Archive for November, 2017

Portraying Corporate Villains as Victims

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

The world according to Trump is one of grievances and victimhood. During the presidential campaign he got a lot of mileage by appearing to empathize with the travails of the white working class and promising to be their champion in fighting against the impact of globalization and economic restructuring. At times he even seemed to be adopting traditional left-wing positions by criticizing big banks and big pharma.

Over the past ten months that stance has been steadily changing, and now the transformation is starkly evident. Trump is still obsessed with victimhood, but the focus on the legitimate economic grievances of white workers has been replaced by a preoccupation with the bogus grievances of large corporations. He would have us believe that today’s most oppressed group is Corporate America.

The desire to come to the rescue of big business is, when all the distracting tweets are put aside, at the core of the mission that Trump shares with Congressional Republicans: dismantling regulation and slashing corporate taxes.

It’s difficult to know whether this is what Trump planned all along and cynically manipulated his supporters or if he was turned by the Washington swamp he unconvincingly vowed to drain. In either event, his administration is engaging in one of the most egregious betrayals in American history.

Trump is not only neglecting the economic interests of his core supporters; he is siding with those who prey on them. This is playing out in many ways — from promoting anti-worker policies at the Labor Department to going easy on the drug companies responsible for the opioid epidemic — but one of the most revealing situations is taking place at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Putting aside the question of whether outgoing director Richard Cordray or President Trump has the right to name an acting director, the real issue is what is going to become of an agency that has been courageous and unrelenting in its enforcement actions against predatory financial firms.

The CFPB’s sin, from the point of view of the White House and Congressional Republicans, is that it has been doing its job too well. One of the dirty little secrets of Washington is that most regulatory agencies are in the pocket of the corporations they are supposed to police. Oversight is usually friendly or at least not onerous.

The CFPB was designed to, and in practice did, break that mold. It has not been chummy with the banks, payday lenders, mortgage brokers and credit agencies. As shown in Violation Tracker, since 2012 the CFPB has brought more than 100 enforcement actions and imposed more than $7 billion in penalties.

After he was named to take over the agency, Mick Mulvaney, who had long advocated its dismantlement, was quoted as saying that President Trump wanted him to get the CFPB “back to the point where it can protect people without trampling on capitalism.” The very thinly veiled message is that CFPB will cease to be an aggressive advocate for consumers, allowing banks and other financial companies to breathe easier.

Mulvaney was giving what amounted to a moral reprieve for all those companies pursued by the CFPB, including:

  • Wells Fargo, which was the target of one of the CFPB’s highest profile enforcement actions: the $100 million penalty imposed on the bank for secretly creating millions of extra accounts not requested by customers, in order to generate illicit fees.
  • Mortgage loan servicer Ocwen Financial, which the CFPB ordered to provide $2 billion in principal reduction to underwater borrowers, many of whom had been forced into foreclosure by Ocwen’s abusive practices.
  • Bank of America and FIA Card Services, which the CFPB ordered to provide $747 million in relief to card customers harmed by deceptive marketing of add-on products.
  • Corinthian Colleges Inc., the operator of dubious for-profit schools that was sued by the CFPB and ended up going out of business amid charges that it lured students into taking out private loans to cover expensive tuition costs by advertising bogus job prospects and career services.
  • Colfax Capital (also known as Rome Finance), which the CFPB ordered to pay $92 million in debt relief to some 17,000 members of the U.S. armed forces who had been harmed by the company’s predatory lending practices.
  • Or smaller operators such as Reverse Mortgage Solutions, which the CFPB fined for falsely telling customers, mainly seniors, that there was no risk of losing their home.

The Trump Administration has come to the rescue of financial scammers such as these by moving to defang the CFPB and restore the proper order of things in which it is not capitalists but rather consumers and workers who get trampled.

The Corporate Crook Conquest of the Executive Branch

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

It appears that the Trump Administration will not rest until every last federal regulatory agency is under the control of a corporate surrogate. The reverse revolving door is swinging wildly as business foxes swarm into the rulemaking henhouses.

