The Biden Administration’s First Corporate Crime Mega-Case

Observers of the corporate crime scene have been waiting to see when the regulators and prosecutors of the Biden Administration would announce a mega-case of the sort that had largely disappeared during the lackluster enforcement period of the Trump years. That case has arrived, and the target is not exactly a household name in the United States: the German financial services corporation Allianz.

The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have announced that Allianz and its investment management arm, Allianz Global Investors (AGI), will pay more than $6 billion to resolve criminal and civil allegations relating to what the SEC called a “massive fraudulent scheme.” The victims of that scheme included public employees participating in pension funds that were misled about the riskiness of complex financial products marketed by AGI. The true extent of the risk became evident during the COVID-related market volatility of 2020, when the pension funds and other investors suffered catastrophic losses.

The $6 billion settlement ranks among the 20 largest penalties recorded in Violation Tracker for the period since January 2000. More than half of those cases involve financial services corporations.

Allianz, whose Violation Tracker penalty total until now was $182 million, joins the 30 banks and other financial services companies that have each paid more than $1 billion in aggregate penalties. These include 13 European banks, among which are two from Germany: Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank.

There are a couple of encouraging aspects of the AGI case that go beyond the substantial monetary penalty. First, the SEC announced that AGI, because of its guilty plea in the DOJ case, will be disqualified from providing advisory services to US-registered investment funds for the next ten years, and will exit the business of conducting these fund services.  This contrasts with other cases in which financial services companies have avoided these sorts of consequences in criminal cases by arranging for the guilty plea to be submitted by a minor subsidiary—or by getting a waiver.

In addition, criminal charges were brought not only against the company but also against several individuals, including Gregoire Tournant, the chief investment officer of AGI. Tournant was charged with securities fraud and investment fraud as well as obstruction of justice. The latter related to allegations that Tournant and the other defendants made multiple, ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to conceal their misconduct from the SEC, including, the agency stated, “false testimony and meetings in vacant construction sites to discuss sending their assets overseas.”

The charges against Allianz were all the more appropriate in that the company’s U.S. operations have been involved in several other investor deception cases. For example, in 2004, three of its subsidiaries were fined $50 million by the SEC. Another subsidiary paid $18 million to settle a case with the New Jersey Attorney General. Yet another unit was fined $5 million by the industry regulator FINRA. Allianz’s U.S. insurance subsidiaries have also been fined numerous times by state regulators.

Let’s hope that the Allianz matter is a sign that the Biden Administration is serious about cracking down on corporate crime and that recidivists will be made to pay a significant price for their ongoing transgressions.

Reviving the Ultimate Corporate Punishment

Big business has despised the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since its creation, and now the director of the agency has provided additional basis for that enmity. Rohit Chopra recently delivered a speech to the University of Pennsylvania Law School that amounted to one of the most aggressive statements on corporate misconduct ever made by a federal regulatory official. And he put forth some bold ideas for dealing with the problem.

Chopra began with the observation that the CFPB, which has been in operation for only about a decade, has had to take action against some major financial institutions on multiple occasions—five times in the case of Citigroup and four times against JPMorgan Chase, for example. These cases have resulted in billions of dollars in penalties and consumer redress.

The CFPB’s experience is not unique. “Repeat offenses – whether it’s for the exact same offense or more malfeasance in different business lines,” are, Chopra stated, “par for the course for many dominant firms.”

This conclusion is reinforced by the data collected in Violation Tracker. Over the past two decades, the commercial banks in the Fortune 100 have paid over $190 billion in fines and settlements. More than 100 corporations across all sectors have each paid over $1 billion in penalties.

The central question, as Chopra put it, is: “How do we stop large dominant firms from violating the law over and over again with seeming impunity? Corporate recidivism has become normalized and calculated as the cost of doing business; the result is a rinse-repeat cycle that dilutes legal standards and undermines the promise of the financial sector and the entire market system.”

Chopra’s address was remarkable in that it also put forth a vision for solving the problem. In addition to more prosecutions of individual executives, he calls for a focus on structural remedies, including putting restrictions on the ability of rogue corporations to grow.

