Archive for September, 2017

A Strange Way of Helping Workers

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

The Trump Administration would have us believe it is all about helping workers. Yet it has a strange way of showing it. Policies that directly assist workers are under attack, and all the emphasis is on initiatives that purportedly aid workers indirectly by boosting their employers.

That dubious approach is on full display now in a tax proposal that is being sold as pro-worker even though its main effect will be to make the rich even richer with the trickle-down hope they decide to use some of their additional wealth to create jobs and boost wages.

The same goes with regulation, a topic Trump is expected to return to in a speech next week. The dismantling of safeguards vital to the well-being of workers and consumers is packaged as the key to unleashing Corporate America’s job-creation mojo.

To a great extent these arguments are nothing more than chicanery. If there is any shred of sincerity, it is based on the idea that corporations, with fewer tax and regulatory burdens, will act in a socially beneficial way.

Corporations themselves, including ones that have lately been critical of the Trump Administration on issues such as race relations and climate change, help to promote the notion of business civic virtue. In fact, they and their apologists don’t restrain themselves in claiming the moral high ground.

A prime example of this appears in a recent issue of Fortune, which contains the magazine’s latest list of what it calls Change the World companies. These are the corporations whose operations supposedly have the greatest positive social impact.

Perhaps I have a jaded view, but I was astounded to see many of the companies on the list. Not only are they not paragons of virtue — in some cases they are leading corporate miscreants.

Take No. 1 on the list: JPMorgan Chase. In Violation Tracker the bank shows up with more than $29 billion in fines and settlements since 2000, making it the second most penalized company in the United States (after Bank of America). A big part of its total comes from toxic securities cases and mortgage abuses in the period leading to the financial meltdown, but there is much more. For example, it had to pay $1.7 billion to resolve a deferred prosecution criminal case relating to its role as the banker for Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme; $550 million for its role in a conspiracy to manipulate the foreign exchange market; $329 million for illegal credit card practices; and so on.

No. 9 on the Fortune list is Johnson & Johnson, which long cultivated a lily-white image as a producer of baby powder and other wholesome items, but in recent years has gotten itself embroiled in a series of scandals. Its Violation Tracker tally comes mainly from a 2013 civil and criminal case in which it had to pay $2.2 billion to resolve allegations of promoting three prescription drugs for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Among the companies on the top tier of the Fortune list are some with terrible employment records, including Walmart, which has long fought efforts of its U.S. workers to form unions and bargain for better pay, and Apple, which grew rich from the toil of the underpaid overseas workers producing its overpriced devices.

The Fortune lists contains some smaller and less notorious companies, but the presence of those leading corporate culprits taints the whole project.

A similar taint can be found in the Trump tax and deregulatory initiatives. If you want to help workers, help them directly — don’t give away the store to their employers.

Identifying Repeat Corporate Offenders

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

When a new corporate scandal arises, there is a tendency on the part of many observers to treat it as a complete surprise — as something that could not have been anticipated.

The truth is that large companies are rarely first time offenders. If you look into their background, you are likely to see evidence of past behavior that presaged the recent misconduct.

It is now easier than ever to research that track record thanks to a major expansion of Violation Tracker my colleagues and I just rolled out. We posted an additional ten years of data, extending coverage back to 2000 and in the process nearly doubling the size of the database to 300,000 entries. Together, these account for $394 billion in fines and settlements — 95 percent of which was assessed against 2,800 large parent companies and their subsidiaries.

Take the example of Equifax, which is at the center of a growing scandal over its apparent negligence in protecting personal information and its delay in reporting a major hack. Violation Tracker shows that early this year the company was fined $2.5 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for using deceptive means to lure people into purchasing costly credit-protection services. The company was also ordered to provide $3.8 million in restitution to affected customers. Over the previous two decades, Equifax was fined three times by the Federal Trade Commission.

The announcement by the CFPB last year that it was fining Wells Fargo $100 million for creating bogus customer accounts — a scandal that has subsequently mushroomed — was far from the first time the bank had gotten into trouble for questionable practices. Violation Tracker documents prior penalties totaling some $11 billion going back to 2000 for offense such as mortgage abuses, toxic securities abuses, and discriminatory practices.

Sometimes the prior offense is indistinguishable from the current one. In 2005, a decade before it was revealed to be engaged in a massive scheme to deceive regulators about emissions levels, Volkswagen was compelled to pay a fine of $1.1 million and spend $26 million on a recall to settle allegations that it failed to correct a defective pollution-control sensor.

Of the 2,800 companies in the Violation Tracker universe, more than 80 were penalized for something or other by federal agencies or the Justice Department every year from 2000 through 2016. The company that has the dubious distinction of leading by this measure is oil giant BP, which has paid out an average of some $1.6 billion in fines and settlements each year during the 17-year period.

No other company comes close. In second place is Verizon Communications, whose average annual penalty was $72 million, followed by FirstEnergy ($71 million), Valero Energy ($58 million), Marathon Petroleum ($54 million), Alcoa ($43 million), Exxon Mobil ($42 million), Koch Industries ($39 million) and Chevron ($34 million).

While they may not have gotten penalized every single year, there are hundreds of other parent companies that have been penalized in multiple years, and in many cases multiple times in a given year. In other words, just about every large company is a recidivist.

Who knows: maybe regulators and prosecutors will start consulting Violation Tracker to identify prior bad acts and take them into account when deciding how to penalize companies for their current sins.

