Nations Oil for Food Program.

All of this has been a humiliating comedown for a company that was once regarded as a model of corporate social responsibility and which set the standard for crisis management in its handling of the 1980s episode in which a madman laced packages of Tylenol with cyanide. While the company was then being victimized, in the subsequent crises it mainly has itself to blame. Off-label marketing, faulty production practices and foreign bribery are bad, but the current scandal over asbestos contamination and the alleged cover-up pose a threat to the survival of the company.  

The 2018 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 13th, 2018

The Trump Administration has been taking steps to weaken its enforcement activities against corporate criminals and regulatory violators, but diligent prosecutors and career agency administrators are still trying to do their job. Over the course of 2018 there has been a steady stream of announcements of substantial penalties imposed on major corporations for a wide range of offenses. The following is a selection of significant cases resolved during the year:

Sale of Toxic Securities: In cases left over from the financial crisis of the 2000s, three major banks agreed to pay ten-figure settlements to the Justice Department to resolve allegations of misleading investors in residential mortgage-backed securities: $2 billion by Barclays, $2.1 billion by Wells Fargo and $4.9 billion by The Royal Bank of Scotland.

Interest Rate Benchmark Manipulation: The French bank Societe Generale agreed to pay $475 million to settle allegations by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission that it manipulated or attempted to manipulate LIBOR and other interest rate benchmarks.

Foreign Exchange Market Manipulation: The French bank BNP Paribas pleaded guilty to participating in a price-fixing scheme in the foreign exchange market and paid the U.S. Justice Department a criminal fine of $90 million.

Anti-Money Laundering Deficiencies: U.S. Bancorp agreed to a $453 million civil forfeiture to resolve a case brought by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleging that it violated the Bank Secrecy Act by failing to file required suspicious activity reports.

Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: The Securities and Exchange Commission required Panasonic Corporation to pay $143 million to resolve allegations of making improper payments and committing accounting fraud in connection with its global avionics business. It paid an additional $137.4 million to settle related criminal charges brought by the Justice Department.

Consumer Financial Protection Violation: Wells Fargo agreed to pay a total of $1 billion to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in connection with abuses relating to a mandatory insurance program tied to auto loans, mortgage interest-rate-lock extensions and other practices.

Product Safety Violation: Polaris Industries agreed to pay a $27.25 million civil penalty to settle Consumer Product Safety Commission allegations that it failed to immediately report to the agency that some of its recreational off-road vehicles contained defects that could create a substantial product hazard or that they created an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death.

Controlled Substances Act Violations: Rite Aid agreed to pay $4 million and CVS agreed to pay a total of $2.5 million in two cases, all to resolve allegations of improper distribution of controlled substances.

Sexual Harassment: Poultry processor Koch Foods agreed to pay $3.75 million to settle allegations made by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involving sexual harassment, national origin and race discrimination and retaliation at a plant in Mississippi.

Clean Air Act Violations: The Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality announced that Shell Chemical would pay penalties of $350,000 and spend $10 million to install pollution control equipment to reduce harmful emissions at its plant in Norco, Louisiana.

False Claims Act Violations: Toyobo Co. of Japan and its American subsidiary agreed to pay $66 million to resolve claims under the False Claims Act that they sold defective Zylon fiber used in bulletproof vests that the United States purchased for federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.

Bid-Rigging: South Korea-based companies SK Energy, GS Caltex, and Hanjin Transportation agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay a total of approximately $82 million in criminal fines for their involvement in a decade-long bid-rigging conspiracy that targeted contracts to supply fuel to United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force bases in South Korea

Investor Protection Violations: AEGON USA Investment Management and three other Transamerica affiliates agreed to pay $97 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve allegations that they misled investors through the use of faulty financial models.

Hiring of Undocumented Workers: Waste Management Texas agreed to forfeit $5.5 million and entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas to resolve allegations that it hired numerous undocumented workers at its Houston operation.