This idea is not unprecedented; in fact, as Chopra notes, it was implemented by regulators in the case of Wells Fargo. In 2018, following revelations that the bank had created two million bogus customer accounts to generate illicit fees, the Federal Reserve took the unusual step of barring it from growing any larger until it cleaned up its business practices.

Chopra proposes to take even more aggressive measures. He wants to see misbehaving corporations forced to close or divest portions of their operations. He would deny such companies access to government-granted privileges. For example, pharmaceutical violators could lose their patents; lawless banks could lose access to FDIC deposit insurance.

Chopra indicated he is also exploring the most remedy of all: putting corrupt corporations out of business entirely. He warned that the CFPB will be deepening its collaboration with officials at the state level, where corporations are chartered, “to ascertain whether licenses should be suspended or whether corporate assets should be liquidated.”

In other words, Chopra is proposing greater use of what is often called the corporate death penalty (he doesn’t used that phrase). Such punishment is applied by some states in dealing with bad actors, but they are usually small, fly-by-night operations.

Talk of putting a large company out of business has been largely taboo since the case of accounting firm Arthur Andersen, which shut down in 2002 after being prosecuted for offenses relating to its role as the auditor of the fraudulent energy company Enron. There was a strong backlash in the business world against the prosecution, especially after the conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chopra is no longer daunted by that episode. He argues that terminating corporate charters and licenses “should be considered for institutions of all sizes when the facts and circumstances warrant it.”

His speech may be a turning point in the prosecution of corporate crime. The two decades since the Enron/Arthur Andersen case have seen a tsunami of misconduct. Violation Tracker, whose mission is to document the phenomenon, is now up to more than 500,000 cases with fines and settlements of $786 billion.

While the penalties continue to accumulate, there is no evidence that corporate behavior is improving.  Another approach is needed. Chopra’s roadmap is a good place to start.

PG&E’s Ongoing Crime Spree

For all the talk about corporate crime, very few corporations are actually charged with criminal offenses. Of the more than half a million cases in Violation Tracker, all but a couple of thousand involve civil matters, and many of those categorized as criminal are misdemeanor environmental cases. A much smaller set of companies have faced felony charges, and an even smaller group have pled guilty to such offenses more than once.

And then there is PG&E. The giant California utility has faced scores of felony charges and has pled guilty or been convicted in several cases involving accusations of criminal negligence and involuntary manslaughter–the corporate equivalent of murder. All these cases have involved allegations that the company’s widespread failure to properly maintain its equipment played a major role in causing a series of deadly wildfires.

Recently, PG&E completed a five-year period of felony probation, with the presiding judge issuing a scathing report on the company’s failure to change its ways. “Rehabilitation of a criminal offender remains the paramount goal of probation,” wrote U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California. “During these five years of criminal probation, we have tried hard to rehabilitate PG&E. As the supervising district judge, however, I must acknowledge failure.”

That’s Judge Alsup’s way of softening the impact of the following passage, which makes it clear the failure was most definitely that of the company:

While on probation, PG&E has set at least 31 wildfires, burned nearly one and one-half million acres, burned 23,956 structures, and killed 113 Californians. PG&E has pled guilty to 84 manslaughter charges for its ignition of the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, is facing five felony and 28 misdemeanor counts arising out of the 2019 Kincade Fire in Sonoma Case County (that county’s largest wildfire ever), is facing pending involuntary manslaughter charges arising out of the 2020 Zogg Fire in Shasta County, and is facing a civil suit by five counties arising out of the 2021 Dixie Fire (and may face criminal charges as well). The Dixie Fire, the second largest in California history, alone required 1,973 personnel to extinguish. So, in these five years, PG&E has gone on a crime spree and will emerge from probation as a continuing menace to California.

This amounts to one of the strongest condemnations of corporate behavior ever to come from a judge in a U.S. court. Judge Alsup puts much of the specific blame on PG&E’s insistence on using independent contractors, many of whom turned out to be unreliable, to carry out its obligation to clear vegetation near power lines—rather than incurring the expense of hiring and properly training employees to do the job. He also cited the company’s “obsession” with keeping power lines operating (and customer meters turning) rather than temporarily de-energizing lines known to be a serious fire hazard because of downed trees and limbs.

