Archive for the ‘Violation Tracker’ Category

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.

Putting Strings on Bank Mergers

Thursday, December 5th, 2019

The U.S. financial system has survived a decade without another meltdown like that caused by the proliferation of toxic securities in the late 2000s. The credit belongs to tougher regulation, not to a moral conversion on the part of the large banks. Those institutions still exhibit significant ethical deficits even as they grow larger.

That’s why new legislation on bank mergers being introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Illinois Rep. Chuy Garcia makes sense. The Bank Merger Review Modernization Act would require regulatory agencies to apply more rigorous standards when deciding whether to approve proposed deals.

Those standards would include a quantitative risk metric, consideration of the impact on market concentration for specific banking products, Community Reinvestment Act ratings and approval by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Those measures are all fine, but I would also suggest that regulators be required to consider the full track record of each party when it comes to compliance with a broad range of laws regulations.

I say this having compiled a large quantity of documentation of bank misconduct in my work on Violation Tracker. I am continuously amazed at the number and variety of cases in which banks have been involved as well as the eye-popping penalties they have paid to buy their way out of legal jeopardy.

The Violation Tracker penalty total for the financial services industry now stands at $305 billion (since 2000), and that number will increase by about $8 billion next week when we post an update that for the first time will include cases brought by the New York State Department of Financial Services and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

Those agencies have brought several dozen major cases against large banks, especially foreign-based ones, for violations of international economic sanctions, money-laundering regulations and rules regarding the manipulation of foreign exchange markets.

Warren and Garcia express specific concern about the combination of SunTrust and BB&T, which are merging to form a new “Too Big to Fail” bank they are naming Truist.

There is good reason for the banks to shed their old identities. According to Violation Tracker, SunTrust has racked up more than $1.5 billion in penalties. These include a 2014 case in which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the attorneys general of 49 states and the District of Columbia required the company to address mortgage servicing misconduct by providing $500 million in loss-mitigation relief to underwater borrowers. It also required SunTrust to pay $40 million to approximately 48,000 consumers who lost their homes to foreclosure. At the same time, SunTrust had to pay $418 million to resolve a related case brought by the Justice Department for originating and underwriting loans that violated its obligations as a participant in the Federal Housing Administration insurance program.

As if that was not enough, SunTrust had to pay another $320 million as part of the resolution of a DOJ criminal case alleging that it misled numerous mortgage servicing customers who sought mortgage relief through the federal Home Affordable Modification Program.

BB&T has paid more than $130 million in penalties, most of which came from a 2016 case in which it agreed to pay $83 million to the Justice Department to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by knowingly originating and underwriting mortgage loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration that did not meet applicable requirements.

Why, one might ask, should corporations with such blemished records be allowed to merge and become the country’s sixth largest bank, whose combined resources will allow it to capture additional market share? It might be worth exploring whether, in addition to the kind of safeguards being proposed by Warren and Garcia, banks with a substantial record of misconduct could be barred from participating in mergers, or at least be required to take additional steps to make amends to the customers and communities they have harmed.

Another Type of Quid Pro Quo

Thursday, November 21st, 2019

As the political news is dominated by discussion of quid pro quo and bribery, there has been another ongoing series of allegations about improper payments for things of value. The other quid pro quo relates to the pharmaceutical industry, which has been the subject of a seemingly never-ending scandals about financial inducements given to healthcare professionals.

The most significant recent case involves a company called Avanir Pharmaceuticals, which had to pay more than $115 million to resolve allegations that it paid kickbacks to physicians to get them to prescribe its drug Nuedexta for uses not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Among those uses were the treatment of behaviors associated with dementia among residents of long-term care facilities. Nuedexta was tested and approved for patients exhibiting what is known as pseudobulbar affect (PBA) — involuntary, sudden, and frequent episodes of laughing or crying that occur secondary to a neurologic disease or brain injury.

The case against Avanir included allegations that physicians receiving its payments ended up putting large numbers of patients on Nuedexta who showed no symptoms of PBA, exposing them to unknown risks.

The Justice Department regarded Avanir’s behavior to be serious enough to warrant criminal charges, but like in so many other cases, the company was offered a deferred prosecution agreement that allowed it to buy its way out of full legal jeopardy by paying criminal penalties of nearly $13 million. The company agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of several individuals who received the kickbacks and whose liability may end up being more than financial in nature.