Recalling the Corporate Culprits of Yesteryear

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

Corporate crime has been happening as long as there have been corporations. But if you wanted to choose an event that marked the emergence of what we think of as modern big business misconduct it would be the admission by Enron in November 2001 that it had overstated profits by $600 million. Within months, the high-flying energy trader collapsed amid growing evidence that the company was one big scam. Enron’s lenders, investors, auditors and others were all pulled into the morass.

Enron turned out to be just one of a rash of accounting scandals that rocked the corporate world and severely damaged the legitimacy of American capitalism. The Bush Administration felt compelled to create a President’s Corporate Fraud Task Force headed by none other than James Comey.

I bring up this history because the Corporate Research Project is about to release a major expansion of Violation Tracker that will extend coverage to this period. We are adding ten more years of data, bringing the starting point back to January 2000. The expansion will nearly double the size of the database to 300,000 entries with more than $394 billion in fines and settlements.

More than 95 percent of that penalty amount comes from our universe of large parent companies, which is being increased to about 2,800. These include ones that are publicly traded and privately held, for-profit and non-profit, domestic as well as foreign-based.

Now the universe also includes a bunch of companies like Enron that are defunct but which are kept on the list for historical purposes. Here are some of those zombies. Note that Violation Tracker does not yet include entries relating to private litigation.

The largest penalty total comes from Adelphia Communications, a cable television provider that was riddled with corruption. In 2004 the Justice Department arranged for $715 million of what remained of the company to be handed over to a fund set up to compensate victims of Adelphia.

In 2002 WorldCom, another telecommunications company, filed what was then the largest bankruptcy ever in the wake of a massive accounting scandal. In 2002 the Securities and Exchange Commission reached a $500 million settlement with the company after originally seeking $1.5 billion in penalties. Since WorldCom was taken over by Verizon rather than being dismantled, its entries in Violation Tracker are listed under Verizon.

Enron shows up in nine entries with a penalty total of $446 million, the largest of which was a 2006 agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission giving the agency a $400 million claim in the company’s bankruptcy proceeding stemming from Enron’s misconduct during the 2000-2001 Western energy crisis.

We also list Arthur Andersen, which had served as Enron’s auditor and was convicted of obstruction of justice for shredding documents relating to that client. The conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court (and thus is not listed in Violation Tracker) but the firm never recovered from the scandal. We list a $7 million penalty imposed on Andersen by the SEC in 2002 in connection with its audits of Waste Management in the 1990s.

The corporate scandals of the early 2000s shook up the country and in some ways prompted even more aggressive remedial actions than are seen with more recent cases. There were many more criminal prosecutions of individual executives than occurred with the cases stemming from the financial meltdown, though the dollar amounts of penalties have grown larger.

One thing that has not changed is the persistence of wrongdoing by so many large corporations.

Note: The Violation Tracker expansion will officially launch on September 19.  

Federal Watchdog Agencies Still On Guard

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

Donald Trump likes to give the impression that he has made great strides in dismantling regulation. While there is no doubt that his administration and Republican allies in Congress are targeting many important safeguards for consumers and workers, the good news is that those protections in many respects are still alive and well.

This conclusion emerges from the data I have been collecting for an update of Violation Tracker that will be posted later this month. As a preview of that update, here are some examples of federal agencies that are still vigorously pursuing their mission of protecting the public.

Federal Trade Commission. In June the FTC, with the help of the Justice Department, prevailed in litigation against Dish Network over millions of illegal sales calls made to consumers in violation of Do Not Call regulations. The satellite TV provider was hit with $280 million in penalties.

Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA is a regulatory entity as well as a law enforcement agency. In July it announced that Mallinckrodt, one of the largest manufacturers of generic oxycodone, had agreed to pay $35 million to settle allegations that it violated the Controlled Substances Act by failing to detect and report suspicious bulk orders of the drug.

Federal Reserve. The Fed continues to take action against both domestic and foreign banks that fail to exercise adequate controls over their foreign exchange trading, in the wake of a series of scandals about manipulation of that market. The Fed imposed a fine of $136 million on Germany’s Deutsche Bank and $246 million on France’s BNP Paribas.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Last month the beleaguered CFPB ordered American Express to pay $95 million in redress to cardholders in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for discriminatory practices against certain consumers with Spanish-language preferences.

Securities and Exchange Commission. In May the SEC announced that Barclays Capital would pay $97 million in reimbursements to customers who had been overcharged on mutual fund fees.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC announced that the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain would pay $12 million to settle allegations that it discriminated against older employees by denying them front-of-the-house positions such as hosts, servers and bartenders.

Justice Department Antitrust Division. The DOJ announced that Nichicon Corporation would pay $42 million to resolve criminal price-fixing charges involving electrolytic capacitors.

Federal agencies are also finishing up cases dating back to the financial meltdown. For example, in July the Federal Housing Finance Agency said that it had reached a settlement under which the Royal Bank of Scotland will pay $5.5 billion to settle litigation relating to the sale of toxic securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And the National Credit Union Administration said that UBS would pay $445 million to resolve a similar case.

It remains to be seen whether federal watchdogs can continue to pursue these kinds of cases, but for now they are not letting talk of deregulation prevent them from doing their job.

Note: The new version of Violation Tracker will also include an additional ten years of coverage back to 2000.