Judge Alsup notes that various parties have urged him to extend the company’s probation, but he states that he does not have clear authority to do so. It’s also unclear what would be the point. As the judge wrote, probation is supposed to bring about rehabilitation. Probation violators are sent back to prison.

PG&E clearly has not been rehabilitated, and the prison option is not applicable to a corporation. What would make more sense is a radical restructuring of the company, turning it into something other than a profit-maximizing machine that shows little regard for human life. There has been talk of a state takeover or a conversion into a cooperative, but these proposals appear not to have gone very far.

Our legal system has a hard time dealing with brazen miscreants such as PG&E. It would help if corporate executives could be held more personally accountable for such behavior. Enacting these changes would be easier if the politicians now screaming about the uptick in street crime showed a similar concern about crime in the suites.

The Corporate Crime Lobby

One big difference between street crime and corporate crime is that drug dealers, burglars and arsonists generally are not able to influence the way their misdeeds are investigated and prosecuted.

Corporate violators, on the other hand, can use lobbying and campaign spending to push for policies that may make it less likely their wrongdoing will be detected or will be treated more leniently if it is discovered.

Much of this business effort is exercised through trade associations, and probably the biggest influencer of them all is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As is highlighted in a new report from Public Citizen, the Chamber has been an outspoken opponent of the Biden Administration’s plan to adopt a more aggressive posture toward corporate misconduct.

It has been especially critical of a new approach being taken by the Federal Trade Commission, which voted in November to expand its criminal referral program. While the FTC itself can bring only civil actions, the agency can pass on evidence of corporate criminality to the Justice Department—and now it will be doing more of that. The Chamber accused the FTC of “waging a war against American businesses” and vowed to “use every tool at our disposal, including litigation, to stop its abuse of power.”

The Public Citizen report demonstrates why the Chamber is so agitated: many of its leading members have been involved in significant cases of malfeasance in the past and are likely to be similarly embroiled in the future.

Using extensive data from Violation Tracker, the report shows that the known members of the Chamber have been involved in thousands of civil and criminal matters and have paid more than $150 billion in fines and settlements.

Three major banks—JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo—alone account for $81 billion in penalties, and the pharmaceutical industry another $26 billion.

While these numbers represent all forms of misconduct, Public Citizen gives special attention to the 19 Chamber members that have been involved in criminal cases. Among them are Amgen (illegal drug promotion), Bayer (price-fixing) and Zimmer Biomet (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act).

The report notes that at several other Chamber members such as American Express are reported to be targets of current criminal investigations.

Public Citizen looks at overall corporate rap sheets, but given the Chamber’s hyperbolic statements about the FTC, it is worth zeroing in on cases brought by that agency.

As Violation Tracker shows, the FTC has fined companies over $14 billion since 2000. More than one-third of that total comes from a single case brought against a Chamber member. Facebook, whose parent company is now called Meta Platforms, was penalized $5 billion in 2019 for deceiving users about their ability to control the privacy of their personal information.

Other Chamber members involved in significant FTC cases include: Citigroup, which paid $215 million to resolve allegations that two of its subsidiaries engaged in deceptive subprime lending practices; Alphabet, whose Google subsidiary paid $136 million for violating rules regarding the online collection of personal data on children; and AT&T, whose AT&T Mobility subsidiary paid $80 million to the FTC to provide refunds to consumers the company unlawfully billed for unauthorized third-party charges.

These were all civil matters. The Chamber is apparently worried that such cases could now result in referrals to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, especially since the DOJ is vowing to bring more such actions.

The next few years will be a test of whether more aggressive regulators and prosecutors can overcome the power of the corporate crime lobby.

The 2021 Corporate Rap Sheet

After four years of Trump’s regulation bashing, the expectation was that the Biden Administration would adopt a much more aggressive posture toward corporate misconduct.

