Archive for May, 2018

Bumble Bee CEO Gets Stung

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Corporate critics, myself included, have long complained about the unwillingness of federal authorities to hold top executives personally responsible for illicit practices at the businesses they run. It was thus surprising but encouraging to learn that the Justice Department Antitrust Division has gotten a grand jury to return an indictment against the chief executive of Bumble Bee Foods for participating in a conspiracy to fix prices of packaged seafood sold in the United States.

The case against Christopher Lischewski comes in the wake of the prosecution of the company itself, which last year agreed to pay a criminal fine of $25 million, which under certain circumstances could rise to more than $80 million. The investigation has also ensnared several other individuals, including two at Bumble Bee, which is owned by the British private equity firm Lion Capital, and one at rival Star Kist.

We can hope that these cases are a sign that the Trump Administration’s Antitrust Division is taking its job seriously. Since Trump took office, the division has announced several large penalties against foreign banks such as France’s BNP Paribas for manipulation of currency markets, but this was the continuation of an investigation that began under Obama.

Some other Trump era cases have been pretty minor, such as the $409,342 fine imposed on an e-commerce company for fixing the price of promotional wristbands.

Price manipulation relating to consumer and industrial products is a perennial form of corporate misconduct. It is one of the main business offenses that regularly involves criminal charges and results in guilty pleas.

In Violation Tracker we document 241 Antitrust Division cases against corporations that resulted in more than $10 billion in penalties. Looking at the list, one is struck by the fact that so many of the defendants are foreign firms, including 11 of the dozen biggest fines.

This is not to say that U.S. companies don’t fix prices. Probably the most famous price-fixing case ever was the conspiracy to manipulate the electrical equipment market by the likes of General Electric and Westinghouse in the 1950s. U.S. agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland was at the center of a lysine price fixing scandal in the 1990s.

It may be that in recent years federal antitrust prosecutors have felt pressure not to go after domestic companies, or else that foreign corporations are emboldened by the pro-business climate in the U.S. to engage in more brazen behavior.

In any event, at a time of unprecedented concentration of ownership in many U.S. industries, there is bound to be plenty of price collusion going on that needs to be investigated.

Novartis and Cohen: Two of a Kind

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

“Yesterday was not a good day for Novartis.” That’s what the chief executive of the pharmaceutical giant told his staff in the wake of embarrassing reports that it was among a handful of large corporations that made questionable payments to President Trump’s personal fixer Michael Cohen. Novartis, which initially struggled to come up with a plausible explanation for its $1.2 million contract with Cohen, ultimately admitted it was a “mistake.”

If so, it was not quite a honest mistake. Novartis, like the rest of Big Pharma, was unnerved by the seeming populism of Trump on the issue of drug prices. Yet it also apparently realized this was an administration that was susceptible to outside influences, especially if they came via someone like Cohen, who in 2017 seemed to be a much more significant player than he turned out to be.

It should come as no surprise that Novartis would resort to dubious measures to promote its interests, which include getting federal blessing for its leukemia drug Kymriah, which costs nearly $400,000 for a course of treatment.

The Swiss company has a long history of improper behavior. For example, in 2010 it had to pay $422 million to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from charges that it engaged in illegal marketing of its epilepsy drug Trileptal, including the payment of kickbacks to doctors to get them to prescribe the medication for off-label purposes. In 2015 Novartis agreed to pay $390 million to settle a case brought by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan accusing it of making illegal kickbacks to get specialty pharmacies to recommend two of its drugs, Exjade and Myfortic.

Novartis does not limit its illicit marketing to the United States. In 2016 the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that the company would pay $25 million to settle charges that it violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act when its China-based subsidiaries engaged in pay-to-prescribe schemes to increase sales.

While Novartis seems willing to make questionable payments to sell its products or gain regulatory favor, it has been less interested in paying some of its employees what they should have received in compensation. The company will be featured in a report on wage theft my colleagues and I will publish next month.

That’s because of a collective action lawsuit brought on behalf of the company’s sales representatives, who alleged that they were improperly classified as exempt from overtime pay. In 2012 Novartis paid $99 million to settle the suit.

In 2005 a group of women who had worked as sales reps for Novartis in the United States filed a lawsuit saying they were discriminated against in pay and promotions, especially after becoming pregnant. In 2010 a federal jury ruled in favor of the women, awarding them $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages. Novartis appealed and then settled the case for $152 million.

All of this is to say that Novartis had long engaged in less than pristine business practices and got the impression it could go on doing so with the Trump Administration.

Getting the Feds to Pay Statistical Attention to Corporate Crime

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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