In addition to the criminal matter, Avanir agreed to pay $103 million to settle a related civil False Claims Act case based on the fact that federal and state healthcare programs ended up paying claims stemming from the improper prescribing of Nuedexta.

Avanir’s alleged behavior is especially troublesome because of the involvement of elderly dementia patients, but the use of kickbacks is far from unknown in the pharmaceutical industry. In Violation Tracker we document about 50 drug industry cases in which kickbacks were the primary or secondary offense.

These cases, which have resulted in more than $7 billion in fines and settlements, have implicated pretty much every large pharmaceutical producer and numerous smaller ones as well. Some companies show up on the list several times. These include Abbott Laboratories, which along with its subsidiaries has been involved in six cases between 2003 and 2017 that resulted in $630 million in penalties, and Pfizer, which together with its subsidiaries has paid $531 million in five cases between 2004 and 2018.

The extent of the recidivism in drug industry kickback cases suggests that the industry is not taking the problem very seriously and that the Justice Department’s approach has not had the necessary deterrent effect. Perhaps there is a lesson here for the political world as well.

Being Mindful of Paycheck Abuses

Thursday, November 14th, 2019

It turns out that yoga instructors are mindful about more than poses and breathing. They also make sure they are paid properly for their work. A group of instructors in Illinois who sued CorePower Yoga for violating federal labor law recently reached a final settlement of $1.5 million to resolve allegations that the chain failed to pay them for mandatory out-of-studio work such as class preparation and communicating with students.

The yoga instructors’ case is just one of a remarkable series of settlements that continue to emerge from the courts despite the efforts by employers to thwart collective action against workplace abuses. I keep an eye on these developments as part of my work on Violation Tracker and am amazed at the quantity and variety of wage theft litigation. Here are some other examples I have been collecting to include in the next update of the database.

PetSmart agreed to pay $2.4 million to a group of dog groomers in California who alleged they were shortchanged on overtime and mandatory rest breaks and meal periods.

Zocdoc, an online medical appointment booking service, agreed to pay $1.4 million to resolve a lawsuit filed in New York alleging that the company mistakenly classified sales personnel as exempt from overtime pay.

Safelite agreed to pay $8.2 million to windshield replacement technicians in California who claimed they were not properly paid for administrative duties and time spent traveling to jobs.

Great American Financial Resources agreed to pay $1.25 million in Ohio to settle a dispute involving commissions for insurance agents.

Here are some other cases in which the parties have reached a settlement that is awaiting final court approval:

Morgan Stanley agreed to pay more than $10 million to resolve a lawsuit alleging it improperly refused to reimburse its financial advisers for work-related expenses such as client entertainment.

Pongsri Thai Restaurant in New York agreed to pay $3.7 million to a group of workers to resolve allegations that the company violated overtime and minimum wage regulations.  

FedEx agreed to pay $3.1 million to settle a suit brought by a group of drivers in western New York claiming they were misclassified as independent contractors and subject to improper pay deductions.

Not all these cases are resolved through a settlement. For example, a federal jury in Florida recently awarded $1.2 million to a group of forepersons employed by the tree service company Asplundh who alleged they were improperly denied overtime pay. It is not yet clear whether the company will appeal.  

A federal appeals court recently upheld a $4.6 million verdict won by a group of exotic dancers who had alleged that the Penthouse Club in Philadelphia misclassified them as independent contractors and thus denied them minimum wage and overtime protections.

Two things are made clear by this list. The first is that the problem of wage theft is pervasive. It is present in both old economy and new economy companies and in both highly paid and low-wage occupations. The culprits are both large employers and small ones, and the problem can be found all over the country.

The second conclusion is that, despite adverse rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and efforts by employers to make it as difficult as possible for workers to sue, there is no sign yet that the flow of successful collective action wage and hour lawsuits is receding.

This is vital at a time when the Trump Labor Department has been seeking to replace federal enforcement with a dubious program promoting voluntary compliance by employers. For now, workers are holding their own in the ongoing battle over paycheck abuses.

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.

Back Pedaling on Kickbacks?

Thursday, October 10th, 2019

It’s hard not to be suspicious when the Secretary of Health and Human Services promotes a supposed reform by stating that “President Trump has promised American patients a healthcare system with affordable, personalized care, a system that puts you in control, provides peace of mind, and treats you like a human being, not a number. But too often, government regulations have stood in the way of delivering that kind of care.”

Secretary Alex Azar used those dubious statements in a press release about his department’s plan to “modernize and clarify” the regulations that interpret the Physician Self-Referral Law (known as the Stark Law) and the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute.