There have been some encouraging signals, such as those given by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco in an October speech, but few blockbuster federal case resolutions have been announced during the past eleven months.

According to data my colleagues and I have collected for Violation Tracker, no individual company has paid a settlement or fine of $250 million or more to the Biden DOJ. In fact, there have been only two case resolutions of that size announced by any federal agency during this period.

In September, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced a $539 million settlement with entities linked to Chinese businessman Guo Wengui relating to illegal sale of stock and digital assets. That same month, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency fined Wells Fargo $250 million for ongoing risk management deficiencies.

By contrast, numerous mega-cases have been resolved by state attorneys general. Since last January, they have announced nine settlements of more than $250 million, including five worth $1 billion or more. Those are the giant cases against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors for their role in the opioid crisis.

The largest case was the settlement worth an estimated $10 billion with the biggest opiate villain of all, Purdue Pharma, which is now in bankruptcy and will effectively go out of business. Many argue that the Sackler family got off too easy in the case, but the company is paying a substantial price for its misdeeds. The other ten-figure settlements of the year involved McKesson ($8 billion), AmeriSourceBergen ($6.5 billion), Cardinal Health (also $6.5 billion) and Johnson & Johnson ($5 billion). Also substantial was the $573 million settlement McKinsey reached with states over its role in advising opioid producers in improper marketing practices.

There were also significant state settlements on issues other than opioids. Duke Energy signed an $855 settlement with the North Carolina AG relating to coal ash pollution. Boston Scientific Corporation reached a $188 million settlement with a group of states to resolve allegations it engaged in deceptive marketing of a transvaginal surgical mesh device.

While the Biden DOJ has yet to roll out blockbuster cases, it did announce some substanial resolutions during the year. For example, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cincinnati announced a $230 million settlement of criminal charges against utility company FirstEnergy for making improper payments to public officials to get them to pursue nuclear power legislation benefiting the company. Taro Pharmaceuticals agreed to pay $213 million to settle price-fixing charges. In a case that also involved UK and Swiss regulators, Credit Suisse paid $175 million to the DOJ to resolve criminal charges relating to a fraudulent project in Mozambique.

The year also saw the resolution of some major class action and multi-district lawsuits against large corporations. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its appeal of a court verdict, Johnson & Johnson paid more than $2 billion in damages to a group of women who claimed they developed ovarian cancer from using the company’s talcum powder.

Hyundai Motor agreed to pay up to $1.3 billion to settle a consolidated class of claims that it and its subsidiary Kia sold vehicles with defective engines that could catch fire. Facebook paid $650 million to settle a class action over its harvesting of facial data.

Facebook was also at the center of a controversy that not yet been fully resolved by regulatory or court action. A former manager leaked a large collection of internal documents indicating that the company, which now calls itself Meta Platforms, was aware of the harmful effect its services were having on some users, especially younger ones, but did little about it. The revelations prompted widespread criticism among members of Congress but no significant legislation or litigation so far.

Another widely criticized corporation that has yet to face full consequences for its conduct is Amazon.com. The e-commerce behemoth has been reproached for the way it treats employees, the small merchants who make use of its platform, and the communities in which it operates. Yet it continues to expand at a rapid pace and has seen an enormous growth of profits during the pandemic.  

During the Facebook disclosures, there was growing speculation as to whether the big tech firms were now facing a situation similar to that of the tobacco companies, which were the subject of their own scandalous revelations and eventually had to pay out many billions of dollars in settlements and sharply curtail their marketing activities.

The key word there is “eventually.” The dangers of smoking were known for decades, yet the big cigarette companies adamantly denied the reality—the same way the fossil fuel companies have denied their role in climate change. We should not expect Meta, Amazon and the other tech giants to give in without a long and bitter fight.

Biden’s DOJ Announces Crackdown on Corporate Recidivists

For years, rogue corporations have in effect gotten away with murder through a system that allows them to avoid prosecution for serious offenses by promising to change their ways and paying affordable financial penalties.