Among the latest predators is Alex Azar II, who was just nominated by Trump to head the Department of Health and Human Services, a position Tom Price had to vacate amid the uproar over his excessive use of chartered jets for routine government travel. Until earlier this year Azar was the president of the U.S. division of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

Azar apparently shares Price’s abhorrence of the Affordable Care Act, but he also brings the perspective of a top executive for a drug company with a particularly sordid track record. For the past 40 years Lilly has been embroiled in a series of scandals involving unsafe products and the marketing of drugs for unapproved uses. Among the many cases were some that involved criminal charges.

In 1985 Lilly pleaded guilty to charges that it failed to notify federal regulators about deaths and illnesses linked to Oraflex.  The company’s former chief medical officer entered a plea of no contest to similar individual charges. A Justice Department report put the number of deaths the company had covered up at 28.

In 2009 the U.S. Justice Department announced that Lilly had agreed to pay a $515 million criminal fine as part of the resolution of allegations relating to the illegal marketing of its schizophrenia drug Zyprexa.

The company has also faced bribery allegations. In December 2012 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Lilly would pay a total of $29.4 million to resolve charges that some of its subsidiaries violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by making improper payments to win business in Russia, Brazil, China and Poland.

Violation Tracker’s tally on Eli Lilly amounts to $1.49 billion in penalties since 2000.

Meanwhile, the Senate has confirmed (along party lines) the Trump Administration’s nomination of coal mining executive David Zatezalo to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. For seven years Zatezalo served as chairman of Rhino Resource Partners, where he clashed with MSHA over the company’s safety problems. The agency issued two rare “pattern of violation” warnings against the company. Violation Tracker contains 160 cases involving Rhino with total penalties of more than $2 million.

And given the headlong rush by Congressional Republicans to pass their tax legislation, it should be noticed that the Trump Administration’s interim head of the Internal Revenue Service (following the resignation of John Koskinen, who had been named by Obama) is David Kautter, who spent most of his career at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, which now prefers to be called EY.

Kautter was in charge of the tax compliance department at Ernst, which to a great extent meant helping clients dodge their fiscal obligations. In 2013 the firm had to pay $123 million to settle federal criminal charges of wrongful conduct in connection with illegitimate tax shelters (it was offered a non-prosecution agreement).

The phrase regulatory capture used to refer to tendency of agencies to gradually become more sympathetic to the needs of the industries they were supposed to oversee. Under Trump that process has been accelerated, with regulatory posts being given to individuals who are already corporate insiders or shills for the worst the business world has to offer. More than regulatory capture, it is the corporate crook conquest of the executive branch.

Tax Dodgers and Regulatory Scofflaws

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

Large corporations in the United States like to portray themselves as victims of a supposedly onerous tax system and a supposedly oppressive regulatory system. Those depictions are a far cry from reality, but that does not stop business interests from seeking to weaken government power in both areas.

This year has been a bonanza. The Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans have taken aim at numerous Obama-era regulatory initiatives and now are serving up a banquet of business tax breaks.

At the same time, corporations take matters into their own hands by using every opportunity to circumvent tax obligations and regulatory safeguards. The newly released Paradise Papers are just the latest indications of how large corporations such as Apple (and wealthy individuals) use offshore havens to shield billions of dollars in profits from taxation.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy has published a list of more than 300 Fortune 500 companies that hold some $2.6 trillion offshore, thereby avoiding about $767 billion in federal taxes. Of these, ITEP has found indications that 29 corporations keep their holdings not only outside the United States but in tax haven countries where they pay very little in local taxes.

It should come as no surprise that quite a few of these tax dodgers also show up high on the list of regulatory scofflaws documented in Violation Tracker. In fact, one of the 29 is Bank of America, which has racked up $57 billion in fines and settlements since 2000 — far more than any other corporation. ITEP reports that B of A has $17.8 billion in unrepatriated income.