Tax Evasion: The Swiss bank Zurcher Kantonalbank agreed to pay $98.5 million and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement to resolve charges that it conspired to help U.S. taxpayer-clients file false federal tax returns and hide hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore bank accounts.

Data Breach: Uber agreed to pay $148 million to settle allegations that emerged from a nationwide investigation of a 2016 incident in which a hacker gained access to personal information on 57 million riders and drivers.

Note: Additional details on most of these cases can be found in Violation Tracker, which now contains 327,000 entries with total penalties of $440 billion, or in the next update of the database, scheduled to appear in mid-January.

Is There Still A Corporate Ulterior Motive Behind Criminal Justice Reform?

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Is it just a coincidence that Donald Trump has decided to embrace criminal justice reform just at the time he is more likely to become a defendant himself? He’s not the only party that may have mixed motives in supporting the legislation that is being hyped as an outstanding expression of bipartisanship.

One of the prime movers behind the initiative has been Koch Industries, whose owners Charles and David Koch are the epitome of partisanship. Their role on this issue was initially puzzling, given that the Kochs were not known for supporting anything that was remotely progressive.

Three years ago, the full story began to emerge.  The New York Times reported that one part of the reform being pushed by the Kochs and other business interests would require prosecutors to meet a more stringent standard in proving illicit intent, or “mens rea.” The Times stated that the Obama Justice Department was concerned that the change “would make it significantly harder to prosecute corporate polluters, producers of tainted food and other white-collar criminals.” PR Watch provided more detail on what the Kochs were up to.

In other words, what was made to look like a high-minded civic effort was also, at least in part, a move by corporations to shield themselves from prosecution. In the case of Koch Industries, the issue is far from a theoretical one. In Violation Tracker we document 275 cases in which the company has paid a total of $736 million for environmental, safety, employment and other offenses. One of these was a criminal case: In 2001 one of its subsidiaries pled guilty and paid $20 million to resolve allegations that it covered up Clean Air Act violations at an oil refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Mens rea “reform” is not part of the current criminal justice package, but the issue is far from dead. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton just published an op-ed in USA Today calling for it to be added to the bill. Since Cotton’s support may be essential to passage, he may get his wish – and presumably the Kochs would be happy with that outcome.

Cotton is not the only one who has been beating this drum. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley have introduced mens rea legislation that would apply not only to criminal actions but also to “regulatory offenses.”

During the confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh, Sen. Hatch brought up the issue of mens rea. He and the nominee both spoke enthusiastically on the need for “reform.” Here, as in much of the conservative discussion of the matter, proponents like to give the impression their concern is primarily with the rights of bank robbers and the like.

Yet it seems clear that the real intended beneficiaries are corporations and their executives supposedly being victimized by unjust regulations.

The issues surrounding criminal justice reform are complicated, but one thing is clear: it should not be used as a means of undermining the prosecution of corporate crime and misconduct.

DOJ is also Defying Trump on Foreign Bribery

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Millions of words have been published about Donald Trump’s feud with the Justice Department over the Mueller investigation. Little is being written about another way in which DOJ is thwarting the president’s will: the ongoing prosecution of foreign bribery.

Starting before he became a candidate for the White House, Trump has railed against the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the 1977 law that allows for both civil and criminal cases to be brought against officials that engage in bribery and related practices committed anywhere in the world as long as their company does business in or has securities trading in the United States. He continued to complain about FCPA’s supposed unfairness after taking office.

These complaints seem to have had little effect on DOJ or on the Securities and Exchange Commission, which enforces the civil side of the law. Data collected for Violation Tracker, including a forthcoming update, show that since Trump took office DOJ and SEC have announced more than a dozen case resolutions with total penalties of more than $1.5 billion.

Several of those resolutions have been announced during the past two months. In early July DOJ and SEC each announced cases with combined penalties of $76 million against Credit Suisse and one of its subsidiaries for improperly winning banking business by giving jobs to family members and friends of Chinese government officials. Just the other day, the SEC announced that the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi would pay $25 million to resolve allegations that its subsidiaries in Kazakhstan and the Middle East made corrupt payments to win business.