These arrangements, widely used by the Justice Department, are known as deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements but they are really nothing more than leniency practices. Their supporters claim that the threat of actual prosecution in the future is sufficient to get companies to clean up their act. They also point out that the agreements have provisions requiring such changes.

Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of companies that have violated the terms of their deferred or non-prosecution agreements with apparent impunity. The Biden Justice Department is vowing to change that. Last month, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco gave a speech in which she said DOJ is tightening its procedures on leniency agreements, especially for companies with “a documented history of repeated corporate wrongdoing.” She indicated that DOJ will look not only at the offense related to the agreement but the full range of misconduct.

To assist DOJ in its efforts, Public Citizen has just published a report highlighting 20 large companies with deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements that have histories of wrongdoing documented in Violation Tracker.

Some of these rap sheets have continued after the company entered into its leniency agreement. For example, after signing an agreement in 2020, Wells Fargo was fined $250 million by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for unsound banking practices.  After signing an agreement in 2019, Merrill Lynch (owned by Bank of America) was fined several times by the Congressionally authorized industry regulator FINRA, including an $11.65 million penalty this year for overcharging customers.

After signing an agreement in 2019, Walmart has been involved in numerous violations, including a case in which it paid $20 million to the EEOC to resolve allegations of gender discrimination.

The list could go on. There are abundant examples proving that deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreement have done little to deter corporate misconduct and that recidivism has continued to run rampant.

It is encouraging to hear the Biden Justice Department talk tough about corporate crime after years in which large corporations have enjoyed exceedingly light-handed treatment from federal prosecutors. It is especially heartening to learn that DOJ will look at the entire track record of corporations in making prosecutorial decisions. I hope that Violation Tracker will help them in their deliberations.

The European Banking Blacklist

The European Union has shaken up the financial world by excluding a group of large banks from participating in the marketing of bonds being floated to help in the economic recovery of member states. According to reports in various business publications, the ten banks are being singled out because of their involvement in cases in which they were accused of manipulating bond and currency markets. In other words, they are being punished for misconduct.

While these moves may not have a major bottom-line impact on the banks—which include U.S. giants JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America—the EU is sending an important message about corporate wrongdoing.

Large companies have come to assume they can essentially buy their way out of legal jeopardy by paying fines and settlements that have grown larger but are still far from seriously punitive. As Violation Tracker documents, the big banks are Exhibit A for this phenomenon.

The database shows that the financial sector overall has paid more than $300 billion in U.S. penalties over the past two decades, far and away more than any other part of the economy. Bank of America is at the top of the list of penalty payers, with a total of $82 billion. JPMorgan is second with $35 billion, and Citigroup is fourth with $25 billion.

Non-U.S. banks being singled out by the EU have also accumulated substantial U.S. penalties, apart from what they have paid elsewhere. For example, Deutsche Bank has paid out $18 billion and NatWest (formerly the Royal Bank of Scotland) $13 billion.

The EU’s move is focused on a particular set of scandals in which these banks were alleged to have colluded to rig markets. Among these are cases involving the manipulation of currency markets. In 2015, Citigroup, JPMorgan, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland each paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to resolve criminal charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department.

Unlike many other situations in which large corporations are offered deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements, the banks in this case had to plead guilty to the felony charges. Yet there was little in the way of consequences beyond the penalty payments. The banks were put on probation, on the assumption this would cause them to cease their bad behavior. Yet all the banks continued to rack up regulatory violations in subsequent years.

Reuters estimates that the blacklisted banks will lose out on about 86 million euros in syndication fees. This is a lot less than what the banks have paid in penalties. Yet, if banks begin to see that misconduct will cause them to be excluded from business opportunities, that may be more of an inducement to avoid corrupt behavior.

The dilemma for policymakers is that misconduct is so widespread in the financial sector that it is difficult to find service providers with clean hands. While excluding the ten banks, the EU turned to a group of others to handle the debt issue. Those included the likes of HSBC and BNP Paribas, which have their own substantial corporate rap sheets. Perhaps a larger blacklist is needed.