Azar claims that the rule changes would promote new methods of delivering healthcare based on greater coordination among providers, including those with financial relationships with one another.

The changes are technical in nature, but I cannot help but worry that the scheme would serve to legitimize dubious dealings and enable providers to avoid prosecution under laws that have been in place for several decades.

I have become more familiar with these laws in the course of collecting data for Violation Tracker. The database currently contains more than 360 cases in which kickbacks and bribery are involved as the primary or secondary offense. These cases have resulted in more than $14 billion in fines and settlements involving many of the largest names in pharmaceuticals (Merck, Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, et al.), hospitals (Tenet, HCA, among others) and pharmacies (such as CVS).

The biggest penalty is a $2.2 billion agreement signed by Johnson & Johnson in 2013 to resolve civil and criminal charges of paying kickbacks to physicians to encourage them to prescribe several of its drugs for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

One of those drugs was the anti-psychotic medication Risperdal, which was only approved for schizophrenia but which J&J was allegedly promoting for other less serious conditions among elderly patients through financial inducements to providers.

In an interesting coincidence, the announcement of the new HHS proposal came at almost exactly the same time that a jury in Philadelphia hit J&J with an $8 billion verdict over its marketing of Risperdal for use by children.

It will be interesting to see whether the new HHS rules on kickbacks, if they go through, manage to distinguish between more innocent financial dealings among providers and the corrupt practices that have been so common among the larger players. Given this administration’s track record on healthcare and so many other issues, we cannot give it the benefit of the doubt.

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.

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.  

High Standards, Poor Behavior

Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

It is amazing how much attention is being paid to the Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation just issued by 181 chief executives of large corporations under the auspices of the Business Roundtable. We are supposed to think it is a major breakthrough that big business is claiming to do more than maximize returns for shareholders.

In fact, Corporate America has long given lip service to the notion that it has an obligation to other stakeholders such as employees, communities and suppliers and that it needs to promote sustainability in its operations. The language of the Roundtable statement could have been taken from similar pronouncements that have been made by the vast majority of large companies under the rubric of corporate social responsibility or a similar phrase. The website of Exxon Mobil, for instance, contains a page on its Guiding Principles, which are said to include adherence to “high ethical standards.”

The question, of course, is whether these high-minded statements have any real meaning—whether they result in more responsible practices or are designed mainly to let corporate executives pretend to be moral exemplars.

The answer seems clear. If large corporations truly had a commitment to their employees, they would not engage in so many exploitative practices and fight so hard against unionization. If they truly cared about the environment, they would take more aggressive steps to reduce pollution and address the climate crisis. If they truly cared about ethical supply chains, they would stop sourcing from low-road producers.

Not only are most large corporations far from ethical leaders—in many cases they cannot bring themselves to adhere to their most basic responsibility: obeying the law and complying with regulations.  

For the past few years, I’ve spent most of my time documenting corporate lawlessness by building the Violation Tracker database, which now contains more than 360,000 examples of misconduct that have resulted in $470 billion in penalties since 2000.

I ran the names of the 181 companies whose CEOs signed the Roundtable statement through Violation Tracker and, not surprisingly, the results were eye-popping. The signatories and their subsidiaries together account for more than $197 billion in cumulative penalties, or more than 40 percent of the total penalties from tens of thousands of companies.

Twenty-one of the signatories have penalty totals of $1 billion or more, and three with $25 billion or more. At the top of the list is Bank of America, with more than $58 billion in penalties from 128 cases largely involving mortgage abuses and toxic securities. JPMorgan Chase comes in at $30 billion from similar cases. As a consequence of its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other disasters, BP ranks third with $27 billion in penalties.

The list continues with other big banks (Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, etc.), big utilities (American Electric Power, Duke Energy, etc.), big pharmaceutical manufacturers (Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, etc.), other big oil companies (Marathon Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, etc.), and others such as Boeing and Walmart.

It is significant that two of the worst corporate miscreants of recent years, Wells Fargo and Volkswagen, are missing from the list of signatories. Perhaps they or the Roundtable realized that their inclusion would have detracted from the message.

Yet the track records of many of the other signatories are not much better. Large corporations that repeatedly break the rules concerning consumer protection, environmental protection, workplace protection, investor protection and every other kind of protection cannot profess that they are committed to serving the well-being of all their stakeholders. Until they change their behavior, their purported principles mean little.