It is true that many of the cases announced under Trump have involved foreign companies. Others include Japan’s Panasonic, Sweden’s Telia, and Canada’s Kinross Gold. Yet the culprits have also included some U.S.-based companies. Last year, for example, Halliburton had to pay $29 million to resolve allegations relating to its actions in Angola. Earlier this year, Dun & Bradstreet paid $9 million in connection with two of its subsidiaries in China. Most recently, investment manager Legg Mason agreed to pay more than $34 million to settle allegations that one of its subsidiaries was involved in a scheme to bribe officials in Libya.

While DOJ and SEC seem to be carrying out their mission of investigating FCPA violations by a wide range of companies, it remains to be seen whether that includes the Trump Organization, which according to various media reports may have corrupt practices act liability in a variety of countries (see, for example, The New Yorker piece on Azerbaijan).

This may be another test of whether Trump – and his business interests – are exempt from the law, but for now it is good to see that Trump has not succeeded in undermining an important tool in prosecuting other corporate bad actors.

A Brazen Corporate Miscreant

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

The Justice Department and the federal regulatory agencies have been less than energetic in prosecuting corporate crime and misconduct lately, so it was interesting to see the DOJ announcement that it had gotten Wells Fargo to fork over $2 billion to resolve a case involving mortgage-backed securities.

Before thinking that the Trump Justice Department is getting tougher on business offenders, it is important to keep in mind that this is a holdover matter from the prosecution of the big banks by the Obama DOJ in the wake of the financial meltdown. Most of the other banks settled their toxic securities cases long ago.

Wells held out and has now been rewarded by the Trump DOJ with a settlement that is substantially smaller than the ones that preceded it. JPMorgan Chase settled for $13 billion in 2013 and Bank of America for $16 billion the following year.

If anything, Wells should have been forced to pay out more to penalize it for its resistance. Moreover, during the years since its competitors resolved their cases, a tsunami of negative revelations have occurred regarding the other misconduct of Wells.

In fact, it has almost seemed that Wells was in a contest with Volkswagen to be crowned the most brazen corporate miscreant. Nearly two years ago, the scandal erupted regarding the bank’s widespread practice of secretly opening vast numbers of unauthorized customer accounts in order to generate illicit fees (the number of bogus accounts would turn out to be several million). This was followed by a series of other allegations such as charging 800,000 car loan customers for insurance they did not need.

Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve took the unprecedented step of barring Wells Fargo from growing any larger until it cleaned up its business practices. The agency also announced that the bank had been pressured to replace four members of its board of directors.

The actions of Wells were so egregious that even Mick Mulvaney, who took over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with the aim of defanging it, agreed in April to have the agency join with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to fine the bank a total of $1 billion for selling unnecessary products to customers and other improper practices.

The recent misdeeds of Wells share characteristics with the behavior outlined in the DOJ’s case. The bank appears to have been just as systematic and shameless in its deceptive mortgage practices as it was in generating bogus accounts. It seems that Wells managed to incorporate fraud into its business model in a seamless manner.

If any defendant was undeserving of preferential treatment, Wells Fargo is it.

Corporate Impunity

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

In the early days of the Trump era, there was speculation that the new administration would be tough on corporate crime. Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech in April 2017 in which he vowed that his Justice Department “will continue to investigate and prosecute corporate fraud and misconduct; bribery; public corruption; organized crime; trade-secret theft; money laundering; securities fraud; government fraud; health care fraud; and Internet fraud, among others.’ He added that DOJ has “a responsibility to protect American consumers.”

A new report from Public Citizen and the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First called Corporate Impunity shows just how hollow that promise was. Based on data from Violation Tracker, it shows that during the first year of the Trump Administration there was a substantial drop in regulatory enforcement and prosecution of corporate criminal offenses. In contrast to the zero-tolerance attitude toward migrants and refugees, the administration is showing considerable indulgence when it comes to corporate offenders.