Also on the ITEP list is Citigroup, with $47 billion in unrepatriated income. It ranks 5th on the Violation Tracker list, with more than $16 billion in fines and settlements. Wells Fargo has $2.4 billion in unrepatriated income and $11 billion in penalties, but that latter figure is likely to rise as various cases relating to the bank’s bogus account scandal are resolved.

Banks are not the only overlaps between the two lists. For example, pharmaceutical company Amgen has $36 billion in unrepatriated income and $786 million in penalties.

Major regulatory violators can also be found on the larger list of corporations that are known to have large offshore holdings but do not disclose enough information to allow ITEP to determine whether those holdings are in tax havens. Chief among these are other pharmaceutical giant such as Pfizer ($197 billion offshore and $4.3 billion in penalties), Johnson & Johnson ($66 billion offshore and $2.5 billion in penalties), Merck ($63 billion offshore and $2 billion in penalties) and Eli Lilly ($28 billion offshore and $1.4 billion in penalties).

Also on the list are petroleum majors such as Exxon Mobil ($54 billion offshore and $714 million in penalties) and Chevron ($46 billion offshore and $578 million in penalties).

The mindset that prompts corporate executives to use international tax dodging techniques seems to be related to the one that encourages them to break environmental, consumer protection and other laws at home. The logical course of action would be to tighten both tax and regulatory enforcement, but those currently in charge of federal policymaking instead want to make it even easier for large corporations to make out like bandits.

Bizarro-World Worker Populism at Trump’s OSHA

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

The bizarro-world worker populism of Donald Trump strikes again. The White House recently nominated Scott Mugno to be the Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Mugno (photo at left) is not a worker safety advocate, occupational health scientist or a union official. Instead, he is a corporate safety executive at the shipping giant FedEx.

Data in Violation Tracker shows since 2000 FedEx has racked up $335,853 in OSHA penalties (counting only those fines of $5,000 or more designated as serious, willful or repeated). This total is the 208th largest among the 1,777 parent companies in Violation Tracker with OSHA fines.

While FedEx may not be at the very top of the OSHA penalty list, it does have some significant safety blemishes on its record. In 2014, for example, OSHA proposed a fine of $44,000 against the company for failing to properly guard a conveyor belt at its facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts. In its press release announcing the proposed penalty (which FedEx managed to get deleted), the agency noted that the company had previously been cited for the same issue at two other facilities.

Moreover, FedEx in general and Mugno in particular have tried to weaken OSHA oversight. In a 2006 presentation at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event, Mugno argued that workers needed to take more responsibility for health and safety issues, conveniently ignoring the fact that they rarely have the autonomy to make meaningful changes in workplace conditions.

Another sign of Mugno’s orientation is the warm reception his nomination has received from business groups such as the Chamber and the American Trucking Association. At the same time, public interest groups have expressed concern. Public Citizen came out in opposition to the nomination, citing Mugno’s 2006 remarks and arguing that his “stance on laws and regulations do not mesh with leading an agency tasked with writing rules to ensure safe and healthy working conditions.” The Center for Progressive Reform posted a long list of questions that need to be put to Mugno.

The Center, by the way, has just introduced a Crimes Against Workers Database that compiles information on state-level criminal actions against companies and their executives implicated in serious workplace accidents. (I’m pleased to report that the database includes links to Violation Tracker data, and I plan to reciprocate.)

It was to be expected that Trump, who repeatedly bashed the EPA during the presidential campaign, would have named a climate change denier and regulation hater like Scott Pruitt to head that agency. Yet Trump did not carry on a similar tirade against OSHA, perhaps realizing that many of his blue-collar supporters were all too aware of workplace hazards that needed the agency’s oversight.

If Trump were any kind of real populist, he could have named a true worker safety advocate to OSHA without breaking any campaign promises. Instead, he brought in a business apologist who will pursue the Chamber agenda and raise the risk level for millions of American workers. The Trump corporate takeover marches on.