The 200-Year-Old Corporate Criminal

Boston-based State Street Corporation traces its history back to 1792 and now manages more than $3 trillion in assets, yet it has always maintained a lower profile than the goliaths of Wall Street. Recently, the company was in the spotlight, though not in a good way.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Massachusetts announced that State Street would pay a $115 million criminal penalty to resolve charges that it engaged in a scheme to defraud a number of its clients by secretly overcharging for expenses related to the bank’s custody of client assets.

“State Street defrauded its own clients of hundreds of millions of dollars over decades in a most pedestrian way,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Mendell. “They tacked on hidden markups to routine charges for out-of-pocket expenses.”

What’s remarkable is this simple fraud went on, according to prosecutors, for 17 years. This suggests that a large number of company executives were in on the scheme. In effect, it became part of State Street’s standard operating procedure.

It is disappointing that, aside from the monetary penalty—which can be easily absorbed by a company of its size–State Street was let off with what amounted to a slap on the wrist. Like numerous large corporate violators before it, State Street was allowed to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement rather than being compelled to enter a guilty plea.

The DPA is all the more controversial because State Street did not have a pristine record prior to this case. As shown in Violation Tracker, it has paid more than $1 billion in penalties in previous cases dating over a decade. These included a 2010 case in which it had to pay $313 million to resolve allegations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Massachusetts Attorney General that it misled investors about their exposure to subprime investments while selectively disclosing more complete information to specific investors.

Later, in 2016, State Street paid $382 million to the resolve an SEC case alleging that it misled mutual funds and other custody clients by applying hidden markups to foreign currency exchange trades. Hidden markups seem to be a recurring theme for State Street.

Since 2010 the company has paid out another $400 million in cases brought by the SEC and state regulators as well as class action lawsuits involving its management of pensions and benefit plans.

Yet perhaps the most disturbing entry on the Violation Tracker list is a 2017 case in which State Street paid a $32 million penalty to the Justice Department to resolve charges that it engaged in a scheme to defraud a number of the bank’s clients by secretly applying commissions to billions of dollars of securities trades.

As in this year’s criminal case, State Street was allowed to wriggle out of those charges by signing a deferred prosecution agreement. That puts the company in the dubious group of corporations that, as a 2019 Public Citizen report showed, have been offered multiple DPAs or non-prosecution agreements.

The ability of a corporation to obtain multiple leniency agreements makes a mockery of DPAs and NPAs. These arrangements are justified as a way to encourage a wayward company to change it practices, yet the ability to obtain multiple get-out-of-jail-free agreements does nothing more than incentivize more misconduct.

Ending Corporate Impunity

Corporate America’s embrace of voting rights, racial justice and other social causes is laudable, but it is also designed to make us forget how much the private sector profited from the retrograde policies of the Trump Administration. This was not just a matter of the business tax cuts.

Thanks to deregulation and weakened enforcement, big business was able to operate with a much higher level of impunity. The latest evidence of this comes in a new report from Public Citizen documenting the declining volume of prosecutions of corporate crime during the Trump years.

Using data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Public Citizen finds that the number of federal prosecutions of corporate criminals fell to a new low of just 94 in fiscal year 2020. This was a drop of 20 percent from the year before, a plunge of two-thirds from the peak of 296 in 2000, and the lowest on record since the Commission started releasing corporate prosecution statistics in 1996.

While adopting a lackluster approach to prosecutions, the Justice Department was more inclined to offer rogue corporations leniency agreements. Employing data from the Corporate Prosecution Registry, Public Citizen points out that DOJ substantially increased its use of deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements in FY2020.

Connecting the two trends, Public Citizen finds that the leniency agreements amounted to 32 percent of the total of all cases against corporations, a record amount.

The report dispels any suggestion that declining prosecutions and increasing leniency agreements are signs that Corporate America has become better at obeying the law: “On the contrary, they are signs that, despite Trump’s ‘law and order’ rhetoric and his administration’s brutal crackdowns on immigrants, racial justice protestors and low-level offenders, the administration went out of its way to avoid prosecuting corporate criminals. The result is the creation of an environment of corporate impunity.”