In making a comparison to the previous administration, it is worth recalling the mixed record of the Obama years. That administration had a poor record with regard to holding top corporate executives personally responsible for serious offenses such as the abuses leading to the financial meltdown and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It continued the misguided policy of offering corporate miscreants deferred-prosecution and non-prosecution agreements.

Yet at least the Obama Administration took steps to increase the financial penalties levied on corporations for their misdeeds. For the first time, billion-dollar fines and settlements became a common occurrence.

Corporate Impunity judges the Trump Administration by that same measure—the level of monetary penalties imposed on companies. It finds, for example, that such penalties imposed by the Trump DOJ in its first year were less than one-tenth the level in each of the last two years of Obama.

The report limits its analysis of regulatory agencies to those which were headed by a Trump appointee for most of 2017. Of the 12 agencies examined, ten showed a decline in the number of enforcement actions. In some cases, those drops were steep. The Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission had decreases of more than 40 percent, and five others dropped more than 25 percent.

For some agencies, the decline in the number of cases was much less severe than the drop in penalty amounts. At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, the caseload in Trump’s first year was down 12 percent while the penalty total plunged more than 90 percent.

The results for Trump’s second year are likely to be even more dismal once results are tabulated for agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which racked up an impressive record during the Obama years and attempted to do the same under Trump until the agency was captured in late 2017 by the White House and subsequently neutered.

Trump’s enforcement record shows that he really is a populist—a corporate populist creating a society in which large companies reign supreme and in many ways are above the law.

Getting the Feds to Pay Statistical Attention to Corporate Crime

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

For more than 80 years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has collected and published wide-ranging data on criminal activity in the United States. The bureau’s annual compilations provide exhaustive statistics on murder, rape, robbery, arson, motor vehicle theft and other forms of violent and property crimes reported by state and local law enforcement agencies across the country.

Implicit in the FBI’s methodology is the idea that crimes are only committed by individuals, whether alone or in gangs or Mafia families. The compilations give no indication that there is such a thing as corporate crime.

Ralph Nader has long been on a mission to get the federal government to pay statistical attention to crime in the suites. In a recent open letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he renewed his call for an official database “including but not limited to antitrust and price-fixing, environmental crimes, financial crimes, overseas bribery, health care fraud, trade violations, labor and employment-related violations (discrimination and occupational injuries and deaths), consumer fraud and damage to consumer health and safety, and corporate tax fraud onshore and offshore.”

The letter argues that such a database would help deter corporate crime by giving prosecutors, regulators and judges information to assess appropriate sanctions, especially for recidivist companies. It also notes that the data would help federal procurement officials identify companies that fail to meet the “responsible contractor” standard in the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

I’m proud to say that I am not only one of the co-signers of the letter but that the document cites Violation Tracker as an example, along with the University of Virginia Law School’s Corporate Prosecution Registry, of non-governmental efforts to fill the federal void.

Violation Tracker attempts to meet a number of the criteria set forth in the open letter, including the collection of data on a wide range of corporate misconduct categories, the ability to search by company name, links to ultimate parents, and compilations of the cases associated with each parent and each agency.

We also include links to the official source documents from which we derive the data. This is worth noting: federal agencies and the Justice Department already publish information on individual cases, whether in the form of press releases or periodic reports. The PACER database provides online access to dockets and documents in federal lawsuits of all kinds.

What Violation Tracker does – and what the open letter says the federal government should do – is to compile that disparate information and make it easy to learn the track record of individual corporations. The open letter also calls for an official database that also does something that Violation Tracker currently provides in a limited way: “analysis of trends in corporate crime and an explanation of the relative effectiveness of various conventional sanctions, and the potential of new sanctions.”

Although a DOJ spokesperson told Corporate Crime Reporter that it is reviewing the open letter, it is unlikely that the federal database will appear anytime soon. But it is worth remembering that there is a precedent for turning a non-profit database into a federal resource. The FedSpending database of federal contracts and grants created by OMB Watch served as the basis for the official USAspending resource.

I would be happy to see Violation Tracker used in the same way, but for now I will go on collecting data so there is at least an unofficial way to research corporate crime and misconduct.

The Real Law and Order Solution

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

Large banks have paid out more than $87 billion in fines and settlements to resolve allegations about the sale of toxic securities in the period leading up to the financial meltdown a decade ago. Another $43 billion was paid out in connection with mortgage abuses.

It’s unclear whether these unprecedented penalties had any lasting deterrent effect. As has been made clear in the Wells Fargo scandal, bad bank behavior has hardly disappeared. And now the financial services industry is pushing to weaken the modest restrictions implemented under the Dodd-Frank Act.

Imagine how different things might be if the federal government had the tools and the inclination to hold top bank executives personally responsible for the reckless and fraudulent behavior of their institutions. What if, instead of making payouts that they regarded as a tolerable cost of doing business, financial CEOs found themselves behind bars?

This tantalizing prospect is made a bit more real in legislation recently introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren: The Ending Too Big to Jail Act.

One component of the bill would require top executives of banks with more than $10 billion in assets to certify annually that they have conducted due diligence and found no criminal conduct or civil fraud within their institution. This would make it easier to bring individual prosecutions when it turns out that such certifications were false.

Another portion of the bill would create a permanent investigative unit for financial crimes. Designed along the lines of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which brought successful cases against executives at smaller banks, it would be known as the Special Inspector General for Financial Institution Crime. Properly funded, this unit could take on expensive and complicated cases.

Finally, the bill would mandate judicial oversight of deferred prosecution agreements, or DPAs. Along with the failure to prosecute top executives, the Obama Justice Department also continued the dubious practice that started under Bush of making numerous deals with large corporations by which they escaped prosecution for their transgressions, on the condition that they paid a financial penalty and promised to end the offending behavior. Since 2003 about 140 DPAs have been created, along with a larger number of cases involving a variant, the non-prosecution agreement.

It is unclear how much effort the Justice Department put into enforcing the DPAs. Warren’s bill would give the courts the power to oversee compliance with these agreements. In fact, it would require courts to determine whether a proposed DPA is in the public interest.

Finally, the legislation would require the Justice Department to establish a searchable database of DPAs. Until that comes into existence, you can use Violation Tracker to find information on more than 300 DPAs and NPAs.

Warren’s bill would greatly advance the kind of law and order the country truly needs.

Trump Goes Easy on Major Corporate Offenders

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

It’s unclear to what extent the Obama Administration’s practice of extracting unprecedented monetary penalties on miscreant companies proved to be an effective deterrent, but at least the billion-dollar fines and settlements served to highlight the ongoing problem of corporate crime.

The Trump Administration seems to be a lot less interested in cracking down on the most egregious corporate offenders. Although the enforcement arms of agencies such as OSHA and EPA are still operating along normal lines, there has been a sharp decline in the number of mega-penalty cases announced by the Justice Department.

This conclusion emerges from an analysis of the data recently added to the Violation Tracker database covering cases through the end of the Trump Administration’s first year in office on January 19.

Since the largest penalties are normally imposed on the largest corporations, I did an analysis focusing on the Fortune 100 list of the very largest U.S. publicly traded companies. I found that overall federal penalties imposed on these firms during Trump’s first 12 months totaled $1.1 billion, compared to an annual average of more than $17 billion during the Obama years.

The Obama totals, of course, reflected extraordinary settlements with the largest banks to resolve allegations relating to their role in bringing about the financial meltdown of a decade ago. These included, for example, the $16 billion settlement with Bank of America in 2014 and the $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase the year before.