The Public Citizen report focuses on criminal cases, but there were similar trends in civil enforcement. For example, the data in Violation Tracker shows that the DOJ’s civil division, which handles matters such as False Claims Act cases against rogue federal contractors, announced only 44 corporate pleas and settlements in 2019, down from 137 announced by the Obama DOJ in 2015.

Fortunately, these findings are now mainly a matter of historical interest. The current question is how things will change under the Biden Administration. Since Merrick Garland has been attorney general for a short time, it is too soon to reach any clear conclusions.

It is widely expected that DOJ will be taking a more aggressive stance. One major law firm advised its clients that white collar enforcement activity will “substantially increase,” adding: “Not only will the government take a more aggressive posture, but the proliferation of whistleblower programs and the creation of new enforcement tools means that prosecutors will be armed with more information and resources than ever. Companies should remain vigilant as risks shift and consider taking steps to ensure they adapt their compliance programs and controls accordingly.”

When corporations are made to feel they need to be more careful, we humans can breathe a bit easier.

The Violation Tracker Origin Story

The article and dazzling infographics on Violation Tracker just published by Fortune are not only great publicity for the database. They also provide an opportunity to recall how the idea for a resource on corporate misconduct came about in the first place.

As the Fortune piece mentions, the origin story dates back to 1980, when I was a young researcher on the staff of that same magazine. Yet there is more to be said about what occurred behind the scenes during that project and its aftermath.

Back then, Irwin Ross, a contributor to the magazine, had seen a news article about small-business corruption in Chicago and thought it would be interesting to explore similar behavior among large companies. His assumption—and that of Fortune’s editors—was that illegality was rare in big business.

After being assigned to the project, I set out to disprove that premise by gathering as many cases as I could involving our sample universe of just over 1,000 companies that had appeared on the Fortune 500 and related lists at any point during the previous ten years. The editors decided to limit the scope of the research to five categories: bribery, criminal fraud, illegal political contributions, tax evasion, and criminal antitrust violations.

To the dismay of the editors, I found that quite a few of the corporations – 117 to be precise – had been the subject of a successful federal prosecution during the specified time period. Among these was Fortune’s then-parent, Time Inc., whose subsidiary Eastex Packaging had pleaded no contest to a price-fixing charge.  

After much hand-wringing, Fortune’s editors decided to publish the list of the cases, along with an article by Ross, in the December 1, 1980 issue with the headline “How Lawless Are Big Companies?” and the subhead “A look at the record since 1970 shows that a surprising number of them have been involved in blatant illegalities.” The story was featured on the cover with a photograph depicting an executive being fingerprinted by a U.S. Marshal.

As one might expect, the companies included in the list were quite displeased. To their credit, Fortune’s editors did not retract or disown the article, but they did agree to give one of the corporations an opportunity to respond.

The December 29, 1980 issue contained a piece by William Lurie, general counsel of International Paper, headlined “How Justice Loads the Scales Against Big Corporations.” Calling my list “simplistic and misleading,” he tried to explain why IP had felt compelled to plead nolo contendere to price fixing charges. His argument was essentially that it was simply too risky for a company to fight such charges in court, given that a guilty verdict would open the door to crushing damages in a follow-on civil suit.

This was not exactly a profession of innocence. In fact, as the Fortune article noted and Lurie acknowledged, no contest is tantamount to a guilty plea. Lurie’s argument, like nolo itself, served as a way for corporations to save face after being labeled corporate criminals. His piece also took the pressure off Fortune editors for diverging from what was then their unvarying defense of corporate behavior.

For me, the experience created a life-long fascination with documenting corporate misconduct. I later learned that this kind of research had begun much earlier, especially through the work of the sociologist Edwin Sutherland. When his book White Collar Crime was published in 1949, the company names were removed. It was only in 1983 that an unexpurgated version was published by Yale University Press.

Following in the tradition of Sutherland’s book and other work such as the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, Violation Tracker is designed to show that lawlessness among large corporations is a problem that persists.

Note: drop me a line at pmattera@goodjobsfirst.org if you can’t get behind the Fortune paywall and want to see the whole story.