Those financial services sector settlements peaked during the middle years of the Obama era. Yet Trump’s $1.1 billion first-year total is still far below the annual average of more than $9 billion for the Fortune 100 during Obama’s final two years in office. It also trails behind the $3 billion total during Obama’s first year.

Looking at all corporate offenders, there were 44 cases with penalties of $1 billion or more during the Obama era yet only two during Trump’s first year, and he doesn’t really deserve credit for those. One is the $5.5 billion settlement reached by the Federal Housing Finance Agency with the Royal Bank of Scotland relating to the sale of toxic securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That case had been filed in 2008, and the settlement had been negotiated under Obama. The other is the a $1.4 billion penalty against Volkswagen for its emissions cheating that appears in EPA records with a date of May 17, 2017 but was actually part of a larger $4.3 billion settlement announced by the Justice Department during the last days of the Obama Administration.

There is also an interesting pattern among Trump Administration penalties in the next tier down—those of $100 million or more. The parent companies involved in about two-thirds of these cases are foreign, especially those with the largest penalty totals. They include the Chinese telecom company ZTE, which was penalized for export control violations, and the Swedish telecom Telia, which was punished under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

It appears that the Trump Administration is more likely to get tough with a corporate violator if the company is not based in the United States, while domestic companies get treated more leniently. I guess the slogan is: Make Domestic Corporate Criminals Great Again.

Note: you can do analyses of your own on Violation Tracker using our new feature allowing search results to be filtered by presidential administration.

Stopping the Growth of Rogue Corporations

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

The federal response to corporate misconduct over the past two decades has alternated between tougher monetary penalties and the promotion of voluntary measures to lure companies into behaving better. Neither has worked very well.

Companies came to saw the increased fines as a tolerable cost of doing business (especially when they were tax deductible), while voluntarism was never a match for corporate greed.

It was thus intriguing when the Federal Reserve recently adopted a new approach in dealing with Wells Fargo. That bank, of course, has become notorious for its brazen scheme of creating millions of accounts not requested by customers, in order to generate illicit fees. It paid a fine of $100 million, with a lot more expected to follow. This came after a series of other scandals, including mortgage abuses that resulted in a $5.3 billion settlement in 2012.

The Fed, on Chair Janet Yellen’s final working day in office, issued an unusually blunt press release saying that the board was taking steps in response to “widespread consumer abuses and other compliance breakdowns” at Wells.

In an unprecedented step, the Fed imposed a restriction on the bank’s ability to grow “until it sufficiently improves its governance and controls.” In an industry for which getting larger is the guiding principle, Wells will feel intense pressure to satisfy the Fed’s demands. In fact, concurrently with the Fed’s action Wells announced that it would replace one-quarter of its 16-person board of directors by the end of the year.

Bank-friendly politicians have not had much to say about the Fed’s action, but it is clear that the restriction placed on Wells represents a forceful rebuttal to those pressing for a weakening of financial industry regulation. The ouster of Yellen by President Trump was a coup for the deregulation crowd, but we can take some solace in reports that her successor Jerome Powell oversaw the Fed’s negotiations with Wells.

The Fed’s action should be promoted as an example of how regulatory agencies and the Justice Department need to get more creative in dealing with egregious and repeat violators. Rogue corporations will only change their behavior if the penalties really sting.

The restriction on growth begins to meet this requirement because it makes Wells more vulnerable. An inability to become larger through acquisitions means that the bank will lose ground to its big competitors. Wells is probably too big to be a potential takeover target itself, but it could come under pressure from activist investors to restructure or even sell off portions of itself.

Moreover, the restrictions will probably depress the bank’s stock price, and that will be felt personally by the executives who encouraged or overlooked the misconduct.

At the same time, the house-cleaning among directors is an important message to send to board members at other misbehaving companies. That message would be even more effective if directors are not just removed but held personally liable for allowing the corrupt practices to happen.

The Fed has not always been the most aggressive of regulators. Let’s hope its action on Wells inspires other agencies to get tougher with corporate miscreants.